A new shepherd in the land of vultures
At the height of his power as the leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin regarded members of the Catholic Church, the Jews and those denounced as rich farmers, landowners, and capitalists, as his enemies.
At the height of his power when millions of his opponents were being sent to Siberian labour camps, Pierre Laval, the French foreign minister met Stalin in Moscow on May 13, 1935. Laval pleaded with Stalin that he might consider the appeal of the Pope and go soft on the Catholics. Stalin dismissed the suggestion with indignation. “The Pope?” He asked. “How many divisions has he got?”
At the time of Stalin acidic question, the Pope had only a few Swiss guards under arms at the Vatican City, an independent state completely surrounded by the Italian state. Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1952, was perhaps the most brutal dictator of the 20th Century. He sent more than10 million of his fellow citizens to the labour camps. At the time he was dismissing Laval suggestion, he had more than 5 million men in his military. Gone were the days when the Pope led armies and could be reckoned with in military affairs. Stalin, an atheist, and a communist did not believe in any religion, which he dismissed as superstition.
Eventually, religion was to show its power to the Soviet Union when the catholic church, its priests and adherents led the revolts in Eastern Europe which eventually triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union. It led to the emergence of Pope John Paul II, a Pole, and a new resurgence in Catholicism and Christianity in Eastern Europe. The Pope has an army after all.
Some Nigerian politicians would also have liked to chaff like Stalin, but they know that here religious leaders do have influence. They may not have power in the potent sense of the word, but their influence is pervasive and real. Therefore, religious leaders, Christians, Muslims and those in-between as well as those in traditional religion, are always involved in our public affairs. It is more so during elections when the night would be busy with the movement of spiritual forces.
Just like religious leaders in the old Communist bloc, the Nigerian religious leaders were part of the vanguard against military rule. During the military era, some leaders of the church and some Muslim leaders were also part of the struggle. They used their privileged pedestal as bully pulpits to rail against the evils of military dictatorship. Among the many critics of General Sani Abacha were the likes of Archbishops Abiodun Adetiloye, Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi of the Anglican Diocese of Akure, Bishop Awelewa Adebiyi of the Anglican Diocese of Lagos West, Primate Sunday Mbang of the Methodist Church, Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah (now of the Sokoto Diocese) who was then in the Catholic Secretariat in Lagos. It was known that these leaders were constantly being dogged by operatives of the State Security Service, SSS.
It is interesting that since the return to Civil Rule in 1999, the religious leaders have been faced with a moving target. No longer was the target military rule, but now that we have civilians in power who pay tithes, do thanksgiving, endow churches and help men and women of God to buy jets, some of the church leaders have learned the eloquence of creative silence.
However one office where silence cannot be golden is the office of Primate Metropolitan of the Church of Nigeria, (Anglican Communion), into which Most Reverend Henry Ndukuba was elected on Tuesday. For him, it is a great honour and a big challenge.
Ndukuba, who hailed from Imo State, had served as the Bishop of Gombe since 1999. In 2017, he was elected the archbishop of Jos, which comprises ten dioceses of the church. With that election, he became the Anglican leader of the Middle-Belt of Nigeria, the most troubled zone in Nigeria where the Christian church is increasingly facing challenges from truculent brand of Islam and virulent ethnic divisions like the one we have in Taraba State between the Tivs and the Jukuns.
Ndukuba is a veteran on the field. Once, armed men had invaded his residence in Gombe where members of his household survived after heavy assaults. He is stepping into the big shoes of Nicholas Okoh, an intellectual giant who has led the church for many years. Okoh, who hailed from Delta State, is a retired soldier, whose episcopacy witnessed evangelical resurgence and a determined insistence to maintain the independence of the church from the influence of politicians.
Gombe State, the seat of Ndukuba’s diocese, was part of the old Bauchi State. My first trip there was in 1982 when my editor, Mr Olaseinde Lawson, sent me there to do a story on a mysterious spring in the village of Bam-Bam. I remember Gombe as a hospitable place, the people welcoming and kind. I left there to visit Biliri where we had some drinks and roasted meat at the All Saints Bar, an irreverent joint by the roadside run by a chatty Hausa youth and his young wife. We later met with Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, the deputy-Governor of Bauchi State. Those were the days when Nigeria was peaceful and fear and insecurity were not parts of our daily experience. One thing I cannot forget about Gombe was the presence of vultures almost everywhere; those ugly giants perching on rooftops like sinister omens.
As the new Primate now, Ndukuba would need to deal with vultures. He has to learn how to recognize vultures for they would not come in the familiar pattern of the Gombe plain. Luckily for him, he would have a lot of opportunities to learn from his predecessor in office, the dignified Primate Okoh who would remain in office till January next year.
The office of the Archbishop Metropolitan carries a lot of hidden power and apparent prestige. During the struggle against Abacha, I and my colleague, Ademola Oyinlola, had visited the late Archbishop Abiodun Adetiloye in his office at the Christ Church Cathedral, Marina, Lagos, to interview him for TELL. Adetiloye said his primary job was that of a priest whose main assignment was to win souls for Christ. Therefore, before we conduct the interview, we must listen to him as a priest and evangelist. He decided to preach to us on the topic: The Evil Shepherd. He permitted us to also record the sermon. We later used the sermon as a cover story for TELL for it had even greater import than the original interview we had set out to conduct in the first place.
What I found most instructive was Adetiloye’s assertion that the bishop is answerable to a higher power than ordinary people or even the House of Bishops. In the early days of his elevation to the Primate throne, Adetiloye was having problems with three elderly bishops. He tried to bend over backward to accommodate these bishops but they would not relent in their opposition. Therefore, he decided to censor them. The Conference of bishops was scheduled. He prepared a tough speech, which indicated that he can bite. His secretary, Mrs Mobolanle Onajide, prepared it.
Many of his brother bishops visited him a day or two before the conference and he showed them the draft of his powerful speech. They cheered him on. However, Mrs Onajide cautioned her boss that he should take it easy with his brother bishops. Adetiloye would not relent. In the night preceding the conference he retreated to his private chapel to pray where he was confronted with spiritual demands asking him to pray more. In the wee hours, he heard a clear instruction that he must apologise to the rebel bishops. It was a moment of agony and of release.
At the conference in the morning, the three rebel-bishops, appraised of the primate readiness for battle, were also prepared for the worst. Adetiloye summoned them to the front. He apologized as he had been instructed by the Holy Spirit. One of the bishops burst into tears. He was expecting war. Now, this. The three bishops, in their full habit, prostrated to the archbishop.
The new primate should be ready for dramas and temptations that would test his spiritual and moral leadership of the church. In the Nigeria of today, that is a tough assignment. His divisions would not be easily commanded, yet they would expect a lot from him.