I recall an incident in class during my seminary days at SS. Peter and Paul, Bodija, Ibadan. It was during a Canon Law class with our then revered Rector of the seminary, Monsignor Ugboko (alias “Uncle”). One of my classmates, from Ijebu Ode Diocese, had asked the question: why can a Black man not be Pope (Bishop of Rome). “Uncle” sized up the student, told him to sit down and in his characteristic way of often answering questions with his own question scornfully retorted: “can an Igbo man be accepted as bishop of Ibadan?” We, as a class, had a good roaring laughter over this.
The preceding remark brings me to Stan Chu Ilo’s January 11, 2013 article, “Igbo Catholicism On Trial in Ahiara Diocese: A Call for Prayer And Patient Discernment” (Saharareporters.com). His is an addition to a deluge of writings on the current crisis in the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, Mbaise, Imo State. The crisis arose from the Church’s appointment of a non-Mbaise son, Ebere Peter Opaleke, as the bishop-elect for the diocese and his subsequent rejection by Mbaise people in preference for one of their own to this exalted position. Strongly believing “that an Igbo person should not be considered a foreigner among fellow Igbo,” Ilo directed his argument, first and foremost, against the very idea of rejecting a bona fide son of Igboland (Nw’afo Igbo) by his fellow Igbo. He went on to suggest that what is happening in Ahiara diocese is indicative of the ongoing “internal wars, petition writing, nocturnal visits, horse-trading, envy and recriminations of Igbo-on-Igbo” at both local and national level. Thus, he conclusively saw this state of affairs as evidence of “Igbo Catholicism on trial today” or, better, in the words of a “very prominent Northern bishop” he cited, as “an Igbo problem.”
Ilo’s article has attracted a wide range of responses from many Nigerians within and outside of the country, thus indicating how critically important, for the health of Nigerian catholicism and society at large, is the issue he and his “very prominent Northern bishop” have raised. Lest the reading public is misled into buying their respective positions above as correct, I thought it necessary to contest the veracity of their assertions and the validity of the arguments behind them. On this note, I want to argue that the Ahiara crisis is neither Igbo Catholicism on trial nor “an Igbo problem;” if anything, it is the tip of the iceberg of the Nigerian problem and, therefore, the Nigerian Catholicism that is on trial today. In the same vein, the very prominent Northern bishop’s statements on the state of affairs in Ahiara diocese is not only misleading but also is an example of the derision on the Igbos as well as the manner with which national problems that happen to rear their ugly heads in Igboland are often clannishly dismissed as “Igbo problem” by many non-Igbos.
On this note, let’s begin with the assertions by “the very prominent Northern bishop” who, according to Ilo, remarked that Igbo men – Uzoukwu in Minna and Akubueze in Uromi and now Benin – were respectively accepted as bishops in dioceses outside of Igboland. Also in the North, according to this “very prominent Northern bishop,” Kukah, Dodo, and Kaigama, and among the Yoruba bishops – Atoyebi, Onaiyekan, Badejo, and Okogie – were all accepted as bishops “in dioceses different from their place of origin among their own ethnic group.” Unfortunately Ilo’s “Northern bishop” did not present a full picture of each of the examples he advanced, especially when paired along the Ahiara scenario; the bishop’s view on the matter is like comparing an apple with an orange. To begin with, one wonders why the “Northern bishop” said nothing about the case of the late Bishop Nwaezeapu, an Igbo, in Warri or that of late Bishop Ephraim Obot in Idah. In both cases they were rejected; while the former died in exile, the latter was enforced on the people. These are in addition to the well-known case of the late Bishop Okoye of Port-Harcourt diocese, an Igbo, who was literally chased out of his diocese at the end of the Nigerian civil war, the same time his fellow Igbos had their property forcibly seized from them and the act “baptized” as “abandoned property.” That our “very prominent Northern bishop” made no reference to these cases means he is guilty of either selective memory or a deliberate attempt to mislead the reading public about the Igbos and Igbo Catholicism. What follows is to dislodge these assertions and by so doing brings a better clarity to the issues at stake.
In the case of Uzoukwu in Minna diocese, there was no significant population of Catholics in the diocese that could have staged a protest against his appointment. Even at that, Uzoukwu is fluent in Hausa, having lived and worked in the area before he became a priest; also the majority of Catholics in Minna diocese are southerners, many of whom are Igbos. Thus, the indigenes who could have protested or rejected Uzoukwu’s appointment would have been non-Catholics; but these would have no business reacting to the appointment of a Catholic bishop as would be the case in a linguistically and culturally homogeneous area as Ahiara diocese with a predominantly catholic population. In the case of Akubueze in Uromi and later Benin, he was originally a priest of Isele-Uku diocese which, with Uromi, is part and parcel of the same metropolitan Archdiocese of Benin. Without going into details of the circumstances that saw the emergence of Akubeze in Uromi and later in Benin, it is a known fact that priests of both dioceses wrote against one another and therefore undermined their chances of becoming bishops, leading to going outside of their respective dioceses, but – lest we forget – from the same ecclesiastical Province. On this note, one wonders why a priest from the Ecclesiastical Province to which Ahiara belongs was not appointed for the diocese, given the argument that the priests of Ahiara diocese like their counterparts in Uromi and Benin as just noted, were divided and writing against one another. In the case of Kukah, the context around his appointment to Sokoto diocese is largely and comparatively similar to the Minna context we noted above and, therefore, need no further comments. This brings us to the case of Dodo the context of whose appointment for Zaria diocese differs from the Ahiara situation. In this direction one must note that Dodo was a priest of the Archdiocese of Kaduna from which Zaria diocese was created and Dodo made its pioneer bishop. Besides, the same context and the corresponding argument we made for both cases of Uzukwu in Minna and Kukah in Sokoto, is largely applicable to Dodo in Zaria. To a large extent, the same context could be applicable to Kaigama in Jos. A significant number of Catholic population in the Archdiocese are Southerners many of whom are Igbos. But most worth noting is the fact that, contrary to what was denied to Ahiara diocese, Kaigama was originally a priest of a diocese that is part of the ecclesiastical Province of Jos to which he was appointed its Archbishop.
The case of the Yoruba bishops is even more revealing. Atoyebi, a priest from Ilorin diocese belonged to a Religious Community, the Order of Preachers (Dominicans); he was appointed bishop of Ilorin diocese, his home diocese, following the division among the priests, especially the senior priests who were writing against one another – an action similar to what Mbaise priests were said to have done. As for Onaiyekan, prior to his appointment as bishop, he was a priest of the diocese of Lokoja out of which Ilorin diocese was created and was appointed as its first bishop. Later he was transferred to Abuja. What is today Abuja Archdiocese was essentially the Church’s political response, so to speak, to the emergence of Abuja as the country’s new capital.
Ecclesiastically, Abuja was drawn from a number of surrounding dioceses all of which were part and parcel of Kaduna Archdiocese and to which Ilorin diocese also belonged as at the time Onaiyekan was transferred to Abuja. As of then and even till date the majority of the Catholic population of the diocese, especially its foundation members, have been Igbos. Besides, coming from a minority ethnic group and in sensitivity to the nation’s desire to emasculate Abuja from the influence of any ethnic group, especially the three dominant ethnic groups, the choice of Onaiyekan for Abuja to understudy and eventually succeed the founding prelate – himself also of a minority tribe – the late Cardinal Ekandem of blessed memory made perfect sense. Thus, the chance of Onaiyekan being rejected in Abuja did not arise and could not have arisen. With regards to Badejo, Ilo’s “very prominant Northern bishop” is right in noting that Badejo is bishop in a diocese “different from [his] place of origin among [his] own ethnic group.” But this does not capture the whole context about Badejo. To start with, Badejo’s pedigree is both Ijebu (paternal) and Oyo (maternal) extractions of Yoruba race. However, for reasons outside the scope of this paper to advance, his father settled in Oshogbo where Badejo was born and raised up, thus making him, from all practical purposes, a bona fide son of Oshogbo land that is part and parcel of the old Oyo diocese for which he was ordained to the priesthood. Belonging to Oshogbo diocese at its creation from Oyo, he would later be appointed bishop for Oyo (his maternal home) to succeed Bishop Adelakun who, incidentally, ordained him to the priesthood. Thus, the context under which Badejo became bishop for Oyo diocese is a world apart from the context that threw up Monsignor Okpalaeke for Ahiara diocese.
Finally we come to Okojie. Like Badejo, Okogie is a bona fide son of a diocese different from his place of origin but for which he was ordained to the priesthood. Although Okojie’ pedigree, on his paternal side, is Ishan in Edo State, he was raised up not just in Lagos but in the very heart of that city, Idumagbo to be precise. Needless to say he speaks Yoruba fluently, perhaps, better than his paternal Ishan language. Thus, there is no reason why anyone would question his appointment as bishop of Lagos Archdiocese as of the time he was so appointed; besides, the metropolitan character of Lagos and the overwhelming non-Yoruba majority of its catholic population would have made it senseless for anyone to reject him as bishop. However, again, Ilo’s “very prominent Northern bishop” surprisingly failed to mention that Okogie’s initial appointment as auxiliary bishop for the then old Oyo diocese was met with opposition and rejection. From all indication, the opposition and rejection was not warranted, if not senseless. First, the diocese was a suffragan of Lagos Archdiocese as at the time he was appointed bishop for Oyo diocese. Second, he speaks fluent Yoruba as already noted. And what is more, his mother is not only from Oyo town but also is of the royal family, the Alaafin of Oyo family. And yet he was rejected by his mother’s people, so to speak. The opposition and rejection were so deep that the Church had to reverse itself and appointed him to succeed Archbishop Aggey of Lagos – a decision easily made possible by the death of the Archbishop.
The foregoing, therefore, goes to demonstrate clearly a misrepresentation of facts around how Catholics react or respond to ecclesiastical appointments in some parts of the country, especially the North (Hausas) and the West (“the Yoruba bishops”). Specifically, the foregoing also exposes a misinterpretation of “the Mbaise situation,” and, worse, a mischaracterization of Mbaise priests in particular and the Igbo people in general, leading me to see the crisis in Ahiara diocese as a blessing in disguise, sad as the entire situation is. I say this because God, in his own way of writing straight on crooked lines, so to speak, allowed this to happen and by so doing expose to the public, for our corrective attention as individuals and as a group, the sordid way our Church does its business. In this regard and contrary to Ilo’s view, it is not “Igbo Catholicism [that] is on trial today” but rather Nigerian Catholicism, leading me to further say that what is happening in Ahiara diocese is not a local (Igbo) but a national (Nigerian) problem. To begin with, the issue at stake resides in how ecclesiastical appointments are made; the age-long top-down and autocratic way of appointing bishops needs a re-thinking and change. It breeds priest-booth lickers, priest-hero worshippers, and careerist-priests in the church and society. Stories abound of some priests who scheme for episcopal appointments or bishops who scheme for higher ecclesiastical positions or those of them who would use their connections within the corridors of power in the church to ensure that their “boys” become bishops or sometimes would have a diocese carved out from their own and have their “favorite son” appointed as its bishop. It may well be that these stories are not true; however, their regularity and staying power, especially in the domain of popular culture, could make them believable, given the veracity of the saying, ‘no smoke without fire.’
Be that as it may, it is true the Pope is the one who appoints bishops; but let no one be deceived to believe that he personally knows his appointees. There are people whose job it is at the local, national and Universal Church levels to help him with recommendations to make the appointments. If the appointments, therefore, is opposed by those for whom the appointees are to serve, then it means that those who advised the Pope were either incompetent or may have sacrificed objectivity and integrity on the altar of selfishness. Brought to bear on Nigeria, the Mbaise situation reveals the poverty of leadership of the Nigerian Catholic Church hierarchy – a point I have discussed extensively in my book, Crossing the Rubicon: A Socio-Political Analysis of Political Catholicism in Nigeria (Book Builders:2010), which is unpopular among the Nigerian bishops and therefore not accepted for sale in Catholic bookshops in the country. Brought nearer home to Igbos, that the Igbo bishops, by omission or commission, allowed the Mbaise situation to arise reveals the unique poverty of their leadership and dishonesty to Igbo people – a subject matter that deserves and will be given a later attention.
Meanwhile, Ilo has rightly discussed the Mbaise situation within the broader issue of the need for Igbo solidarity. On this note, he has also rightly observed, that the Igbos are a divided people, leading to my qualified agreement with his assertion that it is a cultural heresy for an Igbo person to be considered a foreigner in any part of Igbo land. Where he is wrong-headed is in making it appear that this state of affairs is unique to the Igbo race, granted our disunity may be more noticeable because of the egalitarian and republican character of Igbo people and the effects which our loss of the civil war brought on us. There is no single ethnic group within the Nigerian polity that does not have its share and degree of disunity. For instance, among the Yorubas, the Ifes and the Oyos are not bed fellows, a relationship that is epitomized in the constant war of words between the Alaafin of Oyo and the Oni of Ife and whose mortal character was exemplified in the Ife-Modakeke crisis of the 80s and beyond. In addition, what used to be revered as “One North” is gradually collapsing, if not already dead. The people of Southern Zaria and in the Jos area are not in perfect unity with their other ethnic neighbours even though they all speak the same Hausa language. While doing my National Youths Service Corp (NYSC) from 1985-86 in Edo State, one could easily notice a deep-seated antagonism between the people of the then Okpeho local government and their surrounding neighbours over the goings-on at the then Edo State University, even though they all share the same Ishan language and culture. And the examples can go on and on. Therefore, it borders on analytical naivety to see disunity within the Nigerian polity as something unique to Ndigbo or to uncritically believe and hobnob with those non-Igbos who, as evidence of their love for Ndigbo, gladly show off their numerous Igbo friends but are quick to latch on any opportunity that presents itself to deride Igbo people without whose presence and material support, catholicism in most of their places of origin and work could be as good as in a state of flaccidity.
What is beyond doubt, however, is the challenge which the Igbo people pose to the Nigerian State, be it in the policy-area of federal character, quota system, state of origin, etc. – policies which were largely put in place to checkmate the Igbos but now have boomeranged into bringing the country to its current state of poverty, on-going celebration of mediocrity, and socio-political and economic stagnation. In this regard, the Igbos are and will remain Nigeria’s problem as long as they hold unto, and Nigeria refuses to pay heed to their demand for a particular sense of justice that is informed by, and best represented in the Igbo ethos of Ofo n’Ogu (live and let live). This sense of justice guarantees fairness, respect and cordiality in the way people treat one another in any given society. Brought to bear on politics, for instance, this understanding of justice calls for a structuring of the polity, say the Nigerian state, on the enabling socio-political and economic foundation that must guarantee a level-playing ground for all and sundry in the polity. In other words, the Igbos would expect that this sense of justice be applicable to the way we do business at every level of governance in the country. If this is the case then, it is only to be expected as a matter of principle that the application of the same sense of justice run down into our religious, village, even family relationships. Hence, the Igbos cannot expect others to treat them accordingly only to turn around and not apply the same principle on themselves. Put bluntly, the Igbos cannot demand the Nigerian state to treat their race with justice only to fail to treat themselves accordingly; we, the Igbo people, cry that we are marginalized – and rightly so – but then, based on our cultural ethos of Ofo n’Ogu, we cannot, in the name of Igbo solidarity, turn a blind eye to or condone the injustice by Igbos on Igbos.
Based on the preceding sense of justice, one begins to make sense of Mbaise people’s response to the appointment of a bishop-elect for their diocese. It is on the same basis that I disagree with Ilo’s argument on the contrary. If Mbaise people claim that they and their diocese have been visited with injustice, be it by the universal Church or through the agency of some powers that are in the Nigerian Church, what Ilo and his likes need to do is to determine the veracity or validity of Mbaise people’s claim. If their claim is true, it is an added injustice on them to condemn them, in the name of God, for crying foul; and if it is true that their fellow Igbos have a hand in the way they claim to have been treated, we cannot shy away, in the name of Igbo solidarity, from condemning such an act and calling the alleged fellow Igbos to order. Those who ask for justice, including those Mbaise people behind the opposition to the episcopal appointment for their diocese, must themselves be seen to be just!
Yes, while “what is unfolding in Mbaise Catholicism is regrettable,” it is equally unfolding for us
a little glimpse of the Nigerian Catholic church’s share of the putrid and cancerous activities that go on, in the name of God, in the different religious groups and denominations in the country; this is notwithstanding the expansive and gorgeous churches and mosques as well as a teeming number of religious adherents in the country. Also the crisis in the diocese of Ahiara, Mbaise, unfolds for us an opportunity to come to some clarity with regards to some of the issues involved in the search for Igbo solidarity and how best to bring about this unity vis-a-vis the imperative to live in harmony with our neighbours. In this vein, deeply imbued in both my Catholic Christian faith and my cultural sense of justice (Ofo n’Ogu), I come to this conclusion: I love my family and friends, I love my race, Ndigbo, and I am committed to working first for Igbo solidarity and then its solidarity with all lovers of justice; but on and above all these and to hold them together is my unequivocal commitment to always stand for the truth; as the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, aptly puts it: “I nevertheless have a sacred duty to love the truth more.”
Iheanyi Enwerem, O.P.
S0K 2T0, CANADA.
Source: SAHARA REPORTERS.