By Emeka Omeihe
The last week of December 2020 appears one the Catholic Church in Nigeria will not easily forget for a long time to come. A number of disparate events ranging from the good, the bad and the ugly involving three of its Bishops in parts of the country seemed to have combined to carve out a special place for that year in the annals of the Catholic Church in this country.
First was the Christmas message of the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Most Rev. Matthew Hassam Kukah in which he dealt extensively with the challenges bedevilling the country. The very elaborate and all-embracing message touched on virtually all issues of concern currently vitiating attempts by the current leadership to find the right mix of solutions to the debilitating challenges that have cast a pall of insecurity across the country and left our citizens hewers of wood and fetchers of water in spite of vast natural endowments.
Kukah in that message said among others that the “prospects of a failed state stare us in the face: endless bloodletting, a collapsing economy, social anomie, domestic and community violence, kidnapping and armed robbery etc. Beyond the pall of politics, very prominent northerners with a conscience have raised the red flag pointing out the consequences of President Buhari’s nepotism on national cohesion and trust”.
Of all the issues Bishop Kukah raised, none appeared to have stirred much controversy as his position on the nepotic disposition of the Buhari administration. Hear him: “Every honest Nigerian knows that there is no way any non-Northern Muslim President could have done a fraction of what President Buhari has done by his nepotism and gotten away with it. There would been a military coup a long time ago or we would have been at war”.
Expectedly, the statement was given varying colourations depending on the side it was coming from. While government apologists are quick to assign a dubious motive of regime change, albeit unconstitutionally to the statement, others view it beyond such narrow confines. Some of the views saw the statement as outright partisan politics querying the propriety of mixing religion with politics. Others went to the very extreme of suggesting that the Bishop should drop his robe and venture into politics for failing to adhere to the distinction St Augustine made on his allegory of the two cities- the city of God and the city of man.
But then, even with attempts by early philosophers to make a distinction between the corporeal and the ecclesiastical realms, the reality in contemporary world is that there is a thin line between the two. They complement each other. Both the government and the Church exist to promote the good of the society and there is a point where these interests converge. At any rate, what is left of the church if it fails to speak truth to power when it matters most?
The language may seem controversial especially with such terms as ‘Non-northern Muslim President’ and ‘coup’. But there is no better way of capturing the futuristic message it is meant to serve. The problem those who called out attack dogs against Kukah have with that aspect of the message lies in their inability to decipher its metaphoric content. Theirs is just an ordinary interpretation of the statement apparently from the mind-set of regime protection. But that is not all there is to it.
The value of the comparison lies more on its heuristics for the future than the present. Therefore those who are quick to impute a motive to overthrow the government to that statement lost the message. Kukah is projecting into the future that someday, a non- northern Muslim would emerge as the president of this country. He is pricking our collective consciences to the possibility of a southern Christian president emerging in the Nigerian political scene. It has happened before and there is no reason why it will not happen again.
Kukah was just on a voyage on scenario building. He is worried whether the country will accept to live with the crass and unbridled nepotic acts for which the Buhari regime has become notorious if they manifest when a non-Muslim southern president is on the saddle? There are two future challenges arising from this. The first is that an incoming president would definitely move to dilute these skewed appointments and other vestiges of nepotism to make for fairness and balance. The other scenario is that since Buhari has set the precedent and it went well with the section of the country he comes from, a southern Christian president will have no qualms repeating the same. He will be at liberty to select most of his service chiefs, the leadership of paramilitary organizations and his personal staff from one part of the country and all will be well with it. Kukah foresees a danger in that scenario playing out. He was therefore doing a great deal of favour by pointing out the foreboding danger.
And unless we are prepared to tolerate such crass mismanagement of our diversities in the future, unless we are prepared to sacrifice nation building, all right thinking people should appreciate the good the Bishop has done to the corporate fate of this country by pointing out the perilous path to our nationhood that awaits us. All he said in that message are already within the public domain. Those calling for his head do not love this country that is buffeted in all angles by all manner of debilitating challenges.
But as agents of the government were busy attacking Kukah for drawing attention to the degenerate security situation, the Catholic Church was assailed from another quarter when the Auxiliary Bishop of Owerri Diocese, Most Rev. Moses Chikwe was abducted in the most callous manner by kidnappers. Though Catholic priests have severally been victims of serial kidnapping in parts of the country with some of them paying the supreme sacrifice, that was the first time a Catholic clergy of that rank was being kidnapped since the ‘kidnapping crime’ crept into the list our national misdeeds
The news shook the Catholic faithful to the marrows especially given that the Bishop was fully dressed in his religious regalia thus ruling out the issue of mistaken identity. That singular kidnap ruffled public sensibilities a great deal especially given the sentiments that go with anything that is bound to inflict mortal harm on such revered church leaders.
Soon, conspiracy theories began to have a field day. But a lethal poison was injected into such speculations when an online social media platform claimed that the Bishop’s body had been found with his head decapitated. This generated serious fury and another round of speculations given what we know in this country of that manner of killings.
The Catholic ArchBishop of Owerri, Most Rev. A.J.V. Obinna was swift in saving the day with a press statement denying the report and asking for fervent prayers for the release of Chikwe and his drivers by their abductors. As luck would have it, the duo regained their freedom barely two days after the dangerous fake news. This put paid to all the theories that hitherto competed for acceptance as to the motive behind the abduction of the Bishop.
Even as the Bishop has been released, it is important that the said online medium be made to account for the source of that fake story. The story was definitely crafted to cause public disorder given the sentiments that are bound to be ruffled by that manner of killing in a predominantly Christian setting. We thank God nothing of such happened.
But it takes demented people to kidnap a Catholic Bishop or even any clergy man given their special call of duty. It is even worse that such a senseless and dehumanizing treatment could be given to a Bishop in a milieu that is predominantly of Christians.
As the kidnapped Bishop was still in the dungeon of the criminals, the sad news filtered of the demise on December 29, 2020 of Bishop Emeritus and pioneer Catholic Bishop of Orlu Diocese, Most Rev. Gregory Obinna Ochiagha at the age of 88 years. He was ordained a priest in 1960 and served as the Catholic Bishop of Orlu from 1981 till 2008. As the pioneer bishop of the Orlu Diocese, his name is almost synonymous with the Diocese. May his soul rest in peace! Such was the tale of the three Catholic Bishops in the last week of last year.