Owerri province, with headquarter in Owerri archdiocese, headed by Archbishop Obinna, is fast accelerating towards the Silver Jubilee of the oppressed Owerri province on the 6th of September. One would have given a compliment to this numerically deserving celebration of twenty five counting years. But regrettably and ironically, the joy of the proposed celebration is blurred with intrisinc contradiction and hypocrisy which incidentally defeats the proper meaning of jubilee and hits the heart of the celebration at its very core essence.
It is pertinent to note that emancipation or liberation is the central defining essence of jubilee and the joy of satisfaction and fulfilment is its psyhological mental template. According to the Webster’s Dictionary, jubilee is “a year of emancipation and restoration provided by ancient Hebrew law to be kept every 50 years by the emancipation of Hebrew slaves, restoration of alienated lands, and commission of all cultivated cultivation of the land”. It is this value of emancipation and restoration from slavery to freedom that induces the happiness or joy as the atmosphere of celebration. One cannot therefore enjoy or join in a celebration of jubilee in bondage or conditioned existence.
What is celebrated in Jubilee therefore, is not the numerical 25 or 50 years as the case may be, but more, the core fruits, benefits and values as the content derived and enjoyed in these passing years. After all, every day, week, month or year is the same with any other, but one is only different from another, not by the name of the month or year, but by the human action which constitutes its peculiar history. People rarely happily celebrate the jubilee of their years filled with sorrows, strictures and stranglehold of life failures and disappointments. At the background of every jubilee celebration, is an atmosphere of elation and exciting value of thanksgiving. One cannot celebrate a jubilee in an entanglement of existence in which either oneself, children, family or relations are mastered by failure. Most people whose life circumstances are shackled by punctuated misfortunes and setbacks usually reminisce their birthday, national independence, marriage or priestly jubilee with passing idle sighs and not celebration.
Looking at Owerri province, and compared with its sister province of Onitsha and the “ought reality” of life, one would see that the province has spent its 25 years in mere existence of near sterility, stuntedness and celebrated failure. Owerri Archdiocese, the seat of the province, particularly, ought to have created at least one more grandchild diocese, especially for Ngor Okpala or Egbema in its 25 years of existence. The pastoral and political advantage of more dioceses and bishops cannot be over emphasized. After all, South East is the heart beat of Christian religion and Catholicism in Nigeria. Unfortunately, an overbearing negative political stranglehold, aided by internal ineptitude have made their growth impossible as the diocese and province are the underdog and beneficiary of religious political relegation.
Most, if not every diocese in Onitsha province has always had auxiliary bishops, standby episcopal hopefuls and auxiliaries, until Ahiara crisis bewitched them. Not satisfied with installing indigenous bishops in all their dioceses, they extended their veracious itching and grabbed Aba and Okigwe dioceses in Owerri province. With the cooperation of the Owerri provincial leader, they further grabbed Ahiara Mbaise in 2012. Barring the invincible and suffering tenacity of Ahiara that deflated their annexation crusade, they would have rounded off their domination of the whole province, including Owerri Archdiocese. At the raging inferno of the crisis, the provincial leadership even swore to resign, if the imposed bishop was not installed in Ahiara. In his zealotry to play the card of Judas guide and Herod oath to the dancing girl to the fullest, his instinctive hatred for Mbaise became more energized to lease part of his kingdom. By extension, the end result would have been the mortgaging of the entire province.
But Mbaise became the sacrificial lamb in the frying pan of the most fierce global persecution superintended by the provincial head. They were treated like international criminals and finally thorn-crowned with the most derogative and unprintable global title of “murderous tenants” clandestinely crafted and put in the mouth of the Pope on the 9th of July, 2016.
While we reluctantly concede the benefit of doubt and credit to the provincial leader, that he acted for “universality of the Church” and “the Pope said” syndrome, the spirit with which the archbishop personally and adeptly fought “Mbaise” and Ahiara diocese with a hyperactive intensity and dutifulness to a deadly stand still during the crisis, defies ordinariness. Like Judas, whose already existing garbage of grievances for Jesus was only aggravated by a piece of bread from Jesus, it was obvious the Ahiara crisis was only a chemical catalyst arousing the Mbaise xenophobia in the subconscious, which even extended to the political road block with Iheanacho against Mbaise contention in 2011.
The ferocity of hostility was unmatched. For instance, the archdiocesan newspaper, The Leader, was dedicated to aggressively demonize, dehumanize and caricature Ahiara to nudity and into submission to the propaganda machination of the church hierarchy. All imaginable unprofessionalism were employed by the Leader to device the worst taunting and most indicting publications that would effectively ditch and defecate the integrity and image of Mbaise and Ahiara diocese. The news paper ruthlessly maligned, denigrated and made Ahiara the byword of the province and universe. Meanwhile, the Ahiara diocesan news print, The Guide, was banned and forbidden in Owerri, to avoid the least of competition and counteraction of the electronic and print arsenal by The Leader against the gagged Ahiara.
Mbaise people who came to worship in Assumpta Cathedral and some other parishes were punched to crumbs by open and embarrassing targeted sermons on the mount. Many stopped attending mass at Assumpta cathedral and other hit and run parish sermons meant to haul the mud at Mbsise people. Gratitude to some courageous brother priests of Owerri Archdiocese who frontally confronted, resisted and opposed the leadership of the archdiocese for shortchanging Ahiara for a porridge of yam. These openly defended the injustice and infraction at Ahiara without hiding.
As if the media diatribe and mud flinging on the perveived Ahiara criminal, pronounced guilty before judgment was not enough, the provincial authority went further to hit the crucifixion nail on the scourged Jesus of Ahiara more closely, internally and more deeply. To achieve this, a priest of the archdiocese was delegated to illegally institute an administrative schism by constituting a parallel government in the diocese. He carefully constituted an army of individuals whose personality chemistry are made of most charring, crude and brutal elements, just to further disect and destabilize the diocese. There were then virtually two dioceses, with one head quartered in Ihitte, from where the Cardinal and the Archdiocese coordinated their failed overthrow of Ahiara behind the curtain. From then on, a direct internal human conflagration and combustion was incited between brothers and sisters of the same diocese, with the partial umpires both instigating and fanning the inferno and watching them to implode and explode for more harvest of propaganda to suppress the diocese.
Having set the illegal parallel and opposition body which failed to usher in the impeded bishop or unbind the unity of the diocese, the archdiocesan authority expelled the Ahiara diocesan president of the CWO, the laity and other organs of the diocese and stopped them from attending anything in the province, and the national body followed suit. The priests of the diocese were accordingly ejected at gun point by the Nigerian army at the gathering of priests at Uromi with the bishops watching with nodding satisfaction. As though this was not enough, an Mbaise indigenous priest belonging to a congregation and lecturing at the Veritas University, was forcefully sacked with humiliation for being of Ahiara origin. This was the climax of hostility.
It was in the provincial head quarter that all Mbaise priests were invited like war criminals and captives to drive all the way from Mbaise to Owerri, to collect impersonated letters of threat of sanction and proposed dismissal of all Ahiara priests. But the deal to either sack the priests or suppress the diocese could not be struck because it was not conceived and originated by the Pope.
Thanks to providence and the testimony of late bishop Joseph Bagobiri, who testified that Ahiara Mbaise diocese was only being persecuted and crucified like the innocent Jesus who bore the cross of truth to save others. Ahiara diocese became and stand today as the proverbial dead Isaac that was only saved by divine providence, and might look at his father Abraham as his attempted assassin, who after all, never uttered a word of remorse for threatening his life. This is what the provincial authority has failed to realize and avoid as shepherd of the aggrieved souls.
But the spiral result of Ahiara crisis lives on. Aba and Abakaliki dioceses were the immediate two that followed in the footsteps of Ahiara to resist the external imposition and domination of the provinces by one diocese. That became their undoing. For many years, Aba diocese, like an abandoned orphan, has been without a bishop. So is Abakaliki, whose tired and faded bishop is being punished to wobble on by denial of retirement based on their conterminal connectivity with Ahiara revolution termed rebellion. There are therefore, two vacant dioceses successfully achieved and to be celebrated by Owerri province in her epochal jubilee.
Ironically, Aba and Ahiara dioceses are part of the 2019 jubilee in dejection and repression. While Ahiara, the persecuted orphan, fed by a step father and denied own natural parentage for initiating a necessary and salfivic dissention to liberate Owerri province, Aba is suffering a solidarity infection. Yet, both were arbitrarily imposed one million naira for the jubilee celebration without their consent, even as the levy of Ahiara was taken from source for a jubilee in their mournful mood.
Like the biblical Hebrews of old, would the dioceses of Aba and Ahiara not be singing this dirge of dejection and depression of the Babylonian riverine of people cajoled and caricatured by a celebration, “by the Rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept at the memory of Zion… For there our goalers had asked us to sing them a song, our captors to make merry, sing us one of the songs of Zion. How could we sing a song of Yahweh on alien soil? If I forget you Jerusalem, may my right hand wither”. But the reminiscence of harrowing and horrowful harassment of Ahiara Mbaise people, the public execution and character assassination of their corporate and collective personality, the maligning of their nativity, all remain so bleeding fresh and refreshed by this celebration. This is especially so, when it reminds them of the continuous procrastination of the appointment of a substantive bishop from the presbyterium, with the insinuating threat to stick to the original plan that shook the foundation of their social and religious existence. Aba would probably be questioning the milk of humanity and sensitivity in depriving them of a shepherd for many years and asking them to participate in the provincial jubilation while they recoil in subjugation. How would the composites of joy and sorrow flow from the same entity of Aba and Ahiara?
Aba diocese is only suffering the victimhood of stray bullet in solidarity with Ahiara. The question is, what is the justification for the lingering denial of a bishop for Aba? Though with her full diocesan autonomy, but geographically part of the province, the psychology of how happily the two will be celebrating the jubilee of an insensate and insensitive paternal province remains a huge question. For Ahiara, only priests with misbalanced intelligence and brain and disabled memory would comfortably attend the depressing celebration without abashment.
Then for Owerri archdiocesan indigenes. By virtue of the size and teaming population of Owerri archdiocese, unarguably, they should have more than one diocese and bishop in Owerri to decongest the archdiocese. Our bishops would agree with me that most, or all the dioceses in America have more multiple active serving bishops. But the retrogressive policies and politics of the Nigerian church keep us suffocating under one imperial majesty.
Consequently, Owerri archdiocese, is itself labouring under the dual tragedy of both the inability of carving out another diocese and the uncertainty of a coadjutor/successor at the prospect and threshold of the retiring archbishop. The prospect of the retiring archbishop without a coadjutor bishop stares them on the face with uncertain quiz. On the given that the provincial leaders have ceded their right to internal determination of their destiny to Rome, courtesy of their collective deficiency, ineptitude and fiasco in handling the Ahiara crisis, Rome could give them any surprise package with or without consultation. Many have even wished that he be given the bishop he ordained at the Seminary. What atmosphere of mind would colour the priests and lay faithful of Owerri Archdiocese in this celebration of unhistorical event of uncertainty and mere numericality without a coadjutor?
But, to heighten the bereavement of the celebration, the priests of the province are already complaining bitterly of the humongous extortion and oppression in the celebration. Each diocese like Ahiara, I suppose, was imposed one million naira for the celebration. If, perhaps, Okigwe probably finds excuse for dissention and absenteeism, five million naira would be harvested from the imposed levy. Yet, the priests of the province are, in grand pusillanimity, beguiled and forced to pay another N14000 each for personal or parish jubilee chausible. The question in the mouth of most priests is, whether a free souvenir of a chausible for priests for the jubilee is too much. Would one million spent for priests’ chausible be too much? This oppression adds to the dejection of the already disenchanted and sorrowful dioceses that have been held in hostage for years and are still asked to celebrate like the Hebrew exiles for whom the hypocritical celebration in bondage is a misnomer and display of insensitivity.
For Ahiara, at least, the Archbishop would have, before now, either like a good shepherd who looks for the missing sheep, or a father whose child denounced for his paternal irresponsibility or for hitting him hard, found palliating words for Ahiara he expelled from the province, before inviting them for a window dressing and depressing jubilee. Or, are Ahiara and Mbaise people taken to be imbeciles and patients of autism with the dearth of memory and feeling, for whom the celebration could be further provocation and humiliation? Ahiara and Mbaise expected him to make a fatherly public pronouncement of healing and integration of the brethren he publicly disgraced and expelled from the province even before the Pope pronounced them innocent. This is the character of a good shepherd who understands that humility and not power is a great virtue and ingredient of shepherding. In spite of the indignity they were treated to, Ahiara diocese and Mbaise people would not stick to hatred if they are treated as people with feeling. Failure to do this and yet expect the men and women of integrity of Mbaise to attend a provincial jubilee as mere reified and depressed spectators, is unchristian.
Mbaise is a dignified people and have been made global celebrity in recent histories, including by the bishopric crisis. They cannot relegate or relinquish that dignity under any circumstance and for any reason, even religious but would not puff up and fail to reciprocate any sincere overture of peace and reconciliation by all people of good will and the Church. But to presume their subservience and servitude under any circumstance in the committee of humanity would be self-deceiving. To do the right thing and live in a community of mutual respect of the dignity of all is our collective and mutual responsibility and advocacy. And doing the right thing should start from the teacher of the world, the Church.
Fr. Ben Ogu