By Sam Eyoboka
THE Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, will in June meet to determine who leads the august all Christian body in the next three years. The National Assembly, the highest policy making organ of the association, is expected to rely heavily on the recommendations of the National Executive Committee, NEC, which meets for two days from tomorrow at the Ecumenical Centre, Abuja to make a choice between three candidates.
The NECâ€™s choice will also depend on the recommendation of the Electoral College set up earlier for the sole purpose of choosing from among the three candidates who include Archbishop John Onaiyekan, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor and Archbishop Daniel Okoh.
Archbishop Onaiyekan, who is seeking re-election, represents the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, CSN, his deputy; Archbishop Okoh represents the African Instituted Churches while Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor as the National President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, represents the CPFN/PFN bloc.
The first tier of the 3-tier elections scheduled for penultimate Thursday in Abuja to choose the next president of CAN, could not deliberate as a result of sharp disagreements between the 15-member Electoral College. The exercise was therefore rescheduled for April 19, the same day the National Executive Council, NEC, was expected to receive the recommendations of the Electoral College.
CAN National Secretary-General, Engineer Samuel Salifu confirmed that the Electoral College met, saying only that he was not part of the deliberations and could not speak on the outcome, but assured that members will make their findings known to NEC in April.
A source close to the CAN National Secretariat told our reporter that an electoral college made up of 15 delegates representing the five blocs which was constituted to recommend two persons out of the three candidates for the post of the National President was divided and could not agree on the electoral process.
According to the CAN constitution, the three candidates will go through the Electoral College and will make its recommendations to the National Executive Council of CAN which is expected to meet in April to deliberate on the recommendation.
The NEC, according to the constitution, is expected to make its recommendation to the National Assembly of the Association which has the final authority to ratify who becomes the next national president of CAN.
CAN was set up in 1976 to serve as a platform for unity among the different churches, to promote understanding, peace and unity among the various peoples and strata of society in the country and to act as a liaison committee through consultation and make common statement and actions for the common good. It was also expected to act as a watch dog of the spiritual and moral welfare of the nation.
According to the CAN prevailing constitution which was signed into law by the then CAN president Most Rev. Akinola on June 17, 2004, nominations to the office of president and vice president shall be by an electoral college made up of 15 spiritual leaders, each of whom must not be below the rank of a bishop or its equivalent selected from the five pillars of Association. Each of the five groups is expected to produce three members.
It will be recalled that the leadership of the umbrella body of Christians had rotated between the Catholic Secretariat of Church and the Christian Council of Nigeria, CCN made up of the Church of Nigeria, (Anglican Communion), the Methodist Church and others.
Onaiyekan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Abuja defeated the immediate past Anglican Primate, Most Rev. Peter Jasper Akinola by 72 votes as against Akinolaâ€™s 33 to become the fourth CAN president on June 19, 2007 while the president of the Organisation of African Instituted Churches, Archbishop Daniel Okoh is the associationâ€™s vice president.
Itâ€™s on record that Primate Akinola declined to serve as the Vice President in accordance with the CAN constitution.
Feelers reaching our newsroom indicate that one cardinal factor that might determine who becomes the next president is likely to be the perennial religious unrest in the North, as Christians in that region believe that the current leadership has done very little to alleviate their sufferings as they continually come under attack by Muslim fundamentalists in the North.
Northern Christians who had been at the receiving end of all violent attacks are not happy with the current leadership of CAN, who they believe had not adequately represented their interest all through these years when their kith and kin were mauled while their places of worship were torched by Islamic fundamentalists.
Archbishop Okoh, General Superintendent of Christ Holy Church International, CHCI and the president of Organisation of African Instituted Churches, OAIC, can be regarded as the underdog in this election who may be satisfied retaining his vice presidential position.
He became Vice President in 2007 when the then outgoing CAN president, Archbishop Akinola who came second in the polls declined to serve as a vice president in accordance with the Associationâ€™s constitution. Okoh thereafter defeated the then PFN president, Bishop Mike Okonkwo by 51 votes to 10 votes to clinch the position. The CHCI helmsman stands a chance of returning as vice president if he pinches his tent with Pastor Oritsejafor, because if the latter defeats Onaiyekan, the Abuja Catholic Archbishop may not accept to serve as vice president.
On the contrary, if the current president wins and Oritsejafor becomes a runner-up, Okoh will lose out.
On the other hand, the incumbent president, Onaiyekan may not have appreciated the enormity of the responsibility entrusted upon him as the president of the prestigious Christian body as he was said to have confided in some close associates that if he had his way, he would rather vote for the candidacy of Pastor Oritsejafor. He has told some aides that if â€˜peopleâ€™ would let him be, he would have preferred to concentrate on his Catholic duties. Who is pressurising him, he didnâ€™t say.
Northern Christians are particularly piqued that the current CAN leadership is spineless and had consistently seen the incessant violent clashes as political and ethnic crises, rather than religious. The question they all want Onaiyekan to answer is: â€œWhy has the killing and burning of houses been restricted to churches and mosques and not political offices?â€ Believing that itâ€™s time for everybody to desperately seek peace, kindness and holiness in a divinely endowed country like Nigeria, Northern Christians, more than any other group in the Association, are clamouring for a paradigm shift. They want to prop up somebody who may appreciate their problem and therefore adequately represent them in accordance with the objectives of the Association and give them a ray of hope that one day they would be allowed to worship God without let or hindrance.
According to majority of the Northern Christians, despite the series of violent clashes in different parts of the North, the CAN leadership had only visited the area twice and on each of the occasion it was on the platform of NIREC. â€œWe can no longer allow our pastors and relations to be killed on a daily basis and some persons are playing politics with our lives. They kill our relations, members and burn our places of worship and the only voice who should speak for us, says it is ethnicity. No! We are no longer comfortable with such a leader who is not sensitive to the plight of his subjects,â€ one of the local leaders in Maiduguri told our reporter on phone yesterday, stressing that the CAN presidency must first of all be a leader of Christians before being a joint chairman of the inter-religious body, NIREC. His chances are slim except that he still can wield the power of incumbency.
The position of Oritsejafor on the perennial violent eruptions in the North is very well known though it is not popular with very powerful people. To him, the violent killing of pastors and other innocent Christians in parts of the North is religiously motivated. â€œIf not, why are political party offices not targeted? If the crisis is political and ethnic why pastors and their followers are the prime target always?â€ he had argued.
On five occasions, he had lead different delegations of Christian sympathizers to Maiduguri, Jos and Bauchi with not just a message of hope, but with relief materials for the victims of the different crises in these places. The PFN deputy president in charge of North East, Rev. Steve Agbana told our reporter that Oritsejafor remains the only Christian leader at the national level, to visit Maiduguri to empathize with the victims of the Boko Haram mayhem of last year. He was there on Easter Monday with relief materials where he also donated the sum of N3 million to them.
He appears to be the most favoured as he apparently is the choice of the North as well as the South. Most Christians today are yearning for a Christian Association that will assert itself and ensure that there is freedom of worship in any part of the country and not one that will look the other way when its house is on fire. Itâ€™s true the Bible talks of turning the other cheek, but when a people had turned both cheeks there will be no other cheek to turn.
One cannot rule out the influence of external forces in an election of this nature though. People are said to be already eliciting the support of politicians for elections into a purely spiritual assemblage. But will Christians allow the influence of external forces to determine who leads them? Events of the next few days will determine that.