PRELATE Sunday Mbang does not hold anything back — whether as a cleric, lecturer or social crusader — just because he believes God lives in him. He recently spoke with a group of journalists to mark his 80th birthday. Saturday Tribune brings the excerpts.
You have come a long way, tell us how it has been so far.
I was born in 1936. At that time, the kind of things we are finding now were not there. There was just one tarred road from Aba to Oron. All these present facilities were not there. Even in my secondary school days, there were only about two or three secondary schools in Akwa Ibom State. There were also a few universities then like University of Ibadan and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
It was tight and you had to struggle very hard to be one of the best. It was terrible for those us whose parents were poor. My father was a preacher in Qua Iboe Church, he died in 1957, a year after my first school certificate. His last salary which I collected was seven pounds, about N14. He had about nine children. He gave us a condition for going back to school – you must be first or second. So it wasn’t quite easy.
I never wore shoes until I got to secondary school because it was compulsory for every student to put on sandals. I never saw shoes or a pair of trousers all through that time. So things were totally different. We were in a different atmosphere. But one of the good things of that time was that it trained us not to desire too much. It also trained us to obey our parents. Whatsoever they said was gospel to us. It trained us to live a very honest life.
You said your father was a preacher, was that what informed your decision to venture into this ?
Partly! I watched my father die as a very young person. He was in the hospital, since he was a great preacher in the area, they didn’t want him to die in the hospital. The expatriate doctor who was there asked the family to take him home because he knew was going to die so that he could pass on peacefully at home. He never talked when we took him home despite all our efforts to make him talk. But when it was time for him to die, he called all of us together, shared the grace and then passed on. That kind of atmosphere got stuck in my mind; that my father didn’t finish his job and he needed one of his children to do that.
I forgot everything after his burial but it kept haunting me. I was also a member of the Student Christian Movement.
During one of the movement’s conferences, I wrote a letter to our church that I wanted to be a minister without understanding that I actually wrote it and as God would have it, I broke all protocols of going to the ministry and the ministers approved it.
I discovered that my going to the ministry was ordained because when my father died, some people just showed up to sponsor me through the university seeing that my mother was a petty trader.
I went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the Nigerian civil war broke out in the 1960s and I experienced difficulties to transfer to the University of Ibadan for postgraduate studies but as God would have it, I applied and got admitted to London University but I didn’t have any money to go there.
I showed the document to one professor who presented it before the Senate of the university and I was allowed to proceed to my proper class. I came first throughout my stay in Ibadan. As a result of that, University of Ibadan took me as the university’s scholar and sent me to Hebrew University in Jerusalem for postgraduate study. I stayed there for two years.
I met a Harvard professor in a restaurant. We dialogued and before I knew it, I was admitted to the Harvard University and now I’m a graduate of Harvard University in the United States of America. God planned my way through. I came back to lecture in the University of Ibadan for two years.
Since I was Methodist minister, I was ordained a Bishop from the University of Ibadan and I spent four years as the chaplain. At 48 years, I was made Head of Methodist Church in Nigeria which I superintended for 22 years. I proceeded to become the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), President of All African Methodist People, and the President of the World Methodist Council. It has been quite interesting as I followed God’s plans.
How fulfilled are you having stepped into your father’s shoes?
Extremely fulfilled because I’m still very relevant in the country. People like former President Olusegun Obasanjo come here to see me and I also visit him. I have a very simple life. I would quietly go out and do something and return and no one would know about it. I’m the guest of two popes, Pope John Paul II. I spent a night in the Vatican Guest House and a week with Pope Benedict XVI. Since I’m a very simple fellow, people hardly know this is me.
I was very close to Abdulsalami Abubakar during his tenure as head of state, as well as Buba Marwa as governor of Lagos State. I’ve been an adviser to some presidents of the country and I do it very quietly. I don’t believe in too much publicity. I believe in prayer, because when Abubakar wanted to hand over to Obasanjo, I suggested to him that we should put God first in the handover. I told Abubakar to inform the Muslims to pray over the handover during their services on Fridays and the Christians would also do theirs on Sundays. I also advised him to encourage all those elected to attend the services, and that was what happened before Obasanjo took over. Since then, democracy is still on and I believe God has done wonders.
Behind these success stories, there might have been some challenges. Would you want to share some of the challenges and how you surmounted them?
My first challenge, a very serious one was finance. The means to be able to become a human being. I didn’t have sources of income. Most parents of these children have already deposited money into their accounts for them to make use of. In my own case, I was not even sure of what meal to eat. But God, in His usual wisdom, provided something for me to eat every time I’m there. From the secondary school to the university, he provided somebody to assist me, even during my postgraduate studies at the University of Ibadan.
When I took over Methodist Church, which was divided into two (you can imagine when a church is divided), He was great. We had no fewer than 30 cases in court, but by the grace of God, we were able to surmount them and bring the church back together. These are challenges I can never forget.
What is your message to the political leaders in the country?
I wouldn’t want to talk about the Muslims. In Christianity, the Bible makes it clear that when you commit a crime, it is to the third and fourth generations. The belief with us is that they have allowed the grace of God in the New Testament to seem to have covered what is in the Old Testament – the wrath and love of God – which is also reflected in the New Testament. If you don’t repent of your sin, the wrath of God will fall upon you. People suffer in this country and what they would do is to explain it scientifically. I said it earlier that I made a prayer and someone died. That death would be explained scientifically and so the main point would be clear to the people.
The fact is that once you commit sin; once you loot public treasury; once you convert money belonging to the people for yourself and family, you will suffer, your children will suffer to the third and fourth generations. When these things happen, people explain them scientifically. Nowadays if anything happens to someone, it would be blamed on either the brother, father or the mother, not knowing that God’s wrath might have fallen on the person. Every sin has punishment.
What I can tell our politicians is that all the sins they have committed – corruption, hatred, killings, kidnapping, false accusations – the wrath of the God will visit them one after the other to the third and fourth generations.
My prayer is that all those seeking political appointments, because the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, God is the owner of the earth. He is not an absentee landlord. He is interested in this world. So when you come and do whatever you feel like, don’t think God does not see it. He sees everything we do and He gives us the grace for what we have done right and punishment, for our wrongs.
My advice to the politicians is for them to remember that whatsoever they sow, they shall reap. If they escape it, their children will not. If they do, their grandchildren will bear the punishment, whether they like it or not. You can go to prayer houses to pray, unless you repent. When Zacchaeus, the tax collector in the Bible wanted to repent, he said he would return ten times all that he had taken unlawfully. Can any politician do that? If they can do so, God can show mercy because some of them might have ignorantly stolen. Even if Buhari decides to leave them unpunished, they can’t escape from God. That is my advice to all the Christians who venture into politics. God is watching them and their family every day. Every sin they commit against that person who has gotten food to eat in his house, God will not allow them to go scot-free.
As an elder statesman, what is your view on religious crisis in the country?
When you have two strong religions in a country, it will definitely result in a conflict. We did in my time which unfortunately they are not following up now, based on the advice of Pope John Paul II, we initiated the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) during the Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration, where Christian leaders dialogued with Muslim leaders.
With the advice of John Cardinal Onaiyekan,who was my vice president in CAN, I took the matter to the CAN executives and they agreed that we should start the dialogue. I mentioned it to the then President Obasanjo and he said he was not going to form it for us, but he would open the way for us. So what he did was to consult the Sultan of Sokoto and the then governor of Sokoto, and then gave us the plane to fly to Sokoto to agree on NIREC. That was how NIREC was formed. I was hoping that this would go on but unfortunately it did not.
In today’s leadership, people are more interested in money and properties. In our time, I never thought of money and properties. There were times that people were giving [plots of] land and I asked them what I was going to do with them. I gave them back to the church. I was also given houses in Lagos, I in turn gave back to the church. I know they will all call me a foolish fellow, but the truth is that I’m living a comfortable life.
If Christians face their calling, it would go a long way in solving some of the immediate problems. All the churches, whether Pentecostal or orthodox, are guilty. The old and new are all the same, no difference. They all come for money and properties and I wonder what they will do with all these things.
I’m not saying you should not have money to maintain yourself. God will always give you that if you serve Him properly, but when you want a fat bank account, you are on your own. I find it difficult to sleep when there is too much money in my account with the fear that something could happen to it.
The problem with Christianity is the leaders. I won’t talk about Islam because I don’t know about that. The leaders have killed Christianity. The so-called pastors, prophets, apostles, bishops, etc are the ones to be held responsible for what is happening in Christendom. I don’t mince words when I say it. Most of them don’t like me. We are the problems of Christianity.
Jesus Christ called His disciples and said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” permit me to add women and children. But nowadays, they have turned to fishers of money and properties. They don’t care about the women and men, even those with large congregations, private jets. What are you doing with all these? Your members can’t even boast of a bicycle and you are flying in private jets.
All the cars parked in my compound were given to me when I retired. I never bought any. I was using a Peugeot 505 saloon car to travel round the country for 22 years and it never affected me. In fact, I love Peugeot 505. Former governor and now Senate Minority Leader, Godswill Akpabio, promised a car on my 75th birthday. I had to ask my three male children what kind of car I should receive from him. They told me of some of these flashy cars. When I told Akpabio, he said that he knew too well that I don’t like flashy cars and he gave me a Toyota Camry. That is the car I love most.
The governor of Enugu State gave me Prado. I rarely use it. Former Governor Peter Odili of Rivers State gave me one sophisticated Benz which I’m so angry that he should have given me the money to use for something else. I wanted to sell the car but people didn’t allow me. I only use that car on Sundays when going to church. Most of the clothes I wear were given to me by people.
So, I don’t know why people run for money everywhere both in Pentecostal and the rest. All of us are guilty.
What is your candid advice to the believers?
I’m Old Testament in nature. My area of specialisation is the Old Testament. The prophets and messengers in the Old Testament were called by God. How many of these people are called? Sometimes people tell me that they dreamt as God called them and gave them the name of the churches to build. All these are nothing but lies, because the Bible says “By their fruits, ye shall know them.” First, they were called and when God calls you, He fills you with the Spirit of God, and that God has a way of changing you into a super-human being. We didn’t find that here. With all these claims of healings, which I don’t take seriously, though sometimes when I pray for people they say they receive healing, I can’t claim that, since I wasn’t the one who healed them.
A pregnant woman came to me with a diagram when I went to Badagry that the head of her unborn child was up, and that the doctors needed me to operate upon her. I put the cross I usually go with on her and said, ‘God, if you want this woman to be delivered, so be it’ and she was delivered normally. It wasn’t me. There was another incident when I went out to preach in a church, somebody ran to deliver a note to me, which was quite unusual. The content of the paper was that one of my members, a police commissioner, was shot by armed robbers and was in coma for about four days. I went to the altar and asked the congregation to pray for the woman to come out of coma. I summarised that God should bring her out of the coma before the end of the service. By the time the members visited the hospital, the woman was awake.
There was a time I visited Akwa Ibom State and someone received healing at the mere touch of my cassock. When I returned, a woman was hailing me. I had to request from the minister why the woman hailed me in such a manner and they said the woman had testified in the church that she was healed when she touched my cassock. Another one happened in Ikot Ekpene when I unconsciously placed my cross on a pregnant woman at the church gate, who was said to have been pregnant for 12 months. She was delivered of a baby boy that same day and named the child ‘Mbang.’ I never performed miracles, but God did them all. I don’t know why people would claim miracles.
What is your take on the ongoing war against corruption in Nigeria?
I sympathise with President Buhari in his war against corruption. The highest rate of corruption is in the civil service. It is the civil servants that educate the ministers to do what they do. If you want to fight corruption, it has to start from the civil service.
It is only Obasanjo who knows some of the things I need in this country. I discovered that there were chaplaincies in the Navy, Air Force and the Army, but not in the Police Force. I urged Obasanjo that we should have chaplaincy in both Muslim and Christian units, and the are now there, though not very strong. I found out that the lives of the army officers are different from that of the police, because they go to the Bible study.
If I was here, I would have asked them to introduce it to the Customs and Immigration also because these are two deadly areas of Nigeria where you have corruption. In fact, the bank of corruption is in those two areas. The FRSC was free of corruption but it has now joined the trend.
I learnt that Buhari is bringing back his War Against Indiscipline. To me, that is the worst thing that can happen. Buhari’s War Against Indiscipline was one of the worst things to happen in the country. My advice is that, you cannot change old people easily, so no war against indiscipline will change any old man if he doesn’t want to change.
There have been complaints about appointments, are they justified?
I’m not comfortable with Buhari’s appointments. They seem not the kind of things an elder would like to see. Buhari has, in the recent times, been accused of appointing people from his hometown and relatives. What is the need for the Federal Character in the constitution? I expect every appointment to follow Federal Character. Let nobody point finger at you that you are doing something wrong.
My advice to the people is that you have to be careful when you want to elect someone into office. Presently, it is the money that elects people into office, not the person. Whoever pays the bigger amount of money owns the office. And those who take the money don’t know that they are punishing themselves, because they will get back the money when they assume office.
Maybe in the future, I would like the churches and mosques to be involved in the selection of the people who are seeking office. The church would be able to identify the good ones. If the churches and mosques are chosen to identify those running for counsellors, House of Representatives, House of Assembly, governors and presidents, I can assure you, the country would change for good within a short time.
What can you say about agitations in the Niger Delta?
There has been argument that no Niger Delta man has owned any oil well. How would you solve a problem in this area if you don’t need each other? Army cannot solve the problem, I can promise you that. They have to look at what is hurting the people of those areas. Has any government come to talk to people like us so we can talk to them? They won’t come. They go to militants. What do the militants know? Militants are angry for the whole people. They are not the ones who are angry. It is the older people that are angry.
These are areas that government has to look at effectively. Why should outsiders come and own wells here when no one in the Niger Delta owns any? What kind of justification can anyone give for that? Injustice breeds violence. I’m not saying that I want violence, but once you are unjust and you openly show that you are unjust, you bring violence. Most of the security officials are from the north. Once you do that, you send wrong signals to people around the area. Why must there be only northerners in this area? Don’t we have security officers from other parts of the country?
As an expert, do you think the school has done enough in religious education?
The introduction of religions in schools where a syllabus comprising Christianity and Islam is prepared is the worst thing that can happen to a religion. Let the Christians teach their religion and Muslims theirs too. If the students are not interested in learning Islam, what you do is to introduce a little in the Social Studies syllabus. If you want people’s lives to change, it has to be through that religion, not mixing it up. Good Bible study and historical stories of the people of old would change the people. I would advise government to allow the church and their experts to teach those children. I don’t support the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB). It has outlived its usefulness. What is the result of JAMB? Has Nigeria been brought together? It is a waste of time. Even the NYSC has also outlived its usefulness. Allow the universities to admit their candidates.
What have been your guiding principles?
When I was CAN president during Sani Abacha’s administration, and I was speaking against what he was doing, a friend of mine, Etim Inyang, who was the Inspector-General of Police, sent one commodore to invite me to his house. When I got to his house, he offered to attach policemen in plain clothes to me but I won’t see them. I told him let me go and think about it, because I didn’t want to insult him that day. I went back to him two weeks later and he was happy, thinking I came to accept the offer. I asked him, when you attach these policemen to me, what will God be doing? Because God is my security.
There was a time I visited Abacha at 10pm and he was so afraid of me. I never believed that such a soldier could be so afraid. I think he was frightened about me because the Spirit of God in me overwhelmed him. I talked to him like a master talking to his houseboy. He was only begging me, and then I said ‘God, you are wonderful’.
When you are filled with Spirit, you can trample upon snakes and scorpions and they will not harm you. If anybody kills me now, he is doing me a favour, because God will just admit me into His presence freely without any ‘soldier’ asking any question. I’m not saying I’m a saint. I commit sin every day, but there is a way you live your life even when you know you are a sinner. Nobody is a saint. We sin every day. There is no man that would see a lovely girl and not admire her. If I do that, going by what the Bible says, I’ve committed adultery. I’m not left out. Do me that favour by not bringing a lovely girl around me because I will admire her and thereby commit adultery.
What legacy would you want to be remembered for which we don’t know?
This is an exercise I wouldn’t want to be involved in. Why not allow others to remember me? Let people remember me for what they think I was worth. I don’t want to start dancing around with things. If I go to public places, I sit behind and I will be recognised and brought forward. I keep telling people to stop forcing themselves to be recognised when their names are not written.
I don’t want to talk much about myself. Let people think of me the way they want. I’m sure God knows the little contributions I have made both in the church and the state and Nigeria at large. I believe there is a Book of Life where everything is written. When I go there, I will answer my own queries. But I pray that my good sides will be better than my bad sides because I know there will definitely be the bad sides. People do say that they will enter Heaven. As for me, I don’t know. Only God knows.
If you are given another chance, what would like to be?
I would still be a minister because it is the best job ever depending on how you handle it. The only problem you will have in ministerial job is probably family problem. If you are not careful, the woman you get married to, who may not have good spiritual understanding and the children, may create problems for you. We only pray for God to give us good families.
I’ve never been jealous of anything no matter what you have. I congratulate you. Whenever I find myself in poverty, I know where to go – God. And when I go to Him, before you know it, He will send people to me.
I don’t think I would like to be a politician with the way it is being played here. I used to like music. I once played in a band in the olden days. I love dancing as well. I was also a good dancer. But the way people dance nowadays, there is no grace to it. When you see people dance the ballroom dancing, you slide along like a snake. But here, I always pity when I see young people dance. It’s as if they want to kill themselves. The nearest to ballroom was the calypso, tango, blues, etc.
Nobody knew I would become a pastor. People were against my going into the ministry because the poor background of my father as a minister. Even the first woman I wanted to marry decided to quit the relationship because I was going into the ministry with the excuse that she wouldn’t have time for parties. When she later saw me fly in the air every now and then, she was crying. Here am I dining with kings and presidents around the world.
So none of your children is following your steps…
I’ve not seen and I won’t force any of them. They have to be called. If I force them, they might regret because there will be challenges along the way and if you are not called, it will be difficult to face the challenges.
Thank you sir for your time…