Pastor Oyeleke Owolabi is President of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Western Nigerian Union. Owolabi says the Independent National Electoral Commission is marginalising Adventists in the country by conducting elections on Saturdays. He also speaks on the challenges faced by the Church of God in Nigeria, in this interview with Olakiitan Victor. Excerpts:
As a church, how would you assess your contribution to the peaceful coexistence of Nigerians?
It is even one of the reasons why we held the five days conference in Ado Ekiti. We believe so much in dialogue in settling all differences. We believe in peaceful engagement and the authority of God, and that is what we want for Nigeria as a nation. We have been going about our gospel in several ways. We have been going about our gospel through teaching and learning and under this we have established many educational institutions, like the Babcock University, and very soon, we will establish another university, which will commence operation after completion. We are also planning to establish a College of Biomedical Science in Otun Ekiti in Ekiti State, among other numerous primary and secondary schools we have across Nigeria.
We also publish books and communicate with the people to shape their hearts and thinking to be able to follow the righteous path. Also in the medical unit, we established Adventist Hospital in Ile Ife to provide quality health services to the people. We also have the Adventist Relief Management Agency, which has been collaborating with the government to provide relief materials to victims of disasters. We have spent hundreds of thousands in providing relief materials for internally displaced persons in the north-eastern part of the country. Even some time ago, when there was flooding in Lokoja, Kogi State, I think the Adventist Church was one of the organisations that first provided relief materials as part of our service to the people. Even during the Tsunami crisis in Asia, we also contributed to give relief to the victims. If we could go this far at the international level, I think we have also done well in ensuring peace in Nigeria by employing the weapon of dialogue in resolving all issues in whatever situation we find ourselves.
How do you feel about the practice of conducting elections on Saturdays, your day of worship, in Nigeria?
We are not feeling happy at all, because I believe the rights of our members are being abridged by this. That is why I always appeal to the Independent National Electoral Commission to accede to our request that it should stop conducting elections on Saturdays. If you notice the trend of elections in Nigeria now, it has become a practice for INEC to conduct elections on Saturdays, the day the church recognised as its Sabbath or worship day. But we are of the view that doing so is not in the interest of our large followers because we are part of Nigeria and it is our right to participate in the electoral system. It is part of our obligations, that is right to vote and be voted for. I am not particularly happy about how our members are being disenfranchised during every successive election in the country, because of their religious beliefs. We are not feeling comfortable because we are being disenfranchised.
We have written many letters to INEC on the need to shift elections from Saturdays and I know that it will accede to the request one day. We have seen a situation whereby a governorship election was conducted in this country on Tuesday and I think the country recorded the highest turnout of voters in history. So we are begging INEC to put the interest of our people at heart. I know that this request will be looked at one day and our people will participate actively in elections. But our not participating in the electoral process would not affect our support for whoever God has chosen to lead us. We owe it as a moral and constitutional obligation to support our leaders at all levels. But we believe in politics of peace and not that of violence and blood-sucking and this we will continue to preach as part of our collaboration with the government to bring development to the people.
Let me assure that the Church will continue to play a complementary role to whoever emerges as the leader of the nation, either he is from the APC or PDP, despite that its members are being largely insulated from elections.
What is your reaction to the budget padding saga rocking the House of Representatives?
Every right thinking Nigerian must be worried by the development. But I appeal to Nigerians not to be disillusioned by the shame the controversy surrounding the issue of alleged padding has brought to Nigeria. The exchange of verbal abuses between the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Yakubu Dogara, and Hon Abdulmumin Jubrin has further accented the fact that things are wrong with this nation.
But padding has remained for long with us. The unwholesome conduct had been in existence for long, but nobody seemed to be interested. But the time has come for the country to collectively reject such sordid practice. We know we are facing so many challenges, but I am optimistic that there is a great future awaiting this country, irrespective of the challenges we are going through. As a church, we won’t support any budget that is not transparent or not open or constitutionally done because we have to be fair and open to the people that voted the leaders at all levels.
How do you see the level of corruption in the country and the actions taken by the present government to tackle it?
My own view about corruption is that it is demonic. Corruption has permeated and debased every facet of our country, including the house of God. I quite appreciate the fact that the men of God have a crucial role to play in fighting the scourge, but let me reiterate that the government must embrace holistic approach to be able to win the war. The government must engage every institution to fight the scourge. The family that raised the child must be involved. How can a child carried in corrupt and bewitched womb and raised in a fraudulent family grow up to be a good child? So, family values must change for Nigeria to make headway in this regard. Then, the educational institutions where the child was taught on how to be relevant in a society also has a role to play in this matter, because the children who came from good homes and were raised through the proper channels ended up being corrupted by friends they made in schools. Then community and religious institutions must be involved. It has to be a holistic approach. Relying on religious institutions alone may not be proper, because we are also part of the society and operating in a society where evil is being perpetrated.
If you look at those perpetrating this corruption, they are called David, Simon, Jamiu, Yaqoub or Solomon. They are either Christians or Muslims, so this shows that the churches and mosques have crucial roles to play in fighting corruption. I want to tell my colleagues across religious divides to always reflect on attitudinal change in their sermons. They should let the people know the evil corruption poses to any society. Let us look at our nation. Nigeria, in spite of enormous resources, has refused to grow because of the evil intentions of a few. So, we are worried about the corruption that has become the greatest challenge to our people and we support every action being taken by the government to tackle the menace. But I want to emphasise that whatever the government will do should be a holistic measure that will outlast this present government. Also, the pastors and Imams should be good examples to their followers.
What is your take on the suggestion that government should start taxing churches?
The activities of some churches and the ostentatious lifestyles of some church leaders brought about such agitation. Many of the churches have become shopping malls, where buying and selling take place. But I want to advise any government intending to implement this to study every church operating in the country and examine critically its mode of operations before embarking on the proposed imposition of tax on religious institutions. Government must not see churches as money making ventures. Let them examine the churches very well and know those that are established for profit. In actual fact, churches should not be places where you display opulence, but places for purification, transparency and accountability. Churches should help in waging war against corruption. Let me just say this for the sake of emphasis, as far as the Adventist church is concerned, we are not established for money making but for service to humanity. Some of the educational and health institutions we established attest to the fact that we are out to give joy to the people and contribute to the development of any community we find ourselves and these we have been doing. Even the church and government are the same in the real sense of it. The old Church of England and the British government are the same. Even the government used to pay the wages of the men of God during that period. So, it shouldn’t take much begging for churches to collaborate with government for development and that has been our thinking in the Adventist Church.
Are you worried by the persistent crisis in the Christian Association of Nigeria?
There is no way there won’t be crisis, because CAN itself is a human institution and in any human institution, there will be disagreement. But how you resolve it is very essential. CAN as a spiritual organisation must be a spiritual movement where critical issues of national interest are addressed. Whatever that will happen in the association must be handled with the fear of God. But let me just say this, we are not part of CAN, Adventist Church is just an observer in CAN, we belong to the Bible Society of Nigeria. But the crisis in CAN does not mean people there are evil. But everything they do there must be spiritual. We should allow God to guide us at all times, because we represent light and we must really be the light to the world. We must be spiritual and seek God’s guidance in whatever we do in any spiritual body. If we are to conduct elections, we must allow the will of God to prevail, we shouldn’t fight over who becomes what or fight over money. So, as much as I am worried about the crisis, being a member of a spiritual church, I also hold the view that crisis is very difficult to prevent in human society because of individual thinking and actions. But whatever happens, we should also seek the face of God.