Leadership rows tear African churches apart

Nairobi, Kenya - Almost two decades after “Baba Messiah” Melkio Ondeto’s death, his name still invokes reverence among the followers of the Legio Maria sect in Kenya, while to others, it is synonymous with controversy.

With a legion of followers across East Africa, Ondeto ruled with an iron fist, being the central figure around which hundreds of thousands of followers rallied, believing he had healing powers.

And Archbishop Mathews Abednego Ajuoga of The Church of Christ in Africa (Jo Hera) founded the Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC).

The African independent churches, with their distinctive and often defiant approach to worship that incorporated traditional religious customs into a Christian framework, endeared themselves to many.

Well-known independents in western Kenya include Nomiya, Dini ya Musambwa and Legio Maria.

Years later though, the African independent churches are headed for the rocks as leadership wrangles threaten to tear them apart after the passing on of the founders, long seen as supernatural.

Since they were built around personalities, the associations too, had weak foundations. Since Ondeto’s death in 1991, the succession battle in the Legio Maria Sect has dragged on for years as confusion and desperation spread among the faithful.

At the centre of controversy is who and how the third occupant of the most powerful papal seat in the controversial sect is to be filled.

After the death the founder and the supreme spiritual leader of the church, Cardinal Dean Timothy Blasio Ahitla was appointed to be the second Pope to take over the leadership of the church. It was after the death of Pope Ahitla in 1998 that the church plunged into wrangles.

Two factions, one led by Cardinal Dean Lawrence Pius Chiaji and another by His Holiness Wilson Petro Owino Obimbo have battled in courts in Nairobi and Kisumu, but nothing seems to have come out.

The battle has now pitted Pope Raphael Titus Otieno against his rival Pope Joseph Romanus Ongombe, with both claiming the title.

The sect’s constitution states that the “subsequent ascension to the leadership of Baba Mtakatifu Pope will be determined by the help of God through the Holy Spirit”.

That divine intervention has instead turned into legal battles that secular magistrates and judges have been unable to resolve.

According to Dr Nicholas Keya, a lecturer at Masinde Muliro University and a member of Legio Maria, the differences within the sect have been escalated by personality issues. Their robes of different colours have remained the physical reminder of the divisions that run deep.

At the Dala Hera (Home of Love), it’s not love any more since the demise of Archbishop Ajuoga in June this year. Initially, the disagreement was over the burial place of the man who broke away from the Anglican Church in the 1963.

While some church members wanted his body to be interred at the CCA (Dala Hera) headquarters in Kondele, Kisumu, his family held an opposing view, sticking to the traditions Archbishop Ajuoga revered. A Luo elder cannot be buried outside his homestead.

The body was finally interred at his Kambare rural home in Gem District.

During the funeral, the widow of Archbishop Ajuoga, Milkah, installed Archbishop Habakkuk Abogno as the new leader of Jo Hera after dismissing the claims of his brother-in-law, Mr Okuku Oguna.

But it is now emerging that a section of the faithful are planning to seek legal redress over the succession.

However, Church Secretary General Dick Ochieng who is also a grandson of the late archbishop denied that some members could go to court to contest the decision.

“Archbishop Abogno is the natural successor since he has been serving as the deputy,” he said.

But he appeared to contradict himself when he said that the appointment of successor had not taken place.

Other clergy and political leaders at the funeral pleaded with the members to maintain decorum in choosing their leaders.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga urged the church to come up with clear succession plans and avoid washing dirty linen in public.

“Why should top clergy seek redress from the courts whenever they feel there is a problem within the church and yet they worship one God?” asked Mr Odinga. “The Catholic bishops confine themselves in a conclave when seeking a new Pope and are united in prayers until the white smoke comes out signifying that a leader has been appointed,” added the PM.

His views have been supported by Kisumu Town West MP John Olago, Gem MP Jakoyo Midiwo, himself a follower of Jo Hera, Dr Keya and Bishop Mwai Abiero of Maseno South ACK Diocese.

Mr Olago said: “Courts should not be misused to settle church matters. As an advocate, I will advise the leadership of the African Independent Churches to include a clause in their doctrines to guide succession and resolve disputes within the confines of the church.”

In 1997, the government introduced the Religious Bodies Registration Bill to bring sanity to the muddle that religion was slowly turning into.

This Bill, the government thought, would streamline operations including succession and management of religious organisations including the independent churches.

However, the Bill was withdrawn amidst intense opposition from politicians and clergy; but the issues it sought to resolve remain contentious.

President Mwai Kibaki, then chairman of the Democratic Party of Kenya, remarked at the time that the Government was drunk with power “and now wants to usurp God’s role as the head of the Church”.

Bishop Abiero maintains that only the registration procedure be tightened.