By the time you read this piece, the resignation of Bishop Okpaleke as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese, and the appointment of Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia Diocese as the interim administrator of Ahiara Diocese, would have become stale news.
However, what would not be stale for a very long time to come are the reflections over the whole saga, its causes- both past and proximate, the forces behind the saga, their arsenals and modus operandi, the resistance against it, the winners and the losers, and above all, the overall significance of the victory and the lessons to learn from such an unfortunate conflict.
The news of Bishop Okpaleke’s resignation came on Monday, the 19th of February, 2018. It was long in coming, but it is better late than never. Every right-thinking person has advocated it as an imperative to the solution of the crisis.
In all my published writings on the subject, I said just that, and thank God it has happened at last. Allied with his resignation is the appointment of Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia Diocese to replace Cardinal Onaiyekan of Abuja Archdiocese as the interim Administrator of the Diocese. This is very much in line with the options given by the Diocesan Clergy and the Laity for the selection of a Bishop that would be acceptable to them, and these options are rooted in the provisions of the Canon Law of the Church on the subject.
Lucius Ugorji hails from Naze in Owerri North Local Government Area, but became a priest in Umuahia Diocese where he studied from the Junior to the Senior Seminary levels. Therefore, as an incardinated priest of Umuahia Diocese, he was eminently qualified, like any other, to become its Bishop, his place of nativity notwithstanding. That is one of the options of Ahiara Diocese up till now. Above all, Umuahia Diocese where he serves is one of the six Dioceses in Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, which the Ahiara Diocesan clergy and laity insist is the area from where a Bishop should be selected for them. Even though his job is an interim one, the selection of someone from within the province for the job shows a major change or shift in the thinking of Rome and the Nunciature in Nigeria. The local church should always be allowed to run its affairs without much interruption as that gives everybody a sense of belonging in the entire system. There should be no Nepotism, Simony, Levitism, or sacred-cowism in its affairs. Without the existence of a ‘level playing field’, its management will always run into this kind of crisis, which puts the system in a very negative light. The law is binding on everyone from the laity to the Pope for as long as it is operational. It would be wrong for a clique of highly placed prelates to conspire to observe some laws of the church continuously in the breach, feathering their nests and carving out empires for themselves in the process, and covering up such actions with sanctimonious verbiages meant to deceive the fickle-minded. The worst thing is that such mercantilist prelates tend to use the papacy as a shield in their nefarious activities, particularly when there is an old or weak Pope in office. We hope that Rome has learnt its lessons now and would have the will to stick to the provisions of its laws as well as sanction officials who infringe on them without fear or favour.
Although the resignation of Bishop Okpaleke appears sudden to many of us, in reality, many discerning observers of the Ahiara Diocesan crisis saw it coming and said so. The indicators had been there for many years now.
First of all, experts in church administration tell us that no church appointment is cast in stone or steel and can therefore be changed when there is sufficiently good reason for it. Therefore, that of Okpaleke cannot be an exception.
Secondly, the very first thing Pope Francis did on coming to office was to appoint an Apostolic Administrator to take charge of the Diocese, which means that, from that time, the church saw the position of Bishop of Ahiara as vacant, even though Okpaleke had been ordained into the office. But since there cannot be an Apostolic Administrator and a sitting Bishop at the same time, experts have always told us that Okpaleke’s resignation was inevitable. Unfortunately, the Apostolic Administrator chose to betray the responsibility given to him to run the Diocese independently, and instead played the group script of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), which had become a shameful ethno-religious cult, thereby prolonging the crisis unnecessarily for many years. The script of the CBCN has always been to force Okpaleke on Ahiara at any cost and by all means, including sacrificing truth on the cross.
Again, going by the pastoral and administrative directives or pronouncements of Pope Francis, it was very clear Okpaleke was living on borrowed time. In addition to the clear provisions of the Canon law on the selection of Bishops, the Pope has pronounced that “only shepherds who smell sheep should be appointed to govern a flock”, “whenever there is an Episcopal vacancy, people should fish for suitable candidates in the open waters instead of an aquarium”; “if the people do not accept an appointee to the Episcopal office, he should not be forced on them”. It was as if he had the Nigerian church in mind while saying these things; but the more he said them, the more the Nigerian Bishops and their accomplices did the very opposite of his directives, manipulating every process until finally they found themselves in a cul-de sac (dead end).
When the manipulated ‘invitation’ of Ahiara priests to Rome for a meeting with the Pope from 4th to 10th June,2017 backfired and landed a lot of embarrassment to the Pope and the Holy See, the manipulators found themselves caught in the trap they had set for the Ahiara priests. That was their climax. The anti-climatic process started from there. First, Fernando Cardinal Filoni, the anchorman in Rome was re-posted, then a new Papal Nuncio was named for Nigeria with clear directives to sort out the mess in Ahiara and other dioceses. Then Bishop Bagobiri of Kafanchan Diocese broke ranks with his colleagues in CBCN and came out clearly to support the demands of Ahiara priests and the laity for an indigenous Bishop, and went ahead to call for the resignation of Okpaleke. That was on Friday, 1st December, 2017. Finally in January, 2018, the main culprit in the saga, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, announced his resignation as the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese, saying his “role as Apostolic Administrator there ended a year ago(i.e January 2017), when Pope Francis took the situation in his own hands…”. This is an open admission that the Pope lost confidence in him a long time ago and diplomatically put him in the cooler. But the question is if he knew that he had no authority to act in that capacity, why was he still doing so up to the time of this his announcement, and why was he involved in the confusion surrounding the failed convocation of Ahiara priests in Rome?
However, what was very clear was that Okpaleke’s support base had seriously been eroded, and that sooner or later, he would either resign or be fired. At last, some fresh air managed to enter his head and he realized he had to take the honourable way out.
So with the sacking of Filoni in Rome, Kasujj’ah as a Nuncio, Onaiyekan as Apostolic Administrator and now Okpaleke as the Bishop-designate for Ahiara Diocese, the detoxification process is almost completed. What is left is the appointment of a “shepherd that smells the sheep of the flock” of Ahiara Diocese. If that is done correctly and fairly, the crisis would be over and done with.
Let me end this piece by congratulating all the Priests, Religious and Laity of Ahiara Diocese and all people of good will who supported them in this dogged struggle for the defense of TRUTH, FAIRNESS and EQUITY. This struggle has brought to an end the process of colonization of Catholicism in Igbo land and Southern Nigeria by a cabal of fraudsters masquerading as men-of -God. Now people can see them for what they really are. It is a victory for all men of good conscience and for the church of Christ. But the biggest losers are the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria as a group. They elevated their group interest of protecting the back sides of their members above their duties of salvation of souls. Without any qualms whatsoever, they crucified truth, equity and fairness in the Ahiara Diocesan saga and, going by the latest plans of Cardinal Onaiyekan, would proceed to crack down on the priests of the diocese if they had their way. So when men of God cannot say the truth, of what use are they to humanity? When salt loses its taste, it becomes useless, good only to be thrown away and treated like dust.
——Chief Nwakanma Diala-Uka Writes From Ahiazu Mbaise, Imo State