The memories of the dramatic reactions to the announcement of Rev. Peter Okpalaeke as the bishop-elect of Ahiara diocese will surely continue to linger even long after the echoes of “war songs” have died down and the issue is laid to rest. From the various battle-cries to the calls for prayer and discernment, opinions that have been expressed on this matter, both publicly and privately, all indicate that this is a moment of great lesson. It is a moment that calls for thorough introspection and self-criticism not only from Catholics but also from all Igbo people in general. For many observers like me, the tones and logics of some reactions have unveiled to us the indigence of the Christian faith among our people today. The arguments generally advanced against the appointment give credence to the ironic assertion that the water of baptism is after all not thicker than the blood of our clannish affiliation. The controversy in fact seems to go beyond the issue of a mere ecclesiastical appointment and raises the question about the very understanding of what it means to have an Igbo ethnic nationality. As some have pointed out, it touches the root of our cultural and political self-definition as an ethnic unit in Nigeria and exposes how deeply divided Ndigbo are, even as we often tout such neologisms like “Umunna” and “Nwanne di na mba” ecclesiology.
As a person of Anambra state origin who has never desired nor wilfully attempted to dominate other persons in any of my social relationships, I was also particularly troubled by what I regarded as an offensive and ridiculous theory that has been termed “anambranisation” of the catholic hierarchy in Igboland. I think it is important to uphold the rights of Ahiara people to react how they may, after all Ndigbo are known for their republicanism, which means that every community in Igboland, no matter how small, aspires and strives to remain “autonomous.” The love for autonomy and self-determination has always been the source of our strength as well as our weakness. Therefore, the Ahiara crisis with its spurious theory of “anambranisation” calls for a deeper reflection concerning who and where we are as Ndigbo and where we intend to go from here, both in the areas of ecclesiastical and secular politics. Hence, whether one is angry and offended by the decision of the Catholic Church regarding who occupies the episcopal seat of Ahiara diocese (as a good number of Ahiara people now surely are), or one is scandalized and disappointed by the incredulous nature of the Ahiara opposition, at the end of it all the decisive question will remain: What have we all learned from this crisis?
The worst crisis may well conceal great opportunities for reform and development, just as it may have the potentials to deepen resentments, breed discord and harm fraternal relationships. How productive or destructive the Ahiara crisis turns out to be eventually will depend on the lenses with which we choose to read and appreciate the events that are now unfolding. With this in mind, I am optimistic that if eventually Msgr. Peter Okpalaeke is installed as bishop of Ahiara, the present crisis may be an event he will one day look back to with tremendous gratitude for lessons learnt. Some information circulating now is revealing that Okpalaeke is already planning for his installation, which supposedly is expected to damn the opposition. I would not like to predict the outcome of the event now. But whatever good fruits Okpalaeke’s episcopate will bear for himself and his flock, should he be confirmed as bishop of Ahiara, will depend on whether he is prepared to learn something positive from this crisis. So what have the bishop-elect (or the ecclesiastical hierarchy, including priests) to learn?
In a sense, one may see the protestations as a good sign that the local church in Igboland is no longer a church of timid Christians that are merely docile to missionary catechism, but a church that has matured enough to think for itself and even question the decisions of Rome. If this is so, the bishop-elect, and indeed all bishops and ecclesiastical office-holders are challenged to criticize and reject the hitherto impoverished understanding of power and authority in the church, which has made the bishopric look like a coveted crown and a fight-to-the-finish trophy for which vainglorious aspirants are prepared to pay any price in order to acquire. I believe that it is such worldly point of view, which sees the crozier no longer as a pastoral symbol of the loving shepherd but rather as a mace of hierarchical supremacy, that is indeed fuelling the angst of protesters in Ahiara. Amadi Azuogu’s well publicised and passionate opinion has represented this point of view in its demonstration of Ahiara people’s fears that Okpaleke’s appointment may well irrevocably tie the knot to alleged conspiracy for Anambra domination of the Igbo catholic hierarchy. This fear, regrettable as it is, obviously arises from a belief, in fact, an assumption of the possibility that the bishopric may as well be doled out as compensation to sycophants, as consolatory prize to favoured candidates without any regard to their suitability. The fear arises from a belief that nepotism has great role to play in Nigerian ecclesiastical politics. These innuendos call for a serious in-depth evaluation and handling of the present crisis. If what we are witnessing just happens to be the indices of a church that has come of age; a church enlightened by the gospel and motivated by the imperative of self-criticism, then there will be good reason to appreciate the boldness of those who cry “foul!” Such boldness, however, goes with an enormous sense of responsibility that transcends mere protests against perceived injustice. The coming to age of Igbo Catholicism must be able to boast of a spiritual creativity capable of forging and sustaining a genuine Christian culture – a culture that is firmly rooted in the belief that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in the church and that we Christians are called to be agents of His activities; a culture that will be able to rise above to challenge and displace the moral bankruptcy and selfishness that has impeded all hopes of integral development in our society; a culture that will restore again to our common consciousness the true meaning of public service. It has sometimes been argued that the Igbo are among the most religious people in the world. In view of our much touted religiosity this crisis invites us to ask ourselves:
• To what extent do we actually believe that the episcopal office with its privileges is indeed about a vocation by the Holy Spirit, who confirms the elect in the service of his brothers and sisters after the example of the Son of Man, who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as ransom to others (Mt. 20:28; Mk, 10:45)?
• To what extent shall we allow unsavoury and short-sighted politics threaten to eclipse the light of authentic evangelisation and human development in Igboland?
• And, as Chu Ilo rightly observed, why is an Igbo person considered a foreigner among his own ethnic people, simply because he comes from a particular part of Igboland?
The first question, arising from the need for a correct understanding and exercise of the episcopal office, challenges Okpaleke and whoever will become bishop anywhere to prove their worthiness to the vocation by recuperating the true meaning of episkopos through a transparent demonstration of humility and love in the service of the faithful of their respective dioceses. In this sense, the present opposition to his installation becomes an asset, a kind of a school which the bishop-elect will pass through and emerge more docile and prepared, armed with humility and a spirit of service and self-immolation. But this pastoral humility is much more urgent for all priests as it is required of bishops. It is time we, the Nigerian clergy, both catholic and protestant, examine our consciences, evaluate our life-styles, in order to be able to commit ourselves spiritually to being true shepherds and “men of God.” The gospel that is being preached to our people today, both in the words and actions of the clergy, seem to have derailed from what one would consider the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ. No wonder then that our country has a notorious penchant for corruption and criminal activities, even as our churches are filled every Sunday with worshippers. What is the essence of being a home to missionary boom, for example – the so-called “Ireland of Africa” – if genuine Christian spirituality is so much lacking among our people?
Secondly, the parochial “son of the soil” argument of the Ahiara protest voices notwithstanding, it is also necessary to re-examine the canonical process of electing bishops in order to eliminate possible flaws and avoid similar crises in the future. In the light of post-colonial discourse in theology the importance of such a re-examination should not be trivialized. It is not enough to preach the ecclesiology of the church as a Family of God without taking into consideration how every member of that family is enabled to share in the right of making in-put to the decisions that affect them socially and spiritually in that family, even if on the representative level. In view of the sentiments that have profusely been expressed in this crisis, it will be important to ensure that the laws of the Catholic Church are not infringed upon in such matters. Canon 377, § 3 of the Code of Canon Law, as we know, stipulates that in the case of the appointment of a diocesan Bishop or a coadjutor Bishop, the papal Legate should seek “the suggestions of the Metropolitan and of the Suffragans of the province to which the diocese in question belongs or with which it is joined in some grouping, as well as the suggestions of the president of the Episcopal Conference. The papal Legate is, moreover, to hear the views of some members of the college of consultors and of the cathedral chapter.
If he judges it expedient, he is also to seek individually, and in secret, the opinions of other clerics, both secular and religious, and of lay persons of outstanding wisdom.” Judging from the time since the last Bishop of Ahiara, Victor Chikwe, died one would presume that this process was painstakingly observed in making the now controversial decision. The present crisis, however, suggests that it is either the recommended process of consultations was sloppy or marred by undesirable internal Ahiara politicking on the one hand, or there was indeed a conspiracy to ignore Ahiara people’s choice and impose a candidate on them on the other hand. Whichever way it is, it does not speak well of Igbo Catholicism and of the genuineness of the image which the African Church wants to present of itself as a Family of God. As some people who analysed the situation say, “Igbo Catholicism is on trial,” but not only that. With it is also the very idea and significance of the ecclesiology of the church as Family. And this raises the third question regarding why an Igbo person, even in the church should be considered a foreigner among his Igbo brothers and sisters, no matter what dialect he or she speaks?
The importance of this question and the difficulty in its handling lies in the fact that it touches the heart of Igbo republicanism. As Ndigbo, we don’t want to deny who we are and the cultural pluralism that is evident in Igbo society, but at the same time we must recognize the wisdom of re-evaluating the meaning of Igbo citizenship in a world that is increasingly moving towards uninhibited openness to unity and elimination of parochial, ethnic and clannish mentalities. In this sense and in view of the necessity of socio-political development, our long-upheld Igbo republicanism needs deconstruction. Yes, we do not want to be dominated from the outside, therefore, we close our doors and windows and suffocate ourselves inside. Some of the arguments against Okpalaeke’s eligibility for the Ahiara episcopal seat are that he is a stranger to the customs and practices that are uniquely Ahiara and will, therefore, not understand the people’s ways of doing things. This is an argument whose echoes one hears in so many other instances of cultural life in Nigeria or Africa in general. In many occasions that I have tried to correct people at home for wrong or questionable practices, I have often received as response: “Here is not Europe or America!”, hence reminding me that my point of view is foreign and inadequate in the Nigerian context. In other words, we are proud to do things the way we are doing it, even if it is obvious that our traditional ways are not beneficial to us. For us invariably, tradition is tradition, unquestionable, unchanging, and non-receptive to foreign input. This is why, despite the intellectual genius with which the Igbo folk is endowed, we have been able to make only marginal progress in grassroot development. The Ahiara crisis may be an opportunity for Ndigbo to now make a necessary transition from “Umunna” to a real “Nwanne di mba” ecclesiology. It may be the time to ask ourselves the question: What have we really achieved with the old ways, if we are not willing to try new ways with new people who bring with them new perspectives to the dialectic of progress? This question of course demands a willingness to engage in the de- and re-construction of Igbo republicanism.
Dr. Ikenna Okafor is a catholic priest of Nnewi diocese in Anambra State. He wrote from Vienna, Austria.