The Benue “Yes Father” transcends political sloganism
Words are powerful! They convey messages that are often difficult to grasp fully. Saint Peter the Apostle appeared outstanding among his peers when he proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (Matt 16:16). In response, Jesus declared that Peter was divinely inspired. This means that, humanly, the Apostle did not understand the meaning of his own utterance. It is unsurprising then to later see Jesus foretelling his suffering and death and Peter rejecting it, using a typical Nigerian phrase: “God forbid bad thing!” (Matt 16:22). How can God’s Son suffer and die? Peter was scandalized!
The author of John’s Gospel also indicates that the high priest Ca’iaphas did not understand the implication of his own words during the plot to kill Jesus, that it was better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish (John 11:50). Ca’iaphas was unaware that Jesus’s mission was to culminate in dying for the salvation of all. In the peculiar circumstance of the present political experience, it seems probable that we have not been able to thoroughly comprehend the significance of the “Yes Father” in Benue State.
When I first described the ongoing Benue political catechism as “complicated,” I did not realize the nature of its complexity entirely. My attempt at highlighting its various components continues to uncover layers of intricacies. Almost every contributor to this conversation has met diverse reactions from the public. In some instances, people have exhibited inadequate patience toward listening and understanding what is being said. This has its accompanying drawback, the inability to learn from one another.
A few months ago, some brethren picked up rocks on social media against Father Moses Iorapuu for saying that the laity should not drag priests into politics. Regardless of the general perception of his remark, it somewhat radiated disappointment over our malfunctioning political system, in the service of which some Catholic lay faithful are employed. Anyone who cares would feel frustrated by the current political system. The underlying question is: Would the situation be this bad if we had ten good, selfless Catholic politicians enlightening Benue politics with the Gospel message?
The scarcity of excellence in the State political service has left many people disappointed. Thus, whatever may be the source of this slogan, the Benue “yes father” expresses the disenchantment of a people in quest of good governance. This expression inherently indicts political elite for a job poorly done; and it should be expected that some of them will react, even negatively. It must be observed, nonetheless, that certain reactions further expose the magnitude of the systemic decay on which Benue has been floating. Some of the optics confirm Oseni Rufai of the Arise Television’s suggestion that psychological test should be a requirement for Nigerian politicians.
We have always heard that a democratic system operates as a government of the people by the people for the people. However, the comments of certain political officers in the current political conversation make us wonder which people have been the real people of interest in Benue democracy. Some political figures castigate the “yes father” people, calling them idiotic. It is understandable, but equally shameful that the application of wise political specialists’ expertise has produced such a large number of unwise Benue citizens. Should any teacher be exonerated for producing a majority of failing students?
The Benue “yes father” may be more than a mere catchphrase of Father Alia’s political rituals. It could be a “sign of our time,” embedding a critical message that inherently challenges the local Catholic Church in her missionary engagements toward a favorable social transformation. In “yes father,” Benue people may be saying implicitly that the Church is their last hope. In this context, the Church has a moral obligation to act in service of social justice for the poor, in spite of her imperfections, recognizing that she does not have all the answers. The divine Master, Jesus Christ, who remains the real owner of the Church fostered the light of justice. It is in Christ that we encounter true light. Thus, the Church as transmitter of this light has both human and divine faces. As Saint Paul reminds us, we are only earthen vessels holding the treasure of the transcendent power which does not belong to us but to God (1 Cor 4:7).
Politically speaking, no Catholic priest, not even the late Father Adasu, may qualify as governor. Nevertheless, if Benue people so massively prefer another “politically untrained” figure, having previously tasted an unprofessional priest-politician as governor, then there probably may be something about these “politically unskilled” people that resonates with Benue residents.
As unqualified as Catholic priests might be in political governance, they are among the most educated people in the State who live perpetually in every village, experiencing the daily stings of life with the people. Conversely, the politicians who boast of competence in governance only visit the village during campaigns or funerals of friends and family members. By what magic, then, do we expect efficient leadership from experts who are detached from the reality of the people they claim to lead?
A recent report by Catholic News Agency, dated 14 October 2022, on the terrorist attacks in Benue and the appeal of the Catholic Bishop of Makurdi Diocese to European Parliament, highlighted how government inaction has left the people in the hands of murderers. Citing recent attacks in Yelewata, the report stated that terrified local residents who could not flee to other places for safety were taking refuge in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. As the news report also revealed, Father William Shom, the Parish Priest of Yelewata, lives there with the people. This is one example of how many Catholic priests in Benue live with people in very dangerous areas.
The Good Shepherd is the model of effective leadership in the Christian community. This model represents a pragmatic assertion of God’s response to the concrete concerns of His people. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God takes on human nature, and dwells among his people (John 1:14). Accordingly, Pope Francis remarked that “closeness” is the attitude of the Good Shepherd who is always nearby, not far from his people. This attitude is contrary to that of the “scholars, lawyers, Pharisees, Sadducees and the illustrious” who cannot be good shepherd because they live far from the people (Morning Meditation, 30 October, 2017). Alas, some of our political leaders are so insanely detached from the people that even their family members travel with armed security convoys, pushing other road users into the gutters.
The closeness of priests to the people has acquired for the local Church a capacity to hold politicians accountable for good governance. Through the experience of priests living among the people, the Church can ensure sufficient protection over the fortune of ordinary people that is being stolen and squandered by elected leaders. Recently, the Catholic Bishop of Uyo Diocese rejected a 25-million-naira donation from the State Governor, urging him to use the money to pay salaries. This reechoed the Biblical rich young man’s encounter with Jesus. He desired eternal life and judiciously kept the law, but one thing was lacking: selling his possession and giving the money to the poor (Matt 19:16-22; Luke 18: 18-23). The Church will not be hungry if the government adequately provides for people’s welfare. It is, therefore, incumbent on the Benue Church in her prophetic mandate to resist complicity in donations from those whose source of money is a fountain of oppression for the masses.
Above all, to say “Yes” to a benevolent enterprise invariably means saying “No” to everything that is malignant. Thus, as people say “yes father,” they must also accept the moral obligation to be honest and sincere by saying “yes” to themselves in their commitment towards a desirable Benue. Let this not be considered as an opportunity to exploit the good surviving image of the Catholic priesthood in Benue for malicious objectives. Together with the masses, the Benue APC political class too should mean what they say, and say what they mean, when they say, “YES FATHER!”