Tuesday, April 6, 2010

From the Pulpit to the Podium

By Clement Muozoba/Daily Champion/All Africa

Lagos — That the Nigerian politics has since gone the religious lines is what nobody needs to be told. No matter how the events are veiled in a verisimilitude, the effects are there and the innumerable lives lost especially during the religious cum political crises, coupled with some incendiary statements from some quarters bear eloquent testimony. In the same way, it is no more hidden that Anambra State politics now trails some religious denominational lines. Many events have since been pointing to this direction and ignoring them means folly while facing the facts may need more than ordinary courage. The major gladiators seem to be the Anglicans and the Catholics and the other denominations join the Anglicans most of the time. The allegation of having a favoured candidate in the just concluded gubernatorial election has attracted some widely published and sponsored spurious stories against the Catholic priests. One has to think deeply in order to find the source of these allegations.

In the first place, it must be recalled that the origin of the rivalry between Catholicism and Anglicanism is remotely traced to the 16th century, when King Henry VIII severed ties with the Pope and proclaimed himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. He declared that the king's religion was the religion of his subjects, thereby making Anglicanism a state religion. This was occasioned by the Pope's refusal to grant the king divorce of his wife, Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Catherine bore the king no male child. This schism was the farthest the king wanted to go. The rest was the influence of radical reformers like Jean Calvin and John Knox.

The immediate cause of this rivalry in Nigeria could be traced to the rivalry between Ireland and England which later saw Ireland divided between the North and the South, with the North being predominantly Anglican and remaining a part of Britain and the South consisting of mainly Catholics and desired a free Irish state. The South later became the Republic of Ireland. It would be recalled that England had earlier subdued Ireland in the 17th century. The enmity between the two countries has never been hidden since then. It was the English missionaries that brought Anglicanism and the Irish missionaries brought Catholicism to Nigeria. The missionaries did not rise above the politics of their countries and our people swallowed it hook, line and sinker. That was how brothers and sisters were set against each other in the name of religion.

One major problem I think the Church of England had originally was how to make the people accept what the king had rejected. Henry VIII wanted freedom from the Papacy and declared a state religion which he headed. This mean that going out for evangelization would mean making the would-be-converts religiously English people. And this is what colonization meant as the Church of England could not function independent of the British Government. Therefore, both religion and politics were packaged together and delivered to the colonies with the expectation of no opposition. If opposition arose from the local inhabitants, the British Army was there to pacify the area. This was unlike the Catholic Church which distanced itself from the local politics of the land. Though this did not augur well with the Catholic Church because as it preached the kingdom of heaven, the Anglican Church did not overlook the kingdom of the world, it however defined the Catholic Church as purely a religious body and not some political set-up.

This hand-in-glove relationship with the secular British Government has so much weakened the Anglican Church. For example, during the Nigeria-Biafran War, as the Catholic Church, through its agencies like Caritas International, the Holy Ghost Fathers, the U. S. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) etc., spent time and energy in providing relief materials for the famished Biafran children due to the blockade by the Gowon government, the Anglican Church could not rise above its master, the British Government which not only supported, but facilitated the Biafran genocide in support of its former colony, Nigeria. That has been the position of the Anglican Church as regards politics. In village, town or state politics, they believe they must be on top or cause confusion if they lose. The denominational brouhaha reached a crescendo since the Anglicans lost the grip on Anambra's seat of Power. I do not blame the Anglicans as such because they are products of a political church and ecclesiastical politics. This is why Eric Heffer, in his book, Why I am a Christian, defined the Anglican Church as "the Tory Party at prayer".

When I ruminate on what happened before the election, I have every reason to believe that there was superbly mastered and arranged plans to intimidate the Catholic Church into submission. A manifestation of this was when some Catholics were denied registration for voting in some Anglican Church premises. Quite a good number of the Anglican Churches secretly contracted the INEC officials to register their members privately. Then as early as November, 2009, a national newspaper published in its headline: THE CATHOLIC CHURCH DIVIDED BETWEEN OBI, SOLUDO AND NGIGE. This was followed by some fallacious and blasphemous instances of how some Catholic priests and bishops who were Obi's supporters were harassed in the church during their homilies by the supporters of Ngige and Soludo. This then opened up a flood of criticisms against the Catholic Church and gave grounds to the sponsors of the publications to issue some statements in newspapers. Some of such statements began to compare the numerical strength of the Catholic Church and the other denominations in the state especially the Anglican Church. Some false figures were given to support the fact that the Catholics are in the minority. Another card that was played was the circulation of a secret document titled MALICIOUS/LOPSIDED APPOINTMENTS IN PETER OBI'S ADMINISTRATION AGAINST ANGLICANS. This was published by the Society for Equity, Justice and Peace of the Diocesan Council of Laity, Diocese on the Niger (Anglican Communion) and signed by Hon. Sir Edwin Ekwuno, chairman and Engr. Mike Igwilo, secretary. Unfortunately for them, this document leaked. It has to be noted that in 1950, after a secret meeting in St. Paul's University College, Awka, a similar document, "What Are We Anglicans Doing?" was issued. It also leaked. In it, their fears about the Catholic Church were highlighted and some solutions were given. Part of it is what we are seeing today.

As the unfounded allegations were peddled against the Catholic Church and the priests, it was understood that the Anglican Church, through its hierarchy, had given a directive that they must vote a particular candidate whose activities had been highly detestable in the state. It was learnt that on Sunday, January 31, 2010, the Anglican faithful in many churches were treated to a good meal of indoctrination after the service on this choice candidate. It reached a situation where the members were threatened with excommunication from the church should they do otherwise. The game plan was that since they had only one candidate, they had to vote en masse for him so that the Catholics would share their votes between Obi, Soludo, Ngige and Ekwunife. This would make this candidate coast home to victory. Many of them did not accept this and there was a loud protest which later ended up in physical combat in some of the churches, with some of their members threatening to leave the church rather than vote against their conscience. In some of the major markets in the state, it became a topic. From where then do these sponsored allegations against the Catholic Church come?

Some prominent Nigerians fell for these lies. Okey Ndibe, a firebrand critic, while commenting on the Anambra gubernatorial Election, said, "I was thoroughly ashamed to hear that some priests abused their vocation by campaigning from their pulpits for Governor Obi" (Daily Sun, February 9, 2010). I just smiled because he did not understand what the game was. He wrote from the clearest of intentions from his abode in the US. If such a thing as preaching Obi from the pulpit instead of God happened, it is highly condemnable and such overzealous priests are wrong. But condemnation should be more on church-sponsored politics hatched in synods against the people's good intention. The event of 2007 cannot be forgotten in a hurry when an archbishop, after signing a statement that there was no election in Anambra State, later swallowed his words and said that the election was free and fair. He knows from his heart that there was no election. When Insider Weekly Magazine carried the story of an archbishop (not Catholic) who was at the meeting where Obi's unconstitutional impeachment was discussed in 2006 (cf. Insider Weekly, Nov. 26, 2007, p.32), the popular belief is that the reference was to this archbishop. Till today, the Concerned Christian Group has not seen anything wrong in these moves. Who is behind the mask?

A laughable and the worst accusation against the Catholic Church is that by Okey Maduforo that, "... some of the priests from the denomination and top church leaders have been receiving monthly allowances from the incumbent governor, hence his endorsement" (Daily Independent, March 15, 2010). A major contender in the gubernatorial election is said to be behind this story. I have described it as laughable and it is laughable and shows the frustrations of the denomination which was believed to have fed fat from the state's coffers in the past. When it was alleged that within just three months of interregnum in the state, that this denomination received the whopping sum of N1b (One billion Naira) for a complex within the Awka metropolis, nobody talked. It was at that time that the state's money was said to have been grossly wasted on frivolities and a family privatized the Government House and yet, the Concerned Christians were not concerned.

I know that some priests who worked as observers under the Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) of the Catholic Church were there to make sure that the people's votes counted. And for the first time, our votes counted. The noise about the massive disenfranchisement of over 80 per cent of the Anambra electorate is described by Emeka Umeagbalasi as false. He is of the view that the total number of registered voters in Anambra State is about 600,000 and that the bloated figure of over one million was used to rig the 2003 elections by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and was updated to rig the 2007 elections in favour of the PDP. For him, those who voted represented about 50 percent of the registered voters in the state (cf. The Sun newspaper, March 9, 2010). Sources close to the governor say that if one wants to befriend him for money, such a person is wasting his time. It is believed that in spite of his wealth, his kobo can never be lost for any frivolity. It runs in his family. His brother, Fr. Fabian continued to use an old 505 Peugeot car before he left for studies in spite of his brothers' wealth. How can such a person distribute the huge sum running into millions to the priests? What of those priests who are not comfortable with his style of administration, did he give them money also?

One other area of compromise that some people canvassed was that since Obi is a Catholic like Ekwunife, Soludo and Ngige, the Catholic Church should have allowed them play on a level ground. For goodness' sake, voting is not according to denominations and the church is not INEC. It is on merit and as far as I know, nobody coerced anybody into voting any candidate in the Catholic Church. We have seen those who did that and what they did and how they ended up. But even if the Church has any part to play in the election of the candidate, it would be injustice for it to produce a base candidate just for it to be represented in the seat of governance. That is the Catholic conscience. And in fairness, everybody knows that of all the major contenders to the governorship seat, it is only the incumbent governor that is not publicly tainted apart from the frivolous political insinuations to stop him. The church should be by the side of the truth always.

Be that as it may, there is one message that should be put across. It is now clear that our politicians have failed our people and they now look onto the church for redemption. It would be disastrous if the church allows itself to be drawn into Nigeria's brand of politics where corruption seems to be extolled. It is evil for any church to sponsor false publications against another. It portrays that church in worse light than the people it is meant to liberate. Having nocturnal church meetings to disrupt the peace of the state is unbecoming. Supporting any unworthy candidate by any church is also bad. The worst is the church joining hands with some forces to make people's votes not to count. The people know when their religious leaders start goofing. Finally, let the Catholic faithful and all men of goodwill not be fazed by the unwarranted attacks on the Catholic clergy. It is one of the occupational hazards. We must move beyond the pulpit to save our people.

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