The Archbishop, Enugu Anglican Province and Bishop of Enugu Diocese, Most Rev. Emmanuel Olisa Chukwuma is one of the very few that came face to face with death during the civil war but was miraculously saved by God during the Asaba massacre.
In this exclusive interview with Saturday Sun, Archbishop Chukwuma whose 66th birthday coincided with the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigeria/Biafra civil war on Wednesday, January 15, narrated how his speaking of Yoruba language saved him from being wasted by the bullets of the Nigerian soldiers.
He regretted that the civil war seemed not to have taught Nigeria any lesson and warned the leadership of the country to look carefully and see that those things that caused the war over five decades ago are still much around in the country now. He spoke to GEOFFREY ANYANWU.
May we start by saying happy birthday to you Sir, how old are you and how do you feel today?
I thank God today, I am celebrating my 66 years sojourn on earth, incidentally it falls on the 15th of January, the date we celebrate this year, the end of the Biafra civil war. I feel very much emotional about it but thankful to God that we are alive after 50 years of the Nigerian-Biafra civil war, that we are at peace and at this my 66th year of birth, I am also an Archbishop in the vineyard of God and alive, having suffered even the civil war and God brought me out to be what I am today.
Can you share with us your experiences during the civil war?
Well, that civil war started and no one could say initially what was the problem because we found that the whole thing started from the north where many of our Igbo people were killed, either that they hung their heads or have their legs chopped off and they were bringing them down to the east. We never knew it will grow from there because after the coup that took place in Ibadan, Lagos and other places and the disagreement between Odumegwu Ojukwu and others and Biafra was born and there was battle up to Ore and that of Ore was serious, we never knew it was going to come down and it was like the whole Nigeria against the South East, the Biafra people.
My own experience was that I was stuck in Asaba where I was born and by the grace of God experienced the war, we knew how the Biafra people were chased, when they passed through Asaba, they broke the Niger Bridge; [so] it was difficult for the Nigerian troop to pass and they were more or less caught up in Asaba.
My experience was that when they asked us to come out to sing One Nigeria, we came out and were singing opposite the present day Grand Hotel; that was where we were gathered and after that we were led to a place called Ogbesowe where they now separated the women from the men. I was among the men, that time I was about 13 years old or so and they thought that all of us were Biafra soldiers. The first thing they did was turning it into genocide in which many of our men were shot and killed. By the grace of God I was able to escape by falling down and corpses falling on me. While that was on, I was crawling out in the night when one of them said “who goes there” and I was speaking Yoruba because I understood Yoruba and luckily the officer was a Yoruba man and he took me out and rescued me to the women side, from there in the night we were asked to pass through those people that were lying dead and we escaped into the village at Ibuzo side, specifically at Achalla and from there by the grace of God I was able to find my way back to my father’s official residence in Akure where he was praying that if God will deliver me from the civil war, he will offer me to the ministry of the church.
But I will say that it was a very fearful thing because many a times when we were in the bush, we saw the shelling falling down many places, our houses were destroyed, burnt, many property stolen and a lot of things were done. We found out that most of those people that really dealt with us were from Gongola, from Benue and that is why sometimes I feel that the blood of the innocent are dealing with the people in the North East and Benue because of the blood of the innocent that were shed at that time. So, it was a very terrible experience, we saw our brothers slaughtered for no reason, it was genocide and we will never forget that experience. So, I think the effect of the civil war for those of us who experienced it is still part of us and that’s why sometimes some of us get very much aggressive about what is happening today in Nigeria when you say to keep Nigeria one is a task that has to be done and blood were shed, people died and a lot of property destroyed. We never knew we could come back to what we are today and still finding things the way they are today with marginalization, with inequity and injustices going on. We just feel that probably that war has not taught us any lesson and I feel so bad about it.
When the war ended 50 years ago, it was said that there was no victor, no vanquished, but looking at what is happening in Nigeria today, is that a reality?
No, with the bitterness that is going on right now, I don’t think that there’s anything like that because if the present government led by President Muhammadu Buhari knew, while talking about reconciliation, reconstruction and all that, they should be able to talk about how to really pacify those who suffered during the civil war. We have not seen anybody pacify us now because you find out that in the South East, in Asaba, there is no federal presence there. There is no federal university in Asaba; there is nothing at all to say you compensate people or probably to mourn and say sorry for those who were killed at that time.
What we see today is marginalization, inequity, bitterness and segregation, so one is not happy with what’s happening now, one feels that if we are going to be one Nigeria then there shall be equity and justice and people should feel at home wherever they are in Nigeria and know that wherever you are you are a Nigerian and you must feel free to exist there, there must be no discrimination at all. So that is what I feel today and with what is happening with our democracy, although for 20 years now, we have enjoyed free and peaceful democracy, but you can see that there is a lot of squandering and a lot of resources being wasted, there is no judicious use of our resources and that is why we have not got much even development rather you find much of hardship. People are suffering these days, since after the civil war people remain unemployed, morality is on the decline, and crime is on the increase.
Some issues brought about disagreement that culminated into the civil war; looking at the present day Nigeria, do you have fears that those things are still with us and might cause another trouble if care is not taken?
Yes, you see the way things are going with insecurity going on now and irresponsibility of leadership; now the President said our borders should be open for foreigners, [that] is another way of opening our country to danger. And with all these herdsmen, with violence here and there, Boko Haram and the killings here and there, can cause war. That is why we feel that Nigeria as it is now needs peace if we are going to progress and succeed.
Fifty years after the civil war, what is the way forward?
Nigeria has enjoyed peace again after 50 years of the Nigerian civil war but there is still internal war here and there. The communal clashes are still there, what I think Nigeria should do now is that government should look into a serious strategy of providing security for the lives of people and not exposing them to danger. Take for example, the herdsmen, although it’s going down a bit now, the President ought to have declared them as terrorists but they left them to commit a lot of harm and there is still a lot of kidnapping going on, a lot of wars going on, people killing people and Boko Haram festering.
Unemployment is also creating problems, people graduate without jobs, the youths are getting restless and again you are bringing too much tax on industries and places, when there is no avenue to employ people, then there is problem, so government should also look into a way of improving entrepreneurship, many universities are being approved but nobody is talking about the workforce; how would they be employed and when they are not employed they are frustrated. Then the minimum wage, again the civil servants have to be encouraged, because many of them are frustrated. Right now the cost of living is high, the income is less than the expenditure, these are things the government should look into. Most of them in government and politics are very comfortable, nobody is talking about the poor people, they should be serious and sensitivity to the needs of the poor people and if that is addressed, poverty in our land will be eradicated. Hunger is too much; this again should be looked into.