Monday, March 10, 2008

Peter Akinola needs better media training

This month's Atlantic Magazine includes a feature article about the clash of Christianity and Islam in Nigeria. Like most articles in the Atlantic, this one is though-provoking and well worth the read.

Much of the article is disturbing, in particular, the description of religious attacks in the town of Yelwa - about the size of Prince Albert or Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan.

First, Muslims had attacked Christians one Sunday morning, resulting in the deaths of about 70 people:
As the worshippers finished their prayers, they heard gunshots and a call from the loudspeakers of the mosque next door: “Allahu Akhbar, let us go for jihad.” “We were terrified,” recalled Pastor Sunday, who had been standing outside the gate as the churchyard swarmed with strangers. He stayed near the church gate, but many other people fled toward the road behind the church. There, men dressed in military fatigues reassured them that they were safe and herded them back to the church. Then the men opened fire. Pastor Sunday fled; that’s why he survived. The attackers—who were not, in fact, Nigerian soldiers—set the church on fire and killed everyone who tried to escape. They chased the head of the church, Pastor Sampson Bukar, to his house next door and ran him through with cutlasses. They set fire to the nursery school and the pastor’s house.
Two months later came a revenge attack by Christians:
Christian men and boys surrounded Yelwa. Many were bare-chested; others wore shirts on which they’d reportedly pinned white name tags identifying them as members of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization founded in the 1970s to give Christians a collective and unified voice as strong as that of Muslims. Each tag had a number instead of a name: a code, it seemed, for identification. They attacked the town. According to Human Rights Watch, 660 Muslims were massacred over the course of the next two days, including the patients in the Al-Amin clinic. Twelve mosques and 300 houses went up in flames. Young girls were marched to a nearby Christian town and forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Many were raped, and 50 were killed.
But perhaps even more disturbing in some ways is this description of Griswold's encounter with Archbishop Peter Akinola, Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) and, at the time, President of the Christian Association of Nigeria.

At the time of the massacre, Archbishop Peter Akinola was the president of the Christian Association of  Nigeria, whose membership was implicated in the killings. He has since lost his bid for another term but, as primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, he is still the leader of 18 million Anglicans. He is a colleague of my father, who was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America from 1997 to 2006. But the American Episcopals’ election of an openly homosexual bishop in 2003, which Archbishop Akinola denounced as “satanic,” created distance between them. When I arrived in 2006 in the capital of Abuja to see the archbishop, his office door was locked. Its complicated buzzing-in system was malfunctioning, and he was trapped inside. Finally, after several minutes, the angry buzzes stopped and I could hear a man behind the door rise and come across the floor. The archbishop, in a pale-blue pantsuit and a darker-blue crushed-velvet hat, opened the door.

“My views on Islam are well known: I have nothing more to say,” he said, as we sat down. Archbishop Akinola has repeatedly spoken critically about Islam and liberal Western Protestants, and he was understandably wary of my motives for asking his thoughts. For Akinola, the relationship between liberal Protestants and Islam is straightforward: if Western Christians abandon conservative morals, then the global Church will be weakened in its struggle against Islam. “When you have this attack on Christians in Yelwa, and there are no arrests, Christians become dhimmi, the vocabulary within Islam that allows Christians and Jews to be seen as second-class citizens. You are subject to the Muslims. You have no rights.”

When asked if those wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to the Muslim part of Yelwa, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naive to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”

At best, Archbishop Akinola's comments are unhelpful. Many of his critics have interpreted them as a tacit endorsement of the violence at Yelwa. One blogger has gone so far as to raise the possibility of referring Archbishop Akinola's potential involvement to the International Criminal Court.

I hold no brief for Archbishop Akinola. I find his public comments on a range of issues consistently unhelpful, contentious and mean-spirited. But as unsettling as his comments here are, they do not constitute the proverbial "smoking gun."

That said, in my secular life I am a public relations practitioner. I frequently deal with the media, and I have often trained other people in dealing with the media. One of my consistent pieces of advice is that no one should ever use the phrase "no comment," even if they have no comment to make. While the person saying "no comment" may well mean "I have nothing to say," it will inevitably be interpreted as "I have something to hide."

What did the "no comment" mean? That's the question

Perhaps it meant, "I don't want to comment because I have no clue how those men came to be wearing Christian Association of Nigeria shirts and nametags." That's the best interpretation I can give it. If so, better he had said that.

Perhaps it meant, "I didn't send those men, but I'm concerned they may have acted based on misinterpreting comments I made." Sort of the Henry II defence, if you will/ "Will no one rid me of these insolent Muslims?" Certainly not guilt-free - but still something less than direct implication in genocide.

Unfortunately for Archbishop Akinola, it is inevitable that this "no comment" comes across as "of course I bloody sent them, but I'm not going to admit that to you."

Strikes me, at the very least, that Archbishop Akinola needs better PR counsel - and some serious media relations training. If he wasn't inciting or condoning genocidal slaughter (and I'd really prefer to believe he wasn;t), then he is at least guilty of a major communications blunder that brings scandal on the Body of Christ.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Honestly, what else do you expect the man of God to have said?
Even if he did not send the "christians" avengers, naturally, no one would like what the moslems did in the first place. Even when our Lord Jesus Christ asked us to turn the left cheek if the right is slapped, He (Jesus) was silent on what happens after the second is slapped again!

-Ade Olufadeju, Lagos.