J. Reuben Clark Law Society

"Like England in the 1850s": The Church in West Africa--Interview with Martin Slater, Area Legal Counsel

This is the third in a series of authorized interviews with some of the thirteen LDS Church Area Legal Counsel around the world.  Our thanks to Martin Slater, Area Legal Counsel in the Africa West Area, currently living in Accra, Ghana, for sharing his time and insights.

Personal background:   Brother Slater has already served three years as Area Legal Counsel in West Africa, but recently extended for another year.  His background is in real estate and business transactions law.  He and his wife, the former Jennifer Frazier, have three children and eight grandchildren.  He received his J.D. from BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School in 1982.
Prior to serving as an ALC, Martin served as mission president in Thailand, where he had also served as a young missionary.  He has also served as a stake president and bishop.

JRCLS Newsletter:  Please tell us about your responsibilities as an ALC in West Africa.

Martin:  The Africa West Area covers 17 countries, but the Church is established formally in only seven--Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.   The duties are essentially those detailed by Mike Jensen and Greg Clark in prior articles in this newsletter:  First, to serve as a resource to the area presidency and the senior temporal affairs employees of the Church on strategic issues, including religious freedom and rights of worship.  Second, to provide legal services to local and area Church entities, including compliance with governmental regulations, real property acquisition and maintenance, missionary issues, and so forth.
Well over half of our time is spent on real estate acquisition and leasing to accommodate the rapid growth.  The Church’s phenomenal growth in West Africa is probably the most exciting and the most challenging aspect for the ALC here. I travel regularly to the seven countries to meet with local counsel.  But travel in West Africa can be  difficult.  Some routes are a real adventure.  Flights going in and out of Nigeria are inevitably delayed.  Sierra Leone is probably the most difficult because of scheduling.  The only way into the capital city is by boat, after landing at the airport.    The first time  traveling to these countries can be fun; after that it just becomes a bit of a chore.

JRCLS Newsletter:  What is the Church presence in the Africa West Area?

Martin: Although members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represent a small percentage of the population, Church growth in West Africa is remarkable.  Nigeria is the most populous of all African countries, with 177 million people.  One in five Africans lives in Nigeria.  Church membership there totals about 118,000.  In Ghana we have about 60,000 members out of a population of 25 million.

There are 13 missions in West Africa, with another just announced for July 2014.  Four of those missions are in Ghana, which also includes eleven stakes and four districts.  Despite civil wars and crumbling infrastructure, the Church in West Africa is thriving in amazing ways.  When the first stake in Sierra Leone was created last year, it was the 3,000th stake of the Church. 
In just the first four months of this year, 88 new units of the Church were created in West Africa (branches or wards).  One hundred were created in all of 2013, so we can see the explosion in growth.  Every one of those units needs a place to meet.  This is by far the biggest legal challenge in West Africa, because land ownership is very complex.  There is no such thing as title insurance or escrow companies.  We have a tremendous backlog of property purchases or leases waiting to go through.  From 2009 through 2012, we were able to purchase only four properties.  In 2013, we purchased nine.  This year we are on target to complete 30.

West Africa is baptizing more converts per missionary than any other place in the world.  In 2012, the Africa West Area had the highest percentage of members holding temple recommends and the highest percentage of tithe payers, despite the crushing poverty.  One stake in Ivory Coast had a higher percentage of members who had submitted names for temple work than any other place in the world.

JRCLS Newsletter:  You mentioned civil wars and crumbling infrastructure.  Can you be any more specific about the challenges for the Church in West Africa?
Martin:  Living in Accra, Ghana, is relatively safe and stable, as far as crime or unrest.  In the last decade, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire all have had horrendous civil wars.  But it is more stable in those areas now, and the Church is thriving.  Nigeria is the exception.  Its capital city, Lagos, has 20 million people and I feel safe there.  But in northern Nigeria, where there are Islamic insurgency problems which are pretty serious, crime and kidnapping are very real concerns. 
The Christian/Islam divide is, generally, along the 10th parallel on the map.  North of that line are the countries where the Church does not yet have a presence, such as Chad, Mali, Niger, and Senegal.  It is not the militant Islamism that you find in the Middle East, so there is likely to be Church expansion into those areas one day.  There is sufficient religious freedom, but not yet enough Christians that would be likely to convert. 
Sierra Leone is a wonderful example of open and friendly Christian-Islam interactions.  They intermarry and help each other celebrate Ramadan and Christmas.  We baptize among the Islamic as much as among the Christians.  There is no stigma for anyone joining the Church.  It is kind of a model for how interfaith relations between Muslims and Christians should be. 
A significant challenge is infrastructure, which in Accra is improving but still a challenge.  Driving at night is a white-knuckle experience because there are few street lights, the streets are not maintained, and pedestrians are hard to see and not really conversant with road etiquette. 
Most buildings have no street address and most roads do not have street signs.  People will say "I live over by . . . ."  So it is easy for people to get misplaced.  The poverty in many areas is crushing.   But attendance rates at meetings are still near the highest in the world.  Retention rates are strong and the area has strong priesthood leadership.  There are nine area seventies from West Africa.  It is remarkable. 
JRCLS Newsletter:  How is the Church accepted in the community and by other Christian churches?
Martin:  The people in West Africa are a very overtly religious.  They are not afraid to proclaim their belief in Christ.  For example, some typical businesses names are "As God Wills It TV Shop" and "Jesus Key-Cutting Service."  There are religious sayings stenciled on many of the taxis.  
Other Christian churches have been here longer.  We have a pretty short history, since the Church was established in West Africa in 1978.  Although there may still be some resistance to the Church’s participation  on some of the inter-religious Christian councils, things are improving. There was a time 30 years ago where the Church got lumped in with a couple of cultist religions and  Church functions were frozen for 18 months.  But since then, we really are well accepted and warmly received by pretty much everybody. 
There are no significant limitations on LDS Church proselytizing efforts in the area.  It is a large job to keep all the missionary visas compliant, but there are no significant limitations or difficulties.  The local Church travel department, not the Office of General Counsel, is responsible for the day-to-day work on the visas but we work with them closely on strategic issues.
JRCLS Newsletter:  Can you tell us a bit more about how you interact with local counsel in the various countries and learn all the various country and local laws?

Martin:  It is a delicate balance.  Even if you think you know the law, you still need advice of local counsel.  There will always be subtleties that I will not get to know in just a few years.  On the other hand, I have to know enough to know whether local counsel is doing a good job.  I "inherited" a number of local counsel, but we have also hired a few new firms.  On a few occasions we have used the JRCLS to find counsel.  We have 30-40 members of the Law Society in the West Africa chapter. 
I learn the local law mainly by on-the-job experience.  I pick up things from local counsel, and occasionally can find things on-line.  There is not much in the way of law libraries here.

In theory, the legal systems are based on precedent, on case law.  Also we have three civil law jurisdictions.  However, the court systems are not very efficient; it can take years to get through a matter because of many continuances and lost files.  Sometimes there are corruption issues.  The courts are never the first place you want to go to get something done.  They are pretty unpredictable but sometimes there is no other choice.  Mediations are embryonic, but just in the past year I have seen that work in a few of our matters.

JRCLS Newsletter:  Is there any particular legal expertise that is required to be an ALC?

Martin:  No, at least not here, because there are such a broad range of things that the ALC is responsible for.  There is no way you could be expert in enough areas to make a difference.  What is most helpful are good judgment, clear thinking, and high tolerance for delays and inefficiencies.

JRCLS Newsletter:    Can you tell us about your interactions with government officials?

Martin:   I have interacted with some government officials, but not a lot.  For most of the government interaction we try to have a local face . Basically, it is just orchestrating with others what is needed, as opposed to doing it personally.

An interesting experience:  In Sierra Leone, shortly after I arrived, we had a large piece of property which had been encroached upon, which is a common and very difficult problem here.  Any vacant property gets occupied, seemingly overnight.  A woman had built a school on our Church property with the understanding that she would leave when the Church needed the property.  But the time came and she would not move.   The Church filed an eviction action, got the judgment, and had to remove the school. 

This property happened to be on the route that the president of Sierra Leone drove from his home to his office, and this woman placed all her little students out in front of the school with signs saying that the Church had taken her school away.  The newspapers decried this "dastardly deed" (that is a quote).  This was my first visit to Sierra Leone and we were called into the Minister of Plans office to give an accounting of our actions.  He began by chastising us greatly.

It turned out that part of her school was not even on Church land, but was on government land.  We had the right people there with us and explained our position and also suggested that if they wanted to make part of their land available, we would help to rebuild the school.  It became a very positive meeting, even to the extent that he took us into one of his other offices and showed us the master plan of the city, and indicated areas where the Church could build as the city grew.

Our Area physical facilities manager was there also and he maintained a relationship with this minister. Through that relationship a visiting apostle was able to meet with some very senior people in the government, including the vice president. 
There was a good spirit in that meeting and it was amazing to see it transform from a hostile feeling to a warm and continuing relationship.  The Lord's hand was evident.

JRCLS Newsletter:  Have you had any language issues?

Martin:  Three of our seven countries are French speaking, and all of the countries where we would go next would be primarily French, with one Portuguese.  In the other four, English is the official language, but there are literally hundreds of tribal languages.  Most black Africans know three or four of those languages.  They speak the tribal language at home, and then are taught English in the schools. Probably a majority of the children in the cities go to school, but not the children in rural areas.  My wife volunteers in a school, about 45 minutes outside of Accra, which was built and established through the efforts of the wife of a former expat Church employee.  Several classrooms have now been built there, and my wife goes out to the school every week and has established a mobile library.  She has brought several hundred children's books here over the last couple of years.  She reads to the children and provides reading time for them each week. 

JRCLS Newsletter:  What is your greatest reward and greatest challenge?

Martin:   Those two are almost the same.  I have never experienced this before in my professional career, but there is peace in knowing that my best effort will always be enough.  The Lord is in charge, and so I have a comfort level that if I do everything in my power and it still does not work out, it is not a matter to be disturbed about because it could have worked out if the Lord had wanted it to.

That is also the greatest challenge: to recognize that your best effort will not always be enough.  But there is a comfort there that I have not had before.  This is the most demanding thing I have ever done, other than being a mission president.  But I know that it is in the Lord's hands and if a miracle is needed, it will come.  Otherwise, it can wait.

Another challenge is the time required.  There is never enough time.  Also, because of the personnel turnover in the area, it is difficult to retain all the institutional knowledge that has been accumulated. 

JRCLS Newsletter:  Can you share how you have felt Heavenly Father's help in your work as an ALC?

Martin:  As I mentioned, I feel the Lord's hand most powerfully in providing the solace that my best effort is sufficient.  I know that the things He needs done will get done on his timetable and the things that can wait, will wait.  As an example, before the priesthood was available to all worthy males, there were congregations of hundreds and thousands who were converted and were only waiting for the priesthood ordinances.  Many questioned the Lord’s timetable.  But the West African story is now a phenomenal success story. 

It is also a great analogy for temple work.  West Africans understand temple work better than most, because many of them experienced having been converted, but then waiting for many years for the necessary priesthood ordinances.  They can understand that their ancestors are now in the same situation on the other side.

JRCLS Newsletter:  What do you love about the people whom you serve?

Martin:  There is no hesitation on their part to speak about, live, and discuss their religion.  Their overt religiosity is a joy to see.  They are faithful and happy under circumstances where most in the United States would think it impossible to be faithful or happy.  They are serious about religion.  The new converts are typically well versed in the Bible.  There is no secretiveness in their everyday lives and conversations about what they feel about the Savior. 

JRCLS Newsletter:  What is your favorite food or dish typical to the area?

Martin:   Jollof rice--a spicy tomato based fried rice.

JRCLS Newsletter:  Thank you so much for sharing your time and insights, and for the sacrifices and service of you and your wife.

Martin:  The real story here is the remarkable growth of the Church, the strength of the priesthood leadership, and the wonderful people.  It is like England in the 1850s or Brazil in the 1940s. We are thoroughly enjoying our time in West Africa.

Interview by Elizabeth Shaw Smith

Posted: July 9, 2014