Sunday, 4th June 2023

Day Anglican priests lay siege to Anambra Government House

By Lawrence Njoku Southeast Bureau Chief
25 November 2018   |   2:47 am
In the last few weeks, the Church had been telling anybody that cares to listen how the state has been divided into denominations, with one of the orthodox churches enjoying undue favour over the others, apparently because the headship of government is its member.

• Accuse Govt Of Favouring Catholics
This certainly is not the best of time for Anambra State government and the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion. If any relationship existed between the two that elicited joy in the past, such seem to have been broken by a festering misunderstanding over issues the church, especially the Diocese on the Niger, is not ready to stomach any longer.

In the last few weeks, the Church had been telling anybody that cares to listen how the state has been divided into denominations, with one of the orthodox churches enjoying undue favour over the others, apparently because the headship of government is its member.

Inkling into the sad development was laid bare during the annual Anambra State Anglican Prayer Rally held recently at the Alex Ekwueme Square, where the Church alleged that employment and political appointments were given based on denominational inclination. The Church said some persons were desirous of rewriting Christianity in the state, using government apparatus.

The other issue was the rightful ownership of Bishop Crowther Memorial Primary School, located in Onitsha, a property the Church members have vowed to either repossess or pay with their lives than allow a government takeover. The contest over this property is now unsettling the state.

While the state government had mounted the podium to tell the world that the school belonged to it, the Anglican Church, through its Diocese on the Niger, insisted that government was being economical with the truth, and that it was actually managing the school before it was taken over by government of former Eastern region.

To buttress its assertion and control, however, the state government recently moved into the school premises, which also serves as worship centre for members of St Simeon Bishop Crowther Church. It was alleged that government officials chased away the congregation, after which it demolished structures set up by the church, and mounted a screaming signpost on its entrance: “This property belongs to Anambra State government: Trespassers will be prosecuted.”

The imposing signboard is enough indication that the property is in contention. Government also banned further worship at the school premises. Apparently dissatisfied with the development, and not willing to surrender the property without a fight, the Diocese clergymen, numbering over 200, on Friday November 2 barricaded the state Government House in protest of government’s action.

Dressed in priestly attire and chanting solidarity songs, the placard-carrying clergymen defied the rains to storm the Government House gates as early as 11.00am. Some of the placards read: “Governor Obiano, stop disrupting our church and services’ and Bishop Crowther Memorial Primary School is not government property,” among others.

Venerable Josiah Chukwukadibia Ofoegbu, the Archdeacon, Onitsha South Archdeaconry, who led the protesting priests, said they were embittered over the development. He alleged that the government was making efforts to strangulate and marginalise some denominations.

Ofoegbu, who disclosed that the Church had endured denials of its members various positions in the state, explained that government seemed not content with the denials, when it moved to claim a property that never belonged to it with barrel of guns.He said: “This present government is turning Anambra into a denominational state. It is unfortunate this is happening 28 years after the missionary who built the school, left Nigeria.

“This school was handed over to the Anglican Church. Both Anglicans and Catholics knew this. When government seized schools, it was seized from us and during handover of schools; it was again handed back to us.

“But it was quite unfortunate that Governor Obiano sent thugs few weeks ago to send us out of the place. They disgraced us on our own property. They dispersed worshippers and even threatened to kill us. This injustice must end.“We want to let him know that we will worship there on Sunday. He should prepare for war. We are ready to die on that land. Obiano should stop this discrimination.”It was also learnt that the Church has taken the matter to court and hoping that justice would be served in the end.

In The Beginning
CONTENTS over property between the Church and state governments are not new in the Southeast. It would seem governments would always want to exercise executive power, asking the Church to relinquish property in the guise of serving public interest.Anglican Church and Mountain of Fire Ministries in Enugu experienced this bitter side of government during the last administration in the state.

In the case of Mountain of Fire Church, members woke up one morning to discover that their zonal headquarters located on Zik Avenue, Enugu was being demolished by bulldozers sent by the state government, and supervised by armed policemen in the guise that the property they had occupied for sometime was causing gridlock during worship hours.

The intervention of eminent Nigerians led to government assigning another parcel of land to the Church several months after. After waiting in vain for government to set up facilities around the area, the Church moved in to erect makeshift structures to serve as church buildings.On February 27, 2014, Enugu residents woke up to a protest by placard-carrying Anglican priests, who blocked entrances to the former Women Training College (WTC), New Layout axis, housing some secondary and primary schools. They prevented students and teachers from accessing the premises for the day’s activities.

The bone of contention was an alleged directive by state government to school heads to stop further dealings with the Anglican Church on the ground that government had repossessed mission schools. Angered by the development, the priests occupied the area as early as 6.30am, insisting that government should take the schools away from the land, which remained the church property.

Also, alleged sponsored government thugs had, that same year attacked some priests of the Church, Christ Anglican Church premises in Uwani, Enugu. The members had woken up to bulldozers attempting to pull down the perimetre walls around the area and tried to stop them. But they were seriously manhandled by the suspected thugs, who wielded dangerous objects.

In August 2014, Ebenezer Anglican Church, Nkwelle Ezunaka, was pulled down by unknown persons. The Church was built inside the premises of Oyolu Eze Primary School, Nkwelle Ezenaka in Oyi Council of Anambra State.Although Governor Willie Obiano visited the scene and later announced government’s desire to carry out an investigation, the outcome of the inquiry has remained in the cooler since then, fuelling suspicion that government might be in the know of what transpired. The Diocese has, however, taken the matter to court and is awaiting pronouncement on what led to demolition of the church.

In the case of Bishop Crowther Memorial Primary School, Onitsha, the contention did not start with the Obiano administration. Indeed, it arose out of the Peter Obi-led government’s desire to return schools originally owned by the missionary in the state.To actualise this, in 2011, the administration made a law to return schools previously owned by the Church. According to it: “The purpose of the law is to amend the principal law to include primary schools, as well as to make it clear that schools being returned to voluntary agencies are schools previously owned by the said agencies, but which were transferred to the state under the public education law of 1970.

The law also provided grant of subvention to the voluntary agencies to assist them run the schools returned to them, so as to maintain a high standard.It was learnt that by the authority of the state government passed into law, “Public education (transfer of schools), some CMS schools that were taken over were returned to the Church, while many others, were not returned. The contentious Nkisi Road school (now Bishop Crowther Primary School, Onitsha), Lafiagi Square Fegge Primary School and Agaie square Fegge Primary, Inland Town Primary School and Otu Obosi Square Fegge were among schools not returned to the church. The Anglican Church was said to have raised a protest over failure to return the schools, when it discovered that several schools not belonging to the Catholic Church were “mistakenly” returned to them (Catholic Church).

The development prompted the setting up of the Hon Justice Godwin .U Ononiba (rtd) committee on February 12, 2012 to handle agitations arising from the return of schools previously owned by the Church. The committee submitted its report to the state government on December 28, 2012.Ononiba is a staunch Catholic, while Secretary of the panel, Azubuike Nkalagu, is a deputy director of administration.On page 43 of their report on Bishop Crowther Memorial Primary School, the committee stated: “Evidence of the Inquiry showed that Bishop Crowther Memorial Primary School is an Anglican School, built in 1956. It should be given to the Anglican Church.” Surprisingly, the report was not implemented until Peter Obi left office.

The origin of Bishop Crowther Memorial Primary School was traced to 1926, when one Lady Anesthesia Modebe leased the land located at Nkisi Road to the Church Missionary Society (CMS) now Niger Diocese. The school named after Bishop Ajayi Crowther, one of the early missionaries to Nigeria was much later built on the land.

It was learnt that the CMS duly ensured that the school became a local authority school for the purpose of aid and grant, whilst the school ownership and land remained property of the Diocese on the Niger. The school was said to have run as such until 1970, when the East Central state government took over schools under the Public education law.By that law, schools belonging to CMS, namely Inland Town (now Obi Okosi Primary School, Onitsha), Otu Obosi Square (now Niger City Primary School, Fegge, Onitsha) and Nupe Square (now Nupe Primary School Fegge, Onitsha), among others were taken over by government. They expect that such should also be returned to them in line with the approved law.

The Anglican Church said it is not letting the matter lie low, as it has initiated action in court against the state government in a bid to recover the property (Bishop Crowther School), which it said belongs to the church.According to the chancellor of the diocese and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, (SAN), Nnamdi Ibegbu, the church had filed three different suits against Anambra State government in connection with the disputed Bishop Crowther Memorial Primary School. Ibegbu, who did not give details of the suit, expressed confidence that the pendulum of victory would swing in the church’s favour.

He said: “With all the documents and facts that we have, no reasonable tribunal will enter judgment against us.”He insisted that the Church granted the place to the administration of Ukpabi Asika in the defunct East Central State, adding that evidences at the Church’s disposal remained intact.

Why The Matter Rebounded
ALTHOUGH the Ononiba panel report was submitted and not implemented, St Simeon (Bishop Crowther) Anglican Church has lived in peace alongside the school since then, while waiting patiently that Governor Obiano would someday implement the panel’s recommendation. It was learnt that while the primary school operated in one of the buildings in the compound, the Church, which has erected a befitting parsonage for its priests separated by walls in the area, operated in one of the buildings.

A visit to the contentious property located on Government Reserved Area (GRA) Onitsha, indicated that a new wall was recently raised to fence out the school from other areas. A new gate said to be opened only during school hours was also erected, while a signboard warning “trespassers” to steer clear was mounted by government.The first Church Teacher of St Simeon’s Church, who is now the Vicar of Church of Pentecost, Osuma, Onitsha, Rev. Chukwudi Okafor, told The Guardian what stoked the recent crisis, was an attempt to displace the church with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). He said though it was not the first time the vast premises was used as IDP camp in the state, the school hall served the purpose.

He, however, alleged that in an attempt to accommodate the IDPs, the state government directed the Church to vacate.He stated that a protest against the development led to an intervention from the state Deputy Governor, Nkem Okeke and Onitsha North Council Chairman, who appealed to the church to set up temporary structure in the compound to serve as a place of worship, while efforts were intensified to sort out the matter.

He said: “We started raising the temporary structure, when people we believe are members of a sister denomination incited government officials, who came here and pulled the structure down. Before we knew what was happening, they started erecting new fence and putting new entrance gates. They later returned to mount a new signboard, saying the place is government property.”

He explained that since the incident, church members now worship outside the school compound, as the gates are locked after school hours. He added that they could only access the church parsonage through one of the gates outside the school compound. Okafor lamented that since a letter allegedly written in May 26, 2008 by the Catholic Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Rev. Valerian Okeke to the former Bishop on the Niger, Rt Rev Ken Okeke that he would not want any “variant denomination” around his Catholic Basilica to emanate, the Anglican Church in the area had faced several threats.

He stated that Onumaegboka Primary School 11, located inside
Basilica of Most Holy Trinity premises was relocated to Bishop Crowther Memorial School premises, as an afternoon school by the state government, paving way for the Catholic Church to establish a private school, Santa Maria Primary School, using the facilities of the relocated primary school. He explained that what was regarded as “government field” walled off from Bishop Crowther Memorial School premises has been acquired by the Catholic Church with the state government’s support, where St John’s International hall, a fuel station and other structures of the church were built.

Efforts At Finding Peace
ON November 6, a meeting of the House of Bishops, House of Clergy and House of Laity of the Province on the Niger, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) was convoked on the way forward in the matter.In its resolution signed by its Archbishop, Province of the Niger and Bishop of Nnewi Diocese, His Grace, the Most Rev Prof Godwin Okpala, the church, among other things, asked the state government to hand over the school to the Diocese on the Niger to manage, control and administer, adding that the land ownership, which commenced in 1926, should be honoured, as certified true copies of supporting documents are available.

It was also gathered that several interventions had been made to prevent further protests over the matter, while overtures to peace are being pursued.Mr. James Eze, Chief Press Secretary to Governor Willie Obiano, however, said the governor was not interested in grabbing anybody’s land, as much as he would want to secure every property of the state, which he swore to protect while taking his oath of office.

He explained that discussions were ongoing over the matter, stressing, however, that the issue was not that of the entire Anglican Church, but the Diocese on the Niger, which he said was allegedly exacerbated by the diocese leadership in the area.He said: “There is a subsisting case in court over the years on Nkwelle Ezunaka Anglican Church in Oyi local government, demolished sometime ago, following attempt to erect structures on school property. It is a similar case with that of Bishop Crowther Memorial School, which matter has also been on for years and has passed through successive administrations. Everything remained peaceful, until the Bishop decided to erect a structure there.

“All along, the school has been funded by the state government. It was actually a county school. The government has never had any issue with the Church. There was no contest over the land. The school was renamed by the Ukpabi Asika administration, but such did not affect its ownership and management.

“When the previous administration handed over schools to their original owners, that of Bishop Crowther was not handed over to anybody in the state. It remained under the state government’s management and control as a public school. “Now the Church woke up one morning to stage a protest against government over the school, with the erroneous claim that it is its property. They have taken the matter to court, and what we are saying is, ‘let justice be served.’ Anambra State government will hand over that school to the church, if the court decides it is its property.”

On why government did not continue with the implementation of Ononiba committee recommendation, he said it was for the Church to ask the previous administration why it did not conclude the exercise, adding that a problem along the line must have marred the process.“I do not think that report was acceptable to all, so implementing it would be very unfair. It did not meet minimum requirements,” he explained. “Committee reports don’t carry force of law and I don’t see this government instituting another panel, when the matter is in court.

“Accusing Obiano of discriminating against Anglican Church is rather unfair. This government has not marginalised any church. We have not in any way given undue favour to anyone based on denomination. Whatever the Governor has done, he has done in the interest of the state. Obiano has enjoyed peaceful and cordial relationship with all denominations in the state and is ready to maintain this.”

When contacted on why the former governor, Mr. Peter Obi did not implement report of the panel he set up to resolve the crisis over ownership of the school, Obi’s Media aide, Val Obienyiem, said: “What can I say? Maybe I should say Anambra State government, during the time of Mr. Peter Obi should hold Ngige responsible for not constructing the Zik’s avenue it awarded or something close to that.”