Monday, February 1, 2010
Feb 1 2010
As a young man growing up in Kaduna, I spent many a summer vacation foraging through the American Consulate library. That was before the city became like Beirut. I must have devoured almost everything ever written on the American civil rights movement.
I followed its every twist and turn - its triumphs and tragedies. All the heroes and martyrs of the movement where ghosts with whom I held intellectual conversations. Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, Soledad Brother George Jackson and Malcolm X.
By far the greatest obsession of my youth was the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the makers of the twentieth century, alongside Churchill, Gandhi, Lenin, Mao and Albert Einstein. Barack Obama, who recently celebrated one year of his Presidency, was a child of King’s prophetic mission.
By an uncanny coincidence of fate, Obama won the ticket of the Democratic Party forty years to the very day when King made his famous speech in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King Jr. cherished life and adored his wife Coretta and their children. But he was always haunted by the prospects of an early death.
He was once stabbed by a deranged woman and was left for dead. The FBI under Edgar Hoover was constantly at his back with blackmail and threats. He had been in and out of prison -- endured police dogs, beatings and death threats. His was the loneliness of the long-distance runner. Like his Lord and Master, he experienced the blood and sweat and tears of the Garden of Gethsemane.
Most people do not realise that MLK was a mere twenty-five year-old when he took up the leadership of the civil rights movement; that he won the Nobel Peace Prize when he was only thirty-six; and that he was only thirty-nine when his life’s work was cruelly ended by an assassin’s bullet in that unholy summer of 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
These thoughts have come to me as I recall a most unusual experience some years ago, when I was woken up at dawn by a strange visitation. In that dream state between waking and sleep, I was conscious, though immobile. A man came and stood by my bedside. He was of medium height and clothed in tattered apparel, with wounds all over him. He looked dirt-poor; head bowed, tears silently cascading down his cheeks. There was telepathic communion between us, but no words: he is Martin Luther King Jr., I am told, and the work he lived and died for remains unfinished.
And then he vanishes in the twinkling of an eye. It is a most sacred experience, which I do not share lightly. As I think of it today, Martin Luther King’s work remains unfinished in America, in Africa and throughout the world where children go hungry; where widows have no one to support them; where the sick, the powerless and the infirm have no succour and no hope.
In the month of January, when Americans celebrated Martin Luther King Day, countless people approached me for one form of help or the other: orphans without school fees, a young woman whose two legs were chopped off in an okada accident; widows who are unable to feed their children; an old man who went blind because he could not afford the eighteen thousand naira operation that would have removed his cataract; countless graduate youths desperate to find a job.
During the recent carnage in Jos, several Muslim and Christian friends cried to me for help, in grave fear for their lives. It was heartbreaking. Our country, Nigeria, faces a momentous crisis of leadership. We are a land of sorrows -- a people acquainted with grief. A young pastor recently told me that ethno-religious conflicts are fomented by cultic leaders whose demons must refill their blood banks from time to time.
It is these so-called leaders, according to him, that buy sophisticated arms and give them to jobless youths to go and kill innocent people so as to fill up the blood banks. He painted a frightening picture of live burials of teenage virgins and the ritual eating of pounded human foetuses for power, money and earthly glory. For the first time, I understood what the philosophers meant by ‘the problem of evil’.
I fear that this evil will soon take us into the abyss unless we resolve to live like the children of Abraham that we all are. We must love one another or die. MLK abhorred the idiom of retaliation, believing with Mahatma Gandhi, that, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Contrary to the nonsense spoken by Ambassador Princeton Lyman, I am persuaded that our country is destined to play a leading role in the world.
The sufferings of the moment are not to be compared with the glory that is to come. We must move beyond the politics of blood and circuses and reinvent our country as a land of hope. Martin Luther King loved our continent immensely and he desired that we would become a city on a hill, a light unto the nations. His work must also be ours.
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