Nigeria has become a crippled giant —CAN President, Ayokunle

President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Reverend (Dr) Samson Ayokunle, who doubles as the President of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, appeared on Meet the Press, a panel interview organised by an Ibadan-based online radio, Wells Radio. He spoke on several issues, including what the leadership of the country must urgently do if the country must make any progress. The United States’ opposition to the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, among others. DARE ADEKANMBI was on the panel.

IN your acceptance speech after your election as CAN president, you promised to facilitate a fellowship where love flows among member churches in the country and make the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) a united body with all wranglings addressed for unity of purpose. You have since been reelected. How much of this promise would you say you has been realised?

By and large, the Lord has helped me in fulfilling my vow. When I was coming on board, you will recollect that the Catholic bloc was no longer part of CAN. They (Catholics) had walked away (from CAN) because of certain things they said were not done right. Within a short time of my leadership, I was able to confer with the leadership of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. Seven of their top bishops came to the national secretariat (of CAN) to listen to me and to present their position. When they compared their position with mine, they saw that we didn’t have much difference. They pledged to continue to watch and see how things would go.

I can tell you today that, by the grace of God, the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria has fully returned to CAN. Of course, the current General Secretary of CAN is a Catholic to the glory of God. Also, within that period, the Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council is a Catholic. That is the extent to which Catholics have fully returned to CAN. During the last election, Catholic bloc did not divide their votes. They gave all to me, the incumbent president, because they felt they were voting for integrity more than any other thing.

 

The United States recently confirmed your earlier outcry against the persecution of Christians in the country by raising a voice against it. The Sultan of Sokoto spoke against the statement by the United States, just as the Federal Government. Between then and now, has much changed, especially for Christians in the North, in terms of their freedom of worship?

If you were watching the statements and positions of the Federal Government, you would have seen that the government has stepped back on what they said before. Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, came up later to say that the terrorists had changed tactics and were now attacking Christians. They did not admit they were attacking Christians before. But now, suddenly, they admitted that the terrorists have changed their tactics. When a lie travels for 20 years and truth rises up one day, it catches up with the lie. It is obvious for people who are objective and who don’t live in denial because denial itself is a form of wickedness, since it is covering the truth for reasons best known to the person doing so. Benue State, Taraba, Plateau, Northern Adamawa, Southern Kaduna that were levelled are between 80 and 90 per cent Christians. The president claimed that 90 per cent of those attacked are Muslims. So, where did those 90 per cent Muslims come from? It was a massacre, genocide.

Even if we will not say that, I insist that Christians are still being persecuted in Nigeria and I will give you examples. The Boko Haram sect is a group whose members subscribe to Islam as their religion. When they started their attacks, they said they were out to wipe out Christianity and Western education which they see as being against Islam. They said they were going to establish Sharia from the North down to the Atlantic Ocean. They said they were going to finish the work Uthman dan Fodio started.

Up till today, these terrorists have not changed their agenda and they continue to attack Christians. And when they kill, they do so in the name of Allah, shouting Allahu Akbar. Is it Christians who use the phrase Allahu Akbar? An offshoot of what are they?

Not too long ago, some leaders of Islamic faith and myself met at the house of the US Ambassador in Abuja. When they were making a denial that Muslims were also killed and many mosques also destroyed, I said to them: “If you had brought up your children and they are now turning against you to kill you, that must be the product of your parenthood. You don’t have anybody to blame but yourselves. But if your own children now leave your house and are now killing your neighbours, they will say it is your children who are persecuting them.” It is Islamic worshippers who are persecuting our members. It is not Christians who are killing Christians. No. We even asked those present at the meeting to apologise to us.

 

Don’t you think the reason terrorists and other religious fanatics appear to be running wild is because of the kind of recognition given to Islam in the 1999 Constitution (as amended)? Is CAN planning to use the opportunity of the proposed constitutional amendment to ensure equality of religion to correct a situation where Islam is mentioned more in the constitution?

The problem we have in Nigeria is that we operate a dual constitution. The current constitution is not for pure democracy. It is a demo-Sharia constitution. Some of the Islamic way of living is totally opposed to democracy. So, the drafters of the constitution have put two things that are incompatible in the document. Those who did this in 1999 put us in this trouble. The number game that we use is also a problem and the insincerity in the population censuses held in the past where no real people were counted as human beings. It is only in Nigeria that you see the arid region being more densely populated than the wet Southern region. In the drafting of the 1999 Constitution, there was insincerity to Nigerians. If you are practising democracy, you don’t introduce Sharia into it. Sharia should not have appeared in our constitution at all. It should have been a private thing that people would be allowed in their privacy to practice.

Christianity too should be a private thing for people. But democracy must be democracy. And we say Nigeria is a secular country. If it is so, why have they brought in Sharia? When they were bringing in Sharia, didn’t they think of the other faiths in the country to make provision for them? That was why when the national conference was convened in 2014, Christians went with their position. If the recommendations of the confab had been implemented by the current administration, we won’t be where we are today. We should have upgraded from what we have been using but which has not been paying off for us.

The problem of Nigeria is that our leaders are too obsolete to adjust to modern-day demands. No matter how popular and patronised a company may be, if that company is dwelling in the euphoria of the patronage and refuses to upgrade, that company will become obsolete and will be soon abandoned. If Nigeria is going to cope with the exigencies of the modern day, it must upgrade. We must sit down and look again at the ways we have been doing things. What do we need to change? That is appraisal. What do we need to retain? But to insist we will continue like this? It will soon tear apart if care is not taken.

 

What is the way forward, considering the grim realities you have painted? Are you talking of changes in terms of constitution review or regionalisation?

Only one man does not have answer to all the changes required for the country to move forward. Number one, the National Assembly needs to be up and doing. In the constitutional review, the lawmakers need to be sincere and kind to Nigerians. They should not see the proposed amendment as an avenue to pursue selfish agenda. If they pursue selfish religious or regional agenda, then, the country will come out of the constitutional review worse than before. But if we all place the interest of the generality of Nigerians in our hearts, then, they will be able to discuss objectively. Each person will be able to lose some things in order to gain many more things. Constitutional review is part of the changes required and the National Assembly is supposed to lead this and do it very quickly. The lawmakers should think beyond political leaning or the region they come from.

Currently, there are many things that are wrong. Someone called my attention to the federal Ministry of Education which has a commission for Islamic and Arabic Studies to which they are voting billions of naira. Are we Arabs in Nigeria? Is there any Arab tribe in Nigeria? That is a religious matter. How did [the commission] get to the ministry and when? Don’t they know we have equal population of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria? Why didn’t they create a commission for Hebrew and Christian Studies in the ministry, if they want peace? I have always said it that if they want us to continue to do pilgrimage together, there must be justice and mutual respect and fairness in all we do. If we don’t have fairness and justice to correct what is wrong, then, we will end up in is “to your tent, O Israel.”

 

Earlier, you mentioned the issue of untrained children creating problems in the North and part of the problem the deposed Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, faced was his speaking truth to power about the need for the North to take education seriously. What role do you think restructuring of the country will play in enabling each region to grow and development at its own pace?

If there was no problem, people would not really be talking about restructuring. But I don’t want to use the word restructuring, because it has been bastardised and taken to be political. But if a company is doing the same thing the same way all the time, that company will soon be out of market. If you don’t abandon what you are not doing well, people will abandon you. I just pray we will not be a useless giant.

Nigeria, with the way we are operating, is a crippled giant, a giant that cannot walk straight or rise up. We are wasting generations in this country because we are doing the same thing the old way. One thing is constant in human history and the world: change. The way I am looking now is not the way I looked 10 years ago. Whether I accept it or not, I am changing. I don’t know why when people get up there (power), they continue to emphasise failure. And when you see things going wrong and you talk, you become an enemy. It is not about just praising them for what will not pay us. If they are being deceived, they can’t deceive others. We know how we are feeling as recipients of government’s actions and decisions. We must embrace change. But I don’t want to call it restructuring. It can be appraisal, upgrading or whatever we can do to make the whole thing look new.

 

CAN issued a directive to churches asking them to comply with government’s temporary ban on large religious gathering. But some of your members flouted the directive, setting tongues wagging as to why the church could not submit to governmental authorities as the Bible enjoins. What feedback did you get on this sir?

You can force the horse to the river, but you can’t force the horse to drink water, because it depends on whether the horse is willing to open the mouth and you don’t open the mouth of the horse. I think that is my answer to your question.

 

What step is CAN then taking to ensure there is compliance with the government directive on religious gathering, without prejudice to your earlier response?

If the feedback I heard from the people that held services in their churches is anything to go by, they said last (penultimate) Sunday service was the last they would have together. They said they held the services to sensitise members because the directive I gave came during the week and that they were not able to see them together to pass the information.

But if some people now come to the church, the leaders will be there to meet with them and instruct them to follow CAN’s directive. I think one of the popular preachers in the country mentioned that in his own worship. He told the members they were backing CAN on the directive and that henceforth, services would be held online.

So, I hope it will not happen again. I wish you urge the law enforcement agencies to really enforce the directive and warn those flouting the directive.

 

You set apart March 22 and 29 as national days for prayer against coronavirus. How are Christians expected to observe the days? Should they pray and fast or pray alone? Are they assembling somewhere to observe it?

If you look at the circular, we have given the guidelines there. We ask them to meet online in their various home cells and hook up and pray to God to, as He has done in the holy scriptures, forgive our sins and wipe away this plaque called coronavirus and spare our world. These two things are very crucial. I held home cell meeting last Sunday. But I preached online to the rest of the world. The title of my message was “I Shall Fear No Evil.” Psalm 23 verse four says “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for thou art with me.” In that message, I used the illustration in Numbers 21, when people began to murmur against God and Moses and God decided to send a fiery serpent into their midst to destroy them. Moses had to cry to God and, before he did, the people came and said they had sinned against God and asked him to appease God for them and take the serpent away from their midst. The first thing was repentance; the second was prayer and the last, intervention form God.

We need to, in our prayers, go before God and say we have sinned. Have we not sinned? We are arrogant. We don’t want to hear anything about God any longer, because of technological development. We think we have everything we need at the tip of our finger and we don’t need God anymore. We behave like we don’t need Him to provide anything as we can provide all things by ourselves. We have relied so much on the weapons of mass destruction, but we can’t fire coronavirus. People are not on their knees seeking the face of God and asking Him for intervention. Nobody wants to die; only a few people can commit suicide.

Beloved, the simple thing is that the current world we live in has annoyed God too much. Even in the house of faith, in Christendom, don’t we see corruption there? We can’t trust people with money and the name of Jesus is so close to the mouth, yet, the heart is far away from Him. Are these the type of people that God will continue to spare? And some people are asking: Did He create us for this kind of living? How much did we borrow Him to create us? If God wipes us away, what is He going to lose? Nothing.

So, we need to know that in Him, we live and move and have our being. And everything was created for His will and not for our will. We need to worship Him.

In schools, have we not said that morning devotion and prayer should not be said to God again? And I asked the question: did we do that because God committed an offence or we have discovered that He is not as big as we thought? Or is it because when we worship God, we will become more sinful or doing so will hinder development? Why that craziness? I have lived outside the country. In some countries, your dress must not contain a cross as what I am putting on now. They would say it would unsettle others who are not Christians. Now, is the cross in my cloth attacking any of you here or hindering you from doing your work? So, that is the extent to which our actions are very repugnant to God and he is now showing us that just ordinary wind can destroy all of us. If He is not merciful, nobody will stand. Coronavirus is very rude; it does not respect anybody. It has gone to the most powerful house of government in the world and it is not sparing prime ministers and now, they know that they are not prime.

 

A cleric said the ban of religious gathering will have implication for spiritual growth. Do you share this view?

There is no ban on gathering. Let me correct that. The ban we have is on large gathering, which can consume all of us until we don’t have any gathering again. And government is saying they want us to have large gatherings later, but that there is a danger in large gathering now. The danger is looking for where many people are to consume them.

So, you can still gather. But gather is small groups. If we comply, the ban will not last long. We should not be stubborn in Nigeria and experience what Italy experienced. They told them to go indoors, they refused. Now, do you see anyone on the streets in Italy? The same thing happened in Spain. We have been gathering all this while and if we withdraw for a little time for peace to return and for all of us to embrace ourselves again, is that too much a sacrifice?

 

Nigeria today seems to be on the precipice and everything appears to be against everything. How can the church help pull the country away from the brink?

Well, the church that I know under my own leadership as CAN President has been contributing its quota to the rescue of the country. Many times, we have gone to the seat of power to present our position to the leadership of the country. On the attack by Fulani herdsmen, we raised technocrats, experts in agriculture and other fields to do a thorough study and a position paper which we presented to government. That’s our way of contributing to the country, not just criticising. That is objective criticisms, saying this way is better than that way. We have never kept out mouth shut, even at the detriment of our lives. We have always spoken because we believe the little we can say can preserve generations.

Not only that, in the areas where we can help, we have done so. Up till the end of last year, we were still going about visiting people who were displaced in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) centres, empowering them and distributing sewing machines and food items.

I was in Maiduguri (Borno), Adamawa, Taraba, Benue, Southern Kaduna and Enugu state, distributing relief materials worth millions of naira to the people. Many churches have orphanages. The Nigeria Baptist Convention has KayCee Children Home where we train and educate abandoned children, spend money on them.

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Politics is about controlling resources and many Christians appear to be apolitical. We have heard a case of a pastor who locked up members and was asking them to pray for a particular candidate to win, knowing full well that prayers don’t count. What is your charge to Christians on why they should be involved in politics and how do you ensure that Christians who are already in positions of government act to bring about positive change?

That situation has changed. During campaigns for the last elections, CAN invited all the presidential candidates, about 13 of them came. We sat them down and threw questions to them and wanted to see their manifestoes and how they would help the country and things they would do differently. But you know politicians; they can promise heaven and earth. It is only God that can compel politicians to fulfill a little of their promises.

Not only that, we divided the country into regions and raised teams that went to the six geopolitical zones, met at the capital cities, invited Christians and gave them lecture on the need for mass registration and full participation in the elections. The PVCs, which they did not get before, they started getting them. We also urged the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to take registration centres to churches. That was CAN’s position.

Beyond that, during the election, we deployed 1,048 election observers throughout the federation. We wanted to deploy over 2,000, but INEC only approved 1, 048. We were the only body with such a large number of observers. That is to tell you that we are not sitting on the fence. Though we are not of the world, we are in the world. We have seen that if we commit the governance of the country to the children of Beliah, they will kill us. They will not even allow us to worship the living God.

So, before darkness will sweep us over, we need to wake. If a sharp object is pointed at you, you have to shout before it gets closer, because if you continue to look at it, it will injure your eyes.

 

Will CAN consider floating a political party in the future to raise men and women who will correct the errors in the country, especially when you earlier said only God can compel politicians to deliver the little they have been doing?

What we have considered is that each church should take the issue of political education very seriously in their different parishes for the purpose of those God will call to politics to deliver. The reason many Christians who are in politics are not reflecting the character of Christ is that the call of God is not there. The motivation into politics was not because God called them.

I was a senior administrator with the Federal Government before God called me into pastoral ministry. It was clear and painful. I resigned to go to the Seminary to be trained for three years, after about 10 years in public service as an administrator. It was something I accepted weeping, because it was like humiliation. How can I sacrifice my career to become a pastor and then mess up what I gave up so much for? I was aware and I am still aware that somebody called me and I must play safe. Otherwise, it is waste of time. Our politicians must know that being a politician is a divine assignment. It is the call of God upon their lives and as the pastor consecrates himself to do the work of God, they too must do and have the same sense of consecration. That is what will change politics in the country.

 

Don’t you think it is the system that makes it impossible for politicians to perform upon getting to power?

If the system was perfect, God would not need to call another person to go and render service. It is such a bad system that God needs somebody He has empowered to go and influence and change. It is because God did not call them that they are unable to change anything. When you are in another person’s duty post, you would be a misfit. We must know the calling of God upon our lives. I occupy two positions that are very major in the house of God.

The Baptist Convention has over seven million people in population and over 15, 000 churches all over the federation. One year, before they started searching for who would lead the Nigerian Baptist Convention, God visited me in the pastorium where I was, woke me up in my sleep, put me in a car, drove the car through the Lagos – Ibadan Expressway, passed through the University of Ibadan and drove straight to the Baptist building. In that revelation, when the iron gate saw our car, it opened by itself and we entered. He came out of the car and I did. He pointed to the Baptists building that that was my new office and I would be a principal officer there.

I thought God was talking about the principal of a secondary school. And I said, “but this is not a school” and I woke up. When I woke up, I saw it was a dream. After going to urinate, I came back and slept.

Then, God came again and took me to the church I was pasturing in Bashorun, a very obscure church, and I was an obscure pastor. He showed me the send forth they were doing for me in the church and took me to the reception hall where they were jubilating and greeting me. Later, I was greeting people and was tired. Then, He patted me on the back and I had strength again. He asked me: “Do you want to know the person who put you in that position?” I said “no.” I said “they don’t put a principal in a position; they promote them.” He then showed me a man in the reception hall who was just standing aloof, wearing white agbada. I didn’t see his face. I asked: “How can somebody I didn’t know put me in a position and make me a principal officer?” He said wait for 10 months and this will be clearer to you. Then, I woke up from the dream. I woke my wife and told her.

Before my election as CAN president, I was in Houston, Texas, with my wife on holiday and I had a dream in which I saw filled ballot boxes and I saw that my name was written on the box of the CAN, the bloc to which I belong, as representing them in the election. I saw other candidates. I saw people crossing from the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) to cast their votes for me. I asked them why they were casting their votes for me when I was not from among them. Then, I woke up.

Similarly, I woke my wife up and asked if I would be contesting election as CAN president. She sprang up when I told her the revelation and she said “No, I cancel the revelation in Jesus name. It will not come to pass. You can’t lead CAN; they will spoil your name. And they almost spoilt my name, because I blocked certain things. The people responsible have sweet mouth and you would think they are people of God, but they are not and I know them.

So, it is not about a clean system. It is about a man that God has prepared and when god has prepared you, you will get there and make a difference. It will not be business as usual.

NIGERIAN TRIBUNE

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