by Edd Doerr
Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war has receded into history, all but forgotten and overshadowed by more recent messes. But there are things about it that need to be recorded but have never found their way into the history books. One way to begin to peel this onion is to reproduce verbatim a letter of mine that was published in the October 22, 1969, issue of Christian Century magazine. Let me note that the unnamed Nigerian educator mentioned in the letter’s second paragraph is Dr. Ernest Ukpabi, whom I knew back in the early 1950s. Ukpabi had recently earned his PhD at Brown University in Rhode Island. I invited this fellow Humanist and supporter of church-state separation to speak before our Indianapolis Humanist group about the Mau Mau affair in colonial Kenya. Shortly thereafter he returned to Nigeria and became an education official in the Rivers area of Nigeria’s Eastern Region. But before turning to the letter, let me jot down a hasty sketch of the history involved.
Nigeria achieved independence from Britain in 1960. In January of 1966 an attempted coup against the civil government by several young military officers caused the death of the prime minister and two of the four regional premiers. In the emergency the federal government handed over power to the armed forces. Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi then headed the Federal Military Government. A period of unrest followed. In July Ironsi was kidnapped and assassinated. Army Chief of Staff Lt. Col. Yakubu (Jack) Gowon assumed command. In May of 1967 the Eastern Region declared independence as the republic of Biafra. Lt Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu headed the breakaway state. Hostilities got under way in July when a Biafran B-26, apparently obtained illegally from France, bombed the Nigerian capital, Lagos. The war dragged on until Biafra’s surrender in January of 1970. Now to the letter.
“H.W. Turner’s ‘Religion in Nigeria’s Conflict’ (Sept. 10) provided valuable insights into that tragic civil war, but in concentrating on the problems caused by Islam in Northern Nigeria it passed over those caused by Catholic action in Eastern Nigeria.
“In January 1957 a prominent Ibo educator wrote me from the Rivers area that a movement was in full swing to make Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) a Catholic state. Eastern Nigeria is the largest Catholic stronghold in Africa, as Vietnam was and is in Asia. Before the 1966 coup that area endured many clashes over Catholic opposition to universal primary (public) education and growing Catholic control over education. By 1965 over half of all schools in Eastern Nigeria were tax-supported Catholic schools—used, as Bishop Mark Hurley of Los Angeles has written, as ‘instruments of evangelization.’
“On Jan. 11 of this year, at a conference on Biafra at Catholic University in Washington, Fr. Raymond Kennedy, an Irish priest high in Biafran circles, told me that the January 15, 1966, coup led by Catholic army officers that began the tragic chain of events occurred immediately after the Eastern regional parliament had approved a measure that would convert the Catholic schools to public schools. Some observers believe that this measure had a lot to do with the coup. In the Dec. 7 and Dec. 14 issues of Britain’s leading Catholic paper, the Tablet, Tom Burns, the editor, wrote that ‘the influence of the [Catholic] Church throughout the whole land [Biafra] is, however, out of all proportion to its numbers,’ and that Col. Ojukwu, a Catholic, ‘has chosen to use this religion as a rallying cry for resistance and an appeal to the outside world.’
“In December 1968 Archbishop Aggey and two other Nigerian bishops went to Rome ‘to protest to Pope Paul about the purported involvement of the Church in the Nigerian civil war’ (New York Post, Dec. 2, 1968). On Jan. 29, 1969, Joseph Tarka, Nigerian transport commissioner and one of the country’s top Catholic laymen, told the 21st annual U.S. Conference on Church and State that his and other churches in Nigeria had subverted religion and humanitarianism to political ends. And, as Stanley Meisler, the Los Angeles Times man in Africa, has confirmed, the Roman Catholic Church has been serving as Biafra’s public relations right arm.
“The evidence suggests that the Vatican is going all out to protect its missionary investment in Eastern Nigeria—the largest it has in Africa—and that elements within that church have been trying to make that area a Catholic state. Clericalists helped get us into Vietnam; we should be careful lest clericalist interests get us to send Green Berets to Africa.”
Now let me quote from Ukpabi’s 1957 letter to me: “Edd, trouble is brewing in Nigeria, particularly in the East. The Catholics are giving us hell about the introduction of universal primary education in this region. The usual shibboleth is being thrown about—such as “Education without religion is like a house without a foundation’ . . . Some Nigerian Catholics are really getting disgusted at what their ‘fathers’ are doing. In the election that is to be held on the 15th of March, the Catholics are openly to contest . . . There is a rumour around here that the head of the Catholic hierarchy in the Eastern region wrote the Pope a few years ago to say that, given ten more years, he could make East a Catholic state.”
Also of interest was this quote from Msgr. Mark J. Hurley in the 1969 Paulist Press study club edition of the Declaration on Christian Education of Vatican Council II. Hurley quoted a letter written by the head of the Nigerian Bishops Conference, Archbishop Charles Heeney of Onitsha in the then-Eastern Region of Nigeria, dated from early during the 1962-65 Council: “In Nigeria,” wrote Heeney, a member of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the main order in Eastern Nigeria, “the regional governments have frequently expressed their desire to take over the Catholic schools and make them . . . government schools . . . government pressure is increasing and the fate of the Catholic schools will probably be decided in the next five years. . . . The bishops hope that the [Second Vatican] Council will strengthen their hand to defend the schools . . . and convince governments that the Church is genuinely willing to cooperate and has a great contribution to make to the education of youth.”
To rewind a bit, I had joined the staff of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) in January of 1966, the same month as the Nigerian attempted coup. I spent much of early 1968 writing and publishing my first book, The Conspiracy That Failed (Americans United, 1968, 186 pp.), an account of the successful campaign in 1967 in New York to defeat a referendum on deleting the church-state separation clause (Art. XI, Sec. 3) from the state constitution. We won, 72% to 28%, in the first of a long chain of referendum victories over attempts to divert public funds to sectarian private schools.
During the summer of 1968 my AU colleague Gaston Cogdell had been dealing with a flood of inquiries regarding Catholic Church activity aimed at getting the United States to intervene in the Nigerian civil war on behalf of Biafra. The matter did not stir my interest until one day when my eight-year-old daughter, who had been rummaging through a box of old photos, found Ukpabi’s 1957 letter and brought it to me. “Daddy, I think this might be important,” she said. It was. The eleven-year-old letter connected a lot of dots.
I spent weeks researching the Nigerian conflict, reading, searching newspapers, interviewing, becoming acquainted with Nigerian ambassador Joe Iyala and press aide Jim Ochee. (The Nigerian embassy was only one block from my AU office at 1633 Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington).
The pieces began to fit together like a puzzle. The war was a tragedy. About two million people died before it ended. Politicians were talking about U.S. intervention on behalf of Biafra. The Nigerians were somewhat inept at publicity for their cause, while Catholic Church leaders were doing a good job of pushing theirs.
During the fall of 1968 I recall spending a couple of hours presenting our findings to staff at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and delivering material to Senator Edward Kennedy, who had been leaning toward intervention. Nixon was elected in November. The war was dragging on. On one occasion I was able to dissuade Nigerian students from a New England university who wanted to occupy the Nigerian embassy to protest what they regarded as the slow pace of the Nigerian government in ending the secession. I told them it would hurt more than help their cause.
As AU was to hold its annual conference in New York at the end of January 1969, Cogdell and I suggested to the Nigerian embassy that they provide a speaker to discuss the church-state angle of the war. The embassy agreed to assign some minor official to the task, but Cogdell and I told them that that was not good enough, that the speaker had to be a cabinet minister and a Catholic. It was agreed finally that the speaker would be Transport Commissioner Joseph Tarka, a prominent Catholic politician in the cabinet.
When Tarka arrived in Washington on January 27, 1969, after he had flown in from Rome, where he had sought unsuccessfully to have a chat with the pope, my wife and I had dinner with him and ambassador Iyala at the chancellery. Tarka was a quiet, imposing, British-educated gentleman in a finely-tailored Savile Row suit. (An aside: When the ambassador learned that my wife was from Colombia, he began reciting from memory some of H.G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind,” which was situated in that country.)
In an effort to be helpful to Tarka, I offered him my extensive notes on our research on the religious angle to the civil war, including suggestions for dealing with an American audience, adding that if my suggestions were presumptuous he should just disregard them.
When Tarka arrived in New York on Tuesday, January 29, for his address at the Park Sheraton Hotel, he wore a Nigerian dashiki. To my surprise he included all of my suggestions in his address, which was covered by the New York Times.
Following Tarka’s speech interest in U.S. intervention in the Nigerian civil war melted like ice in August. The conflict dragged on, with Biafra shrinking day by day, until the final surrender in January of 1970. Following the war life in Nigeria returned to something like normal, unlike the aftermath of our own civil war, still being argued over after a century and a half. Much has been written about the Nigerian conflict, the nitty-gritty of war and its “collateral damage,” but the religious angle goes unmentioned.
As the dust of war was settling, 62 Catholic missionaries—one bishop, 47 priests, and 14 nuns, most of them Irish and Italian – were convicted by a court in Port Harcourt on charges of illegal entry into Nigeria’s Eastern States and deported.
Nigeria’s civil war is buried in the past, but the Vatican and the hierarchy, the Old Boys Club, very largely out of sync with the majority of U.S. and European Catholics, is still up to its old political tricks, giving priority to anything that will slow progress for women’s rights, get public funding for its schools and other operations, say no to democracy in the church, dodge responsibility for generations of worldwide clerical sexual abuse. Is it any wonder that most Catholics pay little attention to bishops and neglect the collection basket?