Haiti’s tragedy, Biafran memories
Exactly a week ago, Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that reduced much of that misfortunate nation to a colossal ruin. The quake’s epicenter was a mere 16 miles offshore on the western side of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s heavily populated capital.
Earthquakes are hardly ever innocuous; but this one was particularly catastrophic. Its proximity to the capital – home to more than three million people – proved disastrous. As I write, Haitian authorities were estimating that 140,000 had perished from the devastating quake. That toll is, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly stated, is of biblical proportions. The prognosis is even more dreadful. Some experts predict that many of the tens of thousands officially listed as missing, as well as many of the critically wounded, will explode the casualty figures.
To see the horror of Haiti is to come to terms to a modern-day apocalypse. For me, it was especially harrowing to look at images of children and the elderly with mangled limbs, gashed heads and swollen faces.
When a natural tragedy strikes on this scale, it’s almost as if the living, in their forlorn despair, begrudge the dead the joys of a grave. Except that most of the Haitian dead were not buried, but abandoned on the streets. I was brought to tears when television cameras panned streets strewn with decomposing bodies. Nigerians have fashioned a unique obituary style where each deceased person is “called to heavenly glory.” Glory was not a word that came to mind when one saw the cadavers that littered the streets of Port-au-Prince.
And yet, Haitians, who in 1804 became the first black-run nation ever to achieve independence, have a lot of glory in their past. Two figures from their revolutionary history, Toussaint l’Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines, are venerable heroes not only for Haitians but also for all people of African descent. These two warriors took on and ultimately vanquished the better-armed forces of Napoleonic France. Though Toussaint was tricked by the French, captured, and transported to France where he died in 1803, his collaborator, Jacque Dessalines, lived to become Haiti’s first leader.
Thanks in large part to meddling by France and, more recently, the US, Haiti has fallen short of its revolutionary aspirations. The American media habitually announce, with something approaching glee, that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Haitians are a much-beleaguered people. Eighty percent of the populace lives on less than $2 a day. In recent times, the island nation has been buffeted by hurricanes and widespread hunger that forced desperate people to eat mud.
That specter will become worse in the aftermath of the earthquake. About ten percent of the homes in Port-au-Prince, a hilly city with wide swathes of ghettoes, were destroyed by the quake and its aftershocks. That means that more than 300,000 inhabitants face the grim certainty of prolonged homelessness in a city whose infrastructure, rudimentary to begin with, is now decimated.
It’s in the nature of natural disasters to be blind in their fury and destruction. This earthquake did not discriminate between rich and poor, old and young, the powerful and the feeble. It shook the Presidential palace to its foundations and leveled the Parliament. The offices of the United Nations were wrecked, more than twenty members of the organization’s staff were confirmed dead, and (at the time of this writing) scores more were still trapped in a pile of rubble. Hotels, churches, and hospitals were also laid to ruin.
With a calamity that touched every sector, the task of providing medical care to the legions of the wounded and getting food to the displaced, drifting masses was bound to be difficult. Even though the US, China, Canada and a plethora of relief agencies responded quickly with shipment of food, water and medicines, Haiti’s battered roads frustrated efforts to immediately reach the victims of the earthquake. Four days after the quake, the vast majority of Haitians were yet to receive succor. Doubtless, many of the dead would have survived had help got to them sooner.
A tragic occurrence like an earthquake offers a measure both of our human fickleness and vulnerability as well as our heroism, staying power, and resilience. The Haitian people, great in the past, will – there’s no question – find a way to rise from their current nightmare.
The earthquake is an opportunity for other peoples and nations to demonstrate the depth of their fellow feeling and generosity – and to offer a hand to their besieged Haitian brethren. Many nations and individuals rose, admirably, to the challenge.
Sadly, to one’s profound shame, the Nigerian government failed to stir much less show continental leadership in the face of Haiti’s peril. Nigeria’s invisibility during the darkest time for the people of Haiti betrays a monumental lack of a sense of history among those running (that is to say, more aptly, ruining) the country.
Last week, author Chinua Achebe issued a statement that must have been a veiled rebuke as well as a cry from the heart. He pleaded with Nigeria and South Africa “to more vigorously join the international community – particularly the remarkable and admirable example of the United States and the European Union – and provide much needed funds and other forms of aid to the people of Haiti for disaster relief.”
Achebe’s plea has a particular resonance at this time, the 40th anniversary of the formal end of the Biafran war. In a move that did great credit to its revolutionary credentials, Haiti became the first nation in the world to recognize the legitimacy of the Biafran cause – and to extend diplomatic recognition to the embattled Biafrans.
In a letter that eloquently outlined the reasons for Haiti’s identification with Biafra, then President Dr. Francois Duvalier described Igbos as “descendants of those men who contributed to the founding of the Haitian homeland.” He then asserted that “Biafra fulfils the essential conditions to constitute a nation, namely: a material element, the territory and more especially, a human element: the population. The said human element is united by race, religion, language, history, a set of laws. It is, furthermore, consolidated by the moral unity and the common will of Biafrans to group themselves under one banner.”
With the Nigerian idea in disarray, that Haitian position strikes one today as highly discerned. A Nigerian that doesn’t respond to the travail of the Haitian people is a construct of fundamental questioning.