For over four decades, he held the nation spell-bound with his activism and catechism. Ordained first as a priest on December 11, 1966, consecrated as a titular Bishop in August 1971, Archbishop in 1973 and a Cardinal in October 2003, Anthony Olubunmi Okogie became the voice for the voiceless and for years took advantage of his leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) as well as Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria to speak against the ills in government and even dared the military regimes of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha that many leaders dreaded to cross their path then.
Without mincing words, his activities and episcopal status attracted to him the high and mighty in the society. His home and office were like a pilgrimage site besieged by all shades of Nigerians; from the lowly church members, family relations to business tycoons and heads of governments across all tiers.
At 79 and retired since May 2012, Okogie appears to be facing the other side of fame; loneliness. Indeed, he confirmed this in this with Saturday Sun. But beyond this, the cleric remains as fiery and critical as ever. To him, events of the last four months in Nigeria have shown that there is no difference between the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan and incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari. He spoke with VERA WISDOM-BASSEY.
At 55, what are those things you think the government should put in place for us to be a good and prosperous nation?
Any time I look at Nigeria, I feel like weeping, you are asking me of celebrating at 80, am satisfied the way God has kept me, the way am going, people don’t believe am still strong. In the nation, we have to be careful just like crossing the road. You look left, right and look again before you move, otherwise you will be crushed. That has been my principle, what is money after all, what do you gain from it, women what do you get from it. Women, what do they get from the men? When you look at someone and you fall in love with the person and the next moment you said you don’t like her again. She is not a cloth, it’s not a cloth that you can say this is old. No, she is a human being like you, why can’t you use your head before going into it. A man walked into my office one day and was talking that his wife is old, and I said you too you’re old. The way the woman is today is not the way you met her many years ago, so why won’t you want her. So, when you look at Nigeria at 55 and those who are long enough in this world, as Nigeria is, you will feel sorry for the country. So also there was a time Ghanaians were even laughing at us, when things were going well, they were all in Nigeria even the days of Nkrumah, so it’s selfishness and the root cause of that is money, and greed, because when you have money and others who have it and they are wasting it, you who have it, they want to kill you, and destroy you. These are examples. Our heavenly father is there and standing with arms akimbo watching us as Nigerians, saying look at my children the way they are killing themselves. Everyone wants to make it, the good Lord that brought me out of my mother’s womb as small as I was then, the same person will take care of me. So, as parents, we are to bring up our children the right way to go and show them the way, but they won’t. So, many things are now standing on the way, favouritism, people lobbying to become the friend of this and that. For instance, look at the ministerial nominees.
I was coming to that, how do you see the ministerial list, especially after the long wait?
When I was listening to the broadcast of the incumbent president during his swearing–in, I beat my chest, can this man say, those things were written by him? I ask myself is this the Buhari I knew 2011, that wrote this? Even though it was written for him, can he not sit down and read and re-read again, and ask himself, if he can follow all those things written down. Looking at the statement he made ‘I belong to everybody but nobody’. Look at the list of ministers, he belongs to nobody, I laughed. It means he belonged to APC.
And with the list, they are now trying to pay back those who were their bag carriers, that is what am seeing, that is not Nigeria which we fought for, it’s painful. So, what is coming ahead if care is not taken and this crop of people if they don’t work hand in hand, we are going to have a bad future, because the youths now, they are just waiting, they are now saying that the elderly ones in this country, can’t be trusted, they are looking for their time and when that time comes, they will not carry arms, they will do it in such a way that you will not even know that they are the one.
The people who have served in different capacities should have given room for the younger ones to go in and serve. OBJ used to say I sit down dey look (laugh), I don’t know what he has to say to all this, but I know he has a part in it. I said it loud and clear, how come this one say I brought my list, am hearing this from the common people. I know when they come down they say all sort of things, how many list do you want, how many different people brought their list? And yet you said, you belong to nobody, how can you not be confused, when you said you’re waiting for an angel, to come and rule the nation, I laughed. Out of the abundant of the heart, the mouth speaketh. If I were in his shoes, (Buhari) I tell you, this is his last time. He tried it thrice and now that the good Lord brought him back, can’t he use this opportunity to do something better?
One thing am seeing again from what is going on, there is acrimony, during the campaign they were just attacking one another, that happened then. People who said they have gone to secondary school, not to talk of university are behaving this way, is it how to keep the nation together? Where is the patriotism in that list? How can you tell me that these people are going to work?
How do you see their integrity?
I am not God, but from their previous performances, am afraid. When you see the states the way they operated then, not to talk of now they are putting on a bigger scale that they are going to do well, it doesn’t follow, Nigeria is a big nation. Looking at this from the spiritual angle, there are a lot of killings on-going, and it’s becoming more than what we could chew.
As a minister of God and elder statesman, what is your advice to the president regarding insurgency. Has he done his best so far?
No, no, it’s not the best, I know that he’s going to win, because I already see the signs, he will win, anyway that was one of the reasons why, those that elected him, did so. The leaders and the party members did so, I don’t know, because the killings are getting too much and not only that foreigners and foreign nations were coming but sooner or later, it will come to an end. What the Boko Haram people are doing is that they are diminishing fast, but what they are doing is sending the small number they have to go to sensitive places to throw their bomb to show they are still alive but very soon, by the grace of God they will be combated.
That means you give kudos to Buhari’s administration for at least achieving something?
That is one of the things I think, so far so good, as I can see.
And you’re optimistic about the December deadline?
I don’t look at deadline, he’s not God, I knew that sooner or later, with the way they are going about it, they will win. There have to be causalities here and there, but signs of victory are there, more than before.
Looking at the tussle going on in the National Assembly, what would you say regarding the credibility of the present leadership, what is your take?
They are unpatriotic, that is the major thing, they are more or less partying (that is party members) they don’t look at this nation at all, they seem not to know that without Nigeria, they will not have a party. That is the trouble. Am of this one, this one brought me into the party and I must serve this person. Putting blame on others, it is uncalled for. Election has come and gone, it is now time for them to seat down as a body and look at Nigeria and then work, but they are not doing it. Other things will come in, we should try and be reading the back page of The Guardian and hear the youth talking. What are the older ones looking for there in the government seat in the first place?
When OBJ was looking for third term, sorry I have to mention him, what did he forget that he’s going there to take, and after that, they (old leaders) are coming back, what are they looking for? This beats my imagination, he himself (Buhari) has been there thrice and failed, and now that God has brought him back, APC has brought him back and look at what is happening. They have tried PDP and now decided to try APC and know what they can do.
Are you disappointed?
Yes, am disappointed in both parties, not just APC alone. When you look at what is going on, what is happening is just the tip of the iceberg. They have not started work at all. Look at the way they selected their members, there are some people who put on APC cloth, they are wolf in sheep clothings, they are PDP down, down their mind and they came out as APC. That is why they are now having the Saraki and there are so many of them still there, are we having an Assembly and senators as gang of robbers or gang of rascals. Is it what we are having now? If someone is to do that to their family, would they be happy, not to talk of a big nation like Nigeria. Buhari is going to have a tough time with this set of people, am telling you, am not a prophet. The game of Saraki, I put it in the middle. If these people begin to work, we will see and hear wonders. I hope they won’t drag us down to the earth. Look at our football team, the only thing that brings us together, look at the good old days, you hear Nigerian football as one of the best in the world, but today what has become of it?
Would you want to recommend ways we can achieve some synergy, so that this administration will not fail between the executive and the legislative arms of government?
The only synergy we can have, is for both to agree to work together. If they don’t work together, the unity is at stake. They should not see themselves as a PDP man or APC man, that is what they are doing now, unless they agree to work together, if they work as a party person there will be problem. Honesty, they say is the best policy, we need honest men that can rule this country and take us to the promise land. Am not condemning all of them, No. Now the talk of petroleum, the president is talking of handling the sector himself, there is nothing bad there, afterall OBJ tried it, soldier to soldier, it’s in their blood.
Is that not the reason he can’t trust anybody to manage it, seeing what happened to the former petroleum minister?
What I will say to that is this, it is very, very bitter to see somebody we have been reading about carrying such amount of money being laundered, that is enough to kill one. For me, I don’t just sit down at home, I also relate with the people in my environment when I want to cut my hair, I go to the barbers shop, because I want to see how people live and make their money, and feel what they go through and what they talk about the nation, so I don’t just sit down at home all the time. From the public you get the truth about the state of the nation. I learnt so much from my father, I could have been turned away from the war front, but God refused it. The way things are going is not good for us as a nation. It’s not right the way things are going, and they are parading themselves as minister, with some saying, this is my third term in office, even those who have been there before this régime. And some making comments of what they will have in their ministry and what they will not have in their ministry. Are they God or head of State? That is what is happening now. People are already challenging him of wanting to be the minister of petroleum, eventhough the constitution is there to be followed.
What are those things in our system, that make those in power to be corrupt. Is there anything about the system that promotes corruption?
Sorry madam to cut you short, the scripture is there, love of money, when one is in power and you are in charge of money, frivolity is number one, you want to favour people, always try to show off, of what they have or wear, and anything you have, you want to throw it away, and if you don’t get it, you’re not happy. Tribalism is another. And the money you haven’t gotten, you begin to spend. Another is party system, we are in the same party, they have not helped our party people, dishonesty, the devil is very, very bad, and powerful, he knows our weak points, that is why we have to guide ourselves, this flesh we have is where most of our problems lies, we have the spirit and we have the body. We have the good spirit and the bad. As St Paul told us, the good spirit will talk in low tone, and the bad one will be high. For how long, that is why I said am afraid of this present group of ministers, they performed well in their various states. Okay, this is the reason some of them are being appointed, because this one has been with me, he has worked with me, listens to me and now we must bring him to come and work with you. This is the one I know, whether he can do it or not, and if the person disappoints you, you said I never knew he is like this. He has to hide himself, so as to get to the position he is requesting for. Some of them nominated are saying, don’t worry we are waiting for them, until we get there, that has been the comment I have been hearing and some of them say yes, this opportunity, we have been waiting for, and we must make it. These are people who will rule Nigeria and are saying they want to help Buhari, they just sit down somewhere and are talking of how they will make it when they get to power.
Is it not because this government makes money available for governance?
That is one thing I said, cutting down on others is not healthy, rather look at other nations they are the richest. Look at what other nations are getting; compare it to what we have in Nigeria. Look at some of our graduates who want to work instead no job, they rather go into robbery, and on this, they try to escape, this are cases of people who want to make it by all means.
When Okonjo Iweala was also critized, she was satisfied with what she was doing in the World Bank before OBJ went to bring her down to Nigeria. And as they said there is corruption in the country and if not handled well, it will destroy the nation. To buttress your question, did they not rob it on her, that she is corrupt? And as the good Lord will have it she is now elevated to another position. Let them go and bring her, she will never come back again. She has learnt her lesson. So, this is it.
Sir, how is life after retirement?
Look at it now, I won’t say am enjoying every moment of it, because people keep coming in and asking me questions, wanting my attention here and there. Apart from that, I have more time to look back into my life which is more important to me. Every evening before I go to bed, I just ask myself question, ‘Tony, how have you faired today?’ How did you spend the day, these are the things, this is how life is. You must always try to look back. I will come like a thief in the night that is what God says. One billionaire, who died recently, where are all his money, what did he do to his own nation, Nigeria?
How was it like when you were in public office and now in retirement?
When I was in the office, I was in the public eye, and at times it makes me feel a little bit proud, now not then, because everywhere you go to, Oh Okogie, Okogie. I remember one day, my mother called me and said “the work that God has given you to do, do it well, don’t follow those who will lead you astray, leave them oh”, and I said see what am wearing, she shouted “no, that is not what we are looking at.” Some people have written several books on me, they make the money they wanted to make. As I said earlier on, you can’t be too careful in this world. But now I have time to look into my life. Not every second, but before I go to bed every day, I make sure I check where I have gone wrong.
So, will you say you have been left alone, then there were so much people around you, but now is it that the friends are all gone?
You know my dear sister, that is the world when you are in your prime or you are doing very well. You have many friends, it is there in the scriptures, even in the Korean. Success has many friends, but when you are out, only the sincere few will be coming to you. Only sincere friends. It’s always good to have them and talk to them, some people want to come to mimic you, yes. Ah, you are not there at such a place, if it was those days, you will be at the high table, so what is different from now. So, you can’t spite me like that. Humility is the foundation for a good choice. I remember when I was in office I never carried myself high. So, you see, how I wish all these people we are talking about, will seat back, especially, those of them who have tasted prominence before, can sit back and thank God for giving them another opportunity to serve. And plead with God not to allow them to make a mess of their lives this time, because this time will be something else, because there will be many people talking, a good name is better than riches, your work will speak for you, that is what Jesus says. He’s there taking his time, there are so many good people, youth, women which he can chose to work with him.
List of ministerial nominees have been flying around. Some even come with their CVs to me to help them beg Buhari to nominate them, but I tell them am sorry, I can’t vouch for anybody, if the opportunity comes, and if it doesn’t come, so be it.
If you’re to meet Mr. President, what is one thing you think will make his tenure successful and impactful on the Nigerian masses?
You want me to say that now to the public, no, no.
On a general note now, what recommendation do you want to give to those in power, both legislative and executive arms of government?
What I want to tell them, is this; together we stand, divided we fall. If they can’t work together, am afraid. Forget all unnecessary acrimonies, am in PDP, APC, and you keep yourself far from each other. Let them look at Nigeria as Nigeria that is why they are there. Let them be ready to sacrifice, service needs sacrifice, that is, service needs sacrifice but nobody wants to sacrifice. Ask a small boy to assist you do something in the street, he will demand for something.
It has become a norm?
Because they see the elderly ones do same thing. That is why am talking about the youth. I fear them; our leaders should put their God before them. God first. Even if they don’t believe in God, they should believe in the nation. When OBJ was still there, and I told him when I was president of CAN, that I think we have to change the pledge, he said change it for what, for another thing, because we are not true to it. He shouted, is that all? He said if I don’t learn it that am finished. So, I started parading around reciting the national anthem. Look at America and Nigeria, that’s the way we are going now. We want to follow those nations that have lost their God. And one thing am very happy with is the way they received the Pope (America). I couldn’t believe my eyes, and when he left they were all running their mouth. Obama running his mouth, and asking the people to use their conscience, who dashed him conscience, when Pope was talking while didn’t he reply. So, you see God first. Whether you’re a Muslim, Christian, put him first.
What do you want them to hope for, especially now, Nigeria is 55, what next?
People usually say, new broom sweeps well, but this new broom I don’t know how they are going to sweep, because am not God. Only those of them who have the love of this nation at heart will make it. Don’t forget as I told you, each of us are in the block of the nation, if one block is gone and you don’t strength it immediately that becomes a problem. That is, if you see a minister that is corrupt, and the paper is talking about it and you don’t take action on time, it’s going to affect the rest. What Iam today is God, but if you don’t follow that voice of conscience, you won’t get there. Because the world is watching. So, we must return to the basics, if Buhari wants to be a democrat, let him be a democrat. He has tested so many parties before coming to APC and now that he has made it through APC, they shouldn’t start fighting within APC, we are human beings.
Is the ministerial list, pay back to the party, or those that have assisted Buhari into power?
That is exactly what he has done, which is wrong, because there are better heads in this Nigeria, what of Nigerians in other nations that are doing well. What is wrong with them is just to appeal to them and let them come home.
The people you cared so much for, have they just left you, do they still come around?
No, they come when they feel like. On public holiday, they still come.
In other words, you are left alone?
Am used to it, I went to the monastery last week, I was there for three days, more. So, this is the kind of life I want, probably, I will end in the monastery, I don’t know why I’m saying it publicly now, because there is quite peace there. At times the devil will come with his own ways. So, I love the monastery, it is not just any place you go, the place is quiet. I don’t know how that place will be in five years’ time because they are now building estate everywhere. When Gowon went there, the whole place was a bush.
How would you describe Nigeria’s journey as an independent and democratic nation so far?
When I was growing up, Nigeria was then fighting for independence, Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and others, these were the people I would like to look at and just say to myself, Nigeria is a great nation. The way things were, so much so that, people were hardly afraid of Nigeria, because of the way things were going on. You talk of football, it was good then so much that if you want to order things from abroad, you just send a letter to them and they will send the commodity down to you. You will sell it and send the money back, that trust was there for a nation, like ours. Then came independence, people like Tafawa Balewa, all were happy, jubilating, then came in Chief Awolowo, Enahoro and many others. Then things came into our hands. Normally, we make our mistakes quite all right, but we are still a very fair nation.
Things were very pleasant, then gradually deteriorating, and then soldiers came up, after the independence. We had Ojukwu, they tried to keep the nation together, but they said no, then there was a war. Then Gowon came on board, a very young man, he did well to put the nation together and those things he did, really impressed us, there was no winner, no vanquished. We seem not to understand ourselves, if Ojukwu had not taken the step he took, I think we should have been better than we are today. I was drafted into the army as a Chaplain, not as a priest. I was under Benjamin (may his soul rest in peace) that was Adekunle, my duty was to move with the administrators as a soldier and I really tried my best then, so we tried our best with Gowon to keep Nigeria together, and there was a slogan that was created: “To keep Nigeria together”. It was coined by Martins, he was there before us, in fact, he took me there, he drafted me there, and was responsible for my going into the army, I was a young priest back then because I was ordained in 1966 towards the tail end of 1966, then towards the end of the following year, I was in the war front, I even went with Colonel Ali, though he’s dead, he was the chief of staff then.
Where exactly did we get it wrong?
Well, the scripture says, the love of money. Not money itself but the love of money is the root of all evil. I remember when I came home myself and Archbishop Joseph, he came back as National D.C.C, I asked him, Father Petrus, as the national DCC throughout the nation, that is more than a Reverend and a deacon, then I asked him, can I be a priest, he looked at me and laughed and replied by calling me by name, Tony, any fool can be a priest, and just as any fool can marry, so where do I stand? He further said Tony, you should have asked me the question, can I be a good priest? What is happening, so many people rush into this, they think because I can smoke and so they rush into it, no that is not a good life. To be a good priest, he said, you have to be careful of three things in life, money, women and drink, he said they will come to you in that order. So, where we got it wrong was the money. If you look at a family that is not doing well, the root of it all is in money. When there is an issue involving husband or wife, when you look at it critically, it is in money. So, those three things you just have to take care and handle them. I notice that in Nigeria, people stocking money away, what is it for, when they don’t know when they will leave this world, and you are punishing people, you don’t even care, so that is where we got it wrong.