More info on the UN attack and Nigerian domestic problems

This article has an overheard photo showing the distances between the US embassy and the UN compound.

The BBC has some photos of the aftermath.

Here is information about Boko Haram, the domestic group responsible for several recent attacks and the prime suspect for this attack.

Background on the city of Maiduguri, where Boko Haram is from.

Jos is a current hotspot. It blew out of control after the election, with a lot of killing and burning of houses and businesses, but it still sees regular violence that just doesn’t make the news outside the country. I was able to visit there a couple weeks ago. The guy we met with said that the city itself was safe but the outlying areas were not. People were still attacking families at night. My co-worker explained that Jos used to be a great place to visit because its higher up and thus cooler than the lowlands, with a languid pace and good cheap food. It was really a nice place, she said, before they ruined it.  I did shoot a bunch of pictures from inside the car that I’ll upload once I get my cable for my camera.

I don’t know how detailed your interest is, but here’s some info on the tensions within the country.

The Eminent Child's first choke

The Eminent Child had her second piano recital yesterday. Thanks to the wonders of technology, The Eminent Wife connected via skype and I was able to listen to it. I got up at 4:00 for it and was worried I wouldn’t be able to hear it because the connection was so crappy. It wouldn’t handle the video so I just listened to it. I did get to see her before she went onstage, looking beautiful with her hair in two big buns and wearing a beautiful green dress she got from Grandpa Hansen and Grandma Jean.

Last year we really worked a lot to prepare for the stage. I wasn’t around this year to help with that but I thought it would be okay. I listened to her practice a few weeks ago and the song (a disney medley of Mickey Mouse, Electric Light Orchestra, Zippidee Doo dah, and one other I forgot offhand) was still developing. The Eminent Wife said she had tightened it up and was playing it great, so I wasn’t worried.

But as I sat there this morning listening to it, I was hoping that it was just a bad connection that I was hearing. It was terrible. Many missed notes, stops, restarts, tempo fluctuations. I felt bad for her, but we’d talked about the choice a performer has to make. It’s either deal with the hassle of practicing in order to get the good feeling on the performance day or take it easy on the practice but deal with the pain of not performing well.  More practice would have helped her but I think that my absence also hurt her mental preparation and focus. The Eminent Wife has been busy with her job as well and I wish that I could have been there to help them both out in preparing for this. Last year we’d done visualization practices and I’d given her a mantra (“I can do this!”) that I saw her say to herself when she sat down last year and NAILED it.

It’s a challenge as a parent to take advantage of the learning opportunity this provides. I’m still hugely proud of her and am only disappointed that she didn’t get to experience the joy of a top notch performance. But there are good lessons here too. Sometimes things don’t work out, sometimes you drop the ball, sometimes you didn’t practice and prepare enough. I think it was Alfred of Batman lore that said “Falling down is just an opportunity to get back up”. Another good mantra to have.

They* blew up the UN

Friday morning a suicide driver crashed through the gates and into the lobby of the UN building here in Abuja. It’s only a couple blocks up the road from us; a few people at the embassy said they heard and felt it. I happened to drive by it for the first time on Thursday when I was returning from an errand. Terribly tragedy. Last count I heard was 18 killed, 40+ wounded.

This marks a significant change in the violence in Nigeria. There have been regular attacks on civilians and government institutions in recent months. The civilian attacks are blamed on Muslim/Christian violence and have recently been characterized by night time raids on residences. Pretty horrific stuff. There was also some general civic (read: religious) violence following the elections earlier this year.

The attacks on the government have been perpetrated by Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group from the north of the country.  They’ve attacked the military and the police, including the police headquarters here in the capital, not far from the presidential villa.  The military has also been active in pursuing them and I’ve seen regular news reports about militants killed or militant attacks. The general level of violence doesn’t get reported on much internationally; it’s only when there is a significant development or changes in trends.

*Before the attack on the UN, it had solely been civic and domestic targets of violence. This marks either an escalation by the Boko Haram or reveals the presence of other actors in the area. There are rumors that Al Qaeda has or is trying to establish a presence in Nigeria, perhaps in association with Boko Haram but I don’t know how much of that is conjecture and how much has been established as fact.  Regardless, it’s a troubling development for this country.

Nigeria has so much incredible potential both in its natural resources and its national character. It’s hobbled by bad governance and a culture of corruption that tolerates exploitation by the oga (big men) who get control.  It is a tribal society, still, and this fact is more important for understanding the corruption than the violence. As I understand it (and mind you, I still don’t know much about this country) the corruption continues with every power shift because “now its our turn”. There is tremendous pressure and responsibility on those in power (and I’m not just talking at the federal cabinet level) to take care of their own. They don’t see is a corrupt as much as just the way the system works and now they’ve succeeded.

The people of Nigeria have it very very rough. They are upbeat, optimistic, friendly people though, and are constantly using every chance they can find to get through to the next day. They are resilient and smart and very enterprising. If Nigeria can reduce the corruption and instill a sense of civic virtue with a level of fundamental services that let people get past the survival level, things could really take off.  If the system gets clean enough for more foreign investment, that would both improve the economy and provide mentorship and a system of good standards that I believe most Nigerians really do want.  They just aren’t willing to give up what they have right now so they keep running game.  The more I see, the more I feel like this society is right out of The Wire.

This post is dedicated to those who lost their lives at the UN, working for the betterment of their nation and its people.

Consular Diplomacy

Working in the consular section isn’t the stereotypical image of diplomacy. Many times the work is characterized as drudgery, stamping 100s of visas in a mill in some backwater. Truth is, it’s pretty interesting work, or at least it can be depending on the post. Nigeria is definitely an interesting one as much as the work of visa interviews goes.  You have to stay on your toes and think on your feet as you only have a few minutes to figure out if someone is a legitimate candidate, qualified for the visa, or if they aren’t.

But beyond the basic work of adjudicating visas, it is easy to overlook the real diplomatic work that goes on at the window.  For a lot of people in the host country, the consular officer is the only American they’ve ever met and their first real interaction with our country.  It is important to treat people with dignity, especially when they don’t qualify for a visa.  This is a challenge not because its hard to do but because it is easy to forget as you fall into a rhythm of sorts. While I see between 40 and 60 people a day, they only see one American and its important that they leave with a good impression that they had my full attention, concern, and consideration.

That’s the daily responsibility, but sometimes the diplomatic role of the visa officers is even more obvious. Everyone who wants to travel to the US needs a visa, even the President (note: I did not interview the President.) Some countries are part of the visa waiver program and they don’t have to apply for simple visitors visas; they get one automatically at the border when they enter. Japan is like this, for example. You can just show up and get in for 90 days (and the same goes for the Japanese coming to America. But there’s only a handful of countries in this program and it only applies for basic tourist visas; everyone else has to come to the embassy and apply.

Sometimes we get important (and not-so-important but still very relevant) people in the government at the window. It occurred to me that there is potential for serious problems between nations at this point of contact. If someone were to be rude or offensive (or even just give the person at the window an excuse to get offended), the host government would get pretty upset. There have been some pretty innocuous statements made by new officers that have unintentionally upset the host government, so you have to be careful and above all, be a professional.

I take a lot of pride in being able to professionally and politely explain to people who don’t qualify for for visas why they have been denied. It’s important that they feel that they were treated fairly and with respect. It’s common sense and common courtesy, really, and I don’t mean to make it out to be more than it is. Now that I’m getting more comfortable in the execution of my work I’ve just been able to reflect on it more now and I think it’s an interesting and important element of the work.

I’m really happy with this gig. It might be my only time working in a consular section (every new Foreign Service officer does it for one of their first two tours; Consular officers do it as their mainstay) and I’m getting the most out of it. I get to meet a lot of people, get to grant a lot of joy and happiness, and have to be considerate when that joy and happiness isn’t forthcoming. You hear a lot of stories too, some of which are pretty amusing. And fundamentally, it’s important work.

Settled in

I believe that I can say I have finally settled in.  Last weekend was a great time spent with my neighbors at dinner parties, my coworkers at big open house/pool parties, and relaxing at my apartment just enjoying the weather.  I’ve spent quite a bit of money getting here, being a regular Amazon user for the last 6 weeks but now I’ve got everything that I either needed immediately or didn’t even have at all. I’ve got a pretty well equipped kitchen with enough utensils to make most everything I’d want to eat.  I got a full size keyboard today so I can enjoy actually writing again and don’t have to sit hunched over the laptop.  Gotta buckle down and pay for everything now…

My Household Effects have arrived in Belgium and should be enroute to my apartment soonish. My car is sitting on a dock in Lagos, most likely going to take 6-8 weeks to get up here, but its getting closer.  I’m doing good living alone but am tired of not having anything other than my computer and AFN for mindless entertainment.  I’ve got a few books (see the previous comments about Amazon…) but sometimes you want to just veg out.  It will be nice to get my TV/DVD/Xbox set up, plus I’m very anxious to get my rowing machine.

I’ve met a lot of people and will have plenty to do once I get my vehicle: poker, ultimate frisbee, tennis, basketball, boxing, the local Hash, lots to choose from.

I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the job itself and the visa adjudication process.  It’s a bit taxing at times but it does make the time fly. There was always a bit of self-induced stress associated with a desire to pull my own weight and now that I’m feeling more comfortable with the process, that stress is alleviated. Not having to bother my colleagues every 3 minutes (it’s down to about every 8 minutes now) helps too.

I miss my family terribly but there’s nothing that can really be done about it so I just try not to dwell on it.  I get to talk to them on weekends and the rest of the week moves so fast that I don’t really notice it.  The lifestyle of Japan helped too as I’d often not get a chance to talk to the Eminent Child for a couple days on end due to my early departure/late arrival habits. I do miss my train commute though.

About the only important thing left to deal with is internet access.  I pay about $10/gigabyte with pre-paid cards and its KILLING me, far and away my greatest expense since arriving.  But a friend at work gave me a new and unused modem that I’ll get activated later this week and then it will be about $75 a month for unlimited usage. It won’t be the fastest access but at least its unlimited.

Life is good.

Weekend update: Curry, crafts and crappy weather

Last night I cooked up a mean curry, using up all of the veggies in my fridge that I was afraid would spoil if I didn’t cook them.  Cabbage, beans, carrots, peppers, potatoes; I did forget the onions but that’s fine because I barely had enough space for the chicken, curry powder, and water. I took pictures but because I didn’t bring my camera cable with me, I can’t share them yet.

My upstairs neighbor had invited people over to see some of the furniture that she’d bought from a local craftsman. He brought many more items for display. They were phenomenally beautiful. Dark wood, carved with animals and geometric patterns.  Some of the tables had carved masks inlaid with beads. All very very nice and reasonably priced. It was still expensive but it was high quality and worth the cost. I didn’t even consider buying anything though; that’s for the Eminent Wife. I talked him into coming back in December so she can take a look at it and decide if she wants anything made for us.  I suspect she will.

This furniture display turned into a real party, with drinks, snacks, and homemade pizza (huzzah!!). I met another couple whom I’ve known by reputation and have had a couple interactions with at work, so it was nice to be able to have opportunity to get to know them. Very cool people, all of my neighbors, and I’m really fortunate to have gotten assigned to this compound.

I slept late today after a late night of socializing and was finally able to sample the curry I simmered all evening.  It’s so damn good, I don’t know what to say.  It’s pretty easy to make good curry when you have good curry powder though. The care package from Japan last week really stocked up my larder in that regard.  (Speaking of care packages, the pretzels my dad sent were a big hit. I didn’t want to share, to be honest, but figured it was worth the loss of a few pretzels in order to establish a good neighbor reputation.  Having a second bag in reserve made the decision a little easier too).  I put in a few of the local red peppers and this curry is vegetable filled, spicy, chickeny goodness.  I have to make a new pot of rice tonight though.

It’s been overcast lately, rather nice weather really, with occasional rain.  Today I could see the sun shining on the courtyard and blew up one of the pool recliners and traipsed upstairs for an afternoon float.  One of my neighbors was swimming laps, eliminated the thought of relaxing on my floaty with a book, but worse than that was the ominous grey sheet on the horizon.  It felt like I was standing in the middle of a yin-yang, with sun and beauty on one side and The Nothing from Never Ending Story on the other.  I sat in a lounger chair for a little while reading but eventually the storm blew me away. Should have gone up earlier.

Other than that not much going on this weekend. I did cut up and tape a couple of boxes together to make a playground for Sugar. One of my colleagues picked up a couple kittens last week and mentioned they made one for them. There is one more kitten available as well, I hear, and I’m debating on picking it up.  Sugar and I are getting along pretty well alone and having two animals duplicates the hassle and expense of travel, so there’s plenty of reasons for not expanding the menagerie. We’ll see what happens.

Getting there is half the battle

The first couple weeks I was here the Ambassador was out of town. The Consul General from Lagos came up to cover for him, as there always has to be someone in charge of the mission (that’s why he’s called a Chargé).  He had a trip to Kafanchan scheduled and in line with general policy of encouraging new officers to have as many experiences as possible, offered a seat to me my second weekend here.  I was pretty stoked at the opportunity to both see more of the country as well as spend some time with a senior Foreign Service officer, so come my second Saturday, I was ready to roll.

The embassy vehicles aren’t always the most comfortable and while I’m not even close to being considered a big guy by US standards, my head was rubbing the ceiling.  In and of itself not that big of a deal but the seat belt was too short to really let me slouch down much and the “always wear your seatbelt” policy is strictly enforced. Even if it wasn’t, I wasn’t about to take it off because Nigerian roads can be a little hairy.

In some places, the highway is beautiful but then it will hit a rough spot. I’d call them potholes but that brings to mind something maybe the size of a dinner plate.  There were places where I could lay down in the exposed dirt, more like a sinkhole than a pothole.  They weren’t necessarily all that deep but deep enough you don’t want to run through them at 65 miles an hour, so drivers are constantly swerving around them, trying to avoid breaking an axle or messing up your rims.

Outside my window were two extremes. On the beautiful side was the raw Nigerian countryside. Spindly, curvy trees right out of my imagination of what Africa looks like sprouted from a lush green underbrush. It’s the rainy season now and green foliage is broken up by roads and curbs of dark red soil.  The land isn’t flat or mountainous but there are massive rock faces that erupt out of the landscape randomly scattered over the countryside. I don’t know if they are basalt or granite or what, but they are quite steep and smooth, barren of all plant life, and overall quite impressive.

Outside the city proper was a long road of third world life, for lack of a better description.  Masses of motorbikes (I saw at least 10,000 bikes on my two trips out of the city and only 3 helmets, no exaggeration) with all sorts of people and goods stacked on them dominate the roads. Bikes with women passengers in bright, beautiful African clothes, with mothers with a 5 year old between them and the driver with an infant swaddled to her back, with stacks of kindling, bags of grain, and towers of plastic chairs. Two guys with a huge pig slung between them passed us.

And all the time access to the road is completely uncontrolled. People just stroll across, cutting the gaps in traffic.

There were miles of roadside stands and markets, selling everything from tinsel wrapped motorcycle tires to recycled bottles of palm oil, fruits and veg, or plastic wrapped upholstered furniture.  The first time I saw a pristine looking living room set it felt surreal just sitting there in the dirt by the road but later I realized that its quite common.

Everything is built from mud-brick or cinder block. There are cinderblock foundries (what do you call a cinder block maker?) all over the place too. It’s hard for me to see the equipment clearly but there’s always just a small shed with some apparatus surrounded by drying cinder blocks lined up in open space. Some are so shoddily made you can see them dissolve in the rain.

In places were traffic stops (at intersections in the city or at security checkpoints, crossroads, or just really rough stretches where everyone has to slow to a crawl), there are the ubiquitous street vendors, walking around with bags of food (nuts, apples, veg, etc), newspapers, gum, and even windshield wipers and plastic space guns. They walk up to the window and just stare at you, holding the good close in the hope that you’ll buy something just to make them leave.

I’d never seen anything like it.  In populated areas its pretty rough. I suppose I can imagine worse poverty but this seemed pretty serious to me.  I didn’t take any pictures partly because I was trapped inside the car with bad angles to see out the window and partly just because I was so fascinated by what I was seeing, I didn’t know where to start. I did get some pictures on my trip to Jos last week that I’ll eventually share, once I get my cable for the camera.

So that’s just the ride. I’ll talk more about Kafanchan soon.

So what do I do, again?

The Foreign Service is the diplomatic arm of the US government. We live and work abroad, representing the interests of the US and its business and providing support for American citizens overseas. We are a service corps, similar to the military. We are members of the Department of State and are most recognizable by the Secretary of State and the myriad ambassadors that represent the President at missions overseas.  Historically about 2/3 of US ambassadors have been career foreign service officers with political appointees comprising the rest.  We work at embassies and consulates. There is only one embassy in any country; consulates primarily provide consular services but also have reporting sections as well.

The Foreign Service has two general classes, Specialists and Officers. All members of the Foreign Service typically serve 2 year tours although there are cases where extensions are granted or 1 year is standard (in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example). Specialists bring specific skills and experience to the service. These are the people responsible for security, the IT infrastructure, and running the offices. Specialists are the essential support structure that a mission needs to accomplish its goals.  Officers are all Generalists and are assigned to a career “cone” but will work in other cones over the course of their career.  Everyone serves in the consular cone during one of their first two tours.

Management officers are responsible for the running of the embassy.  They hold all the parts together and keep everything functioning. I think of them as the heart of the organization, pumping blood through the body and keeping everything working.

Public Diplomacy officers are the public face of the United States. They control outreach and public relations.  They run the programs out of the embassy and the “American corners” that we have throughout the world. Up until the ’90s, they were part of the US Information Agency but were then folded into the Foreign Service proper as Public Diplomacy. I characterize them as the mouth of the mission.

Political and Economic officers are very similar. They are reporting officers responsible for keeping up on events and people in the host country. The primary difference is their focus. As you’d expect, economic officers focus on the economic side of things while political officers keep their eye on the general political and social comings and goings. Both types of officer write cables back to Washington with analysis and policy recommendations. The cables made famous by Wikileaks were written by political and economic officers.  These are the eyes and ears of the mission. I’m primarily a political officer but am working as a consular officer this tour as part of my obligation as an entry level officer.

Consular officers execute the consular duties of embassies and consulates. They adjudicate visa applications and provide services to American citizens overseas. These services include replacing lost passports, registering new citizen births, and assisting in cases of distress, often involving arrests or deaths. On the visa side, there are two basic types, immigrant and non-immigrant visas.  Immigrant visa interviews are much more exhaustive and have different standards of adjudication. The Lagos consulate processes all of the immigrant visas for Nigeria so I probably won’t get any experience there. There are almost as many classes of immigrant visas as there are letters of the alphabet, depending on the purpose of travel.  US law establishes the criteria for qualification for everything from diplomats and government workers to visitors to students to religious workers to refugees and victims of violence.

My job then is to review each non-immigrant applicant and interview them to determine if they meet the criteria established by US law.  Fundamentally consular officers need to establish that applicants are bona fide non-immigrants and aren’t just intending to stay in the US once they get there. We have to make sure that the appropriate visa is applied for and that they meet the criteria for eligibility.The biggest challenge is the volume. There are so many applications that we don’t have much time to interview them, usually just a few minutes.  It’s fun so far, though, and I’ll share some thoughts on the actual experience of adjudication later.

I think that’s the Foreign Service in a nutshell.  There aren’t all that many of us, about 8000 Officers and 5500 Specialists. The Department of State is one of the smallest in the government, with a budget about 1/20 of the Department of Defense. We also work with CDC and USAID overseas, and there are always a small contingent of Marines at post.

If I forgot to cover something or you have any questions, feel free to comment.

Abuja: 3 weeks in

It has taken me a while to settle in here, especially with respect to internet service. I’m currently using a USB dongle which I reload with $50 of credit for the lesser of 30 days or 5 GB. It works but is a bit cumbersome on a laptop, and it is difficult to adjust to having to actually log on to the net rather than just having it there.

 

Life in Nigeria is surprisingly good. Everyone expected the worst but the capitol city is relatively nice.  There’s never any question that I’m in a developing country, but I’m not fighting for survival here.  The people outside the city proper though….

 

I’m busy with work, a good thing.  There’s plenty to do and even more to learn but I’ve got great colleagues who endure my ignorance in good spirits. I’m doing up to 50 visa interviews a day. They can be draining but it makes the time go by fast.  I didn’t realize that the obviously fraudulent cases were going to be easy; I expected them to be annoying. Instead it is the cases where good people can’t get a visa because they don’t meet the qualifications established by US law. I feel bad when I have to tell them this.  There are good cases that offset the hard ones though and in general I’m doing fine with being sympathetic to their plight without getting too emotionally involved. We’ll see how well I hold up over the long haul, I suppose.

 

Life outside the embassy is quite boring and a bit claustrophobic, really.  During the week, I come home, run around in my living for a while as a crude approximation of “exercise”, make dinner, and sleep.  I like to cook, even though I’m pretty rudimentary and can mostly just make sauces (Italian pasta and Japanese curry, to be precise). It is nice to use my hands to create something and there’s a zen about it, working in the kitchen listening to one podcast or another.

 

I did hire a steward and she would cook for me if I asked it. I may later ask her to make me lunches, but for now, I’m willing to eat lunch at the Tin Can (named thusly because its built out of cargo canisters while we wait for construction of the embassy compound to finish). She cleans and does laundry once a week for me and seems very nice.

 

There is a small but friendly group of expats here that eat out, go hiking, host parties, and so on.  I’m hobbled by the lack of a car but am making do.

 

My home is nice, too spacious for me with my meager possessions for now, but once the bulk of my stuff arrives, it will be nice to have the space. I wish I’d brought my archive of framed photos though, as the walls are bare. I can really feel the difference when I visit others’ places. My downstairs neighbors have a beautiful tapestry (blanket? rug?) that they hand with handpicked photos of their international travels framed all over it.  It’s really neat and a great conversation piece. I would very much like to copy that idea.

 

That’s about all there is to report, really.  I hang out at home, reading my Kindle, watching AFN and a few of the downloaded shows I brought with me (Game of Thrones was great), and cooking.  I miss my girls terribly but I’m able to talk to them regularly.  They are doing well and we are all busy, which makes the time move faster.

 

Oh, and of course I have to mention that Sugar made it just fine.  She was pretty upset with me, I think, but she’s adapted well and we are having a good time.  I’m very happy I have her, as its nice to have someone else around, even if they do act like a spaz or attack your ankles from time to time.


I wish I had more exciting stories or details to share.  Perhaps I’m just tired tonight. I do have some stories about some of the poverty I’ve seen outside the capitol and then there are little things that I’ve already forgotten, like the huge car crash last week where a semi-trailer full of rebar smashed into stopped traffic, inflicting horrific casualties only for another huge truck to then plow into the traffic jam caused by this first one.  One or the other of these apparently crushed some mini-busses and I believe the final death toll was close to 30.

 

I’ve got some comments and reflections about the “problems” here, but I’ll get to those later.