By Osondu Ahirika
In 1901, The African Church was born. Credit to Elder Jacob Kehinde Coker, then the People’s Warden, who spearheaded a revolt against the Anglican Church for allegedly marginalizing the African congregants. Issues of spite for polygamy, disapproval of African musical instruments or native attires and the anglicisation of worship in all ramifications, fuelled the rebellion. The consecration of Bishop Ajayi Crowther as the first indigenous Bishop was the catalyst. He became the African rallying point of the feud with European Bishops. His translation of the English Bible into Yoruba, was quickly followed by a Yoruba Hymnal. The African pride was ignited and reborn.
On 17 October 1901, The schism berthed the first Sunday worship of what became The African Church at the Rose Cottage, Marina. This denomination was thus founded with strong Yoruba culture and vestiges. It is therefore not surprising, that, after 119 years, the first and only non-Yoruba Primate of the Church, His Eminence, Archbishop Emmanuel Udofia is embattled and engrossed in a cold war, orchestrated by the Yoruba bloc of the Church to dethrone and force him out for one of their own.
This debacle started as soon as he was enthroned the 11th Primate of the African Church in 2009. Archbishop Udofia was just 50. His tenure became a redefining praxis. Then-Governor of his home State, His Excellency, Chief Dr Godswill Akpabio magnified his office with a lavish elaborate reception and a gift of a Toyota Landcruiser. A rosy relationship was struck and Udofia became a Nationally Celebrated Primate, like none before him. He went on to hold several National programmes, with the top echelon of the Church attending in Akwa Ibom State, and what reception they always had. The climax came when Archbishop Udofia laid his mum to rest in his country home in Ika Local Government Area. It was well attended. In the end, tongues were wagging about his mansion and how juicy the office had become.
Going by the Constitution of the church, he would be due for retirement at 65, with a 15-year span as tenure being elected at 50. That would expire in May 2024. The Yoruba bloc couldn’t wait that long. Some of their big shots considered this a costly error that must somehow be corrected. Let me abridge this saga. At the 113th Conference of The African Church, some amendment’s to the Church’s Constitution was endorsed. The most potent being the limitation of Primate’s tenure to 10 years, after which, he steps down.
Armed with this argument, the Lay President of the Church, Engr. Babatunde Odufuwa, at the 2018 Conference of the Church, issued a retirement notice to Archbishop Udofia, stating that, his tenure will elapse April 31, 2019. Thus defiantly setting aside the resolution that this new constitution isn’t retroactive, and therefore not binding on the incumbent Primate, Archbishop Udofia smelt a rat. This new Constitution didn’t have him in its purview, he argued. He also had a strong support base, especially, in the South-South and Markurdi Provinces of the Church. The powerful Laity Council led by Odufuwa will not have that. Given the system of Congregational Episcopacy by which The African Church is administered, the Laity Council can be very powerful.
On May 5, 2019, with Primate Udofia conspicuously absent, the Archbishop of the Ibadan Province of the African Church, The Most Rev. Julius Osayande Abbe was elected Primate by the Odufuwa group, which they styled, Primate Advisory Board/Executive Committee/General Committee/Conference meeting held in Ifako Lagos.
Archbishop A. A. Odufuwa of Calabar Province came third in the polls, with 28 votes, with Archbishop Julius Oludotun Oluseye of Lagos Province polling 45 votes to come as the first runner up to Abbe’s 111 votes. Of course, the Church hierarchy made up of Bishop’s and Archbishop’s is numerically skewed in favour of the South West Yoruba stock, giving them majority stake and firm grip of the denomination, just like Celestial Church of Christ, The Redeemed Christian Church of God, Living Faith a.k.a Winners Chapel, Christ Apostolic Church among others.
They actually pulled a smart one with that election, because, the sentiment in the Church, that, the Yoruba bloc were playing ethnic politics was repellent to all who were following the crisis. More so, the South-South Province of the Church were miffed, feeling victimized and threatening secession. Indeed, some Bishops of Yoruba descent presiding over Diocese’s in the Province including, Bishop James Bamidele and Archbishop A. A. Odufuwa of Uyo and Calabar respectively among others in Rivers State and Warri were removed and replaced.
With Abbe, who hails from Edo State, the Archbishop Udofia must go group led by Engr. Odufuwa thought they have perfected their game. They misfired. Following the row, the sidelined Archbishop Udofia, for safety concerns, relocated the Arch Cathedral from Lagos, in what I won’t call an excardination, and resumed in Uyo, translating same to the new headquarter of his Primacy.
Archbishop Udofia’s predecessor in office, Archbishop Abraham Olumuyiwa Onanuga, in clear contravention of Episcopal law, colluded with the Laity Council, and in an aberration of the procedure, installed Julius Abbé as Primate of the African church, against the tide of unresolved, multiple litigations on the matter, with reported Court orders restraining same. The leadership tussle in the African Church became full-blown. The balkanization of the Church it’s an inescapable consequence. Of the seven Province’s of the Church, namely: Rivers, Calabar, Markurdi, Ogun, Oka Akoko, Ibadan and Lagos, one cannot place a sure bet, to which, of the two Primates, each Province pledges unwavering allegiance.
The matter is in Court, but I doubt if the Court can resolve this one. The effects of divide and rule by both Primates will eat deep into the structure and fabric of the church thus intensifying the disagreements. If there is any lesson I have learnt, infighting among the Church clergy can only be settled by the congregants, who reserve the freewill to give their loyalty to whosoever they decide to follow and resist who they so wish to.
In the current context of The African Church, what is however clear is that, the Western Bloc of the Church is pitched against the South-South. Abbé may just be a pawn in an intriguing fight for the soul of the denomination and can help earn the sympathy of a chunk from the Edo State axis to align with the West. Going by a common history, The Christian Church has evolved, multiplied and expanded through schisms and separations.
Time will tell if the 119 years old African Church can survive this schism as one fold. I fear, the Qua Iboe Church -United Evangelical Church, founded as Qua Iboe Church, scenario, is about engulfing the African Church. Let’s pray for the denomination in the words of their Motto, May Heaven’s Light be their Guide.