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
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,
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
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
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.”