The Primate of all Nigeria, Most Rev Nicholas D. Okoh speaks in an interview on socio-political issues, especially the growing national agitation for the country’s restructuring as well as national and global challenges to Christianity.
A lot has happened in the course of the year, bordering on challenges to Christianity and national security. Did you at any time feel that this country was heading for the precipice?
I am an optimist and I strongly believe in the divine rulership of the world, which means that God rules in the affairs of men. So, when human beings are panicking and getting agitated about so many things and they speak from their narrow perspectives, I always prefer to rely on the understanding of God which has the whole creation in mind: that God cannot create a Nigeria that will just wake up one day and evaporate. So, I have always believed that it is well with Nigeria. Quite true, there are times when circumstances will make people to begin to wonder whether there is a future, particularly during the 2015 elections. Many people in Abuja were panicking. Those who have houses were selling their houses and returning to their ancestral areas – East to the East, West to the West and so forth. But I was brought here by the whole church of Nigeria. So, I didn’t panic about anything. Eventually, the cloudy wind gave way and all of us are still here today.
So, I want to say that while I was worried about what was happening, the way people were behaving, I have always believed that there will be a Nigeria, whatever happens and therefore, it is better to get myself ready to make my own contributions in a very humble way. It is in this light that I accepted to serve in the Peace Committee to add my own small voice to the call for peace in Nigeria and to relate with government in a way that will give confidence to the ordinary people that all is well.
We also had the same challenge going to October 1, when some people issued ultimatums here and there. What were you telling your church members ahead of that October 1 deadline?
Going to October 1, I knew it was pure politics. Not even politics by the people who were speaking, some people were speaking behind them, using them to speak and because of that, I knew that it would go nowhere because if those people calculate that their portions will not be met, they will find a way to the answer. And as it turned out, those speaking did not know that the consultations they had were not universal in the North. And then the leaders in the North properly speaking, came to calculate their own fortune in the light of what the young people were asking for and they discovered that they will be ill affected if that will happen. In fact, it will lead to total disintegration. It was not just an order for the Igbos; it was an order that will spark off other orders. For instance, the Niger Delta people gave their own orders and other sub groups gave their own orders and quickly it spread to the West. So, Nigeria was already disintegrating. The overall interest of everybody was to withdraw the whole statement. They had no choice.
The insurgency in the northern part of the country has caused a lot of setbacks, particularly for churches. Can you tell us how the Anglican Church is recovering from this and what is the cost of the devastation?
Before the Boko Haram, we had intended to create a diocese at Mubi. We had intended to create a diocese at Takum in Taraba and, of course, some parts of North-West. But because of Boko Haram activities, we had to shelve all that. In fact, Maiduguri diocese became completely reduced to just some churches in the metropolis. All the neighbouring towns and subordinate parishes and so on were decimated. So, we are starting afresh. Unfortunately, the bishop who was at Maiduguri died in February this year. We have just replaced the Bishop with a young man who we believe can raise the standard again. So, it’s like starting afresh and you know what it means to start afresh. Money is involved; staff is involved; infrastructure is involved and the security challenges have not disappeared completely. So, as you know, you hear about Boko Haram activities. They are still continuing. It’s not as if it’s gone. That of Takum, if you are there, only people in Taraba State know how much hit and run is there with these herdsmen and the problems. So, everything has been terribly affected by that. Our diocese in Damaturu was closed down. It’s only recently that again we put a new bishop there to go and start afresh. It’s a very costly venture. But we blame nobody. That is the type of story we have to tell at this time in our country.
How would rate the performance of President Muhammadu Buhari so far, especially his anti-corruption crusade?
For me, going by the anti-corruption crusade, he has succeeded. Why? Not necessarily judging by the number of people who have been jailed, not necessarily judging by the amount of money recovered, but by emphasising the fact that corruption is a wrong thing and it should not become our way of life, that you put somebody in an office, the first thing he does is how to corner the whole allocation in the office for himself and his family. That is the only success: to tell our ministers, to tell our governors, to tell our vice chancellors, to tell our head of institutions and anybody holding any appointment that stealing government money is not a correct thing. By that crusade alone, I think he has succeeded in doing something.
We have lost the sense of sin in this country. In fact, some people started calling it miracle. They steal and say the miracle has happened. They go to church to go and do thanksgiving for doing a wrong thing. So, if only that recall to the knowledge of evil, to the sense of sin and the need for national rebirth, if only for that, I think he has done well.
How would you rate him on other matters?
On other matters, I will appeal to him to spread his love across the country. Nigerians call him Baba. He should merit the title. Baba is a noble respectable title and he deserves it at his age. But if he is not careful in the way he allows his subordinates to help him in running the place, they will discredit him greatly. Because if you say you are the head, you are the leader and all your children cannot come close to you, then what is the meaning of the Baba? A Baba should attract all his children. We are Africans. If you locate that in the African polygamous system, a man can have as many as five wives. If children from a particular woman call the man Baba and he doesn’t want to answer, it means he is discriminating against those ones. So, there should be fair treatment.
Do you support the agitation for the restructuring of Nigeria or do you think Nigeria is okay the way it is?
It depends on what you mean by restructuring. What I have always been telling the political elite to do is to tell Nigerians what you mean by restructuring. What do you mean when you say restructuring? At the moment, the South-West is talking about restructuring. The South-East is talking about restructuring. Niger Delta is talking about restructuring. The North is talking about restructuring. They are not saying the same thing. There is need to sit down and harmonise the ideas so that if we accept restructuring, then we will be able to judge whether it has succeeded or it has failed. But if we go on with this omnibus term with restructuring, nobody knows whether that’s what we wanted or what they told us or what they did not tell us. So, the first thing is definition.
The question posed by the people talking about restructuring is about the polity. They say that the current system is not working. Do you believe the political system that we run right now demands restructuring?
Over the years, Nigeria has been in a state of flux. We’ve been changing, changing, changing. I think that we have not changed enough yet. So, if the idea of restructuring is going to help us, then we go for it. Look at it; we changed from ECN to NEPA; from NEPA to PHCN; from PHCN to DISCOs now. Before, secondary school terms used to end in December and then they changed it. It started ending in September. Then, secondary school course was five years. They changed it to 6-3-3-4. Has anything changed? There are people now who read six years, but they cannot write as well as people who read five years.
We were doing parliamentary system. Then we changed it to presidential system. Now we are complaining again. So, what I’m saying is that we have not arrived. We are changing so that if we get to the one that is working for us, then everybody will say oh praise God, we have arrived.
Under the present government, would you say that the Christendom has a fear of Islamisation?
What I will say is that what is afflicting us more is Christian disunity. A group of people who are not united, anybody can harm them. If you have a family, this one is on his own, this one is on his own, the day the enemy will come, who will stand? So, the problem of the church is not so much an external burden but an internal burden and what is even more, we are beginning to observe that there is a wide gap between what we profess and what we do. This yawning gap between what we say in the church, the hectic dancing in the church and all this and all that is not matched by staunch Christian moral character. If you doubt, after a programme in the church, you see people beating traffic lights, just the simplest thing. It does not occur to that man that in the worship of God who is orderly, that traffic light is part of God’s instruction in order to organise people to do things properly. So, either that the people teaching us are not teaching us well or there is a new religion that I may call popular religion which is not Christianity. It’s a Christianity that is being driven by dance, music, trumpet and all sorts of things and acrobatic display in the church, but it’s devoid of the solid quality of spirituality.
You’ve seen industries pulling down and churches coming up. Based on your last statement, should we say this is a good development or a bad one for the church and for the nation?
Industries closing down?
Yes, we’ve seen industries closing down. Some churches are coming up where some industries used to be.
It’s not a good development. How can it be? To pray is to work. To work is to pray. If the whole day you do nothing, but you go to the church and be dancing and be singing, you are not doing a positive thing. In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve and he put them in the garden. It was not to admire the flowers. It was to look after them: to work. So, when you are not working, when you are idle, you are not praising God. So, to close down our factories, close down our industries and turn them to church is not a positive development, because, in any case, whether the factories close down or they are functioning, the praise of God will never stop.
Many people have accused Christian leaders of not being able to tell truth to political leaders or the people in power. Do you believe this?
I will say yes and I will say no. Yes, because some people, in an attempt to relate with power, have messed up themselves. Yes, the intention was to get closer so that they can influence power with positive and Godly ideas. But instead, they have allowed power to mould them into their own image. That’s why I said it’s a correct observation.
But secondly, it is not everybody. There are some who have not bowed their knees to Baal and they are still speaking. One thing is that people in power are not easily amenable to discipline. Very easily, they see their power as something nobody should challenge and any comment you make, they think you are attacking them and they want to harm you. So, in that case, some have withdrawn, leaving them to themselves, which is not actually the best. They say power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, if they allow themselves to be corrupted absolutely, they will ruin themselves; they will ruin their families; they will ruin the country. In other words, they ruin all of us. So, as much as is possible, we should not stop to be engaged in our prophetic ministry, be willing to pay the price through the grace of God, make the necessary sacrifice, whether authorities in power recognise us, whether they don’t recognise us or, in fact, whether they persecute us, we are not going to be the first. We are not going to be the second. We are not going to be the last. It happened before; it’s going to happen again.
You are one of those advocating the revival of the Nigerian Interreligious Council. Why are you doing this and why now?
NIREC, I suspect that’s what you are talking about. I was a member, myself, the Sultan and all these other people, Onaiyekan and many others, and it was helping us to look at issues within religions and across religions and to make recommendations to the leadership of the country. All of a sudden, it ran into bad waters with politics and we stopped. They didn’t really stop us. They just said let the meeting be next time, until today. We have not held any meeting. So, we want it to be revived, so that the issues across religion will be discussed and we discuss frankly, we hope that those who are members will go back and carry their members along. We even got to a point where we agreed that we should decentralise it, so that from the top, we will have state branches and local government branches to reach the grassroots, so that the knowledge of what we are doing will cut across, and it will help to mobilise everybody for peace and harmony.
So, what is being done about it now?
We have spoken to the government and government is sometimes stubborn; they may not act until there is an emergency, until there is something and they begin to look or solution, and they discover that this type of thing can be of help to us. So, they may want to use us for political ends. Until such a time presents itself, if you push too much, they think you have something to collect.
On a final note, I will like you to look at the issue between pentecostal and orthodox churches. The belief some years back is that orthodox churches were losing so much ground to the pentecostals. With the programmes you have put in place, how much ground are you gaining. Is the threat still real?
You see, any new thing is attractive. For instance, on October 31st this year, the Anglican Church came to the age of 500 years. 500 years is not 500 days. There is a system. There is a time-honoured tradition; there is knowledge, books and documents that have been over the years. That is not what you gain in three days. The new generation churches are still in their infancy. Most of them are still being led by their founders. They have not even succeeded to have a transition from one man to the other. They have not survived any crisis. So, they are not a threat. At the moment, they are rushing to gather rich people. What they do not realise is that rich people are not assets to the church. Rich people are very dangerous to church leadership. They don’t like to obey. They want the church to obey them. Some of them have many things that they cannot bring to the open, yet they want the church to be silent about that. Such people are going to destroy the church because they will introduce contradictions, hypocrisy and all sort of things there. So, the young churches should not think that they have made it. They have not made it. In fact, they are not yet a church. They are just in the process of formation.
Now, whether the fear is still there or not, there has never been any fear. The church is as full as it has always been. The clergy are developing. Training is going on. So, we are grateful to God that we been used, particularly the Anglican Church, I speak with my mouth wide open that most of these Pentecostal churches came from us. If they don’t recognise us as their fathers and grandparents, then there is something missing.
There is a Benin prose. They were doing competition – the Oba and one chief. The chief claimed to have everything. So, they came for competition. Then they asked the chief, what do you have that you will come to challenge the oba like that? He started to mention his achievements; he started to mention his wealth. After he had exhausted his resources, they asked the oba what you have. The oba said this man is first of all my products.