‘You cannot use dialogue and force to settle issues’
Prelate Emeritus of the Methodist Church, Nigeria, Dr. Sunday Mbang, has turned 80 on September 10. While celebrating his longevity, the octogenarian in his usual fearless and fiery outburst, spoke to journalists on many touchy national issues, including agitations in the Niger Delta, recession, restructuring, role of Christian leaders, among others. INEMESIT AKPAN-NSOH was there and reports
What is the secret of your longevity?
The basic thing is to live a simple life. What kills people easily is that they allow work to take over their lives. The office becomes priority to them. The simple life with which they were brought up is abandoned, as they go for the bigger life. So they die quickly. Whatsoever a man becomes, he shouldn’t forget the simple life. This has been my attitude, and as a result, everybody is my friend. For instance, when I used to go on tour, I ate with my driver, though it took my secretary a long time to finally agree to eat with me.
And if you ask our Bishops, they’ll tell you that throughout my stay, I stayed and ate with them at the Bishop Council. They would book a fantastic place for me, but I stayed with them. Life is funny; the more you take yourself out of the system, the quicker you die. I sympathise with those of my colleagues who think they can protect themselves, because God is the One that can protect.
How has life been after retirement?
I still live the way I used to before retirement. They still invite me for event, which I attend, but I usually return to my village. When I was retiring, one of the things my doctor said was: ‘you are a very active person, so remain active.’ Unfortunately, however, that doctor died before me.
What is your advice concerning the economic recession in the country?
Part of Nigeria’s problem is that everybody comes into government and wants to do his own thing. There is little of continuity. A government comes, runs down the former one. And when you consider the progress or improvement on the former’s work, you don’t see so much, but they run down their predecessors. One thing I like about Akwa Ibom State is that when Akpabio left, his successor is continuing where he stopped.
So, this lack of continuity is a big problem, especially when it is a different political party that is taking over. But Nigeria should be one, and continuity should be the watchword. And once we are able to get this right, then that problem will be taken care of.
On recession, my advice to the present government is not to regard anybody as its enemy. They should gather everybody together and let them talk about the economy of Nigeria. With this, I am definitely sure they will get the right answers.
Currently, it is clear that they are all confused, judging by what they are doing now. They are speaking different grammar. Let them gather together under one roof all the economists, the best we have in the country, and do as the Catholics, when selecting their Pope. Put them in one place, and if they agree, allow them to stay there. Believe me, if we do that, we are going to get something reasonable.
Definitely, Nigeria has enough brains for government to use and I am advising them to use those brains. I don’t know of other African countries that have the kind of intelligence we have, but which are not being used, because most of them don’t want to be politicians. But they should be used, and this country will be okay. As a spiritual leader, that is my candid advice.
Why are you not as vocal as before?
When I was in office, I used to get a lot of information from journalists, and with this, I was able to give a balanced view. But now in the village, there is not much information again. Do you want me to disgrace myself? That is the problem. Once you retire, you don’t get the kind of information you used to get. So, I am being careful so as not to say something that is irrelevant.
How were you able to achieve so much in the Lord’s Vineyard?
I inherited a Methodist Church that was divided into two. I was 48 years, when I became the Head of Methodist Church. As a young person, I owed a great deal to my late father, who was a Qua Iboe Church Pastor. He drilled discipline into us, which, I took with me into to my ministry. So, I lived a disciplined life and then I went to the
University of Ibadan, where I was a student Bishop. I was 44 years old, when I was elected Bishop and I worked with the Head of the church. I think he found me reasonable.
One of the good qualities of a leader is exposure, which I had. So, it wasn’t difficult for the leader to see that I would be able to lead the church, and I was elected the leader of the church at the age of 48. I think my antecedent in the Christian Council of Nigeria and the Christian Association of Nigeria made it possible for me to become the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Before then, I was also a member of the Methodist World Council, which made it possible for me to become the Vice and then President of the Methodist World Council.
But when Pope John II came, he advised us to start dialogue with the Muslims. Since I was the President of CAN, the Catholics talked to me about it, and with the help of President Obasanjo my friend, I went to the Sultan of Sokoto. Together with him, we established the Christian Inter-Religious Council for dialogue with the Muslims.
During that period, we didn’t have so much Muslims-Christians issues.
The reason for this was that the security people were able to know, when problem was coming and they would tell the Head of state. Government would then inform us. We would, in turn, inform the Muslims and Christians in the affected states and they would deal with the problem before it even started, but I don’t know what is happening today.
Why do today’s young pastors seem to be in hurry?
Recently, I have been talking about that in some of the books I have written. When Jesus Christ called His Disciples, He called them to be fishers of men and women. But what we find now is that people are fishers of money and property. The young people are too much in a hurry. The older pastors believe you cannot be a good servant of God, if you are not called by Him and it has to be so clear to you that God really called you.
Let me give you an example of myself. My father was Pastor in Qua Iboe Church and I watched him dying. For one week, he couldn’t talk, but just at the time he was about to give up the ghost, he invited all of us and said the Grace, after which he died. That made me feel so strongly that my father didn’t finish his work and wanted me to finish it. I struggled to have nothing to do with it. I was in the student Christian movement, so I wrote a letter to my church that I wanted to be a priest. I did not even know I wrote that letter, until I was told I wrote it.
So, somebody should be aware that somebody has called you. What is happening today is that most of them didn’t have that call, and they are just looking for a job and the church became the easier way. So, you have all these charlatans all over the place.
For instance, in Akwa Ibom, every street has two to three churches, but there are cultists. Why are we having cultists? Sometime ago, I was told that about 800 women went naked to the river to get something from mammy water. Why? Definitely, the issues of false prophets and false teachers abound everywhere, and I don’t know how we are going to solve it.
Do you think there is any threat to Christianity in Nigeria?
No. The good thing with Christianity is that it is not only a Nigeria thing. So, it cannot be threatened. I am an Old Testament teacher. If you read the Old Testament, all these things were there, but the church still survived. We will have all these things, but they will come and go, while Christianity remains.
What is your advice to Nigerians?
There is nothing anybody can say to Nigerians, other than that they should believe that God would solve their problems. My experience has been that sometimes Nigerians go through some kind of unusual difficulties and when they come out of it, they don’t know. For instance, when the late Sani Abacha was in power, it seemed as though it would be forever.
My belief is that whatever problem that comes to Nigeria, the day it will be over, Nigerians won’t be ready for it. This is just a small thing, and I believe its end is near. I really sympathise with Nigerians. Garri and rice, the staple foods are not within the people’s reach again. But my belief is that it is just for a short while.
Things will change.
The current government is talking of agriculture, and I hope they are also doing it. My problem with this country is that the people always talk, but they don’t do the talk. If I live another one year after 80, I am going to watch to see whether this agricultural thing they are talking about will come to pass. If the government is sincere with what they are talking, the country will be the better for it, and if they are really sincere, in the next two to three years, things will change in Nigeria.
What is your relationship with former President Obasanjo?
He is my close friend. The problem is that many people don’t know that OBJ is a very straightforward person. I am one myself, which is why we are so close.
What is your take on Operation “crocodile smile” in the Niger Delta?
The truth is that you cannot use dialogue and force to settle issues. To make sense, I prefer dialogue, but when you talk dialogue and then you bring in the military, it defeats the aim of dialogue. I was disappointed to see the crocodile issue. The trouble in the Niger Delta is not just starting today. It has been going on for long and I’m sure people know the solution; but they decide to be dancing around the issue. The solution is not those boys carrying guns. These gun-totting boys are working for some people.
There are certain things in the Niger Delta that should be dealt with, and for justice sake, let government deal with those things through dialogue. Niger Deltans cannot get everything they want, but they should get some of the things they want. I’m sure by then, they will be at peace, but if they think they can use force, is won’t work. It has not worked anywhere. For instance, America wanted to use force in Afghanistan, Iraq, but it didn’t solve the problems. In fact, it is creating more issues for them.
I don’t know how the Boko Haram thing started. I don’t even know what they are fighting for. But the Niger Delta people, they have a case. People from outside have come to look at this case, so, they should sit down and deal with it the way they want to deal with it; force won’t solve it.
I have been told that oil blocs are one of the major problems; that no Niger Delta man has one oil bloc, while and they are giving them to others. I really want to see them dealing with such issues. If oil blocs are being given to others, why don’t they give to people from the area so that whenever anybody wants to talk about it, they will say, so and so also have.
Maybe there are people taking money on behalf of the area. Government should name them for us to know. But if they cannot do that, let justice roll like overflowing water.
Aside from Niger Delta, we also have other agitations , like Biafra and Boko Haram. Can dialogue also be applied in their cases?
Like the Biafran issue, they will tell you why they are looking for Biafra. I’m sure if you ask them properly, they will tell you why they are agitating for Biafra. But I’m not sure, you cannot get that from Boko Haram people. I have been reading the papers and I have not been able to see why the Boko Haram people are disturbing.
But for these other two, if you ask them, they have reasons why they are angry. So, it is a matter of simply sitting down with them and talking to sort out some of their problems. They are Nigerians and have every right to ask questions, where they feel uncomfortable.
I was not happy, when President Buhari said the report of the National Conference set up by the immediate past government should not be looked into. Read it, look at it, and those areas you don’t like, you tell the people you don’t like them. But for you to come and say I won’t look at it, I don’t think is the way forward for the country, because definitely, this country needs some kind of restructure.
The other day, I watched Rivers State police took over the state, when the Governor is there and he is supposed to be the chief security officer of the state. What is the meaning of chief security officer, when the governor cannot secure the state?
So, there are areas I believe we should look at. A governor is in the state, but police came and took over the state and he couldn’t say a word! These are the areas we need to look at.
It looks to me that the Federal government is handling so many things.
They should borrow a leaf from other countries like America, where the local government is in charge of their area, same with the states. Why can’t we emulate this and free the Federal Government of all these things? So, maybe when people talk of restructuring, these are areas they are talking of and I believe all Nigerians should sit together to discuss, while government should look at that document.
Do you have any regret at 80?
My regret should be that I shouldn’t have come to Nigeria, but I love the country, and that is why I am staying here. I had an opportunity to be an American citizen, but I refused. I love my country. If I am regretting, I’m saying God didn’t do well for me, but He has been so good to me. I attended Harvard, the best University in the world without my father. So, why should I regret at 80? I was the Head of Methodist Church for 22 years, president of CAN for eight years, World Methodist Council for almost 10 years and Nigeria’s Inter-Religious Council for eight years. So what regret?
What is your impression about youth unemployment?
I must say that every time I see these young people, I pity them. During our time, it wasn’t this terrible. Then, we had only three or four universities, so you couldn’t produce too many graduates. We are now having so many universities without any plan for what they will do after graduation.
It disturbs me to see young graduates not employed. Unfortunately, I have nothing with which to assist them. But my prayer to the young people is that, rather than them becoming vagabonds, because most of them have decided to become so, let them look for something to do, no matter how small this may be and be a little patient and all will be well with them. I sympathise with their conditions, but that shouldn’t make them become vagabonds. There will come a time they will be useful to this country, they should just be a little more patient.
What is your impression of Akwa Ibom State at 29?
Let me start with Akpabio. He did a marvellous work in the state. You need to go to the Ibom Specialist Hospital and see what is going on there. Udom is following in his footsteps. One of the things I like about Udom is that he is a very religious person. He believes God will help him to achieve his dreams. Udom is a quiet person, and he is doing his things quietly. I can assure you that by the time he leaves office, Akwa Ibom people will be the better for it. Udom’s priority is industrialisation and his way of doing it will be different.
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