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BISHOP MIKE OKONKWO WARNS: EXPECT EXPLOSION

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Bishop (Dr) Mike Okonkwo is the presiding Bishop of fast-growing evangelical outfit, The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), is not your run off the mill cleric. The ebullient and dynamic speaker, who presides over 150 branches in Nigeria and across the world, is an apostle to this generation, whose life has impacted millions around the world.

Dr Okonkwo in an interview warned Nigerian politicians against taking the citizenry for granted.

He also hinted that Christians in Nigeria might sponsor candidates in the impending election. The TREM leader, who frowned at the concept of plea-bargaining in fighting corruption, advocated jail terms for corrupt public officers. Excerpts

The theme of this years Kingdom life world conference is 'unshakeable kingdom', interestingly that was the same theme for 2009, why are you repeating the theme?

The themes of kingdom life are always prayerfully taken. It is from God for the benefit of both TREMites and all Nigerians. We don't come up with a theme just because it sounds great.

As we were concluding the conference last year, the Lord spoke to me that it is not yet over and that we should still address the issue in 2010; because the issue of the kingdom is the key of the matter when it comes to events happening all around the world.

Despite the shakings there is a place of refuge, which is God's Kingdom. You will be surprised that despite the fact that many churches abound, Christian still can't assess the wealth and the power that belongs to that kingdom and bring it to bear on their world.

Will it be right to assume that the theme is being repeated because all the prayers in 2009 were not answered?

No. I won't say so. Don't forget that when we pray in the will of God, He answers but the manifestations takes some time. The reason why the theme came about in the first instance has not been fully addressed. People must know how to navigate the spirit while they live in the natural world. There is so much distress and uncertainty in the world.

What will you say has been the impact of the Kingdom Life Conference since this is the 21st edition?

It has been very eventful. It has been growing from strength to strength. Each theme has been able to deal with certain issues and each year people find something new in it. It has addressed the issues we targeted it to achieve.

Has it in any way affected the country?
Of course. For instance, the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria is planning its annual national convention next February and the theme is 'Thy will be done', that is talking about kingdom life, and a lot of people love that theme.

Nigeria recently turned 50 but opinion over whether the country has fulfilled its potentials varies. Some believe that the nation is still a toddler at 50, while some insist we have made a lot of mileage. Where do you stand?

I will look at it from two standpoints. The first is do we have any reason to celebrate? I will say yes, we do have reasons to celebrate. Despite our ethnic diversities and difficulties, we are still together even with the full-blown war behind us. So we have a good reason to be grateful to God.

Despite the hiccups and the turbulence, we are still standing as a nation and that is an indication that God has a plan for this country. However, we also need to look at the flip side because despite the huge endowment of this country in terms of the resources, how well are we as a nation? I will say we have not done well. Unless you want to be dishonest that is when you will say that our infrastructure is up to standard.

It is unfortunate that corruption has eaten deep into the fabric of the nation, and unfortunately nothing is being done. It is even more shocking to note that some of the development we see in some parts of the world, some of the key players making things happen there are Nigerians. Why can't we replicate the same here? Look at our roads, they are death traps, our healthcare delivery is nothing to write home about. Look at the violence and kidnapping that we are witnessing.

When you look at those things you will say we are still far from it. But we need to improve the quality of the governance to get it right.

Will you say that the surge in kidnapping and the militancy in the Niger Delta have some correlation with the inability of our leaders to use our resources well?

It has a major part to play. Inability to utilize our resources well is a big factor. I believe that if half of the money going to the states is used for the people we will go beyond where we are. Unfortunately the money goes into private pockets and no one says anything. Yet they want to go for second or even third terms in office.

Until we have a good electoral system and a good judiciary that will call a spade a spade,we might continue having problems.

My solution to the problem of Nigeria's backwardness is get the electoral system right and other things will fall into place. We should come up with a law that will ensure that if any public officer is caught embezzling public fund, the government should take the money back and then send the person to jail. I am sure it will act as deterrent to others who might want to go the same way. The issue is the people who are going to promulgate the law, are they clean? Are they not the ones that the law would catch first? But I believe we must start somewhere.

You seem not to be disposed to plea-bargaining that is being used by our anti-corruption agencies?

We should not do any plea-bargaining with any corrupt officer. We should not do it at this stage of our war against corruption. The place they do that is in places like the USA where corruption is at its minimal level. In Nigeria, corruption is gargantuan and we need to tackle is with iron hand. If you introduce that in Nigeria what you will have is people saying, 'no problem, I will steal as much as possible and later release some of it and enjoy the rest later'. There should be no plea-bargaining in Nigeria. Corruption has caused a lot of havoc in Nigeria and we need to tackle it headlong.

Almost all the states in the country have one union or the other on strike over wage dispute with the government, how do you reconcile this with the huge salary that our leaders earn?

That is good for Nigerians.
How?
We voted them in. Election is coming now and you will soon see the same people who are supposed to go to the National Assembly to discuss the problems of the people; how to improve the healthcare delivery system in the country, the road network, discuss how do we fix our bad education system and find solution to epileptic power supply. That should be their job, but what do you see them do? These things they don't do, all we hear is how to increase their own sitting allowances and salary. It is this same people who will come to the village and distribute cups of rice and then the people would sell their rights.

I will say it is good for Nigerians. We must wake up and begin to demand for the dividends of democracy from those in office. We can't just leave them to do what they wish. I learnt that what our legislators get is far more than what their counterparts in the USA get monthly. Why is that so? Is it because we are richer or because our political office holders do more work? Is it that we don't know what to do with money?

But indications from the tribunals are pointing to the fact that many of these people were actually not voted for by the people.

Agreed. That is why peoples' power comes in. Nigerians are docile when it comes to demanding for their rights. My fear is that this docility might erupt one day. The thing is gathering momentum now and people do what they want and dare the people. But my fear is it cannot continue forever because there could be an explosion. Nigerians are being called to come out to vote, but this was not so before but I can assure you that people will go out to register and vote, but I know that people might resist anyone trying to falsify their votes soon. I know that until we have a true reform in our electoral system, credible people will never be able to emerge as our leaders. We have visionary people in this country that can move the nation forward, but with the electoral system we have, they would never get to power.

It is like the men of God have assumed the 'Siddon look' posture of the late Bola Ige, they don't want to talkā€¦

No, no, no. If you'd said that some two or three years ago I would have accepted but now everyone is talking about the need to get our politics right. It is affecting everybody and people are now agitated.

Have you been encouraging your church members to participate in partisan politics?

We just finished a fasting program in October and while we were rounding up I told my people that they must register, no matter how long it took them to be on the queue. I also said that in one of our services I would ask everybody of voting age to bring their voters card to church and show me.

You will do that?
I will do it because this thing is about all of us. Everybody feels the effect of poor administration of the country. We believe in this country and we believe that this country will change. But we also know that you don't just talk about change, you work for it. We can't be telling the people to change when you are not the change.

Will you encourage your members to participate in partisan politics?

I have being encouraging them, and I will continue to encourage them, but like I said the present electoral structure won't allow them to succeed in elections. My prayer is that God will step in and sanitize it and make the system conducive for good people to get involved.

But I must point out that we need to get the issue of godfatherism out of the way. It is a big problem because it does not allow sincere office holders to perform. The godfather wants all the money that should be for development and then the people suffer.

What would you say accounted for those Christians who get into office and them mess up?

The church is partially responsible. It is not enough to just send them to go for election; it is rough out there. Unless you are given the right counsel and assisted on daily basis with prayers, the temptation is very heavy. It is not everybody that can see the amount of money they are exposed to and not misbehave, except they are well followed up. We sent them there as if we sent them to the high sea and leave them there.

Some of them also forget their roots. They deliberately do that. They get there and then join the Joneses. They say everyone is doing it so why can't I do it too? That is what happens. But we have said that any person who will be sponsored must be put on tape and then we will give them code of behaviour that they must follow when they get into office. We will then back them up with prayer.

Who will be doing the sponsorship, TREM or Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN)?

It is CAN as a body of Christ in Nigeria, and happily the new leader of the CAN is a Pentecostal minister and he understands these things. We will handle it as one block.

Are you then planning to sponsor anyone for the Presidency of Nigeria?

I have not heard anything about that from the CAN President. He will tell me.

Have the Presidential aspirants been coming to CAN for endorsement?

None has come as far as I know.
Is there a role for the church in making Nigerian election violence-free?

I think religion can address it at the grassroot, but it is political reform that will address it at the national level. Let the votes of the people count and you will see that violence on the day of election will become a thing of the past.

Some people already know the result of election long before the day of the election. That is why they become desperate. They want to kill because they know they are going there to steal. Why should anyone thinking of service kill because he wants to serve?

The Presidential race seems to be turning into a North-South affair, how do we reconcile the sometimes provocative pronouncements coming from some leaders?

That shows you the type of leaders they are. If they truly want to lead the country, they cannot be saying that if I don't get it the nation should go on fire.

I ask myself what type of people are these? It shows they have nothing to offer. One of the things that encourage me is that we are praying and God answers prayers. All the evil machination of the enemy won't come to pass over this nation.

I think we should look critically at the issue of centralization. There is too much power at the centre; let's move some powers to the states and all this agitation to occupy at the centre will stop.

What do you say about the vexed issue of zoning that is causing tension in the nation?

It is causing tension in the nation because everyone wants to belong to the PDP because they think that once they are endorsed by the PDP, they are already in office; but it is not true. If we have a good electoral system, you will see that a non-starter will defeat the candidate of the PDP.

Talking about the issue of zoning, for me it is not acceptable. I don't care who rules as long as the people get the dividend of democracy. I am interested in who will take care of the welfare of the people. I don't care where he comes from as long as he will rule in the interest of the people of this country.

How do we attract Nigerians who are doing exploits abroad to come home and assist in national development?

We need to deal with the issue of corruption. I was in Canada in July this year and the Nigerian ambassador to Canada hosted me, and while I was with him, he gave me a brochure of Nigerians doing exploits in Canada. In it, I saw an Igbo guy who manufactures light rail. He came home to try to do it in Nigeria. He was not asking for money from the government, he wants to use his money to assist in the transportation sector. But he was frustrated by the red tape of bureaucracy. He spent close to $500,000 running around but he didn't make any headway and had to go back.

On getting to Canada, the Iraqi government that was reconstructing their country called him and gave him a multi-billion dollar contract to come and build the light rail in that war-torn country. That is an example of what scares Nigerians away.

Your ministry is involved in giving scholarship to indigent students, some people wonder if that is not overstepping the bounds of the church into governance?

We are involved in giving scholarships because we believe that human beings are the greatest resources that any institution or nation has. Any institution that will move forward must have good human resources.

How do you react to allegation that the church today preaches more of prosperity than salvation?

I don't agree. I think the reason why people feel that way is because they have seen the church when it was at its lowest ebb and they are surprised with the gradual turn around that the church is witnessing. But honestly, in spite of what the church has been able to achieve so far I don't think the church has done anything because when you talk of those who are wealthy, they are not in the church.

We therefore need to tell the people those things that will position them for biblical prosperity. Biblical prosperity is to assist your environment and so the church should go beyond just telling members how to put some money into their pockets. Christians need to engage in social responsibility. The government can't provide all the social amenities alone. What does it matter if a church decides to tar a road in a neighborhood? The church can build a school for a community in need of it. The church should be involved in some social issues.

Sectarian violence in the mould of Boko Haram attacks is spreading in the Northern part of the country. Some people believe it is politically motivated while others says it is an attempt to islamize Nigeria, what do you think?

It is not all about islamizing Nigeria; they are also fighting Muslims too. The Boko Haram people are against anything that is western, and that is unfortunate. They want to take us back to the Stone Age. The government needs to be decisive about this issue because if they don't and it snowballs, it will bring a lot of problem for the country.

I will also say that any politician found to be behind the Boko Haram attack must be punished.

Are you surprised that since July, state universities in the South East have been on strike over salary dispute, and in Lagos public hospitals are one strike also over wage agitation, is everything about to collapse?

When this situation continues everyone will sit up.

Do you have any warning for our leaders?
It is dangerous because where we are now, we are gradually moving towards the precipice, and our leaders need to be careful. Someone who is down fears no fall. People are tired of bad governance that is impoverishing them. We should not allow issues to become difficult before we decide to tackle them, but that is what we do here. Why do we allow things to get worse before we attend to it?

In view of this, will you say there is hope for the country?

What gives me hope is not what I see, but the prophecy that has come out concerning Nigeria. If I go by what is on ground I will say no but we are people of faith and the prophecies that have been said concerning the country is great. There is hope for this country.