opinionBy Chuks Iloegbunam
The news from Enugu tingles the ear. Fourteen worshipers at a prayer crusade died in a stampede on Thursday morning. Many others sustained injuries. For sure, there have been other crusades that resulted in fatalities, notable among which are two by Reinhard Bonke, the German evangelist. In each case, poor crowd control was to blame. Wherever there is a throng, the only outcome of a stampede is the trampling and asphyxiation of the infirm, the very young and the old. This should mean the institution of proper standards of control whenever crowds aggregate, whether for a political rally, a rock concert or a prayer meeting.
Nonetheless, a different coloration has been introduced into the Enugu disaster. According to Rev (Professor) Obiora Ike, the Vicar General of the Enugu Diocese, and Rev Father Evans Offor, the Director of Catholic Communications, armed thugs who stormed the adoration site caused the stampede and the attendant loss of lives. The crucial question is this: Did the thugs in question act at the behest of the state government as the Catholic Church is reported to have charged? Governor Chimaroke Nnamani addressed the state on radio and television a day after the tragedy, saying his government did not sponsor the thugs. He set up a panel to probe the tragedy.
A comment is appropriate here because some background material will enable readers to anticipate the outcome of the inquiry with sharper focus. I was unaware of the existence of both Rev. Father Camillus Ejike Mbaka and Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani until 1999 when I returned to the country after a decade abroad. I mentioned one day that, during my years of "exile", it was always a great spiritual treat to have Rev (Professor) Emmanuel Ede of the Catholic Prayer Ministry (CPM) visit us from Elele, Rivers State. "You haven t seen anything yet", countered my cousin s wife, "wait until you meet Father Mbaka." Before long, I met Mbaka and have not regretted it. I will develop the theme shortly.
About Dr. Nnamani, my contacts with him emanated from my writing and my journalism. I have met the Governor inside Government Lodge, Enugu, on three distinct occasions, and written quite a bit on his administration.
Unlike Father Mbaka who will find it difficult putting a face to my name, Nnamani knows me very well. What then is the problem between the politician and the priest?
Let us return to Father Mbaka. But first, let me warn that nothing about me here profiles me as a pious Christian or a devout Catholic. I am just an ordinary man. Once I attended Mbaka s mass for the first time, it became my habit to do so whenever I found myself in Enugu. Even if he is celebrating morning mass, it is sung. It also became my practice to attend the Wednesday adoration whenever possible. As far as I am concerned, therefore, Father Mbaka is a true man of God. If he preached, it is with precision, and he displayed a thorough knowledge of the Bible. If he consecrated the Sacred Host and held it aloft singing praises to God, the congregation became electric, inducing many to speak in tongues. Each time the spirit moves me, I send a message of mass offering to him.
The Wednesday prayer vigil is organised by Father Mbaka s Adoration Ministries, Enugu, Nigeria (AMEN). It has been going on for many years, starting well before the current democratic dispensation came into effect.
Who attends this vigil? The rich do, and the not so rich. But majority comes from the ranks of the poor, the sick, the childless and those who believe that they are victims of the diabolical. For them, it is a weekly pilgrimage. They contribute money, charter vehicles and head for Enugu from far-flung towns, villages and hamlets Catholics, non-Catholics, even non-Christians.
There are televangelists whose miracle cures are on the screen for those who wish to believe. Mbaka is not on television. But, as a matter of course, testimonies are given on healing received during his adoration programmes. His is always assisted by, at least, seven priests and even more Reverend Sisters, not to talk of prayer warriors, the choir and those who keep order. It invariably starts and ends with a High Mass; everything interspersed with special prayers, preaching and hymns.
The hymn is a strong Father Mbaka point. There are five albums to this young man s credit, containing 48 songs all of which he composed. The unique things about his songs are that they are each rendered in Igbo and English, and one song ends and another begins without a break in transmission. The reason I have provided all this information is to underline my puzzle. Why would anyone want to kill the priest? This question is not because I do not have a sense of history. We read that all of Christ s disciples, save one, was killed. In Latin America gunmen routinely shoot priests who oppose them, the classic example being the Archbishop who was shot after he offered the sacrifice of the Mass. Nine attempts were made on the life of Reverend Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide before he became Haitian President the first time around. Even Pope John Paul ll., was shot and nearly killed in St. Peter s Square by a Turkish gunman. I heard Father Mbaka say every so often that Governor Nnamani was after his life. The last time I heard this was during the adoration of the night of January 16/17, 2002. Mbaka said on that occasion that the would-be assassin met his nemesis just hours before he was to strike. I often tried to place a finger on all of this, and promised myself to find an auspicious occasion to raise the allegations with the governor.
Father Mbaka has been described as a vitriolic Nnamani critic. I would categorise him as a social critic for he also chastises non-politicians.
During the doctor s strike of last year, the priest was almost in tears as he condemned the doctors action. For him, it was sacrilegious, as nothing could justify leaving sick, poor folk unattended to by people who had taken the Hippocratic Oath. Mbaka criticises indolence. He prays for students to pass their exams, but he never ceases to warn them to be diligent in their studies. Talking about his criticism of people in power, I understand that it hit a crescendo while General Sani Abacha was at Aso Rock. I aver that, on many occasions, Father Mbaka took exception to Nnamani s policies. For instance, he has never hidden his displeasure at the thousands of civil servants sacked in Enugu State. Another example: I was at the funeral of Pa Ferguson Nnamani, the governor s father. Back at morning mass before leaving Enugu, Father Mbaka was indignant. He wanted to know whose money was deployed into constructing the structures at the funeral venue. He said that, assuming Pa Ferguson did not have a home of his own, he deserved nothing more than a three-bedroom flat before he was laid to rest. "What really mattered was to pray for the repose of his soul, not the extravagance."
Of course, not every pastor discusses politics. Nigeria has about 40 Catholic bishops. Apart from Dr. Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, the Archbishop of Lagos, how many of them ever said a thing about the way politicians are carrying on? There are thousands of pastors in the country. How many of them have spoken in the vein of Pastor Tunde Bakare? How many comment on national issues like Rev (Dr.) Mathew Hassan Kukah? It does not mean that they do not know what goes on, or that they are not articulate. It only underscores the fact that everybody has their own style and tools of fighting causes. Lawyers like Chief Gani Fawehinmi and Olisa Agbakoba fight it out in the courts. Musicians of the mould of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti use the force of their lyrics and rhythms. Writers like Achebe and Soyinka wield the pen. The pastor s armoured car is the pulpit. The point is that whether you are a lawyer, or a musician or a writer or whatever, democracy ought to guarantee that your just fight should not elicit execution.
From where I am standing, Father Mbaka s dominant message is that people should surrender themselves at the foot of Jesus cross, penitent and prayerful, asking for forgiveness and pleading for diving grace. My testament is that every argument in support of any form of violence already collapsed before it was posited. It will not serve any useful purpose if Father Mbaka came to harm from whatever source on account of his work. The man never incited disruption of the public order and he has done no violent action. These explain my pleasure that Governor Nnamani promptly set up a high-powered body to investigate and report on whatever happened at the Enugu adoration ground that cost 14 innocent lives. Once members of the panel remember that it was not 14 dogs that died, they should do a good job.