Posted by News Express | 15 May 2022 | 1,565 times
Recently, the emeritus Catholic Archbishop of Owerri, and Apostolic Administrator, the Most Reverend Anthony J.V. Obinna, who is generally regarded as the spiritual father of Imo and conscience of the state in what would be his last media interaction as the head of the Owerri ecclesiastical province spoke on several issues, including the agitation for president of Nigeria of Igbo extraction, and his tenuous relationship with various governors in the state during his 25 years as the Archbishop Metropolitan of Owerri. Excerpt:
His Grace, the Southeast has been agitating that it is its turn to produce the next president in 2023 for equity, fairness and justice. What is the possibility of that happening?
Igbo and the presidency Oh, what an interesting question! But, meanwhile we thank God that we now have an Igbo president in Nigeria in the name of Archbishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji. He is the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria. So, it is through the Catholic Church that we have been able the gain the presidency of this country Nigeria. If the Nigerian nation were to be the Catholic Church we would have gotten the president just as we have now. Ironically, we now have a president. This is because we are dealing with the northerners, the westerners and every other person in Nigeria in the Catholic Bishops Conference and because things are fair there, because we accommodate each other and we have been able to resolve even the subtle ethnic or clannish relationships that you still find in the church. We have been able to transcend this, and this is what is keeping Nigeria down because Nigeria has not been able to resolve its subtle and overt ethnicity and religiosity for the sake of all of us, and this is what is holding the Igbo from getting the president. There are those who consider themselves as the owners of Nigeria . When Alex Ekwueme was inching close to the presidency in 1987, but the Buhari coup in 1983 destabilized the second term of Shagari that would have opened the way for Ekwueme to have become the president in 1987, because most often the vice president is a candidate and may succeed the president as it was in our own case. Archbishop Ugorji was the vice president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria , and when the time came for the election because we had an election. He didn’t win all the votes, he won 48 votes out of 56 because he contested against three other candidates even when he was positioned to win it ,but eight others said no and didn’t support him. There is also a certain kind of politics even in the church, but not that of hitting anyone or sharing money to vote at least no one shared money . But we thought that it is about time somebody from this province (Owerri) becomes the president and this is the first time Onitsha Province has had their turn through Cardinal Arinze and Archbishop Obiefuna. And even our brothers from the Igbo-speaking areas felt that it should be this way because “Owerri wu oke mba” both for the Archbishopric. If I missed it my successor should not miss it also . But not because of such , but in God’ s providence it is time for this province to produce the president of Nigeria Catholic Bishops Conference. In fact, there was a time I contested, I was voted for, but I didn’t win and I lost my deposit, but not money . So , what is happening to Nigeria is a reflection of the hatred ,the disunity in this country and that is why I have continued to urge with others who have been urging that let there be a restructuring of the nation before the election so that we can move on a more equitable, more fraternal note . In fact, the last communiqué of the Catholic Bishops spoke of fraternity in a more friendly relationship in the spirit of ‘tuti fratani tuti’ because we are all the sons and daughters of God. But in Nigeria not everybody like to see the other person as a follow son or daughter of God. But until we resolve the issue of hatred and revenge, this false feeling that the Igbo have done this or that but others have done worse than the Igbo have done in this country and they are holding the rest of us on the jugular. Until we learn how to forgive one another, after all they said “no victor, no vanquished”, but we see clearly the victors and the vanquished. So, the Igbo could have had the presidency twice in 1987 and in 1999 when we were moving out military rule. Ekwueme was positioned to become the president, but those holding the levers of power brought Obasanjo out of prison to run for the president, they gave it to the Yoruba rather than give it to the Igbo man. Nigeria is a distorted, violent, hateful, and a brutal nation and that is where we are today. There is no mincing words about it, there is hatred at the heart of this nation and it is like a kind of satanic hatred that has continued to deprive the country and people the sense of brotherhood it requires to advance, and until this hatred is exorcized from the heart of this nation we will continue to have problems. Recently, I think it was Ayo Adebanjo who said that for equity the Igbo should be supported for presidency so that the country can move on equity and justice and, I think that there are also some northerners who are also disposed that the Igbo should be supported . The Igbo have paid their dues and they have contributed in building up this country in several ways. But I am more interested in the restructuring of the nation and after, we can talk about the presidency thereafter, but on the note of equity and fairness if any people deserve to get the presidency it is the Igbo. Even the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Adewale Martins spoke about it and some other leaders of the Catholic Church have also said that or otherwise what we have will be a skewed one Nigeria.
Imo people see you not only as the spiritual leader of the state, but also as the conscience of the state. How were you able to manage your relationship with the governors both military and civilians and yet maintained your integrity?
Thank you my brother for your kind words to me that in Imo State, Catholics and non-Catholics defer to me . How have I been able to manage my relationship with the governors? You think of the kings and prophets in the old testament or even in the new. However, wherever there is God and the sense of justice , the priest must speak truth to power even if it is inconveniencing and definitely it is inconveniencing. Whoever sticks out his tongue or neck to speak is bound to be hit in one way or the other. Whether it is under Udenwa, Ohakim , Rochas(Okorocha ) or even Uzodimma we had confrontations a couple of times . They are not comfortable with me and I am not comfortable with them either. I call it a relationship of creative discomfort that is how I define it . I am afraid of the people more than the governors because I am supposed to reflect the concerns of the people more than that of the governors . That is why I took the stances that I took. Maybe as a result of my formation as a Moral Theologian and a Social Critic prepared me ahead of time. When I was studying Ideologies and liberation theology. The last video I watched before I became the bishop of Owerri in 1993 is that of Oscar Romero who was killed by the military. So, I entered into this service in a military context. Remember that when I was appointed a Bishop in July 1993 it was barely a month after the June 12 election. I was in America and watching the unfolding events of the June 12 election and its subsequent cancellation by General Babangida. I was trying to get some information, of course, there was no social media then. And , the Catholic Bishops back in Nigeria have also met and issued a prayer for Nigeria in distress because of the military invasion of the land . Even my ordination as a Bishop was affected as Babangida playing around maradonically . In fact, my ordination was supposed to be on August 28, but we had to move it to September 4, 1993. In fact, I had earlier wanted my ordination on the 28 August, which is the feast of Augustine in the African Spirit. So, my relationship with the governors has been sometimes friendly, sometimes conflictual and discomfort continually and I don’t live in comfort with any of the governors up till now that I’m leaving, so that I will not be pocketed that is the whole idea, because if you go too near because of some favours, be it financially or otherwise one can become an endangered specie. One time, one of the secretaries to the state government held a meeting of how to deal with me and eliminate me because of what I was saying about the administration. Even one of relations came to tell me that these people are planing to eliminate you and that I should pipe down a little and I told him that I am available because I don’t have police or military personnel guarding me. In one case there was an announcement on the Imo Broadcasting Corporation ( IBC) being made during our holy week celebrations at the Cathedral, one of the secretaries of the state government went to the IBC and ordered that they should move it anyway to any other church instead of Assumpta Cathedral and told them not to broadcast Obinna, he is a dangerous man.
What were your major challenges as the Archbishop of Owerri Metropolitan?
Well , my major challenge was living up to the expectation of God, the expectation of the people, the expectation on own part to live up to the expectations. That is what I have to fight myself daily, to avoid any occasion of sin so that I can stand before God every day to celebrate Mass. That is the biggest challenge for any priest or spiritual person has to deal with. Other challenges that came in terms of administration, these are relatively minor as somebody else will come and take over and the administration continues. Sometimes not everyone will be happy with the decisions you take . When location of priests are made some will raise hell. But we tried to calm everybody down, but I have also apologized, where I need to and I have also held my ground where I need to do that. But running the Archdiocese comes with a lot of challenges in terms handling of the personnel, in terms of getting enough finance to run the Archdiocese, building this and that in terms of taking care of priests. Sometimes when they are sick. Some times a young priest just three years in the priesthood was seriously ill and I called the priests that we have to do something because if he dies I will be in trouble. We had to look for money to send him abroad to save his life and had to raise €40,000 to send him to Germany for medical treatmen, thank God he is still alive today. Most times we depend on friends and well wishers in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Abuja when we have projects like renovations of the Cathedral or buildings. Sometimes I have to call my friends in the USA to assist us financially. The parishes also contribute during the cathedratical and, of course, we too also take of the needy who besiege the Assumpta Cathedral every day because of the failure of the government. People come asking for help because they have not been paid their pensions or salaries and I say I am not the governor and I am not keeping Imo State money here, but we cannot send them away empty handed. Sometimes I have to escape a little. But the pressure keeps coming because of lack of good governance which should have been taken care of these problems . Peter Obi has been the best amongst the governors in the Southeast in terms of government-church relationship without interfering .He sees the government money as a public fund. Missionary schools , hospitals receive funds from the government to help and he made it statutory it doesn’t matter whether it is Catholic, Anglican or Methodist, so you don’t have to beg all the time just as it was before the civil war when mission-owned schools and hospitals received grants in aid from the government because they know that they provide services to compliment the efforts of the government. But the major challenge to me is remaining faithful to God and to my vocation, and, of course, to humanity.
Yes, of course, on my part I regret my inadequacies on the side of God and humanity. There are other outstanding things that I was not being able to achieve. The new Archbishop may have to take them up. At a point I thought of building a Catholic University, but it is quite expensive . I was the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Veritas Catholic University, Abuja, which I helped to start as the Chairman of the Education Committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, and having gone through a Catholic education from Infant One to PhD. So, that sense of Catholic education is very strong in me and in the year 2002, I sold the idea to Bishops Conference and fortunately enough Prof Placid Njoku , the current deputy governor of Imo State was my secretary in the education committee. Prof Njoku having served out his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of Michael Okpara University of Agriculture Umudike, Umuahia we had to engage him to prepare the academic brief for seeking approval for a university . We started at a temporary site in Obehe about 2008/9 before moving to the permanent site in Abuja and it is one of the best universities in Nigeria. So, after seeing how much it took to establish it I became afraid because I had wanted to establish one in the Owerri Archdiocese . I started a monastery in Iyishi, which is yet to be completed, but some philanthropists have come to bail me out. I started a minor Seminary in Izombe which is still at the foundation level. Owerri is an Archdiocese, I had thought of creating more dioceses, but it could not be achieved. Well, I have asked who I offended to forgive me as I also forgive those who have offended me as in the course of my ecclesiastical duties. For now ,the Holy Father has graciously made me Emeritus Archbishop of Owerri and also the Apostolic Administration until the new Archbishop, His Grace Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji is installed in June. (Sunday Sun)
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