Religious Harmony In Anambra: Stemming Age-long Division By Politics
ORIGINALLY, the 13 denominations, which participated in the foundation of CAN in 1976, represented two major Christian blocs: the Catholics and the Protestants. The Protestants were divided into two: the Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN) and the group described simply as Others. While CCN was made up of an ecumenical union of mainline Protestant churches, Others comprised denominations such as the Northern Christian Association (NCA), which belonged neither to the Catholic Church nor to CCN. Notwithstanding, there were still other churches not originally associated with CAN.
The decision by other Christian bodies originally outside CAN to join the organisation, was a major test to the survival of the Christian body; it was a baptism of fire. For instance, there was the case in Owerri, Imo State, where attempt was made to deny the admission of some churches into the Pentecostal church groups. These churches were so angered that they threatened to go to court for not being admitted into CAN. The situation escalated, when these church groups went ahead to form another rival national Christian body called the Nigeria Association of Christian Churches, and sought government recognition.
Though the rival group eventually faded away, that rebellious act forced CAN to re-examine its membership policy, especially as the group called ‘Others’ protested its nomenclature in the Christian association. After long deliberations over the issue, three groups emerged out of ‘Others,’ thus bringing the membership of CAN from its initial three groups to the following five: The Catholic Church, The Christian Council of Nigeria, The Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC), The TEKAN/ECWA Fellowship and The Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria. Till date, at every point of choosing leaders for CAN, there’s always some underground politicking among these blocs. In essence, what was created to unify had created cracks in Christendom.
But besides what’s happening with CAN at the national level, Anambra State is a peculiar case. Beyond tussle for the leadership of the Christian group, there’s also quest for political controls among the denominations. Though the Pentecostals, who are obviously outnumbered, have since accepted their fate as regards power sharing in the state, the Anglicans are yet to give up in their quest to topple Catholics, who have enjoyed more political control in recent times.
The religious configuration of Nigeria has shown that Igbo has the highest concentration of the mainline churches, particularly Catholic and Anglican Churches. This has been attributed to the evangelisation strategies employed by early missionaries, of which schooling was an integral part of the conversion process. Unfortunately, these strategies also engendered rivalry and competition between the two groups, robbing them of the real focus and commitment needed to build a strong Christian family.
Though Anglican was the first missionary in Onitsha in 1857, Catholic missionaries later arrived the commercial nerve centre of the east in 1884. So, behind today’s flowering Catholicism in Igbo land is a history of conscious efforts to employ proven scientific methods in the evangelisation of the Igbo people. Particularly, French and Irish Catholic missionaries were very imaginative and unsurpassable in their application of methodological approaches to procure the conversion to Catholicism of the great Igbo people. The result of that carefully planned tactics gave birth to the present day Anambra State being clearly dominated by Catholics.
Though promoted as a faith-based doctrine, the practice of Catholics marrying Catholics has ensured the growth of the church in the region. Any young man planning to marry a Catholic lady must be ready to convert to Catholicism or forget the marriage. And this has been so for many years and there’s no sign of it ever ending. However, in response, Anglicans also adopted same approach, though not as stringent as what obtains in the Catholic Church.
While the Anglicans were a bit lenient with the marriage rule, Catholic Church applied the law diligently, with offenders getting different levels of punishments. For instance, parents that gave out their daughters in marriage to non-Catholics stand the risk of being banned from receiving the Holy Communion; same applies to those that married non-Catholics, without them converting fully. A visit to communities and villages in Anambra will reveal that the policy is still very much in place.
However, the attempt by the Anglican Church to level up with the Catholics in this regard has in many ways contributed to the growth of Pentecostalism in the southeast, especially in Anambra State. At a point, some intending couples, who had the courage to call the bluff of their parents, wedded in small Pentecostal churches, which were all out to court members. Before long, Anambra State, which was originally dominated by the two religious groups, now had visible traces of Pentecostalism. From operating inside rented warehouses, most of these modern day churches are gradually gaining grounds. A typical example is the exploits of Christ Embassy and Winners Chapel along Enugu-Onitsha Old Road, Nkpor.
In the villages, especially, these small churches have taken advantage of the crisis between the big two to gather disgruntled members into their folds. Even people originally dubbed Osu (outcasts) can now preach the gospel, decked in resplendent attires. And during their early morning preachings, one usually gets to hear more of bashings against the Catholic Church, while little attention is paid to salvation. In a nutshell, there has always been rancour among Christian groups in Anambra.
Today in Anambra politics, religion is a big issue, as the two have become quite inseparable. To an average man on the street, your religious inclination matters more than whatever good you have for people of the state. From electing a governor to selecting political appointees, religion is always a major consideration. Though their leaders apparently have good working relationship, reality shows that their members are clearly divided along denominational lines.
In some major markets in Onitsha, where Catholics usually observed The Angelus at 12pm and 6pm daily, other denominations have also adopted and introduced their own form of prayers. At the end, the same people that sleep in churches, are also the ones populating the political arena and often times, they play dirty.
During the military era, when Joseph Abulu was appointed the first Administrator of new Anambra State, religious dichotomy was never in the fore. Even during his 10 months tenure as the governor of Anambra State in 1992, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife never made it an issue. From the time Dabo Aliyu, Mike Attah, Fufai Garba, Emmanuel Ukaegbu were in Awka as military administrators, up till when Chiwnoke Mbadinuju, a Pentecostal member was elected governor in 1999, at the return of civil rule, religious calculation was minimal. And because people channeled their energies to celebrating the return of democracy, religion was almost relegated to the background.
However, the election that ousted Mbadinuju in 2003 had some religious undertone, though not so visible. While the governor, who was originally elected on PDP platform defected to AD as a result of intra party crisis, Chris Ngige clinched the PDP ticket and Peter Obi was put forward by APGA. These two were the top contenders in 2003. This resulted in the battle line being drawn between the incumbent Pentecostal governor and two staunch Catholics. Eventually, Ngige was declared the winner.
All through his term as governor of the state, religion was never part of Ngige’s administration. Though a Knight of the Catholic Church, citizens could hardly tell. With the coming of Peter Obi, however, things took a new turn, as the politics changed. Caution was thrown to the wind and everything just blew open. Indeed, his administration was said to have expanded the frontiers of religious politics in the state. And with a Rev. Father and Rev. Sister as siblings, it was easy for the Agulu native to break into the Catholic hierarchy in Anambra State.
Though other major governorship contenders such as Chris Ngige, Chukwuma Soludo, Andy Uba and Obinna Uzoh were all Catholics, Obi successfully warmed himself into the hearts of the Bishops and his siblings in the missionary allegedly oiled the relationship. Even during his bid for a second tenure, the church played a major role. The Catholic bishop reportedly settled the altercation between Gov. Obi and other contenders, who were also Catholics.
But in a bid to handover to his anointed successor, Willie Obiano, Peter Obi took religious politics to another level. He reportedly urged Roman Catholics in the state to sustain their grip on Anambra politics by ensuring that the next governor was a Catholic. Though he made efforts to reach out to other denominations in sharing democracy dividends, Obi’s preference for Catholic Church was never hidden.
For instance, while speaking on behalf of the governor at the inauguration of the Widows and Less Privileged Members Foundation at the Holy Trinity Basilica, Onitsha, the then Commissioner for Works, Mr. Callistus Ilozumba, publicly said Roman Catholics must use the November 16 governorship election in the state to make a point that the church had come to be relevant in the politics of the state.
Ilozumba recalled that when Obi joined the race in 2003, Knights of St. John, St. Mulumba and the Laity Council teamed up to support him in the election, which he won. With public statements such as this and the eventual emergence of Obiano as Obi’s successor, some Catholics began to see themselves as superior to Christians of other denominations. And before long, the battle line was draw.
Reacting to some of the issues raised against the former governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, his Senior Special Assistant on Media, Mr. Valentine Obienyem, said: “Personally, I’m not aware of any problem between Catholics and the Anglicans or any other denomination in Anambra State. If anybody is saying that the former governor favoured the Catholics more than any other denomination, I think that is a fallacy. There is nothing like that.
“For example, the former governor had more Anglicans than Catholics in his cabinet. And under him, we had more Anglican permanent secretaries. Even in the judiciary, Anambra State had more Anglican judges under Peter Obi. So, I don’t know where the issue of favouring Catholics more than any other denomination came from.
“When Obi was the governor, he returned missionary schools taken away from Anglicans, as well as those that belonged to the Catholics. He couldn’t do that to all, because not all churches had schools taken by the government. He started giving them money to rebuild the infrastructures and Anglican got money based on the number of schools they have. The same policy was extended to the Catholic, while government schools also received money based on the number of schools. He ensured that it was equitably distributed. We had hospitals in Anambra State that met certain standards and what the government did was to grade the hospitals to know the ones to support. It was not a denominational matter, but strictly based on equity.
“For instance, the hospital at Waterside owned by the Catholic was given a lot of money to upgrade their infrastructure. Hospitals such as Our Lady of Lords at Ihiala, the Anglican hospital at Enyielu, as well as another hospital at Amechi, all got money to upgrade their infrastructure. When Anambra State won the Bill Gate prize because the governor did well at eradicating polio, the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation gave some money, but the governor still added some amount to it. He partnered with the churches as one group. He requested from the Catholic Bishop of Onitsha a piece of land, where he could build a maternity and healthcare centre. He requested for the same thing from the Anglican Bishop of Aguata, as well as the Catholic and Anglican Bishops in Awka. Everything was done equitably.”
But those that believe Obi never supported other churches in the state refuted this claim.
Obienyem, an Anambra citizen debunked it. Said he: “When Obi was giving out ambulances to churches, he supported a hospital in Awka called Jesus Is The Lord hospital owned by Bishop Eberechukwu, the head of Pentecostals in Anambra State. He also extended to Bishop Nwachukwu of the Pentecostal faith all the support he gave to other churches. The Methodist Church was not left out of this largesse. But when it came to schools and such things, the Anglican and Catholics were the only beneficiaries,” he said.
On the allegation that the former governor urged Roman Catholics in the state to ensure that his successor should be a Catholic, Obienyem retorted: “how could you believe that Peter Obi would do such a thing? There was actually no need for that. People say all sorts of things to tarnish somebody’s image. They just come up with all sorts of imagined things. He was fair to everybody.”
Obiano Moves To Stem The Tide
Last year, The Guardian reported that the relationship between the Anglican and the Catholic Church had turned sour over the demolition of Ebenezer Anglican Church in Oyolu-Ozeh, Nkwelle Ezunaka, Anambra State. The demolition, which was carried out by people allegedly fulfilling the agenda of some prominent individuals in the state, created a serious strain in the relationship between the two orthodox Churches, so much so that even the state governor, Chief Willie Obiano was implicated. Today, however, things have changed for the better, as the governor has taken steps to reconcile, not just the two orthodox churches, but also all the churches in the state, which felt that he has not favoured them since assuming office. The Guardian learned that the Anambra number one citizen is making spirited efforts to bring all the churches together.
Corroborating this at the consecration service held at the All Saints Cathedral, Onitsha, where three new bishops were ordained recently, the Primate of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, Most Rev. Nicholas D. Okoh showered encomiums on Governor Willie Obiano. He stated at a pre-consecration dinner in Amawbia that he was very happy with the governor’s endeavour at creating a cordial relationship between the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and other religious bodies in the state, which had been very toxic in the past.
Said he: “the Church cannot make progress without peace. It is in this sense that we appreciate the harmony you are trying to bring about between the Anglicans and the Catholics. Sometime ago, the tension rose so high and got to a pitch, but thank God that wisdom is now prevailing and we hope that on both sides, we will work with wisdom to ensure that God is honoured and not man. It is very necessary that we work very hard to break down the barriers and re-orientate ourselves because if we will not live together, then we will die together. Injustice will never lead to peace. I call on all of us in our own little corners to work for peace and ensure that Anglicans, Pentecostals, Catholics and even the traditionalists are given fair treatment so that all of us can cohabit and promote the wellbeing of our dear country.”
Also speaking with The Guardian on phone, the Bishop On the Niger, Rt. Rev. (Dr.) Owen Nwokolo, said the governor and his wife were at the consecration service from the beginning till the end. He urged the Primate of the Anglican Church, Most Rev. Nicholas D. Okoh to visit Most Rev, Valerian Okeke, who is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Onitsha.
“We all accompanied the Primate to the Basilica Holy Trinity, Onitsha, where we had a good chat with His Grace, Valerian Okeke. Since this is his agenda, I believe it will go a long way to bring peace, if he continues promoting it,” he said.
Disclosing what they discussed with Most Rev. Valerian Okeke, Nwokolo said: “We just reminded him that the church is one and that the ecumenical spirit, which our Lord Jesus Christ asked us to pursue so that we may be one should be promoted. All these hostilities and bickering that are not Christian-like should be avoided. On his part, the Archbishop explained that he didn’t encourage all that has been happening. Rather, it is the members that sometimes let their emotions get out of control and not the church leaders that are instigating them to fight other denominations.”
He expressed his willingness to cooperate with the church and other stakeholders to ensure that brotherly love and understanding prevail.
According to one of Obiano’s aides, the governor believes if church leaders have the sole aim of winning souls for Christ, they should not be fighting themselves. For instance, it is a known fact that he has gone round all the dioceses and met with the bishops and the clergy. He has also met with other organisations in the church, and not just in the Catholic Church, but the Anglican and other groups as well. Indeed, it is believed in many quarters that he has come to transform Anambra and obliterate the acrimony that has been in existence.
A resident in the state said: “We commend this. The governor is funding education in churches across denominations, as well as supporting our hospitals, which belong to the missions. We appreciate it.”
While speaking at the consecration service, Governor Obiano urged all religious leaders not to be sectional and endeavour to be shepherds of all Christians and not just those in their denominations to ensure salvation for all. In his view, the Church is in need of devoted leaders, who are conscious of their divine mandate, as given them by God, Who commanded them to be shepherds of the flock of Christ under their care.
He advised that the import of the Archbishop’s prayers and the responsibility therewith conferred should not be lost on the new Bishops and all Christians. He admonished them to “Be shepherds and not wolves to the flock”.
Obiano has been trying to foster friendship across denominational divides. For example, at a dinner organised for all Archbishops and Bishops of Anglican Communion at the Lodge in Amawbia, the governor noted, “This administration is leaving no stone unturned in the commitment to establish cordial relationship with various religious denominations in the state. And I believe such bond will avail government the much-needed peace and spiritual backing to realise its lofty dreams for the state”.
He described the Church and government as partners in progress in the task of changing lives and building a virile society. He said a clear understanding of their roles in the church would guide religious leaders in pursuing peace and unity with one another as a pre-requisite for the development of the society.
While assuring the church of his administration’s continued support towards their evangelistic strides, Governor Obiano called for fervent prayers for the nation and its leaders in the task of administering the affairs of the nation.
It is the opinion of some religious watchers in the state that the hostility that existed among the churches was encouraged by former Governor Obi, who allegedly favoured the Catholics more than other denominations in the distribution of facilities, logistics and money during his tenure.
Said a commentator: “For record purposes, Obi presented buses, computers, sporting and library equipment among others to mission schools and hospitals, including cash running into billions, but it was not equally distributed”.
But reacting to this allegation, the Head usher at the Seed of David of The Redeemed Christian Church of God, Anambra Province, Brother Amechi Okeke said it is not totally true. He commended Peter Obi for touching positively all the churches, though it was lopsided.
“You know the former governor is from a Catholic family. So, it is possible for other denominations to feel that he was being partial, though we were not involved in the whole thing. I understand he even made some appointment(s) and did not include members of Pentecostal churches. There was no empowerment of Pentecostal schools and churches.
“The basis of dispute between the Anglicans and Catholics may have been who gets what or who gets bigger things. This is because they have been receiving cash, buses, ICT centres, library and sporting equipment. So, they must disagree. But now that Governor Obiano has moved to correct the anomaly it is a welcome arrangement and must be encouraged by all. I salute his courage in trying to reconcile the two factions, though he should endeavor to carry other denominations along, so that there will be peace in Anambra, because “Christ is one”.
Also commenting on the issue, an Anglican Communion faithful, Hon Ibeagwu Ifeanyi, said: “In as much as I prefer an Anglican governor in the next dispensation, it should not be all comers affair. He should be ready to tackle challenges confronting Anambra State in terms of education, experience and capability. He should have human relations.
“Comparing the performance of Governors Etiaba, Ngige, Obi and Obiano while in office, I would say that Obi tried to give a life line to the churches. However, the level of empowerment was tilted more to the side of Catholics, as there was much disparity in schools and church rehabilitation.”