Dr. Mike Okonkwo, the presiding Bishop of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), is one cleric who rarely dabbles into political matters in the country but who does not mince words when he chooses to. Two days ago, he was his usual self when he spoke with select journalists, including The Guardian’s ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, at the TREM headquarters in Lagos on the state of affairs in the country. He condemned President Muhammadu Buhari’s style of governance, especially the manner of his appointments and his handling of the security situation in the country, warning that the situation in Afghanistan was a big lesson for Nigeria. Okonkwo also lambasted the governors of the Southeast states for losing the confidence of the people, condemned the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) for beating the drums of war in the Southeast and stated why he does not want an Igbo man to succeed Buhari in 2023. He also spoke on the qualities Nigerians must look out for in people that will present themselves for the number one position before making their choice.

The talking point in the country now is the level of insecurity. You are renowned as someone who doesn’t mince words any time you hold an opinion you voice it out. What is your take on the state of the nation right now vis-à-vis the security challenges bedeviling the country?
Well, it is only somebody who is blind or dishonest that will say that he is satisfied with how the country is now. For me, I think the nation is going through a period of gestation; something new has to be born. We have gone round this mountain long enough and it’s not working. To be honest, something is fundamentally wrong in the way we have operated since our independence in 1960. We should be doing better than we are doing now. In fact, at times you feel ashamed to call yourself a Nigerian.

Few years ago, we said, ‘Ghana must go’. But today, Ghana is far ahead of us in their national development. Our educational system is run down, security is run down and economy is run down. Everything is leveled to the ground; everyone is on ground zero.

So, definitely, no one will say that he/she is satisfied with the situation in the country. I mean, people are afraid; they cannot travel; you cannot confidently go to your village. The insecurity has gotten so bad that they can even invade our armoury and carry arms and nothing will happen. Then, where do you turn to?

The most recent was the invasion of the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) in Kaduna by bandits. If these people could walk into the NDA and kill people and escape, then where do we stand? Kaduna happens to be a very stronghold in terms of military presence and these things are happening there. So, there is no more hiding place for people and we should seriously look into it as a nation.

I was watching the Minister of Labour when he was being interviewed in terms of doctors that are leaving the country; and he said for him, it does not mean anything. I was shocked! How many doctors do we have in Nigeria for him to say we had surplus? We have surplus, but we go to hospitals and will be looking for doctors? That is also the situation at the health centres. I told myself that this man must have been living in another world not in Nigeria. We are having brain drain; people are leaving the country and when they get out of the country they excel. That shows that Nigerians are resilient, brilliant and know what they are doing. It is a matter of having a system that works in the country so that the citizens will be able to reap the benefits of what God has endowed Nigeria with.

The other day, a woman was crying out over the state of the hostels at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she went to drop her daughter to resume school. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as she was showing the hotels that students were living in to study. And I asked myself, ‘is this a higher institution of learning and we expect them to turn out to be the best for us?’ For people to even live in that type of environment is a shock. So, there is rot everywhere you turn.

So, the state of our nation is becoming very scary. In fact, at times, I ask myself how the people in the National Assembly see themselves. You are supposed to be in the National Assembly to pass laws that would be beneficial to the nation; and these things are happening in your eyes and you go to the National Assembly, walk back home and sleep? You don’t take drastic actions or decisions that will address those issues?

You said Nigeria is going through a gestation period and that something new has to be born before the country can move forward. What is that new thing you are envisaging? 
If you notice, there is strong agitation that the entire federal system we are operating should be looked into. And from my understanding, it is even in the manifesto of the ruling party; I heard that it is the number one item in their manifesto. Pastor Tunde Bakare, who was part of the drafting of their constitution, said that it is the number one point in their manifesto. True federalism, restructuring. Now, the question is, why has it not been done? So, there is agitation from every area.

Initially, it was the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB); it’s no more IPOB alone. Oduduwa people and the Niger Delta Front are also saying ‘look, we are tired of this contraption called Nigeria’, which was not the case before.

So, definitely, when there is such agitation all over, the truth is that people who are trying to either sweep it under the carpet, run away from it, threaten people are wasting their time. We must come to a point where we will look at the country and re-address the present situation we are in because that is why there is tension everywhere. There is lack of trust everywhere. Nigerians don’t trust anything again; they don’t even believe in the government any longer. So, obviously, this is an indication that there is something that has to give way for another thing to rise and that is where we are going. I believe that there is need to give birth to what will be beneficial to the entire land so that every region will develop at their own pace. I mean we can’t continue with this type of mediocrity.

What we have on ground now, to put in the native parlance, is like you beating me up and saying I shouldn’t cry. It’s not possible; if you beat me up, I must shed tears.

What are these ‘beatings’ that gave rise to these agitations?
Let me give you one example. People are complaining of insecurity. If you are complaining of insecurity and the security apparatus is in the hands of a group of people, the only way I can convince you that I am sincere and serious about what I am doing is to balance it, standardise it, get people from different parts of the nation to handle different areas so that there will be no suspicion. Currently, there is suspicion. Now, no matter what the president says, people will not believe it until there is a decentralisation of the security apparatus. People are saying that the insecurity in the country is now virtually across the whole nation and you are saying that there is no agenda that the North has to take over the country, how do I believe you?

Like they say, it’s you people that have the knife and the yam; whomever you give, he takes. So, why are you not delivering? The natural thing for anyone to do is to take it from them and share it. You can say, ‘look, I don’t have any agenda; you from Niger Delta you are in charge of this; you from Kwara you are in charge of this, you from Kogi you are in charge of that’. You distribute it so the security apparatus is spread across the whole country. That way, if it’s no more working, you are not calling one group of people. So, this pointing at a particular group of people is not an attempt to label them, it’s simply because the right things seem not to have been done. Who else will I call? I won’t call an outsider because you are in charge. If you are in charge why are things the way they are? That is the way I see it.

In as much as I am the type that does not play ethnic politics, just look at the agitation that is going on in the East. The Miyetti Allah will come out and take ownership of certain things like the misbehaviour and violence in some areas and nothing is done. Then the IPOB carries their flag without arms and you will go after them and mow them down. What do you want people to say? Do you want them to say that everything is fine? It can never be. So, these are the issues that people are agitating for and crying out.

To the best of my knowledge, the easterners are not asking for anything other than live and let live. They are not saying, ‘give us everything’. For me, to be honest with you, I am not in agreement with any easterner saying, ‘it’s time for us to be president’. So you should beg to be president? If it’s going to be a case of making you president so that you can be appeased, that is stupidity; I don’t want that. You are a Nigerian; you have equal right to everything that every other person who is in Nigeria has. So, it’s not a matter of being appeased. In fact, I don’t even want any easterner under this situation to be a president because he will fail. Do you know why? The present system can never allow you to succeed. That is why we have to look at the system.

The other day, somebody was boasting that they have the largest number and therefore, they are the ones that will determine who rules the country or not. What type of audacity is that? What type of audacity will make you to be saying that you are going to be lording it over the entire nation? It’s unacceptable.

So, what are your thoughts on the situation in the Southeast where there seems to be two governing authorities, the state governments on one side and the IPOB on the other side, as evidenced in the recent sit-at-homes ordered by the IPOB, which was obeyed by the residents despite a counter directive by the state governors? 
Let me first say that the reason most people sit-at-home is not that they necessarily want to obey the IPOB, it is simply because they are afraid as IPOB will threaten them. They will tell you that if you do this, they will kill you or burn down your home. Who wants to be the scapegoat? So, I would rather stay away; I don’t want their trouble.

The other day they sat at home, I saw somebody who was cooking in front of his house even though the streets were empty and they came and poured away what he was cooking. There were people who had their drinks on their corridors and they broke all of them. When you do that type of thing why do I want to come out? Does that mean that I am respecting your orders? No! It’s the threat to life that makes people to obey them.

And that is what I have been saying; much as I know that the state governments have not played the way they should play; they are supposed to be the voice of the people and stand and address issues that have to do with them. The easterners have lost confidence in the governors; that is why they are looking for a new voice that will lead them.

I am not a strong advocate of IPOB for one singular reason – one person cannot be the final authority in a thing. No other person can make any suggestion. If you make any suggestion you are under fire no matter how good your suggestion is. That’s wrong! It’s almost becoming a dictatorial issue. So, it’s difficult to accept that; one person cannot be the only custodian of an idea. And a lot of them who are jumping up and down did not see the Nigeria-Biafra war; they never saw it. I think that even Nnamdi Kanu was born after the war or during the war, so he was a boy who didn’t know anything.

One of the songs they used to sing in those days was ‘Ojukwu give me gun let me go and kill Gowon.’ Is it easy? Gowon is still alive today. Let us be real; war is not a good experience. When the bombs begin to land, no one will tell you to run for your life. So, people don’t understand the implications of war; there will be no medication, no food and everything you have laboured for over the years will be lost. The implications of war are so much that you don’t want it. If you can have an alternative, no matter how long it takes, sitting down round the table and discussing your issues, is the best way.

         

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