Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the recent promotion of Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, former Minister of Transportation to the highest rank in the Catholic Church at this challenging time when relationship between Catholics and the Federal Government appears to be governed by predominantly bad-tempered occurrences is a onerous challenge
Despite increasing hostility against Catholics in Nigeria, particularly targeting priests of the sect, one of the influential members of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, former Minister of Transportation and Minister-designate, has been promoted to the highest rank in the Catholic church under the order of the Knights of St. John. Amaechi was conferred with the Exemplification Honour of the Knights of St. John from Grand Master, Nigerian Temple Noble and Exalted Knights of the Holy Cross Knight of St. John International. The former minister was conferred with the honour for his service to the Order and humanity for over 20 years at the Pope John Paul II Catholic Centre in Abuja.
Coming at this very challenging time when relationship between Catholics and the Federal Government appears to be governed by predominantly bad-tempered occurrences, Amaechi is, more than any other thing, being called to rise to the occasion to defend adherents of the faith and all Nigerians against an apparent programmed onslaught. In the past, Mr. Amaechi has come under a lot of criticism for “supporting a man whose agenda was to Islamise Nigeria.”
Not one to be caught flat-footed, without a position of defense, Amaechi often fires back at his accusers, mainly those in the clergy, who he describes as having “commercialized Jesus Christ” and maintained that their type were susceptible to bribe from the main opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Though election observers have accused the major political parties in Nigerian elections, particularly 2019 national elections of vote buying, Amaechi gives the impression that the ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC), which he belongs has lived above board. “Tell them we are too educated. I am a Catholic, but no Catholic priest has told me that story right now in the Catholic Church, because I will ask him how. If any Pastor tells you that, tell him to return the money. Nobody can Islamise Nigeria. They have commercialized Jesus Christ. They should stop commercializing Jesus Christ. He is our Lord and Saviour. You know what Jesus Christ did in the temple. He chased them away. We shall chase away those pastors who collected money from PDP leaders to tell us lies. We shall chase them away on behalf of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This has been his standard response to those accusing him of serving in a government that has programmed a systemic extermination of Christians.
“Some pastors collected N6 billion and they are circulating documents and telling you not to vote for an Hausa man, not to vote for a Muslim because they want to Islamise Nigeria. Tell them to return our N6 billion. They gave them N6 billion. They should return it to the Federal Government coffers. They will tell you that Buhari wants to Islamise Nigeria.”
Five years into the Buhari administration, so much has happened to validate these fears. Top Christians in the government like Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Amaechi have been hard put to find an explanation for series of killings that have claimed the lives of Christians including Catholic priests. Recently in Enugu, hundreds of Catholic priests staged a protest to condemn the killing of one their colleagues, Reverend Fr. Paul Offu. The murdered clergy was the Parish Priest of St. James Greater Catholic Church. He was allegedly shot dead by suspected Fulani herdsmen along Ihe, Awgu Local Government Area of the state.
The angry Catholic priests matched to the Government House, brandishing placards with various inscriptions like “enough is enough”, “government should rise to defend Nigerians”, ”Fulani Herdsmen should go”.
The prevailing emotion in Enugu was no different from what was witnessed in Benue State a few years ago at the mass burial of two Catholic Priests, Reverend Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha and 15 others. At the grave ceremony, Osinbajo and Amaechi could not hold back their tears. The massacre was believed to be perpetrated by suspected herdsmen in Gwer East local government area. The Vice President had reassured the people that the federal government was doing all within its power to end the senseless killings of innocent citizens in the state and other parts of the country. So far, there has been no respite as the killings continue, even with greater force.
No doubt, members of Amaechi’s denomination have been the hardest hit by the murderous tendencies of alleged Fulani herdsmen; so much that that the Nigeria Catholic Mission, under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), with Augustine Obiora Akubeze, Archbishop of Benin City, as President has, in the past, organised nationwide protest against incessant killings and bloodletting in the country. In Nigeria, the 20 million Catholics, can swing the course of an election decided by 84 million registered voters, though they are less than two percent of the population of Africa’s most populous country.
At different times, Amaechi has flaunted his Catholicism as a mark of hounour and at other times as a mascot. Challenging former Anambra State Governor Peter Obi to a debate, preferably in a parish of the Catholic church of Obi’s choice, Amaechi said, “So, the statement by my friend, Governor Peter Obi is not correct, and if he wants it, I am ready to open a debate with him, with facts and figures and documents to show that he is not correct.,” and added that “I am open for a debate anytime any day. I am open for a debate on Sunday, he and I are Catholics, in the church, let him tell me where he’ll worship, I’d worship there, and let us open the debate on whether he is right or wrong.”
Mr. Amaechi continues to insist that he maintains an admirable degree of godliness, which is rare among Nigerian politicians. He dismisses any link to some of the plaques like; love of money, being economical with the truth and sexual immorality, that have dug the grave of many politicians. He painted a classic picture to authenticate his position. “Most Christians take God for granted because of the principle of forgiveness. It is like what I told Peter Obi after I had won the chairmanship of the Governorship Forum, 19 to 16. I saw him in the Catholic Church after watching him campaigning round the media that I did not win. I challenged him to kneel down before the Blessed Sacrament in the altar to swear that I did not win that election and I will resign there and then. But he told me that it is politics and I should not bring religion into politics.”
Known as a fighter who does not blink before an adversary, testimonies to this uncommon virtue abound, even among the clergy of his denomination. For instance, Director of Social Communications, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) Rev. Fr. Chris Anyanwu, noted that, “One of the things that have endeared many people to Amaechi is his boldness and honesty.” Such a sweeping approval would require a lot of evidence, but there are ample instances when the former Minister of Transportation shows his human shortcomings. For example, any attempt at trying him to reconcile him to his erstwhile friends, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State and Senator Magnus Abe is certain to draw Amaechi’s ire. On a good day, he agrees that the views of a Catholic Bishop should not be opposed, but on the matter of being on the same page with Wike and Abe, he would not back down.
“In the Catholic Church you don’t oppose the views of your bishop. His words represent an order. If you oppose him you may be barred from taking Holy Communion. You are not a true Catholic if you don’t receive the Holy Communion. But the same Catholic doctrine also states that justice comes before forgiveness.
“All those that were killed during the last general elections must get justice. Their families must get justice. Our party, the All Progressives Congress, must get justice first at the petition election tribunal. Our mandate must be retrieved at the tribunal.”
A man whose steps are often dogged with controversy, Mr. Amaechi has battled as many foes on all sides, but he is also comforted by an army of loyalists who swallow everything he says; line, hook and sinker. His self-confidence and faith in the Supreme Being is frequently mistaken as a display of arrogance. For this, he owes no one an apology. “I prayed for 10 months and I fasted from 6a.m. to 6p.m., calling on Christ to come down and Christ came down mightily and installed me as governor, the former governor of Rivers State said, adding “That is why you can see that in the face of human effrontery, I have been able to stand face to face with them and I say I have Christ in me.”
Mr. Amaechi may be pained that many of his good deeds are less publicized or completely swept under the carpet. A significant achievement like payment of N362 million compensation for the Catholic hospital, Daughters of Charity, in Kubwa Abuja, for its demolished building to make way for rail alignment was concluded by the former Minister of Transportation without much fanfare. Non-payment of the compensation had delayed work on the major alignment in Kubwa on the Abuja-Kaduna standard gauge rail track. Besides the monetary compensation, government also ensured that the Right of Occupancy for the new site had been delivered to the management of the hospital and other necessary steps taken to ensure smooth relocation of the hospital include engaging the contractors handling the rail project to donate a convent for the hospital.
To political associates and friends who are concerned that his association with President Buhari could be potentially damaging, Mr. Amaechi responded, saying that he is most happy to correlate with the president. “In Rivers state they began to call me `Alhaji Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi’. I thank you because they have dropped the `Alhaji’ and back to Mr. Chibuike Amaechi,’’ he said.
Five years into the Buhari administration, so much has happened to validate these fears. Top Christians in the government like Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Amaechi have been hard put to find an explanation for series of killings that have claimed the lives of Christians including Catholic priests. Recently in Enugu, hundreds of Catholic priests staged a protest to condemn the killing of one their colleagues, Reverend Fr. Paul Offu