I Went to the Danger Zone

Danger ZoneThe headquarters of the Church’s Africa West Area is located in Ghana, where a fourth of West African Church members live. Another quarter are scattered across Cote d’Ivoire and four smaller countries, but just over half of West African Church members and congregations live in Nigeria.

Despite housing the majority of the Church members, there are no western missionaries or Church employees based there, because of security concerns.  That means that the six Nigeria missions, the Aba Nigeria Temple and all of the various administrative groups located in the country are staffed by local leaders and personnel.  Michelle’s parents served two missions in Nigeria just after 2000, first as Humanitarian missionaries in Port Harcourt then as members of the first Aba Nigeria Temple Presidency.  They ran into a few unnerving security issues, heard of several more and it wasn’t very long after their departure that the Aba Temple phased over to strictly local personnel and later even closed for a brief period.

Most of the world assumes that Nigeria’s civil unrest problems all relate to Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Islamic extremist group with ties to the Islamic State.  Boko Haram captured world headlines a couple of years back when they brazenly kidnapped more than two hundred Christian schoolgirls and reportedly provided them as wives to their freedom fighters or coerced them into becoming suicide bombers.  Boko Haram runs a standard violent terrorist agenda, but their activities within Nigeria are primarily restricted to the northern half of the country, where there is virtually no Church presence and Sharia law is woven into the local fabric. Like most West African countries, Nigeria is heavily Christian along the southern coastal shelf, but as you move north toward the Sahara Desert and the Middle East, the population becomes heavily Muslim.

The security problems in southern Nigeria, where the Church operates, are three-fold:

  1. The outsized political influence of the northern sector, with its vastly different demographics, agenda and a penchant for imposing their will on their southern compatriots.
  2. Bounteous oil reserves located in southern Nigeria and a federal government which is heavily influenced by northern Nigeria interests responsible for controlling the disbursement of those revenues.
  3. A huge and largely unchecked organized criminal infrastructure based in Lagos, on the southern coast, which facilitates transatlantic drug trafficking and local political corruption, putting Nigeria in company with North Korea, Syria and Libya on the Worldwide Corruption Index. This lawlessness benefits from the effective power vacuum in the south, stemming from the first two issues.

Like much of the developing world, current regional boundaries in Nigeria were cobbled together by their colonial overlords (Britain) with no real regard to the historical tribal boundaries and animosities between the indigenous groups who had been living there for millennia before Europe’s big African land grab in the 1800s.  When the British finally liberated Nigeria in 1960, they left behind a regional political alignment that gave outsized political influence to the northern tribes.

BiafraThe Biafra humanitarian crisis with images of starving children with bloated bellies back in the 1960s was the most visible manifestation of the problem. Coastal tribes from the Niger River Delta in the south, resentful of a meddling federal government, staged a coup and declared southern Nigeria, “Biafra” an independent nation.  In response, the Nigerian military imposed a brutal blockade around the self-proclaimed nation and the world watched aghast as millions of children starved to death while the Nigerian government refused to blink.  The revolution collapsed in the late 1960s, order was restored and the free-Biafra movement went underground, but continues to simmer.

Meanwhile, starting in 1970, the oil-rich Niger River Delta has been producing huge profits to multinational companies and to the Nigeria federal government, but not to the people represented by the vanquished Biafra and other coastal tribes in that region.

Across southern Nigeria, the underground freedom movements and the crime syndicates discovered that an easy money-making activity is kidnapping the relatively well-to-do (especially ex-pats) and demanding extortion from their families and sponsoring organizations.  Westerners are the primary target.  One Church security official told me that as soon as a westerner debarks in Lagos, Nigeria’s main international airport, they are marked and followed by “interested parties”, and if they are still in the country for two weeks, they graduate to a “very high interest” classification because they are presumed to have a deep-pocketed sponsoring organization.

In spite of it all, the Church is very strong and continues to grow and flourish across most of southern Nigeria.  There are five native Area Seventies who reside and preside in Nigeria, but they are joined regularly by the three General Authority members of Area Presidency to handle the constant stream of stake formations and divisions and mission tours.  When the Area Presidency travels to Nigeria, they are kept in very secure arrangements. We even had Nigeria visits this year by Elder Rasband of the Twelve and Elder Soares of the Presidency of the Seventy.  Outside of this, there are bans or tight restrictions on travel to most of Nigeria for western missionaries and Church leaders.

From our perspective with auditing, Nigeria constitutes an “areas of concern.”  With limited on-the–ground oversight, there are occasional challenges with financial controls, stemming primarily from the challenges that come with limited training and reminders for generally well-intentioned local leaders, some of whom don’t seem to always remember to follow best practices to avoid compromising situations and risk.

So for several months I have been pleading with the head of Church security for permission to visit, and he finally gave us clearance to fly Uyo, a city about 50 miles inland on the Niger River Delta. I had pushed for this trip because we have a stake in the area which has been reporting perfectly spotless financial audits for several years running and I am bit of a skeptic that their audits reflect the real situation there.  We coordinated with the local finance team and scheduled four-days (no nights) of financial reviews for each congregation and a wrap-up training session.

The security chief insisted that we stay in the hotel he designated, venture out with his approved driver only during daylight hours to the stake center and be back in the hotel well before dark.  That seemed less onerous when we discovered that the hotel he selected was Le Meridien outside Uyo, a top-end Starwood resort with a gorgeous 18-hole golf course on 400 beautifully landscaped acres, catering to wealthy Nigerians and multinational oilmen.

Our first challenge was actually getting to Uyo. Virtually every flight into Nigeria routes through Lagos, the largest metro on the African continent, with nine million people and all international flights fly into the international terminal and all domestic flights leave from a separate terminal located a few miles away with no connecting shuttle or tram.  You need a cab to get there and security says that’s not okay with them.  So they have a local agent to meet and drive you between terminals.  Provided you make it there in the first place.

ArikOur first mistake was using Arik Airlines, a Nigerian-based carrier, since they are the one carrier that can presumably make both legs happen in one day, assuming you can make the connection to their one daily flight to Uyo.  Since we had less than an hour to make the connection, when their Accra ticket agent said the first leg was delayed for over an hour, I figured we were hosed.  The only chance was if their next leg into Uyo was also delayed.  As luck would have it, that Arik flight was the only one during our trip that departed anywhere close to the scheduled time.

The locals here refer to Arik as “Air Tro-Tro,” a reference to the rattle-trap, unregulated minivans packed to the gills with a toxic mix of people, produce and animals, which serve as the primary means of  public transport in Ghana.  Most of Arik’s fleet is aging 737s on their last legs and a few Bombardier Propjet puddle-jumpers.  The chairs in the 737 “first class” cabin are held together with duct-tape, the video screens on the seat backs, and the overhead air vents stopped working somewhere after the plane was retired from service in the US and then Latin America before being put out to pasture in West Africa.  The customer service is a couple of steps below mediocre, but I was hanging on to the sliver of hope from something I once read that Boeing requires anyone owning one of their jets to meet Boeing’s maintenance specs, because if a Boeing plane goes down in Botswana or Belize, it still tarnishes the Boeing brand.

So we missed our Lagos connection and Jubilee, the local shuttle guy, took us to a secure hotel near the airport with instructions to stay there till he came to fetch us the next morning for the final flight to Uyo. In Uyo, we had Patrick, our Auditing Assistant for that region and a Church employee as our driver and babysitter.  Patrick has a fascinating background in the Church, from his service as the Executive Secretary to an Area Seventy and being used as the Church’s negotiator a few years back for the kidnapping of a local Church official’s wife.

Uyo itself provides a fascinating contrast to other areas we have lived and traveled in West Africa. Nigeria’s federal government may control and redirect the bulk of oil revenues from the region, but the local infrastructure, road, gutters, street lights and civic improvements are light years beyond what we see in Ghana.

HotelThe resort where we stayed is fueled largely by oil revenues.  You enter the property through an armed guard post, and the hotel itself through a metal detector. On Friday evening, the lobby and ballrooms were oozing with Nigerian money from a couple of wedding receptions and on Saturday, the whole lobby was over-the-top decorated to celebrate the first year anniversary of the local governor.  And everywhere you turn, there were highly visible armed guards toting automatic rifles.

BombingDuring the time we were in Uyo, a new extremist group, calling themselves the Nigeria Delta Avengers blew up two pipelines at oil terminals located about fifty miles from the stake center we were using and announced they would do something spectacular to get the world’s attention if the federal government didn’t expel the oil companies by the end of May.

I asked Patrick how members react to those threats.  He said that most of the members have modest means and view these issues as irrelevant to their lives.  The terrorists have a beef with either the federal government or the multinational oil companies; they don’t bother the local populace and the locals largely ignore them.  Not surprisingly, we didn’t come across any local members at the resort festivities.

Uyo Chapel

The members stay focused on what matters in their lives.  The Ukat Aran stake center where we worked that week is located on a road that has a string of five beautiful LDS chapels within five miles.

Stake Center2The stake center itself is undergoing a major renovation to add a new chapel with much larger capacity.  The renovations will be completed in three months, but two weeks before we arrived, Elder Legrand Curtis, the Area President, conducted a conference to divide the stake, which was held in the partially completed chapel, shown at the left as it looked on the day we visited.

ukan-aran-conferenceElder Curtis shared with me the photo on the right, that he took during that stake conference, in that of that same chapel, two weeks previously. There were 2,000 saints in attendance, with remote video piped in to every room and to several canopies set up on the grounds.

That scene, the creation of a new stake or district in Nigeria, packed to the brim with wonderful saints rejoicing in the gospel of Jesus Christ, has repeated itself an average of once each month this year and there are just as many queued up waiting approval because membership is growing at nearly 10% each year.  That is the kind of explosion the members pay attention to in Nigeria.

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3 thoughts on “I Went to the Danger Zone

  1. Nice recap of your journey. Returning to the comforts of our home and church we are continually humbled as we reflect on our blessed circumstances. Our admiration for the Ghananian members continues, but the Nigerians must take their challenges to another level. What an adventure. I still consider Ghana to be “Africa lite”, but we were Blessed regardless.
    Best to you and Michelle

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 1 John 1:8 – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
    One of the best things we did in Uyo was to include the stake auditors as observers in the reviews we did. After watching the process and the results, they said they learned very much and promised that their future audits will be greatly improved. And their next round of audits for that stake came back with 30 required improvements, identified by those same auditors.

    Like

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