Dr. Samuel Chukwuemeka Uche, Prelate of the Methodist Church, Nigeria, spoke to Funke Olaode about the state of the nation particularly, the recent #EndSARS protests, saying except government addresses the prevalent inequality in the system, Nigeria may not know peace. Excerpts:
Faced with various crises, what’s the role of the church in shaping the nation?
The Church should be involved in advocacy and like the mouthpiece, the voice of God and the nation, and that has been our role since the inception of Methodism in Nigeria. If you return to history, you will know that the Methodist mission was the first to land at Badagry on 24 September 1842; followed by the Anglican, Henry Townsend, who came on 24 December 1842.
The two celebrated joint communion and Eucharistic service in Badagry. The place where they took away slaves was also the place they returned as slaves. If you know Nigeria very well, anywhere there’s a government headquarters you will have Methodist.
For instance, if you go to my home in Okigwe, you will see the House of the District Officer, then, the house of the Methodist missionary. They share one fence. If you go to Marina, you will see the State House and from motion to Nigerian Ports Authority, the expanse of land there is owned by the Methodist Headquarters.
We are always sharing with the government, because we came with the government. We have been in politics but you may not know that Nnamdi Azikiwe was a student of Methodist High School, Lagos, Victoria Island. That was where he did his secondary education before he went for his higher secondary certificate at King’s College.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo did the same. He studied at Wesley College, Elekuro in Ibadan. So, if you trace it, Michael Okpara was a student of Methodist College, Uzoakoli. He finished and did high elementary also before he was sent overseas by the Methodist missionaries.
So, we have been at the forefront of politics. But the church has been apolitical and not partisan. The church allows her candidates to be in governance but they are there to advise. So, every church that knows its onions, when and how to cut it cannot stand aloof when things are going wrong in your country.
What’s your take on the #EndSARS protests?
#EndSARS means so many things. It means lack of employment. It represents hunger, police and army brutality, marginalisation, impunity in the government, inequitable distribution of offices based on geographical setting and federal character.
Those things are lacking, because you know in Nigeria, one tribe wants to dominate Nigeria and things must fall apart. According to the legendary Chinua Achebe, when things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. That is what we are suffering.
There is a lot of inequity, so, until the government addresses the issue of equity, there will be no peace. Moreover, the young people…it’s like what they did to George, a black man in Minnesota in United States of America, who was knelt on the neck and screamed, ‘I cannot breathe.’
Go and see the Senate, old people are sleeping there and taking home bogus salaries and allowances. At the end of the month, one person goes home with N13m while teachers are paid a stipend including journalists. I told President Muhammadu Buhari that half of the salary of a senator can give employment to 1,460 graduates if they are paid a N100,000 each.
If that is multiplied by 109 senators, because each state has three senators including the Federal Capital Territory, you will know the amount of job they would generate. 109 multiplied by I,460; this is coming from just the Senate. Then, from the House of Representatives, we generate equivalent of that too. How are you re-circulating and replicating old people and the young ones are suffering?
As long as young people continue to suffer, there will be increase in hooliganism, armed robbery, kidnapping and cybercrimes. We must address the problems of Nigeria once and for all by doing things right. The Bible says when the righteous is in authority, people rejoice but when the wicked is in authority, people cry.
What do you think about restructuring?
Nigeria is too big to be one country. But we are not saying that we should disintegrate and go away. If we can maintain the regional structures, that is, South East can have a central government and states could be contiguous administrative units under the South East Region. If one goes to Australia, they have regions like Sydney. But they are one government.
If you go to America, they are called United States of America. Each state has its police, immigration, customs, army, etc., but they are called United States of America. So, restructure means that we can come closer to each person, instead of collecting and sharing money; each generates its own money and pays a percentage to the center. And people will have a sense of belonging.
Are you suggesting that people should go back to the regional system of government?
Now, they have what is called the geographical zones, which was started by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and it has been adopted by other parties, so, why not have six regions in the country or even more regions, but there must be a central administration headed by one person just as Donald Trump is heading America but it is united states. There must be some federal, state and other laws. There should be a federating system in Nigeria, because is too big as a country.
Looking at the total decay in education, power, health and infrastructure, what’s the way out of the mess?
You may not be born at a certain period in Nigeria but I was privileged to be at the time Dr. Michael Okpara was the premier of the Eastern Region. We had two sources of power then. One was from Oji River and coal in Enugu (ECN). The fastest growing economy in the whole of Africa was the Eastern Region. We had food in abundance. I remember that when garri was sold in cups, my mother would buy from a rural market at 36 cups per shilling.
Then, we would come back to town and sell 18 cups per shilling. So out of every shilling, my mother would make 12 cups. That was how I went to a secondary school, because she helped my father, who was a church teacher to raise money and train us and we ate very well.
In secondary school then, every Saturday we had two boiled eggs per student at breakfast. On Sunday, we were sure of rice that was why we would wash our white shirt and trousers iron them very well and after service. We would eat rice. Four students shared a whole chicken.
Just as people were recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, electricity tariff was increased. What’s your thought on that?
The government gives money from one side and takes it from another side. They said the increase in the minimum wage to N30,000, which means nothing. There is hyper-depression. Prices have gone up by more than 50 per cent. It means that you are giving people salary and taking it from another end. People liked when they were earning N18,000 and fuel was going for N85.00 per liter, and goods and services were cheaper.
If one earns N30,000 and goes to the market with it, it means nothing. So, it will increase crime. Another issue about Nigeria is that our government is not creating enabling environment for private entrepreneurs and industries to thrive. If they allow private investors to drive, with energy, which is germane and good roads, supply of potable water, these are the things that Nigerians want.
If there is regular supply of electricity, the welder in the village will not struggle to come to Lagos. I was in Israel last year, any corner you visit, there is light even though their cable went underground, anywhere you want to wash hand, in all the lavatories they built in the wilderness, there is a tap for both hot and cold water running 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days in a year.
People are there making it, each place we went, people are there buying things. They are very well developed. Why can’t we learn from such people? Look at the roads in Nigeria. When I was growing up, there was trunk ‘A’ road, which was the federal road. There was trunk ‘B’ road, which was state or region and trunk ‘C for the local government.
The worst thing that is happening in our country is the local government. I understand they share this money. When they come to the state government, which takes a chunk of it and use the remaining to pay salaries and nothing remains for goods and services. That is part of the reason for the suffering. We have to be honest. There is deliberate creation of poverty in our country.
Talking about poverty, was that why the palliatives did not get to the people?
I was surprised that palliatives meant for the people were allegedly preserved. Are they calling for another COVID-19, when the church is praying for the pandemic to go? I am happy those warehouses were broken for people to carry what belong to them. I did not see it as looting.
What did your church do for members during the pandemic as many churches neglected their hungry members?
We donated for both sides. My wife distributed food items massively and money inclusive. We equally gave to the Lagos State government.
Still on the state of the nation, countries are talking about diversification of their economy. For example, Dubai considered a desert, is now the fourth most visited country in the world, and sits atop barrels of crude oil untouched. Nigeria’s economy relies mainly on oil. When oil dries up, what becomes of the nation?
We are not planning for the rainy day. My father told me that the most foolish man is the man that eats the fat yam and the seedling. When we were growing up, we had yam barn. My father would plant yam, while my mother planted cocoyam and cassava. She never went to market to buy yam or cocoyam or fermented cassava (akpu).
Every four days, my mother would take us to the farm to uproot cassava, soak in water and in the next four days, there was enough food always at home. That is what I recommend for every family. Do not wait for the government. Get involved in farming.
The most important thing that will expose wretchedness is hunger. If everybody is well fed, one may not be involved in some criminalities. While we ate, we also sold some of the farm produce.
Diversification of the economy also involves technological development, when artisans are technologically empowered even though that one needs energy, then, there is also commercial agriculture, subsistent arable farming, which means cultivation of food crops, poultry and aquatic culture are other means we can maintain to feed ourselves as a nation if we want.
If countries like Japan that do not have oil are fed by ICT, Bill Gates are rich on their own platform. I have also heard that cars that will not use oil are being manufactured to hit the road soon. At that time, what will happen to Nigeria? When I was a bishop in Owerri, I told our people the advantages of diversification many years ago. Our gas is untapped. We have quantum deposit of untapped gas, why not tap them and use them for our economy?
We only know how to steal money. I am a religious leader, who does not sit in Lagos only. I go to villages, to every part of Nigeria, where the roads are not motorable. Sometimes, I go with motorcycle, paddle canoe to cross. I know Nigeria more than those sitting in Abuja, because they fly by air. I go by road, rail, and water.
Our people are eating all their eggs. The government in power is not planning for tomorrow and the unborn generation. They want to finish everything and take loans from China and other developed countries. They have taken loans that they cannot pay and they will leave it as a liability for the incoming generation, it is unfair.
Nigeria has had a number of national conferences. What is the way out?
The way out is for people to be honest. Do they take such reports? If it does not please some people, they will not approve of it. At the #EndSARS protests, those that were called hooligans were hired. I saw a boy being beaten to death on my way to the airport. I asked to stop and remember that he is a Nigerian first. Those beating him were indigenous people of Abuja, not Igbo. They said the boy claimed they were hired to disrupt the #EndSARS protests.
At the root of the protests and counter-protests ‘might be’ related to 2023, people have not delivered any dividend of democracy for the election they won, yet, they are realigning which leads to stealing money, depriving people of their rights. God will judge a lot of things. It is not to earn money that matters, but where will you spend eternity? Where are you going after here? Jesus Christ said if one gains the whole world, where will you spend eternity? Where there is righteousness, justice?