By Alvan Ewuzie and Peter Agba Kalu
ARCHBISHOP Antony Amarachi Obinna, the outspoken Catholic bishop of Owerri Archdiocese has lent his voice to recent calls that Nigeria takes another look at its current structure given the myriad of challenges coming to the fore. In this interview with Sunday Sun he spoke about his alleged involvement in the last street protest by Biafra agitators amongst other issues.
Sir, May 30th happened to be the Biafra Day, all of a sudden we discovered that you were at Nkpor. It was captured in such a way that identified you with the Biafra struggle. What happened actually?
Well, the Immaculate Congregation of Reverend Sisters fixed the burial of their sister on the 30th of May – one Reverend Sister Innnocentia Eherem. This reverend sister had worked with me in archdiocese of Owerri for 10 years and worked very effectively. So it was a duty I owed her to be at her funeral at Nkpor, Onitsha where their community is located.
So when I left Owerri on the morning of the 30th with Reverend Sisters and the laity it did not cross my mind or the mind of any one of us that we would run into any Biafran protesting group. But we did notice as we reached Ihiala some signs of unrest. When we reached Obosi the bus that had travelled ahead of me with the Catholic priests turned back. And I asked him what was going on and he replied that some young people either IPOB or MASSOB had blocked the way. I said let’s continue. So when we reached the roadblock and I came down. And as soon as they saw me, they said “Oh, it’s Bishop, its Bishop. Allow him.” They allowed me and my people and we went down to Nkpor, to the community of the funeral. The Archbishop of Onitsha said the mass and I preached the homily and eventually we finished the burial.
We entered our cars and buses to get back to Owerri through the route we came by. But on getting to the major road there was a large crowd of young people with bonfire going on and obstructing the traffic. So I had to go down to seek for leave to pass. When I came down, once again some of them recognized me saying, “It’s the Archbishop; it’s the Archbishop…” And I told them please we want to pass. One of them asked them to make way for us. In fact, they knelt down and asked us to pray for them, which I did.
We then moved on to meet another roadblock. This was much bigger than the first roadblock and I said we’re going back to Owerri, kindly let us pass. They told me that the police was on the other side with their armoured car and tear gas. I told them I wanted go and see the police and seek clearance to pass through. They said they would follow me and I told them please don’t follow. I just want to get to the Police alone.
Well, they were able to obey. The police allowed me to pass in spite of the menacing presence of armoured cars and policemen in battle gear. I reached them, spoke to the commanding officer and he told me the tension was very high and that I should turn back and look for another way to get to Owerri. So it was at the point of coming back that these young people besieged me and started talking about Biafra. They complained that the church and the CAN were not speaking up. I told them that this was not the kind of environment where I can speak up even if I am interested. The struggle you people are doing for the survival of Nigeria – it’s not here that I should speak.
I told them that as Igbos they should know what I’ve been doing beyond the issue of Biafra. After all, I established the Odenigbo lecture series as part of my being an Igbo patriot. Some of them went on, threatening that now you would leave us here; there were no jobs and we’re not eating. Now you’re a big man and you would enter your car and go back to Owerri and leave us here.
So at that point I realized it was no longer a friendly outing and I turned making way to my car. They were talking and shouting until I got into my car to realize that my driver had been hit on the chest by one of the boys.
Are you serious?
Yes, my driver is around. By the time I reached Owerri, one of my priests was hospitalized because the boys threatened him and hit his car – he is Father Chijioke Kada. I had to preach at his parish next day and he had to be brought from the hospital. He had high blood pressure that led to his almost having a stroke. So there was no way I planned, even if I passed through them, there was no intention of simply joining them in the protest march. So what you saw in the media was an exaggerated sense of hype for which reason I had to put up some disclaimer about what they claimed. I didn’t go for any pro-Biafra protest. It doesn’t mean that I am not concerned or interested in what the young people are saying. But it’s wrong that some people said I came from Rome to join them or from Owerri to join them in the protest march. It’s a complete lie!
Some of them complained about unemployment. Look at the state of the nation – everything seems to be in disarray. We have Boko Haram, Niger Delta agitations and the Biafran agitation in the South-east. What are you going to advise the Federal Government about these?
As far as I am concerned all these unrests in the Niger Delta or in the South-east and so on are an indication that Nigeria is a sick nation. And the sense of patriotism is not there. I’ll say that is the reason for Biafra or the uprising for Biafra or the uprising for the Niger Delta. That is the reason. If we get Nigeria right and there is a noble sense of patriotism; noble sense of belonging in which every person, every segment of Nigeria counts and feels that it counts, then there won’t be all these agitations. That is why our leaders must go back to the drawing board and ask themselves this question; “Do we really want to be one Nigeria?” Is it the one Nigeria where we’re killing each other; afraid of war all the time and across the board. The leaders need to sit down and make up their minds if they don’t want one Nigeria, then let us separate peacefully. We can be good neigbours.
In a recent interview I had, I must have spoken this wise too. It is wonderful to have one loving, peaceful, patriotic Nigeria. If it’s not going to work out, for goodness sake, let us be honest with ourselves and say we cannot live together because we have too many religious, ethnic interests. I know we can go beyond this if the leaders become patriotic and being less self-centered, using resources to build up industries and factories to absorb the young people who are agitating. That has always been my position and I will continue to say that.
In essence you’re calling on the different ethnic groups to come together and renegotiate the existence of Nigeria?
We don’t have true federalism as yet, we are still practicing the unitary system of governance with a command structure. So the national confab was an attempt to restructure and redesign Nigeria. This has not been taken seriously. I’m sure that if the 2014 National Conference was taken seriously I’m sure many people have said it’s the solution to Nigeria’s problems. True unity, true federalism in Nigeria has always been canvassed.
All those ethnic nationalities participated in the conference. I mentioned this to General, I mean President Buhari when I visited him with other bishops. I told him that we should chart a now course, let’s make Nigeria more unified. Let’s end all these ethnic, religious differences, let everybody be brought to the table and let’s find the best way to make Nigeria one. Some have suggested turning the six geopolitical zones to a confederal structure. So let’s look for something that can help us live in peace and harmony. Somebody going to the North-east, North-west, North-central etc will feel at home; the same with anyone from the other zones going to any other zone in the country should feel at home.
In 1985 when I came from the United States with the patriotism I had in my heart I decided to tour and know my country. When I was in the United States I tended to know more of Europe and America. So I traveled from the East went through Benue, made it to Niger State and from there I headed down to the South-west up to Lagos etc. In short, I made a round trip of Nigeria. That time I felt a great sense of happiness that I was able to know a little more about Nigeria.
But today, to travel across Nigeria is a nightmare because we don’t trust each other. There are alarming signals of unrest and insecurity and we’re being alerted. The other day, just close to the Cathedral here, talking about Irete, a small town, raised an alarm about an invasion that was coming to them and they didn’t sleep the whole night. And some of them even left town. So these are the kinds of things happening with us.
As somebody put it in the paper recently he said this is like a slow civil war, a low-key civil war that is actually real. We don’t feel happy with the state of the nation and it is kind of worsened with these events that have come as a response to the failure of leaders to lead this nation aright so that there would be a sense of belonging. Once the leaders are alive to their responsibilities you don’t need to meet them personally but you will identify with them. See the effects: the effects have failed economically, politically, religiously, morally and socially. So that’s why I feel this matter should be taken up. We should really take a look at how we’re relating with each other. We’re so much polarized, we’re alienated and the children are not having it easy because they can feel and see the alienation between the North and South, between one ethnic group and the other.
Of course, they should be taught to cherish their ethnic identities. This is what I call ethnofilia – the positive love of one’s ethnicity, which is also the basis of religiofilia – the deep love of one’s religion so long as that love of religious identity does not lead to killing or brutalizing anybody. Because any religion that kills or brutalizes anybody has become a criminal religion and it becomes unjustifiable as every human being has a fundamental right to life, which the constitution guarantees and must defend because it’s a right given by God.
Its beginning to look as if Christianity is a religion for the weak because we don’t return violence for violence. And this thing seems to increase because we’re keeping quiet and so many youths of today are not happy about it and are losing faith as a result. What should be done?
From the surface, Christianity is a weak religion but from the moral, spiritual point of view, Christianity is the strongest and best known religion but its target is the love of every human being. It requires a loving, strong, committed spirit like that of our Lord Jesus Christ to love even the person who detests you, who even plans to kill you, because God is love. If that makes God weak then God is weak and proves in Christ that He was physically weak to be killed by the human beings He created. But because He is God, Jesus is God; He rose from the dead and you can see from that weak man that was crucified this great religion continues to make headway. So there is no way we can turn Christianity into a violent religion officially because the founder of Christianity came through as a weak person so as to teach human beings to love one another.
Remember when St Peter wanted to kill a servant of the High Priest and cut his ear off and Jesus said: “Peter put back the sword into your scabbard.” It is through these weak weapons- love and compassion that humanity is made happy. Not through every act of violence, every act of savagery against our fellow human beings. That is why Christians are facing the temptation to arm themselves. Of course, Christians have the right to self-defence but our religion does not teach us to go on the offensive because to do that is sinful. To simply hate someone because he belongs to a different religion and different ethnicity is evil, it is of the devil. That is why every true Christian recognizes that Christianity is essentially a religion of love.
And from the human historical point of view Christianity is weak but the violence that is strong inevitably leads to the extermination of human beings and it is contrary to the will of God. God shows His almightiness through forgiveness. If God were to use His mighty, physical power to deal with us every one of us will perish fast. That’s the paradox of Christianity, the big temptation. But because Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. And He shows this truth in love, in justice, in peace and in communion with all of us.
That is why Christianity will remain a weak religion from the human point of view. Even St Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians that while the Greeks were looking for wisdom, earthly wisdom to display their intellectualism, and so forth, the Jews were saying here we are preaching the crucified Christ – to the Greeks this was utter madness, to the Jews a stumbling block. But for those of us on the way to salvation, Jesus Christ allowed himself to be crucified so as to make peace with all humanity. At the cross he said to his Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. So Christianity is the answer to humanity’s violent nature and it will always come across as a weak religion in the eyes of the religionists that take up weapons of destruction. That is the paradox in which we’re living. And as I said from the spiritual and moral point of view, Christianity is the strongest religion.
It knows how to love; it knows how to be patient. Love is patient, love is kind; love is able to endure and because Christ is the highest embodiment of all humans, he was to endure unto death. Death on a cross, a shameful death for claiming this man that was crucified shamefully, with his wounds we have been healed.
All the love you preach does not seem to have any effect. Honestly as an individual I’m confused. But hearing from you, somehow there is an assurance of hope. What is your message to the Christian world in this face of persecution and all sorts of violence?
First of all, every Christian should surrender himself to our Lord Jesus Christ because to him lies life not only on this earth but also beyond. Because of all people in this earth we’re the most victimized. But we need intensification of faith that leads to God and openness to God and humanity. From the point of view of whom we’re with Christ, Christians should be as wild as dogs but as wise as serpents. I will not just say somebody is coming to kill me and then I will say come and kill me because I am a Christian.
No! you have to arm yourself so that you defend your life and defend the lives of your children in the event of physical combat. So Christians must also arm themselves not for any offensive war but for defensive war. We shall then let people know that if you attack us we’re going to attack you back. So don’t think that because we’re loving and friendly that we will not have the duty to defend ourselves. It becomes a just war on the part of Christians to fight back even physical those who want to destroy them. So Christians must also find a way to arm themselves to defend themselves.
This is not what normally we will want to do but because exceptional situations have arisen, we would rather want everybody disarmed instead of wasting money on arms. This is the issue of the leaders of the country to nip this situation in the bud. Prevention is better than cure. Because in the long run if we start fighting there will be causalities on both sides just like during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war both sides were armed even though one side was more armed than the other. And as we say in Igbo even the weaker person contributes or makes an impact in a fight – “Onye ujo ji ndu ya n’onye ike”. Even the least, the weakest of us can find a way to fight back. Christians have a right to hit back, not just to surrender themselves to be destroyed. No we don’t preach that.
We don’t preach pacifism, we preach a sense of responsibility but out of a sense of preserving what God has given to me and to you that you need to protect your life. It takes security measures. We ask communities, parishes etc to make sure that they are at alert so that they don’t get suddenly overrun by enemies. And which enemies are we talking about? We’re talking about fellow Nigerians!
So how can we be talking about arming ourselves and fighting? It means that the nation has collapsed. That is why it requires getting the leaders to remove the unrest in the land so that we eliminate and prevent further damages to ourselves.
Do you at times think we may go back to what led to the civil war if the present situation is not well managed?
Of course yes. Yes, the signals are not good! I don’t like the signals. I would wish that the President and all others including the Senators, members of the house of representatives take heed of the alarming signals. Think of what happened in Nimbo and what is happening in the Niger Delta. All these are very alarming signals – a nation that is not at peace with itself is an embattled nation. Nigeria is at war with itself because we’ve not agreed. There’s no common ideology or rather, ideology we have is mutual enmity.
Enmity cannot bring us peace and harmony; it can only increase negative repercussions. We need a positive ideology that will hold all Nigerians together; not a hatred-driven ideology. We’re operating apparently with a hate-driven ideology. When you operate with a hate-driven ideology you divide the nation into two- native and allies and the other side as enemies and aliens. So if the country is divided into sections of friends and foes, citizens and foreigners then we can’t be talking about a nation.
Somebody mentioned in the past, was it Awolowo that we are a geographical entity not a morally or spiritually united entity. A nation has a lot to do with the spirit, the conscience and the emotions. It is only when we have a good football team (I can’t remember the last time we had a good football team as a nation) that we have a sense of belonging. Nigerians are united only when we are playing a foreign country. Its then we have what is called ad-hoc patriotism. After that the whole thing fizzles out; we go back fighting. So I’m not happy because in 1960 when we had independence I was so full of patriotism and it was in that year that I got the result of my First School Leaving Certificate. 1960 was my first year in the secondary school and I said Oh God with this independence the sky was my limit.
I wanted to do anything and everything to make Nigeria a great nation. Unfortunately Nigeria has been pushing me and us back and forth, left and right so that at this point instead of talking about our achievements, our dreams and plans we have, we’re still talking about problem. We have other countries that are talking about research developments – oh they have discovered this cure for this disease, they invented this machine to take care of food processing, etc This is what a nation should be about. In the 1960s especially in Eastern Nigeria where I lived most of the time, I was inspired by our government particularly M.I.Okpara, Akanu Ibiam – they touched my life even as a primary school child. We learnt about agricultural development and so on. Government was making things available almost at no cost. In 1961 we were able to get palm seedlings from where they were nursing them and then in our seminary, I still remember that. One of my friends in 1964 saw an advert in a newspaper requesting for those who were interested in farming pineapples to come forward because there were pineapple suckers available.
So my friend then in Standard 4 applied to the Ministry of Agriculture unknown to the teachers and his parents. He was reading the Eastern Nigeria Outlook. He saw the advert and applied. Two months later two tipper loads of pineapple suckers came from Enugu to Uturu where this young boy was schooling. And when the tippers arrived the church was called to come and carry these for their farm. He used the address of the school and teachers were angry and said they didn’t apply for anything. The drivers insisted that this was the correct address and they would take these things back to Enugu. All of a sudden one of the teachers said I seem to know the boy, Okereke who applied. And they said go and call him. So they went and called the young boy and asked him did you write the Ministry of Agriculture? And he said yes, I did. The teachers were angry but all the same the pineapple suckers were offloaded. The young boy was punished and they told him you were looking for a job, here now is a job! They gave him a piece of land to plant all those suckers. He called some of his friends and classmates and they planted the whole pineapple suckers. One and a half years later who came calling? The Premier and governor of Eastern Nigeria himself came to visit all the places pineapple suckers were distributed for planting. And the teachers all got up to say ‘yes, we planted, we planted. That young man. God bless him, later he became a Professor of Engineering. He was my master at Alvan Ikoku college of education and had a first class in Physics and Chemistry. He is also a professor in New York. So this is the kind of inspiration we get in those days. But today we’re in trouble. Most people are not getting inspiration, the kind that has a grassroots touch the way we understand it. So we need to build up inspiration, the dreams for greatness because that’s what makes a nation.
There is this security alert by the SSS that there is a plan to attack some churches in the East. I know that they must have somehow reached out to you. Have you taken any extra measures towards this alert?
Well, we have known about this. But security measures are not something you have to broadcast. We have, however, taken some measures; we have alerted our people. But at the same time we told our people to make sure they don’t get intimidated. That they should rise up to the occasion, that the God-given Igbo spirit is not a timid spirit. That is why we say “onye akpala nwagu aka n’odu ma odi ndu ma onwuru anwu”. ( Don’t touch the tiger by the tail dead or alive)
The spirit of courage is still in the Igboman, it’s just that some people have tried to distort it. But there’s time for everything. The time has come to re-awaken the spirit of Igboman, especially those of us in the Christian area because the Spirit of God is not the spirit of timidity. It’s the spirit of courage. So I made it clear even when preaching the other day that I’m not afraid; that God did not create me to be afraid. I’ve been through situations that would have ruined me but God gave me courage.
When armed robbers confronted me at Lokpanta eight years ago we had just finished praying and there was this fellow I thought was a police officer wearing a traffic warden uniform. When I heard, ‘Driver move this car out of the road, I said driver don’t move anything. What is going on? Then the man said, ‘Don’t joke with us o, we’re armed robbers.’ I said, my God! So you’re armed robbers? I’m preaching and praying for our nation and people and you are here claiming you’re an armed robber. What kind of nonsense is this? The man said, see – o I’m going to shoot you. And I told him look at me, go ahead and shoot me! You see you can’t say these kinds of things in the face of trouble but I did. So in the face of imminent danger I said I would not die as a coward because the spirit in us is what I call the Christian spirit.
Chukwu whom we worship has shown Himself in the person of Christ. That’s why the Igbos love Christ because the spirit of Christ is the spirit of God, the spirit of Love. And we’re a new creation in Christ. So every Igbo man has to rise up to stand by God, stand for its people. We don’t hate anybody. We want to love everybody, but whoever seeks to kill us, we’re not going to lie down and say crush us.
We didn’t do that before but maybe because there were too many powers that were fighting us, otherwise the Igbos would have survived the war in a different way. Just like Achuzia said we didn’t surrender. Thank God that we’re still alive but the precariousness is clear especially as the SSS are now informing us. I regard it as paradox because the duty of the SSS is to nip what was coming to us in the bud. But now SSS is telling you to be ready, something paradoxical is happening. The duty of soldiers, SSS and the police is to protect the people. It is the duty of the federal and state governments to ward off danger. That’s what patriotism and nationalism is all about. We have official defenders of the people. If we’re now asked to go into self-help, it raises a question mark. The official protectors of the people are now asking us to defend ourselves. We need to re-examine the rationale for Nigeria.