According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, politics is ‘a competition between political parties’ which involves acquiring or exercising power within a group or an organization. The same dictionary also defines politicking as ‘political activity, especially to win votes or support’. Therefore it means that politics or politicking is all about winning votes so as to rule an enclave.
Be that as it may, political debate is a rally or activity whereby candidates and political parties in elections are called upon to present their manifestoes to the electorate. In it, candidates and parties also use it to counter or attack programmes and manifestoes of opponents and possibly answer questions from stakeholders. Furthermore, such opportunities are used to canvass for votes and justify candidates in elections should be voted for. Therefore, political debate can be said to be thehigh point of political rally, campaign and politicking during any electioneering process.
Before the April 2011 Governorship Election in Imo State, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) in collaboration with Imo Indigenes in U.S.A and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) organized a political debate for all the contestants who were then contesting for the post of governor in Imo State. It was held at the Concorde Hotel Owerri. Unfortunately, that debate, which was well organized and aired live on Channels Television was boycotted by many top contenders in the election except the then incumbent Governor.
Subsequently, another political debate was organized by the catholic community in Maria Assumpta Catholic Cathedral Owerri precisely at the Odenigbo Pavilion which is situated inside the cathedral premises on 10th of March 2011. Ironically, this particular political debate was presided over by the catholic archbishop of Owerri Ecclessiastical Catholic Province, Most Rev A. J. V. Obinna. It was well attended by majority of the contestants. During the occasion, majority of the candidates who contested for the post of governor in the 2011 Governorship Election in Imo State were called upon one after the other to address the crowd. These candidates presented their programmes and manifestoes to the electorates, attacked programmes and manifestoes of political opponents and answered questions from stakeholders.
Candidates also used the opportunity to canvass for votes and justify why they should be voted for. I have to confess that that debate was a huge success and that what happened in it reflected a lot during the general polls. However, my position today is not whether that particular debate was a success or not but I am concerned with the legality or otherwise of holding such a programme in a church cathedral premises. Now let us look at what the present country’s electoral law provides in that respect:
Section 95 (3) of The Electoral Act 2010 (As Amended) provides that ‘Places designated forRELGIOUS WOSHIPS, police stations and public offices shall not be used for POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS, RALLIES and PROCESSIONS; or to PROMOTE, PROPAGATE or ATTACK political parties, candidates, their programmes or ideologies’. Accordingly, Sub Section 7 of that same Section 95 further stipulates that ‘a political party or person who contravenes any of the provision of this section (section 95) commits an offence and is liable on conviction- (a) in the case of an individual, to a maximum fine of =N=1,000,000 or imprisonment for the term of 12 months; and (b) in the case of a political party, to a fine of =N2,000,000 in the first instance, and =N=1,000,000 for any subsequent offence’.
Looking at the above provisions of the law, does Maria Assumpta Cathedral qualify to be a RELIGIOUS PLACE OF WORSHIP? NEMO DAT QUOD NON HABET is a principle of law which means that ‘whatever that is attached to the land is part of the land’. The Odenigbo Pavilion is situated inside the Maria Assumpta Cathedral premises and therefore forms part of the cathedral appurtenances. For one to access it, the person must pass through the cathedral gate. It is the excusive property of the cathedral for the exclusive use of the Roman Catholics only. Anything that is done there must be approved by the cathedral administration. Activities therein must also be under the control of the catholic church and must be in line with the Roman Catholic Dogma. A group like the Cherubim and Seraphim, Grail Message or even Moslems may not be allowed to hold crusade or other activities therein. Therefore, it is the humble submission of this writer that the Odenigbo Pavilion is a place designated only for Roman Catholic Church activities and therefore qualifies as a ‘place designated for religious worship’.
Consequently, going by the above legal provision, it is my humble view that it was very illegal for a political debate to hold in Assumpta Cathedral premises because the place duly qualifies as a place designated for Christian worship. Following the same law, it is also my view the archbishop that presided over the debate, the organizers, candidates, political parties and all that attended and participated in that Odenigbo Debate contravened the above cited sections of the Electoral Act and are liable to fines or imprisonment as the case may be. See Section 95 (7) supra.
Furthermore, going by what transpired before the last general elections in the state, a lot of churches could also be said to be in breach of the same legal provisions. During that period, some churches allowed candidates for various posts to canvass for votes inside the church and especially during divine worship. This many of them did so as to get monetary and material gains from the candidates. With due respect, I think that was devilish, ungodly and unlawful. There was this incident where one of the contestants was even distributing musical equipment to many churches in expectation of votes. Habba! What has our churches become? Many of our churches and their clergy need deliverance because the devil seems to be winning a lot of grounds. Interestingly, in Matthew 19 vs. 46 Christ commanded that ‘…my house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves’. Politics they say ‘is a dirty game’.
Some times I ask myself this question, assuming there was the usual electoral violence resulting to loss of human lives and destruction property in the course of that Odenigbo Debate, what would have been His Grace’s explanation to the Pontiff? The cathedral would have indeed paid dearly for it. I think it was a very volatile and high risk venture. The framers of the electoral laws know why they banned political activities in a religious place of worship. This I think is because there are a lot of intrigues, bickering, lies and unjust maneuvering involved in the quest for political power. Presumably, the lawmakers would not want to drag the church into circular politics so as to preserve the sanctity of the church.
On its own part, the Roman Catholic Church in Imo State claims to have the highest percentage of population in the state. Therefore, it is being alleged that the catholic clergy now use their influence to dictate the political direction in the state. And yet they claim not to be involved in politics. It is even being alleged that anybody a particular archbishop supports wins election in Imo State and vice versa. I heard that this archbishop was greatly instrumental to the emergence of the present Governor of Imo State. I heard he also had continued rows with a former Imo governor when that former governor was still in power. Sometime mid-last year the press also carried stories on how some people who felt offended by some of Imo governor’s policies complained to this archbishop to call the governor to order. Feelers have it now that the governor no longer picks the cleric’s phone calls.
With the turn of events, I heard he is now in a dilemma. Politicians are always involved in use-and-dump. I think this man of God did not know when he gradually dragged himself deep into Imo politics in a bid to ‘ensure good governance’. Be that as it may, there are thousands of denominations in Imo State. Does it mean that the other denominations should conduct political debates for political office seekers in their own churches also? How equitable will it look like and how protected will a non catholic contestant feel coming for a political debate in a catholic premises? Does that guarantee level playing ground in politics?
Not minding that Moslems are in the majority in most of the northern states, have you ever heard that a political debate was held in a mosque? The Christian Association of Nigeria is the umbrella which Christians use in Nigeria to navigate common courses. Why then the discordant tunes in electoral matters? Therefore, no Christian denomination should feel being superior to the others. That is not what Christ taught His church. S. J. Stones in hymns Ancient and Modern 255 said that “The church is one foundation with Jesus Christ her Lord…’.
Regrettably, the church has abandoned its spiritual and traditional role and has gone deep into circular politics. This Satan has done by diverting the attention of the church from providing for the spiritual wellbeing of worshippers of God. That is one of the reasons why the church has failed woefully in addressing the decadence in our present day society. As the number of churches increases, the rate of crime, immorality and inhuman behaviours ironically increase. End time signal!
The role of the church in every society is very clear. Therefore, I call on churches not to drag themselves or be allowed to be dragged into politics. The church is not a political party and should not be involved in circular politics at all. When a law is made, it is for the law enforcement agencies to do the enforcement accordingly. Recently the Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission Prof Attahiru Jega admitted publicly that his commission had not done enough to prosecute electoral offenders after the April 2011 general polls. This he attributed to the commission’s ‘lack of capacity’. He recommended for the establishment of election offences tribunal that will be dedicated to prosecution of electoral offenders. I associate myself with this recommendation which was first recommended by Justice Mohammed Uwais Panel because the regular courts are already congested with cases.
Therefore, special courts should be created so to effectively handle electoral offenders. In addition, it is also unfortunate that the law enforcement agencies in Nigerian are ignorant of their role in forestalling campaigning in places used for religious worship. Most of these electoral offences happen before them but they lack the capacity, drive and confidence to bring such offenders to book. Therefore, there is a call on our law enforcement agencies to act accordingly so as to bring sanity to our polity. The time is now for tomorrow may be too late.
Barr Emperor Nnabuihe Iwuala (Ksc.)
Legal/Media Practitioner writes from Owerri, Imo State
08037247295, 08185772166, emperoriwuala@yahoo