Founder of Church of God Mission International, Archbishop Benson Idahosa (of blessed memory), is popularly referred to as the father of Pentecostalism in Nigeria. His only son, Bishop F.E.B. Idahosa, who is the President, Benson Idahosa University (BIU), Founder/President of Big Ben’s Children Hospital, Vice-President of All Nations For Christ Bible Institute International, among other positions, speaks with RITA OKONOBOH on the challenge of filling his father’s shoes, how faith-based education can engender development, among other issues.
THE history of the church in Nigeria, and by extension, West Africa, would be incomplete without mentioning the Idahosa family. How would you describe your growing up years as a member of the family?
I enjoyed growing up in the era when the fire of revival came to Nigeria. I grew up seeing God’s power at work firsthand; I remember attending the Ibadan crusade with my father and seeing the power of God manifest in many different ways. Looking back, I am grateful to God for that legacy because it was a good experience for me.
People ask me if I grew up seeing my father perform miracles in the house, and I respond saying that we were a normal family and I had a normal childhood. My sisters and I played as children; when you were good, you were rewarded, when you did something bad, you got spanked.
What peculiar challenges came with the fact that you were the son of Archbishop Benson Idahosa?
One thing I remember was wanting to be anonymous. With parents who were well known, people had their expectations of what their son should and shouldn’t do. There were challenges as well as there were upsides. For instance, I remember in the late 70s when the Oba of Benin passed away and there was an order for all men to shave their heads. My father said in church that we’re God’s children who don’t bow to traditions that were not from God and so we shouldn’t have to shave our heads. I remember going to school for those few weeks and every boy had his head shaved except me. At that point, I would have loved to be anonymous (and be normal like the other boys) but I understood what was happening from a Christian perspective. I remember being the odd man out, so to speak, but it gave me a chance to help people understand my beliefs as a Christian.
What are some things people don’t know about Archbishop Benson Idahosa?
One thing people may not know about my father was that he used to cook once in a while. He also loved boxing and his favourite boxer was Muhammad Ali. He must have had about 20 VHS tapes of Ali’s fights and he usually watched boxing with us.
How easy has it been to fill your father’s shoes and create an identity for yourself?
When I first became a minister (I had just turned 25 years old), I kept thinking that I had to be just like my father. I remember sometimes I would try to preach the way he did or even speak the way he spoke. A couple of years before he died, I was already speaking with my own voice, but when he passed away, I remember thinking that everyone expected me to be like him. So, I tried to change to become like him and after a while, I realised that I was losing my identity and I wasn’t becoming him either.
One day, God spoke to me telling me that I wasn’t supposed to fill my father’s shoes, but rather, I was meant to create my own shoes. The anointing that was upon my father was for a time and generation, and God’s vision for me was to carry on the legacy but in a way that He would reveal to me–not to be my father or try to talk like my father. He told me that He would inspire me and give me the message to preach. So, filling his shoes is not something I try to do anymore because I realised that he was sent to this generation for a time and season, to bring Nigeria out of the place where it was called a dark continent, to bring this brand of pentecostalism and the charismatic gospel into Nigeria. Now, we’re blessed to have so many “sons of Idahosa” who are carrying on that legacy in different dimensions.
How were you able to assist your mother in those years after he passed on?
God gave my mother tremendous strength during that time to do what she did. After my father passed away, she took some time off to pray and hear from God on what to do because her first instinct was to concentrate on her children. However, God had different plans for her and He spoke to her about what He wanted her to do with the ministry. She spent some time away, then came back with the mission and a fire greater than before, which God gave her. Before that time, we had been operating with the mandate of evangelism as our supreme task and God expanded it to the next phase of the ministry which we are now in. We have seen the ministry grow in the past 18 years and it is a testimony to the fact that God always has plans because He is the ultimate strategist.
How easy was leaving the stethoscope for the pulpit?
It was a bit difficult because I had wanted to be a doctor for most of my life. I think God prepared me for that because before I entered medical school, I spent nine months in our hospital, Faith Mediplex, shadowing doctors to observe and learn about what my future would be like. I had just finished pre-med and my Masters in Public Health so it was a good start. When I went to medical school however, God began speaking to me about a different direction for my life and I was wondering how that would work. A few months after that though, my father passed away, and it became clear what God wanted for my future. I took a year off medical school and came home to assist with and see what the next steps in my life would be. After one year had elapsed, it was clear that ministry was my calling. So, I returned to the UK, officially pulled out of med school, and I went from being a doctor of the physical to being the doctor of the spiritual.
How did you arrive at the decision to go transatlantic to find a wife?
The decision for marriage should not be based on pressure from outside but on making a conscious choice regarding the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, based on compatibility and how you see your future together. Having said that, I must say that I didn’t deliberately search across the Atlantic for my wife. My wife and I met when we were teens (13 and 14) and have been friends since. The year before we got married, we spent some time together and I realised that she was someone I had known my whole life who had the same interests, ideals and passion I had and I could see our future together. Because we had been friends for so long, it was an easier decision.
BIU can be said to be the oldest private faith-based institution in Nigeria. How would you say faith-based institutions have contributed to all-round development?
I think faith-based institutions have done very well. We come into the arena with the mindset of raising a generation that will affect the nation positively. BIU, like other faith-based institutions, adds the element of Christianity into our teaching because we realise that we cannot come into a society and leave it the same way. My father always told us that if you came into the earth and leave it the way you met it, it would be better you weren’t born at all. Many faith-based institutions are based on the ideologies of Archbishop Benson Idahosa because he always wanted them to do well and do better than he did and thankfully we’re seeing tremendous growth in faith-based institutions. At BIU, we want to change Nigeria for the better. We want to raise academics, entrepreneurs and professionals who will excel in their fields and thus be effective disciples for Christ in the fields they enter, by God’s grace. It is those coming after us that can change the nation and that is why we are doing our part to train them and I think other faith-based universities are doing the same thing – making a difference in the nation to create a better future for our children and children’s children.
Concerns have always been raised about the high cost of faith-based institutions. What steps have you taken to make BIU accessible to all?
That’s one of the conundrums we face. The truth is, university education in general is expensive. Government-owned institutions don’t seem as expensive because the government subsidises them. At BIU, we pay every worker the same rate as federal and state universities, all without subsidies, so our costs are higher than those schools. However, we provide discounts for our members that are a part of the ministry. These discounts offer several courses at the university for N150,000, which I know is cheaper than the cost at many federal universities. We also give out scholarships to those deserving of it. Our chancellor, Archbishop Margaret Idahosa, spends millions of naira every year sponsoring many through the university. The Idahosa Foundation also has a budget dedicated to providing scholarships. We also have other people we reach out to sponsor students. These scholarships are open to people within and outside the ministry.
You appear to be the youngest president to run a university. What are some challenges you have faced?
I think the phrase ‘run a university’ is a bit of a misnomer. Leadership is about working with great people, that is, hiring the best to do what they do best. So, I don’t necessarily run the university. We have a great vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellor, professors and other members of staff. We hire and look for the best people so that when they come together, they help to make the university what it is and is aspiring to be. My job as the president really is to direct the vision, I sit with the management team to work out a template to run with and they make it happen.
It appears that the Idahosa family is a family of clerics. Do you think your children will follow in that direction?
I joke sometimes that when God calls you, He calls your whole family. I teach my children to follow in the footsteps of being generation changers because of the legacy they’ve been exposed to. It may not necessarily be on the pulpit but they will be somewhere affecting lives positively, building legacies, changing destinies for the better and affecting the future of their nation. That is the best legacy you can leave for your children.
The Idahosa family is credited for making pentecostalism popular in Nigeria. Interestingly, your family has not been popular for negative reports, but it is not uncommon to hear of mega pastors involved in scandals relating to marriage, church leadership and the like. How do such reports make you feel?
We’re grateful for the grace of God because it could be any one of us. It’s not because we’re so great or so special. We are all humans but God’s grace is what we are sheltered under. My father used to say that Christians are the only army that shoot their wounded. He would go to someone who had fallen and always attempt to restore that person to ministry. We shouldn’t condemn, rather, we should look at what we can do to bring people back. Judas and Peter both betrayed Christ in terrible ways. One came back for forgiveness and was forgiven but the other thought there was no way he could ever be forgiven so he killed himself. Imagine if Judas had come to Christ for forgiveness, Christ would have forgiven him. So, Christ doesn’t look at one sin as heavier than the other. After Christ forgave Peter, he used him to perform the greatest miracle of salvation. Anyone that falls can be restored and God can still use that person to do great things.