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Anglican Church: How we take care of tribal interest – Nicholas Okoh

By Sam Eyoboka
AT exactly 4.15 p.m. on Tuesday, September 15, 2009, 57-year-old Archbishop of  Bendel and Bishop of Asaba Diocese, Most Rev. Nicholas Dikeriehi Orogodo Okoh, who joined the Nigerian Army at the age of  16, was pronounced the primate-elect of the Church of   Nigeria (Anglican Communion).

By that election, the retired lieutenant-colonel, who is expected to bring strict conservatism of  his military background and several years of close collaboration with out-going Primate Peter Akinola to bear on the church, becomes the first  non-Yoruba to lead the over 18 million Nigerian Anglicans.

Because of its pioneering hard stance against same-sex marriages, the Nigerian church  had come under the firing line from more liberal Anglicans in the West, some of whom were rumoured to have made frantic subterranean moves at the conference of the House of  Bishops in Umuahia in September to influence the outcome of electoral process.

Premate-Elect Nicholas Okoh   ...There are people with different understanding in the Anglican Church
Premate-Elect Nicholas Okoh ...There are people with different understanding in the Anglican Church

Beyond the fast spreading influence of the West in the now divided Anglican Communion over the same-sex debate, the primate-elect may also have to draw   from his military background to tackle the local challenge of tribalism in the church where members daily protest the posting of priests who cannot speak their local dialect.

Anglican bishops are daily bombarded with petitions from members who would not have anything to do with their pastors because they are not from their ethnic areas.

You readily find two or three Anglican churches in the same neighbourhood, some serving the special interests of different ethnic groups, even as the vision statement states: The Church of  Nigeria (Anglican Communion) shall be Bible based, spiritually dynamic, united, disciplined, self-supporting, committed to pragmatic evangelism, social welfare and a church that epitomizes the genuine Love of Christ.

The Primate-elect was ordained priest in 1979. He became bishop in 2001 and archbishop in 2005. He is currently the chairman of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission. He has come a long way, combining the courage, boldness and piety of a consistent priest, oracle of  God to reach the apex in a world full of challenges. To this erstwhile army chief, who readily tells you that he is still a  trainee who is not qualified yet to speak on sensitive issues because the Anglican Church has only one primate, in an interview in his study at the Bishops’ Court, Asaba, Delta State, the issue is rather a plus for the church than anything else. He speaks more…

Background

My father was Mr. Stephen Chinakwe Nwaogho. I am the third child. The first was a boy who died about 37 years. I have a senior sister who is still leaving. We grew up in a very large family because my father was polygamous, but strangely, he admired the church people. So, he sent us to Christian schools. By the grace of God I went through the church school, St. Michael Primary School and after the school my father said the quickest way to wealth is to do business. He argued that all the money he has been paying as school fees would be better invested in a business venture; it would yield a lot of profit. He therefore advised me and encouraged me to go into business.

He gave me various examples of many people who had gone into business who were really making it then. He promised me that he would give me money to start a business. I was lured into business with the prospect that I would soon become a rich man; as a young man.

So, I went to become an apprentice to an uncle, one Mr. Samuel Owama who had three shops then where he sold provision, liquor and clothing materials in different parts of the town. After three years of apprenticeship, my  father gave me money to start my own business and I became a small boy with money by village standard. I bought radio, bicycle and things that were status symbol in the area at that time.

But some how, I wasn’t satisfied and I started reading all the books my senior brother used in secondary school then and I realized that this business is not what I should do. Then I met my father that the money he gave me for the business was not enough.

I told him, ‘if you don’t give me the money I will join the army.’ My father laughed over it, saying that it is true that there was war but they don’t recruit children in the army. I was deflated but to prove a point to my father I joined some boys who were ready to join the army then, with the hope of just going there to let my father know that I meant what I said.

So, we went there, but fortunately or unfortunately I was taken and that generated a lot crisis in the family. My father sent his younger brother, Sunday to come and take me out of the camp and bring me back home, saying the money was ready that I should just come out.

The first time he was warned not to come. He was warned the second time and on the third occasion he got a stern warning from the army authority that he would be conscripted into the army if he came again. And that was how he stopped coming. We went to the war and to God be the glory I came back alive. That story is much more than a book. It is not something we can narrate in one day. But let me say that this experience gave a significant contribution to my spiritual development.

While in the civil war, I was alone with God. I prayed in the morning, afternoon and evening and all through the night awake. While at home before I joined that army I was a confirmation candidate. So, I was not just being introduced to the Bible. When we came to Onitsha, we were moved into a church where I found a Roman Catholic rosary which I used for my prayers throughout the civil war and at the end of it we were moved to Makurdi.

The first year in Makurdi, because I was new in the place I joined a gang of some young boys from different parts of the country and we engaged in wrong things. We were smoking and drinking. That was in 1970, but by 1971 there was a call from Guinea that the Federal Government would like to send some troops to that country and my battalion was chosen to go.

So, we were assembled and addressed by the commander that night. That night I was unable to sleep. I shed tears. I said I have just survived one war and I was being sent to another one which is outside the country to even die there.

So, I got broken and shed tears that night. For more than 10 months or some I have stopped praying because of that bad company. But that very night I remembered God, prayed and weeping, saying ‘God I am going to a country I don’t know anything about; if only You can bring back alive as You saved me from the last   one.’

In the next one or two weeks, the Federal Government issued a statement that we were no longer going to Guinea. So, we didn’t go again. Then, a little after that I saw a friend who said in their church they were told not to read the Bible, that what  they explained  to them in  the church was enough, because they don’t have the  ability to understand the Bible.

So, they should just come to church with their prayers and listen to the priest. Because it was a shock for them  to hear somebody wanting to tear the Holy Scriptures, I asked him if he can give me the Bible and he gave me the copy. Within three months, I read the whole content.

After reading the whole content, I saw myself in a new way, realizing that I got lost when I joined the gang of boys to do things I shouldn’t have done after the civil war.

Gradually, the grace of God increased in my life and I started taking correspondence bible teaching from Igbaja in Kwara State to encourage me in my Christian life. It was from there that I remembered that I have left my education.

So, I started studying again and by 1974, I was able to pass my O-level and in 1976 I passed my A’ level. I had joined the Army chaplaincy in 1974 and I was sent to the Vining Christian Leadership Center for a catechist training under the Ministry of Defence. I also went to Emmanuel College in 1976, also sponsored by the Ministry of Defense and graduated in 1979.

I was ordained in the same year. By today, I have over 30 years experience in priesthood. After the ordination, I was sent to Jos as garrison chaplain and from there I went to the University of Ibadan for a degree programme. After that I was deployed to Lagos and after a while I proceeded to the University of Ibadan again for my masters programme.

After that programme I was transferred to Ibadan in 1989 and remained there up till 1993 when I was moved to Jos where I was in charge of the 3 Armoured Division Chaplaincy. In Ibadan, I was in charge of the 2 Mechanised Div Chaplaincy which comprised the whole of the division; but there was a senior officer who was missed in appointment.

After two years, my appointment was reduced and I became a garrison chaplain which is a smaller area. I stayed there till 1993 when I was moved to Jos to assume a bigger place as the chaplain for entire division which spanned across the whole of the North East.

I used to drive from Jos to Bauchi, to Damaturu, to Maiduguri, to Bama to Biu to Mongunu to Biu to Jalingo, Yola and then turn back through Shendam and back to Jos. I was doing that every six months and I was in Jos for four years.

When I left Jos I was transferred to Kaduna in charge of the North West made up of Sokoto, Katsina, Nguru, Zuru and all the area under One

Mechanised Div. I was moved to Lagos in 1999 and was in charge of all the Protestant churches in Lagos in addition to my administrative work as a colonel-coordinate in the headquarters. It was while in Lagos in 2001 that I was invited to be a bishop. So, I left the army in 2001 on voluntary retirement after five years as a lieutenant-colonel.

How old were you when you joined the army?

I was 16 plus.

What was your dad’s reaction after you joined the army against his wish?

He resigned himself to faith. What could he do? The army was threatening to deal with him if he dared to come again for me. But there was something miraculous that happened when I was at Onitsha during the Nigerian Civil War. There was a relative of mine who was in the Army Medical and the Medical Corps men had freedom to move about as they were moving wounded soldiers to locations where they can receive treatment.

I gave that my relation 28 pounds out of my money to give to my father and that became the only money I ever sent to my dad before he died. I really love my father and there is nothing I can give for his love for us. His memory makes me very happy. He was devoted man. He worked very hard, very honest and diligent gentle man but death did not allow him to stay long. He died actually when his family needed him most.

You have served the nation as a military man and now you are serving in another capacity in the spiritual army. I want you to take a dispassionate look at the nation. Is Nigeria where it should be 49 years after independence?
Nigeria is not perfect. It is not  even near perfect.

It is not even meeting the aspiration of the young people of this country. I don’t think it is meeting the aspiration of the founding fathers of the nation; those who laboured for the nation’s independence. I think that we are very far from the goal they set for themselves and their future generation. But here we are; we have to be grateful to God that we actually have a place we can call our own.

The duty of developing this country into what it should really be is now a common task of everyone of us. I say so because even if the political leaders are sincere to themselves, they will admit that they can’t develop this country by themselves.

They have to use people and we have come to see that some of this agents are not sincere and they can rubbish whoever is the president or governor and anybody who is at helm of affairs. If you give somebody N50 million to go and do a thing, he ends up spending N10 million and you will agree that the quality of a job done with N50 million cannot be the same with that of N10 million.

They certainly cannot be of the same quality. Our leaders must find a way to monitor the monies they release and make  sure that the purpose for which money is budgeted and released is actualised. Otherwise the current rigmarole we found ourselves in the area of development will continue for a very long time.

Will you say that Nigeria is a failed state as some very influential and knowledgeable people have claimed lately?

I can agree that there is moral failure which we must all work hard to revive, but I cannot agree that Nigeria is a failed state because if it is a failed state, you and I will not be sleeping. You think of a failed state in other places, where people carry guns freely, shoot and kill themselves.

Ours have not degenerated to that level. We have armed robbers, militants, kidnappers but we are still able to leave normal lives. So, I don’t agree with people who want to write off Nigeria. Because, you see the problem of cynicism is that it destroys everything.

If we allow cynicism to destroy our sense of progress where do we go? Ghana will not be able to accommodate us. No country in the West African sub-region can accommodate Nigeria. So, we all have the duty to make sure that we all survive here.

And what we can do now, is that the political experimentation we have in place, we should make sure that it works. We must shout loud enough whenever we see any wrong doing, so that they can adjust. Like in the game of football, if we find somebody play the ball with hands instead of his legs or commits any fowl we should shout loudly, maybe if we shout loud enough tomorrow he will not repeat it.

It has to be as process because no country in the world actually attained the state of development overnight. Take Britain, for example, how many years…they were fighting and killing feudal lords and so many others.

So, I believe that if we have a consistent programme of advancement and we try to make sure that no governor abandons already started projects because that this is one of the problems we have. Chief executives often discard already started projects and begin any thing that catches his fancy. There should be continuity in governance. If we do that there will be progress.

What is really bothering me now is the fact that we are not paying sufficient attention to area that will help development. One, power and two public transportation. How can we say in 2009, that we don’t have good rail transport system.

Rail transport system should cris cross the nooks and crannies of this country so that the common people can easily move about and there will be mobility of labour. If we want to develop, we should develop our power supply system and public transportation in a very serious manner.

Right now investors are only investing in air transportation which is only meant for the rich people. I want the government to make public transportation available for the poor people, they too need to move about.

Are some of these failures you have identified, not a function of a failed state? No power, no transportation, no roads, no water, no security of lives and property. People argue that a nation that cannot provide basic amenities to her citizens is a failed state. Do you agree?

If you talk of facilities that are not working as they should I will agree, but saying that Nigeria is a failed state, I disagree.

Because I am living in a town. There is law and order in this state to some extent. At least if somebody comes to your house to harass you, you can still talk to somebody or an agency of government and they will act.

We may not be getting it right like the white people or in comparison to our age, we may not be as good as they are in terms of developmental indices, but my own way of looking at the issue is that Nigeria is not in the class of nations where inflation rates have gone through the roofs; where hunger-stricken pupils no longer go to schools. So, we are grateful to God that ours is something we can turn around within a twinkle of an eye.

Let me give you a practical example why I will not believe the failed state theory: the governor of Lagos State have been able to subdue the menace of area boys. Take a look at Oshodi; who would have believed that somebody can transform Oshodi. Even gun-totting, koboko wielding military men could not do it. But a gentleman with persuasive power and rugged determination has been able to fix it.

There are  good people in this country and I think that our people are our resources. If we can put the right people in right places in a question of time we will get there. Mr. Fashola  is trying to change the landscape of Lagos. Look at what he is trying to do with the Lagos-Badagry Expressway. So, I have hope. If only for the sake of that young man.

Government is proposing the deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry and the Labour Movement is resisting that move, arguing that the government should rather fix the leakages in the sector instead further impoverishing the poor man with the removal of subsidy. What is your take?

The common man does not understand what you mean by subsidy. As far as he is concerned, oil is a Nigerian and who is paying this money and to who. That is the understanding of the poor man. What I will advise our authority to do, is to discuss and possibly do it in phases, because if the weight comes down sharp on the people with the unemployment rate in the country, the already marginalised poor people will cry more and that will easily attract the attention of international community. My advice to the government is to do it in stages and not once, as the economy improves.

Your recent election as the fourth primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) generated so much heat. How turbulent was the electoral process?

The Anglican Church surprised me. I came to believe that there is a future for everybody. Before the elections people were not sure of what would happen, but in the hall, the Holy Spirit took charge. I have not seen it in that form before; where friendliness became the order of the day.

After the elections, all the people who took part, came and we embraced ourselves, and we all promised that the task of moving the church forward should be our main task. It is a collegiate responsibility and I was highly impressed. It had no tribal connotation nor sectional connotation. People in the South nominated people from the North and vice versa.

Likewise people in the East nominated people from the West and vice versa. It was such a marvelous experience and so I must say that our leader, Primate Peter Akinola has led  us well. He is leaving a good legacy for us and those of us who are coming behind must ensure that we be our brothers’ keepers. If we can pass on this to country…because if he had failed and we call ourselves Church of Nigeria, it would have been symbolically disastrous.

But we heard that, for obvious reasons, there were some external influences?

I have no way of  knowing. That, we cannot say with any measure of certainty, because the outside interest, whatever they want must have been based on a faulty assumption and such assumption will be that getting one person will mean getting all.

The primate in the Church of Nigeria is governed by the constitution of the Church of Nigeria and he owes a duty to carry his colleagues along. It is a collegiate system. So, it is not a question of you get the leader you get everybody. If anybody attempted to influence the outcome of the election, it was based on a faulty assumption.

More and more European nations are endorsing same-sex marriages despite the overwhelming influence of the CANA lead by Nigeria. How do you hope to tackle this?

It is not a new topic and the position of the Church of Nigeria, made by our primate who speaks for us internationally, is very clear. We decide as a house, he is our voice. He makes our position known. That position which the House of Bishops articulated very clearly has not changed.

You can see that we are following it. It is not a personal issue. We have large number of Christians who we lead and we are conscious of our responsibility. We have a divine responsibility to lead them well and ensure that they are fed with the right spiritual food.

Can we describe what is currently happening as a division in the global Anglican Communion?

If you call it a division, I will not agree with you. But you can say that there are people with different understanding.

What I mean is that; some people think that what should be number one is being put as number two and that what should not be on the agenda is on agenda.

And so, there were some different perspectives and these perspectives engendered a new orientation and this new orientation led some people to what we call Global Anglican Future Conference, GAFCON. And GAFCON is now a worldwide movement that is helping to re-build the Anglican Church.

The Church of Nigeria is also battling with some tribal challenges where you often find two churches almost opposite one another with each serving tribal interests. How will you address that problem?

People do things for different reasons. Possibly people in Lagos do not want to lose entirely on their culture. Remember that this people came to Lagos, they have wives and children and most of these children probably bear Igbo names but that is the farthest it goes.

They have no means of acculturising and they don’t go home until Christmas periods. So for them not to lose their culture maybe that is why they have decided to form a Igbo church. Likewise, the Yorubas in Lagos having a Yoruba service is to ensure that their vernacular is not dead. So, if it is used to worship is it a bad thing. If the Yorubas use their language to worship is not a bad thing.

We have PhD in English, in Yoruba, in Igbo, in Hausa and in many languages.

I think those who do, are very few actually and they are mainly in Lagos and a few other places. That is not a sign that our church has tribal problem. We don’t have any tribal problem.

In fact, I can say that in the area of unity, we have a lot to lend to other churches because we are always together—Ibo, Yoruba, Igara, Hausa, Tiv, Idoma, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ijaw, Nupe. So if you observe one element, it is not an indication that we have ethnic problem at all. We are at home with ethnicity.

Our language is in Jesus. Jesus of culture, Jesus in our culture, Jesus across culture. In Jesus all ethnicity melt. That is our language and we will continue to preach it. We might not have scored 100 per cent, but we are moving towards a perfect man.


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