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No to xenophobia, no to bloodshed

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Oshodi, Lagos

The words we speak either heal or wound, bless or curse, build or destroy, give life or kill, enlighten or deceive. One word can destroy a whole nation. Take the word “cockroach” as example. That word led to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in the Rwandan genocide.

On April 6, 1994, the President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, and the President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were aboard the same flight. As the plane prepared to land at Kigali, it came down, and both died. Rwanda and Burundi are two countries sharing the same border. Two ethnic groups—Hutus and Tutsis—are found in the two countries, just as the Yoruba are found in Nigeria, in Benin and in Togo, three neighbouring countries. The Hutus ruled Rwanda since independence from Belgium. They and the Tutsis do not get along. You may find a Hutu and a Tutsi drinking together at sunset, and you may find the two dead the following sunrise. They have poisoned each other.

President Habyarimana was Hutu. Those accused of bringing down the plane were from the Tutsi ethnic group. The Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches”. There were radio broadcasts calling for the extermination of “cockroaches”. Orders were issued by remnants of the Habyarimana government to go and kill “cockroaches”. Within a few weeks, between April 7, the day after the plane crashed, and mid-July, it is estimated that between 500, 000 and 1 million Rwandans, that is, about 70% of the population of Tutsis, were killed by the Hutus. An estimated 2, 000, 000 Hutus were displaced when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels of Paul Kagame, who has been President since then, marched into Kigali. Such is the power of hate speech, the devasting effect of calling human beings cockroaches.

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On the Sunday between the presidential and gubernatorial elections, Catholics are taught by the word of God to be mindful of the words we use, of what we say to one another, especially when we disagree. In the Gospel, Jesus said: “A good man draws what is good from the store of goodness in his heart; a bad man draws what is bad from the store of his badness. For a man’s words flow out of what fills his hear” (Lk 6:45).

Before the Gospel, the Book of Ecclesiasticus said, “a man’s words betray what he feels. Do not praise a man before he has spoken, since this is the test of man” (Ecclesiasticus 27:6-7).

Every word is conceived in the heart before it is spoken. Every spoken word is a breath, and the breath is either good breath or foul breath. What kind of breath comes out of your mouth? What kind of breath comes out of mine? Is it good breath or foul breath?

In the past four or five years, since the period before the 2015 elections, this country has been filled with bad breath coming from the mouths of politicians. Both sides of Nigerian politics demonized each other. Some politicians, some Nigerians, used the 2015 elections to demonise each other and to divide Nigeria, and they taught Nigerians to demonise members of other ethnic communities. We heard and we continue to hear unseemly words like looters, Yorubastard, Biafraud, Foolanis, APC pigs and PDP wailers.

The 2015 elections ended. But not our incivility. We became even worse. Our politics does not bring out the best in us. It brings out the beast in us. We continued this way in preparation for the 2019 elections, passing from one season of incivility to another. And now, there is heightening ethnic tension in Nigeria caused by politicians and by Nigerians who believe whatever politicians say. The situation was not helped by lack of leadership on both sides of the Nigerian political divide. It was not helped by the divisive ratio of 95:7. It has not been helped by the appointment of security chiefs from one region.

It is almost impossible to find a Nigerian politician who does not have a militia. But the children of those who send almajiri to go on the rampage are studying in the best schools overseas, the children of those who send area boys and thugs after us are studying in the best schools outside the shores of Nigeria, while Nigerians at home are at each other’s throats spitting ethnic epithets at each other, displaying anti-social behaviour on social media. This is the time to call those who would exploit our ethnic and religious diversity to order.

I am Yoruba. All the way from Ute in today’s Ondo State, my father went to primary school in Awka, and to secondary school at Government College, Umuahia. Until he died, his closest friends were his Igbo schoolmates in the two places. He did not bring me and my siblings up in ethnic bigotry. When the war broke out in 1967, some of his Igbo friends left their property with him in Lagos while they sought refuge east of the Niger. At the end of the war, they met their property intact. Some of them lived with us in Ebute Metta before settling down in the post-war period. I do not, and I cannot consider any Nigerian of any other ethnic community to be my enemy.

My fellow Nigerians, we must not shed blood on this land. Let us remain together and build a nation where the rights of a citizen will not be abbreviated and violated because of religious or ethnic affiliation. Let us rise above the divisive rhetoric of our political elite. Let us live up to the words of our old national anthem: “Though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand.”

Today, we in the Catholic tradition hear the word of God caution us on the words we utter. We who hear these words must be different. Words can kill. But our own words must give life. God spoke his word to us to give us life. He created us with his word. We who have received life through the word of God, the word of life, must give life through the words we utter.

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On a practical note, each of us on social media must refrain from posting hate speech. Stop insulting and demonizing people because of the language they speak, because of how they worship, or because of how they voted or how they will vote. And if you know of anyone who uses hate speech, caution that person.

God spoke his word to us, inviting us to his eucharistic table. That is the meaning of the Mass. If you partake of this meal, this banquet of life, go out to the whole world, and live in peace with everyone. If you believe in one God who is Father of all, and if you pray to this one God who created the human family and willed the family to be one, then all men are your brothers and all women your sisters.

To everyone, therefore, speak words of peace and words of justice. Speak words of love to your husband, to your wife, to your children, to your parents, and to your siblings. Speak the word of God, the word of love, to every creature of God.
•Akinwale is of the Order of Preachers. He gave this sermon on Sunday, March 3, 2019


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