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Spare Anambra this hallucination

By Ifeanyi Afuba
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In the third and fourth weeks of August 2014, the media was awash with stories of the demolition of a church building situated in the premises of a primary school at Oyolu – Oze, Nkwelle Ezunaka in Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State. The demolition, by unknown persons, of the church building still under construction by the Anglican Church, later erupted in a demonstration through the streets of Onitsha by faithful of the Anglican Communion. It is also established that the Nkwelle – Ezunaka community through the leadership of its town union has staked claim to ownership of Oyolu – Oze Primary School as well as the land on which the church building was being erected. Naturally, the Anambra State Government intervened to manage the ensuing crisis and maintain public peace and order.

Essentially then, there is a dispute over who has legitimate right to the use of the said landed property between the Anglican Church and the host community. The Church's assertion of right is hinged on the instrument of government's return of the school to it under an extant educational policy of the Anambra State Government. For its part, the Nkwelle – Ezunaka community faults the said return as an error, contending that the school does not fall into the category specified by the policy. The stance of the community is that the school which was built by the town years after the civil war and handed over to Government was never at any time owned by the mission whereas the policy was definitively about returning pre – war, voluntary agency schools government forcefully took over in 1970. The Church, the community insisted, had only been a 'tenant' in the premises. In the face of these conflicting positions, Governor Willie Obiano wisely set up a six man committee (headed by the State Deputy Governor) to investigate the matter; determine ownership and other relevant findings and submit its report by August 28, 2014.

Unfortunately however, there have been persistent attempts by some people to give the subject a misleading religious colouration; one in which the Anambra State Government emerges from this revisionism and other linkages as partisan against adherents of the Anglican faith. The latest of this persecution complex is the September 1, 2014 advertorial in Vanguard newspaper by some concerned Anglicans who lamented that appointments by the immediate past and present Anambra State Governments were 'skewed in favour of the Roman Catholics.' To be sure, Governor Willie Obiano is a practicing Catholic. It is also necessary to point out that the President of Nkwelle – Ezunaka town union and face of the community's activism in this affair, Dr Chris Eluemunor is a Pentecostal Christian while the Deputy Governor of Anambra State (who headed the six man investigative panel) is of the Anglican faith.

From some reporters to the protesters who took to the streets against the pulling down of church property, subtle and overt efforts to convey a sense of denominational stand – off with the government are noticed. It is inconceivable that any objective reporter will write a story on the demonstration at Onitsha dwelling only on the ultimatum issued to Governor Obiano to rebuild the destroyed church building within 7 days. Yet, this is exactly what some correspondents did. Ignoring the community and government perspectives in the chronicling of such a sensitive issue cannot be justified nor even rationalized in any way. When someone chooses to slant a story of public interest in the media, it is often in furtherance of some selfish agenda. The present dispute is controversial enough on its own. It goes without saying that a mishandling in whatever form has potential for brewing an unnecessary and avoidable crisis in the State.

No less unfortunate is the attitude of some of the protesters who are seeking to magnify the protest beyond its land dispute status. Pray, what is the connection between the feud with the community in question over land and the distribution of appointments in the Obiano – led government? According to media reports some of the placards displayed by the demonstrators bore the inscription: 'Major State Jobs are for Roman Catholics' and 'Catholics Favoured In Appointments.' As earlier mentioned, it is important to note that the accusation of marginalizing Anglicans is not a new one in Anambra State. Obiano's predecessor, Peter Obi was equally alleged to have run a government in which non – Catholics had a minimal presence. Perhaps, but for the turbulent nature of his reign, Dr Chris Ngige, another occupant of Government House who is also a Catholic, might have been similarly straitjacketed.

Do Catholics outnumber adherents of other Christian denominations and other faiths in Governor Willie Obiano's cabinet and generally in the public service of the State? Probably so. It would be imbalanced, incongruous and unjust if this was not the case. The reason is simple. First, the United Nations estimates there are one billion, one hundred and fifty million Catholics worldwide as against six hundred million Protestants and Anglicans. And according to Wikipedia Encyclopedia (online edition), Nigeria's seventy million Christians comprises thirty – nine million Catholics, eighteen million Anglicans and others. Wikipedia goes further to note: 'Catholicism dominates the Igbo and closely related areas. Yahoo Search corroborates this position with PBS News Hour entry: 'The majority of Nigeria's Christian population is Roman Catholic….Roman Catholics and Methodists dominate in south easterly Igboland.'

Could it be that the purveyors of denominational marginalization are not aware of these salient facts? It is difficult to believe that these truths are not known to the religious activists in our midst. To underscore the inevitable numerical superiority of Catholics in Anambra State, let it be noted that even in the administration of Chinwoke Mbadinuju – a Pentecostal Pastor – Catholics still dominated in the political and civil service positions.

The notion of religious equality which is guaranteed by Section 42 of the amended 1999 Constitution should be situated in its proper context. The provision that no religion is superior to the other cannot be construed to mean equality of religions by fiat of uniform growth. There will always be disparity in the number of adherents of religions just as we have with the population of nations, towns and families. Arising from this unequal numerical strength, the visibility of religious groups in the public consciousness is also bound to vary. The greater prominence of some religions or denominations based on their numerical superiority cannot be held to be an infraction of either the letter or the spirit of the constitution. The influences religions may exert in the secular society are often incidental to the propagation of their faith and not awarded by any untoward means.

The just way to handle majority – minority relations does not lie in forced equalization which oppresses the majority. The only healthy framework for mediating such situations is the rule of fairness. Every segment of society is to be accommodated within the limits of merit and need.

Minority status does not denote inferiority. It is a relative term and depends very much on perception. It bears emphasizing that religious affiliation is not a condition for citizenship rights in Nigeria, Anambra State inclusive. The emergence of Barack Obama, against all odds as President of the United States reminds us that competence and determination are what it takes to achieve goals, not social labels.

For majority of citizens of Anambra State, Chief Obiano comes across as a large – hearted leader committed to giving everyone his due. The Governor's appointment of a northerner as a special adviser and an indigene of Enugu State as Senior Special Assistant offer a peep into his liberal sense of leadership. Ndi Anambra are also agreed that Willie is working. They appreciate and look forward to continuation of value addition in the areas of security, agriculture, environment, health, infrastructure and other spheres presently being undertaken by the Obiano administration. It is a mission in which the people of Anambra State are all stakeholders. This supportive role of the people cannot be achieved by resort to rumours; sowing seeds of suspicion and fanning embers of discord.

Ifeanyi Afuba writes from Nimo

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