HOW I ESCAPED FROM ASABA GENOCIDE – ARCHBISHOP CHUKWUMA
Archbishop of Enugu Anglican Diocese, Most Rev Prof Emmanuel Chukwuma who, penultimate week, retired from priesthood speaks about his 44 years priesthood, how he escaped the Asaba genocide and what should be done for Nigeria to return to its lost glory.
Did you retire because of age or years of service?
There is a statutory age in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that once you are 70 years old you retire. If you are a primate after 10 years whether you are 70 or not you retire. I am retiring as Archbishop with 10 years completed as Archbishop. I was a second term Archbishop and at the same time retiring at the age of 70, after serving as a Bishop for 34 years, excluding my time of priesthood. So, I’ve served as a priest for 44 years. I glorify and thank God for what I am today.
On his experience as of priest
It has been of great tremendous experience in the sense that I started as a Bishop in the Diocese of Bauchi, northern part of Nigeria. I spent about eight years there and came to Enugu to spend 26 years. I started as a missionary Bishop in Bauchi, which was not an easy task. I started from nothing in a Muslim area; 1990 to 1991, I experienced Christian and Muslim uproar with our churches burnt, houses burnt, many of our members killed, I was Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, chairman and my life was at risk. At that time God protected me, my Cathedral in Bauchi was burnt before I rebuilt it to a bigger one and also through God, founded churches in the whole of Bauchi and Gombe, Katagum, that’s Azere area and built a Cathedral in Gombe; founded churches in Ashaka up to Bilirri, Bollie, Dukuntim, Bambam, Maraba, and Ningi. I was busy planting churches that have now given birth to the Gombe Diocese.
Having built Bishop’s court in Bauchi, Cathedral in Bauchi and Gombe, I came to Enugu and there was no Bishop’s court. Thanks be to God for Bishop Otubelu, my predecessor, who also suffered because he started from the civil war, since 1970, and with all these indigenes and non-indigenes syndrome, he couldn’t do much.
However, coming to Enugu, through God’s grace and with the support of my friends and the people, I was able to build the Bishop’s court which is one of the best in Nigeria. The foundation was laid in 1999 by the then Prelate, Most Rev Timothy Adetiloye. After that I started with the Cathedral and built the Cathedral and through God’s grace it has been working. We mobilised funds and built a hospital, Diagnostic Center, schools, printing press, established Micro-finance bank and churches all over the place. We are also building a convent school. We began to expand the frontiers of Anglican Communion in Enugu State to the point that Enugu State now knows that Anglican communion is really the place. So we have a lot to thank God for, the priest, laity, and friends that supported us in the ministry. Sometimes some people can be so conspiring and treacherous but many of them have repented and apologized. So I’ve forgiven all those who offended me and those whom I offended through my work, I say forgive me. Now, I’m happy retiring with Enugu Diocese not as bad as I met it, not as poor as I met it and I feel fulfilled and thank God that I now have time to go and rest and establish a foundation for the poor, the less privileged, widows that I can help some people and do my lecturing.
Is it true you were once a Catholic?
No! People make mistakes. I attended a Roman Catholic school, St Aquinas College Akure, just like College of Immaculate Conception, CIC, here in Enugu. If somebody attends CIC, must he be a Roman Catholic? But you find that it was made compulsory for everybody to behave like a Roman Catholic and because of my attitude and way of life, I speak Latin, the Irish Fathers loved me and so they put me in charge of the Sacristy.
At that time I was serving Mass, we were all made to attend the chapel, whether you are a Roman Catholic or not, it was compulsory. So, I was influenced a bit by the Roman Catholic doctrine, which was an eye opener and my father therefore said why don’t I become a reverend father because of the way I served Mass and followed the reverend fathers for evangelism.
My father wanted me to be a lawyer and some people wanted me to be a Reverend Father. I started teaching, from teaching I was to read law in the University of Ife but I went into Theology because during the civil war I was one of those that would have been killed in the Asaba genocide but God saved my life.
In 1967 I was to be killed among those that were killed but God saved my life. When they were shooting, I fell down and in the night I escaped. So, I experienced the genocide of the Nigeria civil war. I saw war with my eyes, I saw blood with my eyes, and it was a serious genocide. Innocent people in my Asaba area were killed for nothing except that we were ‘Ajukwu’ brothers (Ojukwu brothers), that was what they were saying. My father’s first house in Asaba was burnt down, many of our houses were burnt, many of our relatives were burnt, many of our kindred were killed unnecessarily and many of our women were forcefully married by the soldiers. It was such a terrible thing that when I remember it I shed tears especially when they are doing Armed Forces Remembrance Day.
I feel that Nigeria still has to apologize to the Asaba people and to the Eastern part of Nigeria for the genocide and war. That was the reason I said that January 15, which is my birthday, Nigeria should be celebrating it as a day of mourning and forgiveness, asking God for forgiveness and thanksgiving for the end of the war. Remember that in the Bible when God destroyed the world with water Noah prayed to God and he stopped the war of water and Noah praised and thanked God for it. So if war has ended we should be able to say father thank you for the war that ended but rather than doing it what you see now is selectiveness against the Igbo. We are being neglected, sidelined and nobody is thinking about what we suffered during the civil war. This is unfortunate and I feel that President Bola Tinubu, if they could do something to MKO Abiola and honour him, the people of Asaba should be honoured with a day of forgiveness, thanksgiving and then a lot of things should be done in memory and compensation for the Eastern part of Nigeria for the civil war.
How did the Asaba genocide actually happen?
The Nigerian soldiers were to cross the River Niger and when they came they couldn’t cross. They said there was a goddess in the River called Onishee who would come out and their boat would sink because at that time the bridge had collapsed. So, the soldiers got angry and said that there were some Biafran soldiers among us. In fact, they separated us, I was about 14 years. They separated the women and said that all of us, the male, should be lined up and killed. In the course of the shooting I fell down and corpses fell on me. That was how I escaped.
When I spoke Yoruba, one of the soldiers said ‘are you a Yoruba man?’ And I said yes and that was how they rescued me. The soldiers were tall, we called them Gongola, gwodogwodo! Some of them said it was because of Chukwuma Nzeogwu, who was not from Asaba really, he was from Ika Ibo, but they still dealt with us and that’s unfortunate. To God be the glory we survived.
What do you think is the reason General Yakubu Gowon is yet to say anything about the civil war?
Gowon is very apologetic and that was why he started Nigeria Prays and we have to commend him for that. That Nigeria Prays was to revive the spirit of the people back from the civil war and to reconcile people back to God and to go on with one Nigeria.
On easterners asking General Gowon to tender an open apology
He has done it many times when he was doing Nigeria Prays, and moving around. He apologized but that’s not enough. The Nigerian government should do that because the Nigeria civil war dealt with us in Asaba, it was a real genocide and we’re asking for apology and compensation as they do in other places.
What is your message to Nigeria as you take a bow in priesthood?Nigeria should be a country for all of us, not a country for just one person. There should be no segregation, nobody should be neglected, and there should be equal rights and justice. Equity and justice must prevail. The Igbo must be given the same opportunity to serve Nigeria and corruption must cease. We must stop all these deceit in government. Parliament has been turned into self-centered composition; there should be no sycophancy in government. Something must be done to save Nigeria from calamity.