BY FRANCIS ANEKWE OBORJI
The Nigerian Guardian Newspaper wrote in its editorial of May 11, 2011 (dedicated to the then newly Beatified John Paul II), that the journey to Sainthood in the Catholic Church is an effort many in humanity attest:
“In Nigeria, the Catholic Church is holding its breath for Blessed Michael Iwene Tansi who is on this same journey. We ask for progress in the matter too so long as it would propel our people to good conduct and love of neighbour. We congratulate Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church as it enthrones a model we can appreciate. It would be best to ask that his kind should increase in our world today and tarry to hurry into Heaven.” (Guardian Newspaper, “Editorial”, Wednesday, May 11, 2011).
Twenty years ago, when Pope St. John Paul II visited Nigeria for the second time, for the Beatification of Fr. Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi of Aguleri, he made the theme of love of neighbor through “reconciliation and healing”, the central focus of all his preaching and speeches throughout the three-day Papal visit.
This Papal Visit of 21-23 March 1998, was the most singular and visible factor that prepared the ground for the return of democracy in Nigeria few months later in 1999. In fact, two months after the Papal Visit of 1998, events that led to the end of Abacha’s tyrannical regime began to unfold, and Nigeria’s return to democracy became a reality thereof in 1999.
Our aim in the present article is to present the theme of true healing and national reconciliation, highlighted by Pope St. John Paul II during his 1998 visit as a panacea for Nigeria’s rebirth and survival as a nation state today. The article presents Blessed Iwene Tansi as a model of reconciliation and spiritual Patron Saint Nigeria needs today in its struggle for survival as a nation state.
The theme of healing and national reconciliation goes hand-in-hand with the recent calls by some knowledgeable individuals and groups for political restructuring of Nigeria. This too needs a spiritual re-foundation of love of neighbor. In this regard, the nation should not forget to invoke the heavenly patronage and intercession of Blessed Iwene Tansi as Nigeria’s most visible celebrated Ancestral Guardian Saint at this time of our history.
As the country braces-up for the 2019 national elections, we should not lose sight of spiritual dimension in nation-building. Our political elites and those at the corridors of power will be doing the country no good should they fail to listen to the voice of reason calling us for love of neighbor, true healing, national reconciliation and political restructuring today.
How relevant is the Papal Visit of 1998 and Beatification of Fr. Tansi to our Nigerian situation today?
OUR POINT-OF DEPARTURE
It will amount to a denial of history to discuss today the return of democracy in 1999 without first, acknowledging the role played by the visit of Pope St. John Paul II to the country in 1998 and his Beatification of Nigeria’s first Blessed, Fr. Tansi during the visit. Many Nigerians believe that Pope St. John Paul II’s last visit to the country in 1998 and the Beatification of Fr. Tansi prepared the grounds for what is still accepted as divine intervention in Nigeria weeks after the Pope left the country.
In other words, the Papal Visit and Beatification of Fr. Tansi in 1998 formed the bedrock or rather spiritual foundation that made possible the return to democracy in Nigeria in 1999. Without sounding superstitious, however, it is obvious that without this spiritual dimension of that event and epoch, the gains of democratic rule we enjoy today in Nigeria could have been anything but a mirage. This is why we must not overlook the present calls by many for true healing and reconciliation as well as for political restructuring of Nigeria. These are foundational
ingredients, spiritual and political yearnings of the people towards building a new Nigeria of our dream.
They constitute the essence of the message of Pope St. John Paul II during his Pastoral Visit to Nigeria in 1998 for the Beatification of Fr. Tansi. In fact, love of neighbor, healing and reconciliation of the people dominated the life and pastoral ministry of Blessed Iwene Tansi.
This is why the Pope challenged all of us with those ideals as lived and preached by Blessed Iwene Tansi during his earthly existence.
WHO IS BLESSED IWENE TANSI?
One remarkable thing about Iwene Tansi (1903-1964) was that he was a child of destiny, especially, in the area of reconciling people with God, with oneself, with one another and with the created reality. He was born of humble parents who were followers of African Traditional Religion (ATR) in its Igbo cultural colouring, the farmer Tabansi and his wife, Ejikwevi of Igboezunu Aguleri, Anambra State.
The birth of Iwene Tansi occurred at a very critical and trial period of his hometown Aguleri, when the people of the town were having serious frictions with the British Royal Niger Company (R.N.C.), operating at the banks of Anambra River. The livelihood of Aguleri people was and is still dependent on the agricultural activities they do along the banks of the Anambra River. However, with the colonial overlords controlling the Anambra River banks and its environs, the people of Aguleri had never had it easy with the officers and army of the Royal Niger Company (R.N.C.) throughout the colonial era. The birth of Blessed Iwene Tansi occurred precisely when this unease relationship between the natives and the colonial R.N.C. was at its lowest ebb.
Born at Aguleri and educated at the mission school at the Christian Village in his hometown Aguleri, Iwene Tansi became a teacher in his alma mater at the age of 16. Thereafter, he studied for the Catholic Priests and was ordained in 1937. Immediately after ordination, Father Tansi worked as a Parish Vicar under Father John Cross Anyogu (who was later consecrated a Bishop of Enugu), at Nnewi for three years (1938 to 1940). His laudable performance at Nnewi mission encouraged his Archbishop to transfer him to Dunukofia to open that station. This he
did creditably too.
After five years at Dunukofia (1940-1945), Fr. Tansi, again, was transferred to Ufesiodo (Orumba Aguata region) to build up the Mission. He worked satisfactorily as well in this field, from 1945 to 1949. Finally, he was posted to his hometown Aguleri in 1949. It was while at Aguleri that Father Tansi expressed for the first time in writing to his Archbishop his wish to become a Trappist monk. Consequently, from Aguleri he departed for the Monastery in Leicester England in 1950.
As a pastor, Father Tansi dedicated himself not only to daily contemplative prayer but also to active ministry. He evangelized the youth, prepared couples for marriage, visited the sick, was a very good confessor, promoted vocations to priesthood and religious life, and provided for the needs of the poor. He travelled extensively throughout the parish environs to meet and serve his people. An active and busy pastor suddenly developed interest for a monastic life! After thirteen years as a diocesan priest, Archbishop Charles Heerey selected him as the most appropriate candidate to receive, incorporate, and share the Trappist spirituality.
Not a young man at age forty-seven, the parish priest left his native land and travelled to the distant land to prepare himself professionally. En route to England, Father Tansi made a pilgrimage to Rome. In 1950, he arrived at the Abbey of Mount St. Bernard in Leicestershire. Six years later, he took the religious name Cyprian (in honour of that great third-century African ascetic theologian, St. Cyprian of Carthage).
Unfortunately, after Cyprian had begun his formation program, the Trappists reviewed the proposed location of their foundation in Africa and changed the site from Nigeria to neighbouring Cameroon. Although disappointed at this change of location, Cyprian nevertheless continued his formation and dedication to the Trappist spirituality. Early in 1964, however, Cyprian was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. Within a few weeks, he died. Originally buried at the monastery in Leicestershire, his remains were transferred in 1988 to Onitsha and then to be buried finally at Aguleri his hometown, which had been also his last parochial assignment in Nigeria before moving to England.
The saintliness that Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi manifested to others had been a part of him throughout his whole life, beginning even in his youth. Commenting on his whole life during his beatification at Onitsha in 1998, Pope St. John Paul II said, “He proved himself endowed with virtue, devoted to responsibility, and given over to piety, prayer and studies.”
Beatified in Nigeria in 1998 by the Pope St. John Paul II, what now remains is his canonization, which is the final stage in proclaiming someone a Saint in the Catholic Church.
BLESSED IWENE TANSI: THE APOSTLE OF RECONCILIATION
Iwene Tansi was born, precisely at that time in Aguleri history, when one middle-aged man from the town, by name Onwuerume came to the Royal Niger Company palm oil depot at the company’s headquarters in Aguleri after work and mistakenly caused an oil spillage along the Anambra River bank. Onwuerume had a roasted yam, which he wanted to eat but there was no palm oil. Probably out of curiosity, he wanted to puncture one of the R.N.C. oil drums to obtain a little quantity of oil for his piece of yam. He did it but the oil spilled and even drenched him. In a deep terror, he made his escape leaving behind his hoe, piece of yam and spilling oil.
However, the company’s workers easily detected him and detained him. His detention rang a bell and the Ivite Aguleri village where he hailed from, a community, which were used to protracted war, ran to his rescue and released him. In the process, some rascals looted the properties of the R.N.C. on the argument that they will never brook oppression in their own fatherland especially by strangers. The Company’s chief at Aguleri raised alarm, sent for military re-enforcement from the Company’s headquarters at Asaba. The Company’s military forces came in full force. The soldiers marched to the Christian Village Aguleri, which was the only well organized and inhabited spot around.
At the Christian Village, the colonial soldiers arrested the famous traditional ruler and first baptized Christian of the town, Chief Onyekomeli Idigo. From there the soldiers went to ‘war’. The whole of Aguleri-Uno was attacked. Houses were burnt and domestic animals were shot. People were beaten up, wounded, but not killed intentionally even
though there were some deaths.
However, the Catholic missionaries at Aguleri were outraged that a matter that would have been settled in an hour’s discussion meant that three important villages were pillaged and burnt, the inhabitants put to flight, and Chief Idigo as well as 12 of other leading chiefs, who had come to negotiate, were taken away as hostages. ONE OF THE HOSTAGES WAS THE FATHER OF BLESSED IWENE TANSI. The hostages were imprisoned at the R.N.C. headquarters at Asaba. The profound impact of this imprisonment of prominent Aguleri men on the people of the town was tremendous. For instance, the father of Blessed Iwene Tansi, when they were eventually released from prison after almost a year in Whiteman’s captivity, gave the name IWEGBUNAM (IWENE) to his newly born child (that is, the would be Blessed Iwene Tansi). This Igbo name, Iwegbunam, literally means, “May revenge (or anger) not consume (or rather overpower) me.”
Thus, when the young Iwene reached school age, his father took him to his uncle Orekyie who was a teacher at the Catholic mission school at Aguleri, so that boy when he eventually graduates from school would be equipped with the education to revenge what the White people had done to the father. However, things did not go as Iwene’s father had wished. For while in school the young man, Iwene Tansi met his vocation to the Catholic Priesthood. This changed his life forever.
Instead of toeing the path of revenge as his father had wished for him, God had another plan for the young man, Iwene Tansi. He was to become a Catholic Priest in the order of a new reconciliation, love and forgiveness as taught and lived by the Master, Jesus Christ. Little wonder then that from the moment he was ordained a priest at Onitsha in 1937, Fr. Tansi made reconciliation the focal point of his priestly ministry and life.
In fact, in contrast to the wishes of his father, Fr. Tansi as one of the pioneer indigenous priests in Eastern Nigeria, became number one collaborator of the White missionaries. In the seminary, for instance, he studied under the supervision of the expatriate priests. There, he was entrusted with the most delicate function, the procurator, which he discharged creditably to the admiration of his superiors and fellow students.
Both in active and contemplative life, be it as a busy Parish Priest in Nigeria or a contemplative Cistercian monk in England, Fr. Tansi spent his himself entirely for God through the ministry of reconciliation in the church and society in all the places he had worked as Parish Priest. He spent hours and hours in the ‘Confessional”, helping the people and reconciling them. He helped many people who were experiencing difficulties in living together whether as husband and wife or as neighbours, to reconcile, first with God, with oneself, among themselves and with the created reality.
As a curate (assistant parish priest) at Nnewi, Fr. Tansi lived in the company of both African and European priests. He hadn’t any problem with any of them nor did he manifest any sign of animosity against the expatriate missionaries. He mixed up very well with his fellow African priests as well as the expatriates with whom they shared the presbytery at Nnewi.
Again, in the pastoral ministry, he spent himself entirely, to helping the people in the area of penitential reconciliation in the “Confessional.” Fr. Tansi is also highly remembered for having helped neighbouring towns that share the same Parish to accept a common name and center for their Parishes. This he did especially, at Dunukofia and Ufesiodo (Orumba Aguata) Parihes. The names and choice of Parish centers of these two large Parishes were as result of Fr. Tansi’s effort to promote good neighbourliness and peaceful co-existence among the people of different towns and villages that make up the Parishes.
In addition, Fr. Tansi had a great sense of respect to Nigeria’s diverse ethnic, cultural and religious identities. Imbued with cultural sensitivity, he never spoke ill of other people, their cultures, religions or ethnic identity. For instance, in 1946 he visited Kaduna in Northern Nigeria for holidays. During the Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, when he was about to preach, knowing that the bulk of the congregation was made up of Igbos, he asked permission of the others to address his people in their own mother tongue. He told his people to respect their hosts as well as every other person, irrespective of our differences in ethnic, cultural or religious identities.
Furthermore, addressing the entire congregation in English later, he said the same thing, while charging them to respect also the White people. Jokingly, he said to the congregation, “Do not be imitating the Whites in everything, strive hard to gain the Kingdom of God. The Whites are already in heaven in this world, but you are suffering every want. Are you going to suffer also in the next world?” Moreover, as a Cistercian monk in England, Father Tansi was at the beginning of his sojourn there, the only African amidst the large community of European monks. He never had problem of living together with the White folks at the monastery.
BLESSED TANSI AND THE RETURN OF DEMOCRACY IN NIGERIA @20
Speaking in a homily to over three million faithful that gathered for the Papal Mass at Onitsha for the Beatification of Fr. Tansi on 22 March 1998, the visiting Pope St. John Paul II said:
“Today I wish to proclaim [to Nigerians] the importance of reconciliation: reconciliation with God and reconciliation of people among themselves… When we see others as brothers and sisters, it is possible to begin healing the divisions within society. This is the reconciliation, which is the path to true peace and authentic progress for Nigeria and for Africa.”
Continuing, the Pope said:
Today, one of Nigeria’s own sons, Fr. Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, has been proclaimed “blessed” in the very land where he preached the Good News of salvation and sought to reconcile fellow countrymen and women with God and with one another. (Pope St. John Paul II, Homily at Onitsha, 22 March 1998 (see, “L’Osservatore Romano” (Weekly English Edition), 25 March 1998).
The Papal Visit in 1998 was very significant in many ways to Nigeria as a nation-state. In the first place, the 1998 Papal Visit was the second time a Pope was visiting the country, and Nigeria was to get her own first “Blessed”, in the person of Fr. Tansi. The first time Pope visited Nigeria was in 1982 during the civilian and democratic regime of Shagari/Ekwueme (1979-1983).
However, the second Papal Visit to Nigeria in 1998 became a catalyst that changed everything for good for a nation caught-up by the worst military dictatorship and tyrannical regime in her recent history. If the first Papal Visit of 1982 took place under a democratic elected civilian government of Shagari/Ekwueme, 12 years after the Nigeria-Biafra War, the second Papal Visit of 1998 took place when Nigeria was under her most brutal military dictatorship of General Abacha, and after the cancellation of the famous June 12, 1993 national elections.
In fact, many international media outlets did not hide their sentiments in reporting the enthusiasm with which many Nigerians welcomed and embraced the 1998 Papal Visit. Nigerians of all creeds, cultures andlanguages turned en masse to welcome Pope St. John Paul II to the country, and with him, prayed to God to deliver the nation from the tyrannical regime of Abacha’s military junta. God, of course, heard the prayer of his people in Nigeria during the Papal Visit. This is because, few months after the Papal Visit, things began to change for better so much so that in 1999, the country had returned to a democratic rule.
In addition, in international media, Nigeria was a laughing-stock of the world. Human rights abuses under Abacha regime were reported on daily basis in the international media. This was especially, after the Abacha regime had executed and killed the nine Ogoni environmental activists led by Sara-Wiwa, the famous Niger Delta writer.
Already there was the M.K.O Abiola case, the cancellation of the June 12, 1993 national elections by former military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida. Abiola, died in prison and one of his wives, was mysteriously killed during the Abacha regime. Also during this period, many other prominent Nigerians were remanded in prison by the same regime for political reasons. This included General Obasanjo, among others.
What all these meant is that under Abacha regime, Nigeria was really charged, and in a state of anarchy. In fact, by the time, Pope St. John Paul II visited the country in 1998, majority of world powers and Western countries had cut-off diplomatic ties with Nigeria. The Papal Visit and beatification of Fr. Tansi, became therefore, a saving grace for the country. Again, the event of the Papal Visit in 1998 prepared the ground for the restoration of democratic rule in the country. It signaled the end of the tyrannical dictatorship of General Abacha.
Unfortunately, after the return to a democratic rule in 1999, the nation’s political class and those in corridors of power forgot this event of the Papal Visit that restored democracy in the country.
Nigerian leaders, once democratic rule was restored in 1999 after the Papal Visit, decided to forget this spiritual dimension of our journey as a nation-state. Furthermore, Nigerian political class and leaders who took over the mantle of leadership of the country when democracy
returned to the country in 1999, forgot to address the theme of reconciliation and healing that the Pope had challenged the country with during his Pastoral Visit.
Most painfully, our political elites and leaders forgot also to appeal to the heavenly patronage of Blessed Iwene Tansi. Till date, no politician of note from Abuja had cared to know where the Shrine or remains of this extraordinary man of God is located. Moreover, the country forgot to choose Blessed Tansi and honor him as the Guardian Saint or rather, Spiritual Ancestral Guardian of Nigeria’s nascent democracy.
In other words, Nigerian political class and leadership, immediately the democratic rule was restored in 1999, decided to relegate to the background, the spiritual role played by Blessed Iwene Tansi for the return of democracy in the country. Till date, the country and its political class are still behaving and pretending as if he never existed or mattered so much for our national rebirth. The Saint whose Beatification, exemplary life of reconciliation and totally given of oneself to God and love of neighbor, made the Pope to visit Nigeria in 1998 as a witness and pilgrim, is yet to be honored at the nation’s capital and by those at the corridors of power.
The theme of reconciliation and healing, which formed the focal point of the Papal Visit in 1998, and the powerful heavenly intercession of Blessed Iwene Tansi, that won us back the democratic rule in 1999, were all thrown away and forgotten by the nation’s leadership and political
class. Today, most of our political leaders at the center do not remember again, who Blessed Iwene Tansi is! None of our political leaders at the center since 1999 till date is interested in recalling how, through the Blessed Iwene Tansi’s intercession and beatification in 1998, democratic rule returned to Nigeria in 1999. Nobody recalls again the Pope’s teaching on reconciliation and about Blessed Tansi’s preaching on the same theme.
In other words, since Pope’s visit in 1998 till date, no serious effort has been made in Nigeria to imbibe the spirituality and praxis of national reconciliation and healing as practiced by Blessed Tansi and preached by John Paul II during the 1998 Papal Visit. What this means is that Nigeria remains a nation without a “spiritual” fibre and motivation. We are a country that has refused to recognize our only national “Guardian” Spiritual Ancestor (or Patron ‘Saint’) today.
HONORING BLESSED IWENE TANSI IN NIGERIA
Our neglect of the spiritual dimension of nation-building accounts for the reason why till today, no national monument of major significance is erected in the nation’s capital Abuja, in remembrance and in honor of Blessed Iwene Tansi since his Beatification 20 years ago. This is also why the country is yet to declare him, the Patron Saint or rather Nigeria’s national Spiritual Guardian Saint of our nascent democracy.
The 20th January every year that the Church celebrates Blessed Iwene Tansi feast day, is not even known as such by many Nigerians, not to talk of declaring it a national holiday by the government. In developed countries, feast days of Saints of national significance in the caliber of Blessed Iwene Tansi, are celebrated as national holiday with all the meaning attached to it. If not at the national level, at least in some states, the feast day of such a Saint is celebrated in some countries as a public holiday.
This is independent of whatever religious affiliation one may claim to profess. The fact is that, as is always the case wherever the Pope visits, the two Papal Visits to Nigeria in 1982 and 1998 respectively, were national events of great magnitude to all Nigerians, individually and as a nation. For instance, the first Papal Visit in 1982 happened exactly at the time the country had just returned to a democratic rule after the Nigeria-Biafra War and many years of military dictatorship thereof. In 1982 Pope St. John Paul II came to congratulate the country in its efforts towards consolidating democracy and in overcoming the traumas of the Civil War that devastated, in particular, the people of the former Eastern region of Nigeria, the Biafran enclave.
Secondly the Pope’s visit in 1982 inspired the Nigerian federal government of Shehu Shagari and Alex Ekwueme to work for achieving reconciliation through granting ‘State Pardon’ to the two key actors of the Civil War, then living in exile, that is, General Yakubu Gowon and General Dim Chukwuemeka Odimmegwu Ojukwu. The two returned to the country as free men within the time the Pope visited in 1982.
Moreover, the second Papal Visit of 1998 is of particular significance. It signaled the end of a tyrannical regime of Abacha and the ushered in a democratic rule in the country in 1999. In other words, the history of the present-day democracy in Nigeria will be incomplete without acknowledging the contribution of the 1998 Papal Visit and Beatification of Fr. Tansi by Pope St. John Paul II.
It is for this reason that we have emphasized in this article the importance of this spiritual aspect of our history as nation, its significance for Nigeria’s rebirth today. This is necessary considering the fact that Nigerian politicians are already gearing up for national elections in 2019, without truly, addressing the fundamental issues of healing, reconciliation and political restructuring that are crucial for the survival of Nigeria as a united nation state today. The eye of majority of Nigerian politicians today are fixed already towards winning the 2019 elections. The politicians have already started to campaign for their elections and re-elections, without however, paying any attention to these issues the Pope challenged us with during his Pastoral Visit in 1998.
The question of creating an enabling environment in the nation’spolitical landscape that could enthrone a culture of free and fair elections for political stability in the country to emerge, has continued to elude Nigeria’s political discourse. Our politicians are still aloof in reading the handwritings on the wall about the need to embrace true healing, national reconciliation and of course, the restructuring of our political system, that is, if we mean to build a stable and united multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation-state in Nigeria! The fact that our politicians have already started to campaign for 2019 elections without sincerely addressing these issues, should be a source of great concern to all of us.
This is because, Nigeria’s present-day political climate, the disturbing political tension and violent atmosphere reigning in the country today, do not speak good for anybody. As some knowledgeable people are already voicing out, any elections conducted today under this volatile atmosphere and without addressing the issues mentioned above, will be effort in futility.
This is why the country should not fold its arms, and pretend as if everything is alright, or think that ours is a ‘peace time.’ As things are today, the country needs, first, to get healed, reconciled and restructured for any national elections to be meaningful. This is the significance of the Papal message to Nigeria during the Pope’s Visit to the country in 1998 for the Beatification of Fr. Tansi.
Thus, as Nigeria celebrates the “Democracy Day” this year 2018, marking the 20th anniversary of the end of Abacha’s tyrannical regime, and prepares for next year’s 20th anniversary of the return to civilian rule in 1999, we must not lose sight of this aspect of our national history, its political and spiritual implications for a new Nigeria of our dream. In fact, one of the mistakes many people have been making in discussing the roadmap to Nigeria’s rebirth is the neglect of the role of spiritual dimension in nation-building.
Perhaps, this is why the country is yet to embrace the trajectories of healing and national reconciliation many years after the Nigeria-Biafra War. It is also the reason the country is yet to atone for the blood of innocent citizens killed and being killed on daily basis today by both the Boko-Haram Islamist extremists and their Fulani Herdsmen counterparts, who are marauding all over the country, killing people and destroying their farmlands and houses. They do all these things freely, without any apprehension from the government or security agencies.
The question is, how prepared is Nigeria today for the forthcoming 2019 elections? Will the 2019 elections achieve the desired aim of Nigeria’s rebirth without our first, addressing those issues of true healing and national reconciliation as well as restructuring which the Pope challenged us with when he visited the country in 1998
Lord help me to remember that nothing is going to happen today that you and I together can’t handle. (Blessed Cyprian Iwene Tansi of Aguleri (Nigeria).
FRANCIS ANEKWE OBORJI, a Roman Catholic Priest, is Professor Ordinarius of Contextual Theology, Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome.