Re- Aregbesola’s Misguided Church Project

After reading the editorial of The PUNCH newspaper of Tuesday January 21, 2014, titled: “Aregbesola’s misguided church project”, every discerning reader will be compelled to ask: What is the motive behind the write-up that would conveniently pass for a desperate attempt at promoting religious tension especially in a state where faith is immaterial in how the citizens relate with one another?

In summary, the editorial accused Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun of lacking clear understanding of core functions of government simply because his administration embarks on the construction of a 200,000 capacity interdenominational worship centre in the state. The editorial went on to state that it is a taboo for any government to dabble into matters of religion and that rather than face issues of development especially using agriculture, the government is busy taking over lands from farmers who ought to cultivate the lands for food productions.

Perhaps what sounds most ridiculous in all the claims is that the Open Heavens Christian Convention Centre amounts to a “bribe” to silence a section of Christians in the state who had viewed with suspicion some of the administration’s programmes and policies and had tagged some of the policies anti-Christian in what remains a largely unsubstantiated claim.

For the avoidance of doubt, the issue of a massive worship centre could not have been an after-thought for as early as one week after his November 27, 2010 inauguration, Governor Aregbesola had chosen the December 4, 2010 occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Ilesa Grammar School to announce the state’s plan to embark on the project.

Those in attendance include the highly revered General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God; Pastor E.A Adeboye, Prof Wale Omole, Prof Oye Ibidapo-Obe, Justice Belgore, Mr. Tunde Oloko, Oba  Adekunle Aromolaran and other eminent Nigerians. This was apart from pre-election promise over the same issue.

The Governor repeated this pledge on several subsequent occasions especially during the convocation ceremony of the Joseph Ayo Babalola University, in Ikeji-Arakeji  in 2012 and the visit of Pa Adeboye to him at the Government House as part of Adeboye’s tour of the Let’s Go A Fishing programme in 2012.

Of course, the idea of a worship centre was not just a happenstance as the editorial sought to make it look. It emanated from the realization that many famous church leaders have their roots in Osun and precisely Ilesa and its environs. Among these are Pastor Adeboye of RCCG; Late Joseph Ayo Babalola, who was the first indigenous Christian evangelist from Ilesa, WF Kumuyi, late Prophet T.O Obadare, Pastor Mathew Ashimolowo, Pastor Kayode Abiara, Prophet G. O. Fakeye and a host of others.

It must be stated that the land for the project was freely given to the State by the community through the Looja of Odo-Iju in Atakunmosa-West Local Government Area; Engr. Adelekun. The compensation recently paid that was mischievously reported by the PUNCH was government’s way of supporting the people of the community for the high sense of patriotism displayed in releasing their lands for development purposes.
The bribery insinuation takes the argument to an all-low; albeit, pedestrian nadir. How wrong could the PUNCH be insinuating bribery and ominous gift! Bribe for who? And for what?

At the heart of every policy of the current administration is rapid economic growth of the state and immediate liberation of the people from grinding poverty. For instance, as ordinary as it looks, the seasonal use of train to transport Osun indigenes to the state during festivities free of charge is to increase inward travel and encourage more people to visit the state.

Every serious government must recognize what potentials there are and exploit that for its people’s economic advancement. Just as you have religious tourism, there is medical tourism popular in Germany and lately United Arab Emirate.

Had the economic development of Osun been a major concern of the PUNCH editorial, it would have examined the huge economic potentials that lie in the congregation of about 200,000 visitors/worshippers to our state weekly for a year.

If a worshipper spends an average of N1,000 during each of their  visits, Osun will rake in a whopping N10.4 billion in a year from what the editorial prefers to demonise as a ‘dangerous religious venture’.

At best, the editorial would pass for a fallacious concoction lacking in merit, reason and veracity. One wonders how PUNCH’s argument that religion is purely a private organization affair where government interventions amount to taboos can be sustained.

The Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, began building the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City between 319 and 333 AD. Today, the Basilica is famous as place of pilgrimage and attracts many visitors to the Vatican. Services at St. Peter’s have been recorded to draw audiences in large numbers from 15,000 to 80,000 people, both within and outside the Basilica. Even though Osun may not be able to finance a monumental structure as the Basilica in this modern day, the dream of an Interdenominational Worship Centre has tremendous potential to attract audiences to the tune of the proposed 200,000 capacity given the attention Nigerians pay to worship today.

But if history is too remote for the editorial to grasp, there are contemporary interventions of government across the world on issues of religion.

If governments have no business with religions, why do they spend money to maintain the religious shrines and monuments in Saudia Arabia and Israel; attracting millions of people every year? Does religious tourism in some of world’s most visited shrines not constitute significant percentage of their GDPs?

The National Ecumenical Centre and the National Mosque both in Abuja enjoy massive government patronage. As a matter of fact, President Obasanjo, as sitting President played very significant role in the completion of the National Ecumenical Centre which is now called the Church of Nigeria in 2004 after it had been abandoned for almost 16 years.

The PUNCH did not write a negative story let alone an editorial when Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa states hosted and paid for massive crusades last year, where very sizeable chunk of states fund went into bringing scores of foreign gospel singers from across the globe.

Every year, states and the federal government sponsor pilgrims to Mecca and Jerusalem. So, where is the separation of state from religion for which PUNCH has been very vociferous against Aregbesola?

The central mosque Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos and the Chapel of Light church beside it belong to the Lagos state government. There is a Chapel inside the Villa, built and maintained by government. If Osun builds an interdenominational place of worship that people can use for revivals and retreats, shouldn’t the state government be encouraged?

The attempt to whip up sentiment over the land acquired for the project failed woefully. Massive food production remains one of the major agenda of the current administration with noticeable growers’ activities through the carefully established schemes such as the Osun Rural Enterprise and Agricultural Programmes (OREAP). Through this scheme, thousands of hectares of land have been acquired and cleared free of charge and allocated to serious-minded farmers. Farm settlements in Mokore, Ifon-Orolu, Ago Owu, Ila, Iwo and others are testimonies to the very active and result-oriented farming investments in Osun. An equal amount of energy is devoted towards creation of cooperative groups to create veritable platforms for farmers to access financial supports for agriculture purposes.

Today, Osun remains a very peaceful state with the administration’s carefully plotted development programmes which are visible in health, agriculture, tourism, security, youth empowerment, education and infrastructure.

It is sad to note that while no one has raised objection against the construction of this worship centre, a national daily of PUNCH’s profile is inciting sections of the populace against the government. Or how else do we define PUNCH’s advice to Christians never to accept this “ greek gift” and its request to adherents of other faiths to demand for equivalents of this worship centre even if they have no reasons to so do.

We must ask what the interest of the PUNCH is in stoking religious hostility in this part of the country that is reputed over the years for tolerance and accommodation. It began with Hijrah holiday, School uniform, education reform and now committing public fund to building a Christian Religious Centre. In all of this a major strand is obvious which is to portray the Governor as a bigot that is on an Islamist agenda that the Christians must resist. This perspective is not only wrong it is divisive, mischievous, poisonous and very dangerous.

A newspaper’s noble role should be to inform and educate the people; not to urge them to take negative actions which they never felt was necessary and called for.

Just like the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Aregbesola’s administration’s decisions are premised on reasons, not sentiments, benefits not disadvantages. Awolowo was a Christian; yet history has it that he established the first Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board in the defunct Western Region because he saw the need for this body based on the relevance of pilgrimage to Mecca as integral part of the Islamic faith. Awolowo did not establish an equivalent Christian Pilgrims Welfare Board at that time just to please Christians.

The PUNCH is a respected media house in Nigeria, and controls substantial readership which surpasses most other newspapers. Over the years, the reputation was built with strict adherence to all the principles and ethics of responsible journalism. The assumption that writers have checked their facts thoroughly and have drawn conclusions which can reasonably be gleaned from those facts, are factors which come with the terrain which the Punch has enjoyed so far.

It is disastrous to note that these are what the national daily wants to stake in what now appears to be a self-appointed mission to promote disunity and cause disaffection in the land.

As a government, we recognize and respect the newspaper’s rights to its views. But as an institution that wants to be respected for its views, such rights must be exercised in the most cautious manner lest it makes itself a willing tool in the hands of those bent of truncating the development and liberation of our people.