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Cardinal Okogie at 85: When a country fails

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Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie

To have attained the age of 85 is not a human accomplishment, rather God’s Amazing Grace.  For this reason, I render thanks and praise to the Almighty God, Creator and Sustainer of our life, for the gift of longevity. 

To say that the past 85 years have been eventful is to state the obvious. From years of my childhood in the Lafiaji neighbourhood of Lagos, through years of formation for the priesthood in Ibadan and in Rome; from the early years of priestly life and ministry, through 50 years of Episcopal ministry, thirty-nine of those years as Archbishop of the Metropolitan See of Lagos, the Lord has been marvelous in all His ways. To God be the glory.

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During those years, we have seen our country evolve from a British colony into an independent state. We have witnessed how a promising country has rapidly deteriorated because of politics of selfish interest. Drawing a sad conclusion is inevitable: Nigeria has not lived up to her promise at and since independence.

We have had to bear witness to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in a country whose people have been subjected to maltreatment and are denied basic human amenities despite her rich natural resources, first by civilian rulers, then by military rulers, and currently, again by civilian rulers, in our democracy of tentative and half-hearted steps. 

As a young Bishop, and now in retirement, what was said to Timothy, another young Bishop in the early years of Christianity come to mind: “fan into a flame the gift of God that you possess through the laying on of hands. God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power and love and self-control. So you are never to be ashamed of witness to our Lord…” (2 Tim 1:6-8).

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We have a moral and religious obligation to speak in the face of injustice visited on God’s children by successive governments in Nigeria. We witnessed injustice during the First Republic. It did not get better during the first bout of military rule lasting 13 years. How can we forget the bloody coups and the war into which young military officers plunged our country, a war whose wounds are currently being reopened by mismanagement of Nigeria’s rich resources? 

The Second Republic was characterized by profligacy. The Lord blessed Nigeria with crude oil, unfortunately, the people of the land have not benefitted from the sales. Many public office holders act as if the land, its people and its wealth belonged to them. Nigeria’s riches are squandered while millions of Nigerians live in abject poverty, many going to bed hungry. The second civilian dispensation was interrupted by the second period of military rule with violations of fundamental human rights. Now, twenty-two years after the departure of the military, a supposedly democratic dispensation is yet to bring dividends to the average Nigerian.

How can we forget, in the course of our history, a misguided and disastrous policy of taking over schools by the military and their civilian friends inflicted wounds on education in Nigeria? And, as we all know, when education is wounded, society feels the pain. 

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Few weeks ago, on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of this administration, given the severity of the status quo of our socio-economic and political situation, it was shocking that the government claimed that the Nigerian people never had it so good and Nigerians would have reason to praise this government at the end of their tenure. As they say, the matter speaks for itself, as it is evident that Nigeria has practically become a failed state. A country fails when it is no longer able to protect its citizens from harm and secure their welfare. A country fails when instead of being a harbor of refuge for its citizens, it turns out to be a cauldron of fire and sorrow that consumes its citizens. A country fails when instead of reassuring its citizens by actions and policies, that the future is secure, it becomes a case of most people planning to flee the country to other climes where their governments are truly functioning. Such is practically our case today. One whose house is on fire should not take to the streets dancing.

While it is true that our problems did not start under this administration, they seem to have worsened economically and politically in these past six years. The sad part is that there is no articulate coordinated response from the government to stem these downward trends, apart from the usual “playing the ostrich” and throwing tantrums when they are criticized, like the rather hasty suspension of Twitter. The political class, in spite of all their protestations to the contrary, seems unable to stay the course and prevent this slide of this greatly endowed country into this sad quagmire. As they say, ‘truth is bitter’.

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The need for us to retrace our steps has never been so urgent. Starring us in the face are prospects of anarchy. At this time, we need to build a prosperous nation where there are no second-class citizens. A politics of exclusion exploiting our ethnic, regional and religious diversity for selfish interests cannot help us.  We all have to work together to rescue our country from the hands of the forces of retrogression in darkness.

At 85, I rededicate my life towards building a better Nigeria, a Nigeria where we shall live together in harmony despite our diverse ethnic, regional or religious affiliations; a Nigeria where no one is placed at an advantage or disadvantage because of where he or she hails from. That is the Nigeria posterity deserves from us. This is an urgent call. May God help us all!

Okogie is the Emeritus Archbishop of the Catholic Arcdiocese of Lagos.

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