Dr. Mike Okonkwo, the presiding Bishop of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), is one cleric who rarely dabbles into political matters in the country but who does not mince words when he chooses to. Two days ago, he was his usual self when he spoke with select journalists, including The Guardian’s ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, at the TREM headquarters in Lagos on the state of affairs in the country. He condemned President Muhammadu Buhari’s style of governance, especially the manner of his appointments and his handling of the security situation in the country, warning that the situation in Afghanistan was a big lesson for Nigeria. Okonkwo also lambasted the governors of the Southeast states for losing the confidence of the people, condemned the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) for beating the drums of war in the Southeast and stated why he does not want an Igbo man to succeed Buhari in 2023. He also spoke on the qualities Nigerians must look out for in people that will present themselves for the number one position before making their choice.
The talking point in the country now is the level of insecurity. You are renowned as someone who doesn’t mince words any time you hold an opinion you voice it out. What is your take on the state of the nation right now vis-à-vis the security challenges bedeviling the country?
Well, it is only somebody who is blind or dishonest that will say that he is satisfied with how the country is now. For me, I think the nation is going through a period of gestation; something new has to be born. We have gone round this mountain long enough and it’s not working. To be honest, something is fundamentally wrong in the way we have operated since our independence in 1960. We should be doing better than we are doing now. In fact, at times you feel ashamed to call yourself a Nigerian.
Few years ago, we said, ‘Ghana must go’. But today, Ghana is far ahead of us in their national development. Our educational system is run down, security is run down and economy is run down. Everything is leveled to the ground; everyone is on ground zero.
So, definitely, no one will say that he/she is satisfied with the situation in the country. I mean, people are afraid; they cannot travel; you cannot confidently go to your village. The insecurity has gotten so bad that they can even invade our armoury and carry arms and nothing will happen. Then, where do you turn to?
The most recent was the invasion of the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) in Kaduna by bandits. If these people could walk into the NDA and kill people and escape, then where do we stand? Kaduna happens to be a very stronghold in terms of military presence and these things are happening there. So, there is no more hiding place for people and we should seriously look into it as a nation.
I was watching the Minister of Labour when he was being interviewed in terms of doctors that are leaving the country; and he said for him, it does not mean anything. I was shocked! How many doctors do we have in Nigeria for him to say we had surplus? We have surplus, but we go to hospitals and will be looking for doctors? That is also the situation at the health centres. I told myself that this man must have been living in another world not in Nigeria. We are having brain drain; people are leaving the country and when they get out of the country they excel. That shows that Nigerians are resilient, brilliant and know what they are doing. It is a matter of having a system that works in the country so that the citizens will be able to reap the benefits of what God has endowed Nigeria with.
The other day, a woman was crying out over the state of the hostels at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she went to drop her daughter to resume school. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as she was showing the hotels that students were living in to study. And I asked myself, ‘is this a higher institution of learning and we expect them to turn out to be the best for us?’ For people to even live in that type of environment is a shock. So, there is rot everywhere you turn.
So, the state of our nation is becoming very scary. In fact, at times, I ask myself how the people in the National Assembly see themselves. You are supposed to be in the National Assembly to pass laws that would be beneficial to the nation; and these things are happening in your eyes and you go to the National Assembly, walk back home and sleep? You don’t take drastic actions or decisions that will address those issues?
You said Nigeria is going through a gestation period and that something new has to be born before the country can move forward. What is that new thing you are envisaging?
If you notice, there is strong agitation that the entire federal system we are operating should be looked into. And from my understanding, it is even in the manifesto of the ruling party; I heard that it is the number one item in their manifesto. Pastor Tunde Bakare, who was part of the drafting of their constitution, said that it is the number one point in their manifesto. True federalism, restructuring. Now, the question is, why has it not been done? So, there is agitation from every area.
Initially, it was the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB); it’s no more IPOB alone. Oduduwa people and the Niger Delta Front are also saying ‘look, we are tired of this contraption called Nigeria’, which was not the case before.
So, definitely, when there is such agitation all over, the truth is that people who are trying to either sweep it under the carpet, run away from it, threaten people are wasting their time. We must come to a point where we will look at the country and re-address the present situation we are in because that is why there is tension everywhere. There is lack of trust everywhere. Nigerians don’t trust anything again; they don’t even believe in the government any longer. So, obviously, this is an indication that there is something that has to give way for another thing to rise and that is where we are going. I believe that there is need to give birth to what will be beneficial to the entire land so that every region will develop at their own pace. I mean we can’t continue with this type of mediocrity.
What we have on ground now, to put in the native parlance, is like you beating me up and saying I shouldn’t cry. It’s not possible; if you beat me up, I must shed tears.
What are these ‘beatings’ that gave rise to these agitations?
Let me give you one example. People are complaining of insecurity. If you are complaining of insecurity and the security apparatus is in the hands of a group of people, the only way I can convince you that I am sincere and serious about what I am doing is to balance it, standardise it, get people from different parts of the nation to handle different areas so that there will be no suspicion. Currently, there is suspicion. Now, no matter what the president says, people will not believe it until there is a decentralisation of the security apparatus. People are saying that the insecurity in the country is now virtually across the whole nation and you are saying that there is no agenda that the North has to take over the country, how do I believe you?
Like they say, it’s you people that have the knife and the yam; whomever you give, he takes. So, why are you not delivering? The natural thing for anyone to do is to take it from them and share it. You can say, ‘look, I don’t have any agenda; you from Niger Delta you are in charge of this; you from Kwara you are in charge of this, you from Kogi you are in charge of that’. You distribute it so the security apparatus is spread across the whole country. That way, if it’s no more working, you are not calling one group of people. So, this pointing at a particular group of people is not an attempt to label them, it’s simply because the right things seem not to have been done. Who else will I call? I won’t call an outsider because you are in charge. If you are in charge why are things the way they are? That is the way I see it.
In as much as I am the type that does not play ethnic politics, just look at the agitation that is going on in the East. The Miyetti Allah will come out and take ownership of certain things like the misbehaviour and violence in some areas and nothing is done. Then the IPOB carries their flag without arms and you will go after them and mow them down. What do you want people to say? Do you want them to say that everything is fine? It can never be. So, these are the issues that people are agitating for and crying out.
To the best of my knowledge, the easterners are not asking for anything other than live and let live. They are not saying, ‘give us everything’. For me, to be honest with you, I am not in agreement with any easterner saying, ‘it’s time for us to be president’. So you should beg to be president? If it’s going to be a case of making you president so that you can be appeased, that is stupidity; I don’t want that. You are a Nigerian; you have equal right to everything that every other person who is in Nigeria has. So, it’s not a matter of being appeased. In fact, I don’t even want any easterner under this situation to be a president because he will fail. Do you know why? The present system can never allow you to succeed. That is why we have to look at the system.
The other day, somebody was boasting that they have the largest number and therefore, they are the ones that will determine who rules the country or not. What type of audacity is that? What type of audacity will make you to be saying that you are going to be lording it over the entire nation? It’s unacceptable.
So, what are your thoughts on the situation in the Southeast where there seems to be two governing authorities, the state governments on one side and the IPOB on the other side, as evidenced in the recent sit-at-homes ordered by the IPOB, which was obeyed by the residents despite a counter directive by the state governors?
Let me first say that the reason most people sit-at-home is not that they necessarily want to obey the IPOB, it is simply because they are afraid as IPOB will threaten them. They will tell you that if you do this, they will kill you or burn down your home. Who wants to be the scapegoat? So, I would rather stay away; I don’t want their trouble.
The other day they sat at home, I saw somebody who was cooking in front of his house even though the streets were empty and they came and poured away what he was cooking. There were people who had their drinks on their corridors and they broke all of them. When you do that type of thing why do I want to come out? Does that mean that I am respecting your orders? No! It’s the threat to life that makes people to obey them.
And that is what I have been saying; much as I know that the state governments have not played the way they should play; they are supposed to be the voice of the people and stand and address issues that have to do with them. The easterners have lost confidence in the governors; that is why they are looking for a new voice that will lead them.
I am not a strong advocate of IPOB for one singular reason – one person cannot be the final authority in a thing. No other person can make any suggestion. If you make any suggestion you are under fire no matter how good your suggestion is. That’s wrong! It’s almost becoming a dictatorial issue. So, it’s difficult to accept that; one person cannot be the only custodian of an idea. And a lot of them who are jumping up and down did not see the Nigeria-Biafra war; they never saw it. I think that even Nnamdi Kanu was born after the war or during the war, so he was a boy who didn’t know anything.
One of the songs they used to sing in those days was ‘Ojukwu give me gun let me go and kill Gowon.’ Is it easy? Gowon is still alive today. Let us be real; war is not a good experience. When the bombs begin to land, no one will tell you to run for your life. So, people don’t understand the implications of war; there will be no medication, no food and everything you have laboured for over the years will be lost. The implications of war are so much that you don’t want it. If you can have an alternative, no matter how long it takes, sitting down round the table and discussing your issues, is the best way.
At the end of the war, easterners were given 20 pounds. I am a witness; I worked in a bank before the war. For Igbos to be able to bounce back to the dimension that they have been able to bounce back now is a miracle. Why do you want to destroy those things over night and start again? Why would you continue with a vicious cycle? It doesn’t make sense. It’s not being a coward; it’s being wise. Wisdom is better than weapons of war.
So, for me, there is need for both the younger generations’ strength and the old men’s wisdom to meet together so that we will know which direction to go. You can’t just label any person who brings an idea contrary to yours a saboteur. How can I be a saboteur for advising you based on what I know about the way war goes? So, I think that the Southeast governments should win back the confidence of the people.
How do they do that, as the sit-at-home orders is said to be seriously threatening the economy of the Southeast?
I thought so myself that the instruction is counterproductive. I have asked myself how sitting at home on Mondays is beneficial to IPOB. Does that affect the Federal Government? It’s not their business; it’s not going to change anything. So, I’m still trying to understand how telling easterners who are basically traders to sit-at-home and do nothing on Mondays is beneficial to IPOB. At the end the Igbos are the losers.
You see, that is why I keep harping on the need to do a massive enlightenment so that people can understand where they are coming from. This issue of I don’t want to hear, you must hear. When you listen to another argument that is more superior, you will be able to understand. But as at now, they are too violent; all they want to do is whatever Nnamdi Kanu says to them, whether we like it or not. When you tell them to sit down and hear the other side, they say no.
So, I think the governments should still continue to try and see how they can get their people and say, ‘look, we are also seeing the obvious partiality against the Southeast, but at the same time, there is a better way to approach the situation’.
What lessons can Nigeria learn from the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan?
We are supposed to learn lessons from it because those are the issues we have been talking about. They (Taliban) were granted amnesty. What happened in Afghanistan is simple – the people were carrying guns and fighting outside, but inside, they were still terrorists. Yes, you trained them, but it didn’t change anything because there was no internal change. So, immediately the Taliban came into the place, they surrendered. They just said, ‘come, we have been waiting for you.’ That is why we must be careful in this country.
Recently, somebody made some massive revelations while being interviewed by a television station. Even when Goodluck Jonathan was on board, he mentioned that there was Boko Haram in his government. You see, these are things that upset me. If we really took those things serious and we truly wanted to address the issue of security in the country, why would I not as a president invest money and call foreign countries that have intelligence to come and investigate these things and fish out the culprits and deal with them drastically. You don’t just hear some things and fold your hands and expect the thing to go off like that.
So, we are really sitting on the keg of gunpowder; that is what I can tell you. If truly our military and security outfits have been infiltrated by saboteurs, it will take only God to help us out of the situation. I have been thinking about it, but I have always had one faith and confidence that God will help us out of this. We are in a limbo.
There have been talks about the removal of petrol subsidy. If that should be done, the product will sell for as high as N300 in the country. What is your position on the issue?
Let me ask you: Are we not buying petrol up to that amount in some places in the country? Much as I understand, the Southeast has never bought petrol at the official pump price. So, this issue of subsidy is lopsided; there is a mafia in this thing that we are not seeing yet. There is something that somebody is not telling us. How are we having subsidy, every time they are collecting money and yet fuel is not reducing? This issue needs to be addressed critically and sincerely so that we can now know where our problem is. I don’t believe we have addressed the issue.
That is why I said that we are going to have a new Nigeria to be born and until that happens, we will keep on running round and round, because there is obviously a group of people in this country who are sitting down, doing their calculations and all they are after is how to milk the nation while the rest of the people will be suffering. So, all these things will be addressed holistically; it’s not an isolated issue.
I was telling somebody recently that for five or eight years, people were Registrars of JAMB and all they were able to give to the Federal Government was just about N5 or N8 million. Then here comes Prof. Oloyede who remitted over N1 billion in his first year. How do you explain that? And within his first tenure, he was able to remit about N14 billion. He even reduced the cost of JAMB forms.
So, I am saying that what we are faced with in this country is more than Buhari. It’s not about Buhari; it’s more than Buhari. In fact, somehow I just feel that the man is overwhelmed. May be he didn’t even realise the dimensions of the rot he is going to face and was saying that he would do this and do that. This is not military; this is democracy.
That’s why I said that we need a totally new structure in the country. The thing we have now is not going to curb our problems. Fuel subsidy is a minor issue of the issues. Everything has to be looked into completely and then we will know where we are headed.
We recall that in 2014, you were part of the people that endorsed Buhari for president…
(Cuts in) No, what made you to come up with that submission? Did you here where I came out to say, ‘this is where you will vote?’
But you were part of the people that spoke about the integrity of Buhari as a leader…
(Cuts in) Where did you get that?
It was reported…
(Cuts in) No, no, no! I have not seen where it was reported that I endorsed and spoke of his integrity. Now, my statement is not to question his integrity. But I want to know where I said that, because one of the things I am careful about when it comes to the issue of politics is never to endorse any political party. Why? In the church, people have different political leanings. So, for me as a Christian leader to get on my pulpit and begin to tell people, ‘this is the person you will vote for’ I will be operating in error. My part is to teach you the scriptures and based on the scriptures you will now follow the scriptural standard to know what direction you should go and not to sit up and endorse any person. The best of men is still a man. So, I am careful never to do that.
At that time, CAN actually came out to endorse Jonathan and you were part of the people that kicked against that decision?
How? How did you arrive at that conclusion? I want to know. What made you to say so?
May be we should leave that for now. But I would like to know your rating of the Buhari Presidency?
Without your asking me question, I have already laid down a lot of things that are wrong in the country. In fact, at times, I ask myself if he is really in touch with reality. I mean there is no human being no matter how terrible you are that the country will be the way it is now and you will not be concerned. So, sometimes I have had to ask myself: ‘What type of legacy does he want to leave? What would he like to be remembered for?’
Some of the things he said like, ‘foreign exchange is going to go down, insecurity is going to go down (of course this insecurity did not start today) and many other things, what we are seeing is the opposite. That is why I wonder why it is so difficult to tweak the security apparatus despite the level of insecurity in the country. That is why I am asking: Is he really in touch with what is going on that is making him to just seem indifferent? That’s my own way of looking at it.
So, obviously, I am not happy. That is why when I hear some of the things the people in the government are saying I will just conclude that they are not serious. Funny enough, some of them cannot go to their villages and yet they don’t see anything wrong. You don’t see them complaining. I don’t understand it.
The Vice President is still a member of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN)…
(Cuts in) Of course, a spirit filled Christian.
How much do you communicate with him over some of these inefficiencies in this administration?
Let me ask you: Have you been a vice president before.
So, vice president’s assignment is to do what his principal tells him. Let’s be real; let’s not fool ourselves. I have my respect for the vice president any day irrespective of what they are bandying in the newspapers. I know that he is a spirit filled born again believer. He is not playing to the gallery. His primary constituency is the church. At the end of the day, when he finishes serving in the government, he will still return to the church. That is a no go area.
But the point is that I have people working under me; they take orders from me. As long as they want to remain in my organisation, they must obey my instructions. They can’t just get up and say they will do what they want to whether I like it or not.
I hear people saying, ‘resign, resign…’ I always ask them, ‘would you resign if you were the vice president?’ I mean don’t tell people to do what you know you cannot do’. You think it’s so easy to resign? Let’s be sincere. The thing that is so sad about our country is that we have a group of people who are not sincere in dealing with the issues and putting themselves on the other side of the stick.
One of the things that have helped me concerning the political issue of this country is simply that I am not partisan; I am not interested in where you come from. I have no ethnic bias; I have no religious bias; I have no party bias and I have no personal interest. What is my interest? My interest is who will deliver the dividends of democracy to Nigerians. If you like, be an idol worshipper; you will have my vote because Nigeria is not a church. Nigeria is Nigeria that has different people with different types of persuasions and beliefs, who are citizens of the country. There are idol worshippers; there are Muslims; there are Christians; there are different kinds of people.
And so as a president, you are not supposed to go there and begin to serve the interest of a particular group of people or your own interest. You serve the interest of everybody. I am not an advocate of we want a Christian president; that’s wrong because we have had people who claimed to be Christians but delivered nothing. Once there is ethnic sentiment, then you are going to tilt towards your ethnicity, which is wrong. You are a national leader as president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, your interest should be what you can do to make Nigeria beneficial to every person big and small, rich or poor, no matter where you come from. The problem with us is that when people begin to agitate, there is always personal interest colouration to it. I can always read it and those are not going to move us to anywhere.
So, what kind of leader do you think Nigeria needs in 2023 with all the challenges at hand?
I have just told you the qualities I am looking at: A person that would be devoid of ethnic sentiments, party sentiments, tribal sentiments or personal interest. Any person who will be devoid of those things and see Nigeria as his/her constituency is my ideal leader. If we are still going to have the situation where people are tied and bound with ethnic sentiments, I don’t need such because it will be the same story; nothing will change.
We need somebody who has Nigeria as his constituency. It’s not your tribe; it’s not your religion. Such a person, because he wants to leave a legacy, will look for the best of the bests from anywhere and give them responsibilities. Some people got upset with me at a time when I said that I don’t care whether the person is a Christian or not. They asked why I should not say that we need a Christian president as a pastor. I told them that I will not say so because there is no guarantee that because somebody is a Christian president he will deliver the dividends. I want somebody who can be able to deliver to Nigerians the dividends of democracy. Do you think that there would have been agitations if we have such a person? If you can go to schools and they are good, if the roads are good, if the economy is thriving and everything is working, will you be complaining about who is leading? If you see somebody who knows how to service your car, would you ask whether he is a Muslim or Christian? That is my concept.