By Rev. Fr. John Odey
Joseph F. Girzone is a Catholic Priest in the United States of America who retired from active priestly work in 1986 for health reasons and took residence in New York City where he devoted his time to writing spiritual novels. In his book, *Joshua in the Holy Land,* Joshua, the main character of the book, addressing a crowd of people who were remnants of a war that had left death, blood, tears and sorrow behind its trail, lamented:
“We have come here battered and bruised and hurting, not because of something God has done, but because of what we have done to one another. I saw two children this morning. One was blind and the other was crippled. They were playing together and laughing and having fun, as children should. One was an Arab, the other a Jew, but they did not know that; they were friends. The Arab child had been shot in the head by a soldier’s bullet, the Jewish child wounded by a terrorist’s grenade. But they were too small to know hatred, and vengeance was still foreign to them. They were just friends playing together and sharing their cookies and candy.”
There was never a time when Nigeria was a perfect world of its own. Nevertheless, it is not an overstatement to say that a time was when Nigerian children played together and laughed together like the Arab and the Jew in this story without caring to know whether their playmates were Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Tiv, Ijaw and so on. But today, we are “here battered and bruised and hurting” because of the harm we have done to ourselves by sowing the seeds of religious bigotry and tribal hatred in our hearts. Today, we have pinned our country down in the mud of retrogression, corruption and bloodbath because we insist that the man from our own tribe or religion must be the president whether he won the election or not, and even if he is a criminal. The country is bleeding because our leaders feign ignorance when people from their tribe go about killing innocent people who do not belong to their own tribe or religion. The country is hurting because our leaders are more interested in gaining undue advantage over those who do not belong to their tribe and religion to ensure their perfect control of every situation.
Here is a case in point: In the 17th part of my serial article, *The State of the Nation,* which was published in my column in *The Voice* newspaper (published in Ebonyi State), of July 10, 2016, I reviewed President Buhari’s first major appointment which gave the impression that only the North and Islam make up Nigeria. Here is the list of that appointment:
President Buhari (North); Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, (North); National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguna (North); Chief of Air Staff, Abubakar Sadique (North); Director-General of the Department of State Services (DSS), Mamman Daura (North); Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai (North); Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali (North); Minister of Police Affairs (North); Managing Director, National Inland Waterways Authority (North); Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau (North); Comptroller General of Immigration, Muhammed Babandede (North); Comptroller General of Customs, Colonel Hameed Ibrahim Ali (North); Comptroller General of Nigeria Prisons Service, Ahmed Ja’Afaru (North); Commandant General of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, Abdullahi Gana Muhammadu (North); Chairman of the Econonic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu, (North); President’s Chief of Staff (North); Secretary to the Government of the Federation (North); Senate President and Speaker, House of Representatives (North).
In contrast, while these 18 vital positions went to the North, mostly Muslims, the whole of the South had the following six positions: Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo (South West); Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu (South-South); Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina (South West); Chief of Defence Staff (South West); Chief of Naval Staff (South-South); Director-General of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA (South West).
None of the vital posts was given to the Igbo, the endangered species of the Nigerian polity. Not even Dr. Oghonnaya Onu who has remained the most consistent and faithful member of APC was considered as the Secretary to the Federal Government. After this review, I wrote in that same article: “Habba, Mr. President, can’t you have mercy on the rest of fellow Nigerians! Does Nigeria belong to the North alone? What a lopsided political arrangement! Are you planning to overrun the country one day and then impose the whims and caprices of your kinsmen on all of us, willy-nilly? Even if you have some hidden agenda and so you are planting Northerners in all the strategic positions to facilitate your plan, don’t you think that you are opening the eyes of everybody and that such may provoke some resistance? Why must all the key positions be given to people from one section of the country? How does the president expect Nigerians from other sections of the country to feel comfortable with this silent war that he has declared on them? Can he now see why the MASSOB and the IPOB are restless? Can he now see why they are agitating that they want to opt out of Nigeria?”
The many wrongs which we did to one another, and which eventually crystallized in the Nigerian civil war left the country permanently broken and all of us permanently estranged. For an illustration, permit me to recount the blunder I committed in my first year as a senior seminarian in St. Augustine’s Seminary Jos, as a result of my loathing for unjust treatment. It happened in March 1978. I was the prefect of our class. There was one man called Mr. Winful who had a bakery on the outskirts of Jos town in a place called Bukuru. Mr. Winful was a Ghanaian. He was very generous to the seminarians. Every Monday and every Wednesday, his drivers brought cartons of large loaves of bread to the seminarians. The loaves of bread were always so many that each seminarian got a loaf.
As the prefect of our class, I was the person who distributed the loaves of bread. To ensure that there was orderliness in the distribution and that nobody was omitted, I wrote out the names of the members of the class in alphabetical order and distributed the loaves in that order. There was one seminarian called Paul Yerima. I have forgotten and so can only guess that he was from Kaduna Archdiocese. His surname came last on the list of the names of the classmates.
One day, as I was distributing the loaves of bread as usual, Paul Yerima approached me with rage. Pointing his fingers threateningly at my face, he said: “*Yamiri,* you have always given me the smallest loaf. I cannot understand why you hate me so much. What wrong have I done to you since you came to this school? By the way, what have you come here to do? Who brought you all the way to the North after you people had been defeated? Is there no seminary in Igboland? Why did you leave Igboland to come here to give me the smallest loaf? You *yamiri* people were chased away, and now you are back. Make sure you do not give me the smallest loaf again.”
I was incensed almost to the point of being mad at Yerima. Prior to this incident, reading Frederick Forsyth’s book, *The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story,* I was so horror-struck by the author’s account of how the Igbo were massacred in the North that I had to fight hard to hide my feelings. That book made me understand that the word yamiri is a Hausa derogatory version for the Igbo nyem miri – give me water. Having known the derogatory origin of that word, it was one of the words I did not want to hear from anybody. But that was precisely the word Paul Yerima habitually used on me each time I shared the bread given to us.
My reaction was swift and fierce. When Yerima approached me and pointed his fingers menacingly at my face, I slapped him with all the strength in me. Probably because he never expected such a reaction since that was not the first time he called me by that name, he fell on the ground like a lifeless log of wood. To my greatest dismay, in the midst of that brawl, the person who emerged next to the members of our class who were eyewitnesses to it was the school auxiliary, Hilary Iroegbu, by then a Rev. Deacon. At seeing the auxiliary, I melted like ice. This is the end of my vocation to the priesthood, I said to myself. The auxiliary did not wait to be invited to the scene of the fracas or for a report to be made to him. The incident took place in our classroom. He entered the classroom and asked to know what was wrong.
As fortune would have it, my classmates did not allow me to talk. As if they had all previously agreed on how to defend me prior to the arrival of the auxiliary, all of them told the auxiliary that Paul Yerima was wrong; that he had overstretched my patience beyond its elasticity by his insults; that he had made life very uncomfortable for me as a result of some loaves of bread; that he had persistently called me yamiri to the dismay of the members of the class who had warned him to desist from doing so; that there is hardly anybody in my position who could have reacted differently from the way I did as a result of Paul Yerima’s repeated threats. That was the end of that matter. My classmates, 99.9 percent of them from the North, saved me from being thrown out of the seminary. They saved my vocation to the priesthood – a vocation that was temporarily put in jeopardy by Paul Yerima’s tribal bigotry and my impetuous reaction to an unbearable unjust treatment by a fellow student.
To ensure that something like that never happened again, after that sad incident, I adopted Yamiri as a nickname. With time, the name became popular among my classmates. Later, it was abbreviated to Nyam. Till today some of my fellow priests (classmates) in the North, particularly the Bishop of Shendam, Most Rev. Dr. Philip Dung, can hardly call me any other name except *Nyam.* On Monday, May 16, 2022, when Bishop Dung and two other classmates, Rev. Fr. (Prof) Pius Ajiki and Rev. Fr. Steven Atawal, visited and spent three days with me, we made a big fun of the incident that gave me the name Nyam. When I embraced the derogatory name in the seminary, I became a happy person. Paul Yerima did not come to the seminary to become a priest. Sometime after that incident, the school vacated. That was the last time he was seen in the seminary.
We can now relate this story to the Igbo predicament in Nigeria. The number of years I was expected to spend in St. Augustine’s Seminary, Jos, reading philosophy and theology before my priestly ordination was definite unless there was some unforeseen happening. All I had to do was to read philosophy and theology and then return home to my diocese. I did not go there to make that place my permanent home. I did not go there with my father, mother and siblings. It was just a temporary home for me. For that reason, it was easy for me to adjust and take as a nickname the very insult that pierced my heart and put me on a rage until its caustic effect fizzled out. But something like that is not possible for the Igbo in Nigeria. They cannot adjust and accept the second-class citizenship that has been assigned to them since the end of the Nigerian civil war because Nigeria is their permanent home. As long as the world lasts they are here in this country called Nigeria. Even when by accident or coincidence of history Nigeria is given another name or is split into some banana republics, the Igbo will be here in this part of the country called Igboland. They are not here on pilgrimage. They are not here on some scientific research. They are here because Nigeria is their home, as it is the home of other Nigerians.
For this and many other reasons, I think that it will be good if those who have made up their minds that an Igbo man will never be the president of Nigeria, which is the primary reason for denying Mr. Peter Obi his electoral mandate, will have a rethink. The possibility is there that if the subdue-and-crush-the-Igbo mentality is not changed now that a younger generation of Nigerians, Igbo and non-Igbo, Christians, Muslims and people of other religious persuasions, are out to take back their country even at a great cost, the so-called non-negotiable unity of the country may suffer, not just disunity but disintegration. Nigerians cannot continue to suffer in the hands of relatively few evil people who are pillaging the country.
If the mighty voice of Prof Wole Soyinka had been added to the soul-searching voice of the Afenifere and many other prominent Yoruba people who have clearly distanced themselves from Tinubu’s deadly ambition and consequent electoral savagery, it would have helped in reminding Tinubu, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu and the five judges, who have stigmatized the judiciary, that an Igbo man who is voted in by Nigerians has the right to become the president of Nigeria. Since Soyinka decided to allow Tinubu to happen to him, it must be said that keeping the Igbo as the underdogs in Nigeria will not do good to the Igbo and to those who are on their necks. Anybody who makes himself a barrier to another person’s movement also stands the risk of curtailing his own movement. The design to hold the Igbo as hostages in Nigeria has not helped Nigeria in any way. To keep holding the Igbo down in Nigeria is counterproductive. It means denying them the opportunity to make their own contribution for the progress of the nation because they have tremendous contributions to make. Nigeria is like a tripod, a country standing on three legs. As long as one of the legs remains deliberately suppressed, it must continue to limp until it possibly collapses.
*To Be Continued in part 7*