By Rev Zacheus Iloegbu
The impression given by a couple of write-ups in both the traditional and social media is that the Diocese on the Niger, which is the official name of the Anglican Diocese of Onitsha, is that the ecclesiastical body and the Anambra State government are embroiled in a controversy over the ownership of a swath of land on which Omu Nwagboka Memorial Primary School and Crowther Memorial Primary School are located in Onitsha. The impression is misleading. There is no problem whatsoever between the diocese and any government in Nigeria over the ownership of any school or any asset.
The so-called problem is an unnecessary controversy started by Bishop Owen Nwokolo and orchestrated by his wife. They are supported by a handful of priests who are their sidekicks. Our bishop has the mindset of a typical Nigerian politician. His wife is something else, but this is a story for another day. Over 90% of priests in our diocese are not with them in this macabre dance. We have a moral duty to ensure that our diocese, the oldest in the South East, does not become an object of ridicule. It offends good conscience and morals to wake one morning and lay claim to the ownership of a large piece of land and the property on it.
The unnecessary controversy began when the church asked Anambra State Deputy Governor Nkem Okeke a few months ago for permission to conduct weekly midweek service in Crowther Memorial Primary School. Dr Okeke, a practising Anglican of the finest hue, obliged. It was the right thing to do. But the church strangely began to lay the foundation for a large building. It has been said that it began the foundation surreptitiously, that is, in the dead of the night.
The fact that our priests, acting on the instructions of Bishop Nwokolo, requested Deputy Governor Okeke for permission for a weekly midweek service in the primary school shows clearly that the place does not belong to the diocese. In other words, our representatives went to the state government for consent for worship because we knew that the school is not ours. You seek permission of this nature only from the authentic owners, in this case the state government.
If Bishop Nwokolo wants to have a regular midweek service or any service at all in a school which belongs to the Diocese on the Niger like Dennis Memorial Grammar School in Onitsha or the Anglican Girls’ Secondary School, also in Onitsha, will he go to Deputy Governor Okeke or any government official for permission? Of course, he will not.
There is no record that the Diocese on the Niger has ever employed any teacher or any non-teaching staff member in Crowther Memorial Primary School. Nor are there records that the pupils have ever been entrusted to our care. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to sustain the argument that the school has ever been what Americans call a parochial school, that is to say, a school owned by any church.
The temptation to rely on the name to lay claim to the ownership of Crowther Memorial Primary School is a cheap thing to do. It is disingenuous to claim any place or asset based on the name. President Olusegun Obasano named a substantial part of the airport road in Abuja after American President Bill Clinton when he visited Nigeria in the twilight of his presidency in 2004. Can the Clinton family claim ownership of the area? Can the American Embassy claim that the Bill Clinton Drive in Abuja now belongs to the American government?
Perhaps it is necessary to explain at this juncture how the twin-primary schools on the land which Nwokolo is claiming came about their names. Omu Nwagboka was the name of probably the most powerful and famous woman leader in Onitsha history. Those of us from Onitsha and environs—up to Ogwashi Ukwu in present day Delta State—are familiar with the title of Omu which female leaders bear. A lot of our people believe that until recently the people of Ogwashi Ukwu, for instance, did not have kings but were led by powerful women who took the title of omu. Hence, the Local Authority Elementary School in Onitsha, which was established during the British colonial days, was renamed Omu Nwagboka Memorial Primary School after our country gained independence in 1960.
As the school’s pupil population grew in leaps and bounds, another primary school was created out of it. The new school was named after Bishop Ajayi Crowther, the first Nigerian missionary to land in Onitsha, specifically where the school is located. The practice of creating schools out of the existing ones and have both the old and new ones co-exist in the same premises is a common thing in government-owned schools throughout Nigeria. But the practice does not obtain in faith-based educational institutions
A top Anambra State government official was recently quoted to have requested the Diocese on the Niger to produce documents showing that the land in question belongs to it. The Anglican Church is well organized and has so many lawyers in our hierarchy who ensure that things like the registration of church’s assets are done properly. It will be fatal to their case if the ecclesiastical authorities cannot produce such documents. Not even one person will give them the benefit of the doubt. The truth is that the land originally belonged to the famous Ekwerekwu family of Onitsha.
The Diocese on the Niger should address itself to genuine challenges of today’s world, rather spend time and resources on inciting the congregation against the government and even the Catholic Church which, as Americans would say, have no dog in the fight over land ownership. The Universal Basic Education (UBE) has just published its 2018 ranking of secondary schools in Nigeria, and it is dominated by Catholic schools, including Christ the King College, Onitsha. Anglican schools, including DMGS in Onitsha, are nowhere. Thanks to the leadership of Bishop Nwokolo.
It is time for the Diocese on the Niger to get serious. All these histrionics and incitement and shouts of religious persecution are dishonest. Peaceful co-existence is the way to go. And honesty remains the best policy, all the more so in the church.