Nigeria's new embassy to the Holy See

Nigeria's first resident ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Okeke, talks to Wanted in Rome about some of the reasons for his Ocountry's new mission

Organising the celebrations surrounding the consistory for your country’s new cardinal cannot be easy. If you are a new ambas- sador, if you are opening your country’s first mission to the Holy See and if you are also without an official residence, the task must be doubly challenging. But Nigeria’s first resident ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Okeke, seemed relaxed and undaunted the week before the consistory of Cardinal John Onaiyekan at the end of November.

“I have plenty of help and support from other ambassadors to the Holy See,” he said, “as well from my own embassy to Italy. I just hope there is enough room for everyone we have invited to the reception at the Urbaniana.” The cardinal chose the Pontifical Urbaniana University because that was where he studied during his student years in Rome, explains Okeke.

Nigeria’s first ambassador to the Holy See was one of 88 appointed in June 2012 by the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, in a new drive to strengthen Nigeria’s place and image abroad. Although Nigeria has had diplomatic relations with the Vatican for over three decades, they have been handled by the Spanish embassy to the Holy See. Now with three cardinals, over 30 million baptised Catholics – or nearly half of all Christians in Nigeria – as well as an ever increasing number of Nigerian priests serving in under-staffed parishes in the industrialised world, it was clearly an important place to open an embassy.

Okeke is not a career diplomat and he has unusual qualifications for the job. By profession he is a gynaecologist and obstetrician; he teaches and runs a private clinic in his home city of Enugu in the south-east of the country.

It is not often the Vatican has an accredited ambassador who is expert on two fundamental problems of the developing world, the population explosion and the role of women in society. In most of Nigeria, excluding the Muslim north, says Okeke, women have as much freedom as in many countries in the developed world. However the real problem, he maintains, is still access to education. Fifty per cent of the population may now live in cities, but that still leaves 50 per cent living in rural areas where physical access is difficult because of bad roads and public transport, and where education and health care are still very inadequate. Solve the problem of better education for women, he says, and you will eventually have smaller families and better healthcare for children, a policy that sounds perfectly in line with the Vatican’s own teaching.

However in his first few months as ambassador to the Holy See his time has been overshadowed by another problem. “I have had to answer a large number of questions on terrorism since I arrived,” he says somewhat ruefully. This is hardly surprisingly since attacks on churches (and not only Roman Catholic ones) in Nigeria have been the main focus of news coming out of the country recently.

Cardinal Onaiyekan's own diocese was involved when the Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram targeted a church in Abuja on Christmas Day 2011, killing 35. Three more attacks against churches followed only a few weeks later, this time in the north of the country.

Okeke says that because this sort of fundamentalist Muslim terrorism – largely inspired from abroad – is new to Nigeria, the government is still seeking ways to handle it. However a decline in attacks against churches in recent months may indicate that the policies of police and military are working. This is one area where he differs from the new cardinal, who thinks that the government should be doing more. However they both agree that inter-faith dialogue between Christian and Muslim leaders is of vital importance to prevent terrorists playing on religious divisions, particularly in the largely Muslim north. “The vast majority of Nigerians, whether Christians or Muslims, are honest and law-abiding, and terrorism really is not typical of the country,” says Okeke.

During his time in Rome, he would like to see an improvement in human rights in Nigeria, better education, a more efficient use of its human and natural resources and the success of inter-faith dialogue.

As a Roman Catholic he is worried by the increase of Pentecostal sects in his country and says that this is something that the Church will have to address if it is not to lose its younger following. And just as many of its doctors and nurses have gone abroad to work, now it is the turn of the country’s priests. Asked how many Nigerian priests there are in Italy, Okeke says that he has no official figures but that judging by the 300 or so who attended a meeting he had in Rome recently there are probably many more than he thought.

Okeke stresses the contribution European missionaries – first the French and then the Irish – made to education, health and moral standards in pre-independence Nigeria. He acknowledges the role of Irish missionaries in particular and the strong links with Ireland. “The patron saint of Nigeria is St Patrick and my father was called Patrick*,” he says. But now countries in the western world, where there is a chronic lack of religious vocations, are calling on Nigerians for help.

Nigeria has about 11,000 seminarians, and Bigard seminary in Enugu state with its 775 students is the largest in Africa. Many of its priests come to Rome for graduate studies, mainly at the Urbaniana, following in the steps of the country’s most famous cardinal, Francis Arinze. But there is no central place in Rome along the lines of the Irish, Scots, English or North American colleges for them to live. “Maybe now is the time to have such a place,” says Okeke. And then with a twinkle in his eye he concludes, “Perhaps in the four years that I am here this is one of the things we could achieve.”

Mary Wilsey

* Okeke’s father Patrick taught alongside Blessed Michael Iwene Tanzi, Nigeria’s first candidate for sainthood who was beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1998. He also taught Cardinal Francis Arize, who later became one of his good friends.

From 9 January edition Wanted in Rome