Column: For Fr. Abaka: Beyond Priesthood (Part 1)

By Sunny Awhefeada


The iconic Very Rev. Fr. Dr. Abaka Ambrose Oghenejode, jr. just turned 65 and retired from the services of the Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Effurun,( FUPRE). Below is the text of the public lecture I delivered to mark the double event.

I crave the indulgence of this audience to thank the organizers of this event for the inspiring and kind gesture of honouring today’s celebrant, not the celebrant at mass, but the birthday celebrant, Very Rev. Fr. Dr. Abaka Ambrose Oghenejode, jr. Events like these are salutary in that they not only motivate others to be impactful, but they enable the celebrant to look back and take stock of his sojourn and how he or she is appreciated by the people around him.

This kind of gathering is a recipe for good health and long life especially as the celebrant steps into the sometimes cold and lonely autumn season of life. I do proceed to congratulate Fr. Oghenejode at sixty-five and on retiring hale and hearty from the services of FUPRE.

Thankfully, Fr. Oghenejode is not retiring from the Lord’s vineyard soon. He still has a lot to offer humanity especially as our world gets more complex and chaotic and our country Nigeria is drifting.

I must also thank the FUPRE community ably led by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Akpofure Rim-ruke, for playing host to this lecture. This is also a kind of reconnection for me as I had a stint here as a visiting lecturer teaching the Use of English in the General Studies Unit for three years or so during the University’s early moments.

Our celebrant today, again let me add, not celebrant at mass, Rev. Fr. Abaka Ambrose Oghenejode jr. was born in June 1958. He approximates the quintessence of the kind of priest some of us have in mind. Fr. Oghenejode has been involved. Beyond the pulpit and the pew, he is a community leader who has remained a source of hope, succor and direction for many especially young people. Fr. Oghenejode in theory and in practice has brought resolution to conflicts and enthroned peace. He brought his wealth of experience to play in the Ivory Tower, the Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Effurun, where he served for many years as chaplain, senior non-teaching staff, Head of the Directorate of Media & Public Relations and as a member of the Governing Council.
Educated at mission schools before proceeding to the University of Ibadan, Fr. Oghenejode also studied at Urban University and Holy Cross University, both in Rome. We can say that he is the church through and through. His 2009 Doctoral thesis is titled Ecclesial Response to Conflict Management in the Niger Delta Region. Why can’t Fr. Oghenejode take on political leadership and give us resolutions? Ordained in 1987, he began work as a priest at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Ugborikoko in Effurun in 1988 before going on to work in other parishes as well as serving as Bishop’s Secretary. Beyond priesthood, he was the Principal of Good Shepherd Secondary School, Oyede and Chairman of the Delta State Pilgrims’ Board. Beyond priesthood, Fr. Oghenejode is a Rotarian and the initiator of the Abaka Medical Foundation that undertakes free medical missions to interior communities in Delta State. He was in the visitation panel to the University of Lagos in 2013.

Fr. Oghenejode is an advocate of good governance and has never held back in railing at bad governance. Endowed with rare interpersonal relationship skills, he is a bridge builder and a community leader who has given so much to humanity. It is interesting to know that he holds two chieftaincy titles from Okpe and Uvwie, his dual places of origin. Fr. Oghenejode is retiring from the services of FUPRE. This does not preclude him from his advocacy for a new Nigeria. We enjoin him to continue to speak truth to power, advance Nigeria’s cause and serve the Urhobo nation through the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU and the Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) where he functions as a member of the Board of Trustees.

The choice of the lecture’s title derives from the chaos that now bestrides the length and breadth of our beloved country, Nigeria. Our nation’s history has been unrelentingly tragic with an end time ring to it. Each turn we take leads us to a cusp, but fortunately we have not tipped over into the abyss of destruction. The last eight years have been particularly traumatic and if we are to go by the saying that the morning tells the day, then we are in for a transition from an era of being flogged with whips to that of being afflicted with scorpions. We just came out of general elections and the euphoria of an exultant people whose hopes and aspirations are about to be met is largely absent. Nevertheless, I opt to be optimistic that some redemptive act could still manifest to salvage our battered polity.It is from the foregoing optimism that the incubatory thoughts of the lecture’s title evolved. If a consensus that “all hands should be on deck to keep the ship afloat” has been with us, should the clergy’s hand not also be on the deck, especially when the hands of the rest of us have become weak and not able to keep the ship afloat?
The priesthood denotes the office of the priest who is trained and ordained to lead the people in worshipping God and serves as their spiritual leader. He not only offers sacrifice to God on behalf of the rest of us, he is also the bridge between the sacred and the profane. He ministers to the welfare of the faithful and he is the symbol of the unity of the church. At the core of his focus are evangelization, salvation, reconciliation and spirituality. Across the ages, as in the Bible and in contemporary times, the priest has had to function as a social worker, counselor, teacher, healer and more. He leads the charge for unity, harmony and peace.
In the context of today’s world and the multiplicity of the complex and baffling experiences confronting humanity, the priesthood has come to get adapted to playing roles hitherto unimagined. Priests have come to sign up in the struggle for human rights, quality education, legal awareness and justice, solidarity for the oppressed, bridge building beyond religion, race and colour, supporting the vulnerable and proclaiming liberation to those in captivity.
The experience of the clergy, by extension the church, in Nigeria is quite instructive in a positively remarkable way. When missionary activities took off in Nigeria in the 19th century, what came with it was not just evangelization, but education, a new way of life, health services and other indices that were incidental to the emergence of a new world. By the turn of that century, missionary educators and doctors had penetrated many parts of Nigeria even as social workers. Their intervention created a new social order distinctive among this being the abolition of the killing of twins through the efforts of Mary Slessor. The transition of Nigeria from the ethos of traditional existence moored on the encumbrances of the density of the past to the essence of a modern world was largely due to the efforts of the church led by the clergy. The propagation of education and its attendant benefits were to catalyze Nigeria from the past to the present and made her join the race to modernity. Of course, it has become common knowledge that the earliest educational institutions in Nigeria were built by the church and that many of the torchbearers of a new Nigeria were beneficiaries of these schools. For over a century, schools founded by missionaries dominated the Nigerian landscape. The same can be said of hospitals established by missionaries to minister to the health needs of the people. What is apparent here therefore is that the clergy has significantly impacted Nigeria in many ways. We must bear in mind that the multiplier effects of education and health remain uncountable if not immeasurable. Even as we talk, there are still many educational institutions that are run by missions.

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