Bilateral Relations - Embassy of Nigeria to the Holy See

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Bilateral Relations

The Holy See Visiting the Vatican



The advent of the Roman Catholic Church in Nigeria can be traced back to 1863, which incidentally, coincided with the establishment of the nucleus of what is today the Nigerian Army. Could that explain why a retired General is the current Ambassador to the Holy See? As at 2017, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church is 154 years old in Nigeria. It must be remarked that the advent of the Catholic Church in Nigeria came with many blessings. In the Southern part of Nigeria, there were certain abominable traditional practices being carried out. A case in point was the killing of twins in the present State of Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria. It took a Catholic Missionary, Mary Slessor, to put to a stop that dastardly practice.

Besides stopping the killing of twins and other obnoxious traditional practices, the Catholic Church contributed, immensely, to the human capital development in Nigeria. This is not to say that other religious bodies did not contribute. Notwithstanding, the Catholic Church became first among equals at establishing schools, both primary and secondary, at the initial stages, as well as seminaries to recruit soul-winners into God’s household. Realising also that health is wealth, the Catholic Church embarked on the establishment of hospitals and other health centres, in large population centres and sparsely-populated areas, respectively. Some of these institutions are still there today; but, some have adopted new names and would include Holy Family College, Queens of Apostles Seminary and Mercy Hospital, all in Abak, Akwa Ibom State. Others are Christ the King College, Onitsha, Saint John’s College, Zaria and Saint Patrick’s College, Calabar, to mention a few.

In the pursuit of what developmental goals the Catholic Church had set for itself, tertiary institutions have been established. It has equally encouraged the many charity organizations to carry out humanitarian interventions in peacetime and in war. One of such charity organizations is the CARITAS Internationalis. The Caritas Charity group was very prominent in providing relief materials, food and medicines to the war affected persons, during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).


Nigeria is the most populous country on the African Continent with a population of more than 170 million people and with the largest number of dioceses (52 ecclesiastical circumscriptions). The country has the largest number of Catholic bishops in Africa. Living in the country, one discovers that Nigeria is really among the most religious countries in the world. Relations between Nigeria and the Holy See have remained cordial and mutually beneficial.

There had been several efforts made since Nigeria’s Independence, in 1960, to establish diplomatic relations between the Holy See (Vatican) and Nigeria. Diplomatic negotiations are known to be circumlocutory in most cases and can take some pretty good time. Negotiations towards the concretization of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Nigeria was no exception. Consequently, talks between the two countries dragged on to mid 1960s. Just when it was gathering sufficient momentum for actualization, there was some political upheaval in Nigeria, which snowballed into a military coup d’état 1966. The Nigerian Civil War started the following year and lasted 3 years. Obviously, this was not the period for diplomatic jaw-jaw.

After the Nigerian Civil War in 1970, the government of General Yakubu Gowon was preoccupied with the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and  Reintegration of those areas and people affected by the Civil War and therefore had little time for diplomatic negotiations. Just when, in 1975, the issue of diplomatic relations with the Vatican came up, General Yakubu Gowon was toppled via a military coup d’état and the issue was put in abeyance. The following year, however, full diplomatic relations was established between Nigeria and the Vatican. So, 1976 marked the beginning of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The concretization of diplomatic relations in 1976 did not lead to the immediate establishment of an embassy at the Vatican; rather, the diplomatic duties of Nigeria for the Vatican was handled by the Nigerian Embassy in Spain. This proxy relations came to an end with the establishment of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the Holy See in 2012, with His Excellency Ambassador (Dr) Francis Okeke as the pioneer in-situ Ambassador. Ambassador Okeke left the mission in August 2015. The current Ambassador is His Excellency Ambassador Godwin George Umo OON.

Over the past 50 years, the Holy Father (the Pope) has been represented in Nigeria first by Apostolic Delegates (1960 to 1976), then by Apostolic Pro-Nuncios or Nuncios (from 1976 to date). The Apostolic Delegate, by the Canon Law Code (can. 364), represents the Holy Father in those countries where there are no diplomatic relations with the Holy See; and his duty is to ensure the bond of unity between the Holy See and the local church. This was the case in Nigeria until the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Holy See on 29 April 1976. The Pro-Nuncios or Nuncios, as indicated in Canon 365, besides the above-mentioned ecclesiastical responsibilities, exercise also the diplomatic duties accorded by International Law, in order to foster the bilateral relations between the Holy See and the authorities of the receiving State.

The position of Papal Ambassadors (and "Legates") can be traced to the early years of the Church, when the Bishop of Rome found it necessary to send his personal representatives to bishops of particular churches, in order to carry out his mission of ensuring that "the Episcopate should be one and undivided" (Lumen Gentium, 18). Later on, after the Edict of Milan in 313, relations were maintained with the Emperors of both East and West and Legates were appointed as the need arose. This is the basis for the claim that the Holy See has the oldest diplomatic service in the world.

The mission of Papal Legates began to take on a more permanent role with the birth of nation states in Europe after the religious upheavals of the 16th century and the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire. Representatives of the Pope were sent to the monarchs of European states and this became more widespread with the discovery and evangelization of the Americas. However, the greatest increase in the number of Apostolic Nuncios occurred in the period after the end of the Second World War; not only because of the birth of many new independent nations but also because of the growth of the missionary activity of the Church, especially in Asia and Africa.
Whereas in 1975 only 79 countries had diplomatic relations with the Holy See, that number had increased to over 180 by 2017. The Holy See also has relations with the United Nations ("Permanent Observer" status) and many related international organizations.


The first Apostolic Delegate to British colonial Africa was Most Rev. Arthur Hinsley, who established the seat of the Delegation in Mombasa (Kenya), a "central place" for a mission covering Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Malawi) in southern Africa, Nigeria and Gold Coast (now Ghana) in the west, and all three territories of British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanganika). Arthur Hinsley visited Nigeria in 1929 and he is remembered for his insistence on education. Other Apostolic Delegates appointed later include Most Rev. Antonio Riberi, Most Rev. David Matthew, Most Rev James Robert Knox and Guido Del Mestri. By 1959 the seat of the Delegation had been transferred from Mombasa to Nairobi, the colonial capital of Kenya.


The new Apostolic Delegation to West Central Africa was established on 3rd May 1960 in Lagos, covering the former French Territories of Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Ubangi-Shari (later Central African Republic) and Chad, as well as Nigeria.

The following Apostolic Delegates served in Lagos before the establishment of the Nunciature in 1976:
Archbishop Sergio Pignedoli (1960-1964)
Archbishop Luigi Bellotti (1964-1969)
Archbishop Amelio Poggi (1969-1974)
Archbishop Gerolamo Prigione (1974-1976)


Archbishop Prigione was Apostolic Delegate when a démarche was made in 1975 to establish diplomatic relations with the federal Republic of Nigeria.
Full diplomatic relations were thus established between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Holy See on 29 April 1976 and the incumbent Delegate, Archbishop Gerolamo Prigione, was appointed Pro-Nuncio in Nigeria.
Archbishop Prigione had been Delegate to both Nigeria and Ghana.
Seven Apostolic Pro-Nuncios or Nuncios have served in the Nunciature in Nigeria since its establishment in 1976, as follows:
Archbishop Gerolamo Prigione (1976-1978)
Archbishop Carlo Curis (1978-1984)
Archbishop Paul Fouad Tabet (1984-1991)
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò (1992-1998)
Archbishop Osbaldo Padilla (2004-2009)
Archbishop Augustine Kasujja (2010-2016)
Archbishop Antonio Guido Filipazzi (2017-…….)

The nunciature in Lagos moved to Abuja in June 2001 with Msgr. Peter Wells (former Assessor at the Secretariat of State, Vatican City) and two nuns as the "advance party" while work was in progress. All staff had arrived Abuja by 1st October 2001 on the Nation’s 41st Independence Celebration with the Nuncio, Archbishop Padilla, arriving soon after.  [Reference: The Holy Father’s House in Nigeria, by Fr. Raymond Hickey (OSA)]


There is no gainsaying that Nigeria posts the highest number of Catholic faithful in Africa. Indeed, over 10% of Nigerians are Catholics. Besides Nigeria, the only other African country with a large following of the Catholic faith is the Democratic Republic of Congo, and with Nigeria, has the highest number of Catholic Priests in Africa. It is, therefore, not surprising that Nigeria should have a good number of Cardinals and Monsignors in the Roman Catholic faith. Some of the prominent Catholic Clergymen of Nigerian origin would include:

Cardinal Dominic Ignatius Ekandem.
Cardinal Francis Arinze (Former Papabile).
Cardinal Anthony Olubunmi Okogie.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan.
Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama.
Archbishop Joseph Ekuwem.
Archbishop Matthew Kukah.
Monsignor Fortunatus Nwachukwu (Apostolic Nuncio to Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis,  Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Apostolic Delegate to the Antilles as well as Titular Archbishop of Aquaviva.  He had previously served as Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua and as Chief of Protocol at the Secretariat of State).
Monsignor Jude Thaddeus Okolo (Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland).
Monsignor Brian Udaigwe (Apostolic Nuncio to Benin and Togo).

The crescendo was the beatification of Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, an indigene of Anambra State, Nigeria, by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

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