My father died this year. Had he lived until Sunday, he would have been 77. His death came as no surprise. His health had declined rapidly in recent years, after decades of battling multiple sclerosis, a disease which forced him to leave his beloved Nigeria in the early 1970s, where he served as a Baptist missionary.
My parents, Bob and Jo Ann Parham, arrived in Nigeria in 1953, when it was a colony of the British Empire. They watched Nigeria stride through independence in 1960 and stumble badly into genocide before erupting into civil war.
One episode in those years reminds me of the best of my father—risk-taker, organizer, relief worker. It happened in 1966.
When a commercial airplane failed to land in our town of Jos, a Baptist missionary and several other expatriates missed their flight to Kano, where a connecting flight would take them across the Sahara Desert into Europe. My father decided to take them to Kano in our Peugeot station wagon.
Driving into Zaria, a city between Jos and Kano, my father and his passengers ran into a riot. They watched the rioters rock the car in front of them, overturning it and killing the passengers.
The rioters then turned to the car with the missionaries. My father talked the mob out of attacking his car and its occupants. The mob leaders told him they meant no harm. My father imprudently replied that they were harming others.
Having evaded the rioters on the road and others burning a gas station, the missionaries reached the mission compound to discover that another missionary was still in town. Concerned about his welfare, they searched for him. They found his bicycle leaning against a church wall and him inside preaching, unaware of the spreading violence.
The missionaries made a decision for my father to return to Jos, having heard about trouble also brewing there, and for another missionary to take his passengers the rest of the way to Kano.
On his way back to Jos, my father stopped cars going into Zaria to warn travelers about the violence ahead. The first car he stopped carried an Englishman, whom my father advised to turn back. The man answered that he couldn’t because he was the chief police officer for Zaria!
Despite hopes to the contrary, violence came to Jos in late September. The “Northerners,” who were predominately Muslim Hausas, pulled “the Easterners,” predominately Christian Ibos, from their homes and murdered them.
Before news of the Jos massacres spread through the large expatriate community, my father early one morning found a young boy, from whom he had purchased the daily newspaper, dead on the steps of the post office.
For several days, Hausas killed Ibos, and Ibos fled helter-shelter for their lives. One Ibo man even ran into my classroom, begging for safety. He was clubbed to death the next morning between one of the dorms and the softball field.
Between 1,000 and 1,500 Ibos were killed in our town. My father wrote in a letter to H. C. Goerner at the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond that one morning he counted nine bodies on the road in a three-block area and that a Nigerian member of an English-speaking Baptist church estimated there were 800 bodies at the city morgue. Before the genocide ended, some 30,000 Ibos would be killed throughout Nigeria.
My father asked Goerner if the FMB would support his decision and that of the other missionaries to make unauthorized expenditures to feed Ibo refugees and evacuate them to their home region. “If not, of course the Baptist missionaries in Jos will have to do something personally,” he wrote.
The letter also contained a cryptic reference: “I worked very closely in the actual evacuation by air, with local European businessmen. All that has happened during those few days cannot be given in this letter.”
He did not explain that the expatriates had decided the best way to end the conflict in Jos was to separate Ibos and Hausas. They determined to transport the Ibos back to the Eastern Region and Hausa who were there back to the Northern Region.
My father was on the small plane to Enugu, accompanying the first group of severely injured Ibos. He carried news about the violence in Jos and hoped that some Hausas would return with him, perhaps a symbolic peacemaking gesture.
The plan did not work. His plane returned without any Hausas.
Nevertheless, an ecumenical group of missionaries and businessmen made arrangements to transport more Ibos to their home region. They obtained a larger plane. They cut the legs off a table, using it as a platform to lift injured Ibos with a forklift onto the plane, where they sat two to a seat. As the heavily laden flights took off, the men at the airport prayed that each plane would make it over a range of hills at the end of the runway.
During the evacuation, an injured Ibo man said, “I know you, Rev. Parham, but you don’t know me. I have been a member of the Baptist Church [in] Bukuru. And I want you to know that the pastor there saved my life.”
His statement was wrapped in bitter thanksgiving, considering what had happened in Bukuru. The Bukuru police had told the Ibos to go the train station where they would be safe. Instead, the train station became the killing spot for Ibos.
Hearing that Ibos had also gathered at the Jos train station and fearing the same thing might happen there, my father headed to the station, hoping to rescue some Ibos. At gun point, however, he was instructed to turn around.
What occurred in Bukuru was not repeated in Jos, however. Ibos instead gathered inside the walled police compound before being shuttled in shifts to the airport for evacuation to the East.
By the following summer, Nigeria was at war with itself. The bloody civil war raged for some 30 months and ended, ironically, one year before my father left his beloved country.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.