Last Thursday, Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, celebrated his 80th birthday with a Holy Mass at the Holy Cross Cathedral, Lagos, and reception at the St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos. In an interview later, the retired Catholic Archbishop of Lagos reflected on his four years in retirement after attaining the mandatory age of 75. This year also marks his 50th priestly ordination anniversary. He recalled that a large chunk of his years as the Archbishop of Lagos was devoted to speaking out against injustice and oppression of the downtrodden by those in positions of authority.
“Though a clergy, I have always believed that it is the right of every citizen to aspire to actualize his God-ordained destiny within the framework of the larger society. It is also my firm conviction that one should never be silent or docile when his or her fundamental rights are being trampled upon by those who have sworn to the Constitution to safeguard the welfare of the citizens. These, to a large extent, have for years defined my guiding principles, actions, and utterances as a clergy and a citizen of Nigeria”, he said.
“For instance, during my years as President of Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, and also as two-term President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, CBCN, during the Babangida era, I did not shy away from saying the gospel truth whenever it was obvious that the country was being led astray by the leadership. A couple of times, I and other like-minds succeeded in pricking the conscience of those in authority as to make them re-think their anti-people policies. But for a larger period of time, it is on record that we were able to help galvanize the civil societies into standing up for their rights and hold their leaders accountable for their stewardship. How well these agitations have been sustained to achieve set goals over time is a topic for another day.
“Today, since I retired as Archbishop of Lagos, and by extension from active public service, you may still wonder why I still speak on the state of the nation when I should be enjoying my retirement. Well, it may interest you to note that though I may not be as visible as I used to be, I have however not relented in my commitment and desire to see to the entrenchment of a truly egalitarian society where justice, equity, and fear of God would reign supreme. These have always been my desire. You may say that at my age, since I am near the departure wing to heaven, I should by now be indifferent to the numerous challenges confronting the country.
I beg to disagree. How can I remain quiet when 17 years into our democratic dispensation, the ship of our nation is being tossed about by self-inflicted storms that are tossing the people up and down? How can I keep mute when Nigerians have continuously been taken for a ride over the years by our politicians, who rather than serve the masses, chose to play them like the game of chess? I want to affirm here that as long as the good Lord gives me strength and the breath of life, I will never remain silent while this country is in turmoil.
I believe it is the responsibility of everyone of us to continue to contribute our quota to a better society for us and the generations yet unborn.
May 29, 2016, we marked Democracy Day under the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC. But is there much to really celebrate about? 17 years into our democratic dispensation; have we really mature as a nation? What lessons have we learnt from the errors of the past and what efforts are we making to avoid a repeat?”
On the state of the nation
Cardinal Okogie: It is the responsibility of government everywhere in the world to provide the enabling environment for the citizens to eke a living. In the case of my country Nigeria, it appears the reverse is the case. The poor masses are left to roam about without proper guidance, and so majority continue to wallop in penury in the midst of plenty. So much have been said and written about the 16 years misrule of the People’s Democratic Party. Many more policy analysts will readily tell you that the problem with Nigeria originated right from independence in 1960. Be that as it may, the swearing-in of President Muhammadu Buhari last year was perceived as a milestone in the people’s quest for positive change and improvement in their quality of life.
But a year later, the people are still grumbling. Indeed, the hardship has doubled. Thousands of workers are being laid off every day; the value of the naira is falling while states are owing workers months of unpaid salaries.
Buhari may mean well for the country, but so far, his actions and utterances have failed to help put food on the table of the average Nigerian. So, my advice to Mr. President and his associates is this: do not take the goodwill that you enjoy from Nigerians for granted. Do all that is necessary to revamp the economy before things get out of hand.
On renewed N-Delta militancy
For the years that the late Musa Yar’Adua and his successor, Goodluck Jonathan, held sway, we saw a drastic reduction in the activities of militants in the Niger Delta.
Unfortunately, the militants are now back to the trenches under different pseudonyms. Their recent attacks on oil facilities in the region are daily crippling the country’s capacity to produce oil. The oil and gas pipelines bombed in Warri West Local Government Area have also worsened electricity generation plan of government. How long would this continue? One thing is certain. Ours is a mono-economy that relies solely on oil for our foreign exchange earnings. With the sorry state of our economy, we cannot at this crucial time afford the stalling of oil production in the Niger Delta.
That would further put the country’s finances in a precarious situation. I am aware that the Niger Delta Avengers have reeled out many conditions to be met before they can agree on a ceasefire.
I am equally aware that President Buhari has vowed to deal decisively with the militants. Only a few days ago, the dailies reported that the military invaded Gbaramatu Kingdom believed to be the hometown of a wanted ex-militant, Tompolo. While condemning the disruption of our oil facilities under any guise, I equally want to stress that the use of military force is not the best solution. It would only aggravate the situation. I, therefore, want to plead with President Buhari to consider dialogue as a major option to end the crisis. Considering the high casualty rate and huge losses so far expended in our on-going fight against Boko Haram, it would not be out of place to settle the Niger-Delta issue without wasting human lives.
Equally, I want to plead with the aggrieved militants to please sheathe their swords and allow for mediation.
On herdsmen’s excesses
One of the most contentious issues facing the present administration is the carnage linked to herdsmen in some parts of the country. We are all too familiar with the Agatu killings and the massacre in Nimbo, Enugu State. Firstly, I want to use this medium to express my condolences to families of the deceased and pray that the good Lord will comfort them in their period of grief. The loss of lives in any form is very sad, particularly if such lives are cut short in tragic circumstances as the attacks by the herdsmen. Such barbaric acts only dehumanize us. Some have opined that the failure of the President to make a public pronouncement immediately the issue came to national discourse is borne out of his affinity to those concerned. That aside, I want to reiterate that it is the responsibility of government to safeguard the lives of its citizens. No life is more important than the other. The questions many are asking are: who provides the herdsmen with AK 47 weapons? Are the herdsmen truly Nigerians or extension of the Boko Haram sect members particularly as global terrorist watch have listed them as a number on the terrorist list?
However, I am glad at the outcome of the recent courtesy visit of the Catholic Bishops to the President during which he gave an express order to the law enforcement agents to fish out the perpetrators of the dastardly acts and bring them to book. Such a move, if well executed, will go a long way to restore the people’s confidence in government.
Meanwhile, a lasting solution must be found to placate the herdsmen and restrain them from invading farmlands. I gathered that the National Assembly is seriously considering creating designated areas for them in the North for grazing purposes. This, I believe, is a right step in the right direction.
On fight against corruption
One of the slogans of the APC, last year during the electioneering campaigns, was the fight against corruption. Coming in the wake of alleged endemic looting credited to past administrations, cleansing the land of supposed corrupt elements was perceived as a sure way of stabilizing the country and entrenching speedy growth and development. The past one year has seen the present administration making spirited efforts to recover looted funds and prosecuting the offenders. Despite these, Nigeria’s perceived reputation as one of the most corrupt nations was reiterated by Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain on the eve of an international parley when he branded Nigeria as fantastically corrupt. The psychological impact of that statement made before Queen Elizabeth II is still fresh in the minds of many of us. While it is true that corruption has become endemic in this country, I also want to stress unequivocally that there are still men and women of high integrity who have not sold their birthrights to the monster called corruption.
We must therefore not shy from telling the rest of the world, when the occasion arises that there are still honest Nigerians among us. How can we best do this? By joining government to expose the corrupt and unrepentant elements amongst us, no matter their identity, tribe or religious inclinations. I want to commend the President for his commitment to clean the polity. There is also need for him to be systematic in the fight so that even after he leaves office, the structure in place would make it difficult for corruption to thrive as has always been the case. There have been complaints by members of the opposing party that the fight has been selective and only targeted at the PDP. The President must respond to this proactively by allowing the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to truly work independently, based on facts and figures at their disposal. It does not matter the party the accused belongs to; anyone found wanting should be made to face the music. That is the only way the President can prove to all that “he belongs to all and to no one,”
On Biafra agitation
Many of us who witnessed the pogrom that is the Nigerian civil war between 1967 and 1970 are yet to come to terms with the devastating effect that war could have in a society like ours. That is why it is imperative that we do not have a repeat of a civil war. God forbid. Mr. President should, therefore, do the needful by releasing Mr. Nnamdi Kanu as a sign that he is ready to dialogue with his pro-Biafra group. He must remember that it is the right of any group to seek peacefully for secession if they feel marginalized in their present abode. The use of force is never the right approach to quell such agitation. As the father of all, let him do the needful by addressing the issues that led to the agitation in the first place.
On Chibok girls
It is good news that some of them are trickling in but among those found, some people are still doubting if these girls are among the over 200 girls we are talking about because not until there is proof that they really belong to this group of girls. Right now, I have not seen any parent or guardian that came out to claim that yes, the girl is his or her daughter.
On the canonisation of Iwene Tansi
The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church which I and some of you belong to do not just wake up overnight and say they are canonizing people, I remember during the funeral of Saint John Paul, everyone in the arena was shouting that he should be made a saint, but it is not possible to push Rome in that way. There are certain things which they will look out for and certain stages which must be followed. Beatification is just one of these stages, there are other first class three or four miracles that must be performed, and if these miracles are not seen, then it will be where it is. Beatification cannot happen. For example, Mother Teresa will be officially canonized by September 4 because all these stages have been fulfilled.
There are faithful who are looking at all these things, not that somebody will just wake up and say because it is Tansi due process should not be followed. All these stages should be followed and fulfilled. It is the first class miracle that is delaying it.
On the Holy Father’s visit to Nigeria
His Holiness do not just go out of the Vatican and start moving around as he likes. There was a time he visited Africa, but there was information from the Pope’s advisers that Nigeria was not safe for him to visit and that is why he did not visit again. I think if the atmosphere is clear, the Pope will come.
On the pro-Islam bill which has passed the second reading in the National Assembly
The issue of OIC has been on the ground since former military President Babangida then enrolled Nigeria into that organization and both Christian and Muslims gathered and met in Abuja. I was the one in charge of the Christian group, and the meeting was very stormy. It was not a new thing but what has been on the ground for a long time and I think they only forced this regime to go for it, and I do not believe they are going to succeed.
They told us during that discussion that Nigeria is just there as an observer, and we asked what it will take to be a permanent member and one of them got up and said our Minister of Petroleum, Education, and Foreign Affairs must be Muslims and once these three Ministers are Muslims, what is left? When we shouted against the combination of Christian, Muslim, and traditional religion in the school curriculum that there will be a special teacher that will teach the students these three religions, how can a Muslim teacher teach Christian religion or traditional religion? They denied which is the second check.
Now, they believe that the only way they can be successful about it is to come through the National Assembly. But if our own Christian Ministers will not speak against it, then the blame will be on their heads.
On most memorable years
As you can see I am still alive and not dead yet. Well, my journey in life was not that smooth but so far so good. The beginning was fair. I was brought up in a Christian way which I am still keeping to by God’s grace, and gradually we believe in the fear of the Lord which my parents instilled in us firmly that once you believe in the fear of the Lord, everything will work out well and probably that is what keeps me going.
My memorable days, I think in my second year as a priest, I was shocked when I was asked to go to the war front. I ran to my bishop, the late Archbishop Aggrey, thinking he would ask me not to go and take someone else there but he replied that there are souls there, and that is what I was trained for.
Another one that I still remember was the death of my mother. I knew how she had been to the family and us especially in keeping us on the right path.
Also, when one of my juniors, Bishop Alaba Job, became a bishop and I was his senior, I was shocked, and I said will I be saying `My Lord’ to him? You know, human nature is always there. Two weeks later, he came to meet me in the cathedral where I was assigned to work, and I asked him ‘how do I address you?’ He said I should not worry about that and that in two weeks my own will come and, a few weeks later, I was nominated as the auxiliary Bishop of Oyo where I was rejected by my own brother priests not to talk to the lay people but thank God it did not drag all long like the Ariara incident.
Later I was transferred back to Lagos and then ordained as Archbishop. The final one was when I was made a Cardinal. I was in Okokomaiko when this gentleman said he had been looking for me for weeks that I had to report to Rome and I was surprised; `Rome for what?’ He brought out two scrolls, one in Latin and the other in English language; after reading them he referred to me as `Your Eminence’.
On his successor, Archbishop Adewale Martins
Lagos is a very difficult place to handle. I know what I went through in my 39 years in Lagos and I nurtured most of the priests. Archbishop Martins was born and bred in this diocese and when he was made a bishop, he left here for Abeokuta Diocese where he worked for 14 years. To me, I give him kudos because considering his age, I did not expect him to do most of the things he is doing now. He is the right man in the right place.
On Rev. Father Mbaka’s claim that those who transferred him wanted him dead
As a priest, I was shocked when I heard that from his mouth. Nobody will take your life if God did not sanction it. That he was wanted dead, who told him that? Were assassins sent after him or he was only imagining it or he saw it in a vision as he always says he always sees visions? These are highly contestable and as a priest what will he say about death? Why must he fear death? And that he was not happy about the transfer, why is he a priest? A priest should be ready to go anywhere. I was in the war front two years after my ordination as a priest. If he was not happy about his transfer, then there is something wrong about his priesthood. His priesthood should come to question.
On the present administration applauding former President Goodluck Jonathan for conceding defeat in last year’s elections.
The truth cannot be hidden. That President Buhari commended former President Goodluck Jonathan is an open confession. President Buhari has to be very careful because people are watching him and people are saying why can’t he take his inaugural speech, meditate on it and start afresh.
I think why the government is not getting it right is because of the ministerial list, various candidates from different quarters and he was trying to satisfy them and that is why we are in this mess today.
Reflections on CAN…
When we started this association, the CCN, CSN realized that there were other Christian groups who were not members and decided to bring them in. Gradually, other people that came in tried to disorganize us. I was there for eight years as CAN President and the others were not satisfied, they wanted to lead because they had hidden agenda, After that, Sunday Mbang came in who was a Methodist and also a member of CCN. He made a bad decision by warming up to President Olusegun Obasanjo and since that time OBJ did not have respect for us (CAN) because we sold our birthright.
During my tenure as CAN leader, any time we wanted to meet, we did not source for fund from government. We did it on our own. During the Kaduna riot, I and my Secretary had to sort out ourselves financially. But unfortunately when these gentlemen started coming in, they wanted to see the governor, President and money started rolling in. In this situation, what effect could they make?
I know how Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor came in, they were all saying it was time for the Pentecostals to be the President of CAN and I replied that the leadership is not about turn by turn and that is why we are where we are today. In the last election, some people came to me and asked me to vote for them and I asked why should I vote for them. I am sorry to say this, what is happening there is a disgrace to Christianity.
On the Kaduna State religion regulation bill
We are watching, these people are attempting to Islamize this country, but they are failing. They have been on it for a long time and God did not allow it to happen. El-Rufai has caused a lot of problems since he assumed office as Kaduna governor. He will just get up and take a decision without thinking about the repercussion. He said he did it in Federal Capital Territory and people only shouted but he had his way. He is always at loggerheads with Christians. There was a time he made a statement that Jesus Christ is just an ordinary human being like every other person, no divinity about him. He admitted that Jesus Christ is a prophet but not a great prophet while Prophet Muhammed is the greatest prophet. How can he be uttering these statements? Is it because of his position. He has to be checked.
The second person we have to check is Governor Amosun. He and El-Rufai are very close to President Buhari. Anytime Mr. President is travelling, it is either Amosun or El-Rufai is there already or meet Buhari in such place. Why will El-Rufai destroy this country with religious statements. Does he know what is called war?
El-Rufai must be watched, he does things without passing through the House of Assembly and the funny thing is that Buhari will never talk and that is wrong. What kind of father is that? He’s supposed to be the father of the nation. In one of my comments, I said they want to destroy our youths so that they will not come up.
Look at their own young people, a majority of them are Almajiris begging left, right and centre. On what the Christian community can do in the face of all challenges They should hold fast to their faith; even when they try to make them deny their God, deny their beliefs, they should hold fast to their faith. When I was the President of CAN, the Federal Government gave us N100 million to build a cathedral and also asked the Muslim to build such a thing in Abuja but I told my colleagues that we were not collecting the money but to show you the kind of people we have in Christendom, some of my colleagues said even if we did not want it, we could put it in the bank and when they need their money back we give it to them and we keep the interest. Christians should not be afraid but bold to confront challenges.
There is a pastor that abused El-Rufai and he said he will die and they said he is not dead yet. I think that man should be checked and at least warned, he should remember that Nigeria is not his whole constituency and he should not be talking carelessly because he is in office, they are there today, tomorrow it will be somebody else. As I said earlier, the real problem with the Buhari administration is that this one will bring his candidate notwithstanding if such person can perform or not, and another will bring his. He should change three quarters of the ministers.
They did not know where they are going, that is the problem. Lai Muhammed challenged me on a write up that I wrote tagged ‘Enough is enough’. He came to my house one Sunday night with Chief Jim Nwobodo and said I should have asked for audience with the Head of State and he would have granted me such instead of writing such article. I asked him to tell me what was wrong with the article that I wrote and that if not for Alhaji Bola Tinubu, he will not be where he is now. He replied that he has been together with Tinubu right from his youthful days. I know how Buhari came in. I warned Tinubu seriously when they were debating about Muslim, Muslim ticket. I told him, `Bola, I do not care if you produce two devils or Muslims provided the two Muslims are patriotic and fear God’.
He said his main concern which was giving him sleepless night was to drive the PDP away and that he had got the solution. Tinubu asked me if I knew Buhari and I replied that was he not that man that did examination three times and failed? I said `Bola, he will fail again’ but he replied that he will not fail because he had gone round and that politics is a game of numbers. He said if Buhari was dying tomorrow and he went to the North to present him as candidate, he was sure to get over two million votes. He was even boasting that Buhari had changed or that they will change him.
On how he feels at 80. I am still strong though not as strong as before. I forget things quickly probably because I overuse my head, but this leg is causing me a lot of trouble.
On what he wants to be remembered for
That the man called Okogie passed through this world and nothing less. I just want to fulfil the purpose God created me .
On President Buhari’s failure to mention the names of treasury looters.
Buhari thinks he is diplomatic but he is not. Nigeria of 1916 is not Nigeria of 2016. They are dragging the people gradually to the wall and once they get there, there will be revolution. What kind of revolution? I cannot say but it will be bad if the revolution is from the youths. He should call a spade a spade, he passed the issue to Lai Muhammed and everybody is now calling them liars.
On some Catholic priests joining pro-Biafra agitation?
Why should I not be happy? They are free. The problem with our government is that they fear unnecessarily. What has that boy (Kanu) done? Why can’t they sit back and think of how they can resolve the issue amicably and without involving soldiers here and there. Government should live up to their responsibilities to the masses. This present administration should revisit their inaugural speech and start afresh because they have not done anything at all.