The Prelate Emeritus, Methodist Church Nigeria, His Eminence Dr. Sunday Mbang, clocked 80 years on September 10. In this interview, Mbang speaks on a wide range of social, political and economic issues. He also comments on his life after retirement. Okon Bassey brings the excerpts
At 80, you have the agility that is uncommon in this part of the world. What is your secret?
Live a simple life. What kills people easily is when they allow the office to take over their life. They make the office become the priority of their life. The simply life which their fathers and mothers brought them up with, they abandon that life and go for the bigger life. So you die quick. Leave simple life, that life that God gave to you when you were born.
Don’t forget that life. Whatsoever you become don’t forget the first life that you lived.
That has been my attitude. As a result of that, everybody is my friend. Like I said, when I used to go on tour, I ate with my driver; my secretary took a long time to agree to eat with me. If you ask our Bishops, throughout my stay, when we go out to Bishop Council I eat with them, I stay with them. They will book a fantastic place for me, but I will stay with them. Life is funny; you don’t know how long you will live, the more you make yourself out of the system the more you die quickly. I sympathise with those of my colleagues who think they can protect themselves, because God is the one who can protect.
How has life been since after your retirement?
I live the type of life I used to live. They are inviting me for events; I go, but come back to my village. One of the things my doctor advised me when I was retiring was, “you are a very active person, remain active.” Unfortunately, that doctor that gave me that advise died before me.
Since your retirement you have not been as vocal as you used to be. Why?
When I was in active service, I used to have a lot of information from journalists and you will be able to give a balanced view. Now in the village, no much information and you want me to disgrace myself? This is the problem, once you retire, you don’t get the kind of information you used to have. So, I am careful in case I say something that is irrelevant. That is why I am not as vocal as before.
How would you expalin your rise to prominence in the ecclesiastical ministry at a relatively young age?
I inherited a Methodist Church divided into two. I was 48 when I became the head of the Methodist Church. As a young person, I owed a great deal to my late father who was a Qua Iboe Church pastor. He drilled us in discipline and I don’t forget how my father used to drill us. I carried it to my ministry. So the discipline my father gave to me I took it to the church. I lived a disciplined life and then I went to the University of Ibadan. I was a student Bishop at the University of Ibadan, I was 44years when I was elected Bishop and I worked with the head of the church.
I think the head found me reasonable. One of the good qualities of a leader is exposure and I had that, so it wasn’t difficult for the leader to see that I might be able to lead the church. I was elected the leader of the church at 48. I think my antecedents in the Christian Council of Nigeria and the Christian Association of Nigeria made it possible for me to become the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria and before I was also a member of the Methodist World Council for some time and that made it possible for me to become the vice and the president of the World Methodist Council.
But then, when Pope John II came he advised us to start dialogue with the Muslims and since I was the president of CAN, the Catholics talked to me about it. So with the help of President Obasanjo, my friend, I went to the Sultan of Sokoto and with him we established the Christian Inter-Religious Council for dialogue with the Muslims. During that period, we didn’t have too much Muslim/Christian problems. The reason was that people were able to know when problem was coming and told Head of State. Then government will inform us, we will tell Muslims and Christians in those affected states and they will deal with the problem before it even starts. But I don’t know what is happening today because I am no more active.
What is your advice to young pastors today?
Recently, I have been talking. In fact, in some of the books I have written, I have included that. When Jesus Christ called his disciples, he called them to be fishers of men and women but what we find now is that people are now fishers of money and property. The young people are too much in a hurry. One of the reasons is that we older ones belief that you cannot be a good servant of God if you are not called by God and that call had to be so known to you that God has really called you.
Let me give you the example of myself. My father was a pastor in Qua Iboe Church and I watched my father dying for one week. My father couldn’t talk but just at the time he wanted to give up the ghost, he invited all of us and said the Grace. After that, the man died. That came on me so strong that my father didn’t finish his work and wanted me to finish it; and I struggled to have nothing to do with it. But I was in the student Christian movement. I wrote a letter to my church that I wanted to be a priest. I did not understand I wrote that letter until I was told I wrote such letter. So, somebody should be aware that somebody has called you. What is happening today is that most of them didn’t have that call, they are just looking for a job and the church becomes the easier way. So you have all these charlatans all over the place.
You look at Akwa Ibom, every street has two to three churches, but there are cultists, why are we having cultist. Sometime ago I was told about 800 women were naked and went to the river to get something from mammy water, why? Definitely, the issues of false prophets and false teachers abound everywhere. I don’t know how we are going to solve it.
Do you think Christianity in Nigeria is threatened?
No. The good thing with Christianity is that it is not only a Nigeria thing. So it cannot be threatened. I am an Old Testament teacher. If you read the Old Testament all these things were there, but the church still survived. We will have all these things. They will come and go but Christianity will remain. On the other hand, religion might be part of Nigeria’s problems, but not all the problem.
How did you and Obasanjo become close?
Very simple thing, OBJ is very straightforward. That is what many people don’t know. I have been straightforward myself. That is why we are joined together.
What is your impression about youth unemployment in the country?
I must say, every time I see these young people I pity them. In our time, it wasn’t as terrible as it is now. In our time we had only three or four universities, so you couldn’t produce too many people from the university. We are now having so many universities without any plan for what they will come to do. It disturbs me to see young people graduating and not having work and, unfortunately, I have nothing to be able to do to assist them. But my prayer for the young people is that, rather than them becoming vagabonds, because most of them have decided to become so, let them look for small things to do and be a little patient and all will be well with them. I sympathised with their conditions, but that shouldn’t make them to become vagabonds. There will be time they will be useful to this country, they should be a little bit patient.
What do you think is the problem with Nigeria, and how can the country come out of the current economic difficulties?
Part of the problem of Nigeria is that everybody comes and wants to do his own thing. There is little continuity. A government comes, runs down the former one and then you look at the change from the former to the new one, you don’t see so much change; but they run down the former one. One thing I like about Akwa Ibom here is, Governor Akpabio left and the one who has come is continuing where Akpabio stopped.
One problem in Nigeria is that we don’t continue, especially, when one party comes in and next time another party comes. But Nigeria should be one, so once we are able to continue with what people have done before, then we might not have the kind of problems we have.
On recession, my advice to the present government is, don’t look at anybody as your enemy, take everybody, put them in one room, let them talk about the economy of Nigeria. I am definitely sure they will get the right answer. What they are doing now, they are all confused. They are speaking different grammar. Let them put all the economists, the best we have in the country, in one room, do as when the Catholic is selecting their Pope. Put them in one place, if they agree, allow them stay there. Believe me, if we do that, we are going to get something reasonable. But definitely, Nigeria has enough brains for government to use and I am advising government to use those brains.
When I went sometime to have an operation in Britain, it was a very serious operation; it was a Nigerian who did it. Believe me, I don’t know of any African country that has the kind of brains we have. But they are not using them, because most of them don’t want to be politicians. Use them and this country will be okay. As a spiritual leader, that is my advice. Nigeria has the brains that can solve the country’s problems. Let government forget about party line and invite all these people. Look round for the best brains, they may not be party people, bring them together to solve the country’s problems, they are Nigerians.
What is your advice to Nigerians in the face of this recession?
There is nothing anybody can say to Nigerians, only for them to belief that God will solve their problems at no time. My experience has been that sometimes Nigerians go through so many kinds of unusual difficulties and when they come out of it they don’t know. For instance, when late Sani Abacha was in power, it looked as if it was eternal. My belief is that any problem that comes to Nigeria, the day it will finish Nigerians will not be ready for it. This is just a small thing, I belief that the day this problem will finish is near.
I pity Nigerians. Garri and rice, the staple food, is not within the reach of people again. The other day we were in the church someone told us that rice was selling for N18, 000 the previous day and was now N22,000 a bag and I was wondering how would any family be able to eat rice now because rice used to be the common food that everybody ate. My belief is that it is just a matter of time. Things will change.
This government is talking of agriculture, I hope they are talking and doing it. My problem with this country is that always they talk, they don’t do the talk. I am going to watch them. If I stay another one year from 80 years that I am today, I am going to watch to see whether this agricultural thing they are talking will come to pass. If the government is sincere with what they are talking, the country will be better for it. If they do it sincerely in the next two to three years things will change in Nigeria. But if on paper it will not work.
I was happy when one central bank governor told the government that you have been talking too much about the past government, do your own leave the past government alone. I hope they will now do their own. I think they have finished one year, they should have finished about talking about former President Goodluck Jonathan
What is your take on the military campaign in the Niger Delta, called “Operation Crocodile Smile”, which the federal government says is meant to protect oil facilities in the region and rein in criminals?
The truth is that you cannot use dialogue and force to settle issues. To make sense, I prefer dialogue, but when you talk dialogue then you bring in military, it defeats the aim of dialogue. Have they tried it to the end before using the military? I was disappointed to see the crocodile nonsense. I must be sincere.
The trouble in the Niger Delta is not today’s trouble. It is a trouble that has gone on for long and I am sure people know the solution to it. But they decide to be dancing around what they know. The solution to them, all of them know. The solution is not those boys carrying the guns, I don’t believe. These boys are working for people. Whether they believe me or not, they are working for people.
There are certain things in Niger Delta that should be dealt with and for justice sake, let government deal with those things through dialogue. Niger Delta cannot get everything they want. But they will get some of the things they want. I’m sure by then they will have peace, but if they think they can use force, it is not going to work. It has not worked anywhere. America wanted to use force in Afghanistan, Iraq, it did not solve the problems. In fact, it is creating more problems for them. If they try to use force in the area, it will create more problem for Nigeria. Boko Haram, I don’t know how the thing started.
I don’t even know what they are fighting for. The Niger Delta people, they have a case. People from outside have come to look at this case, they should sit down and deal with it the way they want to deal with it – force will not solve it. They have told me that one problem is the issue of oil blocs, that no Niger Delta man has one oil bloc in their area and there are others. I really want to see them dealing with it. If there are oil blocs given to others, why don’t they give to people from the area so that whenever anybody wants to talk about it, they will say, this man has it? Maybe there are people taking money on behalf of the area; government should point them out for us to see. Any government can tell us these are the people who are standing on your way, but if they cannot do that, let justice roll like over flowing water.
But apart from the recent Niger Delta Avengers, there is Independent People of Biafra, Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, and others. There is also the Boko Haram terrorism. Do you think dialogue can resolve all these issues?
Like the Biafra issue, they will tell you they are looking for Biafra. I’m sure if you ask them properly, they will tell you why they have the Biafra problem. But you cannot get that from Boko Haram. I have been reading papers; I have not been able to see why Boko Haram is disturbing. When Boko Haram wanted to come, my friend (President Obasanjo) went to meet their leaders and there were a lot of suggestions to solve the problem.
But government decided not to implement what had almost cost him his life. So, this is part of the problem of Nigeria. Maybe we wouldn’t have had Boko Haram today because the reason for Boko Haram is not like the reason for Biafra or Niger Delta, a simple reason which could have been solved, but government was careless about it and that is why we still have Boko Haram today. But for these are two, if you ask them they have reasons why they are angry. Simply sit down with them and talk and try to sort out some of their problems. They are Nigerians; they have every right to ask questions where they are uncomfortable. I was not happy when President Buhari said the report of the National Conference set up by the immediate past government should not be looked into. Read it, look at it, those you don’t like, tell everybody you don’t like this area. But for you to come and say I won’t look at it, I don’t think it is a way forward for the country, because definitely, this country needs some kind of restructuring.
The other day I watched, the police took over Rivers State, when the governor was there and the governor is supposed to be the chief security of the state. What is the meaning of chief security when the governor cannot secure the state? There are areas I believe we should look at. The governor sits in the state, police come and take over the state, he can’t say any word, how is he the chief security of the state? These are areas we need to look at. It looks to me that the federal government has so many things in his hands.
They should borrow a leaf from other countries like America. In America, the local government, they are in charge of their area, just like the states, why can’t we borrow this and free the federal government of all these things? They are everything. So maybe, when people talk of restructuring, these are areas they are talking of and I believe that all Nigerians should sit together and I believe this government should look at that document.
At 80, do you have any regrets in life?
My regret should be that I should not come to Nigeria, but I love Nigeria, that is why I am staying here. I had an opportunity to be an American citizen, but I refused to. I love my country. If I am regretting, I’m saying God didn’t do well for me. God has been so good to me. I went to Harvard the best university in the world, without my father, why should I regret at 80, I was the head of Methodist Church for 22 years, president of CAN for eight years, in World Methodist Council almost 10 years, Nigeria’s Inter-Religious Council eight years, so what regret?
How would you assess Akwa Ibom State 29 years after its creation?
Let me start with former Governor Godswill Akpabio, he did a marvellous work in Akwa Ibom State. You need to go to the Ibom Specialist Hospital and see what is going on there. The present governor, Udom Emmanuel, is following the footsteps of Akpabio. One of the things I like in Udom is that he is a very religious person, he believes God will help him to achieve his dreams. Udom is a quite person, he is doing his things quietly and I can assure you, by the time Udom leaves office, Akwa Ibom people will be better for it and surprised about the industrialisation he is talking about.
Udom’s priority is industrialisation and his own way of doing things will be different, his own strategy will be siting induswtries side by side the raw materials. He is doing oil palm in Mkpat Enin, he will put an industry there, he will put cocoa in Ini, he will put industry there that is his style. Most of the things are in the planning stages. My belief is that whether people like it or not people will come to Akwa Ibom to see it as a modern state in this country. It is just a matter of time.