By Christy Anyanwu
Presiding Bishop of the Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), Dr Mike OKonkwo, is one Nigerian cleric who calls a spade a spade. He is a detribalised Nigerian that sees discrimination as unethical just as he believes that all men are equal before God.
Born on September 6, 1945 in Enugu, but hails from Ogbunike in Anambra State, his mantra over the years has been: ‘There is power in the word’.
In this interview at the Cathedral of His Glory, TREM headquarters, Lagos with a select group of journalists, Bishop Okonkwo passionately talked about some of the issues in the country, his growing up and life as a preacher.
You are turning 76 years old tomorrow, is this the Nigeria of your dream when you are growing up?
Nigeria of my dream (laughs).When I was growing up in my days, when you are leaving the university, a job is already waiting for you, a car is already waiting for you. There’s a system from your office where you will be paying gradually for your car. We lived a good life. Things are not as expensive as it is today. You live in a good house, people are satisfied. But the war changed everything. Not that there was no corruption, but people were afraid, it’s not now that corruption is institutionalised.
My father was a senior civil servant, he gave employment to a lot of people and sometimes, people will come to our house and brought turkey, drinks for my father, maybe he is not at home and as a child seeing such gifts, you collect them and rejoicing seeing the gifts. And your father comes back, he will tell you to go and return them from where you got them. That’s the kind of mentality in those days that we were caught up with. You don’t take money from people because you assisted them. After all, you are doing your job.
Those are the things we were looking forward to, suddenly the war came and changed everything. The military men now came and institutionalised corruption and every year, it is escalating, and it has risen to the extend that if you are not corrupt, you are seen as an idiot. You have to be corrupt to be called a human being in Nigeria. In fact, if you are not corrupt, they will take your hand and put it inside. That is the truth. The system is such that even if you say you don’t want to be corrupt, they will take your hand and put it inside.
There’s a new Christian body, Pentecostal Ministers Forum (PMF), formed recently by Bishop Jerry Chika Antony who says the faction came up because Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) and Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) have compromised. As one of the founding fathers of PFN and former president as well as vice president of CAN, why are there divisions in Christendom?
Honestly, I don’t know there’s a faction. I don’t know of this Pentecostal Ministers Forum (PMF) and what makes him feel we have sold out. I wouldn’t say we have gotten to our zenith as an organisation, but it is wrong to say we have sold out. How?
At times, some of these guys want position; they don’t understand what leadership is all about. Some of these guys just come out and form something, they think the purpose of having such organisation is to go to Government House and collect money, that is what they think and I say to them, I don’t understand it. I have been president of PFN and also vice president of CAN, that I spend my own money travelling around this country, spend my own money for everything, I have not collected a dime from anywhere, so I don’t know how you would go to the government and you are looking for money. That’s why you cannot speak up. He who pays the piper dictates the tune. So, most of these guys are just there to create confusion in the body (of Christ). Let’s even assume PFN sold out, did you reach out to say why are you doing this and they went and formed another organisation. I don’t know him.
2003 elections and COVID-19, what advice do you have for politicians as regards campaign and crowd in this COVID era?
Again, this is the dishonesty we have in the country. Government will come out with a law, social distance, wash your hands, use sanitizers, the crowd should not be more than 50, but when it comes to politics, they don’t consider all those things. That shows you the interest they have in the people.
That shows you dishonesty because if you are sincere and honest, you should consider there is COVID and that it is real, don’t ever believe all these theories that people are propagating whether it exists or not. For me, it is insensitive for anyone to say there is nothing like COVID because what you are saying, in effect, is that thousands that died all over the world that you are desensitised to that. Politicians should consider that fact and make sure they make provisions for the masses. For instance, I was watching the premier league that they just opened up in Europe, if you noticed, the stadium are packed, I began to investigate why are the stadium packed because those people are supposed to be more enlightened than developed countries, I found out that everyone one of them who entered the stadium must produce evidence that you have gotten your vaccine.
So, that’s how it should be, we should not be doing things just anyhow. When you behave like a fool you pay for it. For me, I will advise the nation generally to be careful with their lives. A dead person doesn’t need to tell the story, you are dead you are dead. So, we must be very careful and government should also pass some regulations concerning that.
The NDA was attacked recently, how did you feel when you heard the news?
Bad. That if they can march into the NDA with the security, I say this is scary. I said to myself this is getting scary. That means they can actually walk into any person’s house and pick you up and go and nothing will happen, they will be telling stories, we will investigate, we will catch all of them. What does that mean? The person they already caught is a dead meat. For me, I just say to myself, we are in the hands of God the way it is now in the country, God just have to help us. It’s a prayer topic for me every day that God you need to protect us in this country because it is out of hand. There’s one trending now in Jos, I don’t know whether you saw it, Catholics carrying dead bodies to the state house and dropped them at the gate. We are not talking about chickens, these are human beings. It appears to me that human lives do not mean anything as far as people are concerned. Such things happen, you shut down the state assembly, you shut down the National Assembly, but because people are only interested in themselves, saying it has not come close to me. They should shut down until we get an answer. You shut down everything and say look we cannot proceed with the day’s proceedings, people in our country are losing their lives. So, let us do something. I believe the answer would come. But because those things are not discussed, they still go to the house to discuss other things, on how they will have their salaries and allowances increased and then to them they have worked. There’s no sincerity. Have you seen the people in the state assembly, National Assembly, have you seen them reduce their salaries in spite of the COVID? In Nigeria, most corporate organisations had to cut down the salaries of the staff. Enough of being fooled. The time has come to ask the politicians what are you going to do for our town, our city, what are you going to do, so that if they are not doing them, look for what the constitution says and recall them back. Now, that elections are very close, they will start buying salt and rice to come and share. So, our life is just worth rice and salt!
TREM as a ministry is 40 years. Could you share with us your low and high moments as a minister of God?
Every life has its high and low. If you are talking in terms of the low, is it in terms of betrayal, is it in terms of backstabbing, is it in terms of things you have started and you are expecting to take off and suddenly they collapsed before your eyes, is it in terms of people you raised and expect them to be able to take the nation higher and they got there and messed up. Is it in terms of progress and ideas that God has given to you and you are looking for people to run with you because the Bible says where there is no vision, the people perish and I also add, where there is no vision, the people die. So, most of these things are frustrating. They frustrate you, they cripple you. You know that this is what God wants you to do and you are looking for who will run with it and you have trust and confidence in people and they disappoint you. These are low moments; more especially when you have spent time in prayers to be able to receive these ideas and visions and you are looking for people to assist you, I know those moments are frustrating. These are opportunities to say, I don’t want to do it again. I’m tired, but I have always said failure is not failure because you fail, but because when you fail you refuse to get up. As long as you try again, somehow God will help you to bounce back. I have bounced back several times for which I give glory to God.
Back then, I always stayed in prayers and fasting because there was nothing to eat. I endured and taught my associates to endure hardness and to enjoy God’s intervention later. For example, there was an occasion when myself and about 14 members who lived with me had nothing to eat. So, we prayed and I told them to put water in a pot and place it on fire (stove). Then, we continued praying, refilling the pot with water, we never allow the water to dry up. As we kept praying, suddenly there was a knock on the door. A member, who was returning home from a long journey, was divinely instructed to divert to Akoka and to off load a large supply of foodstuff for us. That was God’s intervention.
Growing up, did you envisage you’ll be a preacher?
No. I never thought I will be a preacher. Though I have the fear of God, but not born again despite that we were born in a Christian family, my parents were Christians. They were members of the Anglican Communion. And my parents will make sure we attended church. I live most of my life here in Lagos. My father came on transfer from Enugu, by then I was about five years old when we came to Lagos and I was living at No 16, Brickfield, Apapa Road. That was where we were living. My father will ensure we go to church, myself and my siblings. I was a member of the choir, the Igbo section of St Jude’s Church in Ebutte-Meta. But I really didn’t have the born again experience, I wanted to pursue a course in shipping, but later I changed. I actually attended Mayflower School, Ikenne for my secondary education before I crossed to Mayflower, I was in Offa. One of my relatives sent me to Offa Grammar School. That was in standard four. Standard five, I moved into MayFlower, Ikenne. That was in 1959. I was in Mayflower 59/60 by 61, I was more or less losing touch with the Igbo language and the culture. Like I said, I have been living in the West and I told my father I wanted a change of school, that was how I went to school in the East, Merchants of Life, Oba. I was in Merchants from 1961/62, graduated in 1963. As soon as I graduated, we came back to Lagos. By then, work was not difficult. Immediately I came back from school in December 1963, by January/February 1964, I started working with Ports Authority. They used to have Lagos Quays and Apapa Quays. I left Port Authority because I saw people taking bribe and I said no, I can’t work in this kind of place. Tally clerks will take bribe from people who are importing their goods. I told my father, I don’t like the place. By April 1964, I went to ACB. We opened the Magistrate branch of ACB in those days. Then the war started and we went back to the East, easterners were going back to the East. I worked in ACB, market branch, Onitsha. When the war started and Onitsha was threatened, we moved to Awka. And when Awka was threatened also, we moved to Owerri. It was from Owerri they wanted to conscript me into the army then I ran away.
Becoming born again
Religion was not in my mind at all at this time, but I later gave my life to Christ in a church service at Oyadiran Estate in Sabo. I went back to Enugu and I joined a church and since then, I have never looked back. Even though I was still working in Ogbete branch of ACB in Enugu. Then nothing mattered except the work of God and I was not going to be paid, I knew there was no money. I just laughed now that everyone is now accusing preachers. In those days, no one pays you a penny, you just go and work. No money, nothing. When it comes to the things of God, God tells you what he wants to do with you, but he doesn’t tell you the entire story. That is why the Bible says ‘the just shall live by faith’. You keep on following and he will be unveiling every step of the way because if he tells you everything, at times, you will run away. The journey has its ups and downs just like in every profession. There are times you will be wondering is this thing going to work or is it going to be true? When God told me He is going to take me all over the world to preach, I didn’t take it seriously. I said to myself, how can I even stand before people and talk for one hour, you know what it is, preach for one hour? I can’t even talk for 10 minutes, so what will I be saying for one hour? But step by step, now I can talk for hours. That’s the way it is.
Your church is known for good music and you love dancing. Do you go to parties in those days, tell us a bit about life before going into ministry?
Of course, I was going to parties. I told you I was living in Lagos; I knew there was a club called Kaakadu in Sabo. I attended Kaakadu with my younger brother, he is late now. We did what young people do. We smoked, not to just smoke cigarette, I even smoked pipe. We drank quite a lot. But the beautiful thing is that the moment I gave my life to Christ, it’s like everything turned. I quit all of them. My friends said it would not last, but they lied. It has lasted. It was a genuine change. It was not fake. Something was genuinely working inside me.
Having founded your ministry 40 years ago and now, you are 76 years, are there things you wish you could have achieved or attained in life and ministry?
One of the things you must understand concerning the ministry of God is that God gives every ministry its own assignment to cover. The challenge people have, unfortunately, is trying to make comparison and determines who is making progress in ministry or who is not making progress and what that results to, is making people to jump into what God did not send them and they undergo stress and difficulties. I would say that I don’t have any reason not to be grateful to God where we are in 40 years. The foundation had been laid. No one runs a vision alone. No one accomplished a vision alone. Elijah had an Elisha and Elisha also anointed another prophet who had to carry out the assignments which God told Elijah to carry out. The important thing is, there are men and women who are on ground who will now take the ministry to another level. I believe God kept me alive just to be able to give spiritual directives and compass to the coming generation so that they can now do it the way God wants them to do it. I have run my own race. For me, I’m gradually taking the back seat as a coach, watching another generation run. The generation that is coming will take it further. People have been saying to me, Bro Mike, why didn’t you start a university? I tell them because God did not tell me. Maybe He would tell those who are coming because if I had gone into those ones I will break my head. God can only fund what he commission you to do. Take, for instance, when God says we are going to build this Cathedral (venue of the interview), to be honest with you, in my mind, I said, I don’t want to build anything. Our branches were built, but God said He was going to build and that He was going to assist me to build. For me, as long as I’m not stressed up because I don’t want to be coming to church every day and be talking about money. To the glory of God, we built this church and I never came one day crying about money. I will say looking back, I am happy. I am satisfied. The people that were raised all over the world, there are some who are still with me, others, who are no longer with me are doing great exploits in different places. When I see that, talk about legacy, it gives me joy. That is legacy.