Theology Thursdays: Communiqué of the First Plenary Meeting of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria

We, members of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria, held our First Plenary Meeting for the year 2006 at the Divine Love Retreat and Conference Centre (DRACC), Sabon Lugbe, Abuja, from March 6 to 11, 2006. We prayerfully reflected on and discussed the theme of the Conference, The Church in Nigeria: Keeping Hope Alive. In the context of the season of Lent when we prepare to celebrate the hope of new life at Easter, we issue the following communiqué. Rays of Hope

2. Since our last plenary meeting in September 2005, this Conference has witnessed the erection of two new dioceses of Awgu and Uromi in Nigeria and the Episcopal ordinations of their first bishops, Most Reverend John Okoye and Most Reverend Augustine Akubeze respectively. Most Rev. Martin Olorunmolu was also ordained as the new Bishop of Lokoja to succeed the late Bishop Joseph Ajomo. While we congratulate the new Bishops and the new dioceses, we continue to pray for the happy repose of Bishop Ajomo.

3. The achievements of the current political dispensation offer us hope. Nigeria plays commendable peace-keeping roles in war-affected areas of the continent of Africa. The telecommunications industry has made it possible for Nigerians to stay in touch with one another and with citizens of other nations and has provided employment for many of our youths. Various government initiatives are being undertaken to give our country the face of a tourist-friendly land. The proceeds from Nigeria's sale of crude oil have hit an all time high. The national census about to begin is a step in the right direction. As stakeholders in the progress of this nation, we have, as a Conference, expressed our opinion that religious affiliation and ethnic origin are vital statistical data of individuals in any nation. We call on all Nigerians to take part in the head-count.

Perduring Distress

4. Despite these rays of hope, the experiences of Nigerians have not matched their expectation. Nigerians are still in dire need of stable electricity supply, clean drinking water, and more good roads. Insecurity of life and property makes citizens live in fear and scares visitors, investors and tourists away from our land. The scourge of poverty is still with us despite the indices of economic growth with which we are presented. We commend government for efforts to seek debt relief. Nigerians are still waiting to see the positive impact of this relief. Nothing short of drastic alleviation of the suffering of our people will convince them of the appropriateness of government's action. There is a feeling of hopelessness across the land. The experience of military rule carried us nowhere. Now, the promises and expectations of democracy are being compromised.

Within the Horizon of Easter Hope

5. As Shepherds of God's people in our land, we are called to bear witness to Christian hope. Hope is God's gift to us firmly established in the triumph of Jesus Christ over death. The Spirit who inspires hope is also the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Endowed with the same Spirit, the Church has the mission to proclaim the truth which guarantees the dignity and right of the human person. If hope is not illusory and deceitful, it has to be based on truth. We cannot offer hope if we do not speak the truth. While "the just ordering of society and the state is a central responsibility of politics" (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 28), we cannot stand aside when the dignity of God's children is being trampled upon. That is why we insist that ethics and morality must never be divorced from politics. We would be failing in our mission if we do not speak and teach to direct the hearts and minds of the citizens to shun evil and do good, in order to usher in true development and lasting prosperity. It is to sustain true hope that we speak as Catholic Bishops of Nigeria.

Niger Delta Crisis

6. The worsening crisis in the Niger Delta, resulting principally from the long-standing social injustice against that region which contributes immensely to our national economy is regrettable. We call on government to exercise utmost prudence in responding to the intermittent violence there, as well as launch a more innovative and decisive infrastructural development programme for the region than we have seen in the past.

Recent Civil Disturbances and the Sanctity of Life

7. The "Cartoon" and unprovoked riots in Maiduguri, Bauchi, Kontagora, Gombe, Katsina, Onitsha and other parts of the country, resulted in wanton destruction of life and property. We are outraged by the violence, and we strongly condemn the horrific killings of innocent Nigerians, both Muslims and Christians, including Rev Fr Michael Gajere from Maiduguri Diocese who was brutally murdered and burnt beyond recognition. We pray for the repose of all those who lost their lives. We console the bereaved and those wounded or maimed in the riots. We thank all those who gave succour to refugees on account of the riots.

8. The destruction of life and property in the name of religion puts Nigeria to shame. It is to be noted in some cases that while churches, mosques, shops and homes were being set ablaze by arsonists, and innocent people being attacked and viciously killed by mindless murderers, law enforcement agents did not come to their rescue. The government is responsible for safeguarding the constitutional rights of every Nigerian everywhere within Nigeria. No Nigerian should be made to feel unsafe anywhere, due to religion, tribe or tongue. We state that failure of security agencies to secure life and property is failure of government. When government fails to live up to its responsibility in matters like this, the people are provoked to take laws into their hands.

Examined more deeply, it would appear that these riots have been orchestrated by people with dubious intents. There is, therefore, an urgent need for government to live up to its responsibility by identifying, isolating, disarming and prosecuting murderers and arsonists, fanatics and terrorists. Government should also ensure that those who are behind this latest round of riots are brought to justice, and that its promises of compensation are kept.

9. In Muslims who ensured the safety of Christians during the riots we see hope. In Christians who ensured the safety of Muslims we see hope. In religious leaders who live up to their responsibility in ensuring that religion is not hijacked by fanatics and terrorists we also see hope. Nigeria should be a country where the dignity and right of every human life from the womb to its natural end is respected, and never violated by criminals under the guise of religion. It is the will of God that Nigerians of every ethnic and religious affiliation live in unity and benefit from the resources with which He has blessed this land. In line with the Christian Association of Nigeria (C.A.N.), we direct all Catholic faithful to observe two days of prayer on March 27 - 28 for the deceased and the victims of the riots.

We are appalled at the activities of some foreign and Nigerian anti-life groups and individuals fostering the so-called Bill on the Establishment of a National Reproductive Health Institute with dubious agenda that will not favour the sanctity of life, marriage and the family. We urge all men and women of goodwill to join hands in denouncing the culture of death in all its forms and promoting the culture of life.

On Constitutional Amendment

10. We have, in the past, identified ourselves with the expressed need to review the 1999 Constitution. We have not changed our stand. This country and its people deserve a truly federal Constitution which guarantees the freedom of religion and conscience, the autonomy of each of the three tiers of government, as well as the realization of the legitimate aspirations of the people.

This country needs a constitution that ensures a credible system of free and fair elections. As regards the much debated item in the amendment proposals for a third term provision for president and governors, we urge Nigerians of all political opinions to allow reason to prevail. If we are to sustain the hope of the people and ensure peaceful development of our nation, it is necessary that:

(a) this issue be a truly fair decision of Nigerians, and not the result of manipulation for self-perpetuation in office against the wish of the people;

(b) whatever the outcome of the debate, the eventual choice of president and governors in 2007 must be that of the people in a free and fair election;

(c) even if a third term is made legal through a constitutional amendment process, those presently in power should consider whether it is ethical for them to change the rules to their advantage midway in the game.

11. Our country cannot live in hope if government engages in a monologue, neither listening to the people nor to the international community. Hope will be shattered if government ignores or stifles divergent opinions on important issues. Hope will undergo a frightening recession if government believes might is right. Hope will be bundled into exile if arrogant use of power scares and discourages credible and competent candidates for political offices. Government should ensure that all bold initiatives to fight corruption serve their true purpose, and are not used to target political opponents. In line with the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching, we state with Pope Benedict XVI who, in quoting St. Augustine, affirmed that "a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves" (Deus Caritas Est, 28). Then the people will have nothing but tears as food.

Election of New Executive

12. During our meeting, we had to elect a new executive to pilot the affairs of our Conference for the next three years. They are:

President - Most Rev. Felix Alaba Job, Archbishop of Ibadan

Vice-President - Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, Archbishop of Jos

Secretary - Most Rev Lucius Ugorji, Bishop of Umuahia

Assistant Secretary - Most Rev Alfred Adewale Martins, Bishop of Abeokuta

We pray for their successful tenure in office.

The Summons of Lent

13. The season of Lent summons and enjoins us to listen attentively to the Word of God in order to reconcile with God and with one another. For Catholics, repentance includes a return to the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Penance, by which we are reinvigorated to boldly, courageously and sincerely assume our religious and civic duties. We must open ourselves for the God of hope to touch and transform our lives, so that we might become more effective builders of peace and collaborators in works of justice. Christian hope is not facile; it was won through the Cross of Christ. We therefore urge all to persevere in prayer, especially the Prayer for Nigeria in Distress and the Prayer against Bribery and Corruption in Nigeria. We also urge all pastors to intensify Catechesis and adhere faithfully to the guidelines in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The Lenten summons is an invitation to make an ethical option:

'See, today I set before you life and prosperity, death and disaster. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin on you today, if you love the Lord your God and follow his ways, you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to make your own' (Deuteronomy 30:15,16).

May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Hope and Comfort of the Afflicted intercede for us.


Most Rev. John Onaiyekan Archbishop of Abuja, President, Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria

Most Rev. Lucius Ugorji Bishop of Umuahia, Secretary, Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria

The preceeding was the communiqué issued at the end of the First Plenary Meeting of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) at the Divine Love Retreat and Conference Centre, Sabon Lugbe, Abuja, March 6 - 11, 2006. This statement was released through the Catholic Information Service For Africa.

Thursday, March 16, 2006