It is simply a situation that can be likened to the villagers battling God as villagers in Oze village, Nkwelle Ezunaka Oyi local government area of Anambra State battle Ebenezer Anglican Church in the town. Both parties claim ownership of the land on which the church demolished was built. Though there had been claims and counter claims over the rightful owner of the premises by the two parties, the dispute got to a head with members of the church discovering, to their amazement, that the church building, they had spent so much money to erect, was reduced to rubbles.
Their first action was to embark on a peaceful demonstration to drive home their anger over the demolition and, apart from blaming the people of Nkwelle Ezunaka for the demolition, they accused the state government of encouraging the community to perpetrate the action.
The protesters, who blocked the roads leading to the commercial city of Onitsha for several hours, brandished placards some of which read, “Rebuild our church now”; and “Governor Obiano, intervene in this matter and arrest the perpetrators of this evil act”.
While the protest lasted, vehicular traffic along the popular 33 area of the city came to a halt as the demonstrators came from all the parishes in the Diocese on the Niger of the Anglican Communion.
Speaking on behalf of the Diocese, Rev I.k Egbeonu said the state government’s silence on the matter signified conspiracy between government and those who perpetrated the act. He said the school compound, housing the demolished church building, was among the schools handed over to the church by the former governor of the state, Mr. Peter Obi, adding that the statement credited to the community that the church took over the school by force was not true.
He said: “We are calling on the state government to come and rebuild our church. We are also calling on President Goodluck Jonathan to intervene in this matter. If this is not done, the 2015 presidential election will surely be affected because Anglicans form almost half of the voters in the country. This is a church project that has gulped over N30 million and the money was contributed by widows, orphans and the less privileged only for some people to pull it down from the top to the foundation level”.
Chancellor of the Diocese on the Niger, Mr. Nnamdi Ibegbu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, condemned the action and threatened that the Diocese would seek legal action against those who demolished the church building. According to him, the issue of the rightful owners of the premises that housed the demolished church building will be determined by a competent court of jurisdiction, even as he appealed to the Anglican faithful in the area to remain calm.
A member of the demolished Ebenezer Anglican Church, Oyolu Oze, Mr. Emma Ibeneme said they were still in shock, adding that they were surprised when they discovered that the church building, already roofed, had been reduced to rubbles by some people suspected to be agents of Nkwelle Ezunaka community.
However, the President General of Nkwelle Ezeunanka community, Elder Chris Eluemuno, denied that the community had a hand in the demolition of the church building, explaining that the matter was already being handled by law enforcement agents.
Arguing that nobody gave the school to the Anglican Church in the first place and that the church did not get any certificate of occupancy on the land, Eluemune urged the Anglican Church to discontinue construction work going on at Oze village or be prepared for a showdown with the community.
Worried by the allegation that the community was behind the demolition, the president general summoned a general meeting of the community during which they alleged that despite an order of the state government that status quo be maintained pending the completion of investigation by the panel set up by the state government, the Anglican Church continued to build on the disputed school premises.
Going down memory lane, Eluomunor said the school, on which premises the demolished church situated, was built by Nkwelle Ezuunaka people in 1980 and handed over to Anambra State government, recalling that the Anglican Church started worshiping there more than10 years after the school was built.
He said: “It was Chief G.U. Okeke, Chairman of GUO Group of Companies, who came to Nkwelle Ezunaka and pleaded that Anglican Church be allowed to worship there and promised that the church would never contest ownership. The Anglican Church reached an agreement with Nkwelle Ezeuaka that it would pay N20 annually for using the premises, an agreement the church has reneged on.”
He expressed surprise that the church should be telling lies and wondered what the leaders preach to the ordinary people.
The President General warned that his community would not fold its arms and allow anybody to come in and take its property unduly, stressing that if government was tired of managing the school, it should hand it over to the community which owned it.
Shortly after the demolition, the state governor, Chief Willie Obiano, in company of his deputy, Dr. Nkem Okeke, who is an Anglican, visited the demolished church building. The governor later set up a panel of inquiry headed by the deputy governor to ascertain the remote and immediate causes of the dispute between the community and the church.
But the Anglican Church vowed never to cooperate with members of the panel of inquiry, accusing the deputy governor of not doing much to prevail on his boss, Obiano, to treat the Anglican Church equally with the Catholic Church. For two consecutive days, members of the church continued with their demonstration and urged security operatives not to attempt to stop them as they were prepared to spill their blood on the disputed land.
As the protest continued, the Anambra State government issued a statement, urging the Anglican Church to give peace a chance.
The statement, which was signed by the commissioner for information, culture and tourism, Chief Tony Onyima, read: “The attention of the Anambra State government has been drawn to the demonstration which took place in Onitsha over ownership of a primary school at Oyolu – Oze, Nkwelle – Ezunaka, in Oyi Local Government Area.
“Government observes that the Nkwelle Ezunaka community and the Anglican Communion are locked in a dispute over the ownership of the said Oyolu – Oze Primary School.
“On receipt of reports of destruction of property, His Excellency, Chief Willie Obiano in the company of the Deputy Governor, Dr Nkem Okeke, visited the school site. His Excellency unequivocally condemned the wanton destruction of property by unknown persons.
“Already, Governor Obiano had set up a six -man committee headed by the deputy governor to investigate the contending issues and submit a report on their findings within two weeks.
“Government observes that the committee is presently only in the fourth day of its two -week time frame to present a report and calls on all parties to allow peace and due process to reign.
“As a democratic and law–abiding government, the administration of His Excellency, Chief Willie Obiano upholds the right of peaceful protests by citizens. However such protests must be within the ambit of the law. Government wishes to assure all citizens that it is committed to promotion of justice, peace and fair play and calls on all citizens to remain calm and law abiding.”