“We hope to learn from the lessons of history,” Oluwarotimi Akeredolu of Nigeria told activists gathering for the sixth annual United Nations Advocacy Week (27 September to 1 October) in Switzerland.
Organised by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Week is for the first time being held in Geneva rather than New York City, in conjunction with the 15th session of the UN Human Rights Council in the Swiss city.
About 120 people representing various ecumenical, ecclesiastical and interreligious bodies and networks are attending the week-long event at the WCC’s central offices in the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva.
Akeredolu, formerly the president of the Nigerian Bar Association, shared the podium with fellow keynote speaker Afif Safieh, a former Palestinian ambassador to the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the USA and the Vatican.
The Nigerian speaker observed that too many African politicians have learned the lessons of colonial-era authorities who manipulated populations through the strategy of “divide and rule.” Despite independence, “systems were put in place that reflected no sensitivity for the realities of the people.”
Nigeria, a “nation of nations, blessed by diversity” and made up of approximately 250 ethnically distinct groups, is marked by “marginalisation of minorities,” the “elevation of mediocrity” in government, “nepotism” and “brazen disregard for the yearnings and aspirations of the electorate.”
Akeredolu described the corruption of politicians as a “violent malady” infecting society. His constant prayer for his country, he added, is: “May God heal Nigeria!”
“Politicians introduce devious schemes to keep ethnic groups from coexisting peacefully,” he continued, yet the world’s media often oversimplify the resulting conflict as a potentially genocidal confrontation between Christianity and Islam.
Taking the region of Jos as an example, Akeredolu warned that the religious dimension of the problem must not be isolated from a broader analysis of ethnicity, questions of citizenship rights and competing legal claims. Only in overcoming the true grounds of disunity can Nigeria build “a new commitment to the common national task.”
Ambassador Safieh remarked that the problem faced by Palestinians is not the legacy of past colonialism but “the process of accelerating colonisation” evident in the occupied territories today. Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the Israeli government’s decision not to extend a 10-month freeze on the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Safieh acknowledged that “Palestine faces a difficult decision – whether to return to the peace table.”
Up until now, Safieh said, the national will of Israel has tended to prevail rather than the international will as expressed by UN resolutions or the road-map supervised by the “Quartet” charged with leading the peace process. The Quartet is made up of the UN, the European Union, the Russian Federation and the USA.
“But the Quartet is now really a One-tet,” said Safieh, “a uni-polar or mono-polar system” dominated by the United States. And in terms of Middle Eastern politics, he added, “the United States suffers from a self-inflicted impotence. It is left with all the political weight of Luxembourg or Liechtenstein.”
The Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, he warned, are “a continuous test of political courage.” And while Palestinian negotiators have been “unreasonably reasonable” in the immediate past, he warned that “we have no more elasticity.”
Safieh asked the world’s churches to “lobby American society” for a just peace in Israel-Palestine. He saw signs of “reawakening American idealism,” of a world Jewish community uncomfortable with Israeli policy in the occupied territories, of a Pentagon deeply concerned that conditions in Palestine provide the principal “recruiting sergeant for extremists” in Muslim nations.
Asked about the demand for a Palestinian “right of return,” he replied that such a right may be interpreted to mean return to a home, return to a hometown or return to a homeland (like the Palestinian homeland envisioned in the two-state solution). “We will exercise those three rights,” he said, “in differing degrees.”
In their concluding remarks, both speakers hailed signs of hope. Akeredolu looks forward to national elections scheduled for mid-2011 in the expectation that they can be free and fair, and that they may produce leadership that will call Nigeria to “unity in its diversity.”
Safieh, who admits that “history, unfortunately, is a cemetery of oppressed people,” nevertheless affirms that “history needs our help to make the right decision” in regard to pending outcomes. He concluded by telling an audience made up largely of Christians, “In the end, though, I believe that Palestine will resurrect. And as you know, in Palestine we have had experience of resurrection!”