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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Father Aniedi Okure, OP

Gordon: You previously served as Chair, Africa Track Ecumenical Advocacy Days. What was their mission?

Father Aniedi: Prior to the Covid pandemic, the Ecumenical Advocacy Days Conference, an annual event, brought together on average about 850 to 1000 people different faith communities and countries to Washington, DC to address a particular nagging issue such as mass incarceration, environmental pollution and degradation, peace building, immigrants, and refugees, confronting chaos and forming community, racism, class and power. After two days of workshops, participants would bring the issue to the attention law makers through advocacy. As Chair of the Africa Track, and my engagement with US Congress on US-Africa policy, it was my responsibility to weave the theme to reflect ways it impacted the African continent and her peoples and mobilize participants to advocate for change in so far as it involved the United States and US corporations who are active in Africa.

Gordon: When did you serve as Executive Director Africa Faith and Justice Network and of what accomplishment are you proudest?

Father Aniedi: Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN) was founded thirty-nine years ago by returned American missionaries who served in Africa. Upon their return, the noticed the constant negative images about Africa in the US media and came to realize that in US-Africa relations, the continent was always getting the short end of the sick. So, the decided to do something about it. Hence the birth of AFJN. As Executive Director of Africa Faith & Justice Network for about nine years, from 2011 till 2020, I engaged in advocacy at the US Congress and the State Department for just US-Africa policies. In 2013, when I reviewed AFJN activities over a thirty-year period, it became clear that the organization had accomplished a lot. However, by 2013, a lot had changed in the dynamics of relation and advocacy. To avoid being held accountable in their own countries for unfair practices or violations of the rights of workers, multinational corporations set up subsidiary companies in Africa, avoiding taxes as well. Recalling an African proverb that says “When the music change, so does the dance” it became clear that AFJN would be dancing out of rhythm if it continued to do things as in the past by focusing her energy only in Washington. Armed with this realization, I decided to expand AFJN’s advocacy efforts to Africa, forming and training civil society groups based on Catholic Social Teaching, to engage their leaders and stakeholders for structural change, and promote just governance. The Board of Directors of AFJN approved the decision.

A major initiative that delights my heart is the Women Empowerment Project. The program was inspired by my witnessing firsthand the contributions of nuns (three of my siblings are nuns) throughout Africa and elsewhere, to human development, through education, healthcare, social services, attending to people often neglected by their governments, and reaching out to people whom Pope Francis describes as those consigned to the margins of society. The sisters are offering great services to disadvantaged people, often without government appreciation of their work, the harsh conditions under which they serve, or their contributions to the overall welfare of society.

The goal of Africa Faith & Justice Network Women Empowerment Project is to train and empower Catholic nuns such that in addition to their ministry of service to the people, they would also bring their moral voices to bear on public policy with the aim to change structures that negatively impact the millions of people they serve. Thus far, they have done outstanding work in Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Tanzania, and more recently, in Zambia. The program, currently coordinated by Notre Dame de Namur sister Eucharia Madueke, has trained over 700 individual sisters from many religious congregations. Their achievements, especially in practical hands-on advocacy with concrete results, have inspired other organizations, including bishops to take similar actions and engage in advocacy. We are grateful to Hilton Foundation Sisters Initiative grant for making the project possible. Here are some of the achievements of the sisters:

  • In Nigeria, through sustained advocacy, the sisters prevailed on the government of Edo State, known as the human trafficking capital of Nigeria, to (1) establish anti-trafficking taskforce headed by the state Attorney General - a sister was named to the taskforce, (2) enact anti-trafficking laws which is the strictest in the country, (3) closed a notorious brothel used as a transit for trafficking young girls, and (4) arrested and prosecuted over twenty human traffickers. Through their advocacy for children in Enugu State, the government established thirteen child rights court throughout the state.

  • In Uganda, the sisters (1) prompted the review of Ugandan Labor Export Laws, which served as avenues for human trafficking - three sisters were named to the Labor Export Law review committee, (2) brought together about 107 government officials and stakeholders to address the loopholes, and (3) significantly reduced human trafficking especially in the Fort Portal area of the country and helped rehabilitate some of the rescued victims.

  • In Ghana, the sisters persuaded the government to put in place some mechanisms to address the Kayeyei problem where young girls are brought form the rural areas to serve as head-porters for shoppers and traders in markets in the cities. The sisters’ advocacy prompted the Director of “Street Children Project”, who was part of the sisters’ activities in Obuasi and Tamale region to change the name of the organization to “Street Children Advocacy”, having seen the practical results of hands-on-advocacy.

  • In Tanzania, the sisters (1) prevailed on the District Commission of Iringa District to act and restore water to Muwimbi village. Their only source of water – a steam had been confiscated by an agribusiness company who diverted the stream to irrigate his commercial wheat farm leaving the village with no alternative source of water. (2) They also persuaded the Minister of Home Affairs to put in place measures to stem the tide of young girls who are taken from the rural areas to the cities for domestic servitude, including sexual slavery. He has done so.

  • The sisters in Zambia have raised awareness and made waves concerning human trafficking and the plight of trafficked victims, prompting the government and security agencies to act and rescue dozens of would-be victims. The sisters “Advocacy Ask” to the government was placed on the government website. Besides, dozens of traffickers have been apprehended.

Gordon: When did you serve as Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, The Catholic University of America, and what were your responsibilities as Coordinator of Africa Study Group?

Father Aniedi: The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research, formerly known as Life Cycle Institute, conducts research to put at the service of church leaders to enable them to make informed decisions on a particular subject. I participated in conducting several research and, with Dean Hoge, coauthored International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities. As Coordinator of Africa Study Group, I focused on issues relating to Africans in the United States such as the African-Born and the Church Family in the United States, which highlighted the demographics and characteristics on African-born immigrants, the areas in the United States where most of them were located, and their relationships with families in their birth countries. The research on African and Caribbean Catholics in the United States was to help the Church in their pastoral care of immigrants from these two areas.

Additionally, I researched into how adjusting to the new culture in the US, impacted immigrant families, especially in relation to child upbringing and ways immigrant families negotiate their cultural expectations surrounding domestic chores in their home countries, given the new reality of work schedules and practices in their new home – the United States. I coordinated research and presentations at seminars on other subjects such as human trafficking, land grab and dislocation of families in Africa by multi-national corporations, including US based corporations, and the impact of these activities on the continent, to raise awareness on cooperate practices and policy matters in our US-Africa relations.

Gordon: You are currently Director Dominicans for Justice and Peace and Permanent Delegate to the United Nations. What can be done one to help end Putin's War on Ukraine?

Father Aniedi: First, let me give a background to the presence of the Dominicans at the United Nations. The Dominicans, beginning with Saint Dominic have centuries old history of working to promote justice and the respect of the rights and dignity all people, created in the image of God. Saint Catherine of Siena for example is well known as a mystic and for her role in the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome. But Saint Catherine of Siena was a passionate human rights advocate. She consistently called attention to the plight of the disadvantaged members of the community. She could not understand how people, in the face of the sufferings of others, could go about as if all was normal. She urged that when we see injustice and suffering, we must “cry out as with a million voices, for it is silence that kills the world.”

We trace modern-day formulation of universal human rights to the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas who noted that “all the peoples of the world are humans and there is only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is that they are rational,” therefore “all the races of humankind are one.” In the same vein, the seed for a universal principle of international law was spearheaded by among others, the Dominican friar Francisco de Vitoria from the school of Salamanca. The United Nations recognize the role of the Dominican friars in this area. It is the reason the grand hall at the United Nations in Geneva is named Victoria Hall, after the Dominican friar Francisco de Vitoria. You would notice statues and paintings of Dominican friars in many public places associated with justice and human rights. Antonio de Montesinos statue in Santo Domingo credits him with the first proclamation of universal human rights in America, long before Jefferson.

So, as the Delegate of the Dominicans to the United Nations, and Director of Dominicans for Justice and Peace, I represent the Order in her ministry of justice, in the promotion of the rights, and the defense of the dignity of God’s children, and in inculcating values that promote a just and peaceful world. The Dominican Family is present in 120 countries. My interaction with members of the family across five continents is an eye opener, and a privilege. It is great to see the engagements of members of the Family across five continents, in different aspect of promoting life and defending the rights and dignity of God’s children. Some do so with serious threats to their lives, others have paid the ultimate price, yet they continue. It is edifying.

The current situation in Ukraine calls for a deeper reflection on “international relations,” on the dynamics of globalization, on the values we promote and cherish. How is it that we continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide in perfecting anti-life instruments, weapons of mass destructions, and efficient killing machines? What is it that we value? Really. On the one hand, it seems unimaginable that something like this would happen in 2022 in Europe. The sheer disregard for human life and wonton destruction of property, the displacement of millions of people in such a short time is mind boggling. Yet a closer analysis would show that this did not just happen overnight. Some saw it coming, based on antecedence. Nevertheless, that does not diminish the shock at the situation.

We are grateful that Pope Francis who in very concrete ways, including personally going to the Russian Embassy in Rome, against standard protocol (instead of calling the Ambassador to the Apostolic Palace) has rallied Christians and other faith communities to respond to this tragedy. The United Nations continue to mobilize other entities to put pressure on the aggressor. Without these pressures, it could have been a lot worse. Yet we also see the limitations of the United Nations, and that of regional bodies like NATO. What is called to question here is the global interlocking market economy and the need to reexamine the exploitation and dependency that arises from this global enterprise. We recall here the financial meltdown of 2008 triggered by the housing market, the ripple effects that followed, and its impact on the global south. From a religious standpoint as Catholics, a disheartening tragedy of the war, which Cardinal Turkson has described as fratricide is the deep division it has created within, and between the Church in Ukraine and the Church in Russia. The spiritual consequences of this will take time to heal. We pray for forgiving hearts and reconciliation.

Gordon: Thank you for a powerful and beautiful interview.


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