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(Akanu (Francis)) Ibiam dies with Nigeria in chaos: despite great potential in human and natural resources.

The generals who control Nigeria's government have hijacked the country and are holding 100 million citizens hostage, says former Presbyterian missionary Walter McLean. But he cautions that resolving the current political crisis is not as simple as arresting the hijackers and holding an election because many of the normal functions of government and society have disintegrated.

"Any [social and administrative] structures that do exist have been distorted by military rule," he said after returning to the West African country in December. To understand Nigeria, McLean says, one must imagine what Canada would be like if teachers, police, military, professors and public servants had not been paid in months and did not know when they would receive any money.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, splashed into the headlines late last year when the military government arrested and then executed nine leaders of the Ogoni people who live in the Niger River delta, the location of much of the country's vast oil resources. Among those hung was poet and human rights activist Kenule Saro-Wiwa who had complained that pollution from the oil production had made his people's farmland unusable. He demanded that the oil company, Royal/Dutch Shell, pay compensation directly to the Ogoni people.

While the executions and the reactions from various governments -- including Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth -- have been getting most of the media attention, the everyday conditions for the citizens of Nigeria are appalling. A Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Task Force, headed by Flora MacDonald of Canada, went to Nigeria in July 1995 and reported tough economic times for everyone. In 1994, inflation was at 50 per cent and, by mid-1995, it was even higher. Although oil is the country's main export, there are often domestic shortages of petrol, and its price has more than quadrupled in five years.

McLean, who has visited Nigeria frequently during the past four decades, heard from friends and colleagues that the cost of basic food supplies was also sky-rocketing. Four cups of garri (a staple made of crushed cassava) used to be one kobo; now, it is 10 naira (1,000 times more). The currency, the naira, is worth less than a third of its value three years ago, driving up the price of all imported goods.

The Commonwealth task force also relayed charges that vigilante groups, operating with the knowledge of the military government, were roaming the country and killing people. The police, the report said, were commonly shooting at robbery suspects before attempting to question or arrest them.

Rick Fee, who worked for the church in Nigeria for 16 years before returning to Canada to become director of Presbyterian World Service and Development in 1992, said conditions in the country have deteriorated since he left. "It's worse. Morale is down. The economy is down. You can't live on your salary; therefore, you have to be inventive in finding a way to survive."

McLean, who worked in Nigeria with his wife, Barbara, from 1962 until the outbreak of the civil war in 1967, says the conditions now are worse than then. During the Biafran War, the civil service continued to provide whatever services they could, mothers and children were still being immunized and the elderly were given the care they needed. Now, even these basic services are gone. "Every serving profession for the welfare of society has been warped," he said.

Both McLean and Fee say Nigerians know there is something desperately wrong with their country but they aren't certain what to do about it.

The situation facing Nigeria is a web of historical problems resulting from the different governing structures used by the British in the Muslim north and in the mainly Christian south, the conflicts between religious groups, the history since independence in which the north has controlled the military and the government, the legacy of a sudden glut and then a dearth of federal funds from the oil reserves, the demands of the hundreds of ethnic groups for representation and power, the massive unemployment, poverty and corruption. None of these issues can be untangled and resolved independently of the others.

"Today, Nigeria is the saddest country," said Fee. "Nigerians know their potential. They know their wealth. They know their intelligence."

Despite the risks of opposing a vicious military government, many Nigerians are agitating for change. Pro-democracy groups and human rights advocates are coming together. In December, the Christian Association of Nigeria said: "The failures of civilian politicians -- which include opportunism, greed, political immaturity and a lack of principles and integrity -- had played into the hands of a greedy military elite whose appetite for power has continued to grow."

The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria has called for the federal military government to release unconditionally more than 30 people who had been arrested and charged with being involved in an alleged coup attempt in March 1995. The church called for the government to return the country to civil democratic rule in the shortest possible time and to implement the draft constitution without more debate or "tampering with it in any way."

Nigerians are a proud people, both Fee and McLean say, and will not allow an outside solution to be imposed upon their country. "They say they've brought this on their own heads" and, therefore, they must solve it themselves, McLean said. But even a Nigeria-based solution is going to need help, they say.

An informal group of people -- representing Canadian churches, Canadian Nigerians, human rights organizations, environmental groups and labour unions -- is trying to support Nigerians by pressing the Canadian government to extend restrictions on travel by the military and members of their families and to freeze the bank accounts and other assets the military holds outside Nigeria.

McLean suggested that Canadians welcome any Nigerian visitors who can get out of the country (or come to Canada from exile), call on the Canadian government to be sympathetic if Nigerians apply to be refugees, and ask how Canadians can sponsor and support them.

"The importance of opening some channels to keep in touch with Nigerians and non-governmental organizations can't be underestimated," he said.

In early December 1995, Nigerian doctor and elder Akanu (Francis) Ibiam, b. 1906, was buried at a service organized by his family, The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria and the Nigerian government. Ibiam served as the first African missionary sent to Nigeria by the Church of Scotland. As well as inspiring and befriending many Canadian missionaries to Nigeria, Ibiam visited Canada as early as 1955, accompanied by his wife, Eudora. In 1969, he travelled across Canada to raise humanitarian aid and support for the people in Biafra, the secessionist Eastern region of Nigeria then fighting a gruesome civil war against the federal government.

Canadian Presbyterians Rick Fee and Walter McLean attended the funeral at the invitation of The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria and Ibiam's family. McLean had been Ibiam's minister at St. Andrew's in Enugu, and Fee attended as part of an Africa field trip.

After graduating from St. Andrew's University in Scotland, one of the first lbos to become a medical doctor, Ibiam rejected the more lucrative and prestigious position as a city doctor and, instead, chose to return as a missionary. He had "a sense of service beyond self," said McLean, who delivered the sermon at the funeral. "He could have gone to the city and been a wealthy man, but he went to the bush and worked with lepers."

When he graduated in 1934, a black missionary was a new and challenging idea for many. Ibiam faced opposition and discrimination from other missionaries. He is quoted as saying, "Although the missionaries inspired me, they did not encourage me."

As a leader of his community, he became involved in politics. Initially, he was appointed to the Eastern House of Assembly, the advisory body to the British rulers and, then, after independence in 1960, he was named the first governor of the Eastern region. His record in politics includes spearheading the movements toward free primary education, health insurance plans, rural development and restoring African dignity.

The British government recognized Ibiam with a series of honours culminating in a knighthood which he received from Queen Elizabeth in 1956. However, during the Biafran War, Ibiam returned his knighthood and renounced his English name, Francis, as a protest against the British government's financial and military support of the federal government while civilians in the East fled the bombings in the towns and villages and faced wide-spread starvation.

He was also involved in the national church where, with the active help of his wife, he promoted the role and ordination of women, and was the patron of the Christian Girls In Training (CGIT) and the Women's Guild. He also served as a vice-president of the World Council of Churches. As an elder statesman in 1983, he was named king by the Unwana people and given the title of Ezeogo Isiala I.

"He was seen as a person who stood for dignity, doing things decently and in order," said Fee. Because of his attitude and his accomplishments, Ibiam was held in high esteem by his compatriots. Fee tells a story of being in a Nigerian restaurant where a television set was playing the news. The boisterous patrons ignored what flashed before them until Ibiam appeared on the screen. Fee said the patrons fell silent to hear what Ibiam was saying. One patron, an Ibo from the East like Ibiam, paid him possibly the highest compliment by saying that if any Ibo were to get admitted to heaven, it would be Akanu Ibiam.

The funeral, which took place over three days, was an opportunity for family, friends, church colleagues and government officials to pay their respects. After services in Enugu and Umuahia, the main service was held on Ibiam's property in Unwana. McLean estimated more than 20,000 people attended.

While the funeral was a typically Presbyterian service, the event was more of a gathering of old friends, Fee said. "Everyone came. It was people getting together, paying honour to whom honour was due."

McLean said he and Fee were two of only four international representatives at the funeral. Because of the turbulence in Nigeria, other international visitors did not attend. In his sermon, McLean strove to remind the mourners that Ibiam was an internationalist. Ibiam and the current military rulers are instruments of God who come and go; they will be judged for their actions.

"In a way, this event important than normal civil recognition of a leader because there is no leadership [in Nigeria'," McLean said. "It unleashed the most profound yearning of a people who know there have been better days and there can be better days."

What Presbyterians Might Do for Nigeria

1. Support Amnesty International's campaign against the possible execution of 19 Ogoni people charged by the military government of Nigeria. Writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others faced similar charges and were hung in December 1995.

2. Study the history of Nigeria.

3. Read the history of The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, a church born in the hearts of freed slaves in Jamaica which grew into a major endeavour by the Church of Scotland. Of God and Maxim Guns: Presbyterianism in Nigeria 1846-1966 by Geoffrey Johnston (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988, $16.95) is an example.

4. Write to your member of Parliament urging the government to continue to work toward the removal of the military government and to encourage democracy.

5. Welcome Nigerians who come to Canada and consider sponsoring Nigerians as refugees. For information on supporting and sponsoring refugees, contact: Inter-Church Committee for Refugees, 129 St. Clair Ave. W, Toronto, Ont. M4V 1N5; Tel. (416) 921-9967, Fax (416) 921-3843.
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Article Details
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Author:Ijeoma Ross
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Obituary
Date:May 1, 1996
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