Stern, stoical, selfless and saintly in posture and temperament, he speaks as someone with fire in his belly. He abhors silence in the face of injustice. Religious, radical and reasonable, he is a symbol of how religion and politics converge. Revolutionary in thoughts, gentle in approach and committed to non-violent struggle against oppressive regimes, he stands tall and incorruptible amongst his peers. With decades of untainted priesthood and political excursions to ensure Nigeria’s ruling elites remain democratic, the last has not been heard of his reverberating voice. Though retired, he is not tired. Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie (retd.) means so many things to so many people. When he was the Archbishop of the Lagos Diocese of Catholic Church, he was a thorn in the flesh of successive governments for what he termed non-performance by those in power then. Recently, he clocked 80 – and the fiery clergyman, not one to mince words, shared his personal narratives on various issues ranging from his childhood, educational pursuits, and Buhari’s government. Adedayo Adejobi and Bayo Adeoye capture the essence of the quintessential clergyman
Growing up like every other child, young Olubunmi Okogie was both timid and stubborn, with a survival instinct to live long in the Lafiaji area of Lagos Island where he was raised in his formative years. His aim then was to be on an island between fear and bravery. Now retired as a clergy, he spends his time mostly on counselling people. He also gives a helping hand to the incumbent archbishop from time to time.
Raised in a Catholic background, there was no room for young Bunmi to be a rascal. Growing up in such a staunch Catholic family, gave him just an option to put his thinking cap on always. By 7am, his father said the rosary and they all went to church. The consciousness of God was foisted on him from the very beginning. Most important, his mom would always say, if you don’t fear any other thing, you must fear God because He is always looking at you. Okogie spent most of his time in the mission and became an altar server. Gradually, he began to develop an interest in priesthood. Back in those days, the mass was always in Latin and memorising the Liturgy was the only way.
In 1951, he went to St. Gregory’s College up to 1953. By then he was bold enough to face his father. When he eventually did, he informed him of his intention to go into the priesthood.
“He looked at me and asked if I was stupid. He didn’t like it. He had wanted me to be an engineer,” Okogie smiled in reminiscence.
Sooner than later, with his mother’s support Okogie got a nod from his father to become a Catholic priest. In 1963, he went to Rome in Italy to study Theology and came back as Reverend Deacon.
In those days, there were seven steps: four minor steps and three major steps. After he had finished the sixth and last one, Okogie asked his mentor if he could be a priest.
The reply he got left him baffled.
“Any fool can be a priest, just as any fool can marry,” his mentor retorted, which pushed him further to include ‘good’ in the aforementioned question. In the course of that conversation, his mentor pointed at the three slippery points he must avoid if he wanted to be good namely, money, women and wine. There were different analogies made but the one that stuck to his memory like glue was that of people in the bank and money, even though they are surrounded by money, that doesn’t make the money theirs.
And when they begin to pilfer and the auditor comes, the bubble will burst; same thing goes for a priest.
“For women, three-quarters of your life, you will be seeing them. 90 per cent will be coming to you for one issue or the other. If you are seeing 10 people in a day, seven of them will be women,” the mentor warned Okogie.
Like a prophecy, that was what Okogie truly experienced.
“If you let yourself too loose, you are finished,” he mused.
For drinks, the clergy quipped, “if you are stupid enough, your friends will give you drink and you’d get drunk. One thing you have to know is that no one is perfect. Those three things I mentioned were just to guide if you want to be a good priest.”
With women, he mentioned a practice called “custody of the eyes.”
“Although it is not easy,” he noted. “When we studied psychology, all these things were part of it. If you want to be perfect like the Scripture said, then go and sell all you have and take all the proceeds to the poor. To be a good son of the Father, money must never be a distraction. If satisfying the Father is our goal, then we must remember the devil our adversary is not asleep, which calls for treading with caution and care, lest he catches us off-guard.”
Priests are human and they are taken from among men. When students enter the seminary, they are ‘panel-beaten’ to proper form. The very first thing they learn is obedience. The bell dictates and guides and informs them. In a short while, new students fall in line with what the others are doing. Remember, there is no issue of force. Gradually, the training starts to sink in.
“No one is truly holy except God. Remember, in the writing of Paul, he called all Christians saints – be holy as your God is holy. Even Mother Theresa would not tell you she was holy but you have to behave as gentlemen and ladies,” Okogie stated with emphasis.
The priesthood training in those days was not easy, he recalled. It did get to an extent young Bunmi packed up his things to leave. Thanks to his maternal grandfather that saved the situation. He used to live in the mission.
“I don’t know who told him but he came to meet with me and told me that he must not hear of such again. You see God loves us, if He is giving you a vocation or calling and you are trying to run away, he has a way of bringing you back. And if you refuse, He has a way of punishing you,” Okogie recalled with laughter.
Marriage has never crossed his mind since he left St. Gregory’s College. He called it the vanity of life.
Said Okogie, “If you have N100 million now, I give you three months to check and you begin to wonder what you have done with it. I tell you there is nothing in life.”
He said as the edge of his mouth curved in a smile, “Passion control is not easy. It’s just like eating plenty of food. Remember, the threshold you get to and the body starts reacting; it’s a way of saying I can’t take it no more. At that point, if you add to it you’re looking for trouble for that body. The same thing goes for sex.”
As a young man, Bunmi had a girlfriend but not the type obtainable today. In his days, you couldn’t even hold your girlfriend’s hands in public.
“That is why God allows us to grow. Every day, we learn new things. Infallibility is a tall order; but discipline is a must. Contentment is key,” he counselled.
After marriage, individuals come across many others who would like them and whom they would like in return, but sacrifice remains the watchword. Self-control is a must.
“A man that has already told himself this is the kind of life I want to live should exercise self-control, and if he is cheating; if you find your husband or wife cheating on you, God forbid! Even if it is temptation that leads him or her to it, will you kill him or her?” Okogie asked.
Man is one sided. Just as it is difficult to stay 100 per cent faithful to one’s spouse, he said it is the same with the priest. That is what makes the job interesting. That is where the true sacrifice is. We are all human. The mere fact that some people are stealing does not make it right. Christianity does not avail one of temptation but coming out victorious shows the Christ in us.
Celibacy is one heated topic.
Okogie said, “While some are called to that line, others are not. And the Church cannot change it. It is not biblical because it is not written, but don’t forget that Jesus Christ said that some are born eunuchs and some made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God. What does that tell you? It is not written that you must marry. After all, Peter got married, but the moment he knew Christ, he had no time for the woman again. It is a sacrifice.”
Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie’s low point was probably when he was still trying to make ends meet in the priesthood, still doubting if he was in the right place or not until finally he found his feet and said “yes, this is indeed the right place for me.” And the high point surely was when he became a Cardinal. The priesthood has given him so much joy derived from his various responsibilities as a father and confidant to be entrusted with confidential information. The respect that comes with his position and the ability to say a word of prayer for or on behalf of others gives the Cardinal immense joy from time to time.
A one-time president of Christian Association of Nigeria and a critic of the government of the day, Okogie is not afraid.
“I have one good advantage; apart from having courage as one of my mottos, I am naturally bold. I took that from my late father,” he said.
As a chaplain in the war front, he has eaten and swallowed fear with a full glass of courage under the late Benjamin Adekunle, aka Black scorpion.
Talking of the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, the Cardinal ranked it very low.
“If you listen to his inaugural speech and match it with the blueprint of the APC, you will see a wide departure. If you are too far away from home and you don’t check yourself, you will never get back home,” he pointed out.
“Indeed, tackling corruption in Buhari’s administration has left Nigeria stagnant. It is okay to tackle corruption. The big question is: how does it translate to reviving the economy? A lot of things have gone wrong. But shouldn’t Buhari go back and match his speech with the blueprint of his party?”
His first article, ‘Enough is enough’ is just to call Buhari to order, and another, ‘We are watching.’ If care is not taken, he said, Nigerians will wake up one day and find out that Nigeria has been Islamised.
Okogie also wondered about the floundering state of CAN as it is being dogged by allegations of financial impropriety.
“We now have the body of greedy people under the name of CAN. What you now hear is the Catholic has been there, the Methodist has been there, so it is our turn. They must go back to the constitution, except if they have altered a few things there, and face the work God gave them if they are real pastors.”
Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie believes dialogue is the only solution to the current agitation in the Niger Delta and all other related issues affecting the country’s development and peace.
“The government should go and study the origin of all these problems; whatever that has a beginning must surely have an end. It is not all about guns. They are passing the grazing reserve law that can’t work. We all know the land is not theirs. Can that be done in the North? It is true we all are Nigerians but we are not living in unity. Everybody is looking for a problem because of our selective sentimentality. And he, Mr. President is not behaving like the nation’s father. He must be able to stick out his neck and not be afraid to say the truth.
Has Okogie finally retired? He doesn’t think he has. According to him, priests do not retire following the order of Melchizedek in the Bible.
“They preach on till the very end. But in the strict sense, yes, they do because there is a church law that says once you are 75, you are free to relinquish your duty in this physical world with the approval of the Pope.”