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By Rev. Fr. Angelo Chidi Unegbu

…As The Pioneer Bishop Of The Vicariate Of Southern Nigeria: Towards 

…Appraisal Of The Power Of Bishops Vis-À-Vis The Igbo Principle Of Effective Leadership

By Rev Fr Angelo Chidi Unegbu (22 April, 2021)

1) When the Vicariate of Southern Nigeria was created in April 1920, the names of three priests, Frs. Joseph Shanahan, Alphonsus Bisch and Daniel Wash, were sent to Rome for the office of the bishop. Shanahan was eventually selected from the three, and exactly 101 years ago on the 22 April 1920 he was appointed the pioneer bishop (Vicar Apostolic) of the Vicariate.  Till date, this has been the same system of appointment of bishops in Igboland/Nigeria and most parts of the world. This system, unfortunately, does not tally with the Igbo system of the selection of political leaders which is purely democratic and co-participatory.  Besides, in Igboland, leaders are accountable to the people they represent. The popular Igbo saying “Igbo enwe eze” (Ndigbo have no kings) captures it succinctly. Unlike the Yorubas who are monarchical or the Hausas who practise feudalism, Ndigbo are naturally republicans. It sits in their DNA. It is in republicanism that they thrive best.

2) While we cannot change this universal church structure in the appointment of bishops, we can think of how to align ecclesiastical leadership in Igboland with what resides in Igbo political DNA. Already in 1985 Ikenga Ozigboh, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha in his book, Igbo Catholicism, captures the reasons for this urgent need. We shall quote him verbatim: 

  1. a) “The bishop single-handedly appoints and transfers priests. In some dioceses he is often advised by a “board of consultors” which he had hand-picked and whose advice he is not bound to accept. The bishop himself is imposed on the diocese by the Vatican after a long and secretive calculation. Once appointed, he remains accountable to the Vatican alone. The result is that Igbo Catholics who are used to participant government find themselves helpless and at the mercy of ecclesiastical office holder – the clergy and the bishops.”
  2. b) “If constitutionally constrained to see authority as a service and a trust, church officials in positions of power may begin to cultivate the habits of team-work and true dialogue. The absence of these administrative qualities has done untold havoc in our churches. Many articulate elements among the clergy and the laity have been disillusioned and alienated. The clergy and people have developed an unhealthy spirit of sycophancy, simulation and obsequiousness.”
  3. c) “Large numbers of clerics and nuns have become unduly manipulative, scheming, impatient under operational adversities and fearful of their “superiors” in positions of power. The “superiors”, on the contrary, are easily bought off with pretences, “Iscariotal” kisses and tale-bearing. Some priests openly brag about their tactical successes with their bishops. At the root of all this malaise is the undue concentration of power on the chief executive who also happens to be the sole legislator and judge in his diocese.”
  4. d) “The Igbo believe in leaders rather than rulers and recognize that an individual, no matter how exalted should not acquire too much control over the lives of others. They allow every man the opportunity to achieve success in life. They are individualistic, competitive and egalitarian. They see their leader as “onye isi” (the head) or “onye ndu” (the guide) but they physically acknowledge no “kings” (Igbo enwe eze). For them leadership is shared direction and responsibility which demands constant interaction and communication. An Igbo leader is sensitive to public opinion and is not approached with protocol and formalities. Igbo respect for authority is not servile. Any leader who intends to reap the fruits of good government among the Igbo has to make allowances for dialogue, group action and solidarity”
  5. e) “A good Igbo leader is not too conscious of his power, seeing that most Igbo people cherish their personal freedom. If the canons of Igbo leadership were observed, any Igbo bishop could easily secure peace, harmony and general contentment in his diocese.” Cf. Ikenga Ozigboh, Igbo Catholicism: The Onitsha Connection 1967 – 1984 (Onitsha: Africana-Feb, 1985), 120 – 124.

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