Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 10, 2003
Church promotes civil rights
Educated voters would insure Nigeria's fragile democracy holds
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The Catholic Church in Nigeria is helping to preserve and expand that African country's fragile democracy by educating people on their civilian rights and duties. Right at the centre of it all is Father John Patrick Ngoyi, director of the Justice, Development and Peace Commission of Ijebu-Ode Diocese, located just one hour south of Lagos, Nigeria's economic capital.
The priest, who is also a member of the Nigerian National Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, is leading a program to educate Nigerians on the fundamentals of human rights and democracy.
"We don't want this experiment (in democracy) to fail, so we are conducting a very intensive civil education campaign to make sure that people don't allow themselves to be used by politicians any longer," said Ngoyi, a fiery 46-year-old priest of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart. The program also includes training election monitors to monitor the upcoming general elections in April.
"We are involved in these things not because we want to be politicians but because the Justice and Peace Commission wants social transformation that will bring social justice," the priest said Jan. 28. "And social justice is essentially about protection of the dignity of every human being to participate in the decision-making that affects him or her. That's the issue. It's not a matter of doling out charity. Social justice is you are a child of God, you have the dignity that comes from God, nobody has the right to muzzle you up, nobody."
Ngoyi, who is also provincial coordinator of the Lagos Ecclesiastical Province of his congregation, is the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace's 2003 Share Lent visitor. He is currently touring Canadian dioceses to meet with bishops, local Development and Peace committees and ordinary Catholics. He met with Archbishop Thomas Collins on Jan. 29 before travelling to Calgary to meet Bishop Fred Henry.
45 per cent are Christians
About 15 per cent of Nigeria's 120 million people are Catholic with the total Christian population reaching 45 per cent. Muslims also represent 45 per cent of the population.
With assistance from Development and Peace, the Nigerian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission recently received close to $1 million from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to monitor the election and educate the masses. The Justice and Peace Commission is one of three Development and Peace partners in Nigeria.
Democracy monitoring is needed in Nigeria because the country lacks a culture of democracy since it has spent 30 out of its 45 years as an independent nation under military dictatorships. As dictatorships didn't respond to people's yearnings, people developed "cold feet" and became disinterested in politics.
There has been a democratic government in Nigeria since 1999 but democracy is still weak and there are forces waiting in the dark, ready to stop the experiment. "In the past, the transition from one civilian government to another was always very difficult and so the military would step in saying they felt the civilians didn't perform," Ngoyi said.
Voter education is aimed at making people realize that "if you don't participate in elections you are missing the chance to affect the decisions of the government," the priest said. "We need to make sure that the government is responsive to the needs of the people."
He said the current civilian government is not yet responsive to the needs of the people "simply because the people themselves have not developed the capacity to demand what they want."
The power of the individual comes through the ballot vote, Ngoyi said. "When you cast your vote then you have a voice, you have a say. That's what voter education does, creates an education among the people on the value and the importance of participating in elections."
But participation in elections is just the beginning, Ngoyi said. Voters in Nigeria are being encouraged to vote for political programs they believe in and to make their vote a part of a contract between the voter and the candidate.
The priest said. "So if you vote for them, you have now the duty to monitor them to ensure that they deliver on whatever they promised you, which constitutes the basis of your contract."
Nigeria is the sixth largest producer of oil in the world but poverty is still rampant, with 70 per cent of the population of 120 million living on incomes below U.S. $2 a day.
"Oil is the big thing in Nigeria. It brings in 90 per cent of the country's revenues, but because there is mismanagement of the funds, the income that goes back to the people is negligible and the outcome is naturally an increase of the poverty level," Ngoyi explained.