Ahiara Diocese: The end is peace
What looked like an intractable bishopric crisis in the Ahiara Catholic Diocese of Mbaise, Nigeria may be close to a final resolution following the resignation of the man at the centre of the controversy, Bishop Peter Okpaleke. The bishop has done well, though, belatedly, by not allowing the conflict to linger any longer. No one should allow the Catholic Church to scatter because of him. That would be damnation for whosever does that. Thank God for what did not happen. The contention could have ignited more untoward development. I commend Pope Francis for accepting Okpaleke’s resignation and not sticking to dogma while souls perish in Ahiara.
Like a thunderbolt, the news flashed last week that Bishop Peter Okpaleke had tendered his resignation to the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis, who in turn accepted the resignation and appointed Most Revd. Lucius Ugorji, the Catholic Bishop of Umuahia Diocese as the interim Administrator of the Diocese. He replaces Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja Diocese whose tenure as Administrator of the diocese has since expired.
All this followed the rejection of Bishop Okpaleke by the Catholic faithful and clergy of the Ahiara Diocese for five years running. Okpaleke was appointed Bishop of Ahiara in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI following the death of the pioneer Bishop Victor Chikwe. But the faithful and priests refused to accept him on the ground that it was unjust to ignore the about 700 priests of Ahiara extraction and go outside the Owerri ecclesiastical province to handpick a priest from Awka in the Onitsha Province.
The insinuation that Okpaleke was rejected because he was not from Mbaise is absolutely untrue. The Ahiara faithful and clergy insisted that they want a priest who has worked in their midst and understands them to lead them. If Bishop Okpaleke had worked in Ahiara or anywhere in the Owerri ecclesiastical province, nobody would have rejected him. There is a power-seeking cartel in the church with the ambition to install the old Anambra priests as bishops all over the place. That was instrumental to the pigheaded appointment of Monsignor Peter Okpaleke as bishop of Ahiara Diocese. The rest is history.
The resignation of Bishop Okpaleke should bring to an end all the controversies surrounding his appointment. Whether or not it was done in error, the fact is that it did not work and as such that chapter should close. Those who recommended him as Bishop of Ahiara Diocese have lived to see their folly and that will be a great lesson to the church. Caution should be exercised never to make the same mistake anywhere again. The embarrassment and bad blood occasioned by the grave error have been tremendous. What matters now is righting the wrongs that have been done for normalcy to return to Ahiara Diocese. The experience and its collateral damages should be allowed to repeat. That experience may not be altogether bad; some positive lessons have been learnt that would help to edify the church.
The Catholic Church that has been in the vanguard of promoting peace, development and human welfare was brought to ridicule. But the wounds are healable. It is the desire of all right thinking peoples both within and outside Nigeria to see that this dent on the church of God is mended forthwith. The end of all wars is peace. As a matter of fact, wars are fought to make peace. Peace is a scarce commodity, which is why there is crisis all over the world. What the warring parties value most is peace. Peace is supreme in human existence. Without peace there will be no progress; without progress there is no development. The absence of all these leads to stagnation, retrogression and death.
Going back to the genesis of the crisis, the Ahiara debacle was not premeditated. It came as a big surprise to everyone in reaction to a perceived injustice in the church. The people had no choice than to resist. Ahiara Diocese was created in November 1987 out of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province. With nearly 80 per cent of the population being Catholics and a clergy strength of over 500, which is very high, the diocese was inaugurated on January, 1988 with Monsignor Victor Chikwe as the first indigenous bishop. Since the death of Bishop Chikwe in 2010, the Diocese has been without a bishop. The collateral damage resonates in the suspension of all sacraments including non ordination of priests. Who bears the blame for the innocent souls that died during the debacle without receiving the sacraments?
After three years of suspense, the least that was expected by the faithful in Ahiara was to have their own appointed as bishop to take charge of the diocese. But to the chagrin of everybody, Monsignor Peter Okpaleke, the parish priest of Umubele Parish in Awka, was handpicked by the church leadership in Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province as the bishop-elect of Ahiara Diocese. Both the delay and the person nominated showed that there was something fishy in not filling the bishopric seat on time. It is not that there are no capable hands to hold the position from among the diocesan clergy. Undue church politics took precedence.
People were agitated that virtually all the bishops in different parts of Igbo land and beyond were appointed from the same Onitsha Province. For instance, all the auxiliary bishops appointed for Issele-Uku, Awka, Okigwe, Onitsha since 1990 were from Old Anambra dioceses. Furthermore, the current bishops of Onitsha Archdiocese, Nnewi, Awka, Enugu and Awgu are all from the same locality in Anambra. Also, the bishops of Minna, Uromi, Iselle-Uku, Benin, Aba (now late), Okigwe and now Ahiara are all from Old Anambra dioceses. Why should it be so? Where is justice and equity in all of this?
It needs to be reiterated that the Catholic Church in Igbo land was humiliated at the end of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970 when the Federal Government expelled all the expatriate missionaries in the enclave. The missionaries did not fight in the war but offered humanitarian assistance to the beleaguered people. With their expulsion, the church in Igbo land was automatically indigenized with each diocese taken over completely by the indigenous clergy.
Prior to that, priests could be posted to any diocese or parish where their services were needed. But since the end of the war, each diocese has its own clergy. It is no longer common to post an Owerri Diocesan priest to Onitsha or vice versa. This situation obtains mainly in Igbo land and not in any other parts of Nigeria due to the civil war experience.
It is incumbent on Bishop Ugorji to take this indigenization into consideration in his assignment. There is no need stoking more troubles. The people are weary. The only thing they want now is peace founded on equity and justice.