As the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) marks its 40th year of existence, RITA OKONOBOH appraises the beginning, present and future of the association, especially in terms of achievements, challenges and impact.
WHEN on August 27th, 1976, the then military government, under General Olusegun Obasanjo, called together several church leaders for a meeting at Dodan Barracks, Lagos, for the purpose of discussing the introduction of the national pledge and salutation of the national flag in primary and secondary schools across Nigeria, by various calculations, it was obvious that the formation of Nigeria’s apex Christian body was in the offing.
There are various accounts that are stated as the beginning of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). According to information from CAN’s supposedly old website, www.cannigeria.org, after the meeting at Dodan Barracks, the church leaders decided to hold another meeting at a place close-by, and the spot chosen was the Catholic Secretariat opposite the Race Course bus stop. It was at that meeting that it was decided that a unifying body be set up for the purpose of spreading the gospel, and of several names suggested, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) was selected.
CAN was registered under the perpetual succession Act Cap 98 of Federal Republic of Nigeria (now Corporate Affairs Commission) in Lagos on December 19, 1986, with the then Reverend Father Anthony Okogie, Pastor J.G. Sakpo, Charles Williams, Reverend Monsignor John Ogbonna and Clifford Mobolaji Smith as its trustees.
Since 1976, seven church leaders have served the organisation as president. They are Dominic Cardinal Ekandem (late) from 1976 till 1986; Anthony Cardinal Okogie from 1988 till 1995; Prelate Sunday Mbang from 1994 till 2003; Primate Jasper Akinola from 2003 till 2007; Archbishop John Onaiyekan from 2007 till 2010; Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor from 2010 till 2016, and the current president, Reverend (Dr) Samson Ayokunle, who was elected in July 2016.
CAN currently has five blocs made up of the Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN), the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN), the Christian Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (CPFN)/Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), the Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC) and the TEAKAN/ECWA fellowship.
According to another CAN website, which is more current, www.canng.org, CAN has women and youth wings, a national executive council consisting of 110 members (which elects the president), and a General Assembly of 304 members (which ratifies the president’s election).
Achievements and impact
For an organisation that has lasted for 40 years, it is only commendable that the association has made much impact. Iheanyi M. Enwerem, in his text, A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicization of Religion in Nigeria, notes the achievements of CAN to include cooperation among its members; establishment of initiatives such as provision of welfare packages; holding discussions on breaking down traditional barriers of division among churches; the establishment of two standing committees geared towards a joint translation of the Bible into different Nigerian languages; the production of a Christian syllabus for primary and post-primary schools in the country at the time, among numerous achievements, including in politics and international recognition with the most recent being the July 2016 inauguration of another international arm of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in South Africa.
However, in spite of its achievements, CAN still has challenges on issues especially relating to ethnicity, denominationalism and political leanings and influences, issues which have dogged the association from military times till present.
According to Francis Kehinde Adebayo in his article entitled “A Missiological History of Christian Association of Nigeria,” published in the Journal of Philosophy, Culture and Religion, “The creation of the World Council of Churches, the devolution of power on the Roman Catholic Church in Nigeria and Vatican II are factors that forged a new relationship with non-Catholics in Nigeria. The All-African Council of Churches and the Christian Council of Nigeria also prepared the ground for practical ecumenism. On regional level, the northern Christian association and the fellowship of Northern churches (EYN4) prepared the ground for protestants to break the barrier against other Christian bodies in the north.
“From the political angle, there was the call for patriotism and solidarity after the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970. Further to this was the takeover of schools by the government. This also coincided with the denial of visa to foreign missionaries and the tax placed on foreign aids for mission in Nigeria. The disunity of the Nigerian church took a dramatic turn when the church was asked to be represented before the Federal Military Government in February 1976. Events during and after this meeting culminated in the invitation by the Catholics to the protestants for a meeting at their secretariat in Lagos in August 1976. That meeting formed the Christian Association of Nigeria primarily as mouthpiece and safeguard for Christians’ interest in Nigeria.”
Of recent, issues of infighting, especially as it relates to the issue of leadership, have been making headlines, and have led many Christians and even non-Christians to wonder if the association is fulfilling the purpose for which it was created.
On the state of internal crisis, while assuring Christians that efforts were ongoing at restoring unity to the association, Reverend (Dr) Ayokunle, in an interview, stated that “we are meeting those in court and those not in court and reconciliatory moves are ongoing. We need everybody because a house divided against itself cannot stand. What we are saying is that the enemies we have outside are more, and we shouldn’t be having crisis among ourselves.”
Speaking on the plans for the future of the organisation, Ayokunle stated that there were a lot of plans to ensure that the association did its duty to ensure that Christianity enjoyed its rightful place in Nigeria, in the efforts to ensure peaceful coexistence among Nigerian citizens.
According to him, “this CAN administration will do its best, and I can assure you that I will not rest until all those who are passing through hard times and victims of insurgency are properly taken care of, either through CAN, the government, or non-governmental organisations. For churches in the North without Certificates of Occupancy (CofO), if the situation demands it, we will get lawyers to address that issue. For any church that is denied CofO, we will get records and reasons for such denial and may have to challenge that in the court of law. For the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) which seems to be moribund, we will look at what led to that state of moribundity.”
According to Adebayo in the article earlier mentioned, published in 2015, “though each leader talks about unity of the Nigerian church, the will to redirect the CAN from the political pressure group and watchdog to a more dynamic ecumenical movement is absent. This can be achieved if leadership emergence is depoliticised, and government recognition is played down.
“So far, CAN has achieved a lot for Christians in Nigeria, its vibrancy depended largely on the charisma of its presidents. Presidency has been rotated principally between the CCN and the PFN; it was only in 2005 that it achieved a location in Abuja. Undoubtedly, it enjoys more loyalty now than before, thus, it can become more ecumenically relevant by confronting primordial missiological issues that divide the Nigerian church. The same could become a basis for unity, in other words, mission could become the goal of the unity of the church in Nigeria. Evangelisation of Nigeria cannot be achieved by a divided church neither can a politicised association confront the terrorism and radicalisation of Islam that has engulfed the North.
“The Bible presupposes a church united in diversity, it is one body with many parts, universal yet territorial, eternal yet temporal. The church is one, and the Lord prayed for that unity as recorded by John the Apostle. The mandate to the church is in recognition of its unity, the Great Commission is not to a local assembly or just a union of congregations. The different denominations in Nigeria and the world over are implicated in the great command to love, and implied in the great commission to disciple all nations,” Adebayo stated.
With the strong standing the organisation has achieved over the years, if internal crisis is addressed as required, the spread of the gospel taken as priority as against the unnecessary clamour for leadership positions and government recognition, preaching of true brotherly love which can foster unity and peaceful coexistence, which will in turn ensure a developed and peaceful nation, is prioritised, then the association can have an even stronger position to tackle the perceived enemies outside the organisation.
CAN has recorded much impact and this is made obvious by its position, not just in Nigeria, but on a global scale. The association has the capacity to transform Nigeria into the best country on earth. It is only hoped that for an organisation with such a massive following, especially for the reason that all Christians are represented by CAN, the future of Christendom in Nigeria shines within and beyond.