Former Head, Department of Religion, University of Ilorin, Kwara State, Prof Pius Abioje, tells ALEXANDER OKERE why he left the Catholic Church where he served as an ordained priest for 15 years before becoming an adherent of the African Traditional Religion, among other things
Despite your busy schedule, you are an active Facebook user, and on your wall, you condemned the use of the Oro ritual to disrupt the recently conducted governorship and House of Assembly elections in Lagos. What exactly did you mean by that?
It is clear that the purpose of the Oro divinity is not to disrupt anything. In fact, if there is any disturbance in town or evil spirits are suspected, it is Oro that people call to chase evil spirits away. So, using it to disrupt or rig elections is the very opposite of the purpose of that divinity.
Do you think some politicians use traditional religion to instil fear in non-adherents and ensure they win elections?
Yes. That is why I called it abuse. It is not even in the purview of the divinity. Every divinity in the African traditional religion is holy – those chosen by the supreme head of creation to be his ministers; as Prof Bolaji Idowu calls them, the ministers of Olodumare. So, if you regard them, you will not use any of the divinities for evil.
But there are reports about attacks by Oro worshippers on residents who are not adherents. Is that part of the process of driving evil spirits?
I mean Oro is for sanitising society of evil influences. It is a spiritual force for fighting evil forces.
Is there a place for black magic in ATR?
No; in African culture, yes. ATR has nothing to do with magic as a religious act.
You are an ATR adherent but used to be a Catholic priest before you decided to abandon the priesthood. What informed such a decision, which many see as radical?
I was taken away from African traditional religion in primary school. The missionaries saw that I was not going to church and sent their men after me to ask me why. I told them that I was a traditional worshipper but they told me that there was no contradiction and that I could practise ATR and go to church. So, they played on my infantry intelligence and I started going to school. God is a conspirator because he brought a Catholic priest to sponsor my education after primary school. I don’t know how he (the priest) connected my uncle and took me back to the church. One day, I started feeling like becoming a priest and went to consult a diviner when I was a mission boy. The diviner looked at me and shook his head and said I was to become a priest. I asked him what he meant and he said what he told me was what he meant. I became a priest and later left to oppose the uncharitable ways of Christians and Muslims.
When did you join the priesthood and how long did you stay before quitting?
Ah! It’s a long story. I started with St Kizito’s Minor Seminary in Ede (Osun State) in 1973. After that, I attended SS Peter and Paul Catholic Seminary, Bodija, Ibadan (Oyo State) in 1977. In 1981, I was sent to Rome with the current Bishop of Oyo Diocese, Emmanual Badejo; we studied together in Rome and that was where we completed our seminary training with a university degree. We returned to Nigeria and I was ordained in 1985 and left in 2000, 15 years after.
Fifteen years as an ordained Catholic priest is a long time. What specifically convinced you to leave?
Along the line, I saw that it (priesthood) was not where I belonged but I could not just rush out of it. In the first instance, I never saw myself being celibate, that was why I was surprised when I saw myself joining the priesthood and I had to consult a diviner. I started envying married people. That is what I can tell you.
How did your parents, community, bishop and fellow priests react to your decision to abandon the priesthood? Were they shocked or did they see it coming?
Yes, they were shocked. They were disappointed but my bishop said he was happy that I did not accuse anyone of being responsible for my decision to leave.
After studying for 17 years, including a degree at Universitas Urbaniana (Urban University), Rome, Italy, and bagged a master’s degree and doctorate at the Catholic Institute of West Africa, Port Harcourt, to build yourself as a priest, did you give your departure a serious thought?
All along, there had been questions within me about celibacy and certain Christian doctrines about whether somebody died and took away my sins or whether somebody should not marry more than one wife. Those things didn’t really fit well with me. But one cannot just take a decision and leave like that. People asking why I left the church after it trained me forget that I also served the church, including being a teacher at SS Peter and Paul Major Seminary from 1994 to 2000. I was a parish priest for years and even as a seminarian, I taught people catechism.
If you tell me that a woman gave birth to God and that Mary was a virgin when she had Jesus. How did you know she was a virgin? We met Jesus when he was 30 years old, so how do we trace how he was born? All these myths were created. You want me to believe all that? Or that Jesus died and took away our sins? Did he die or was he killed? Jesus was killed. We know the conspiracy that killed Jesus and what hurts me is that this conspiracy that killed him was swept under the carpet and people say God wanted him to die so that he can redeem human beings. You turned God to Ogun taking the blood of a dog annually or Sango taking the blood of a ram annually. So, God needed the blood of his son to redeem humans? Are we redeemed?
But you taught Catholics in your sermons as a priest what was contrary to what you currently believe. Didn’t you?
Why did I leave? Did I not say I left because these doctrines don’t sit well with me? Yes, I preached but then I became mature.
Were your parents still alive when you left?
My mother was.
How did she react when you left?
Ah! My mother was happy because she was not a Christian, though people used the advantage of my being a Catholic priest to persuade her to go to church but in reality, she was not a Christian. However, she died and was buried as a Catholic.
Have you found fulfilment after leaving the Catholic priesthood?
Ah, maybe you should have asked whether I regretted it. I have not and by the grace of God, I will not regret it.
Some people will argue that you questioned your belief in celibacy because you had sexual urges you could not control. What is your take on that?
I told you I never saw myself as a celibate but when I started having the feeling (to become a priest), I had to consult a diviner. If anybody says it was because of sex, let me tell you, as a Catholic priest one does not have a problem with sex because one has access to women. I told you that I started envying married people, didn’t believe somebody took away my sins or that one cannot marry more than a wife. A man can be a communicant (receive Holy Communion) in the church as long as he has only one wife. When he takes another wife, he is no longer a communicant but a second-class citizen in the church. Is that (marrying more than one wife) more heinous than those embezzling public funds? They go to confession and say they stole money. They are told to return the money if they can and the next day, they receive Holy Communion.
Did you leave because of sexual urges?
If you say it is people I wanted to marry, yes, I will assert that, and that’s why my bishop appreciated me for not accusing anybody but saying I could no longer cope with celibacy.
But how did you cope with women around you when you were a Catholic priest, considering that women have a high regard for priests?
It is like any other person; there is no difference, so one learns to control himself because that is not the only thing that occupies him. It depends on how much time and space one allots to that. There was nothing special about it. It was all about coping with life, with circumstances.
During one of your sojourns in the United States of America as a priest, a woman accused you of sexual harassment. How did you take that and how were you able to wriggle out of the problem?
The first time I met that woman was when she came for breakfast from her leave; she was on leave. It was my first time in the parish. I cannot remember the name of the parish now. It happened on my way out of the priesthood. I had put in my letter (of departure) to the bishop. She came in and we started talking and she was accusing priests of sexual misdemeanour and things like that. I told her that priests were human beings. Maybe that was what got into her head, I don’t know but I did say more than that. I didn’t talk her into anything. She had no attraction for me. None! When she was leaving, I was sure she wasn’t happy with the way I defended the priests. She later told me that she would take me to her office the next day. I did not know where her office was. The following day, she came and invited me to her underground office. As we were moving from one shelf to another, she stopped and started talking emotionally about herself.
What did she say?
I cannot remember what she said but she spoke as if she was miserable, so I held her and then she relaxed. I don’t know whether she had the intention to implicate me to rape her. A long time afterward, the assistant priest of the parish had the courage to call me. I didn’t know an investigation was all over the place. So, the man (priest) called me and said the woman said something; he didn’t even know how to say it, so I had to ask him whether she said I tried to rape her. He said yes. I told him that if I tried to rape her, why did I not rape her?
We were only two in that place (the underground office), so why should I try and fail? The priest said she said she was praying when it happened, so I laughed and that was the end of the matter. If I wanted to rape, there was always a single girl manning the reception, a beautiful lady, not that haggard old woman. There were girls, black and white, manning the house and none of them complained of my trying to rape them. They saw that I had been visiting America for five to six years and nobody had accused me of trying to rape them.
What was the conclusion of the investigation?
They did their investigation and said I had no rape pattern and that was the end of it. If the woman was able to implicate me, that would mean millions of dollars for her. Once it is established that a priest tried to rape a female; that means money in America.
You expressed support for polygamy. Should women also be allowed to marry as many men as they want?
In my view, life was not planned for women to have more than one husband as it is prevalent in human culture. There may be exceptions. But for men, was Abraham, our father in faith, the husband of only one woman? David, the king, took more concubines and wives after establishing Jerusalem. I am surprised that even concubines come before wives in that (Bible) passage. Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines.
As a former Catholic priest, what’s your reaction to the declaration of Rev Fr Hyacinth Alia by INEC as the governor-elect of Benue State?
Someone sent materials to me wherein the church advised him against it (joining politics) but that he insisted and he was suspended for disobeying his superior, and that after serving his term and he is still interested, he would be pardoned and reinstated. That is the position of the church. My only concern is that he joined the All Progressives Congress. I think (the incumbent governor) Samuel Ortom did his best for his people in terms of empathising with them. Maybe now that the APC is in the state, the Fulani herdsmen will stop attacking and killing people in Benue State.
Having elected a priest, should the people of Benue expect better governance?
To whom much is given, much is expected. It will be scandalous and unfortunate if he does not live up to the expectation of the people as a Catholic priest. It will also be a disgrace to the church.
The Catholic Church dissociated itself from his involvement in partisan politics. Do you think he erred by playing politics as a priest?
No. You cannot dictate somebody’s life. Nobody is your creator. Only God creates and motivates, and we cannot question God’s motivation. We are individuals and we see differently. That is why when people criticise me by saying the church trained me, I ask them: is the church my creator? First and foremost, I am accountable to my creator. So, I’m happy he (Alia) didn’t allow the church to stand in his way.
How did you meet your wife when you left the church? Or was she your parishioner when you were a parish priest?
I met her in the church where I was the priest in charge at Ogbomoso (Oyo State).
Did you talk to her as a priest?
Did you make advances at her when you were a priest?
Well, we started as friends and that developed into mutual affection.
Did she not have any concerns about marrying a Catholic priest?
Ah, she didn’t.
Is it her first marriage?
She was married but the marriage broke down before I met her. I think they (she and her ex-husband) were divorced.
How long did it take after her divorce before you married her?
I don’t know for long but I know she was not in any marital relationship when I met her.
Will you encourage any of your children to join the priesthood?
They are not Christians.
Are they ATR adherents?
Yes. I had to tell them that it (priesthood) is not the place to go.
What if any of them insists?
They have not.
You’re from Iwere Ile in Oyo State and you once stated on your Facebook wall that when you left the priesthood, the community treated you like a leper except for one of your uncles. Has the relationship with your root improved now?
It is a huge conspiracy. Ah, I don’t want to talk about it. I will not talk about it.