Wednesday, 6 November 2013
Storm in Catholic Church
■ Community alleges victmisation, intimidation of indigenous priest
By HENRY UMAHI
St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Mmaku, Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State, is like a flock without shepherd. For some months, no priest has come to conduct mass there, hence, the parishioners have resorted to self-help, doing their thing their own way.
Daily Sun arrived at the Church at about 10.17am on Sunday, October 13 and saw the unusual scenario playing out. Stepping into the auditorium, it was easy to notice that something was amiss.
The orderliness and solemnity that usually characterised worship services in the Catholic Church were somewhat lacking. The pulpit was vacant, while the instruments of worship, such as candles and Holy Eucharist, were not in place. No priest was in church, just as mass servers were nowhere to be found. A woman lay leader was handling proceedings that day.
Instructively, there was no adult male in the congregation. Only elderly and not-so-young women and children were inside the auditorium. It was gathered that youths and men shun the church to avoid being arrested by policemen, who had allegedly laid a siege to the community.
A notice was posted on one of the doors, saying: “We condemn in strong terms the sacrilegious arrest of our priest at morning mass at the altar of most high God by Nigerian policemen (State CID Enugu).”
Offering insight into the state of St. Theresa’s parish, Mmaku, a parishioner, Sister Doris Ani, said: “No priest conducted mass for us today because our parish priest, Rev Fr. James Ani, was taken to the State CID, Enugu. From the State CID, Fr Ani was taken to Enugu prisons. That was why there was no priest to conduct service for us today.”
She added: “All the allegations being made against Fr Ani are all lies. He was born and bred here. He was also ordained in this community, so we know him very well. Our people know that all the allegations against him were made in bad faith. He is not a thief; he never stole anything.”
The Mmaku Catholic community, it was gathered, had been swirling in crises of immense proportion for about four years now. The crises reached a crescendo on Saturday, September 21 when Rev Fr. Ani, who was celebrating morning Mass, was attacked on the pulpit. He was stripped naked, beaten mercilessly, handcuffed and bundled into a vehicle by policemen from the Enugu Police Command, Criminal Investigation Department.
Priest in the dock
The priest has been remanded in Enugu Prisons since Tuesday, September 25. He is one of the 1, 202 Awaiting Trial Male (ATM) in the facility holding 81 convicts.
Daily Sun met Fr. Ani at the prisons on October 13 and he looked calm. But when he spoke, there was pain and anguish in his voice. Narrating his journey to the prison, Fr. Ani said that he was arrested while celebrating mass on the pulpit on September 21 when armed policemen invaded the church and the community. According to him, he was thoroughly dehumanised, humiliated and brutalised.
He said: “The policemen stormed the church while I was on the altar and ordered me to remove my clothes otherwise, they will shoot me. So, they stripped me naked and beat me blue and black. They handcuffed me behind my back and threw me into their vehicle. I pleaded with them to stop beating me but they beat me the more. When we got to the station, they threw me on the ground and one of them, a woman, put sand into my mouth. Some of them spat on me and called me all sorts of names.”
Asked what he meant by being stripped naked, the priest said that he was as naked as Adam, when he was taken from the altar and brought to the State CID.
Indeed, Fr. Ani and some parishioners, including Ugwu Marcel (31), Obasi Felix (60), Nobert Eke, Udeorji Fabian (30), Maduabuchi Mgbeji (30) and Solomon Udeafor (29) are in Enugu prison. They were recently arraigned on a four-count charge in the Magistrate’s Court of Enugu State, in Enugu North Magisterial District vide charge no: MEN/531c/2013. It reads: Count 1: “That you Rev. Fr. James Ani ‘m,’ Ugwu Marcel ‘m,’ Obasi Felix ‘m,’ Nobert Eke ‘m’ and others at large on 18th day of September, 2013 at about 1600hrs at Imeohia Mmaku village in Awgu magisterial district while armed with weapons such as cutlasses, machetes and sticks attempted unlawfully to kill one Inspector Cosmos Nzeribe and a team of police officers attached to police headquarters Enugu in such a nature as to be likely to endanger human life and you hereby committed an offence and punishable under section 275 (a) of the criminal code, cap 30, vol.ii, revised laws of Enugu State of Nigeria 2004.
“Count II: That you (the above mentioned) and others now at large on the afore said date, place and time and the aforementioned magisterial district while armed with offensive weapons such as cutlasses, machetes and sticks unlawfully assaulted one Inspector Cosmos Nzeribe and a team of officers with intent to commit felony therein or prevent the lawful arrest of you and others you thereby committed an offence and punishable under section 259 (a) of the criminal code cap 30, vol. ii of the revised laws of Enugu State of Nigeria 2004.
“Count III: That you (names mentioned above) on the aforementioned date, place and time in the aforesaid magisterial district did willfully and unlawfully damaged a Toyota Corolla car no. KPP 450 XA valued at about N450, 000 with the intention to render it useless the property of Egbucha Beluolisa and you thereby committed offence and punishable under section 415 (6) and (g) of the criminal code cap 30 vol.ii revised laws of Enugu State of Nigeria 2004.
“Count IV: That you (names mentioned above) on the aforementioned date, place and time in the aforesaid magisterial district did willfully and unlawfully damaged a Toyota Corolla car no. XY 770 ENU valued about N650, 000 with the intention to render it useless property of Ezeugwu Innocent and you thereby committed an offence and punishable under section 415 (6) (g) of the criminal code cap 30, vol. ii, revised laws of Enugu State of Nigeria 2004.”
The charges were later amended to include armed robbery and kidnapping among others. Udeorji Fabian, Mgbeji Maduabuchi and Udeafor Solomon were also arraigned on similar charges and remanded in prison custody pending the advice of the Director of Public Prosecution DPP.”
But how did the Church get to this sorry pass? Investigation revealed that there is a raging ‘war’ over the control of the soul of St. Theresa’s church, Mmaku. The parishioners and the leadership of the church are at loggerheads over the appointment of a priest to run the affairs of the parish. While church leadership posted a certain priest (names withheld by us) to the parish, the parishioners preferred a son of the soil, Fr. Ani. Or so it seemed.
Ironically, Fr. Ani had been in the eye of the storm. He had been having issues with some powerful interests. While school of thought dress him in the robe of a victim of high wire politics in the church, another labeled him a rebel, who had no respect for constituted authority. To justify this position, they pointed at his short stay in the army, where he served for about seven years only.
But Fr. Ani attributed his predicament to his penchant for fighting just cause. “My crime is that I preach justice; I preach against injustice. The issue I had with the Nigeria Army is that, in a sermon, I expressed my opinion about the salary of soldiers, especially the junior ones,” explained the 51 year old priest.”
It could be said that Fr. Ani’s problem began to crystalise on September 25, 2010 when he received a letter from John I. Okoye, Bishop of Awgu Diocese, ordering him to proceed on leave from St. Stephen’s parish, Umuagu Inyi where he was serving. Captioned: Re – Four months compulsory leave, the letter reads: “With reference to the recent happenings in your parish, St. Stephen’s Parish Umuagu Inyi, you are to proceed on a four-month leave. The said leave will take effect from 25th of September 2010. While going on this leave, you are to hand over the affairs of the parish to the Vicar General of Awgu Diocese, Rev. Fr. Mathew Eze, who will, in the meantime, administer the parish.”
The letter added: “Kindly take your personal belonging from the parish when embarking on the leave. On the expiration of this leave, you are to meet me for further directives. Please contact the Vicar General for your personal upkeep. Thanks and remain blessed as you comply strictly and obediently to this directive.”
Fr. Ani got the letter at about 11.55am the day he was directed to pack out of the parish. He told them that he had nowhere to go since he had no personal house of his own to no avail.
According to Lolo Christiana Orji Nweke, wife of the late traditional ruler of Mmaku, “when Fr. James Ani was sent packing in the night, he went to a priest at Obiagu, but the priest refused to take him in because it was a decision already taken. So, he slept in the car and in the morning he went to see the Vicar General, Rev. Fr. Matthew Eze at Ihe.”
Subsequently, on September 27, Rev. Fr. Eze wrote to Rev Fr. Benedict Chukwuemeka Okoli, the priest at Fr. Ani’s home church, St. Theresa’s Catholic Parish Mmaku, saying: “Dear Fr, Fr. J. Ani will stay with you for some days, until I see the Bishop, who will tell him where to stay. Accept him and feed him.”
In December 2010, Fr. Okoli was transferred from St. Theresa’s parish and another priest (names withheld by us) was brought to replace him. But the parishioners rejected the incoming priest because when he served there sometime ago, he came short of their expectation.
Hear Doris Ani: “Fr. Ani is an old priest but he was not in-charge of any Church while the younger ones headed parishes. So, we said if they had decided to punish Fr. James Ani, we would not reject him because he is our son. According to Igbo tradition, when someone is being pursued, he will run to his home.”
Dawn raid of church
The impasse took a dangerous dimension in the morning of February 4, 2011 when armed men stormed the church and started shooting sporadically. According to Lolo Nweke, the armed priests, who were dressed like policemen descended on the parishioners, beating them mercilessly and tore their dresses.
Doris Ani was one of those tortured during the dawn raid. “They dealt with many people, but I was the only woman beaten inside the church. I was not used to wearing reading glasses, but I started using it because of the injury I sustained as a result of the beating I got. I was rushed to the hospital after the attack. They also tore my clothes. The Nigerian law does not permit anybody to remove another man’s wife’s clothes but that was what they did,” she narrated and presented pictures she took showing her bloodied face and torn clothes to the reporter.
But while the men armed were brutalising the parishioners, the villagers barricaded the road with logs to prevent them from escaping. It was also learnt that the tyres of the vehicles they brought were deflated by the villagers.
Lolo Nweke said: “When they were prevented from escaping, they started shooting sporadically into the air to scare away people. One of the priests missed his way and was caught by youths. As he was being led away, he was saying that he should be allowed to say the truth. He said that they were threatened by people, who said that they would be derobed if they did not kidnap Fr. James Ani. That same day, they had gone to Agunese village at about 3.00am and arrested five young men. It was later that it was discovered that the armed men were priests but they dressed like policemen. We called the bishop but he said that he was at Abuja. It was agreed that the priest who was arrested would be taken to Awgu Police station and that on getting there, the five young men would be released.
“Days later, the five young men were yet to be released. What they said at Enugu was that the mad priest, referring to Fr. Ani, set buildings ablaze in Mmaku. Policemen were sent to Mmaku and they did not see any burnt or burning house. The case is still in court. The magistrate is angry, maintaining that it is a church matter and should not have been brought to court. He advised that we should go and settle among ourselves.”
Mother of all battles
Things, however, took a different turn on September 18, 2013 at about 10.00am when, according to some parishioners, another attempt was made to kidnap Fr. Ani. According to Lolo Nweke, the kidnap attempt was foiled by vigilant youths in the community, who also arrested a policeman in their midst. “They shot an Okada rider and broke another person’s leg with their boot,” she said.
The youths also destroyed the two cars with which they embarked on the operation.
When Daily Sun went to Mmaku, the carcasses of the cars painted in Enugu State taxi colours were seen few metres to the Church.
But if the villagers thought that they had won the war, they were utterly mistaken. Three days later, September 21 to be precise, about 60 policemen stormed the community at about 5.00am in 10 Hilux vehicles. They divided themselves into groups and set out for their mission.
“Fr. Ani was celebrating mass when they came. They also came to my house and broke the gate. They broke down three doors in my house, ordered me to come out of the toilet because they were looking for men. When I came out, they asked me if there was no man in the house and I told them that there were only kids. They went round the house searching for men. One of the groups went to the parish and saw Fr. Ani on the pulpit. So, they surrounded him and ordered him to strip himself. Father had to obey and they started beating him. They dragged him along and when they saw that he couldn’t walk any more, they handcuffed him and carried him into their vehicle. They also arrested some people in the community. Since then, the community has been living in fear,” Lolo Nweke disclosed.
She added that some prominent sons of the community have teamed up with their oppressors. She opined that their grouse is that “over the years they would come from Enugu to organise launching, bazaar and everything for us. At the end, they will tell us that the money is in the bank at Enugu. We never knew that they were feasting on the church fund. They were in-charge of ordination and building fund. The church was completed barely two years after Fr. Ani came here and opened our eyes. These people have dealt with us severely. What they do now is that any day we are in Church, they start making calls on phone, raising the alarm that policemen were coming, so as to scare people away.”
It was learnt that the church building was started in 1963 but completed about three years ago under the leadership of Fr. Ani. So, some of those who have been milking the parishioners over the years are angry with him for stopping their party.
Ezinne Georgiana Chukwuobasi, president, Catholic Women Organisation (CWO), St. Theresa’s parish added fresh insights. She said: “What the evil people have done is to compromise our illustrious sons, who, ordinarily ought to speak for us. Money, belonging to the diocese, is distributed all over the place. Before God and man, Fr. Ani is innocent. They are only envious of his achievements because we have been moving forward since he came. All the money raised here are spent here; it is no longer taken to Awgu; there is proper accountability. Apart from completing the church, he helped us to get a transformer and a micro finance bank so that children can easily send money to their parents at home. Even the villagers are involved in this war; the Mmaku community as a whole is fighting this war. It is no longer a church affair because of developmental projects he is bringing.”
The past in the mix
Ezinne Chukwuobasi averred that there is a tinge of vendetta in the whole thing. “God knows if I am saying the truth or not. There was a time Fr. (names withheld by us) was in Mmaku, he would stand on the pulpit and declare that he would deal with us seriously. He was remembering what happened in the olden days, that our people chased their people from Mgbo to Ndagbo. He used to say that he came to retaliate, that he would use his position as Vicar General to deal with us. He drove away our children in the seminary school. He is the architect of the thing happening now.
“Our son, Fr. Innocent Udeafor built the Mmaku Catholic Centre. Examinations like WASC and JAMB used to hold there. There are several things there, including hospital, primary and secondary schools, bakery, piggery and pure water factory. He used to say that the facility was built by his classmate, adding that if it were possible he would have taken the centre to his own community. So, he instigated the handing over of the centre. For the past six years, the centre has been lying fallow. They have looted the vehicles there.”
Ezinne Chukwuobsi added that they were not being given anything as a form of compensation. Maintaining that indigenes were not given employment opportunities at the centre, except as security men and cleaners, she alleged that money realised from the ventures is usually taken to Awgu.
The saying that when two elephants fight the grass bears the brunt rings true for Mmaku Christian Centre. The crises rocking the Mmaku Catholic community had taken its toll on the expansive centre. Daily Sun saw the facilities in utter ruins. Rodents, reptiles and unserviceable abandoned vehicles competed for attention.
Putting the matter in perspective, Mr. Joseph Ani observed that the problem is in two-fold: First, there is a problem between the parishioners at St. Theresa’s and the Bishop of Awgu, John I. Okoye. Two, there are issues between Okoye and Fr. Ani.
“The parishioners rejected a priest posted the parish and they gave their reasons. What the bishop would have done was to charge the people to commit the matter into prayer.”
Cynthia Chinazo Orji opined that Fr. Ani’s arrest and detention are but prophecy fulfilled. “On September 24, Rev. James Ani and three other accused persons were taken to court and a police inspector, alias Pastor, repeated what he told the priest about four months earlier. I was there when he said, ‘Rev Fr. James Ani, how are you? I told you four months ago that you must go to prison. Fr. Ani turned to me and said, I think you people are hearing what he is saying?’ That policeman once came to Fr. Ani and urged to make peace, otherwise he would go to prison.”
Chinazo further disclosed that three of the men who came with the women from Mmaku to the court were arrested and arraigned the next day. They were also remanded in prison custody.
In a telephone chat, the Diocesan Secretary, Rev. Fr. Lawrence Eze said that the church leadership had no hand in Fr. Ani’s travails, saying: “The problem is between him and his community and the police.”
Acknowledging: “We have a problem with Fr. Ani because he forcefully took over a parish and drove away the priest that was posted there,” he said that when the community brought in the police to intervene, the priest raised the alarm that they were kidnappers and, as a result, the policemen were attacked and things were destroyed and stolen.”