52ND ANNNIVERSARY OF THE EXPULSION OF THE CATHOLIC MISSIONARIES FROM NIGERIA (18 FEBRUARY 1970 – 18 FEBRUARY 2022)
by Rev Fr Angelo Chidi Unegbu
At the beginning of the Nigeria-Biafra War in 1967, the missionaries were ordered, or rather given the permission to leave Nigeria for their own safety, but they all decided to stay with their flock. One of them, Fr. Richard Thornton, in a later interview said: “How can we abandon them at this critical time? How can we? And to whom? No good shepherd would abandon his sheep when the wolves storm!”
During the course of the war, the Nigerian government imposed land, sea and air blockades on Biafran territories in order to prevent food, medication and other supplies from reaching the Biafran enclave. In the face of this inhumanity, one of the missionaries did something very heroic. Fr. Dermot Doran CSSp, a Holy Ghost Irish priest, broke the blockade rule.
Fr. Doran “was the first to break the Nigerian blockade on Biafra and flew in with medical supplies, subsequently organising a worldwide media campaign strongly supported by the independent newspapers,” Brendan Culleton, the producer of the 2018 documentary: “Biafra: Forgotten Mission”. His action motivated many charity organizations in finding ways to assist Biafra in order to feed the hungry and to attend to the sick. When Fr. Dermot was interviewed in this documentary, he said: “All I wanted was to save the children. They were the biggest victims of the war.”
As hunger, sickness and death began to torment the people, the missionaries turned their churches and schools into hospitals, relief and refugee centres. Every one of them became a nurse and distributed food. They buried the dead and consoled the bereaved. They attended to the needy, irrespective of their denomination or religious affiliation. As a result of the roles that the Catholic missionaries played during the war, American Newsweek of 23 September 1968 declared that, “never before has the face of Catholicism appeared so attractive.”
At the end of the war which ended with the slogan ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’, the Nigerian government rounded up all the missionaries, including the nuns and the Bishop. Funnily enough, they were not charged for breaching the unethical blockades and assisting the Biafrans (which were the main reasons for the arrests), rather they were accused of illegal entry into Nigeria. Eventually, they were declared guilty and jailed. A few days later, their sentences were converted into fines. On 18 February 1970, exactly 52 years ago, they were deported to Ireland.
While recalling his discussion with the then military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, shortly before the expulsion of the missionaries, Cardinal Francis Arinze noted: “Gowon: I heard you were very careful under Ojukwu. You see, some of your missionaries went abroad and preached for Ojukwu…. They insulted our sovereignty. They brought food inside the country without passing through Lagos. They preached for Ojukwu.
Arinze: Your excellency, if you were in Biafra and saw those children suffering from kwashiorkor, you would distribute to them any food or medicine that you could bring in, no matter how they came in. I did the same.
Gowon: It used to pain me to see photos of swollen stomachs. However, these missionaries must go.”
REFLECTIONS FOR US
The world praised the missionaries, not because of the churches they built but because they fed the hungry, cared for the sick, buried the dead, comforted the mourners and gave hope to the hopeless, at the risk of their own lives. At the end of our earthly lives, the questions we shall be confronted with shall be: how many did we feed, shelter, clothe, comfort and give hope? (cf. Matt.25:35-46). How attractive our faces will look before others, God and ourselves will depend on these acts of compassion and kindness. Think about this as we remember our missionaries today.
MAY THE DEAD AMONG OUR MISSIONARIES CONTINUE TO REST IN PEACE.
1.Secretary General to the Ordinaries, 13 April 1970, quoted in Nwosu V.A., “The Civil War Years: A Time of Great Trial”, in Obi C. et al. (eds.), A Hundred Years of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria 1885-1985 (Onitsha: Africana-Feb, 1985), 374.
2 Cardinal Francis Arinze, (Interview with Chidi Denis Isiuzor), The Baton of Faith: Personal Recollections (Onitsha: Golden Jubilee Publications and Trinitas Publications, 2008), 69 – 70