Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
United Methodist Insight and United Methodist News Service have both reported on recent conflict in the Nigeria Episcopal Area, especially that between Bishop John Wesley Yohanna and his supporters on the one side and Rev. Ande Emmanuel, the former Administrative Assistant to the Bishop, and those associated with him on the other.
Despite quality reporting by United Methodist Insight and UMNS, it is easy for news readers in the United States to see the conflict in the UMC in Nigeria through the lens of the Traditionalist vs. Centrist/Progressive conflict in the United States. To do so, however, is to fundamentally misunderstand the long roots of this conflict, which extend back over a century to ethnic conflict and missionary divisions in the beginnings of what is now Nigerian United Methodism. Tracing the history of that conflict suggests different conclusions about the present conflict.
To get a better view, we must begin with a geography lesson. The UMC in Nigeria is mostly located in the eastern state of Taraba. Taraba is divided by the Benue River, which flows from the northeast to the southwest. North of the river is a plains, which then rises to hills.
Onto this physical geography is mapped the human geography of tribal affiliation. South of the Benue live the Mumuye people. North of the river live the Karimjo, sometimes (falsely?) referred to as the Wurkun. Still farther north, in the hills, the population is primarily Tangale-speaking. Each of these groups has its own history, language, and customs. While there is intermingling and exchange among groups, there also was and occasionally still is conflict along ethnic lines.*
Into this situation came missionaries associated with the Sudan United Mission. Rev. C. W. Guinter, a member of the United Evangelical Church (later the Evangelical Church after its reunification with the Evangelical Association) went to Nigeria as a missionary of the Sudan United Mission in 1906 to serve, initially with the Jukun people and then with the Karimjo/Wurkun. Although Guinter went as an individual, he drew on denominational sources for support, and eventually his work was taken over by the Evangelical Church, which sent additional missionaries to the area. In addition to strengthening his work, they commenced work among the Tangale-speaking Pero people in the hills to the north of the Karimjo.
Slightly later, in 1928, a group of holiness-inspired British Methodists began work among the Mumuye people to the south of the Karimjo, also through the Sudan United Mission. While the British missionaries were associated with the Sudan United Mission, the same parent organization that gave birth to the Evangelical Church’s work in Nigeria, that does not mean the two missions were closely related. With the two mission efforts drawing on separate home bases and the work among the Karimjo becoming ever more closely associated with the Evangelical Church, the two mission efforts proceeded on largely separate tracks.
Thus, the pattern that continues to dominate The United Methodist Church in Nigeria was set: one group in the center, one in the north, and one in the south. These groups are/were connected to each other ecclesiastically but not well, with particular tensions between the center and the south.
Despite the separate histories, separate ethnic groups, and largely separate organizations, in 1946, the British branch of the Sudan United Mission decided to turn its areas of work over to the care of the neighboring Evangelical Church mission among the Karimjo, at just the same time the Evangelical Church was merging into the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church.
Whatever sense the decision to combine Mumuye, Karimjo, and Pero work made to Western mission boards, it meant that the EUB was suddenly overseeing the developing of a multi-ethnic church. Yet, this multiethnic mission did not reflect a natural harmony between these ethnic groups nor decisions made by Nigerian people themselves. It was a decision from the outside, one that would bring ethnic conflict into the nascent church.
Still, true to its mission principles of fostering indigenous churches, the EUB worked to establish an independent, autonomous denomination, a process begun in 1954 with the creation of the Muri Church Council and completed in 1968 with the launch of the EKAN Muri Church. Nevertheless, missionaries from the EUB and then, following another merger, the United Methodist Church continued to serve with the EKAN Muri Church.
However, the ethnic diversity within the Muri Church helped fuel an internal conflict in the 1970s that involved issues of leadership and property. Notably, the ethnic coloring of a conflict about determining legitimate leadership that played out in a contest for control of property would set a pattern for things to come. The conflict in the 70s resulted in a temporary schism within the church, which was healed by 1976, in part through the mediation of international Christians and civil authorities, another pattern which would recur.
In the aftermath of this conflict, leaders within the church, working in collaboration with several UMC missionaries, decided that the solution to the internal problems in the church should be to rejoin The United Methodist Church.
The UMC approved that proposal in 1984 and assigning Bishop Arthur Kulah of Liberia to oversee the area, a role he served until 1989. Bishop Thomas Bangura of Sierra Leone served until 1992, at which point Nigeria became a full annual conference and elected its own bishop. Those eight years between 1984 were spent addressing internal issues within the church and training church leaders in United Methodist systems. Much of that work was carried out by Ethel Johnson, a retired seminary professor from Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
For its first indigenous bishop, the Nigeria Annual Conference elected Done Peter Dabale, from the Chamba tribe, a group related to the Mumuye, in the Jereng District, just east of the British Sudan United Mission stronghold of Zing. Under Dabale’s leadership, the church grew greatly in membership, from 10,000 to 400,000. But it did not grow evenly. Almost all the growth was in the south. Membership in the central and northern regions grew much more slowly.
Nor did this pattern of growth exempt the church from its lingering ethnic conflicts. Those conflicts would continue to re-emerge late in Dabale’s episcopacy, rising even to the level of violence in the church. Significant mediation by United Methodists from the United States and the Congo and by civil authorities was necessary to quell tensions in the church.
After his death from cancer, Dabale was followed by Bishop Kefas Kane Mavula, another southerner. Mavula died of a sudden illness, within a year of his consecration. After Mavula’s death in 2007, the region was once again overseen by Bishop Arthur Kulah from Liberia.
Ethnic tensions in the church came to a head again around the process of electing an indigenous successor to Mavula in 2012. There was a dispute over the number of delegates to the nominating convention allotted to each area, which by then were their own annual conferences. This led the southern and northern conferences to boycott the meeting and the subsequent West Africa Central Conference. As a result, the current bishop, John Wesley Yohanna from the central region, was elected.
Ethnic conflicts and lingering disputes about the validity of his election have continued to plague the entirety of Yohanna’s episcopacy. A complaint about the election was sent to the UMC Judicial Council. Some groups from the south split from the church. A few of these have since rejoined. Others have not. There continues to be a separatist Southern Annual Conference that still identifies as United Methodist but does not recognize Yohanna, in addition to the Southern Nigeria Annual Conference that does recognize Bishop Yohanna. There have been significant disputes over control of church property between the separatist group and Bishop Yohanna, disputes which have drawn the government in.
It is within this context that some details of the present conflict in the UMC in Nigeria take on heightened significance. Ande Emmanuel and almost all of the other pastors supporting him are from the south. There are issues of control of church property (in this case a radio station). Emmanuel’s arrest continues a pattern of the government becoming involved in church disputes. Viewed from this angle, this conflict has little to do with the impending UMC/GMC split and everything to do with long-standing ethnic and ecclesial tensions indigenous to Nigeria.
But perhaps that assessment lets the rest of The United Methodist Church off the hook too easily. The pattern in the UMC in Nigeria is not just ethnic conflict among the three groups – those from the south, central, and northern areas. The pattern is ethnic conflicts that repeatedly pull in and involve the international church, with Nigerians seeking to enlist either its aid to calm conflict or its power to resolve conflict in favor of one group or another.
This, then, is the true pattern in the current conflict in Nigeria: ethnic factions in the church that seek to draw powers from the international church and civil government into internal Nigerian church conflict, along with actors from outside Nigeria that wittingly or unwittingly allow themselves to be drawn in. This is a complex pattern, and there is a lot to unpack here: questions about mission strategy, local decision-making, and international relations within the church; about ethnic conflict and peace and reconciliation efforts that seek to address it; and about branches of the church in one nation, whether the United States or Nigeria, that seek to use other branches of the church as pawns in their own games.
This is not a story about heroes and villains. It is a story about complexity and the intractability of conflict. It is also a cautionary story. Those who go into a context without understanding the internal dynamics of that context are likely to find themselves bogged down, sidetracked, and struggling to achieve the objectives they set out to achieve. To avoid repeating such mistakes, US Americans should be careful not to see the context in the church in other countries as the same as in their own.
* The names of different ethnic groups, the precise meanings of names used to designate people groups, and the precise locations inhabited by various groups are all subjects of debate. I have made every effort to use correct terminology, but there are inconsistencies across sources.