By: Fr. Williams Kaura Abba
An elegy in memory of pioneer Catholic Bishop of Kafanchan, Most Rev. Joseph Danlami Bagobiri
“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you”.
Tuesday, 27th February 2018 had the promise and outlook of just another day. But it was not to be. A disaster had befallen the Catholic Community, Christendom, Southern Kaduna and the Nation that faithful morning. Somehow, I had premonition and had had a sleepless night. In total, I didn’t quite get 45 minutes of sleep the entire night. I wasn’t sick and I wasn’t hungry so what could be the matter? Agitation and restlessness became my lot throughout the night. A colleague and I were billed to make an official trip to the University of Jos that Tuesday morning. I managed the night and by 8am I was ready for the trip. My colleague came to pick me up. We shared a bowl of pap together. Clearly, I didn’t have appetite and I voiced it out and said to him, my soul is troubled. I am not happy. It is like something ominous has happened or will happen. My colleague struggled to explain the feeling away. For him, these moments do come to everyone, and for you, he said, this might be that moment when nothing appeals to you. But you will be fine. I nodded my head as if to say I believed him. We set off for the journey.
How the news broke to me
8.59am my phone rang less than 2 kilometers away from my house. Since I wasn’t on the wheel, I had the luxury of picking my call. ‘Hello Sir, good morning and how are you today’? The caller said ‘I am fine and how is Kafanchan today’? I said Kafanchan is fine and peaceful and it looks like we will have a bright day. Then he responded, ‘well, Kafanchan is not fine. We just received news that will not be palatable to you and take heart. Bishop Bagobiri passed on this morning in Kaduna’. For five minutes I went blank. A certain numbness enveloped me. What happened? How is that possible?
My colleague heard our conversation and pulled out. We hung there for 10 minutes pondering. Lamentations, pain, anger, grief and just share disbelief. We drove to the Institute and decided to abort the trip to Jos. Between the spot I received the first phone call to the Institute, a distance of 3 kilometers, a barrage of calls and text messages began to come my way, everyone was condoling and expressing sympathy. Since more than 15 persons called and the news was the same, I had to deal with the fact that this couldn’t be fake news. So I woke up to the reality of the calamity. Death has dealt us a heavy blow and robbed us of the finest cleric in Southern Kaduna. While we talked in school and were busy rationalizing, the Vicar General called and asked about my whereabouts. I told him I was at the Institute and he said ‘come to the Secretariat in the next 15 minutes and come along with the Rector of the Seminary’. If I was still in doubt, this singular call and the urgency in the Vicar General’s tone was a reinforcement of the fact that indeed it is true that we lost our Chief Shepherd. In no time we were at the Secretariat and met some of the priests who had been summoned by the Vicar to break the news formally. Forlorn and downcast one could see the disbelief and shock in the eyes of Priests and pain indescribable. We listened attentively, asked some questions, prayed and we dispersed quietly. The shepherd has gone and we were like wounded lambs and felt a sense of vulnerability. Our pride, our moral compass, our leader and father was lying lifeless in Kaduna. It was a fast forwarding of Good Friday for the Diocese.
My last dealings with him and his last days.
For some of us who had things to do with the Bishop within the week, we had a hard time processing this news. Within the week, he gave me two tasks to do for him: to represent him at the Senate Public hearing for the establishment of the University of Science and Technology Manchok and, secondly to study a 13 page document he had put together titled “CHRISTIANITY AND THE AUTOCHTONOUS COMMUNITIES OF THE MIDDLE BELT REGION OF NORTHERN NIGERIA UNDER THE THREAT OF EXTINCTION: A CLARION CALL TO STOP THE INCESSANT CARNAGE”. He was to be guest speaker at the Gwong annual cultural festival slated to hold on Saturday 3rd March 2018. I was to study his paper and come back to share my thoughts with him and possibly also deliver the paper on his behalf.
Saturday 24th February, I saw him driving himself going towards Fadan Kagoma and I waved him. The Kpop Gwong would later confirm that he spent time with him in his farm that fateful day and they had meaningful discussion. The Parish Priest of Ikulu Pari hosted the Bishop on Sunday 25th February. Then Monday 26th he went to see an ophthalmologist in Kaduna to complain of a certain discomfort he was having in the eye. The doctor saw him and prescribed medication and he was ready to return home same day. But the unfortunate crisis that had engulfed Kasuwan Magani, couldn’t let him proceed and he had to make a detour to Kaduna. The place to go to was naturally the Archbishop’s house where he was accommodated for the night. Morning came, the driver was waiting, then the sudden discovery- Bishop had already passed on peacefully and appeared like someone just taking a nap. But he wasn’t napping. He had left this sinful and troubled world.
The doctor and the staff at the eye hospital are still shell shocked. Bishop was looking strong and walking with so much energy such that a staff even joked, ‘who is this patient that is walking like a military man?’ But lo, Bishop was ready to return to his maker. He didn’t give us any sign, but in hindsight, we knew, he was prepared.
Very many persons had close encounters with him shortly before his demise. Priests, Nuns, Monks, lay faithful, family members, staff, contractors at the various construction sites etc.
One can best imagine the level of incredulity in their minds.
The early years off his episcopacy.
At the Mass of his consecration and installation as Bishop of Kafanchan on the 21st October 1995, Most Rev. Joseph Bagobiri received from the Lord a vision of what he was to do in Kafanchan. He told the story of how at the point the Holy Bible was laid on his head by the Principal Consecrator, God revealed the areas that will preoccupy his episcopacy:
1. The Gospel of Christ must have a social dimension.
2. The need to form a female Religious Congregation that will be devoted to prayer and helping families in difficulties.
3. Founding a Monastic community of Monks who will embrace both the contemplative and the active life.
Prudential management of scarce resources
In the first year of his consecration, Bishop Joseph Bagobiri already had a clear blueprint for spiritual and physical development of the Diocese. He launched a five year development plan and every adult Catholic in the diocese was required to make an annual contribution of one Hundred Naira. From these contributions, the first set of projects will be birthed: the Diocesan Secretariat, the Minor Seminary and the Bishop’s House. In less than 10 years, infrastructural development was visible and widespread, and the new Diocese, had grown in leaps and bounds. There were times he had as many as 3-4 projects running concurrently and the Priests and Laity would always wonder where he got his resources from. He will always reply and say, it is purely an act of God and prudential management of scarce resources.
Bishop Joseph Bagobiri successfully organized two (2) Synods where his vision was well articulated and the job description of every commission and various offices well spelt out. He will always say, no one who is appointed into any office in the Diocese should complain that he/she has no job description.
His Legacy: He roared in the pulpit.
The most notable of his legacy and strength, in my estimation, is found in the pulpit. His ability to deliver sermons eloquently is mind blowing. He preached and delivered very powerful messages with so much ease. He could preach for well over an hour and when he was done, you will wish he did not stop. You could see passion, charisma, faith, conviction and ardent love of the word of God. His mastery of Church’s teaching and the Magisterium was classic. He was a preacher who was both radical and conservative. He could take a scriptural passage and present it in such a way that it speaks to you and conscripts your conscience, he was that powerful. He will always say to the Priests that he is the Catechist in Chief and the duty of teaching faithfully what was handed to him to the flock in the Diocese must be done diligently, conscientiously and with a sense of urgency. He encouraged his Priests to develop their homilies and make sure they are rich in content. Every week, he churned out Sunday reflections to the public and very many Priests and lay faithful looked up to them and found them very helpful and inspiring. These homilies were usually very incisive and theologically sound. His Treatise on self defense in the face of grave danger when confronted by an unjust aggressor is first class. He roared on the pulpit. He can best be described as the lion of the pulpit.
Education: his major priority
He gave education in the Diocese priority attention. He began the Diocese in 1995 with St Louis School of Midwifery as the only Tertiary Institution, 1 secondary school and 3 primary schools. He left behind, 22 years later, a degree awarding Institution in affiliation with the University of Jos, 28 Secondary schools, and very many primary schools. It was his strong conviction that education held the key to the liberation and emancipation of his people.
He encouraged Priests who had the aptitude and disposition for further studies to pursue various specializations both within and outside the shores of Nigeria. At the inception of the Diocese, he had only 2 Priests who had a PhD and 3 others with Masters Degree. Today, through his deliberate policy in liberalizing the education of his Priests, in the Presbyterium of the diocese there is a Professor, 12 Priests with PhD’s in different fields of Church and liberal arts, very many with Masters degrees, 2 Priests and 2 Sisters of the Beatitudes studying Medicine overseas. Many others are at various stages of their Post Graduate Studies. This is a rare feat, only a Pastor with a knack for education will achieve. He was a bulwark of support for his Priests who were desirous of enhancing their intellectual life. Today, Bishop has left a Presbyterium that is rich in man power and can take up assignments and tasks wherever the Church needs their services. He is always fond of encouraging his Priests to equip themselves and be prepared to work anywhere just like the missionaries did when they brought the Gospel. He was never afraid of vocations to the Priesthood but rather saw the boom, a huge blessing.
Health: He was building a dialysis centre
The health sector also got his attention. He ensured that good and qualitative medical services were available to his people. He understood that if he had to preach a Gospel that was meaningful, then he must be talking to people who were healthy in mind and body. Thus health centers are littered in parts of the diocese. Being a victim of Renal failure, he set out to establish a dialysis centre in Kafanchan for patients who may have kidney problems to access help easily and at a cost that will be affordable. He was there, he knows what it meant and didn’t want his people to go through the exorbitant costs of treatment. The center is structurally near completion and the next phase will be the installation of machines. Sadly, he won’t be around to witness it’s usage but surely, from his place in Heaven, he will be proud of what he did for his people.
Voracious appetite for reading.
His voracious appetite for reading was phenomenal. He devoted a good chunk of his time in his study. He would always tell students that their brains were elastic and had capacity to absorb as much material as could be fed into it. He was a prolific writer, the master wordsmith and a scholar per excellence. He taught with so much ease and had an uncommon passion for the teaching profession. As a Bishop, he took his courses at the Institute and was very happy to be a part of the academic staff. He participated actively in all the inaugural lectures that held at the Institute as well as the first Convocation lecture. Such was his love for academics.
Bishop Joseph’s love for Christ and the Church was infectious. He radiated this love and exemplified the love of Christ in his daily life. He loved to pray and didn’t spare the prie-dieu. The prayer of the Church and private devotions occupied a substantial part of his day. He began his day with adoration that usually went with the breviary, then the Mass. In the afternoon he said his prayers at the secretariat with members of the Curia as well as other staff and guests who may visit. He found great strength in prayer such that he will always say that he has seen the worst in his life but that prayer sustained him and saw him through all kinds of trials and tribulations. He read St John of the Cross and Theresa of Avilla so extensively that when he spoke about these Mystiques, one would think he actually wrote the material for them.
Worthy of mention was his strong spirituality that is rooted in the Gospel of Mathew 5:1-12. In the Beatitudes, Bishop Bagobiri carved a niche for himself and became an authority. His mastery of the Beatitudes and the way he presented it left many a Priest in awe. His Episcopal motto was: act gently, love tenderly and walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8). This quotation formed the basic thrust and basis for his ministry as Bishop. He did not ingratiate himself or luxuriate in obscene opulence and whatever he got as gifts by way of money from people, he channelled for the development of the Diocese. He was a man probity and accountability was his second nature. But of profound influence in his life was undoubtedly the Beatitudes. He did not only preach it, he lived it and even founded a Religious Congregation for the Diocese that go by the name Sisters of the Beatitudes (SOB). The life of the Sisters is anchored on the Beatitudes. The last of the visions God laid in his heart was the founding of the Beatitudean Monks. The Mass of the opening and commissioning of the Monastery was done on the 26th October 2017, Solemnity of Christ the King. The Monks are devoted strictly to the life of prayer and the Beatitudes.
Years before he took ill, he made it known to his Priests that he has been active all his life so he would want to spend the last phase of his life in the Monastery in contemplation and reflection and that he was not keen on holding on to power forever. Before the close of last year, he made it abundantly clear that his level of involvement in the running of the Docese was going to be very minimal. Thus, he devolved power and saddled his Vicars with most of the work. He made good this promise and moved into the monastery on the 31st December 2017 so that he will begin the New Year in the Monastery. He spent six days in the Monastery and 1 day in the Bishop’s house for his weekly dialysis and also attended to some official work. Despite his debilitating health, he was faithful to his work and expended good energy on Pastoral work. On very few occasions did he have to delegate any of his Vicars to represent him for Pastoral visit. He loved to meet the people to strengthen and encourage them in the faith. Effectively, from December 31st 2017, Bishop was in touch with himself and his God in the serene atmosphere in the hills of Fayit where he found balance, solicitude and tranquility. This period, no doubt provided Bishop Bagobiri ample time to prepare for his glorious home coming.
An Advocate for Peace and Social Justice
Bishop Joseph was a gentleman and very committed to peace building and always enjoined his flock to live in peace and harmony with one another. He never failed to organize the yearly World day of Prayer for Peace where he brought men and women from different faith backgrounds.
There was never a time Bishop came to address his Priests and he didn’t talk about the need for peace and genuine love for one another. He was a detribalized Nigerian and was a Bishop for every, Catholics, Non Catholics and Traditional Religionists. He stood against divisiveness, tribalism, cronyism, and clannishness. He encouraged unity and brotherliness at all times. He was gentle like a dove yet very firm and tough. The stick and carrot approach was his most favorite and portent tool. He didn’t hesitate to impose the severest sanctions on erring clerics who run foul of the law.
Entrepreneurship and Poverty Alleviation
In line with the vision he received at his consecration, he made entrepreneurship an essential component in the life of the Diocese. He foresaw that a time would come when the local Church would no longer be able to receive grants from funding agencies overseas to finance critical infrastructure. So he went into ventures that could generate income for the diocese as well as create employment for the teaming youth as a way of empowerment. He was very passionate about the economic wellbeing of Southern. Thus, he ventured into oil and gas, agriculture, confectionery, hospitality industry and many other initiatives. Today, some of these initiatives are thriving while some are still struggling to stabilize. With good management, these initiatives will be a hub and will serve as good sources of income for the Diocese.
The Peoples’ Bishop and the Conscience of Society
Although, a Catholic Bishop, Joseph Bagobiri became the rallying point for Southern Kaduna. He provided leadership and sought to Religious leaders under the banner of Southern Kaduna Christian Leaders. He rose to become the pioneer President. He was also able to unite the political leaders. In moments of uncertainty, ambiguity and tension, he was there to calm frayed nerves. He advocated for a united front with a view to achieving good and positive results for Southern Kaduna. He fought for minorities whose rights were being trampled upon by tyrannical and oppressive governments. He was scathing in his criticism and condemnation of unjust policies and took on government that turned a blind eye to the plight and suffering of the masses. He was the conscience of society, a gadfly that stung people to consciousness and the voice of the voiceless. He gave hope and succor to the oppressed and downtrodden especially those that came under the scourge of terrorism. He was constructively aggressive and took the path of initiating to support what is important and just. He worked in a hostile environment against the power that devalues life, beliefs and way of life of his people. He was an advocate of good governance and never shied away from speaking truth to power, either on the political turf, or even his immediate constituency, the Church. His homegrown solution and strong voice in proffering panacea to the crisis that rocked the Church in Nigeria, still reverberates. He took bullets from the Church and for the Church and from political leaders especially when he is certain and convinced that he was on the right path. Such was his tenacity and courage! He encouraged governments that were pro masses and didn’t prevaricate in opposing tyrants.
Defender of the Faith
For Christians, he was a defender of the Faith and he didn’t show languidness or pussy footing when the faith was being threatened. His last gift to the world was the launching of his book titled: “CHRISTIANS: SEED OF ANOTHER HUMANITY (Exhortations to a people suffering persecution, violence and Martyrdom in Northern Nigeria). In the book, he sought to encourage Christians to hold strongly to their faith and never be cowed by the antics of Islamists and those who seek to intimidate us on account of our faith. He was a very strong voice in condemnation of terrorism. He was a cancer to evil minded people and became himself a terrorist to the terrorists. He denounced extremists who promoted violence, masquerading by the names: ISIS, DAESH, AL QAEDA, BOKO HARAM, AL SHABAB OR FULANI HERDSMEN TERRORISTS that unleashed violence on communities leaving in their trail, blood, pain and suffering. When he died days back, videos of him speaking at the UN presenting the plight of Christians in Northern Nigeria trended on social media and very many tributes and encomiums were poured on him for his doggedness and consistency. He loved Southern Kaduna with every fiber of his being and could do anything for the peace and stability of this area.
I must add here also that from his sick bed in Rome, at the heat of the Fulani terrorist attacks on Southern Kaduna communities in December 2017, he provided leadership to the Priests, Religious and Laity. He prompted us to do a Press Release that will carry a comprehensive account and statistics of the killings and destruction. That was the Press Release that changed the narrative of the crises in Southern Kaduna and forced government both at the State and Federal levels to take decisive action. That single document also helped to create awareness in the International Community as journalists from Europe and America began to sink their teeth in the happenings around Southern Kaduna and Nigeria at large.
He had a DNA that spoke to tenacity, intelligence and resilience. Un-daunting and sometimes stubborn when it comes to issues that impinge negatively or adversely on his people. As a delegate to the 2014 CONFAB, he was strong on equal treatment of Christianity and Islam. He advocated for constitutional amendment that will allow for delineation of polling units to correct the structural imbalance deliberately put in place by the feudal lords with a view to disenfranchising the people of Southern Kaduna and Minority groups. We hope that government, by way of honoring this patriot, will implement the resolutions of the CONFAB.
One huge lesson (amongst so many) to draw from Bishop Joseph is his ability to endure suffering. He aligned his suffering to the suffering of Christ on the Cross. He suffered grievously and yet didn’t want to put the burden on his people. He suffered with dignity, accepted his condition and bore it with equanimity. He didn’t allow pity to crush him and didn’t want anyone to feel pity for him. Those who saw him on Monday at the Kaduna Media Service Centre before he died recount how boisterous and full of life he was. He blessed everyone in the bookshop as well as the bookshop itself. He bought a Pix with which he will always be carrying communion for the sick. He didn’t live to use the Pix as the greatest Physician had healed him of all infirmities. No more pain, no more dialysis, no more anxiety. He has been restored fully and is now with Christ. Do you wonder why the Lord chose to call him in the season of Lent?
His work ethic was second to none. In fact, he was working until he died. If he was not writing, he was giving talks to groups or initiating and supervising projects. Never tired, never relenting. He disavowed indolence and conceitfulness. He was a workaholic. Truly, he emblematized Joseph the worker.
Bishop Joseph Bagobiri has left a yawning gap in the soul of Kafanchan Diocese, Southern Kaduna and Nigeria. He has left huge legacies for his successor. It is our prayer, that from his ashes, God will raise another dogged cleric for Kafanchan and Southern Kaduna. No doubt earth has lost a rare gem, heaven has gained!
As he is laid to rest, we pray the Lord of Mercy to forgive his wrong. He was a mere mortal and subject to human frailty and condition. He had his flaws and had made mistakes in his life time. People misunderstood him. To some, he was highly opinionated, and to many others, he was a leader. May the Lord never count his sins against him. May our Bishop enter into that Blessedness and Beatific vision that he believed in, yearned for and sought all his life.
Go, Servant of God, enter into that rest promised us by the Lord.
Go and meet your Creator, and receive reward for generous love and service.
The Priests, Religious and Laity of the bubbling and happy Diocese you left behind will never forget you.
Adieu Bishop Joseph Danlami Bagobiri.
Adieu great son of the Church.
Adieu great Patriot
Until we meet in the morning of the Resurrection
Fr. Willaim Kaura Abba, a catholic priest, human right activist and social commentator writes from Kafanchan.