Moderator recounts Africa visit experience

Slessorhouse
The Moderator (white shirt) visited the house of famous Scots missionary Mary Slessor during his visit to Nigeria

The Moderator of the General Assembly returned from a 10-day tour of Nigeria and South Sudan last week.

Here Rt Rev John Chalmers provides a fascinating reflection on his experience and offers his views on how the two countries can develop.

From Nigeria – a Challenge to Integrity?

Our Nigerian visit ended as colourfully as it began. Worship was as loud as it was vibrant and it was as varied as it was chaotic. The worship of a nation, of course, reflects the people and the culture – so we would expect nothing else. Daily life is hectic and to our western eyes seems confused. Clocks appear to run to a different time; plans and processes are often subject to instant changes in direction and character. So, we come away from Nigeria with memories for a lifetime; new friendships and opportunities for partnership, but also concerns over transparency of government and national structures which are loaded in favour of those in power. So the rich get richer and the gulf between rich and poor is ever increasing.

Nigeria is perhaps the world's foremost example of a resource rich nation where most institutions are at best inadequate and at worst corrupt and whose infrastructure suffers from underinvestment on a scale which is inexcusable. No oil rich country should have roads that are in such a poor state of repair with pot holes the size of craters or water and electricity in such scarce supply.

Election fever is sweeping the country, prospective candidates are on the campaign trail, but here they compromise the integrity of people as they attempt to buy votes. We witnessed the promise of monetary gifts for church projects by politicians during church services; a difficult thing for us to understand, especially when injections of cash could help develop new pieces of work?

Schools need basic resources and local clinics need to provide a safety net for people who have no health insurance and little hope if they are overtaken by illness. I hope that, in honouring the legacy of Mary Slessor, the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria uses this commemoration of her life as an opportunity to invest in those people who are existing on the margins of their society

It is a huge challenge for the Church in Nigeria to steer clear of involvement in the murky side of politics. In order to be able to speak truth to power churches have to be sure that their own integrity is above question.

South Sudan – Unravelling an Intractable Situation

If Nigeria offers one view of Africa, South Sudan offers quite another. The youngest nation in the world; born on 9 July 2011 following a referendum in which 98.83% of the population voted for independence. This nation, however, was born without the developed institutions that are needed to sustain nationhood and less than three years into its existence it is plunged into violent conflict triggered by a bitter political power struggle between President Kiir and his ex-Vice President Riek Machar. The conflict is now one of the most complex on earth. There are bitter tribal rivalries, there has been the emergence of local militia and a general spiral into a form of uncontrollable anarchy.

Right now in Addis Ababa peace negotiations are ongoing, with strenuous attempts being made to form a transitional government of national unity. Former political detainees, faith-based groups, and civil society organisations are taking part in the talks. Success in these talks still seems a long way away and meanwhile there is no prospect of a return home for more than 2 million people who have fled to the bush or are now living in refugee camps within South Sudan or on the borders of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and in Sudan.

It is hard to believe that the situation could get any worse, but it can. The United Nations says that at least half the country is at risk of hunger and disease and it is obvious that a peace settlement at the highest levels of government will not in itself lead to peace and unity on the ground.

The violence of the last 13 months, and indeed the decades of civil war before this, has traumatised the people, the tension is palpable and the wounds so deep that it is hard for people to see how one day peace with justice can emerge from the terrible turmoil that has overtaken this new nation.

Our partner Church the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) and the other Churches in South Sudan, however, are extremely influential and they have an incredibly important role to play in helping to restore relationships between the tribal groups and within local communities. It is a challenge also to their integrity to rise above tribal divisions and stand as one in the body of Christ.

It was heartening to meet with the Christian Aid Team which is working in this emergency situation – their aim of helping people to tackle violence and build peace will be stretched to the limit in this setting. We also met with a group of over 50 ministers and elders (many of them displaced persons living in the UNMISS Camp just outside of Juba) they want training in trauma counselling, in mediation and peace making; they understand better than most, that an army of locally recruited and trained peacemakers is needed to build bridges between communities who are more motivated for revenge than they are for reconciliation.

A living partnership with our Partner Church means that we must consider how best we might provide some of the training and support that local Church leaders require if they are to make a robust contribution to the peace process where it matters most – in the local towns and villages, many of which are currently deserted.

If these places are not repopulated and some semblance of productive life restored across the country, then the worst possible outcome will be the continuance of conflict, famine and disease, and a generation of young people without any formal education. Even at present, literacy in South Sudan is the lowest in the world. Our Church can help - we can make South Sudan the subject of our prayers, but we also need to make South Sudan the focus of some practical help.

Through the World Mission Council's Needing a Neighbour project, we are able to help the church provide for the basic needs of many of the displaced people. In the longer term, however, it is my intention to explore how we might provide training for trainers in South Sudan to engage with the more difficult, but much needed conflict resolution conversations.

There will be no development without peace. The church has a crucial role to play in reigniting the hope born with the new nation. With renewed hope and the tools to help the people within the church stand firmly as one, perhaps peace may eventually come to South Sudan?