By Ephraim Oseji & Ikenna Asomba
Bishop Charles Ighele is the General Superintendent of Holy Spirit Mission Church, the Happy Family Chapel, with over 60 branches, outreaches and neighbourhood assemblies. He took over the headship of the church from the founder, the late Bishop Michael Marioghae, on January 19, 1997.
Ighele, who just clocked 60, in this interview, speaks on the 2015 general elections, describing them as the worst elections ever in the nation’s history, because of the voting pattern in some parts of the country, largely driven by ethnic and religious sentiments.
You just clocked 60 years and have spent over 35 years in the ministry. How has the journey been like?
Besides being the General Superintendent of Holy Spirit Mission Church, the Happy Family Chapel, I’m also the President, Happy Family African Foundation; President Marriage Promise Keepers; I head the International Conference for Ministers, Marriage and Family. I and my wife also run an institute for marriage and intimacy studies. We publish a magazine, “The Love Arena.” We organize the minister’s child conference, even as my wife organizes “When Mama Prays.” We do so many things relating to the family outside the pulpit.
How did the journey start?
After I graduated from the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, in 1980, I came across the founder of Holy Spirit Mission Church, Benin-City, Bishop Michael Marioghae. I have been in several churches, read a lot and have come across preachers who preach from books and won’t give credit. That is plagiarism. I have heard preachers preaching and quoting books without giving credit and people are jumping. I used to be disgusted. But when I met Bishop Marioghae, I saw a man who was preaching and giving credit to where he got the information from. That really got me interested in him, and, sometime later, I became a member of his church. This was actually what got me excited because I love honesty. I saw dishonest people on the pulpit and I was disgusted. Then, I found this man, Bishop Marioghae, and I had to cling to him and I became a member of his ministry, the Holy Spirit Mission, Benin-City. I was handling evangelism and I became the Secretary of the Elders Council, the supreme ruling body of the ministry. At a time, I was the Sunday school teacher of the ministry. I held several positions before I became a pastor in the ministry.
In December 1996, Bishop Marioghae called some of us who were the senior ministers to a meeting, informing us that God had told him that his time was up, that God would soon call him home. He was 70 years then. He said his job was over and that God told him to hand-over to another person and that person was me. So, on January 19, 1997, a public handing-over service was conducted at the church headquarter, then, in Benin-City. Five years after he handed-over to me, he passed on. Something unique about him was that from the day he handed-over to me, he never stepped his feet into his office. He never interfered with anything. Bishop Marioghae was indeed a man of integrity, even when his burial ceremony was held at Sam Ogbemudia Stadium, it was massive that Coca Cola printed banners. So, that is the kind of background I am coming from.
Journey to Lagos
Ten years ago, we had to relocate the ministry to Lagos and starting all over again. We started worshiping under canopies before we bought our land in Shasha area of Lagos. Even some people who used to read about us in the papers, when they visit our ministry, they think I have collapsed. Also, people who used to be very close to me all turned their back on me. That reminds of the story that success has many relations, but failure has none. Here was I lacking nothing in Benin-City, but, on coming to Lagos, things were really tough for us. But, today, by the special grace of God, we have gotten somewhere. We were very visible in Benin-City, but when we came to Lagos, it seemed we were nobody. But we had a sense of mission, that was why we persevered and stayed calm. We knew what God called us to do, and ‘by the special grace of God, we are doing great today.
The 2015 general elections have come and gone, but one visible fall-out was the alleged partisanship and endorsement of candidates by clergymen. What’s your take on this development?
There are different levels in which the clergy can be involved. If a pastor has a personal calling to be in politics, to be a journalist, to be a medical doctor, there is nothing wrong. Although, I have not been to Taribo West’s church, I know he was a footballer that played for AC Milan, and, right there in Italy, he had a church. If you have a personal calling, there is no problem. Look at someone like Makarios III (Mouskos) of Cyprus, who was the Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus from 1950 to 1977, he was the first president of the Republic of Cyprus. Perhaps, that was his calling. But in Nigeria, that is rare. You don’t expect people like Pastor Enoch Adeboye, Bishop Mike Okonkwo, Bishop David Oyedepo, or myself to say we want to contest for any office. That is going to be a demotion.
However, clergymen have the right to choose the candidate they want to vote for. Every clergyman has a right. Let me clarify an unfortunate development which was a fall-out of this year’s elections. Look, the Muslim clergy can influence Muslims on who to vote for during elections. This last election, they played key roles. As far as I’m concerned, the 2015 elections were among the worst in Nigeria’s history. When I say worst, I don’t mean in the area of being free and fair. The politics we left in the 1960s is what we have gone back to.
One of the unfortunate fall-outs of the polls was that the Muslim clergy played serious religious politics up North and nobody talked about it, but when the clergy in the South played theirs, heaven was let loose. I don’t think that is fair on the Christian clergy to be more on the searchlight. I am saying this for the sake of educating our people. For me as a clergy, several people who work for me are Muslims, I have sent several Muslims to school.
I love this nation, I stand for this nation. I am deeply concerned because what made these elections the worst was because they were a combination of tribal and religious politics. This combination is too dangerous to sustain a nation. When you combine ethnocentrism and religion, the future is bleak, because these are very powerful forces of centrifugalism. If Nigeria should stand on this, we are in big trouble.
My greatest fear for this nation is that what played out in the last elections was what we witnessed during the days of the Action Group (AG), National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons/National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) among others in the First Republic. Voting pattern was largely driven by ethnicity during the days of Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikwe, Ibrahim Waziri, among others. During this period, you could see high level tribal politics. We had the NPC led by Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa as the deputy who now formed the government at the centre.
We had AG with the West as its base, and in the East, we had the NCNC. These parties were tribal parties. It was due to tribal political alignment that Balewa was able to form a government, and this did not pay the nation. This apparently led to the coup of January 1966, and you could see the ethnic slants of the coup plotters. Even, if they didn’t have any ethnic slant, there was no way you could convince the North about that, because the coupists were from a particular part of the country.
So, six months later, precisely on July 29, 1966, there was a counter coup, organised by the Hausa/Fulani. When this happened, they were advised never to bring up a northern Muslim as the new Head of State, that was why they brought Yakubu Gowon, a Middle-Belt man and a Christian, who was not even part of the coup to be the Head of State.
That singular act seemed to remove a lot of the religious sentiments and anger that would have been visited on the government that took-over from July 29, 1966. If a Muslim had been picked then, the religious anger would have been terrible. Picking Gowon calmed things down, it made the coup and the counter coup to be hinged upon tribalism. The Igbo later declared Biafra.
Aside the Second Republic also, which witnessed ethnic and religious politics, the abortive Third Republic, which saw Gen. Ibrahim Babaginda’s two parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC), didn’t see that ethnic and religious card-playing really visible. In the June 12, 1993 election, the voting pattern of the SDP and NRC cut across ethnic lines and religious divides. Moshood Abiola was a Muslim from the South and Bashir Othman Tofa was also a Muslim from the North. They both contested on the platforms of the two parties then, but Nigerians didn’t care. That 1993 election really calmed things down, until the military annulled it.
Blame PDP, APC
Now, coming down to the 1999 election, Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Falae were the major contenders. The religious element of the voting pattern in that election was a little down. But, some years ago, the religious and ethnic sentiments started gaining foot-hold in our politics. This is of concern to me. The two major parties in this last election, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), whether we like it or not, they played a dangerous religious and ethnic card.
When the president-elect was quoted some years ago as saying Muslims in the North should align with Muslims in the South to seize power at the centre, I think he was too nationalistic to have said such a thing. So, I don’t want to believe that he said so.
In this last election, in the North, messages were going round the mosques on who to vote for, then in the south, the President was going round visiting churches. It has never been this bad. While the PDP was playing its religious cards in the South and parts of the North, the APC was playing their own in the core North. I’m not exonerating any party, because both parties played high level religious and ethnic cards which is dangerous to our nationhood.
So, what do you suggest as the way out of this dangerous trend?
The incoming Federal Government can change this unfortunate trend. On assuming office, they must immediately begin to educate and play down the religious and ethnic factors. If they do that, they can douse the religious tensions that can come up. By the time they douse it, then the religious factors can be washed away. It may not be easy, but we must realize that if a dress is dirty, it can still be washed.
Do you have any hero or villain from the last election?
I really have to doff my hat for the Ijaw. Looking at the fall-out of the election, the Ijaw really won my heart. I know the Ijaw people, they are among the fearless ethnic groups in Nigeria.. The Ijaw people are fearless by nature.
They stand for a cause if they want to fight it, that was why Isaac Boro was the one who really started this kind of battle, before others took up. The Ijaw man fights for his rights, and this is where the bulk of the oil used in sustaining this country is produced, as well as from Isoko. Now, their man became the President and wanted to go for a second-time and they said he can’t go.