Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke – formerly a priest of the Awka diocese – was consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria May 21, while many residents of the diocese rallied against the move.
Due to the strong opposition among the local Mbaise community, Bishop Okpaleke was installed outside his new diocese, at Seat of Wisdom Seminary in Ulakwo, in the Archdiocese of Owerri.
Bishop Okpaleke was consecrated by Archbishop Anthony J. V. Obinna of Owerri, Ahiara's metropolitan archbishop, with a cardinal and several bishops in attendance, as well as heightened security.
The homily was given by Bishop Lucius I. Ugorji of Umuahia, who said that “acceptance of the papal appointment is a respect for the Pope, while the outright rejection and inflammatory statements and protests are spiteful and disrespectful of papal authority,” according to The Sun of Lagos.
According to the Vanguard of Lagos, Archbishop Obinna said May 19 that “we decided to organize the ordination away from Mbaise so as to give peace a chance...it is sad that what we are experiencing is a war between Catholics and Catholics.”
Bishop Okpaleke comes from the Awka diocese, 62 miles from Ahiara, and is not an ethnic Mbaise. The Catholics of the diocese wanted one of their own to be appointed bishop over them.
“The Mbaise people wanted their own bishop, who knows what's going on within the community,” George Awuzie, an Mbaise emigrant to California and a representative of Mbaise USA, told CNA May 20.
“They're sending someone from a different community, a different village, that doesn't know what we do within our area.”
The Mbaise are the most Catholic among Nigerian people – 77 percent of the population of 620,000 are Catholic. Surrounding diocese range between 4 and 64 percent Catholic.
Families in the rural diocese foster priestly and religious vocations, with at least 167 priestly ordinations for the diocese since its establishment in 1987.
The diocese is currently served by 127 priests and 113 religious, according to Vatican Radio. The Ahiara diocese covers 164 square miles – roughly one sixth the size of Rhode Island.
With such a wealth of priests, the Ahiara diocese sends many as missionaries to Western countries, and many Mbaise hoped that one of its own would become their bishop.
Ahiara's first ordinary, Bishop Victor A. Chikwe, served from 1987 until his death in Sept., 2010. The diocese was vacant for 26 months until Pope Benedict appointed Father Okpaleke last December.
Bishop Okpaleke was born in 1963, and was ordained a priest in 1992. He has served a pastor, university chaplain, and diocesan chancellor. After his ordination he studied canon law at Holy Cross Pontifical University in Rome, and has served on the tribunal for the Onitsha ecclesiastical province.
Both priests and faithful have made vocal, public protests against Bishop Okpaleke's appointment, blocking access to Ahiara's cathedral and disrupting both automobile and foot traffic in the area.
On May 16, some 400 Mbaise protested the appointment in the streets of the diocese, carrying signs with slogans such as “Awka has 5 bishops, Mbaise has 0 bishops” and asking for an “Mbaise son as Mbaise bishop.”
Conflict over the episcopal appointment highlights tribal tensions in Nigeria. Opposition to Bishop Okpaleke has not suggested any poor administration on his part, but focuses solely on his not being a member of the people whom he is to shepherd.
“They ended up going over (the priests of Ahiara) to get someone from another village; appointed a bishop from another village to be bishop of the Mbaise people,” Awuzie told CNA.
Awka, whence Bishop Okpaleke comes, is located in the state of Anambra. Ahiara, meanwhile, is located to the south in Imo state. Mbaise assert that the Nigerian hierarchy favors Anambra.
Mbaise note the appointment of bishops from the Onitsha province – based in Anambra – while few if any episcopal appointments are made of priests from the Owerri province, in Imo and Abia states.
The Mbaise, who are proud of their identity and strong Catholicism, resent what they call the “Anambranization” of the Church in southeast Nigeria, believing there to be corruption within the Church in Nigeria and a “recolonization” of the Mbaise.
The Mbaise are a tribe of the Igbo, one of the three major ethnic groups of Nigeria. Most Christians in Nigeria are Igbo, and reside in the south-east of the country. Soon after Nigeria gained independence from British colonialism, the government, led by the Yoruba and Hausa peoples, began to persecute the Igbo.
In 1967, the Igbo rebelled, forming the Republic of Biafra, resulting in the Nigerian Civil War. The rebellion was put down by 1970, and the region has yet to recover, having lost as many as one million of its population to war and famine.
Overall, Nigerian society is perceived as struggling with corruption, ranking at 139 among 176 countries considered by Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perception Index. It is just ahead of Bangladesh, and in the company of Pakistan and Kenya.
In the face of division among the Igbo, brought to light by the controversy over Bishop Okpaleke, there have been calls for greater Igbo unity and identity.
Father Stan Chu Ilo, who is Igbo and teaches theology at the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto, wrote Jan. 11 at “Sahara Reporters” that the crisis has caused him to note that “after the Civil War and the ongoing marginalization of Ndigbo in Nigeria, I believe that the Igbo people should unite and work together as brothers and sisters for the good of the ethnic nation and the wider Nigerian, African and international community.”
“Igbo Catholicism should be the veritable instrument for bringing unity in our communities, parishes, dioceses and states in Igbo land,” he concluded.
As the Catholics of the Diocese of Ahiara protested the appointment of a bishop from a nearby diocese as their shepherd, local bishops expressed sadness at the disunity in the Church of Nigeria.
Christian Unity, Church in Africa