FEATURE ARTICLE

Monday, May 31, 2021


FORWADED BY: Rev Fr. Stan Chu Ilo

THE O-SYNDROME OF AFRICAN QUEST FOR JUSTICE

ne of Nigeria's premier intellectuals, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, gave a lecture titled "It is Cheaper For Nigeria to Stay Together," in which he pleads for Nigerian unity while arguing for social justice and fairness. I cannot imagine a better emissary of peace and justice, packaged in intellectually rich language and insightful analysis. It is not just cheaper for Nigeria to stay together; it is better and more conducive for human flourishing. It is morally more desirable.

Bishop Kukah, obviously a keen student of global black history, draws undeniable lessons from the African American history, which, as far as we know, has shaped African anticolonial struggles. African American history has always provided useful lessons for Africa, especially in relation to struggles for social justice. As far back as 1857, Frederick Douglass stated that "if there is no struggle there is no progress This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand." In contrast to his contemporaries Edward Wilmot Blyden and Martin R. Delany, who chose nationalist paths and even opted for emigration to Africa, Douglass believed that the fate of African Americans was in America. Nearly a century later the same argument about nationalist and integrationist approaches of the same struggle for social justice arose again, this time represented by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

One can never underestimate the extent to which the pain of injustice can push humans to desperate actions that might ultimately undermine their interests. Chinua Achebe gave us a potent example in the story of Okonkwo, the valiant warrior, who could not stand any whit of colonial injustice against his people: At the end of chapter twenty-four of Things Fall Apart, the men of Umuofia assemble in the marketplace to deliberate whether to go to war against the white man. Okonkwo is eager to go to war. He spots Egonwanne, a gifted orator whom he fears will speak against going to war. To Okonkwo, Egonwanne is a coward. The deliberations have hardly begun; indeed, only Okika has spoken, when five court messengers arrive. They are the white man's Igbo emissaries. Okonkwo confronts the head messenger, who ill-advisedly answers: "The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop." Okonkwo draws his machete and cuts off the man's head. The men of Umuofia do not follow his example. Instead, they are shocked by his action. Some ask, "Why did he do it?" Okonkwo does not express his feelings, but from his demeanor and actions, it is clear he is disappointed in his people. He knows they will not go to war against the white man because they let the other four messengers escape. Okonkwo walks into the bush and hangs himself.

I understand that it is easier to preach caution when one is not directly affected by injustice directed at one's people as might be implicit in Bishop Kukah's words. The eternal truth of his words, though, is difficult to ignore, especially for those who are still objective enough to recognize that wisdom is complementary to truth. At the same time I wish my people had heeded similar words of caution and resisted going to war in 1967 when I was five years old, toddling around in my village, ignorant of the mess that was brewing in the world. I would not have suffered from kwashiorkor; the Igbo would not have lost up to a million people and would not have been set back years. The sad aspect of the war is that it could have been avoided in the same way that Okonkwo's killing of his kinsman and his eventual suicide could have been avoided. Yes, Okonkwo's death could have been avoided if only he had listened to his fellow elders who had come together to deliberate on how best to approach their common threat.

Okonkwo was disappointed in his people for not opting to go to war. One might ask, for the purpose of argument: Was he right? Were the men of Umuofia cowards for not following his example? Did Okonkwo even understand the enemy he was prepared to face with his machete? Yet, we should not blame him for resisting the invasion of his people. At the same time, we recall that even before he picked up his machete, his own son, Nwoye, the person who would inherit his estate, had already joined the missionaries? The irony of the situation then is that if Okonkwo could not protect his household, how could he then protect his community? And with a machete? He thus exhibited a particular attitude I would love to call the O-Syndrome-a particular form of righteous indignation that disposes an injured person to act before thinking, or to shoot before aiming. There is a sad parallel between Okonkwo unsheathing his machete without having studied the enemy and Ojukwu declaring war without a standing army. If this parallel does not give every intelligent Igbo the chills, then someting might be really wrong.

As much as we love Malcolm X's fiery rhetoric and youthful vigor, we also recognize that every meaningful change in the Black condition in America, during the civil rights era, was brought about by King's ingenious combination of overt and subtle pressure within the system. Every change was brought about by the Black Americans' belief that America is their home and that they deserve to be treated with dignity. They have come a long way. There is still much to be done, but no one can deny that the achievements of Black Americans, descendants of slaves, are nothing short of miracle, one from which the whole of Africa (world) can learn.

There is no greater wisdom about the condition of Nigeria today than in Kukah's words. Nigeria could become a prosperous nation if only average Nigerians could be convinced that there is a modicum of justice and fairness. That's precisely what people are looking for. Not miracles, not heaven on earth. Just a degree of fairness. And love. Nigeria is too big to fail and too gifted with people not to function properly.

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