By Michael Awe
The leaders of the two leading religious bodies in Nigeria are indisputably strategic national leaders. They are very influential considering the size of their followership. Conventionally, one of them often talks less in the public; he is not known to be a newsmaker while the other has to employ the instrumentality of activism and the media to maintain some level of balance in the business of official patronage, especially in the interest of his own constituency.
The Christian faith leadership in Nigeria shares the role of being vocal against overt and covert acts of injustice with the human rights groups. This has become more pronounced since the campaign against Nigeria’s membership of the Organization of Islamic States, OIC, during the General Ibrahim Babangida (Rtd) military era. The Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos Diocese, Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, was a fire-spitting CAN President at that time. Since then, the Christian body has been more involved in speaking for the masses of this nation, along with its primary role of defending the Christian faith. Successive CAN leaders have maintained the culture, though at varying degrees depending on the nature of the man in charge. However, it may take a while for the Christian community in Nigeria to have another leader like Pastor Joseph Ayodele Oritsejafor. To date, Oritsejafor remains the most criticized and vilified national church leader in Nigeria. He received scathing remarks for the very reasons he assumed the mantle of Christian leadership – service!
I will try to unveil Oritsejafor in this write-up beyond the parochial opinions some people hold about him. I have a sense of duty to straighten the records in the interest of future leaders who may be scared of stepping into the realm of leadership at that level. I won’t sing his praises because God is the Rewarder of everyone called to service by Him. I will write as someone who knows some of his activities, intentions, and challenges.
Jesus our Lord said in Luke 12: 48 that to whom much is given, much is required; and adopting this statement as the principle of service in leadership is what earned Oritseajafor the brickbats from a section of the media. Oritsejafor accepted to serve the Body of Christ as chief steward in the nation with so much passion as someone who has been privileged to receive abundant mercy and uncommon grace from his Maker. He determined to add value and continue the good works started by his predecessors in office as Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) presidents.
In the early part of his tenure in office, Oritsejafor did not allow projects or support works to be financed from the CAN purse. I remember when there was a flood disaster somewhere in Sokoto State, all the relief materials and cash donated in the name of CAN were not from the association’s coffers. He buoyed the treasury of the Christian body and initiated some ideas that steadied the body across the country. He dispensed his energy, time, and resources – as expected, though – to move the body to the next level.
He was the sitting President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, before he became CAN President. PFN is reputed for intrepid responses to issues as they affect Nigerians in general and the Body of Christ in particular. So, it was much easier for Oritsejafor to fit into the demanding roles of the CAN President.
He was not discriminatory in his response to sects or denominations that needed his attention. He was present at the Cherubim and Seraphim (Ayo Ni O) annual event in Lagos before Prophet Gabriel Fakeye transited to glory. He was also in attendance at the heroic burial of Apostle T. O. Obadare of C.A.C in Ilesha, Osun State. He was up and doing as an energetic and charismatic leader of CAN.
He was very vocal against the undue advantage of one religion over the other as demonstrated in the official patronage over the years. Oritsejafor was despised in some quarters for being audacious by cutting-to-size the larger-than-life image of the ‘feudal lords’ in national affairs at any given opportunity. Even in the face of threats to his life at the peak of the Boko Haram onslaught, Oritsejafor used the weapon of his tongue to protect and defend his people while holding the federal government, Northern and Muslim leaders responsible for the havoc wreaked by the insurgents because of leadership failure on their part. These were the reasons why those uncomfortable with his unrelenting and fearless disposition silently employed acerbic media attacks against him.
There are two major areas his critics talked about: his closeness to the former President Goodluck Jonathan and his frequent fiery responses to any action, policy or moves against the Church; insensitivity to the plight of the people or acts of injustice against any section of the country. They feel he should have been a gentleman who rarely or scarcely reacts as the leader of the most populous religious organization in Nigeria. But Oritsejafor thinks otherwise! “If I pretend to be insensitive to threatening and damaging actions against my people because I want to be nice and command respect through silence when I should speak up, it’s the height of betrayal of my covenant with God and His people I agreed to serve in leadership position,” he said, quoting legendary Albert Einstein who said “The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything.”
Oritsejafor’s closeness to former President Goodluck Jonathan never affected his sense of duty as the Chief Priest of the nation during Jonathan’s era. He was not enjoying any special attention or privilege above his peer in the other faith. What surprises me the most is that we don’t get to hear anything about such closeness to the seat of power in all the years that the leader of the other faith (both past and present) has been the unseen hands behind many actions in our national affairs. Alas!
Is it a crime to be close to any person in power, especially when it is not for conceited purposes? I think the answer is NO. Most Rev. Peter Akinola was the CAN President who completed the National Ecumenical Centre, Abuja, 18 months into his tenure of office. The project had been comatose for almost 15 years before Akinola was elected in 2004. He leveraged on his friendship and intimacy with former President Olusegun Obasanjo by appointing him (Obasanjo) to chair the fund raising committee to complete the edifice.
It would have been understandable if Oritsejafor’s attackers were only from anywhere else than the Church. Some of his critics in the media are Christians. While there’s nothing wrong in constructively ‘criticizing’ (as against ‘admonishing’ church fathers/leaders as stipulated in the Holy Bible – 1 Timothy 5: 1), many of the vitriolic attacks were due to misconstrued intentions and veiled campaign to either weaken or blackmail Oritsejafor into submission.
When Oritsejafor needed people to speak up for him, there was none. He became a loner in battle. Those who knew the truth about issues involving Oritsejafor opted to be quiet for reasons best known to them. He was frustrated to a point that he said “If there is another route to heaven apart from the church, I will follow it but, hey, there’s none.”
He was commonly criticized for “talking too much” whenever he responded to issues of major concern; Okogie during his own time did same or even more but because it was Oritsejafor, he must be over- criticized.
When his aircraft was impounded in South Africa for conveying $9.3 million undeclared cash at the point of entry, the money, said to be meant to procure arms and ammunition in the black market for our soldiers fighting Boko Haram in the North East, was said by some to belong to Oritsejafor, despite the public confession by the then National Security Adviser, NSA, Col. Sambo Dasuki (Rtd), that the money belonged to the federal government and that the aircraft was hired for the trip. But because the aircraft belonged to Oritsejafor, tongues wagged for a long time about the “ulterior motives” behind the money and the owner of the aircraft.
Rotimi Amaechi, then governor of Rivers State, alleged that the sum of N6 billion had been released to the leadership of CAN to mobilize and campaign for former President Jonathan during the 2015 presidential election. Even when it was obvious that the claim was political propaganda which remained unsubstantiated till date, but because Oritsejafor was at the helm of CAN leadership at the time, the story became an instant “truth.”
While Oritsejafor enjoyed tremendous support from the leaders of the component blocs of CAN for his leadership style, tactfulness, and confidence-building capabilities, some of his people in the Pentecostal Movement were apathetic towards his challenges. It was like such a dis-affectionate disposition had become the stock-in-trade of the Pentecostals. When Pastor Tunde Bakare became the running mate to President Muhammadu Buhari in 2011, opposition to his political career was rooted in his Pentecostal constituency. Vice President Yemi Osibajo also had his own fair share of the intra-brotherhood opposition during the 2015 electioneering campaign. Osibajo wept profusely when he was denied entry into a meeting his friends and leaders in the Pentecostal movement were holding to signal to him that “you are on your own.”
In spite of these daunting challenges, Oritsejafor took it calmly in his strides and forged ahead. He sums it up thus: “There are almost 100 million Christians in Nigeria out of which God, in His infinite mercy, counted me worthy to serve His people at leadership position. Whatever is said or written against me is an indication that I am making an impact. If you don’t want to be insulted or blackmailed, then you are not ready for service. Even for going about doing good; Jesus Christ was blackmailed, abused, and eventually killed. It is all a burden of leadership. Only God, the faithful Judge, will reward my stewardship accordingly.”
Michael Awe is a Lagos-based Media Consultant. [email protected]