ROME — Nigerian Cardinal John Onayiekan says he’s long noticed two things about the celebrated “ABC” strategy to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, referring to abstinence outside marriage, fidelity inside it, and, if necessary, condoms.
The first thing, he said, is that everyone knows the ABC approach works. The second is that the only element of it anyone seems to want to put money behind is “C.”
“Why is it that almost all the resources and energy are being spent on C, and we hardly see any plan of action for A and B?” he asked in a Crux interview Tuesday.
“We in the Church do a lot of work encouraging people to abstain and to be faithful in marriage, but it’s taken for granted that this doesn’t cost any money,” he said. “We get nothing for the work we’re doing in A and B,” while Western governments and agencies “are waiting for us to accept C to inundate us with tons and tons of condoms.”
Onaiyekan vowed that won’t happen, and fired back at outsiders who sometimes appear to presume that Africans just aren’t capable of sexual restraint.
“I tell [my young people] that those who come from America and tell you to sleep around, they don’t respect you,” he said. “They think you’re worse than dogs, because even dogs have seasons!”
Onaiyekan spoke with Crux on Tuesday, on the margins of a Rome conference for faith-based organizations on HIV/AIDS, co-sponsored by the Catholic charity Caritas, UNAIDS, the Vatican’s Pediatric Hospital “Bambino Gesu,” and PEPFAR, a U.S. program for AIDS relief. The aim of the gathering was to plan a roadmap for children living with HIV.
On other matters, Onaiyekan said:
- Distributing condoms “does not help to reduce HIV/AIDS,” and not merely because it encourages irresponsible behavior, but also because quite often the condoms that arrive in Africa are defective.
- Funds intended for humanitarian relief and overseas development increasingly should be assigned to NGOs and faith-based organizations, given endemic corruption in many African governments.
- The Nigerian government should be “ashamed” there’s still no trace of the 230 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants two years ago, adding that sometimes women who manage to escape Boko Haram have difficulty being accepted by their families because they were forced to become “wives” of their kidnappers.
- Pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics is “not a priority” in Africa, he said, even in the wake of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, recalling that “it wasn’t the African bishops who wanted communion for the divorced … because our people want things to be said in a clear way.”
The following are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Onaiyekan.
Crux: Do you find it frustrating that whenever anyone talks about the Church and HIV/AIDS in Africa, the focus is always on condoms?
Onaiyekan: Not at all, because as you know, the truth will set you free. I have said personally that the Church’s position is correct, namely, that distributing condoms indiscriminately at the end of the day does not help to reduce HIV/AIDS.
When you take a condom here in Europe, you’re taking a piece of rubber that has been properly done, well presented in a nice shop, and that a young man is going to use properly. But when you think about distributing condoms in Africa, think about the condoms that are donated to us … they’re not the best quality. They come in big cartons, like biscuits, sometimes spending months in the ports in their containers.
Most of the condoms distributed in Africa are 50 percent less effective than the ones distributed in Europe. Therefore, even before you talk about what the Church has to say, the question I ask myself is: Do we want to subject our young people to this risk? I say no.
Then we come to the spiritual level. I have no difficulty telling everybody that this is the law of the Church, which is not even about condoms but sexual activity. If the law of the Church says that young people who’re not married have no business with sex, then why are you talking about condoms? We have to tell our young people: “Be responsible with your sexual behavior, wait until you’re married.”
In Europe and America, it’s taken for granted this is “stupid talk,” that it’s completely unrealistic. But I want to say that at least with my young people, this is not stupid talk, they listen to you …They see the consequences, especially the girls.
Like I always tell them, half-jokingly: No one has ever died of abstinence, it doesn’t kill. Buy you can die of condoms! And I also tell [my young people] that those who come from America and tell you to sleep around, they don’t respect you. They think you’re worse than dogs, because even dogs have seasons. Respect yourselves!
Does the A, B, C approach work?
Everybody agrees that there are three ways to prevent AIDS: Abstain, Be faithful in marriage, and Condoms. I ask, why is it that almost all the resources and energy are being spent on C? We hardly see any plan of action for A and B.
We in the Church do a lot of work encouraging people to abstain and to be faithful in marriage, and it’s assumed this doesn’t cost us any money. So we get nothing for the work we’re doing in A and B. They [donors and international agencies] are waiting for us to accept C to inundate us with tons and tons of condoms. I say “No, we’re not going to do it.”
They have seen on the ground what we’re doing fighting AIDS. There’s more to AIDS and HIV than condoms: education, and I don’t mean schools, I mean simply to inform the people. The local churches and mosques have done a lot to inform the people what HIV is caused by and what it’s not. We’ve also spoken about the need to know your status: go and get tested. Governments don’t succeed much in this, but we do, and it’s not taken into consideration.
Often our government gets [anti-AIDS] programs from the outside, and then we go to them. Generally these programs include condoms, in what’s called “sexual health,” but it’s agreed that we will not distribute them. Everyone knows that faith-based organizations should not be forced [to act] against their doctrines.
Why do they agree to [give us an exception]? Because they know that we’re doing something, whether we agree or not. Those who want to distribute condoms, do so. But don’t force me to do it. You can’t force me to do it.
April 14 will mark the second anniversary of the kidnapping of the 230 girls from the Chibok village. Is there any hope for these girls to be found?
The problem of the missing girls is a mystery that can’t be explained. If I were the government, I would be ashamed of the fact that more than 200 girls disappeared without a trace. And this happened today, with everyone having a mobile phone! These are young girls from 15 to 20 years old. The fact that none of them has been able to contact their families is very strange.
There’s another problem. When one of these women is released, she’s not welcomed with open arms by her family or community. It is a very sad phenomenon: the rejection of the so-called “wives of Boko Haram”. The children these women have, amid the crime against humanity which was their kidnapping and forced marriage, are also rejected, because people ask “What kind of child is this?”
In addition, the government has no plan for these women and children, nor for those who decide to leave Boko Haram. For months we’ve asked them to develop a proactive policy to welcome those who want to leave, some de-radicalization program, instead of ruling them out as terrorists and criminals … because if not, you have to put them all in prison or concentration camps.
Is there a need for a political, not military, solution?
Yes. Dialogue is needed. It’s necessary to reach out to the leaders of this criminal organization and negotiate an end to the violence, even offering forgiveness. Dialogue can’t start until the violence ends. Once they put the guns down, you can tackle other issues such as poverty.
We need a comprehensive plan of action. Many speak of implementing something similar to a Marshall Plan. The Nigerian government should invest vast resources in developing the northern region of the country [where Boko Haram was born], since it’s been neglected for years.
But that’s easier said than done.
Is it possible to change the situation?
Personally I think it is, but to achieve it the government needs to change policy, and involve those who can make a change, such as the Nigerian Muslim community.
I, as Cardinal and Archbishop of Abuja can’t dialogue with Boko Haram because we don’t speak the same language, but other Muslims do. The fact that the Nigerian Islamic elites, as well as the vast majority of the country’s Muslims, have rejected the actions of Boko Haram and have disowned them doesn’t change the fact that Boko Haram is Muslim.
So, they can’t wash their hands.
How’s the coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria’s general population?
Thank God, despite Boko Haram, it remains positive: They don’t represent Nigerian Muslims. This must be emphasized: People see on television something about an explosion of Boko Haram and think that I live every day with Muslims who attack me.
It is not like this. It’s just a small group of Muslim terrorists who do things that my Muslim brothers do not support or accept. In fact, the Nigerian nation is working together to defeat this group, don’t forget that the Army is formed by both Muslims and Christians.
In recent times, Europe has been hit by several acts of terrorism. Living with this phenomenon in your country, how do you see what happens in the West?
The phenomenon called terrorism in Europe has nothing to do with what we have suffered … Here in Europe you have small terrorist cells that try to make clamorous actions to cause an impression, but those who planted the bombs in Brussels didn’t want to take over the government.
On Friday Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, where he speaks about the situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Is this an issue for Africa?
I’ve only read the section in which the pope talks about how the Church forms consciences, but it doesn’t replace them. What he means is that we, as priests, shouldn’t replace the conscience of those who come to us. That’s far from saying “let them do whatever they want,” as many want to interpret it.
It’s a lot harder both for the priest, who has to guide the people to make moral decisions with a sense of personal responsibility, and for the faithful, who many times say “Fine, but what do I do?”
I applaud the Holy Father for challenging us not to see things as black and white, because life isn’t like this. But this is not a novelty in the Church.
Is the Church in Africa ready for a more welcoming attitude towards divorced and civilly remarried couples?
This has never been a priority for us. In Africa, we had traditional customs in marriage, which permitted both polygamy and divorce. By becoming Catholics, however, we accepted that we had to change our ways and embrace the two major principles of a Christian marriage: It’s just one person, and it’s permanent. A lot would be needed for us to change this again now!
Remember, it wasn’t the African bishops who wanted communion for the divorced, because the African bishops have to respect that our people want things to be said in a clear way. We also have other problems in marriage, as the fact that a Catholic family might have members who are not Catholics, so they’re practicing polygamy or accepting divorce.
The role of the Holy Father is to keep the doctrine of the Church united. Even if he wanted, he can’t change it, because no one but the enemies of the Church would benefit from this.