West African bishops highlight challenges facing their nations

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A church in Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need.

The regional conference of West African bishops has commended a regional economic union for its efforts to promote peaceful transfers of power, while also noting areas of concern, including religious intolerance and youth unemployment.

The bishops of the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa met March 28-31 in Ivory Coast to discuss their role in the prevention, mediation, resolution, and transformation of conflicts.

The conference includes the bishops of 15 countries, covering the Atlantic coast from Mauritania to Nigeria, as well as Cape Verde, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

The bishops sent a message to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) April 4 highlighting ways in which the two organizations can collaborate.

They noted positively the “democratic transfer of power in many of our countries and the relative peace we are witnessing in our region.”

Noting that economic growth has been a boon to their citizens, the bishops added that nevertheless, “we are at pains to observe some significant challenges within our region which need to be addressed.”

The bishops first listed political transition and instability as a concern; several of the nations in West Africa have experienced coups d'etat or civil war in recent years.

“Political transitions of power in some countries are characterised by the disregard for the rule of law, weak institutions, shrinking space for political participation by all, frequent human rights violations and tortures,” the bishops observed.

“We are also worried about political leaders who employ extra-democratic means to remain in power for life, we appeal to our political authorities to respect the democratic tenets of their countries.”

A dangerous level of unemployment for the youth has also raised concern from the bishops. They said a majority of youths in the region are unemployed “and therefore highly exposed to trafficking, drug abuse, violence and forced migrations. As long as they remain without jobs after their graduation and move about in our sub-region, they are easy preys to warlords and political criminals, who may recruit them for violent crimes and terrorism.”

They urged “putting in place appropriate measures and incentives to create gainful employment opportunities for our youth” to reverse this trend.

Turning to religious intolerance and extremism, the bishops stated that “the desire of religious extremist groups to forcefully 'islamise' countries in our region poses a serious threat to the right of every citizen to freely choose and practise the religion of his or her choice.”

Most of the nations in the West African bishops' conference have a majority- or plurality-Muslim population, and some governments or extremist groups have turned to persecution of Christians and other religious groups.

The bishops commended ECOWAS for its recent intervention in The Gambia, whose president of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, refused to accept the results of a December 2016 election in which he was defeated.

This resulted in a constitutional crisis and a military intervention by ECOWAS to install the newly-elected president.

“We also wish to express our heartfelt gratitude for the efficiency with which you managed the situation in The Gambia,” the bishops wrote. “We congratulate you on the firm position you took … which led to the constitutional transfer of power to the rightfully elected President. With this, you sent a strong and clear signal to all political actors and leaders in our region.”

The bishops also noted that The Gambia had been declared an Islamic Republic by Jammeh in December 2015, but that the new president, Adama Barrow, had reversed this: “we are happy that this matter has been reversed with the current leadership,” they commented. “We strongly appeal that this situation should not be repeated in any country in our region.”

“Whenever government adopts a particular religion as a state religion, the rights of other citizens to freedom of conscience and worship is infringed upon,” the West African bishops wrote.

The bishops also expressed their concern over the herdsmen who have menaced local communities – particularly the Fulani in Nigeria.

“The recurrence of natural and man-made disasters such as floods, storms, desertification, food insecurity, forced migration, and other humanitarian crises related to climate change have become a serious threat to human and animal survival. Of particular concern is the environmental and social havocs wrecked by the herdsmen who move their cattle across communities and national borders in the region,” they wrote.

“These herdsmen, often armed with dangerous weapons, are associated with rape, murder, destruction of farms, kidnaping and conflicts. While there is freedom of movement of people and goods in our region, we appeal to our authorities to effectively address this particularly destructive activity.”

The bishops concluded by reminding ECOWAS that they are willing to mediate in “governance and political issues” that may arise in the region.

They have created liaison offices with national parliaments, and “monitor public policies and their implementation in order to promote good governance and the common good in public affairs.”

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