I landed in Abuja, Nigeria, Sunday evening as part of a delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Liberty just as a thunder storm cleared the area. Perhaps this was symbolic because everyone I met today was rejoicing that the recent national elections took place without the violence that so many people had been predicting. (See my Friday column).
On the way into the city from the airport, I could see a large number of uncompleted construction sites. One could tell by the rust on the rebar that no work has been done on many of these sites in a long time. Perhaps this too is symbolic of Nigeria, a place where there is a lot of promise but a failure to live up to the promise.
Anyone who tells you that government travel is a pleasure has not done much of it. The flight from Washington Dulles Airport to Abuja is long and tedious (12 hours in the air plus 3 hours at Frankfurt), especially if you are like me and cannot sleep on a plane. Problems settling in at the hotel and time zone changes also meant little sleep my first night.
That did not stop us from heading to the embassy at 8:30 in the morning to begin our briefing with the embassy staff. I was impressed by the Ambassador, James F. Entwistle, a no nonsense career diplomat who understands the complexity of the country and its importance to Africa and the United States.
The ambassador is assisted by what is called the "core country team," a group of about 10 top-level professionals with a wide range of specialties--political, economic, military, security, education, development, communications, etc. I am sure they would have rather been back at their desks working than briefing another delegation from Washington. But the discussions became animated when they saw our questions were focused because we had done our homework before leaving the States.
We also met separately with USAID, which is supporting Nigerian groups doing education, health care, and peace building as well as working with state governments to improve their ability to deliver services.
Besides myself, the other USCIRF commissioner was Daniel Mark, professor of political science at Villanova University. Professor Mark teaches a course in religion and politics and asks questions that go to the heart of the issues facing Nigeria. Accompanying us is Tiffany Lynch, the USCIRF staff expert on Nigeria, who gave us a ton of material to read and is always ready and gracious in answering our questions.
Sadly, the briefing was off the record so I cannot share with you what the officials said.
Skipping lunch, we then headed to one of the highlights of the day, a meeting with Federation of Muslim Women Association of Nigeria (FOMWAN). This group does a lot in education, health care and the empowering of women in Nigeria. Part of their mission is teaching both children and women about Islam, but this is not an Islam that wants women uneducated and relegated to the home. The group we met with included professionals and teachers, including at least two Ph.D's.
From there we went to the Nigerian headquarters of the MacArthur Foundation, which funds educational, health, and interreligious peace projects in Nigeria. We ended the day at the Center for Regional Integration and Development (CRID).
I will have more to say about what I learned from these folks later in the week, but it was good to learn that there are a lot of good people trying to make Nigeria a better place.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]