The foreign mission of the Holy Ghost Fathers (Catholic missionaries) to Nigeria that began in December 1885 and ended in February 1970 recorded great successes. Yet, the mission was chequered with suspicion, quarrels, litigations, imprisonment, sickness, death and deportation.
1) Their prophetic stance on justice and equality of all men and women was the cause of their many palavers. Just like Jesus demanded of his disciples, the Holy Ghost Fathers missionaries were ever ready to defend the weak, the defenseless, the poor and the unjustly treated.
2) Their first rift with the colonial government, the Royal Niger Company ‘RNC’ (that held brief for England), was as a result of their stand against RNC’s expolitative and inhuman policies and actions against the natives. In 1901, Lord Lugard even told the missionaries that it was too early to teach the natives that all human persons are equal. (cf. C.S.E. B/192/A/03, Letters Lower Niger, 1886 -1920, Lugard to Lejeune). This is in a bid to maintain the false superiority of Europeans over Africans, and so sustain the program of colonialism.
3) In all these, the missionaries remained steadfast on their prophetic position. The colonial government replied them with confrontations, restrictions and litigations. In 1889 they banned the missionaries from ransoming slaves and later forbade them from extending their mission to Northern Nigeria against their plan. It was in this light that the missionaries nicknamed the colonialists the “African devils”.
4) Some obnoxious customs and traditions like the killing of twins, ritual killing, torturing of human beings, suppression of women and so on brought the missionaries in unending conflict with the natives. Their interventions and unwavering insistence on justice and human rights won them more enemies than friends. Yet, they remained unfazed.
5) The climax of it all was their role(s) during the Nigeria-Biafra war. The missionaries were the ones that made the horrors of the war known to the world. When the Nigerian government blocked air, land and all roads leading to Biafra, the missionaries constructed the make-shift airports at Uli and Uga through which food and medicine were delivered to the starving and dying Biafrans. Of course, not a few of their planes were shot down and their pilots killed.
6) As hunger and diseases were about wiping out the people, the missionaries turned their churches and schools into hospitals, relief and refugee centres. Every one of them became a nurse and a food distributor. They buried the dead and consoled the bereaved. They attended to the needy irrespective of their denomination or religious affiliation.
7) At the beginning of the war, the Nigerian government gave them the permission to leave the country but they decided to stay with their flock. Fr Paddy, one of the Irish missionaries I met in Dublin in 2008 told me that they were prepared to die with their flock. “A good shepherd does not run away in times of danger,” he said.
8) Because of the roles they played during the war, the American _News Week_ of 23 September 1968 declared that, “never before has the face of Catholicism appeared so attractive.”
9) But their actions during the war did not go without consequences. They were all rounded up by the Nigerian government, charged and convicted of illegal entry into the country and imprisoned in Port-Harcourt, including Bishop Joseph Whelan. They were later given the option of fine and eventually expelled from Nigeria on 18 February, 1970. (See Secretary General to the Ordinaries, 13 April, 1970).
10) Let us not forget that this was a war that ended with the chants of “no victor, no vanquished” and the 3 Rs (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reintegration) that were never implemented. What a hypocrisy! A nation built on lies, deceit and false propaganda can hardly stand.
11) 50 years after the deportation of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the values they stood for and suffered for still persist in different forms and shapes. If the missionaries were here today they would have continued to maintain their stand on justice, truth and equality of all men and women, even at the cost of their lives.
12) I still wonder why the Nigerian church has not dedicated February 18 to remembering the sacrifices of these shepherds and also to use this day in asking for God’s forgiveness on behalf of our nation for the ill treatment and humiliation meted to those who dedicated their lives to serve and save Nigerians. If the Nigerian army could set aside January 15, which was the exact date that the Biafran soldiers surrendered to the Nigerian soldiers, as a day to remember the fallen soldiers during the war (Armed Forces Day), why can’t we do the same to our own heroes? I mean, we should set aside a day to remember the priests, nuns, seminarians, catechists, pilots and volunteers who lost their lives. What of the over a million children that died of starvation? Is there any law forbidding us from honouring and praying for the dead?
13) What happened to those aircrafts that were shot down during the war? Why do we not have a museum that will tell the story of the Church’s charitable roles during the war? What of the feeding/relief centres established to feed the hungry and to take care of the sick? Can we still locate the spots they stood?
14) How else do we show gratitude to all the missionaries and all the people and organisations that sent food, money and drugs to save our people if we do not preserve those monuments and recount those stories? The Uli and Uga airports should have been reconstructed as ecclesiastical/national monuments. It is still not late to do that now.
15) Recounting these events and stories would help the Church of today to constantly examine herself on her commitment to her mission, especially as it pertains to justice and being faithful to her prophetic mission. This is despite the consequences of such mission.
16) “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). If they persecuted your heroes in the faith, they will also persecute you when you do what they did. A Church that is afraid of persecution is like a soldier afraid of war.
17) The prophetic stance maintained by the Holy Ghost Fathers missionaries throughout their mission in Nigeria was already acquired in the course of their seminary training. We should begin early to train our seminarians to detest anything that stands in contrast to justice as preached by our Lord Jesus Christ.
18) A Church that is not being persecuted (due to it’s prophetic stance) in a nation that has been indicted severally by Amnesty International for it’s human rights abuses; a Church that is comfortable in a nation that is notorious for it’s executive rascality, judicial witch-hunting and leadership ineptitude, should reexamine itself to find out what it is not doing right.
19) A Church that depends most times on the same politicians that have impoverished Nigeria(ns), or on men and women of questionable wealth, or even on incessant monetary collection for the realisation of it’s projects, can hardly be prophetic. We must learn to _cut our coat according to our material_ if we don’t want to lose our voice and consequently our saltiness.
20) Today being February 18, let us remember these men and women who risked their lives that we may live. Without their prophetic roles, many of us would not have been alive today. Let us learn from them. We must also remember that a Church that stops to talk (preach, prophesy and witness) will sooner or later stop to breath.
By Rev Fr Angelo Chidi Unegbu ([email protected])