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President of Nigeria to speak Sunday

Meghan Martin | Friday, September 19, 2003

Only ten days after fellow African Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, addressed the Notre Dame community at a University-sponsored peace conference, His Excellency Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, president of Nigeria, will present the keynote address at the Institute for Church Life’s “A Call to Solidarity with Africa” conference Sunday.

The conference, a collaborative effort among a number of University entities and an international collection of scholars, aid workers, clergy and students, was designed to be a collective response to a 2001 document issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops of the same name.

President Obasanjo’s visit comes five days before Nigeria will launch its first satellite into space, an event that marks the first of its kind in the history of Africa, and points to the significant role his nation plays within the continent.

“It is one of the most populous countries in Africa, but is also a country with a lot of deep problems,” theology professor and conference coordinator John Cavadini said. “In a lot of ways, Nigeria is a bit of an African microcosm.”

Nigerian-born Father Paulinus Odozor, a fellow theology professor who has served as liaison between the African and American contingents of the conference, said the nation plays a more significant role on the continent than many westerners may realize.

“Over one-fifth of all Africa lives in Nigeria,” he said. “That means that at least one-fifth of all Africans are Nigerians. We thought it would be good to focus on this country … because Nigeria represents all that is good but all that is problematic with Africa. You cannot ignore that country anymore. This country also supplies America with a lot of oil today, and Americans have to learn more about Nigeria at the moment.”

Obasanjo and Nigeria were thrown into the international spotlight recently with the abdication of former Liberian president Charles Taylor’s post in August. Since leaving Liberia under intense international pressure, Taylor was granted amnesty in Nigeria in a move that sparked ongoing global debate.

Obasanjo has gained international recognition for his work in the area of third-world debt relief, urging wealthy nations to rethink their loan policies to the poorer countries of Africa and elsewhere.

“He has been an advocate of debt relief for Africa, and he has spoken loudly and clearly on the injustice of the debt structure and what it has been doing to Africa and its people,” Odozor said. “He has been asking the world community to look at the terms of the loans … and to reschedule the loans … so that these countries will have the use of this money for their people first.”

Odozor said that, while he is not aware of the topic of the president’s address, his message will undoubtedly indicate his support for what conference organizers are attempting to accomplish.

“From what I’ve seen, he will be talking about Africa today, and he will be talking about us, what the situation is on the continent and what efforts have been made across Africa for the rebirth of the continent,” Odozor said, “but he will also be inviting the world community to join us in the building of this new Africa … to keep Africa’s prospects alive, especially where people do not take Africa seriously.”

The world will indeed be watching, Odozor said; as camera crews from an African news station will be on campus for the address, and will broadcast the speech live not only to Nigeria, but also to the continent as a whole.

“Given the fact that he’s going to be in North America for about three days, with all sorts of commitments in New York and Washington, it was quite significant that the man found time to come to Notre Dame,” Odozor said. “But I think he’s coming here gladly, and he’s coming here with the full understanding of the import of the moment. We can’t adequately express how significant this is. This is the leader of the most populous country in Africa. That we were able to get him to come is just a blessing … What he does is indicate that he is in line with what we are trying to do … and also to bring Notre Dame to the African audience. Notre Dame benefits from this by the great exposure it gets in Africa.”

Odozor said that he hopes President Obasanjo’s visit will spark an interest among students and participants in building a greater understanding with and about the situations that face Africa today.

“After this, what next? We must not let this be a wasted initiative. That’s my hope,” he said. “And it is true, I speak as an African, but I also speak as a Notre Dame faculty person. Notre Dame has a lot to learn from Africa … and Notre Dame will become a better Catholic university because of it. It is important that this catholic university, in line with the teachings of the church, take a look at Africa at this time in the moment. Africa is not a fashionable thing to talk about at the moment in universities, but it is important that this Catholic University, in line with the teachings of the Church, take a look at Africa at this time in the moment. I think the time is now to join with Africa, and to bring about this new future that will happen in Africa, to forge ahead with the rest of the human community.”