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Nigerian president speaks on cooperation

Meghan Martin | Monday, September 22, 2003

African television stations broadcast live Sunday evening from the Joyce Center for Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo keynote speech for the Institute for Church Life’s “A Call to Solidarity with Africa” conference.

The president, who entered the Joyce Center on a red carpet followed by an entourage of bodyguards and U. S. Secret Service agents, discussed current economic and political conditions in Africa and called upon the United States and its western allies to keep the issues of his continent at the forefront of international conversation.

This week’s conference, which has brought together scholars, relief workers, students and religious groups from all over the world, is a step toward achieving that goal, he said.

“These are difficult days for Africa,” he said. “Thus, whenever an opportunity like this presents itself … we try not to let it slip through our fingers. We wholeheartedly support the efforts of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the University of Notre Dame … and all the people who have made this conference happen. … It marks the historic moment of the Catholic Church in the United States working together with its counterparts in Nigeria.”

The document of the same name issued in 1999 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sparked the idea for this week’s conference, Obasanjo said, and referred directly to the issue of slavery and its role in building the United States. He quoted the document’s claim that “the United States has a clear moral duty” on the matter and took the bishops’ claim a step further.

“While the evil institution of slavery … played a significant role in the development of the United States, it played a significant role in the undevelopment of the continent of Africa – thus making the United States’ obligation a double one,” he said.

While he held the United States partially responsible for the current situation in Africa, Obasanjo said that the continent’s leaders have become particularly invested in reshaping Africa from the inside out.

“We are determined to be the actors of our own fortune,” he said. “For instance, the majority of African countries have chosen the democratic institution. … In the last three months, we have firmly said no to military institutions … in Liberia and Guinea-Bissau. … Various African countries have embarked on … policies that will generally raise the standard of life.”

The union of leaders from across Africa has been key to the continent’s success thus far, he said.

“We plan to turn the continent around by positioning Africa … in the global world,” he said. “We believe that rather than spending too much time on the Book of Lamentations, we would do well to rather move on to the Book of Revelation. We conceded that it was imperative for Africa to strive in a shared vision… to rescue our continent from the edge of oblivion.”

While its leaders work from the inside, Obasanjo said, it is equally as important for the global community to see and accept the work that he and other African leaders have set out to do.

“So far, we have been heartened by the response of the rest of the world,” he said.

Nigeria, which gained independence from Great Britain in 1960, but endured years of short-lived democracies, political coups d’etat and military rule, instituted its most recent regime with the democratic election of Obasanjo in May of 1999 and then again four years later.

“When we look back at what we have been through as a people… we can say, in the words of St. Paul, ‘We have proved to be more than conquerors,'” he said. “Despite our pain and suffering, the continent has been known as a continent of joy and life.”

The best way to pull Nigeria firmly into the international spectrum, Obasanjo said, is to involve it economically in the global market. He spoke of programs implemented by his government “to bring our economy out of the woods,” and asked that his audience, the University and the United States invest in the Nigerian economy and encourage other international interests to do so.

All of Africa pays attention to his country’s actions, and mediating the continent’s conflicts has become a major part of Nigeria’s role as the most populous nation in Africa, Obasanjo said.

“Firstly, try to keep Africa on the discussion table,” he said. “Do not write us off or put our success stories in the background. Try to take us seriously. … Join us in advocating for debt relief in African countries.”