Ignatius Kattey, an archbishop in the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), and his wife have been kidnapped. The Anglican Communion News Service has the story.
As I join in prayer with others for his safe release, I am thinking back to my 2011 trip to southeastern Nigeria. Kidnapping was a real threat. I remember how many people I met who were concerned about their personal safety—and my own. I also began to think about the influence such pervasive insecurity might have on the church.
My forthcoming book Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity is all about my time in Nigeria (and elsewhere). Given recent events, however, I have extracted a short portion of the book in the hope it might give some context. The places mentioned are all in the same southeastern region of Nigeria as Port Harcourt.
Oliver, my host in Umuahia, was deeply concerned for my safety. Trinity College is on the edge of town, and on a trip into town to see a church-run school, Oliver made sure two seminarians rode in the car with us, “just in case anything happens.” (It was never clear to me what the seminarians would do if we were accosted.) I was in Umuahia about three months after national elections that had left this part of the country unstable and its people frightened. Discontent with politicians had led many young men to join gangs. They roamed the region kidnapping people and holding them for ransom on almost a daily basis. “These gangs say that they are just doing what the politicians do—cheating and stealing to get ahead,” Oliver said. When we visited a distant, rural part of the diocese, Oliver cut short our visit and sped home to be back before dusk. I appreciated the concern but I wondered if it was not too much. I regretted that there were places it was deemed unsafe to visit. I asked Oliver if it was all really necessary. “Two weeks ago,” he replied, “a young girl was raped and murdered not far from Trinity’s main entrance.” I thought of his own young children. Everyone was on edge, and rightly so.
In Owerri, there had been this same undercurrent of concern and fear. In contrast to Juba [South Sudan] or Gulu [Uganda], where I wandered relatively freely around town, I was kept on a short leash. Cyril would not let me go anywhere without a priest wearing at least a collar and preferably a cassock. At one point during our visit to the cathedral in Awka, I wandered out the front door to take a picture of the whole building without telling anyone. It was as if the Queen of England had gone missing, such were the alarms my absence set off. When Solomon, Cyril’s driver, tracked me down—I had been absent for all of three minutes—and brought me back, Cyril reprimanded me and told me that Awka’s market, abutting the cathedral grounds, is a dangerous place, known for its kidnappings and crime. Anything could have happened to me. Solomon did not let me move more than a few steps from him for the rest of the visit. Later, I accompanied Cyril to a funeral he conducted for a distinguished lay member of the diocese. Not knowing the family, I told Cyril I would sit in the back row of the large church and watch. “You’ll sit here,” he said, and pointed to the front row near the family. “You don’t know who can get you when you sit on the edges of a big church service. You’ll be safe here.” Before the recent elections, Cyril and Eunice used to go jogging around their neighborhood each morning. But there had been so many kidnappings in the area, they now walked a short loop around the diocesan compound instead….
To an extent, these insecurities are a feature of life in many parts of the developing world. But judging by how people spoke of them they seemed much closer at hand in Umuahia and Owerri. No one had much confidence in the police. Who would? Their main job, it seemed, was to set up roadblocks around town to extract bribes from passing drivers. “The politicians are busy enriching themselves from the state,” one priest told me as drove we through a check point, waved through because of his cassock. “But they”—he indicated the police—“treat us like animals.” Public institutions, in general, were weak. Power generation in Nigeria brings new meaning to the word sporadic. As a result, a generator is a necessary feature of every household. At Oliver’s home in Umuahia, he had fruit trees and chickens in his yard. In Owerri, Cyril did too, along with a fishpond. “We have become self-sustaining here,” Cyril said as he showed me his compound. “We have to be. The government doesn’t help us.”
The weakness of societal institutions, I thought, went some way towards explaining the outsized role of the church. People came to church looking for the security, confidence, and certainty they could not find elsewhere in society. They wanted to hear that God would take care of them when others would not. Government could not improve their lives but God would shower them with blessings. These views were reflected in the theology I heard and the way it was preached: confident, declarative, forthright. I thought of the English and American theologians who extol the virtues of ambiguity, uncertainty, and vulnerability in theology. But there was none of that wishy-washiness here. Strength ruled the day. Indeed, this likely was a further factor contributing to the boycott of Lambeth 2008 by Nigerian bishops. The conference was designed around a particular form of dialogue designed to prompt an honest exchange of views across boundaries of difference. But in Nigeria, such a task would be anathema for many church leaders. Christianity is not about entertaining the possibility that one might be wrong. It is about being right—and propounding those views with all one’s might.
More important than church politics, however, the pervasive concern and instability is frustrating for another reason. The contrast between Nigerians and their government is stark. The latter, it is clear, is corrupt, weak, and incompetent. The scores of Nigerians I met were educated, creative, and hard-working. Yet rather than taking these talents and putting them to work building a hopeful future, Nigerians are in a constant defensive crouch. Rather than being a tool to ensure their future prosperity, they saw the government as something to be managed, avoided, and overcome. Before my visit, I had read about Nigeria’s wasted potential. In the talented church members I met who lived in daily fear of the unknown, I saw it.
Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity will be published in January 2014.