If I Were Bishop Johnson Ekwe

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Mike Aniegboka

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| By Mike Aniegboka |

IF I were Bishop Johnson Ekwe, the Anglican Bishop of Niger-West Diocese with headquarters at Umueri in Anambra East Local Government Area of Anambra State, I would handle the issue of where to build the Bishop’s Court differently because of a staccato of reasons.

Niger-West is a relatively new diocese, having been carved out of the old Diocese on the Niger, Onitsha in 2008 along with Mbamili Diocese which headquarters is Iyiora Anam where the Bishop’s Court is also domiciled.

The second Bishop to preside over Niger-West, Rt. Rev. Johnson Ekwe, formerly an Army Chaplain, was consecrated Bishop of this diocese on 26th April, 2015 as its second Bishop following the retirement of the pioneer Bishop, Rt. Rev. (Professor) Anthony Nkwoka.

Midway into the Episcopacy of Prof. Nkwoka, the idea of building a Bishop’s Court was mooted. Earlier (in tune with the tradition of the Anglican Church and indeed all churches), Umueri Community had provided 20 plots of land for the building of the Bishop’s Court of Niger-West.

Because of the peculiar circumstances of Niger-West Diocese, an undue element of politics crept into the building of the Bishop Court. Specifically, the pioneer Bishop-Rev. (Prof.) Nkwoka wanted to take this edifice to Aguleri, a neighbouring community, but this move hit a brick wall because of the age-old rivalry and strained relationship between Aguleri and Umueri.

A tip of the iceberg is offered thus: In spite of the long years of friendships, inter-marriages, business partnerships and “neighbourliness”, Aguleri and Umueri people have been at daggers-drawn with each other.

The relationship between the two communities is simply reminiscent of that between Ife and Modakeke in the South Western part of Nigeria; in fact, the former is worse than the latter. It is a fact that Aguleri-Umueri land dispute is the single most-long-lasting legal Suit in the whole of Nigeria’s judicial firmament! This matter, begun before Nigeria gained political independence in 1960, was heard at the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. After Independence, the matter was re-started, and it went from the High Court, through Appeal Court, Enugu to the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1984. What was the verdict? No victor, no vanquished! The adjudication of this case at the Supreme Court has not brought about peace to the beleaguered Otu-Ocha area where Aguleri people live on one side and Umueri on the other simply separated by the major road (Otu-Ocha-Oye Agu Road).

Consequently every so often, there would be skirmishes between two communities perhaps because, contrary to the admonition of the Supreme Court 32 years ago, the National Boundaries Commission, has not demarcated boundaries between the two communities.

Efforts made by the Peace Committee jointly set up by Aguleri and Umueri did not bring about the much-needed peace as it was deadlocked because neither side was ready to make sacrifices.

Little wonder, therefore, that in 1995, Aguleri invaded Umueri following the foray of an Umueri man into a parcel of land Aguleri considered to be theirs. Several lives were lost; a lot of houses were destroyed, while the wounded were innumerable on the part of Umueri people who, as it were, were taken unawares. Government white paper issued by the Chinwoke Mbadinuju Administration seriously indicted Aguleri, recommending far-reaching steps to prevent a recurrence, but the implementation of these recommendations were torpedoed by Aguleri.

Expectedly, the feeling of hurt and loss forced the people of Umueri to attack Aguleri in 1999 during the burial of the Aguleri man considered to be the ring-leader of the 1995 mayhem. If the losses suffered by the two communities in 1995 were relatively little, those recorded in the 1999 hostilities were colossal. All the churches in Umueri including St. Gabriel’s Anglican Church which was the first Christian Worship Centre in the whole of the old Omabala area (comprising present-day Anambra East, Anambra West, Oyi, Ayamelum and some parts of Awka North Local Government Areas) was raised to the ground.

The destruction was so barbaric, wicked and so un-christianlike that a visiting, bewildered President (as he then was) Olusegun Obasanjo sought to find out from on-lookers at Umueri Square (Ama Umueri) whether the “Vandals” were also fighting God.

This spirit of enmity pervading the affairs of Aguleri and Umueri led the former into protesting their inclusion in Diocese of Niger-West when the diocese was created. Their reason “Aguleri did not want to have anything to do with Umueri.”

In fact the Aguleri spokesman at a reconciliation meeting convened by the then Presiding Bishop of Diocese on the Niger (the mother Diocese of Niger-West), Rt. Rev. Ken Sandy was the now late James Nweke. James Nweke, an Aguleri man, was the carpenter who roofed no less than one-third of the houses built by Umueri people before the Nigerian Civil War broke out. He also married an Umueri woman who bore him several children. Now the same James who Umueri landlords patronized with relish, did not kill him while he went to the remotest parts of the community to ply his trade, could in spite of his business relationship with Umueri people and in spite of his marriage to an Umueri woman (though they were later separated following constant quarrels), had the effrontery to tell Bishop Ken Sandy (now retired) at the reconciliation meeting that “we (Aguleri people) do not want to be under Umueri people’s Diocese; they hate us!” This writer was present at that meeting; and of course, my late father was one of the people whose houses were roofed by the said James Nweke, to whom sometimes, my mother would offer food and he would eat at that time!

The foregoing and several other instances are simply the reasons I would have retained the Bishop’s court of Niger-West Diocese in Umueri if I were Bishop Johnson Ekwe. The animosity, the venom and the rivalry which characterize the perception of the Umueri man by the Aguleri man and vice-versa, make it imperative that any reasonable person would not take any action that would exacerbate an already volatile situation. A highly-placed cleric of the status of a Bishop should not “experiment” what he calls the “Christian spirit/unity” with Aguleri and Umueri people.

Can Bishop Ekwe in all good conscience claim that he does not know that between Aguleri and Umueri, there is no love lost? The Aguleri/Umueri brouhaha is internationally known; that was why some people who were running from persecution (from the 1999 war) were offered asylum in some parts of Europe and America. The internet was and is still replete with horrors of the war while innumerable houses destroyed during the war still conspicuously dot Umueri.

Assuming a Bishop Ekwe who hails from Nenwe in Enugu State did not know about the proverbial hostility between Aguleri and Umueri, he should have been adequately educated if only he had consulted properly – sounded out the Diocesan Council, Elders of Umueri, the Umueri Anglican Community, etc. instead of unilaterally sneaking into Aguleri to lay the foundation of the Bishop’s Court and worse still, chiding Umueri Anglicans “for daring to report the matter to the Primate”, who to use his very words, “cannot dictate to him from Abuja” Tufiakwa!

There is even a more compelling reason for me to have behaved otherwise if I were Bishop Johnson Ekwe: throughout history, the Diocesan headquarters hosts the Cathedral and the Bishop’s Court simultaneously. The same scenario is found throughout Anambra State if one wants to narrow down. The experiment being performed by Bishop Ekwe has not been done anywhere else. The Diocese on the Niger at Onitsha has the Cathedral and the Bishop’s Court in Onitsha; the same thing applies to Awka, Aguata, Ogbaru, Amichi, Nnewi and Ihiala Dioceses.

Why does Bishop Johnson Ekwe want to be labeled a deviant? Why does he want to dent his image, ridicule his Episcopacy, rubbish his vocation and cause another edition of the Aguleri-Umueri war? Will the Anglican Church stand aloof with fingers crossed, legs entwined and allow him to paint her in terrible light? Will the peaceful easy-going Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh, Primate of Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) allow this to happen? Only time will tell!

— May 9, 2016 @ 17:25 GMT

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