Walk with me down
memory lane. The time: 1968. In 30 months, one million dead. The setting: a
dusty camp in Biafra where survivors waited and hoped for peace. The survivors:
Refugees fleeing from the �Dance of Death.� My mentor: One of the refugee camp
directors, whom I called �Teacher� out of respect.
King has been killed,� Teacher said, with a pained voice and vacant eyes. I
looked towards Teacher, wondering: �Who is Martin Luther King?� I was a
13-year-old refugee in the west African nation of Nigeria, a land then called
Biafra. Martin Luther King. What did that name mean?
Eight out of ten
Biafrans were refugees exiled from their own country. Two years earlier,
Christian army officers had staged a bloody coup killing Muslim leaders. The
Muslims felt the coup was a tribal mutiny of Christian Igbos against their
beloved leaders. The aggrieved Muslims went on a killing rampage, chanting:
�Igbo, Igbo, Igbo, you are no longer part of Nigeria!� In the days that
followed, 50,000 Igbos were killed in street uprisings.
Killing was not
new to us in Biafra. I was 13, but I knew much of killing. Widows and orphans were most of the
refugees in our camp. They had survived the Igbo �Dance of Death� � a euphemism for the mass executions. One
thousand men at gunpoint forced to dance a public dance. Seven hundred were
then shot and buried en masse
in shallow graves. When told to hurry up and return to his regular duty, one of
the murderers said: �The graves are not yet full.�
A few days later,
with only the clothes on our backs, we fled from this �Dance of Death.� That
was six months before Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Teacher and I
were eventually conscripted into the Biafran army and sent to the front, two
years after our escape.
After the war,
Teacher � who had taught me the name of Martin Luther King � was among the one million who had died. I
-- a child soldier -- was one
of the 15 million who survived.
committing suicide: a two-decade war in Sudan, genocidal killings in
Rwanda, scorched-earth conflicts in
Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, and Liberia. The wars in modern Africa are the
largest global-scale loss of life since the establishment of the Atlantic Slave
trade, which uprooted and scattered Africa�s sons and daughters across the
United States, Jamaica, and Brazil.
Africa�s wars are
steering the continent toward a sea of self-destruction so deep that even the
greatest horror writers are unable to fathom its depths. So, given our
circumstances, Martin Luther King was a name unknown, a dead man among
millions, with a message that never reached the shores of Biafra.
Neither did his
message reach the ears of �The Black Scorpion,� Benjamin Adekunle, a tough
Nigerian army commander, whose credo of ethnic cleansing knew nothing of Martin
Luther King, Jr.�s movement: �We shoot at everything that moves, and when our
forces move into Igbo territory, we even shoot things that do not move.�
As we heed Martin
Luther King Jr.�s call, and march together across the world stage, let us never
forget that we who have witnessed and survived the injustice of such
nonsensical wars are the torchbearers of his legacy of peace for our world, our
nation, and our children.
a speech delivered by Philip
Emeagwali at Morehouse
College in Atlanta, Georgia, at the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of
Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. The entire transcript and video is
posted at emeagwali.com.
Philip Emeagwali has
been called �a father of the Internet� by CNN and TIME, and extolled as �one of the
great minds of the Information Age� by former US president Bill Clinton.