In recent weeks, I have received some write-ups in the social media of some few individuals, trying to interpret the struggle for freedom and self-determination currently being championed in the former Eastern region of Nigeria by youths of the pro-Biafra movement, as something with a hidden religious agenda. Although, some of the critics of the pro-Biafra youths may have good intention, especially, when they express fear of religious proselytism, accusing the pro-Biafra youths of having some ulterior motives, e.g., working to supplant Christianity in the region with Judaism / re-introduce African Traditional Religion (ATR). However, from hindsight and as can be discerned so far, there is nothing to show that a hidden agenda of this kind exist at all in the current quest of these our young people to achieve freedom and self-determination for their people and land.
Again, the critics of the pro-Biafra youths may have genuine reasons by pointing out those things they consider as excesses of some members of the youth group. This, however, should not lead to an outright condemnation of the group and its ideals. The fact is that as things are today in Nigeria, the country is at the threshold of its history. And as is often the case in the story of many other nation-states, youths and their movements, have often been the engine force in bringing about the new change any nation needs at its critical moment in history. This is the reality on the ground today in Nigeria.
Caveat: I write on this issue of national importance as a concerned citizen. I have no relationship whatsoever with the youth group in question. My only concern here is how to make our country work again, contribute through my writings on how to help the leadership of the country find a modus operandis for purposeful leadership and workable political system.
It is becoming clearer nowadays that one of our major problems in Nigeria is non-recognition of the place of pressure groups and youth movements in nation-building. To this must be added the neglect of the irreplaceable role of university professors, intellectuals, researchers, scientists, lawyers, journalists as well as independent public opinion moulders, in nation-building, especially in the areas of technological, scientific and social development of the country.
For many years, since the military incursion into the political leadership of Nigeria, the country appeared to have relegated to the background, the important place and role of above professional groups and movements in nation-building. Since then, the pillar, and main advisers and drivers of our political class have remained military establishment and some powerful traditional and religious leaders. Although, these are important institutions in any given society, yet their role should have remained ceremonial as in many developed countries.
The government ought to be working in close-relationship with the world of academia, research institutes, professional associations and intellectuals. It ought also to have realized that pressure groups, such as Labour Union, Teachers’ Association, Lawyers’ Association, Youth and Women Movements, etc., are important driving engine in the social transformation of any given nation. I believe that if Nigerian government has been working in close-relationship with the leadership of the professional associations, they could have been better advised on how to go about in addressing the issues of national concern some pressure groups, like pro-Biafra youth movement are raising today.
Our present article is part of our contribution towards the ongoing national debate for workable political structure and system in Nigeria. There is no doubt that today more than ever, Nigeria is in dire need of a new political system and leadership, capable of making every citizen of the country’s diverse cultural, religious and ethnic nationalities, feel belonged and proud to call himself or herself a citizen of the country. Today as things are, many Nigerians are feeling alienated from the Nigerian state. That means that many citizens do not feel again any emotional link with the Nigerian state.
As a concerned citizen, one cannot fold his arms and watch things degenerate to this level in the country, without making his own quota of how to address the impasse, no matter how insignificant such a contribution could be. In nutshell, this is the primary reason for our interest in the present article, in undertaking to address the issue of the significance of the pro-Biafra youth movement in the present-day Nigeria.
There is no Religious Agenda in the Struggle of the Youth
The critics of the pro-Biafra youths claim that the group’s intention is to bring Judaism in Igboland and to re-introduce the practice of worship of Traditional African Religion (ATR) in the region. That the youth movement is simply using the agitation for Biafra as a cover-up to achieve this “sinister” objective. Again, some of the critics suggest that, in order to critically, access the danger posed by the pro-Biafra youth group to Christianity in Igboland, it is better to be on the ground at home and see things yourself.
However, these are genuine concerns, no doubt. But at the same time, there may be need to add that they are also mere perceptions and therefore, the need to advise the individuals who express such fears about the pro-Biafra group that there is nothing to worry about. This is because there is nothing to fear about the struggle of our present young generation, who are working night and day, sacrificing everything, including their lives in order to dialogue with the government and international community, to secure liberty and self-determination for their people.
History abound with examples of such efforts by young people in other places in the past. How at the peak of their struggle, were accused in the same way by the same people they were trying to liberate. Moses suffered the same fate in the Bible, and so was our Lord Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King Jr, M. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, among others. These individuals were misunderstood by their own people. Even the executors of French Revolution, were not spared of such criticism. In fact, they were criticized heavily even by their own clergy and respected members of French Noble class.
Today, however, history is on the side of the once maligned youth movements of the past eras. The same stones used to malign them and their famous historical figures, later were used to build monuments in their honour. Thus, the question we must ask ourselves today is: ‘Are we sure similar thing will happen with the present pro-Biafra youth movement and their leaders?’
Furthermore, one of the things very interesting with the pro-Biafra youth movement is that a good percentage of their fellowship resides in the diaspora. Because of this, some condemn them, claiming that the diasporan members who support the clamour for self-determination and freedom as championed by the youth group, do not know the reality on the ground and are therefore not qualified to discuss the issue at stake.
But those who hold this view should not forget that even those at home need the awareness, courage, support and determination of their people living in foreign lands, to liberate themselves and fatherland. Europe during the World War II, was liberated by the American-Europeans living in the US and Canada. Italy (under feudal regime), Spain (during the dictatorship of General Franco), were liberated by their people living in Latin America. There are many of such examples where citizens in diasporas where the ones that liberated their homeland from tyrannical regime and colonialism.
Most of these our young people living in foreign lands today, through their contacts with other peoples and cultures, and also constant contact with the suffering people and relatives at home, have acquired better grasp of the situation than most of their fellow citizens at home. You may be living in your house but ignorant of the treasures or landmines buried underneath. This is why many of African people before the advent of Europeans in our land did not know what abundant mineral and natural resources God had blessed us with in Africa. Even up till now, many are still ignorant of the value and how to put into use, the mineral and natural resources at their backyard.
So, the fact that one is on the ground at home does not translate into anything until one knows what he has and the capacity to put it into practice. This is what the youths have challenged us with in Nigeria today. That is, outside the other issues they raise. Socrates summarized the beginning of wisdom thus: “Man know thyself.” Our young people through their contact with the civilized world are today doing everything possible to liberate their people back home. They need our support and prayers. Government also needs to listen and engage in constructive dialogue with them. The ultimate aim is how to better the condition of our suffering poor masses in the Nigerian nation.
In fact, as Mandela once said, “these young Africans are coming to you, not for alms, but for support in their struggle for justice and freedom in their homeland.” Therefore, the young people who are shouting and chanting freedom songs in our streets, markets, and even places of worship are not ‘hooligans’, but normal human beings like you and me, asking for support and understanding in their struggle for freedom and self-determination of their people. They are sacrificing their precious lives and time for the common good. Even when they appear to be overdoing it, they need understanding and prudent solicitations.
All this means that the current struggle of our young people to achieve self-determination for the people in the former Eastern region, and by implication for every other group in Nigeria that feel marginalized by the current socio-political and economic structure of the country, has nothing to do with religious sentiments. Those who are invoking religious sentiments are yet to understand what is at stake. The fact is that Igbo people, for example, as well as many other groups in the former Eastern region, have decided for Christianity and there is no going back on that.
In other words, the accusation that the pro-Biafra youth group may be trying to re-introduce the ancestral religion of our forebears (ATR) and Judaism in the Eastern region, in my view, is very unfair. I don’t think that the pro-Biafra group, at least, their leadership, has such a hidden religious agenda in their quest for the self-determination of their people.
However, since this is the most delicate and serious aspect of the criticisms so far levelled against the group by Igbo people themselves, there is every need to refute it and assure the people that such a religious agenda is never in the mind of the group and its leadership. Religion is the most sensitive aspect of our political and cultural climate in Nigeria today. We are still grappling with the fear of many, accusing the present federal government of Nigeria of a hidden agenda to impose Islam all over the country. Therefore, every effort should be made to avoid introducing religious sentiments and bigotry in the quest for freedom and self-determination of the people in Eastern Nigeria.
Again, in Igboland, the people have accepted Christianity as their unifying religion. They have united themselves under the umbrella of Christianity. Apart from the traditional religion of our ancestors (ATR), Christianity is today the religious identity of Igbo people, wherever they live in the world, home and abroad. This Christian religious identity of the Igbo, therefore, must be safeguarded, as well as protected by all and sundry, even as we seek self-determination and freedom for our people.
The Need to Dialogue with ATR
One best way to safeguard the Christian religious identity of the Igbo, for example, is to promote constructive dialogue (in theological and sociological discourse) between Christianity and ATR. This means to promote positive values of ATR in the meeting of Christianity with African reality and in the work of inculturation of Christian message itself in our land. The fact is that ATR is the religious background from which our ancestors, and indeed all of us, came, and from which we were introduced into Christianity. It is the religious tradition of our forebears through which Christianity was introduced in Africa.
Nowadays, many renowned scholars, historians, social scientists, Biblical experts and theologians have attested the affinity of some of the cultural practices recorded in the Old Testament with African culture and traditional religion. In the Catholic Church, for example, especially, since Vatican Council II, the Church promotes both inculturation and dialogue with ATR, as well as dialogue with Judaism. In fact, since Vatican II, the Church has never condemned the traditional religion or cultures of African people but rather sees them as the Providential prepared ground (“praeparatio evangelica“”), put in place by God in His Divine Wisdom to aid the Gospel proclamation in Africa (cf. LG n. 15).
Therefore, in discussing ATR in the context of the present clamour for freedom and self-determination of the people, the emphasis should be directed, above all, to promoting dialogue between Christianity and the traditional religion of African forebears. In this case, one must proceed from the evangelization standpoint, to show how the Providence has prepared the forebears of Africa in their religious tradition and culture for the reception of Christian Message through the proclamation of the Gospel.
This means that, there is urgent need for our clergy, religious and lay faithful in Africa, and especially in Igboland, at this most critical period of our history as a people, to make a positive evaluation of ATR, and to begin to promote work of inculturation and dialogue between Christianity and the African religion. The new phenomenon of mad-rush of our local populace to healing and prayer centres of charlatan pastors in our towns and cities, is a sign that Christianity is today living with a deformed African traditional religiosity in our land.
Thus, it is not enough to sit at home and criticize the pro-Biafra youth members. We should do our own part to educate the people on what is authentic about our traditional religion and where it harmonizes with our new Christian faith. This is the challenge of inculturation and dialogue between Christianity and the African ancestral religion. In other words, we should begin to learn how to evaluate positively our traditional religion and culture, as a Providential prepared ground for an authentic planting of the Christian Message in Africa.
Luckily, this effort to promote dialogue between Christianity and ATR received a great boost from the Popes, especially, since Vatican Council II. For example, Pope St. Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter “Africae terrarum” (addressed to the People of Africa in 1967), was very positive about ATR. The document “Africae terrarum” was the first post-Vatican II Apostolic Letter ever addressed to African people immediately after the Council. According to Pope St. Paul VI:
“The teaching of Jesus Christ and His redemption constitute, in fact, the fulfilment and the perfect end of all good things which exist in human tradition. This is why the African, becoming Christian, does not have to deny himself, but recovers old values “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) (see Paul VI, Apostolic Message “Africae terrarum“, n. 14).
The significant thing about Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Message “Africae terrarum“, is that the document appeared shortly after the publication of the encyclical “Ecclesiam suam“, and the establishment of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). In particular, however, the publication of “Africae terrarum” of Paul VI, was an important and powerful response by the Pope himself towards the actualization of the teaching of the Council in the African context. The document inspired the consultation on ATR initiated by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and which resulted in the publication of yet another document by the same Vatican Dicastery in 1968 on ATR, titled: “Meeting African Religions.”
Twenty years later, Cardinal Francis Arinze (the then President of PCID), sent out a letter about the necessity of promoting prudent dialogue and pastoral attention to followers of ATR as well as to African Christians converted from the traditional religion. This is with a view of encouraging the ongoing work of inculturation in Africa through dialogue with the African religion. The title of the Cardinal Arinze’s Letter is, “Pastoral Attention to the Followers of African Traditional Religion.” In this Letter, Cardinal Arinze spelt out the aim of the Church’s pastoral attention and encouragement of scientific research on ATR.
Moreover, in his African Report and intervention at the Synod of Bishops, XII General Assembly on the Word of God and the Life and Mission of the Church, Cardinal John O. Onaiyekan, relates ATR to Christianity within the context of the theology of “semina Verbi and praeparatio evangelica“. Citing the First Synod of Bishops, Special Assembly for Africa, he said:
“But the basic truth is that the Supreme Being, Creator of Heaven and Earth is the target of the worship and prayers of our African Traditional Religion. The basic norms of morality in these religions, imperfect though they may be, reflect rays of ‘the light which enlightens every mind’ (John 1:9). All this has not been without the grace of God, as Vatican II clearly states” (LG 15).
Thus, for the African Bishops, the value of ATR is its role as ‘Providential prepared ground’ for the eventual reception of the Gospel Message in Africa. That is, the African religion serving as a welcoming environment and a fertile soil for such announcement of the Word of God (cf. John Paul II, “Ecclesia in Africa“, n. 57).
In fact, in the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II, the need for positive dialogue and prudent evaluation of ATR, is highly emphasized. According to Pope St. John Paul II:
“A serene and prudent dialogue with ATR will be able on the one hand, to protect Christians from the negative influences which condition the way of life of many of them, and on the other hand, to foster the assimilation of the positive values such as belief in a Supreme Being who is Eternal, Creator, Provident and Just Judge, values which are readily harmonized with the content of the faith. They can even be seen as a preparation for the Gospel, because they contain precious ‘semina Verbi’ which can lead, as already happened in the past, a great number of people to be open to the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel” (John Paul II, “Ecclesia in Africa”, n. 67).
What all this means is that even though one should be careful not to confuse our Judeo-Christian Biblical world with that of the traditional religions, because they are not the same since there are basic divergences and differences between the two religious traditions. Yet, the attitude of the Church towards Non-Christian Religions, especially since Vatican II, should inspire every Christian, especially priests and religious in Africa to speak with reverence and respect about the religious heritage of our forebears. This is because, it is the religous background through which God in His Divine Wisdom and Providence, made it possible for us to receive the Christian Message in our land.
Without ATR, Christianity has no other interlocutor in our land, in Africa. Moreover, ATR was the religion of our ancestral forebears, and for that reason, it deserves respect and reverence on part of every true African. ATR still provides us Africans, the ingredients and religious idioms through which we live and inculturate the Gospel Message in our lives and land. Without it, there will be religious vacuum in Africa on which to anchor the Gospel Message.
Promoting Dialogue with the Jews
Another thing the critics of pro-Biafra group are worried about is the group appreciation of Jewish State of Israel and Judaism. However, as Christians, we are invited to speak with reverence and respect about the Jewish religion (also known as Judaism). To speak with disrespect against Judaism is to portray one’s ignorance that our Christian religion is first and foremost, based on Judeo-Christian revelation of God in the Old and New Testaments.
This is why, since Vatican Council II, the documents of the Catholic Church on interreligious dialogue, describes the Jews as our “Elder Brethren” in the Abrahamic faith. In fact, recently, the Vatican has modified the old form of the Holy Week Prayer of intercession. The Church no longer prays that form of prayer that calls for the “conversion of the Jews.” It has changed it to reflect the Church’s new spirit of dialogue and openness to other religious and cultural traditions.
What this means in effect is that our people should not be worried about the association a section of our young people are beginning to make (especially, pro-Biafra youth movement), with regard to the ancestral relationship between the Israelis and Igbo people. There is no doubt that our youths do this as part of their bid to show how some elements of our African (Igbo) traditional culture appear to be very close to the Jewish Old Testament practices. As noted before, even renowned scholars in various fields of studies, both Africans and Europeans testify to this obvious fact.
There are observable close links between some Jewish practices as recorded in Old Testament and our African tradition and culture. Today, our youths often make reference to this link in their attempt to solicit the support of the State of Israel in the Biafran struggle. One should not see this approach of our young people as something wrong. We should not forget that the State of Israel was one of the few countries during the Nigeria-Biafra war, which came to our aid in no significant ways.
In addition, the Israeli organizations in US did a lot of charitable contribution to help the Biafran refugees and kwashiokor starving children during the war. That is just few examples of how Israel, values the plight of our people in the Nigerian State, especially, since the Biafran pogroms and the civil war. That means that as a people, we should desist from interpreting the appeal of the pro-Biafra youth movement to the Jewish State of Israel, to mean supplanting Christianity in our land with Judaism or at worst, ATR. For me, it is an unfounded fear.
It is high time we begin to distinguish the struggle for freedom and self-determination from religious wranglings. Even in Israel, religious proselytism has never been identified as being in the agenda of the Israeli State or any individual Jew for that matter. Rather their main preoccupation as a people and state is about security and freedom of their people and nation-state. Israel or followers of Judaism are not interested in proselytism anywhere or among any people in the world.
Thus, if today some Igbo youths have embraced Judaism, they have done so out of their personal volition and curiosity towards understanding the Igbo claim to have originated from Biblical Patriarch Abraham. Nothing more, nothing less. This implies that the struggle for self-determination in the former Eastern region of Nigeria has nothing to do with religious sentiments some few individuals are trying to fan.
This implies that we should avoid the temptation to confuse the cry of our young people for freedom and self-determination with their running to the Jewish state of Israel to seek help or aid in that regard. This approach of the pro-Biafra youth group shouldn’t be interpreted as an attempt to convert our people to Judaism. Those who think in this way should not forget the ancestral and historical link that Israel has always had with the people especially, since the Biafran War.
We may need to educate ourselves once more of the ancestral tie Igbo race had, from time immemorial, claimed to have with the people Israel. In addition, the road to freedom is not an easy and smooth one. It is a rough road that leads to freedom. Many things go-in-between in that long route to freedom. This means that the cordial relationship the pro-Biafra youth group are trying to establish with the State of Israel, is part of the struggle of a people seeking freedom and self-determination.
Some Historical Facts
Till date, Igbo people make allusion to their ancestral mythology, which says that they are descendants of the Biblical Patriarch. Precisely from Eri, who was one of the sons of Jacob (Israel)! The Bible mentioned Eri (the progenitor of Igbo people) as one of the sons of Gad, who was one of the twelve sons of Israel (see Genesis 46:16; Numbers 26:16). Igbo people go on to confirm this conviction by appealing to the many identical cultural and religious elements practiced among the Jews and the Igbo.
This is about the strong myth among the Igbo concerning the founder of their race, the man called Eri. The people held that during the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, Eri led a group that migrated southward and finally settled at the present location of Aguleri at the bank of Anambra River. It is from there that he founded the Igbo race.
This is a common myth among the Igbo. According to the British-Nigerian historian, Elizabeth Isichie, these are oral traditions, archeological evidences, and Biblical testimonies about the migration and settlement of Eri with his entourage at a place near Anambra River, later called Aguleri.
Today, the collective ancestral temple of the children of Eri is located in that original spot in Aguleri where he settled when he landed first there about 5000 years ago. This collective ancestral temple is the “OBUGA” Palace Square in Enugu Aguleri. “OBUGA” (Obu-Ga) is a temple dedicated to the memory of Gad, the father of Eri. For Aguleri people, “Obu-Ga” is the ‘home of Ga’. “Obu” means home and “Ga” is the owner of the home. The word “Ga” is the Igbo rendering of Gad, who is one of the twelve sons of Israel, the father of Eri, who is the founder of Igbo race. Inside “OBUGA” Shrine, archeologists have recently discovered some inscriptions in old Hebrew language, representing the twelve tribes of Israel.
Therefore, if these Igbo youths of pro-Biafra groups are pointing towards Israel in their quest for freedom and self-determination of their people today, there is a very strong Biblical and historical support backing them.
Although, as young people, one may not rule out evidence of exuberance and sometimes, overzealousness in the pursuit of their chosen mission. In this case, however, it is the function of the sages and elders of the society as well as political elites, the ruling class to try to understand the pro-Biafra youth movement, advice, and dialogue with the members through their leaders with prudence and respect.
Calling our youths who are sacrificing everything to obtain freedom and self-determination for their people, hooligans (or worse still, terrorists), is not the best of language or approach to adopt at this critical moment of our history in Nigeria. In fact, this is one of the biggest mistakes our political, traditional and even religious leaders are making today in their relationship and interpretation of the activities of the pro-Biafra youth movement.
Furthermore, describing their activities as rascality, shows how far we are from imbibing the culture of corrective language in making a public statement when confronted with a situation and challenge these youths have brought to our doorpost. It is high time we learn the culture of how to choose words for public statements whenever confronted with public disturbance and non-violence protest. This will help one put into right perspective, the noble course these young people are pursuing on behalf of our people and land.
Again, we should not forget that a good number of them (pro-Biafra youths) have paid the ultimate price with their lives already. Yet, they are not deterred. They have continued to push ahead, and as things are now, there is every indication to believe that they are not ready to pipe down until the objective is achieved. Therefore, anybody despising them may be making the gravest mistake.
The fact is that as things are today in the country, the Nigerian state is in the threshold of its historical existence. The present generation of our young people, armed with the Internet and modern information technology, and with many of them living in diasporas (foreign land), have started to come to grip with the history of their people’s plight in Nigeria and world over. They are coming to the realization of their place and that of their people in the community of nations, and how their knowledge and experience could be used to better organize their homeland.
The earlier we learn how to dialogue with these young people in our midst, the better for the future of our country.
Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He runs a column on The Trent. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.