An American battle on African soil

The focus on homosexuality and the work of establishing parallel Anglican structures in the US and in the Anglican Communion has distorted the relationships of the African Church, made a few powerful at the expense of the average African Christian and distracted them from their mission.

Kerry Eleveld writes a detailed article in the Advocate describing how a few powerful leaders, including Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, have taken a cultural taboo and leveraged into political and religious power both at home in Nigeria and in the United States.

Describing the relationship between Akinola and conservative movements in the American Church as a “union,” between wealthy American religious interest groups and an increasingly self-conscious African Church.

Akinola must have felt a strong calling to make such a move. It put him in defiance of a church tradition, dating back to the fourth century, that limits the activity of a bishop to that bishop’s jurisdiction. Put simply: One bishop doesn’t tread on another bishop’s turf…

The Nigerian primate wrote Schori that due to what he called the “unbiblical agenda” of the Episcopal Church, “’the usual protocol and permissions are no longer applicable.”

His words depict a leader who is secure in the purity of his agenda. Yet as I began to ask questions about this stern spiritual icon, I discovered an all-too-fallible man who has found that condemning gay people is a shrewd career move.

Eleveld says “No doubt [Akinola], like most Nigerians, grew up believing that homosexuality is a sin. But this pastor has let his flock at home suffer while he networks in America, accumulating power, publicity, and—according to informed observers—money.”

The article describes the context of the typical Nigerian attitude towards gays and lesbians. Davis Mac-Illya,founder of Changing Attitudes-Nigeria, says that “We have been part of the community,” but that homosexuality has come under great scrutiny in Nigeria only in the past few years. “It is only now that the government and the church have decided to use us to its political gain.” The result? “Most people get themselves married, but they still know that they are gay or they are lesbians.”

Mac-Illya and eight were jailed and beaten after a rally in the nation’s capital, Abuja, and is routinely the subject of threats of harm and even death.

“It frightens me, although it will not make me stop,” says Mac-Iyalla, who now lives in exile in nearby Togo. “Those who are doing this are Christians and members of the church—they think they are working for God by getting rid of me.”

Both Akinola and the Nigerian government have exploited this issue despite the pressing issues of health, education, and the divide between the oil wealth of the nation and the poverty of much of the population.

Nigeria, with about 120 million people, is the most populous country in Africa and among the poorest in the world. Life expectancy is 47 years, roughly 3 million people are infected with HIV, and between 1996 and 2005, nearly 30% of children under age 5 were malnourished. It is a land of dichotomies, where oil flows at about 2.5 million barrels a day—making Nigeria the largest oil producer in Africa—and yet anywhere from 60% to 75% of Nigerians, according to various sources, live on less than a dollar a day.

And yet he strongly backs a proposed Nigerian law, currently under debate, that would prohibit same-sex marriage and call for a five-year imprisonment of anyone who enters into a same-sex marriage or “performs, witnesses, aids, or abets” a such a marriage. The bill even specifies that anyone involved in advocacy for gay and lesbian rights would get five years behind bars. The United Nations, the Bush Administration and 125 religious leaders have condemned the proposed legislation.

Not everyone is happy and not all Anglican leaders in Africa agree with the strategy of increasing influence and prestige at the expense of a minority group and the mission of the Church.

“We debate these things whilst people are dying,” says Bishop Musonda Trevor Selwyn Mwamba of Botswana.

“[Akinola’s] voice has been the icon of the conservative position,” says Mwamba. “[But] Africa is not a monochrome continent. His is the voice that has been given publicity, but it is not the dominant voice.

“The voice which is not heard,” Mwamba continues, “and this is what I would call the real voice of the Anglican Africans, is a silent voice, which simply seeks to live its Christian values without drawing attention to itself. It’s a voice of trying to make ends meet.”

Mwamba sees the real issues of the African people—poverty, the lack of clean drinking water, nutrition, HIV and AIDS, education, women’s rights—being neglected by the small cadre of bishops led by Akinola. “Thousands of kids are dying every day,” Mwamba says. “Now, those are the issues the church should be addressing.”

An other African priest likens the struggle to the hiring of mercenaries.

One anonymous source who is African-born but now works as an Episcopal minister in the United States sees the whole African crusade against homosexuality as someone else’s war.

“For me, the primates in Africa are mercenaries who have been hired to fight a war, which in the U.S. they have lost,” he says, adding that Robinson’s consecration was the final straw. “If you are losing a battle, if you don’t have enough manpower to fight, you go and hire mercenaries from somewhere who can fight for you.”

The Rev. Emmanuel Sserwadda, Interim Africa Officer for the Episcopal Church is quoted as saying that while outreach in Nigeria and other central African churches has crippled because funds from Episcopal sources are refused, a handful of American benefactors have increased their influence with Akinola and others with the use of money.

The “influence” Sserwadda describes comes in the form of all-expenses-paid trips to the United States, envelopes that contain several hundred to several thousand dollars—gifts big enough to be meaningful for one person but too small to have serious impact on an entire ministry. The money is nearly impossible to track because it isn’t linked to any specific organization.

“If an American gives an envelope like that, it is not given for the use of the church, it is given to the individual,” says Sserwadda. “Or if not that, someone is flown into the States, and all his bills are paid…. He goes back after doing shopping, and sometimes that person comes with his wife or with his child.…” In other words, it’s a cushy family trip for free.

For U.S. executives, such perks may be common, but by African standards, they are rich. Says Sserwadda: “I am telling you that even [a bishop’s] annual salary cannot facilitate” travel on such a scale.

Sserwadda has not personally witnessed an exchange of money, he says. “But we hear of it,” he adds. “It has been happening.”

Bishop Mwamba concurs: “To a great degree Africa has always been the play field of different powers. The whole issue of sexuality is an American issue that somehow has found itself being played out across the Atlantic in an African conference.”

Read the entire story: The Advocate: Akinola’s Power Play

Past Posts