Bishop Mike Okonkwo, the Presiding Bishop of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), in an interview with select journalists in Abuja bares his mind on the state of the nation and the potential 2023 Igbo presidency. Adedayo Akinwale was there. Excerpts:
Some people in the country have been talking about the role of the church in nation-building. What do you think about that?
The church is the light of the world and the salt of the earth. In other words, we are supposed to be the role model for the society – that is our position because if the church gets it right, definitely the nation will be positively affected. The truth of the matter is that many people who subscribed to the church have not sat down to be taught what their role should be. There are quite a number of people who believe that going to church and answering Christian names makes them a Christian. Well, that is not true. The first port of call to become a Christian is to subscribe to Christ as your saviour and lord. Until you personally make that commitment, you can go to church in your entire life and still not be a Christian. The second category of people is those who subscribe to the person of Christ but have refused to sit down and be taught to know how they should live their life now. This new life you have, how do you live it? Just like a woman who gives birth to a baby, the baby has to be fed. You have to train up the baby until he grows up to begin to become responsible. That’s the same way the life of Christ is. The majority of people who go to church are excited about the drama and the spectacular and the things they (pastors) say. But they have not really sat down to begin to say where is Christ manifesting in my own life? These are some of the problems. That’s why the society does not seem to feel the impact of Christianity in this country. There are quite a lot of problems we can attribute to it.
These days one of the issues we have in politics is that several politicians who profess Christianity are quick to say let us pray. Why have they been unable to fix Nigeria’s problems?
I just answered you: the fact that you are answering Christian name or professes Christianity, you call that ‘professors’ not ‘possessors’. They don’t have Christ. They just want to identify with Christianity since they don’t want to worship idol. They will identify with Christianity but it is much more than that. It isn’t just about identifying – have you received Christ into your heart? That is the issue. Once you have not received Christ, there is a problem. The people can never produce the fruit that is expected. Every seed produces after its type. Until you have the seed of Christ in you, you cannot produce it. And then even when you have it, you still need to nurture it. You put a seed in the ground, a good seed and a good soil and you don’t take care of that soil enough, it will not produce fruits.
Most of our politicians say they are Christians; even those who are truly Christians get into the position they don’t understand that they are moving into shark-infested water. Politics in Nigeria is shark-infested water and so immediately they get into power they disengage from the church. You won’t see them again unless during ceremony. At times they will come and think that because they make donations and do some philanthropic works, it will cover up for not living the life – that is another issue. Many of them are not connected to anywhere. They are not receiving instructions from anywhere. We, in the Pentecostal circle, and most of the church leaders have interrogated this issue and we are very concerned. There is now a strategic and intentional plan that we will begin now to train our Christian leaders who feel called into public services to let them know that when they are going there, they should carry God into that place. Others may do things that are wrong. Christians cannot because they represent God. This stream is ongoing now and we believe God that as we progress for some years we will begin to see the kind of fruits that we desire.
As 2019 approaches, are you surprised by the political turbulence in the country?
No, we will still see more, I’m not surprised, I still believe that before the election, if there will be any, that we will still see more of nonsense going on in the polity. For me, I feel abused, I feel insulted by the politicians, and I feel that they are raping Nigerians. You move from this party to the other, then tomorrow you move again, the same people recycling the same people and you are rubbing it on the face of Nigerians, I feel insulted as far as I’m concerned and I believe that through it all, God is up to something concerning this country. And His plan concerning Nigeria will be fulfilled no matter what anyone thinks. We will continue to navigate, in every tough situation God knows how to bring out the good. At the end of this whole thing that we are seeing, we will see the good that God will bring out of it.
The US congress cited Nigeria as one of the most dangerous places on earth for Christians. Do you agree with that?
Of course (I do)! How else will you say it with all the killings that are going on in the country? You can’t just sit down and begin to clap your hand and say everything is well. They must have checked their indices and come up with such report. Events in the recent past have shown there is something fundamentally wrong which has to be addressed and cannot be ignored.
Do you think that this current situation of herders/farmers clash can be resolved in a conference like you had suggested last year?
There is nothing wrong in sitting together and interrogating what is the issue. In my own personal submission I still think we have not really got the true picture of what is going on. People are not telling us the truth. The truth has not been told. I don’t believe that Nigeria’s security is not strong enough to fish out those perpetrating this evil. We have enough security. I know we may not be sophisticated as the Western world. But I still know that we have what it takes as a nation to do that. With the level of corruption in Nigeria, what if this issue is allowed to drag on so that we keep on asking for security votes? Have we thought along that line because where are people getting all the billions (of naira) they are getting. When somebody is caught, you will now see that he has stolen billions (of naira) somewhere. Where did he get that from? What makes you think that probably the army is not making money — top brass army officers and all these security people since they know that government will want peace and stability in the country? The only way is to make it as if the thing will never end, and then we will stretch hand (our) and begin to look for more money. There are several issues that are involved in this thing. You can’t just tag it to one thing. If you tag it to one thing, you will miss the whole point.
The Vice President blamed the church for the level of moral decadence in the country, saying church leaders only preach prosperity and that they are not helping President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade. Is that correct?
The Vice President may have a reason for saying what he said. I don’t want to speak for him; probably there is something he knows that I don’t know. He has security information on his table. If he’s saying so as a pastor and a real spirit-filled pastor, not just spiritually born-again. Forget about what people say that he is not born-again. It is a lie. In this government, there are about eight of them who are spirit-filled born-again. This is the first time we are having spirit-filled Christians in the government. If he really said that, then there must be some iota of truth in it that the church has not played the role it should play.
But in a government that claims to be fighting corruption, it was reported that about N21 billion was found in the residence of the sacked Director General of the Department of State Services (cuts in.)
No! No! That is wrong to say. What do you mean by ‘claim’? There is an Igbo proverb that says, ‘I can only vow for the child in my womb not the one at my back’. That someone is in the government who has decided to follow a different agenda – I mean he might have a different agenda and planned towards it. That is why I still say we don’t interrogate the right thing. You now said a government supposed to be fighting corruption – are they God to know everything? They are not God. They can only know the ones that you show to them. But when the person’s cup is full, it blows off; that’s what has happened. This might not have happened and he might still be there amassing the wealth and no one would know until Buhari’s tenure is finished. He would then leave, carry his money and go. But because the saints are praying these things are unfolding, so I believe that many more will still happen.
Do you think Igbo presidency is realistic in 2023?
I’m an Igbo man but as far as I’m concerned I don’t believe in Igbo to call for presidency. Igbo should shut their doors and develop South-east. We are fighting for the wrong thing – let’s develop South-east. This nation needs restructuring. The reason everyone is jostling for the presidency is because of the largesse that comes with it. Let every person go to his own region and develop it. They should make the centre less attractive; unbundle the centre. If you have something to offer, go to your area and get it done. For me, I am not an advocate of Igbo must be the president, unless God supernaturally (makes it happen) because there is something He wants to do. No doubt Igbo have been marginalised – I’m not speaking out of that. They have been deprived – I’m not speaking out of that. My point is let us not use the presidency as bait as if we are doing Igbo a favour. Vote for me so that I will give you the presidency in 2023. I don’t like that. We are all Nigerians; everyone is entitled to rule this country – that was my joy when Jonathan became the president of this country. I was excited in the sense that for once let it be said that a minority can rule this country. I was happy that he came on board but unfortunately he played with it and this is where we are. For me, let’s even be thinking about ‘let’s restructure this country’. But if God decides that He has something to do through an Igbo man in this country in order for us to get to where we are going, I don’t have any issue with that. But let it not be the bait that we are offering you the presidency. What makes them think if they say it, they will do it?
Should church leaders make prophetic declarations on political matters?
Anyone who makes a prophetic declaration let him stand by his prophetic declaration. If it didn’t come to pass, let him come and apologise to the church that he lied. There is nothing wrong that you made a prophecy and it went over the bar. Come to church and tell the church that you lied. What annoys me is that you come and begin to paint it: ‘I didn’t say it this way because I said it this way’ – that is nonsense! You made a prophecy; it failed. You are a human being: come to the church and say ‘I fail’.
Where do you see Nigeria after 2019 general election?
Nigeria is on course for greatness. I will never lose faith in the plan and agenda of God for Nigeria. There is no country in the world like Nigeria in spite of all the mess on the ground. There is no country that is endowed as Nigeria. We are mightily endowed. Our people are relocating and occupying powerful positions outside this country. If there is nothing in this country, why would they go to other countries and become key people?
To what extent do you think skills acquisition can develop Nigeria’s economy when there is no enabling environment?
We just have to start somewhere. Skills acquisition is the way to go if everyone develops his skills and plays a role. I mean that is one of the things that exploded China. So, when you hear me saying to Igbo, ‘Shut your door! Go back to your South-east and explode. Let other states come and see what you can do.’ That is what I’m referring to: use your gift; stop crying. Little thing, you cry to Abuja. Shut your door. I have been telling them – I have said it to different Igbo groups whether they like it or not. My part is to tell them the truth: shut your doors and stop complaining and use what you have to develop your state. When you develop it others will come and see. The same way you develop other places – rather than complaining and dying. So, skills acquisition is a very good instrument for developing a nation.