Although AEFJN has severally organised and co-organized advocacy meetings or conferences in different parts of Europe and Africa, the last conference on Land-grabbing in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, occupies a unique place in my heart. It was a conference that for the first time brought together a heavy presence of Church administrators (the Catholic bishops and archbishops), other Church actors, Civil Society, Social Movements, affected communities and state actors to a common forum in the interests of Africa. The purpose was to discuss the scourge of land grabbing in Africa and the development and economic programs that mediate it, and to craft local strategies towards arresting or, at least, reducing the menace.
During the presentations, I listened to the testimonies of the communities affected by land grabbing, the impacts on their socio-economic life and the violations of their Human Rights. They told stories of the desecration of their sacred forests, the destruction of their ecosystems and the loss of their agriculture (food cultures and food systems, the loss of Rights to the seeds that have sustained them through generations). Above all, many of them decried the heavy burden of guilt that the communities carry for having failed themselves and their future generations. After that, they asked what they could do and if there was help anywhere for them! What was more worrisome was not so much the systematic exploitation of Africa by the more developed countries of Europe, the Americas and the BRICS but the complicity of the African national governments and the silence of the Church in Africa. Could the huge presence of the hierarchy of the Church at this conference be a wake-up call for her to match her prayers with action? We are looking forward to that as we seek to embark on the implementation of the strategies of the conference as 2018 unfolds.
A common theme that surfaced through the narratives of the sessions of the conference that needs urgent debunking is the shadow development narrative that mediates the development and economic programs package for Africa. Of what use are those development and economic programs that announce an end to hunger and poverty in Africa but in practice seek to increase the GDP of African countries and introduce new technologies for easier resource exploitation that add no value to their human dignity? Of what use are development programs that go out of their way to address macroeconomic questions but asks few or no questions at all about what is happening about the basic needs and well-being of the communities in Africa? Basic needs, of course, are more than the material; they also have spiritual, cultural, psychological, communitarian, intellectual and emotional dimensions. As it is, the development and economic programs in place are only there to undermine the African social and ethical values; they are instruments of exploitation and underdevelopment. We are therefore impelled to continue to advocate for a shift from a profit-oriented to a people-oriented economy in Africa.
The African Philosophy of life (Ubuntu) runs counter to development programs that make women and men objects of economic activities, and not the subjects. The human person is the priority of all economic activities. The economy exists for the person and not the person for the economy. Christian Anthropology parallels the principle of Ubuntu; every woman and man bears God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1: 27).
In this vein, the structures of production, exchange and consumption are human instruments and not natural laws. It is imperative to evaluate them by their pro-human values with special concerns for the poor as society’s weakest link. Other important issues such as free markets, the role of government, wages, unions, questions of privatisation must all pass through the same medium. Pope Francis underlines in Laudato SI that we humans are part of the community of creation, neither dominant nor subservient, but partners and stewards. Economic activity must therefore respect ecological and environmental situations, with concern for a sustainable pattern of sharing with both contemporary and future generations.
While we remain aghast at the systematic exploitation of Africa by the ‘more developed’ countries and continents, we consider the complicity of the African national governments and institutions an unpardonable crime against their people and the patrimony they are meant to protect. What is certain in my mind is that if Africa is to break the shackles of poverty, she must stand up for herself, develop her own economic programs and take her future into her own hands. Economic or development programs packaged for the good of Africa often turn out to be more in the interest of the group of countries that packaged the program. The recent EU Marshal plan with Africa is a good example of maintaining the status quo. Wolfgang Schonecke of the German antenna of AEFJN exposes the age-old pattern in his analysis of the Marshal plan with Africa. He observes that a so-called master plan is a tool for maintaining the same patterns of trade and economic agreements with Africa. What has changed are the words and the addition of more sophisticated strategies, but it is all business as usual. Indeed, Africa has all that it would take to make a great continent, but it must first deal with the endemic corruption in her systems especially among the political elites, strengthen her democratic institutions and be clear about what she wants regarding economic co-operation.
In that regard, the Church in Africa must rise to this occasion to catalyse the process as the only credible voice for the poor in Africa. Land, water, seed and natural resource access and control are keys to contemporary global politics. They are God-given gifts for the common good that must be used and preserved for the future generations of Africans. The struggle against land grabbing and resource exploitation in Africa must be a struggle for the Church to protect her children and her environment. A participant in the conference rightly observed that, ‘’…it is time for the religious and the Church in Africa in general to go beyond the limitations of the cults and challenge the menace of land grabbing in Africa and the unjust economic system. The simple reason is that all that impacts negatively on Human Life and threatens our common home interests the Church; how could the Church in Africa be indifferent to the present cry of the poor and the cry of the earth in Africa.”
The engagement of the Church in this struggle already has many pointers enshrined clearly, and challengingly, in the Scripture and the Church’s social teachings. The Church in Africa urgently needs to update the practice of her doctrinal systematics to harmonize with the African philosophy of life and Catholic Social Teachings (CST). We are of the opinion that CST is very important today in building an African economy – an ‘’economy that is guided by Christian principles and values.’’ Arguably, the CST does not offer direct answers nor provide blueprints, year-plans, or party manifestoes, but it helps us to raise questions, suggests where to look for answers, offers some norms for evaluating those answers, and prods us in to action. It is not a detailed roadmap but a veritable source of ‘light in the darkness’ for the present-day selfish and aggressively consumerist world. At AEFJN, we are looking forward to greater exploration and application of the Church’s well-documented involvement in the quest for a just and sustainable world. Like the Church in South America, the CST may prove to be, for Africa, the wand that awakens more people to the human-made economic woes of the African continent and how to battle them.
 P. Henriot SJ, What is Economic Justice. (An unpublished talk he gave to AEFJN in November, 2003)