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Is political rivalry fuelling Muhabura diocese conflict?

By Vision Reporter

Added 24th February 2002 03:00 AM

It is alleged that Philemon Mateke vowed to fight Sebuhinja over his support of Sam Bitangaro

MUHABURA diocese in Kisoro district is at crossroads. Bishop Ernest Shalita was supposed to have retired on December 31, but he still hangs on as some Christians battle the House of Bishops over who should succeed him. A section of Christians have sworn they will not allow Canon David Sebuhinja, the House of Bishops’ choice, to succeed Shalita. They prefer Canon Wilson Baganizi. “He will not become our Bishop. I am the head of the laity. Christians don’t want him. We shall not allow him to be our bishop, take it from me,” Philemon Mateke told The New Vision last week. Mateke’s words cannot be dismissed as a lone man’s empty threats. A former state minister in Obote II and President Museveni’s government, Mateke is an influential opinion leader with a considerable following in Kisoro District. Matters are likely to get more complicated for anybody who tries to insist on installing Sebuhinja now that Mateke has been elected LC 5 Chairman. His victory at the height of the crisis could mean that he is not the instigator some people think him to be. While Sebuhinja still carries out his duties as diocesan secretary without interference and attends church service peacefully, Shalita is not having the best of times in his last weeks as bishop. On February 3, two big needles pricked his buttocks as he tried to sit in his throne in St. Andrew’s Cathedral. He now sits on a small bench near the throne during church service. Earlier, Shalita was locked in the vestry with a group of Canons he was about to ordain. On another occasion, some people collected bags and trays used to collect offertory and sat on them during service. Attendance during Sunday church service tells more about the crisis. Church wardens who used to walk around the church collecting the offertory also threw in the towel and told Shalita to do it himself. Christians now walk to the altar to give offertory. On realising that I was a reporter, Christians from both camps rushed to me to give their side of the story: “You see those seats behind the preacher which are empty? They used to be for the church choir members,” said a man who did not want to be identified. “They (choir members) swore never to sing in this church again until Shalita and Sebuhinja have left,” he said. According to them, a white lady who plays an organ/piano now leads singing in church. “Look around, they are now filling the church with school children because people no longer want to come here,” said another. The Cathedral is surrounded by two boarding secondary schools and a primary school. The children come in uniforms to attend service, preceded by a procession led by a school band. But the diocesan information officer, Rev. Victor Kalimwabo, sees it differently: “They have been saying that the church remains empty on Sunday, now you have seen for yourself. It was full,” he said before I could ask about the attendance. I needed to have attended several services before the crisis began to judge whether people have boycotted the church, but I saw many school children. Culprits who planted needles, locked the vestry or hid offertory bags are still unknown, though Mateke says it could have been stage-managed to undermine his election bid. Whatever the case, it is not difficult to understand why somebody would want to hurt Bishop Shalita. He is accused of influencing the House of Bishops to choose Sebuhinja and reject Baganizi, a charge he denies. It all started last September when six people who formed the electoral college of the synod sat to chose two names to send to the House of Bishop for the final vote. Mateke and two other people represented Christians on the Electoral College while Sebuhinja and to others represented the clergy. Voting was by secret ballot. Baganizi emerged best with six votes and Sebuhinja got three. Later, the House of Bishops sat and named Sebuhinja as Bishop-elect. “We want the person (Baganizi) who got the most votes and without him we shall stay without a bishop,” says Sam Byibesho, the new Mayor of Kisoro town. But the diocesan chancellor, Sam Bitangaro, says the House of Bishops is not obliged to pick the candidate with most votes from the diocese poll: “It’s like the ordinary short-list. When you are looking for a job and you get on a short-list there is no guarantee that you will get the job,” Bitangaro said. “The constitution of the province must be respected. Those agitating for a review of elections are only driven by greed and jealousy,” he added. But Byibesho won’t hear this: “The synod is supposed to indicate votes which each candidate got when sending the two names. If the Bishops cannot respect the people’s choice we shall resist them,” he says. Those opposed to Sebuhinja want the House of Bishops to sit again without Shalita and discuss the issue afresh. “The diocese should also get a caretaker bishop to head it for a transitional period during which the House of Bishops can investigate the matter freely without being compromised by Shalita,” said Byibesho. But Shalita, who denies influence peddling, says it’s impossible for the House of Bishops to change its decision. “That would call for a constitutional amendment and the procedure is very long. If the House of Bishops bows to pressure from some individuals, it might open a door for more conflicts in other areas,” he said. But what will happen now that House of Bishops has stuck to its guns? “The church belongs to who? Did the Bishops build it? It’s ours, it belongs to Christians,” says Mateke. “We cannot allow Sebuhinja in that church as Bishop,” says James Ndizeye. “If he (Sebuhinja) is their choice, let them create another diocese and build another church for him,” Mateke added. “Sebuhinja was a member of the Electoral College where Baganizi got six votes, which means that Sebuhinja voted for him. If he knew he also wanted to become bishop why did he vote for Baganizi. He’s being pushed by Shalita,” he said. Sebuhinja said, “I voted for him because I am not selfish. We were required to choose two names and that is how I voted for Baganizi.” Mateke dismisses the constitutional provisions that the decision of the House of Bishops is final as irrelevant in the crisis: “Shalita was the first person to violate the constitution when he started campaigning for Sebuhinja. He told people here that even if his candidate got no vote and the one he did not want got all votes, his choice would be the next bishop,” he said. Byibesho says, “If they try to impose the church constitution on the majority, they will face it rough.” Shalita denied that he wants Sebuhinja to succeed him so as to cover up possible wrongdoing that could be discovered when he has left office. Those opposed to Sebuhinja accuse of him of failing to develop the diocese in the last seven years as diocesan secretary: “He is weak. he cannot take a decision on his own. He wants to develop himself, not the church,” said Mateke. Byibesho accuses Sebuhinja’s wife, Marion of being rude and uses the Bible to insist that it affects her husband’s suitability. “Titus 5:10 says a church leader must have a welcoming family,” he says. Mateke says about Baganizi, “We have tested him. He is a planner. He is the one who constructed all those buildings around the Cathedral: Diocese offices, the bishop’s house, vocational college and Rutaka health centre. He used to cross the river on canoe going to deliver building materials to Rutaka.” Baganizi was diocesan secretary until 1994. He was posted to the province at Namirembe as head of church commissioners. Sebuhinja who was the cathedral dean, succeeded him. Sebuhinja admits that most buildings were built during Baganizi’s time, but adds that he has also played his part: “Canon Baganizi built the diocese offices but we have put up more rooms behind it as an extension,” he said. “As dean, I cemented the floor of the church especially at the altar. I put windows in the cathedral, I have put up a big residential house for the dean and the women’s hall,” he says as he takes The New Vision around the diocese seat. He said the credit should not go to Baganizi or himself but to the bishop who solicits for funds for the diocese. Sebuhinja also denied charges that he does not pay pastoral visits to his flock. “I used to do that when I was dean. But even the dean does not do that all the time. His office has pastors who move around. As diocesan secretary I am only an administrator,” he said. There seems to be a political angle to the crisis, though some call it personal or family rivalry–– dating back to the 1996 parliamentary elections. A source close to Sebuhinja alleged that Mateke vowed to fight Sebuhinja’s family because of their open support for Sam Bitangaro, who was his rival for the Bufumbira South constituency. Mateke won the polls, and Bitangaro later took it unopposed in 2001, when the former preferred to wait for the LC 5 elections. Both Sebuhinja’s wife and Mateke admit exchanging hot words during the elections, but denied that it was the cause of the crisis: “He found me at a polling station where I was a polling official and said I was there to steal his votes. He called me Igyitwaakazi (pygmy woman) and I said ‘Don’t be silly,’ ” she said. “Of course we supported Bitangaro because he is my close relative, but I was not near the ballot box when Mateke came to the polling station. I was just on the officials’ table,” she said. “She called me silly but I forgave her. When you go in politics you have to expect such things,” Mateke said. While bad blood still flow between the two camps, the provincial administration at Namirembe has kept mum. Bishop Shalita is not happy about it: “The Province should come and state its stand. This silence has caused dangerous rumours and leaves room for people to cause harm,” he said. “I was there when the House of Bishops elected Sebuhinja and I was there when we met at Lweza last month. Now some people are saying I bribed the bishops with sh20m. I cannot talk on behalf of the bishops since I am the accused. The Province should come up and clarify these matters,” said Shalita. The House of Bishops has stood by its decision. Whether Sebuhinja will be consecrated on April 28 as planned remains anybody’s guess. And when it takes place, everybody will be eager to see how he carries on.

Is political rivalry fuelling Muhabura diocese conflict?

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