If politicians are not careful, they are the ones that will break up Nigeria —Ayokunle, CAN President
President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Reverend Samson Ayokunle, who is also the President of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, in this interview by Deputy Editor, SAM NWAOKO, speaks on the state of the nation and the place of the church and Christianity in the Nigerian project. Excerpts:
It is the belief across Nigeria that the many institutions of higher learning established by churches are the ones that happen to be very expensive and beyond the reach of the poor church goers. What is CAN doing about this and the other challenges facing Nigerians regarding that?
In my answering this question, what I will say about CAN will also be applicable to the Nigerian Baptist Convention (NBC) because both are Christian non-governmental organisations and they are after the welfare and mission of the church. Concerning education, interestingly I am a visitor to Bowen University and I have been involved in the affairs of the university for about 20 years. It costs us several billions of naira to establish that school. Educational institutions are not for profit-making. University education is very capital intensive. Bowen University is still being funded by the NBC. For example, the teaching hospital is receiving about N25million monthly, that amount is poured into it every month for it to stay afloat. We have to pay the professors of medicine. They didn’t come to work in Bowen because of God, it is because they want to put food on the table for their families. Before you can attract them from the government institutions where they are coming from, you must pay them better. So, where will the money come from? The money available to each Christian organisation is limited. It can only come from tithe and offering. So, if there is no organisation, apart from the church, funding the university owned by the church, then largely the students who are receiving the education that is with high quality, their parents must be able to pay for it. There was a time we had to review the fees paid by students of Bowen University because at a time we were owing banks about N2.2billion and if care was not taken, we would close down that university and everything will just die a natural death.
So, if we listen to the comments of the people without taking the bull by the horns, facing the reality squarely, it will just be foolishness. Quality university education is expensive. Take a medical student for instance. To put a medical student in a class in a year requires about N3million. So if I say that they should be paying N1.2million now, who will cover the rest? Where will the rest come from for all the students? Under normal circumstances, it is not private institutions that should be running universities. It is the government that is in command of our commonwealth should cater for that. The government is in control of everything and they have enough means to cater for all these things, unlike a charity organisation like all these churches. You can’t force people to bring money to the church. They can bring their tithe and offering but you cannot force then to be faithful to it. To pay staff in Bowen University, for example is about N200million. Multiply that by 12 months. How much would the school fees that the students pay be able to sustain that? N200million to pay staff salaries alone, not capital development. We recently dedicate a hostel we call “smart hostel” that cost the Convention about N1billion. The demands and expectations of these students are very high. The place is like a computerised hostel. You open your door with a card, it has water heater, wi-fi and there is solar power supply all the time. These are some of the things many of their parents cannot enjoy at home, and if you don’t provide it they will riot. But we are not complaining because we want better citizens and better educated children for the sake of our tomorrow and it will cost something.
If somebody pays N2.5million in school fees, compare that in dollars to what somebody in secondary school pays in Britain and you will know that education is still very cheap here. A PhD student in the United Kingdom in the cheapest university in terms of school fees cannot pay less than 11,000 – 13,000 pounds and if you convert that to naira, it would be about N5million. That is outside accommodation. The cheapest accommodation you can get cannot be less than 300 pounds in a month. Convert that to naira and multiply it by 12 months and add it to that school fees, then you will understand what we are talking about. I’m saying this because most of these private universities provide boarding facilities which is also part of the school fees which they pay. So, we need to face reality. I have been on the board, I have searched my conscience. If it were possible, the fees would be cheaper. Unfortunately in this country, no private university has an organisation that is subsidising them unlike abroad. I was in San Francisco to see a Nigerian who is a paediatric surgeon. He told me that they were going to pull down the entire structure and build a new one. I was alarmed and I asked why? I said if it were possible, I would have carried this one to Nigeria, don’t pull it down because it is too beautiful. He said no, it has spent its time and some organisations that believe in the quality of the care we give here have already paid for the new structure. We don’t have that here. They will just make money here and go away with it. So, all these things have to be put into perspective before we judge the religious institutions. Initially the religious institutions were not interested in university education but because the standard has fallen, they went into it to improve the standard.
What should Nigerians be expecting from CAN this year as an organisation?
By the grace of God, CAN has never reneged in its duty to speak for the oppressed, not only for Christians but every oppressed in society. When we were crying about persecution of Christians and insecurity, it is because insecurity does not know any religion. It can affect any one. Some are saying why should CAN talk, that what we are saying is political and so on, and I ask: Is there any political decision in the country that does not have bearing on every citizen, of which CAN members are part? We are an intrinsic part of the society and whatsoever good decision that the government has taken will rub off directly on us and whatsoever bad decision will also rub off on us. So, we are the voice of the voiceless; we are the prophets to the nation. All the political leaders are our children in the Lord, either in the church they went or the mosque they went and they should be able to listen to their fathers to call them to order. They should not be equating us with politicians when we speak things that they don’t want to hear. We should raise the alarm whenever necessary without fear or favour. We will never disappoint God in this generation. Speaking as and when due, whether you want to listen or not; and it is in mutual respect fairness, the fear of God and love that all the differences that we are trying to merge into one can really come into fruition. Everybody must have a sense of belonging because in appointment there would be no discrimination; everybody must have a sense of belonging because in the scheme of things, no region is left behind. No religion is left behind. That is when justice is done. But when you are saying that we are basing things on merit, merit is not limited to any region and neither is merit limited to any religion. Merit is available everywhere when you painstakingly look for it. So, don’t let there be cover up, let there be justice, let there be fairness and let there be mutual respect. Respect me from where I come from and for who I am.
Majority of Nigerians are lying in the bosom of poverty and the government has told us that it has spent several billions of naira in social security and empowerment schemes. Yet Nigerians are still held down by poverty. What do you think is wrong in this regard?
Well, Rome was not built in a day. If they have been investing in social empowerment programme, they should continue. They should not rest on their oars. They should continue to push further because poverty has taken foothold in Nigeria for a long time. What should be their pride is that they don’t leave it where they met it. They should put parameters in place, create enabling environment for people to be emancipated from the power of poverty. Thank God if they are investing on social empowerment. We should not leave government alone to it; churches also should be doing empowerment. We were in Maiduguri twice before the end of the year and we distributed empowerment tools, especially for the people that are scattered all over in internally-displaced people, in their camps. Within the limited available resources, we were able to go there with 50 sewing machines which we gave freely to those who wanted to gain skill in sewing, so that they would not be begging for food. We also went with food for those whose immediate need was food. During Christmas, in conjunction with UFU Dialogue, we distributed about 700 bags of rice to those that came to the National Christian Centre. This is just a means to help them put mind and body together. CAN is not receiving support from government or from any industry but we are doing what we can with the available resources. So, we should not leave only the government to it; we should be supporting because poverty has taken a foothold for too long and it has to be confronted headlong.
Recently, the American government categorised Nigeria as one of those countries which have fallen from the high pedestal of religious tolerance. CAN reacted, the federal government also reacted by denying the categorisation. The Sultan of Sokoto weighed in on the issue and literally defended the federal government on the matter. It has been swinging back and forth. Where are we now regarding the matter?
I read one article in the Nigerian Tribune which analysed this issue and I was happy that an independent opinion asserted that anybody who is a participant in the discussion on what has been happening in Nigeria will know that Christians have been on the receiving end. Insecurity has led to the death of so many people in Christian-dominated areas like Benue, Taraba, Southern Kaduna, Plateau State, northern part of Adamawa such as Mubi, Michika, Madagali and so on. The Baptist, EYN and other churches are very strong in those areas because they are Christian-dominated. We learnt that up till Thursday, it was a serious battle for the soul of Michika because people there said insurgents were battling to take over the town. For somebody, who is a participant in this country, for whatever reason, to be saying that categorising Nigeria as a place where Christians are severely persecuted was wrong, I think that person was being economical with the truth and was not fair. That is why I said if we cannot take the bull by the horn, we will not be able to face the truth; we will be in-objective then, maybe the last song we will hear is ‘to your tent o Israel’. If we want to go on this pilgrimage together, there must be fairness. We must speak the truth and the truth alone. Firstly, America did not direct their categorisation to any Muslim group, they directed it to the Nigerian government. So, it was not to the Sultan at all. Our own response was not to the Sultan or to any Muslim group. People who can put one and two together should ask what is the concern of the Sultan about the American statement and the Christian statement because none was directed to him? The government which the American statement was directed to came out to say they didn’t accept the categorisation. We didn’t expect them to say anything different because they will like to defend themselves. However, God is a God of truth because while it was being denied by the Muslims group, ISWAP came up to announce that during the Christmas season, they had slaughtered 11 Christians. I was in Maiduguri during the Christmas season and I met the devastated chairman of CAN in Borno State. He was a sad man. There were killings of Christians that were not reported in the news. People were travelling to celebrate Christmas with their family and in Borno, these people pretended to be Nigerian soldiers and stopped the vehicle they were travelling in, separated the Muslims from Christians. They asked the Muslims to continue with their journey while eight Christians were slaughtered there at the scene. Two women were taken away by the terrorists. In Gwoza, one lady was going to church for her wedding. While they were travelling on the road to the church, they fell into the hands of these people. They pulled that lady outand just slaughtered her. These are not fables. A Deeper Life pastor was coming from Konduga from a Deeper Life retreat in Maiduguri. He fell into their hands. They demanded for a ransom of N100million. There was no way that CAN could get that. They employed a human right organisation which negotiated with Boko Haram and they slashed it to N20million. CAN could still not get that and they had to find a means of paying the ransom at all costs before he was released. What is the statistics for somebody to say more Muslims were killed? Is it that there are more Muslims in Benue State or in Taraba State or because we have more Muslims in Plateau or in Southern Kaduna? Not at all. It is very painful to be denying the obvious. However, the Sultan is a friend and I will tell him to his face that I was disappointed in him. We didn’t direct our statement to him, why was he defending the government?
CAN, going by the views expressed by some people is now being equated to be the opposition political party because of the association’s critical stance against some government actions and policies. Are you not worried that CAN is being equated to an opposition political party in Nigeria?
It is not about what people say about you, it is about what you are yourself. We are not talking because we just have to talk, we talk because we are participants and stakeholders in the present and future of this country. Don’t forget that while we are CAN, it doesn’t mean that everything we read in life is about religion. All of us have our secular backgrounds. I went to the university like any other person. I read so many secular courses like Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, Geography and so on. I also read Theology up to PhD level. So, you don’t expect somebody like me to be heading the church and be a novice, a nonentity and without any courage to speak to the situation of the country. You have only one life to live. If you say I am in politics, let me see my membership card of any political party. You know that when you are fighting an unjust system, the system will also fight you back. So, tagging people is not what is important to us. What is important to us is that for some of you who cannot speak because you don’t have a platform, we must speak for you. We must let those in government know that you are very important. God values you and they should value what God also values. If we don’t speak, Nigeria will continue to plunge down and down. We hope that the human right organisations too will be able to speak up boldly and speak the truth because it is in our leaders listening to godly admonitions that they can prosper. Tagging is not strange to us. It happened in the biblical times in the era of Jehoshaphat and King Ahab. People like to go to Aso Rock with their big caps and flowing gown to tell the people there what they want to hear, like it happened in the era of King Ahab. We are servants of God and woe betides us if we want the downfall of Nigeria. Woe betides us if we want the downfall of the government of Nigeria. But those in government, they must forsake arrogance and listen to servants of God when they are speaking because that is why God has put us here.
Regarding the political equation of this country, there was a time America predicted that Nigeria might not survive beyond a particular year. That has come and gone but recent happenings in the Nigerian polity are pointers to the potency in that prediction. We want to know what you foresee as we approach 2023 with the current political equation in place in Nigeria?
Firstly, America is not God and our future is not in the hand of America, even though we respect them. Secondly, God is interested in Nigeria but are the politicians working according to the plan and programme of God? It is the politicians we appeal to them not to destroy this nation. It is never the intention of God for this nation to be destroyed but if the politicians continue to act recklessly, without any care, without taking into consideration the complexity, the nuances of what we call the nation Nigeria, what has brought us together, if they continue to be careless or continue to be biased about it; if they are found not to be objective in handling all these complexities, they are the ones that will break Nigeria, it is not God. So we want to appeal to the politicians. They are so rude, they don’t respect anybody again, including the servants of God. They will go to the social media and call people names, including CAN. But God has given us the pastoral spirit to be praying for them. Some of them have even tagged people like us ‘opposition leader’ because those in power want only those who would be telling them what they want to hear. If you watch our press releases, when they do well we commend them. When the tension was so much when people were released on bail but were still kept by government agencies, and they later released two of them, we commended the government. If the government does well why should we not commend them? On the closure of the border, we didn’t say anything because we know that the intention of the government was good. There was good intention to some extent. One of it is that we need to monitor the movement of people into this country, too many people have entered this country illegally and secondly, illegal goods that will not allow our home-made goods to have patronage is also being monitored. I if we allow all sorts of things to flood our market without any form of control, that country will never get developed.
What is the message of CAN to Nigerian Christians?
It is my belief that God will do us good this year. God will do us good in this country because it is in doing us good that his name will be glorified. He will not be glorified in Nigeria failing. He will not be glorified in individuals in Nigeria failing, especially His children. His children are the apples of His eyes and He will not allow anything to happen to the apples of His eyes. He will do us good also because He has never left the people who are oppressed, who are devastated in their situation forever. The Bible depicts Him as the God of the oppressed, the God of the poor, the God of the widow, the God of the hopeless and He is still the same. He is ready to turn the situation around for us. What is our duty? Our duty is for us to call upon Him. “Call upon me in the days of trouble and I will answer,” the bible tells us and He will do marvellous things. Seek Him; don’t seek idols because the bible tells us that the sorrows of those who seek idols are multiplied. Our duty is to have faith because without faith, it is impossible to please God. Those who know their God will wax strong and will do exploits. We have to activate your faith to receive what God has in store for us. Abraham and many other bible figures we take as model in life became icons out of difficult situations. The bible says that Abraham did not consider the deadness of the womb of Sarah nor did he consider the advancement of his own age. He just believed like a baby that God is able to perform what he said. He hoped against hope; when there was no reason to hope, when hope was unreasonable, he still retained hope. The bible says he is the father of faith. If anybody can key in to what I’m saying they shall there is still breakthrough for many in this year 20/20. It is a year of perfect score, nothing missing, nothing lost. It is a perfect year. Nigerians should wake up and believe that it s a year God will do this nation good. All the challenges before us will not be able to hinder the good things the Lord will do. Allow God to have His way, love one another irrespective of tribe/region or religion and when we love ourselves, we will be able to do pilgrimage together.