We live in a polarized world. Across Africa, the news is awash with reports of attacks in different parts of the world, motivated by religious fundamentalism. Lives have been lost, property destroyed and communities’ livelihoods disrupted.
Globally, there has been a spike in incidents in recent days where religious differences spawn hatred and, in extreme cases, open hostility and blind violence.
I am firm believer that everyone has a right to freely exercise their faiths. However, every right is accompanied by responsibilities and it is equally important that we all respect the rights of others to also exercise their own faith.
I live in a country where it is not uncommon for brothers and sisters belonging to different faiths. I was born in one of many Gabonese families where tolerance is a master-word – as a young man, I myself converted to Islam, as did many but not all of my family.
In Gabon, we have been fortunate to avoid religious division, enjoying generations of peace and harmony for believers of all faiths.
While we have always had different ways of living our faith, we also live in love and respect for each other, and our differences.
Elsewhere, living one’s faith too often exposes many to misunderstandings and persecution.
The ability to accept each other is the mark of civilization. For us, it has been made possible largely because we learned early to understand that our differences are in fact our riches. Through this tolerance, we have been able to establish in our country, an environment of peace and stability for generations.
In this unstable world, the challenge is to continue to cultivate and jealously guard this peace and religious tolerance that we have inherited from our predecessors. It is the cement of our society, an immense grace that we must preserve for ourselves, our children and future generations. It this blessing that we must not neglect nor sell off and it is one I hope can be shared across our continent.
For religious tolerance to thrive, we have to consistently practice inclusion of all in society, irrespective of their religious leanings.
Through inclusion, everyone is obligated to give their best for the good of the country, and the world at large.
One of the ways that we can practice this inclusion is by providing equal opportunities to all in society. This is the rationale for my vision for Gabon’s tomorrow, which I presented earlier this year, called a ‘Programme for Equal Chances’. Our challenge is the establishment of a more just, more equitable society; one where equal opportunity would be a reality for each of our children.
Africa’s prosperity is only possible if we take advantage of the talents and gifts of everyone without exclusion. We cannot exclude a person because of his political party, family, ethnicity, social status, gender or religion. ‘Equal Chances’ means that every child that is born, grows up in a situation where he or she is properly nurtured, cared for, educated, educated and, as an adult, find a job on his or her own merits and where it will be fulfilled fully.
By availing opportunity, we will be able to quiet and stifle voices that often incite people to take dangerous paths; different paths of those who have preserved the peace in our country.
As we mark the Pentecost this weekend, during which I intend to visit the Evangelical church of Baraka in Libreville, this is an important point to note. Indeed, this was my message when I – a Muslim Head of State in a largely Catholic nation – spoke this Easter at a Catholic service at the St Charles Lwanga Cathedral in Oyem.
Addressing the congregation of my good friend, Bishop Jean Vincent Ondo Eyene, I was proud to have the immense grace of living in a country where the Christian holidays and Muslim festivals are celebrated by all the national community, in brotherhood and in a friendly. Celebrating these rituals together is essential to safeguarding a future of equal chances for all.
It is only in this way that we confront the torrent of verbal abuse in some speeches and remarks; and ensure that tolerance and civilization thrives. There will always be recurring calls to intolerance and exclusion, in absolute negation of the values we share together – but equal opportunity is the antidote.
As we progress through a year of elections across Africa, including in my own country, it is easy for each nation’s discourse to look inward, to become intolerant. We each have a responsibility to combat this.
Isolationism is in contradiction not only with what we are, as Africans, but also the context of the globalized world in which we live. We should not let any of our compatriots who wish the worst for our country to attempt to destroy what we have taken generations to build.
I invite you to reject violence in all its forms. Because hate does not build, it destroys.
We must therefore reject hatred, division, tribalism and xenophobia. We must reject any discourse based on exclusion to embrace inclusion. The only way for Africa to fulfil its potential is to secure peace, tranquillity and solidarity.
From the prophet Mohammed to St Francis of Assisi, both Islam and Christianity teach the importance of expressing love. In fact, despite the mutilation of God’s word by some fundamentalists, we know no religion teaches hatred or violence.
Even those who exploit people today will tomorrow be the first to take shelter. For, as St. Augustine taught in the Book XIX of the City of God: “An object which we were attached to it just missed, his absence becomes an opportunity for us to make us realize how much we loved him”. Intolerance breeds intolerance, hatred sires hatred, but peace spawns peace.
While some may say that mere words will do nothing to help bring peace to our great continent, I disagree. Words have serious consequences, as has been experienced elsewhere.
We must together commit to continue to change, individually and collectively. As President of the Republic is the guarantor of the constitution, I am will protect all freedoms, including freedom of worship and freedom to vote without persecution.
Let us together choose peace for our country, our continent and the world. We should all ensure that no one sows the poison of hatred and division. The duty of all of us is to be the sentinel that watches for hate and obscurantism, and denounce evil wherever it comes from. Intolerance is always the worst choice and equal opportunity the way to combat it.
(The writer is the President of Gabon)