• ‘How truce bids by Oba Tejuoso, CCN, others failed’
By Festus Ahon
Ezekiel Okorode, a lawyer, is the Vice –Lay President of Warri Diocese of the African Church. In this interview, Okorode speaks on the crisis rocking the church. Excerpts:
On May 25, a publication by a national daily held a counter position to Vanguard’s of June 1 which shows all is not well with the African Church. What is the crisis about?
I have been very reluctant to talk about these issues to the media as it will expose our internal issues to the outside world. But in the face of the annoying Punch publication which is a deliberate attempt to intimidate the minority members and malign the Primate, His Eminence, Most Rev, Dr Emmanuel Josiah Udofia, there is need to set the records straight. The root cause of the crisis is the tenure of the Primate which some powerful persons want to cut short.
It is simply oppression of the minority members borne out of the misconception of the majority members who believe erroneously that they own the church to the exclusion of the minority members who they see as attachment. Since the establishment of the African Church close to 120 years ago, no priest from outside the Yoruba tribe or extraction has headed the church.
It has been the Yoruba all the way and the minorities never complained until the present Primate (a non–Yoruba), by stroke of luck, was elected in a keenly contested election in 2009 which he won by a margin of two votes and has spent 11 years in office, the last one year in crisis and a divided church. He celebrated his 11th year on May 30, 2020.
But they said he retired because he has spent 10 years in office as provided under the church constitution?
That is the crux of the matter. That assertion is wrong. The Primate is not retired as he will be due for retirement in May 2024 when he will turn 65 years as provided for under the 1998 Constitution and under which he took his oath of office. He has four more years to go and it beats me hollow why they can no longer tolerate him for the next four years.
The supreme and highest organ of the church hitherto endorsed and ratified a General Committee Agreement to the effect that the provision relating to the tenure of the Primate, as contained in the 2014 Constitution, will not affect the incumbent Primate and, therefore, by the combined effect of these provisions, he has four more years to go. The issue is pending before a High Court of Delta State and the Court of Appeal Asaba and Lagos Divisions respectively. So it is subjudice and I have to be careful.
So why are they trying to undermine /jettison the decision of the Conference?
They say the Conference Agreement duly ratified is inconsistent with the provision of the 2014 Constitution and therefore void. But it will interest you to know that before now, their argument was that the Conference never reached such a decision. But when confronted with the duly documented Conference Agreement, which fixed the incumbent Primate’s retirement at 65 years, they reversed themselves and now argued that though they acknowledged and agreed that the recommendation of the committee was approved and ratified by the Conference, it is not contained in the 2014 Constitution lodged at the Corporate Affairs Commission and, therefore, not binding on the church. What an inconsistency and insincerity.
Now, assuming, without conceding that their position is even correct, which is not, should Christians not respect agreement reached? They even forget that the African Church is not governed solely by the Constitution but together with resolutions and conventions/agreement reached at Conferences, so why restrict your argument to only the constitution? What about decisions reached by resolutions at General Committees and Conferences not contained in the 2014 Constitution that we have been implementing? Should we now clamor and declare them unconstitutional and be discarded? Their attitude is the height of insincerity, it is repulsive and despicable.
The interest of the church must come first at all times and not the selfish interest of any individual. There is simply more to it than meets the eyes.
What is your response to the argument that the Warri court order, as they call it, has expired?
Pure ignorance is at play. I stumbled on some of these arguments on Facebook and on different platforms and I just marvel at the deep level of ungodliness and ignorance displayed by some members including Ministers and those who claim to be learned. A lawyer before commenting on any court order must have studied it carefully. For instance, they argue that the order restraining Archbishop J.O.O Abbe has expired which is not correct.
I don’t think any of them is familiar or has even seen the provisions relating to the granting of interlocutory orders, expiration, vacation, extension and the inherent powers of the presiding Judge to preserve the subject matter before it (Res) under the extant Delta State High Court Civil Procedure Rules.
What do the rules provide in that respect?
The Delta State High Court Civil Procedure Rules made provisions for the grant of interim orders in a situation of extreme urgency vide ex parte application like other High Courts Civil Procedure Rules with provision for extension of such orders by the court in the interest of justice including powers to make further orders if necessary.
The position in the instant case is that the Delta State High Court duly extended the order restraining Archbishop, J.O.O Abbe after considering the applications brought by Dr Udofia and co-claimants in that suit for its extension as provided by the rules and the court graciously extended the orders. The court also made a further order specifically that Archbishop J.O.O Abbe “MUST not parade himself as Primate-elect pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice”
The motion is still pending before the High Court that made the said order, an order they even appealed but abandoned in order to frustrate the case. So why appeal against an expired order? Those making noise on Facebook are neophytes. The truth is that the extension of the interim order is even a surplus as the injunctive order as made is PENDING THE HEARING AND DETERMINATION OF THE MOTION ON NOTICE and the motion has not been determined by the court.
What is your response to another argument that they got judgment from the Federal High Court removing Primate Udofia?
That’s not correct, those behind this argument have not even seen a copy of the judgment they are interpreting but argue invacuo. But in any event, we have appealed the judgment because we totally disagree with it for whatever it is worth.
More so, the Delta State High Court orders, which restrained them, came long before their judgment and they adequately protect the office of the Primate (Dr E.J.Udofia) and restrain Archbishop Abbe, and the defendants in that suit, from doing anything injurious or inimical to the rights, duties, obligations and/or benefits of Dr Udofia as Primate.
Some of them even argued strenuously but erroneously that the Federal High Court judgment is superior to the Delta State High Court order. The Federal and State High Courts are equal courts, they are courts of coordinate jurisdiction and the Federal High Court order cannot override that of the State High Court. The Delta State High Court orders are intact, first in time, valid, subsisting and binding on them and must be obeyed until set aside.
But the Archbishop, having been enthroned as Primate, is it not conclusive?
No, not at all, the enthronement was ill-advised and a blunder. In a normal situation, it is conclusive, but in this situation, it is not because it is abnormal and illegal as it was done in flagrant violation of subsisting court orders which hitherto restrained them from enthroning Archbishop Abbe. You cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand, it will surely collapse. Even then, the enthronement lacks credibility.
They got a hurriedly delivered judgment on Friday, March 20 between 5 and 6pm, brought in a retired Primate, against all known Episcopal order, and enthroned Archbishop Abbe two days later. Why the rush? What were they scared of and does this not raise credibility issue on the whole exercise? This enthronement has no foundation, it will, therefore, collapse.
The enthronement of a new Primate is not a ceremony you rush, so what was the urgency? What even added to this problem is the bringing in of a retired Primate to hand over power to an illegal Primate. Our highly respected father, His Eminence, Dr A. Onanuga, retired Baba, dusted his robe/regalia to enthrone somebody restrained by court instead of finding a way to bring the feuding parties together.
But the Yoruba seem to be stoutly in support of the enthronement?
That is not completely true. The well-meaning ones are against the few who are fanning the ember of discord in the church. The whole thing is being driven by few persons who are well connected but are using their connection and powers wrongly. A little patience would have benefitted Archbishop Abbe more as he is in a quandary now.
But we gathered that Archbishop Abbe is from the South-South, specifically Edo State?
I don’t know much about his background. But I know the name Osayande is an Edo name and I also saw him with the governor of Edo when he visited the state Government House parading himself as Primate-elect in defiance of court orders. But ask him if he has any African Church anywhere in Edo State. The few African Church parishes in Edo are the ones established solely by the Warri Diocese. Not having an African Church in his home town is even a minus for Archbishop Abbe. He should go and establish an African Church in his village in Edo before he aspires to be Primate of African Church.
What do you think is responsible for this their attitude?
It is the erroneous thinking that they own the church. This wrong feeling is innate in most of them and it has to stop at this point. They forgot that the church belongs to Christ who is the foundation of the church and not any mortal being. Until they see everybody as equal stakeholders, peace may continue to elude the church.
But they accepted and treated Udofia nicely upon being elected as Primate 10 years ago?
That is not completely correct. Initially he was well liked and majority still loves him, but I think his Eminence will be the right person to answer that question, but for me he was never treated with the respect deserving of a Primate in all facets and I will mention an instance. Just before the Primate relocated to the South when they made Lagos unbearable for him, I overhead a very high national officer making some repulsive remark about the Primate and I will quote him verbatim “…we gathered that the Primate wants to pack and leave Lagos, but you better advise him against it, but if he wants to pack, he can pack, but he should leave our car for us but he will suffer, is he a man of God…? Oma se o!”
Just imagine the rubbish a very high national officer who is presently a member of the church management emitted from his mouth. His Eminence, Dr E.J Udofia, is humility personified. So talking from this background, the respect is just lips service all the while.
You keep talking about them claiming ownership of the church. Is that what they say?
By their actions and utterances, YES! They feel they are superior and they say it at every given opportunity; it has been going on and I will give you an instance that happened in 2018. The 2018 General Conference was scheduled to take place in Ughelli Diocese and it was an election Conference.
But just because some powerful persons of the Yoruba extraction have vested interest/ hidden agenda, it was forcefully taken away from Ughelli Diocese and the hosting rights given to Ijebu Diocese contrary to the schedule of hosting and this generated problem. They openly insulted members of the Ughelli Diocese, branded Ughelli as a crime infested town and some of them even told us that we are not equal stakeholders and it resulted to the institution of an action in court.
But happily before it could degenerate further, the elders stepped in and prevailed on the aggrieved to sheath their sword for the peace and unity of the church. We obeyed and the case was withdrawn from court and they had their way without pacifying the actual owners of the hosting rights.
So what is the legal status of all the structures Udofia put in place?
That issue was adequately addressed in our rejoinder of June 1, 2020 in Vanguard. All the actions/structures, promotions, elevation, consecrations done by Udofia stand and remain valid as they were legally, procedurally and properly done.
So are the cases still pending in court and what is their status?
Yes, at the High Court of Delta State and the Court of Appeal Benin and Lagos Divisions.
In their publication, they warned against any attempt to balkanize or divide the church and change the name. Is there any plan to change the name of the church?
That statement is not only reckless but also an insult to us as a people. That statement is borne out of false belief, illusion and misconception that they own the African Church. It’s a confirmation of the fact that they see us as conquered people, an appendage whose rights can be trampled upon at will but they are wrong and the earlier they wake up from their deep slumber, the better. Have they not balkanized the church by their actions?
At the beginning of the issue, they even asked us to leave if we so desired because they felt we are not important but insignificant, so why the threats now? As for change of the name of the church, I am not aware of any such plan, though the situation is fragile presently but I strongly believe God is in control.
They should know by now that the issue at stake is not solely about the person of Dr E.J.Udofia but also about the emancipation of the long marginalized and oppressed minority members of the church. It is about the survival of the minority in the midst of the oppression by the majority tribe and I look fervently towards an African Church where the rights and privileges of the minorities will not be trampled upon at will but seen as equals.
We gathered reliably that they are even boasting that they will take over churches in our territories because all the churches are their properties and I ask, which property? The ones they built or the ones built by the indigenous people and committed individuals? We are waiting.
What is the way out, any peace move? Can’t this matter be resolved out of court?
Yes! But we are very suspicious of them, because if they are sincere, why go to the press? What is the justification for that provocative publication in Punch newspaper? But in all these, we are open to settlement and let’s hope it works as previous peace meetings held failed simply because of their intransigence as they see us as less mortals and conquered people.
I will mention few instances. One, His Royal Majesty, Oba S.K.A Adedoyin, a respected monarch and an erstwhile Lay President, suggested a meeting of selected elders of the church to find a way out. The meeting was convened with the highly respected and God-fearing Oba, Dr A.A.Tejuoso, in attendance and an agreement was reached after deliberations that lasted over seven hours wherein the Primate made huge concession for the peace and unity of the church but that agreement was painfully scuttled by them.
Two, foremost Christian body, Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN), also waded into the matter. The meeting was presided over by the Prelate of the Methodist Church, His Eminence, Dr. S. Uche, with other respected heads of churches in attendance; again they refused to meet with us. They looked down on us, disrespected CCN as they sent message across to the panel that they will not meet with us because they didn’t have the mandate to so do after we took pains to travel from different parts of the country to attend that meeting in Abuja because they see us as second class citizens in the African Church, a conquered people but they are wrong.
Anyway, some persons with the interest of the church at heart are actually working assiduously towards achieving a lasting peace. For genuine peace to be achieved, they must respect the minority members of the church that cut across the South/South, Middle Belt and part of the North. They must see us as equal stakeholders, co-workers in the vineyard of the most high God and do away with that erroneous believe that they are superior.
They don’t own the church. Maybe the family of our respected founder, Elder J.K. Coker, who worked tirelessly to ensure the spread of the African Church should rise up now and claim ownership of the entire church as their personal property.
On our side, we are ready to get over this as we are looking forward towards seeing a better and united and stronger African Church where the minorities’ laities and ministers can dream and realize those dreams. In the midst of this temporal setback, I have the conviction that it will all end in praise and the church will come out stronger and better to the shame of the devil and glory to the God as heavens’ light shall guide us aright.