Prelate Emeritus of the Methodist Church Nigeria and former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, His eminence Sunday Mbang, tells PATRICK ODEY that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), must detach tribal and religious sentiments from the farmers/herdsmen crisis and deal with it as an issue causing disunity in the country
At 85, what bothers you most about the state of the nation?
People have said Nigeria is a failed state but I don’t know to what extent Nigeria has failed. However, when you see the things happening in the country, you begin to wonder whether we still have anything called security forces. I mean there is no day that I don’t hear about somebody being killed almost everyday. That worries me. I don’t know whether it worries the President because it took a long time for him to listen to the voice of the people who said, “change your officers (service chiefs); they must have run out of ideas.” What I do not understand is the reason why he is appointing them into another job. I thought the service chiefs did not do well in Nigeria; maybe they did well to Mr President. But going by the way some of us look at it, they did not do well. And if they did not do well, why can’t you allow them to go? So, that is my first problem.
The second problem is the economy. I don’t know of any group of leaders that has taken foreign loans the way this administration has done. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is my friend; when he got into office, he avoided taking unnecessary loans. But these people are taking loans every time; when are they going to pay back these loans? What are these loans meant for? That is another problem. I also hear they are giving N20,000 to people. I don’t know what N20,000 can buy in the market. For me, it is a waste of money. I would have loved for them to select one, two or three people in every state and give them a substantial amount of money so that they in turn can bring up people.
From what I know, there were about three people like Aliko Dangote that Obasanjo made in this country; he gave them contracts. Now, look at who Dangote is today. If you want to make people great, that is what you should do – choose a few people and give them contracts; attach the condition to those contracts that they should employ many Nigerians. I heard about a programme which involves feeding students. How will somebody from Abuja come and feed students in Akwa Ibom State? I don’t understand; maybe they have a magic wand to do this. The other day, I asked my governor what they were feeding these students with and he said they feed them with noodles, mostly. There are better ways they could have done these things.
Can you give examples?
My major problem is that we are running a unitary system of government. I went to school in America where even the local governments have their own police. But now, Nigeria is talking about community policing. I looked at what the Bible says about ‘putting new wine in an old wineskin.’ Who are these policemen? Are they not the same group of people that are coming into community policing? I really like the Kaduna State governor, Malam (Nasir) El-Rufai, who often says there are many things the government carries and that they cannot do all. Why don’t we return to the regional system of government, which allows everybody to do their own thing? The regions were growing and there was competition everywhere. Now, the Federal Government is in charge of water, agriculture, and electricity. Tell me how things will work?
I came back to Akwa Ibom in 2006. Since I came back, Godswill Akpabio has done many roads. Governor Udom Emmanuel is doing so many roads. Former Governor Victor Attah did some. I have not heard of any Federal Government project in Akwa Ibom. So, why can’t we go back to when the states were allowed to develop? Believe me, this country would have been run properly if the states were allowed to run on their own. There would be competition when one state is doing this and another is doing that. But look at our (Akwa Ibom) seaport, we have to wait for permission from the Federal Government for approval.
I am a well-travelled person. When I was the President of the World Methodist Council, I travelled to Korea and so on. These places are well developed. I went to Singapore and Hong Kong. The one that I was most surprised about is India. In fact, when I went to India, I loved Nigeria more than India. I went to visit a family there, and I saw some houses with pit latrines; it was a duplex with a pit latrine and about 14 people were living in that house. I also know that people used to park cars in the middle of the road in India. Now, I understand they have better technology. If you go to America, Nigerians are so many there, doing so many good things, and some of them are working in many good places. But this country is run in such a way that we cannot accommodate our children. That is my problem with Nigeria.
Given these concerns, do you think things will ever get better in this country?
Nigeria is God’s country. God always wants His country to be great. We are the ones that don’t want this country to be great. The other day, people said there was no more corruption in Nigeria. Today, Al Jazeera was showing us how corrupt Nigeria is on the news. When I read Shakespeare in secondary school, I read that you cannot discover yourself; it’s somebody else that discovers you. So, when the Federal Government gives itself pass marks in everything, it becomes another thing. Unless we decide to say the truth, it will not be well. The Fulani herdsmen are disturbing (other citizens). The fact is that there are a lot of northerners living in this part of the country and nobody is disturbing them, but this group of people (Fulani) are disturbing everybody. Instead of facing the fact and saying, ‘We condemn this,’ you are saying every northerner should return home. For me, if the northerners want to return, let them go and send back our people in the North. Then the country will be divided into areas; maybe when we do that, everybody will live in peace.
What do you think the government should do to resolve the crisis?
The Federal Government came up with a policy that they should have places like they do in overseas. I see some states building areas where cattle and so on will be kept. When I went to Korea, I visited their farm areas and I saw everything like schools, telephones and hospitals there. That is what we should do for our farmers; for those who have cows, build an area for them to keep their cows. Not many areas, maybe three to four areas. All who want to keep cows should go there; build schools for them and let them leave the towns completely. Then they should have a market. When you want to buy cows, you go there. Why can’t we do that here? If you travel overseas, you don’t see cows on the streets, but these people also eat cows.
There are people who believe that religious leaders and elder statesmen are not speaking up on the worsening state of the situation in Nigeria, except for a few people like Bishop Matthew Kukah and some leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Why the silence?
I am retired. I am 85 years old. What do they want me to do? How old is Kukah? He is my friend; he is still a young man. They should speak. I spoke during my time. Why can’t people speak? Do you want an old man to continue to speak? When you want to speak as a leader, make sure they don’t give you money because that is the first thing they will do; they will try you with money, cars and houses, and when you take them, you can’t speak again. We gave them a platform, so go and ask them why they can’t speak.
When we were young, (Anthony Cardinal) Okojie and I got into trouble once in a while. I have lived in this country during the colonial days; I was involved in independence. The country started to do well but we have very dangerous politicians who have taken us many years back. A lot of them are corrupt. When we look at the government, most of those corrupt politicians are in the ruling party; we embrace them and offer them the best areas, so how can corruption stop?
The Governor of Kano state, Abdullahi Ganduje, has suggested that herdsmen should be banned from grazing their cows in the South. What is your take on this?
What are herdsmen doing with cattle at Itam (Akwa Ibom)? We allowed cows to become human beings. If we did not allow cows to be treated as human beings, we wouldn’t have had this problem. In Nigeria, something will start slowly and people will clap for it until it becomes a problem and they start shouting. Why do we allow cows to become like men in the town? If you go into town, even Abuja that was just built recently, cows are still everywhere. We are the architects of our problems. We have not created jobs for our children; we build schools but we don’t plan what students will do when they graduate. There is no plan. And if the government does not take what happened a few months ago, the #EndSARS protests, as a warning, they are deceiving themselves; because that was a warning. The young people were angry and decided to react in anger. Rather than learn a lesson from there, you are threatening to punish them. The day the second one starts, we would have nothing called Nigeria.
Nigeria once lived in harmony, despite religious differences, unlike the situation now. At what point did that harmony disappear and what do you think was responsible?
As far as I am concerned, harmony is still there. We have a group of people that are fomenting trouble, so what the government should do is to go and deal with that problem. I started what we called the Nigeria Inter-religious Council. It’s not working anymore. During Obasanjo’s time, he would send security personnel, to us; who knew when there was going to be a problem. Problems do not always start in a day; there is preparation. So, the security people would see a potential issue and tell Obasanjo, who would tell me and the Sultan of Sokoto. I would call the Christian leaders in the area. The Sultan of Sokoto would likewise call on Muslims in the area and they would engage in dialogue and make sure it did not happen. Many of the Muslims in the North are my friends to date; the present Sultan of Sokoto is my friend. He calls me and I also call him, even though he is a Muslim and I am a Christian. When I was in Lagos, I used to go and sleep in Muslim homes. Our problem is these herders. Unfortunately, leaders of the country have not seen this as a problem or dealt with it that way; they are now seeing it as a problem of the South against the North. That is a problem because our people are living in the North. Why would we cause trouble for our people in the North? These groups of people who live everywhere are causing trouble; we should deal with it and stop playing games.
How would you rate the present regime since 2015, especially given the alleged preferential treatment of herdsmen and nepotism?
You know there is always the argument that he (Muhammadu Buhari) is not the one ruling. They have not solved that problem. The first problem was whether he had the certificate or not. That one came and went; we don’t know the beginning or the end of it. So, these are the areas that you have to find out. Does he have the certificate or the capability to rule? That one we don’t know. If he does not have the certificate, how will he have the capability of being an administrator, because administration involves a lot of things? Then they say he is not the one ruling. Have we solved that problem? I hear it and Nigerians always hear it. I know that when Buhari was Head of State, it was the late Gen Tunde Idiagbon that was ruling the country. We, Christians, never successfully had a meeting with him (Buhari). We would book a meeting, and he would send Major General Magodo to come and meet with us. One day, I asked Magodo, ‘What is going on? Is the man afraid of us?’
When I sat with the late Gen Sani Abacha, I knew Abacha had the brain. It was his rascality and the evil around him that caused his problems. But does this man have the brain to run this country? You know his wife said other people are running the country. I am not the one who said it o! The wife said it. And it happened that, all of a sudden, the wife ran to London and when they were talking of marrying another wife, she ran back. These are the stories I hear. I don’t know whether they are true or not. When I sit with Obasanjo, I know he has the brain. Ibrahim Babangida has the brain, but his own was how he used it. I was also very close to Abdulsalami Abubakar. He too has the brain, then he has a wife who is a judge. So, when we have such people as leaders, you will understand what they should do. But here, we have a leader whom his wife does not understand.
What is your take on restructuring?
I hear that most northerners believe that when you talk about restructuring, you mean dividing the country into many parts. That is what I hear and it is a problem with the government and education. Restructuring does not mean dismembering the country into parts. It is just handing to the states the things that they need to do and the Federal Government will have few things to do. The Federal Government can be broke and the states will be buoyant; the states will then help the Federal Government. If there is anything that annoys me in Nigeria, it is when I see state governors go (to the Federal Capital Territory) and stand (in line) for federal allocation. When the Commissioner for Finance goes, it is the state governor that he is representing. So, the Federal Government will hand over to him any amount of money it wants and they will return and clap for the Federal Government. It’s only in this country that that kind of thing is happening. We should be so ashamed to see the state governors going to stand in line before one young girl or boy to collect money. In this country, the governor is the chief security officer, but the security belongs to the Inspector General of Police. The governor cannot order the IG to do anything; he has to take permission. How can you run a country like that? If we want Nigeria to grow, we must sit down and decide the way Nigeria should be run. They rushed to copy the presidential system; they did not know (what lies ahead). If the problem that occurred in America had taken place in Nigeria, we would have collapsed. But America has not collapsed. Rather, the new president is waxing stronger.
What should be the role of churches in returning Nigeria to peace?
All we do is to ask God to help the people think well. We cannot think for the people; we can only ask God to help the rulers think. Whether people like it or not, Akwa Ibom State is one of the luckiest states in Nigeria and I know many may not realise this; this is because the state has a God-fearing leader who listens. Whenever you advise, he listens and takes it. The other day, I told him if I were a member of his church, I would have recommended him because he quotes the Bible more than I do. I wouldn’t mind whether you are a Christian or a Muslim; if you are so God-fearing, there are so many things you will not do, so that is what we need. But when you pray for those who are cultists, how will God hear you? Some members of the parliament, the Houses of Assembly and elsewhere, are all cult members. I challenge them to come to me and say they are not. If I were God and prayers are offered by such persons, I would kill those who offer the prayers. So, there is this complication in Nigeria, and this is why you find things are not running well. You see occult practices have now come to even our primary schools in Nigeria.
Many Nigerians are worried that if things continue this way, the country may either be heading towards another civil war or it might break up. Do you have such fears?
No, Nigeria will not break up. It will struggle to break up, but it will not break up. Tell me the truth, will the North really want to break up from the South? Those who can say they will want to break up are from the North. If we, the southerners, want to break up, what is our gain? All we should be pushing for is ‘let us restructure,’ so that whatever you have in your area, you manage it to benefit the rest of the people. But a break-up is not the solution to Nigeria’s problems. I don’t encourage a break-up, after all, internationally, Nigeria is respected because of what we are now. The international community knows that our major headache is leadership; it is not that we don’t have those people who are good leaders.
Some people have started agitating as to which region should produce the next president, come 2023. Do you subscribe to Igbo presidency or should it be strictly on merit?
I don’t believe in tribal groups. Let us find somebody who is competent and who will not sell us. The problem with the Igbo is the fear. Few of the Igbo people are good because of people like Peter Obi. In fact, if he emerges as a candidate for president, (people) will vote for him because of how he ran Anambra State; I don’t think any governor is equal to him in that. There are a few of them that I can speak for but I wouldn’t like any group to say, ‘It’s my turn.’ The South-South decided to have (former President Goodluck) Jonathan. Did he represent us well? I hear that they are planning to bring him back. I don’t believe in repeating presidents. The man had enough time to show himself as a good president but he didn’t. If they give him a second chance, will that not be crazy?
Last year, the Federal Government came up with a controversial Companies and Allied Matters Act which has been condemned by many churches. What do you think will happen if such a law is not repealed?
The church should disobey it, full stop. This is not the first time churches have disobeyed the law. There was a time they said we should give (them) our sermons before we preach and we did not give them. When church leaders are bold because of their anointing and spirituality, they don’t have to fear them. But I am not sure that is what is going on now because of naira, dollars and British pounds.