Traditional worshippers threaten author’s family
THERE is no respite yet for Anambra State-born writer, Okechukwu Okoye, who has been fighting for his life as a result of life-threatening reactions of diehard traditional religious worshippers and some Christian fanatics in the state, especially within the Catholic Church.
The bone of contention is the dust-to-dust graveside rites by women for their deceased husbands- the symbolic pouring of sand into the grave of one’s departed husband, either with a shovel or mere handful alongside other harmful widowhood practices against very poor and helpless women.
A source in the church said: “The intimidation and persecution remain and strongly violate human rights and good conscience. The bizarre dogma only becomes an issue if performed by a woman, but remains a non-issue when if by a man.
“So far, the crisis appears to have extended beyond Anambra State, as the hunt-him-down sentence passed on him and his entire family by the traditional religious worshippers within and outside the church appeared to be working well in even far away places as Kano and Kaduna, both in Northern Nigeria and Port Harcourt, Southern Nigeria.”
Okoye, a former senior Catholic church official, reputed for his deep and extensive knowledge and experience in the laws and doctrines of the Catholicism had chosen to chronicle it in a simple-to-read book titled, Traditional Crisis Against Church, My View. It was all about the Christians’ reasons for the dust-to-dust rites by the spouse of a deceased native.
He had thought that this personal effort would douse the disagreement, misunderstanding and brewing tension among the citizens with the contents of the book in which he tried to explain the matter. But Okoye did not know that he was putting himself and his entire family in danger. As the threats mounted to a very dangerous level, the family suddenly relocated to Kano and ever since, Okoye simply disappeared from public view and his whereabouts unknown.
The source who did not want to be named spoke further: “Today, years after his book hit the stands, his whereabouts still unknown especially after the mysterious brutal killing of his father, Mr Robert Okoye, in the hands of this bloodthirsty group in far away Port Harcourt where he relocated to from Kano in the heat of the threats in October 2009. After relocating from Awka to Kano, he started having problems with Muslims who detest his alcohol business. This led him to relocate again to PH for the safety of his life. But he was murdered by suspected traditionalists or fundamentalists.
“Sadly too, the author’s mother, Mrs. Roseline Okoye, became a victim of Boko Haram suicide bomb attack in Kaduna on October 28, 2012. Injuries she sustained eventually led to her death on September 26, 2013. About a year after, the situation has clearly become even more critical because Okoye’s traducers have refused to relent or back down, as they are alleged to have been widening their scope in searching for everyone related to him or that has anything to do with the family for possible elimination.
“Things have apparently gone so bad that most families have chosen to leave their dead relatives in the mortuary for very long period of time, fearing that if they bring them home to bury they would be attacked or killed. It is therefore cheaper, safer and easier to abandon corpses at the morgue than to bring them home for burial. No one feels safe to go through the normal rites of passage for the dead without incidents.
“The ugly trend has remained dangerously turbulent and topical in the church for nearly 20 years now within some communities, particularly under the Awka diocese and has continued to threaten the very foundation of the Church. There was also palpable apprehension everywhere that the trend, as ugly and despicable as it sounds, might be unwittingly copied and extended to other areas/churches in the country by some irredentists.
“Key parishioner together with some priests have taken the matter to court respectively, seeking among other reliefs to be allowed to practise their religion unhindered, just as the traditional religious worshippers have been enjoying liberty to practise theirs. Unfortunately, courts see the crisis as cultural and traditional matter and tradition has intrinsic powers over Christianity in this part of the world, perhaps.
“Presently, some have simply resorted to self-help, hiring armed security guards for flood burial ceremonies to forestall any threat to peace and immediately quell any that outbreak of violence. But the big question has remained-what of the larger majority that have no such money to procure the services of armed guards, and for how long? Again, what happens after the burials and the security guards go back to their places of primary assignment, as in the case of Okoye whose poor parents were forced to relocate far away from their country-home, at the twilight of their lives? That notwithstanding, these old folks were still hunted down and murdered.”
Recounting the heartrending circumstances, one of therelations told journalists at the Isuofia, Aguata Council area of Anambra State home that “perhaps in an effort to signpost how serious they were in their threat to eliminate the author and all members of his family, everything-houses, livestock, graves, chapels and all personal/family property- were reportedly looted and vandalized.”
It was indeed very hard extracting information from neighbours and villagers as no one was willing to open up to reporters for fear they might later be attacked or killed too.
A relation of Okoye, Chief Donatus Ubaka, told journalists that situation on ground was even getting to a point where priests and citizens who wish to officiate or attend burial ceremonies would be personally armed and or come with personal security.
He said there were instances where priests who would not brook the conflict simply declined or shirked the responsibility to officiate at gravesides or refused to attend.
Unfortunately, since the book hit the stands in the country a few years ago, it has become more enmeshed in the crisis it had sought and intended to solve, especially in areas like Awka, Abagana, Enugwu-Agidi, Nawgu, Ifitedunu, etc.
The book had observed that the Catholic church and the faithful maintained their stand because they argued that some of the burial rites as practised by the traditional cultures were clearly inhuman, violate rights/liberty, natural conscience, beliefs and choice of religion. And this has made the traditional religious worshippers even angrier.
Again, one of the few such traditionalists, simply identified as Ozo Anakwuelum who agreed to speak to journalists under anonymity said they were “unhappy with Okoye and his book which the Church and many recalcitrant families have since embraced as their banner/partner.”
As he pointed out, it was observed across most communities in the course of this investigation that more families-Christians and non-Christians alike now use the book as their “bible of defense” for insisting on performing the dust-to-dust last rites for their departed loving husbands.
Anakwuelum disclosed also that besides contravening their age-long tradition and culture, the dust-to-dust rites by women humiliate their dead husbands and negatively affect the potency of some other fetish rites of males within the area. He affirmed that they were not fighting for only the dead, but also for even the living, including all the ‘initiates’ in the area.
He refused to unveil more reasons for their anger against the Church and Okoye. For this, he reiterated, Okoye has become enemy number one, till death, anywhere he is found.
At the office of the Catholic Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor at the St Patrick’s Cathedral Awka, a reverend father in his fifties who acknowledged knowing him fairly well and having worked closely with him in the church a few years ago confirmed being aware of the burial rites crisis.
He stated: “While true Catholics rely on the church doctrine which took its root from the Bible, the adherents to native traditional religion see it dogmatically very differently. None appears ready to shift ground.
“Unfortunately, Okoye who had imagined he was introducing his book to solve the quagmire was unknowingly putting himself in the middle of the very problem he had intended to solve. Such that today a death penalty has been placed on him. And like the fate of Salman Rushdie, the author of Satanic Verses, Okoye appears to have disappeared from the public glare.
There is serious doubt if having been forced to go underground has changed Okoye’s views against the traditionalists who were seen as a cult-like group. Curiously they operate in virtually all parts of the country under different names and guises.
When asked why they have not declared Okoye missing since his disappearance, his relations said they have their reasons and could not say more than that.
They alleged that most top government functionaries appear to be supporting the traditional worshippers, lamenting that a sizable number of them were apparently members.
One relation added: “The atrocities are usually committed under the cover of darkness. Again, because of religious diversity, some of officers of opposing faiths are reluctant to do anything when it comes to christian doctrine under the influence of ‘let them kill’ themselves.”