Barely a fortnight after a non-governmental organisation in Anambra State, Justice is Equality (JIE), decried the alleged continuous marginalisation, intimidation and exclusion of non-Catholics by successive administrations in the state, about 500 priests of the Anglican Communion recently stormed the governor’s office.
The priests have also indicated plans to organise a wider and bigger public peaceful protest until Governor Willie Obiano addressed them personally.
The group contended that the ugly trend went full blast after former governor, Dr. Chinwoke Mbadinuju, left office in 2003, starting with the coming of Dr. Chris Ngige and literally became a policy, though unwritten, till date.
It has not only been entrenched in the governance of the state, but also alleged to have literally permeated the leadership of the ruling party at all levels.
A victim of the church leadership involvement in the administration of the ruling All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), who craved anonymity, listed appointments, employments, contracts, projects and even the choice of new traditional rulers as areas where the marginalisation is brought to bear, adding: “A situation where your only hope to get along in the party and government is hinged on a recommendation from one of the top bishops of the church doesn’t augur well for either the church or the party.”
It was alleged that during the handover of schools back to their original owners, the state government “mistakenly” handed over about 109 belonging to other faiths, families/individuals, groups and communities to the Catholic Church, but no such mistake occurred with any Catholic Church-owned school. The suspicion heightened when such schools were quickly renamed.
An outcry forced the government set up a panel, ironically, headed by a retired chief judge of the state, Justice Godwin Ononiba, a staunch Catholic, as its chairman. And as anticipated, it didn’t take time for the committee members to disagree, resulting in the submission of majority and minority reports.
Surprisingly, both reports remain dusty on the bookshelves in the governor’s office over a decade after, neither solving the problem nor mitigating it in any way, but buoying the initial suspicion.
Even more shocking was the eerie silence with which the Catholic Church greeted the school “bonus gift,” with some of the original owners expressing reservation and seeing the ‘mistake’ as orchestrated.
The mutual suspicion got worse when an old boy of Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha, told a gathering: “We are here to celebrate one of our own. You know that Willie Obiano is one of us; he is a product of CKC…,” and rubbed it in properly: “We have been producing Anambra State governors in the last 12 years.
“Peter Obi is our old boy and Obiano took over from him. So, after Obiano, we will bring another person…”
While decrying the meddling of the church in Southeast politics, JIE cautioned that unless this was stopped, it would destroy the cohesion of the Christian faith in national politics, urging the Catholics to learn to appreciate other Christians as one body in Christ.
JIE said that a situation where the Catholic Church corners over 79 per cent of the total number of appointments, projects, budgetary allocations and contracts doesn’t augur well for the love, cohesion and brotherliness that once existed in the state’s polity.
But Obiano, reacting through his Chief Press Secretary, James Eze, expressed dismay at the recent protest by priests from the Diocese on the Niger (the Anglican Communion) over the ownership of Crowther Memorial Primary School, Onitsha.
He said: “What is today known as Crowther Memorial Primary School used to be one of the five Onitsha Urban County Council schools before the Biafran War. It was renamed after the war to Crowther Memorial Primary School by the Ukpabi Asika administration. However, the change of name did not affect its ownership and management, which is totally by the Government of Anambra State.
“It must be mentioned that even when the previous administration handed some schools back to the missions, Crowther Memorial Primary School was not one of those schools and has remained a government-owned public school till date.
“It is worrisome that some priests were misled into staging a protest over a matter that is before a competent court of law at a time when the buzzword in our country is ‘the rule of law.’ Had this bishop rightly applied for a piece of land anywhere in the state, Anambra State Government would have been obliged to grant his request the same way it had granted a similar request by another bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Awka.
“It has to be noted that the government of Willie Obiano has enjoyed very peaceful and cordial relations with all denominations of the church in the state, including the Pentecostals, Anglicans and Catholics. And more specifically, the administration has supported all the synods hosted by the Anglican Church and assisted in the hosting of all its visiting dignitaries to the state since the administration came into existence.”
He described the widely publicised priests’ protest as an isolated case allegedly fueled by the Diocese on the Niger, which the governor said “decided to encroach on government property and still mustered enough guts to incite some priests to demonstrate over a property that does not belong to them.”
Obiano said the state “has built up a reputation as Nigeria’s safest and most peaceful state” in the past five years, warning the public to resist any attempt to cajole anyone into taking sides with those bent on breaching the peace and fomenting trouble in the state, as such people would be arrested and prosecuted according to the law.
He stressed that there was something inherently wrong in taking to the streets to protest a case already in court, noting: “We advise the protesting priests to give peace a chance and allow the law to take its full course, as is the standard in every true democratic setting.”
One of the protesting priests, who did not want his name in print, wondered why the state waited for the issue to get messy before coming up with “their belated and unintelligible statement.”
He alleged: “While calling us names for going on a public peaceful protest and trying to confuse the public with lies, they quickly sponsored some idle youths on demonstration, which ended in fracas when they were shortchanged from the agreed hiring fee.”