by Cheta Nwanze
In 1997, Edmund Fitzgibbon, the Irish Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Warri retired. He had lived in Nigeria since 1964, being a priest in various places from Minna to Zuru to Kontagora to Port Harcourt and finally, Warri. Upon Fitzgibbon’s retirement, the Holy See in Rome appointed another Irishman, Richard Burke as Bishop of Warri. Then all hell broke loose.
In what has become a very Nigerian habit, petition followed petition, from Warri to Rome, asking that Burke’s appointment be rescinded. In the petitions, all sorts of allegations were made about Burke, ranging from homosexuality to child molestation. The Vatican investigated, and finding nothing tangible, kept Burke in place. Then the nature of the petitions began to change. Letters began to arrive in Rome stating that the people of the Warri Diocese would prefer having an indigenous bishop, one who understands the people. Rome ignored them, pretty much until 2007 when they promoted Burke, and then installed his auxiliary bishop, John Afareha, an ethnic Isoko, as bishop. There have been complaints from ethnic Urhobos that they’d prefer one of their own as bishop, but so far, they have been unable to move Rome.
Richard Burke moved, in 2007, to Benin, to take the place of Patrick Ekpu, an ethnic Esan, who had been Bishop in Benin since 1973, and had been created Archbishop when Benin was upgraded to an archdiocese in 1994. He remained Archbishop until he retired at the end of 2006. Richard Burke finally retired in 2010, and left Nigeria. To replace him as Archbishop in Benin, the Holy See appointed Augustine Akubeze, an ethnic Igbo. Then all hell broke loose.
Letters, and petitions, followed Akubeze’s appointment. The Edo have always been the most direct people in Nigeria, so there was no beating around the bush. In their many petitions, Akubueze was among other things, accused of refusing to conduct mass in Edo, marginalising Edo priests, and not making use of the Edo Bible.
So far, Rome, has held firm. Akubeze is still Archbishop in Benin.
On September 16, 2010, Victor Chikwe, the first bishop of the Ahiara Diocese, died. He had been bishop of Ahiara Diocese from when it was created. It is important to point out at this time that Ahiara, unlike either Warri or Benin, is a small town with population of less than 200k. Its biggest industry is actually the Roman Catholic Church, and the most famous moment in its history was in 1969 when it was the site of Ojukwu’s Ahiara Declaration during the civil war.
Bishop Chikwe happened to hail from a hamlet called Ezinihitte, just a few miles away from Ahiara. Following his death, the Holy See in Rome, appointed Peter Okpalaeke, as Bishop of Ahiara Diocese. Then all hell broke loose.
Okpaleke was rejected by the priests from around Ahiara. They claimed that the process that led to his selection as bishop was flawed. Till date, seven years later, they have failed to provide any evidence to back this claim up.
At this point, it must be mentioned that the selection of a Bishop by Rome is not a public event, and according to Vatican tradition, anyone from anywhere can be moved around. Heck, they could decide to bring in a priest from Kwa-Bulawayo to become Bishop of Ahiara!
So far, and clearly for the forseeable future, the Vatican will stand its ground.
But for me, that is besides the point.
The point is our propensity as a people, to go for the narrow and inane, rather for the expansive. What are the functions of a Bishop in the Catholic Church that people are ethnicising and politicising such appointments?
Since we are gradually dropping all pretexts of “one Nigeria”, the position of the Urhobos in Warri, and the Edos in Benin, can be rationalised, if not necessarily justified. The one that goes beyond all rational thought, is the drama in Ahiara. Okpalaeke is an ethnic Igbo, like all of Ahiara. So what is this? How can we build a cohesive unit if people are so provincial in their thinking? Heck, this, and the esemoku fada na CMS phenomenon that is so strong in Okpalaeke’s home state of Anambra, show clearly that should certain agitations succeed tomorrow, even Biafra will have the same issues as Nigeria.
It should be clear to anyone who thinks, that the problems of Nigeria go beyond the next man’s ethnic group or religion. The problems of Nigeria are in our heads.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija