NZEH: Church Is Worried About Islamic Tendencies Associated With Okorocha
• Catholic Church Does Not Tell Voters Who To Vote For In Imo
How did JDPC become part of the political process in Imo State, to the extent of organising a political debate cum interactive forum for governorship candidates in the state?
THE JDPC, as an arm of the Church, sees through affairs between the Church and the state. The Commission has a strong presence in the Church. For a while now, it has been taking care of voter education, enlightening the people, mobilising them for the purposes of sensitizing them in matters of human rights, their civic responsibilities, all geared towards maintaining the dignity of the human person. It has also become a permanent part of the election monitoring team since 2003. In the last election and in Owerri alone, JDPC sent out not less than 600 people to observe the election. And JDPC reports have been tendered and accepted as evidence in the tribunals. This is an indication of the credibility of the JDPC. It has become a force to be reckoned with in electoral and democratic matters.
The 2015 interactive forum for governorship candidates and the electorate, which the JDPC convened was botched. What happened?
There is no simple answer to why the forum was disrupted. The stakeholders, candidates, security agencies, electorate witnessed whatever happened. For us in JDPC, we have always told the voters to be guided by their conscience and not to vote under duress, fear or intimidation and looked to create a forum where the voters can hold their leaders accountable. We only pray that the disruption is not repeated in the election.
This is actually the third edition of the forum after we held it in 2007 and 2011. We started planning for this botched debate since 2013 at the end of a seminar held on the 2015 elections and the sustenance of democracy. One of the resource persons has laid out the plan on how the JDPC should approach the 2015 election. It was a wonderful idea and the ideas were subsequently explored at other seminars and fora. It was the success of the 2011 edition of the debate that elevated the forum in the eyes of stakeholders in the state. It hadn’t looked nearly impossible to bring together the governorship candidates under one roof. But for us, it was an event where the candidates were required to see one another as brothers, shake hands and campaign in peace, knowing that only one person would eventually win.
For the 2015 Public Forum, we meant well as usual; encouraging people to practice what they preach as politics in good faith, without rancour or acrimony. It was a forum where they were supposed to tell the voters what their plans are for the state and the masses. For the incumbent, it was also an opportunity to say what he has done and what he plans to do if voted into office again. And for the others, it offered an opportunity to show how they intend to be better than the incumbent. It wasn’t supposed to be a war front for anyone. And then it was an opportunity for voters to weigh the candidates with their manifestoes and be guided accordingly.
It was said that the disruption came about when a political party felt that the Church had already taken sides and was using the forum as a charade…
The Church is not partisan and wouldn’t have taken sides. We meant well and carried everyone along. What would be the excuse to take sides? If we had taken sides, then the supposedly aggrieved party should have waited, observed and seen how much sides we have taken or how the proceedings were going before using that fear to disrupt the forum. The speculation has no foundation in reality.
How do you view the belief that whomsoever the Catholic Church supports or has sympathy for is likely to win the election and that whomever the debate favours is likely to win in the election?
Anyone saying that is still not correct. We don’t judge, we are not in the field campaigning with them, we only take sides with what is right and tell the people what their rights are. Winning or losing an election depends on the ability of the candidate. I don’t believe this forum has such influence. We organised it to contribute to the development of democracy.
If people are attaching such significance to it, then it is in their imaginations. Those who believe that whoever triumphs in the debate goes on to win certainly are looking at the outcome of the 2011 debate where the people felt that Rochas Okorocha, then of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) impressed them against the incumbent governor Ikedi Ohakim. Okorocha won the election. This is debatable and my question is whether those who think like that are also considering the case in 2007? I am certain that the fate of the candidate is more in his hands than in the hands of the Church. How can the Church take the responsibility of picking a candidate for the people of Imo? Is the governor accountable to the Church or the people?
What did you expect to hear from the candidates?
They should explain themselves to the electorate; explain what they are doing and what they will do in the next four years if elected. They should tell the people how they want to take care of the poor masses. There is a lot of poverty in the place and it is only a few that are having it better and no one seems willing to want to address this and the Church is on the side of the poor masses. And this is why we are speaking out and defending the poor people. The expectation must be that of quality and not quantity. If any candidate is asking for their votes, they should look for what is right in that person; this is what the Church preaches.
The Church is on the level of Justice and common good. We only educate the people get to keep their eyes open and be guided by their feelings to vote freely and wisely.
Is there going to be another debate?
This is unlikely. The time is short and it is possible the tension might still be high given the nature of the disruption. But in a way, the debate has been held and anyone who knows his contribution to the disruption would know where he stands before the people of Imo. In affirmation, the debate has been held in the presence of thousands of people who were there watching the disruption. And I’m sure, they would have announced the result themselves. And those who disrupted it, whether out of fear, not being confident in their abilities or plain mischief, have shown the electorate how well-meaning they are.
Many non-Catholics believe that during your homilies on the Sunday preceding the election, priests are enjoined to tell the congregation where to vote. They cite incidents when Catholic faithful say their priests told them to vote for a particular candidate.
No priest will do such a thing. A priest might sell his personal opinion on how he will vote, but it is not true that that he will campaign that the congregation should vote for that particular candidate. Justice and fair play will not allow that.
Where will you place the Catholic Church, especially in Imo, in terms of the development of political awareness?
The Catholic Church ranks first. We have a strong media arm. The Leader newspaper for example is stronger than most national dailies in its coverage and acceptability. Then the JDPC through its multiple layers of seminars and workshops does mobilisation of the people for enlightenment and education. The JDPC never fails to let the people know their rights and educate them on what democracy means in their pursuit of their wellbeing.
The Church as it is in Imo is a watchdog and that is where the Archbishop comes in very strongly or cries out when things are not done alright. And the JDPC, as the mouthpiece of the people, toes that line of thought. We have been part of the democratization process in Nigeria and Imo since the advent of democratic rule.
Can the Catholic Church in Owerri claim to be impartial when its head, Archbishop Anthony Obinna has an undisguised soft spot for APGA?
The Archbishop has a soft spot for the Igbo cause. He has been in the vanguard of the propagation of Igbo language, culture, identity and survival. He started the Odenigbo Lecture series as far back as 1996 and the focus is on Igbo culture. And this is why he has a soft spot for APGA because it is the acclaimed Igbo party. He is not identifying with the candidates, just the spirit of what the party claims to represent. He will embrace and have a soft spot for any gathering that preaches the sustenance of the Igbo cause. And if APGA represents that cause, he will embrace it without apologies. He believes that APGA is the Igbo party and will protect the Igbo cause and the Igbo people.
Everyone knows that he had been supporting APGA, not as a card-carrying member. When Okorocha became the party’s candidate in 2011, Obinna didn’t know him, but he only was supporting APGA. Did he tell the people of Imo to vote for Okorocha? Has the Archbishop now followed Okorocha to the All Peoples Congress (APC)? The Archbishop will always stand with APGA, knowing that he has a right to identify with an ideology. Should he be crucified for it?
And has that made him partisan to the extent that his sympathy for APGA translates into the victory of APGA candidate?
What is the expectation of the Church in this election?
The expectation of the Church is not different from that of most other institutions. Let the winner emerge through a credible, free and fair process. The Church has nothing to suffer or lose. The Church is only concerned about these same masses who will cry when there is bad governance. The Church is always on the side of the poor masses and the policies that make them suffer and get poorer will always get the attention of the Church.
The Leader newspaper recently wrote of an Alhaji in Government House, apparently referring to Okorocha. What is the discomfort of the Church with the governor?
The Church is worried about the observance of some Islamic tendencies associated with the governor. The Catholic Church and the larger Christian Church should defend her faith. And if there are tendencies that are at variance with its faith, it should raise it.
As a matter of fact, the church didn’t raise these issues, but concerned people brought the attention of the church to these things. The Church investigated and asked for a clarification. The Leader newspaper mentioned how the governor donated millions of naira to 17 Christians who converted to Islam, while hailing their decision. The government has tried to clarify those things, but the Church is not satisfied with the clarifications. The Church has complained that there is an ongoing romance between the incumbent government and Islam. There are facts and the Church listed them; they are in the public domain.
The church is not in contest with any individual politician. The position of the Church is that voters should vote wisely and to do the right thing.
The Church is worried about the observance of some Islamic tendencies associated with the governor. The Catholic Church and the larger Christian Church should defend her faith. And if there are tendencies that are at variance with its faith, it should raise it. As a matter of fact, the church didn’t raise these issues, but concerned people brought the attention of the church to these things. The Church investigated and asked for a clarification. The Leader newspaper mentioned how the governor donated millions of naira to 17 Christians who converted to Islam, while hailing their decision. The government has tried to clarify those things, but the Church is not satisfied with the clarifications. The Church has complained that there is an ongoing romance between the incumbent government and Islam. There are facts and the Church listed them; they are in the public domain