(Nigeria, Africa Journal: November, 2000): Just why would I ever agree to go back to Nigeria? I’ve come closer to physical harm and danger in Nigeria than perhaps any other country in my twenty years of international travel. I’ll always hear ringing in my ears the sincere voice of the lady customs official at the airport in Lagos. When the people assigned to pick me up had failed to show, she sternly advised me, “Do not trust anyone here at the Lagos airport—not even me. Those people who are so aggressively soliciting you know you are American. You have what they want, and they will kill you to get it. Do not talk to any of them. Do not give them your name or the names of any of your contacts in Nigeria. Do not exchange money with them, and above all, do not get in a car with them or go any place with them.
They are here to kidnap and hold you for ransom or, more easily, put you in their car and rob you, and should you try to resist, they will drive out a short distance and kill you, and no one will ever know what happened to you. Back up against that wall with your luggage in front of you and silently wait for your people to come and retrieve you.”
But no one came to pick me up, and I couldn’t buy a plane ticket at the Lagos airport. The customs lady had my full attention. She was the only official at the airport, but she was only an immigration and customs agent. There were plenty of individuals in ragtag, mishmash police or military uniforms. But none were legitimate. They were only scam artists, and their uniforms were merely props to get people to place their confidence in them. In Lagos there is only lawlessness, and everyone has to fend for themselves.
The current travel warnings are the same for this trip as they were for previous trips. The US State Department has warned in effect that violent crimes are perpetrated by ordinary criminals, as well as persons in police and military uniforms.
Kidnapping for ransom remains common, especially in the Niger Delta area. The use of public transportation throughout Nigeria is dangerous and should be avoided. Taxis pose risks because of fraudulent or criminal operators and poorly maintained vehicles. Most Nigerian airlines have aging fleets, and there are valid concerns that maintenance and operational procedures may be inadequate to ensure passenger safety.
Just thirty days before this trip, news-wire services reported outbreaks of violence between Nigeria’s two largest tribes. People died in the fighting, and bodies were strewn in the streets of Lagos. I learned that thousands have been killed in ethnic and religious violence since President Olusegun Obasanjo took office last year, ending fifteen years of military rule. The recent clashes broke out between the Hausa tribe from northern Nigeria, who are predominantly Muslims, and the Yoruba tribe from southern Nigeria, who are mostly Christians.
As you may recall from a previous journal entry, God sent an angel named Vera and her husband, Innocent, to rescue me from the dangerous Lagos-airport episode. They made me promise I would return to Nigeria someday and visit them. They are wonderful Christians, and Vera confided to me that God had told her to go to the lobby of the airport and meet a Christian American man who desperately needed help. She was obedient, and I was rescued.
I received perhaps a half-dozen official Request for Assistance forms from needy medical organizations in Nigeria begging Project C.U.R.E. to travel there and perform Needs Assessment Studies at their facilities so they could qualify for help.
I had conveniently filed those requests in my file drawer. Then in June of this year, a letter from Vera and Innocent landed on my desk. At the same time, an urgent plea came to me from the Cecilia Memorial Hospital and Clinic in Imo State, Nigeria. Pastor Leo Emenaha said he had been waiting since February 1998 for Project C.U.R.E. to travel to his hospital and complete the assessment. How much longer would I delay?
I rearranged some other commitments and decided to sandwich the trip between my trip to northeast India, our big Project C.U.R.E. annual fund-raising banquet in Denver, and our annual Christmas brunch on December 9, when Anna Marie and I will host about sixty Project C.U.R.E. guests in our Evergreen home.
I had a strong sense that I should make the trip but approached the travel preparations with the simple conviction that if God really wanted me to travel back to Nigeria before the end of the year, he would have to intervene in working out the details. Pastor Emenaha would have to come up with the funds for the Needs Assessment Study, invitation letters would have to be secured for the Nigerian embassy in Washington, D.C., and the proper visa would have to be obtained for my passport.
Strangely enough, the details of the trip came together over the following weeks. I was scheduled to depart Denver the day after Thanksgiving and return home late at night on December 3. The deadlines were tight, with Doug picking up my returned passport from the Washington, D.C., embassy at the FedEx office in Littleton, Colorado, five minutes before they closed for the Thanksgiving holiday on Wednesday night.
My trip to India just a couple of weeks ago left me pretty exhausted. I think the emotional strain of India itself, plus the nerve-wracking episodes with the military and insurgency fighters in Manipur State, and our efforts to get out of the mess back to Calcutta “wore me slick,” as my friend Jim Claunch used to say. I was very grateful to exit India without serious harm.
Our Project C.U.R.E. banquet at the big Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Denver on November 18 turned out to be a great success and inspiration. Many people expended a lot of time and effort to make the event such a memorable occasion.
We had desperately tried to get the prime minister of Ethiopia or Seeye Abraha, the former commander and chief of the Ethiopia armed forces, to speak at the event. I personally felt that Ethiopia needed a bully pulpit from which to present their survival story to the press and their friends in America. The Project C.U.R.E. venue would have been perfect for such a speech. Furthermore, our medical team just returned from Ethiopia and had some great experiences that would have tied in nicely. Also, we’re currently preparing to send eleven more forty-foot cargo containers of donated medical goods to Ethiopia at a value of about $4.5 to $5 million.
Featuring Mrs. Janet Museveni, First Lady of Uganda, a couple of years ago turned out to be a great hit, and I knew the emphasis on Ethiopia and Project C.U.R.E.’s work there would likewise be a winner.
But no one from Ethiopia could break away to travel to Denver to speak at the banquet. Their political situation with Eritrea is tenuous enough that the leadership has been forced to stay very close to home.
Next Week: SO, WHO IS TO SPEAK?