Archbishop Nicholas Okoh: My Life As A Businessman, Soldier And Priest
Interview conducted by Folu Olamiti, Femi Adelegan and Korede Akintunde
In the next few days, the Archbishop of Abuja Province and Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) His Grace, Most Revd Nicholas Dikeriehi Orogodo Okoh, will disengage from office of the primate after completing the statutory ten years as Primate of the Church of Nigeria & Metropolitan Archbishop of Abuja. Most Revd Okoh is a man of many parts, a huge repertoire of experiences. A man of excellent comprehension, he gives every role God or man assigns him, whether in the military or at the pulpit, his best shot; his eyes perpetually fixed on excellence.
Most Revd Okoh joined the Nigerian Army at just 16, an age when most of his peers are still tied to the apron strings of their parents, and fought in the ill-fated civil war in 1970. After the war, he moved from the infantry to the Chaplaincy of the Nigerian Army where he served in various capacities, rising to the position of Lieutenant Colonel, on which he retired after 21 years of meritorious service to his Fatherland.
After his exit from the military, he continued the work of God with an uncommon commitment and was elected Primate on September 15, 2009, and installed on March 25, 2010. The Primate, by virtue of his position, manages the second-largest province of the Anglican Church globally, after the Church of England. He leads about 20 million Anglicans, in addition to playing a hyper-active leadership role in the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) that is moving to ensure that sanity prevails and Biblical instructions form the basis for worshipping God in the Anglican Communion.
In this interview, Most Revd Okoh speaks about his experience in the military, the church and the contemporary issues warring against it, personal regrets, and his future after bowing out as Primate.
Please, sit back and enjoy the interview, served hot, fresh and smoking:
Starting from your early life, circumstances surrounding your birth and all that, are there some unusual occurrences that indicated that you will perpetually serve in God’s vineyard?
That is the strange thing. Mine is a big irony of life. My family was a stranger to church life. My father was not a church man, though he loved the civilization brought by the church. So, he allowed all his children to go school. He wasn’t a Christian. My mother was not a Christian too until much later after my father died. So, it was the influence of the school and teachers that drew us close to God and studying the Bible. That helped us to grow, going through baptism, confirmation and so on, until I had a personal encounter with God.
How did the encounter happen?
It happened during the civil war when life was nasty and risky. I left home as a boy of 16 years plus to join the Nigerian Army. I was exposed to danger and terrible risk. After the training we had, I was drafted to the war front. At the frontline, there is no helper but God. That’s the truth. When I got to the frontline, I found there was no helper there other than God. With all the activities of war that weregoing on day and night, as a young man, I would sometimes break down and weep bitterly. But all those bitter experiences drew me closer to God.
Incidentally, I wasn’t using the Anglican prayer book then. We were drafted to an abandoned Roman Catholic Church in Fegge, Onitsha, as young soldiers. It was there I found a prayer book which I treasured throughout the period of hostility. I used the prayer bookthroughout the period of the war. Praying with the prayer book drew me close to God gradually. We were later taken to Makurdi in Benue State; that was in 1970. The rest of that year was very rough because soldiers started living rough life, smoking and drinking. But early in 1971, we were to be drafted into another operation in Guinea, as part of Nigerian troops to the country. I broke down in the process. I wept.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t prayed for a long time before then. One night after our evening gathering which is called “Stand to”, I prayed to God not allow me go to another battle. I didn’t want to die outside Nigeria. That led me to activate my prayer attitude again. The threat of another coming battle made me to go back to God; not after the freedom and the life we enjoyed in Makurdi. When this was going on, I met a friend named Vincent that lived together with me. He was tearing a Bible and when I questioned why, he said they were told in their church to do away with Bible as reading it will confuse them. They were told to listen only to their Reverend Fathers in church. I collected the bible and started reading it. It became another treasure of mine. By the end of that week, the operation in Guinea was cancelled,which was an answered prayer to me. I continued reading my bible again and finished it within three months. The exercise led me to deep conviction of light and darkness. Everyone has the choice in life to either follow the light or the darkness-if one refuses to be influenced by the light.
It appears that brokenness, which is an essential part of Christianity came as a result of your sojourn in the Nigerian Army. But one wonders what could have led a 16-year-old boy to join the Nigerian Army?
I disagreed with my father on the issue of my desire to be a big businessman, an ambition he was not ready to support through a loan I requested for. Looking at it now, I must say it was the hand of destiny that moved me to do so. My request to join the army might be seen as childhood rascality. I was already in business, which my father started for me after training with my uncle. At that point, I was progressing in my business but I had spent a huge amount on my father due to ill health. So, I was a expecting to get extra money from him to add to my business. He told me to wait till Christmas time but I felt he had and didn’t want to give me. I decided to threaten him with joining the Nigerian Army if he fails to give me the money I asked for. Joining the Army then was perceived as sending someone to go and die. I knew my father loved me so much and wouldn’t want that.
Surprisingly, I didn’t get the reaction I expected. My father, being more knowledgeable than myself, reminded me that children are not accepted in the Army even though there was war. I felt bad and mobilized my friends to join me to the army in order to make my threat look real to my dad. I didn’t have the intention of joining; I thought we would be rejected on getting there. But my height qualified me to be recruited. We left very early that day so that people won’t notice us. I had told my younger brother who is now late that incase I did not return by evening of that day, he should tell my parents that I have joined the Army.
Could it be inferred that joining the Army truncated your life ambition?
As it turned out to be, my ambition was becoming a big business man. I went out in protest and when I didn’t come back, my younger brother informed my parents I had gone to join the Army. My father was broken and sent his younger brother to come and bring me back saying he would get a loan to give me. My uncle came three times and was refused by the Army. They even threatened to conscript him, so they left me to my fate.
With your idolatrous background, how did you arrive at serving as a man of God in the army?
After my training we were taken to the war front. It was long after the civil war that I joined the chaplaincy. That was about 1972 or 1973. The Nigerian Army was then undergoing reforms due to the fact that many soldiers became rough following their experiences in the war. In a bid to reform the army and the soldiers, they believed that the church and active chaplaincy had a role to play in turning the soldiers to better persons. Because of that, they wanted to expand the chaplaincy which was just skeletal in size then. So, they advertised for young people who were deep in faith to join. Some of us, who were still young and wanted to join, were a bit skeptical that it might not turn out well. But the Army assured that we will be allowed to practice through faith and so we joined.
When did your training for priesthood start?
We went through series of training; we did GCE exam for O ’Level. We were gathered at Makurdi and Port Harcourt for church trainings. After that, we were sent to Lagos for examinations. Thereafter, some of us were selected to go to Akure for Catechists’ training, after which they arranged to give four of us extra one year training to qualify us to be ordained. After the extra training, Primate Timothy Olufisoye said we were too young to be clergymen and secondly, Archbishop Vining College where we were trained had no authority to train people to be priests. He said we should go to Emmanuel College, Ibadan, collect forms for exam, to train for three years course. We passed the exam and the Military sponsored us for the course. By mid-1979, we were ordained and sent back to the military where I became the garrison chaplain in Jos. After sometime, I gained admission into the University of Ibadan. The Army also sponsored me.
How was priesthood like in the Military, given the regimented style of administration?
I was very good. We also had men of faith like General TY Danjumawho did everything to encourage the chaplaincy. Churches were built in the barracks. There were Anglican clergymen and clergymen from other denominations.
Your Grace, military and priesthood are two extremes; but as a priest, could you have spoken truth to power given the command structure, and how do you relate speaking truth to power in the military and speaking truth to the power outside the military this end time?
Looking at the military from outside, you will not know so much how they do things. The military has a lot of flexibilities. General TY Danjuma was always in the church every Sunday. There is hardly any barrack that doesn’t have a flourishing military congregation; but not congregation of soldiers alone. They allow civilians who want to join them as well the soldiers’ families. They have two systems; they follow church system and keep strictly to army discipline. One cannot use the church to disobey military rules. The military itself is under two regulations; the civil and the military laws.
In the military, you mingled with soldiers who may be inclined to organize coups. How did you counsel such people?
It is in one’s best interest not to know such things. Throughout my stay in the military, till now, no chaplain has been found to have had knowledge of any coup plot. The point is, if you get to know and fail to report, you will go in for it.
How did you become Primate of the Church of Nigeria?
I will say that it is just God’s grace. When I was elected bishop of Asaba, I thought I wouldn’t need to move up and down anymore. But when I was asked to come to this office, I consulted my family and they gave their consent before we moved. I wasn’t too sure I would be able to go through. I didn’t credit myself with that level of leadership ability but as we went on, the grace of God started manifesting, with cooperation of people, support, sometimes abuse, I also learnt from my mistakes. That’s why I got to this place.
To strengthen the faith of others, are there some other unusual occurrences in your journey through life that you wish to share?
I can say that being called to the highest office of our church, even if I die doing it, it is worth it. This; to me is the hand of God, and it has strengthened me in all that we do pertaining to this office. That is the unusual thing to me. It is difficult but God is present and where he is present, there is miracle.
How do you compare the military to church life, and what was your rank before you left the military?
I never even left the church at any time because right from when I became a Catechist, I was handed over to the church. Army administration is a profound one; they didn’t interfere with the ministry.
How did people in power, the Army, and the ordinary people react to your ministrations?
In the Army it is easy. The important thing is that you have been trained and you are civilized. You are conscious of the rank system in the Army so, you don’t abuse anybody. Even in the civil church we don’t do that. But truth has only one colour, so, if what you are saying is the truth, people will get to know. So far God’s grace helps to put the truth where it will sink. When we were junior ranks in the army, sometimes after preaching on Sunday, the senior officers will suggest that we should be recommended for higher ranks. So, it is not about getting angry; they also believe that truth is from God. What army will not like is to occasion a crisis; that is, speaking against the Roman Catholics, Muslims, Protestants or anything that will bring disaffection in the Barracks.
On the outside, it is important to be sure of what you are saying. Truth is sacred. If truth is said and you get angry while it is being said but when you consider it, you will discover that the person has done you a world of good. Most times, people in authority do not pick offence with men of God; it is most people around them who try to create enmity. No man of God will want to abuse people in authority; even the bible has guidelines for relating with people in authority. So, when you speak to them, you must do so with respect and honour and dignity that the office entitles them to, without compromising the truth. If the truth is undermined, the preacher will bear the guilt.
At what point did you leave the army?
Around 1972 or 1973, I left the infantry to the chaplaincy. While in the Chaplaincy of the Army, I was promoted as at when due. I also got promotions from the church. At a time the Episcopal synod elected me the Bishop of Asaba and I informed the Army. The Army asked me to apply for voluntary retirement. By that time, I was a Lieutenant Colonel. I was expecting another promotion around 2001 but it didn’t come even though they promised it would come.
Now to your Primacy, when you came in, you met some of the programs of your predecessor but you had your own mind-set. How did you cope or forge ahead with your programmes?
My predecessor, Most Revd Peter Akinola is someone I admire his leadership. The policies he was pursuing were not selfish, and so I felt I should commit myself to them; such as GAFCON, and also in the diocese of Abuja. He made selfless efforts to prepare for the future. So, I felt his legacies of building on the church foundation were worth it. I built on his legacy, but in some other areas, I felt I should do things differently due to new demands and passage of time.
What do you consider your achievements in the past ten years, as people have fiercely moved against unbiblical conducts, sins are rampart among the congregation despite the increase in number of churches?
There is a yarning gap between what we profess and what we do. In a sense, we have heard the gospel but have internalized or appropriated the principles of the gospel. The gospel teaches us to live for others, but on the contrary, we are basically selfish. The poverty in the economy is also contributing to it. Maybe we will come to a stage where we match what we say with what we believe. In other words,we must build up our integrity. If integrity is lacking in our lives, then, our faith and religious practices are questionable. We are still in a process, so teaching must continue to guide our living.
What are the challenges you encountered?
I met challenges and there will always be challenges. One of them is money. When my predecessor was leaving, he made quite a lot of investments. The idea is that we will be running on the profits. It was about stocks then. Soon enough, the stocks collapsed and we didn’t have enough money for running the church. We started thinking and creating ways to move on. Side by side with the dioceses we created, we had problems of raising funds. But God gave us inspiration. We introduced St. Matthias fund in the sense that each diocese will contribute money as much as they can, and the money gathered will be shared amongst those in need. The practice has been on for the past ten years and it has helped stabilize the situation. Another problem is the tribal challenge. It started from my predecessor’s time but is more pronounced now. The tribal challenge extended to ethnicity. When you want to elect bishop, they will ask for someone from that ethnic extraction. This is how it is in all parts of the nation. This means that the church has advanced more in segregation, which is not helpful to the church. The issue of oneness which Jesus prayed for is completely broken down because we are not practicing it.
Your Grace what is the cause of this and what do you suggest to be done about it?
The cause is that we are not properly christened. Superficially, we fill the church, sing and dance, but have not internalized the principles of the gospel and the basic teachings of Christ that all are one in Christ.
Can we attribute political influence to this?
I think if the church can solve its problem, the political space will take shape. The church has not given good example. Most political problems started from the church. The church has become more political than the people outside. The ethnicity is consuming us.
You came in with mind-set of institutionalizing and promoting evangelism to break down some challenges of the church. Do you think evangelism has done any good to the situations?
I think in a way we have increased in number and fervency but I doubt if we have moved an inch forward in accepting other people. For instance, Benin diocese had four years stalemate because they refused to accept non indigene. We lift our hands and praise God but our hearts are far from His teachings. Jesus Christ has no tribe.
One of your legacies is the ACNNTV. How far do you think it will go after your tenure?
I have never had any anxiety about ACNN, the reason is that the world ahead is a world of technology. The time of manual gadgets is passing away. No one can move ahead without technology.
Looking at conflicts that are everywhere, regarding Boko Haram and co, do you think the end of the world is here?
One way to look at conflict is that society is moved by it, including war. From the history of Europe, they fought lots of wars. Some of the gadgets they use today were developed during the war. This thing moves society forward in one way or the other. After the war, those things become available for civil life. I don’t know if we have reached the magnitude of war that can herald the second coming of Jesus Christ. What we teach in the church is to be busy with the Lord’s business. Do not be carried away because the Lord said he will come when no one expects. Which means it might not likely be on Sunday or Wednesday services, but a time when people are at ease and careless. The conflicts might be introduction to end time but I’m not in the position to say whether it is end time, for I know in part and I prophesy in part.
How has insurgency affected the church in Nigeria? Lots of Christians are alleging they are being persecuted right now.
Insurgency is a very big setback to Nigeria as a country, to religious activities and to the church itself. The country spends money meant for progressive things, on negative things. For the religious aspect, Christianity, Islam and African traditional religions all talk about religion as element of peace. If religion is now the cause of disruption of peace, it is a big minus. It is a big disaster for the church. Religious competition is about to drown the country.
You mentioned challenges in the church. We noticed that for the past 10 years, there has not been a new diocese, but we know there must be pressure. How have you coped with this pressure?
If you know why you should not put your hand inside fire, no amount of pressure will make you put. We resisted creation of new diocesesfor this long, for the interest of our church. My predecessor, in good conscience, created dioceses for evangelism. But people he created it for did not understand it. Instead of evangelism, the people started quarrelling with themselves. Instead of neighbouring dioceses to work together, they started creating boundaries, enmity and making the bible irrelevant. We decided not to increase this type of animosity in our communities because we want to create dioceses. We decided to hold on and allow these new dioceses to grow and mature. Secondly, we created these dioceses and the large number of leadership cadre became exhausted. We don’t have many people that can lead. Some of the young people are not leading well like the elderly ones did before them. So, we are trying to balance maturity with availability.
What are the implications of creating new dioceses?
Every village cannot be a diocese. The more diocese you create, the weaker the dioceses are. And so the weaker the church of Nigeria becomes. Whenever church of Nigeria has a programme, we look for dioceses that have strength, for resources. If one decides to split every diocese into pieces, they will become beggar dioceses. This will be headache for whoever is Primate. So, for the progress of Church of Nigeria, it is better to have big dioceses and promote working relationships across ethnic groups.
What will you be doing after leaving office?
My prayer is for God to keep me alive. There are so many things I by- passed in the course of paying attention to the leadership of the church. I may have to pick up one or two of such things and pay attention to them. Secondly, I inaugurated a foundation. I will like to run it through service. I will be relevant to the society through this aspect. I will study more to be able to join the church in training manpower for tomorrow.
For the past ten years, looking at the four areas of development that you have worked on; two spiritual areas (DIVCCON & Way of the Cross) and two physical areas (ACNN TV & CoNHeadquarters). These have made people see you as a leader who inspires. What brought about these ideas?
The secretariat is like an assignment given to me. Before my predecessor left office, we had a meeting in Sokoto where Church Of Nigeria agreed to move its office from Marina, Lagos to Abuja, to go with the movement of the seat of power. It was approved but there was no space. Where we are now is for Abuja diocese and it is small. My predecessor started by drawing out plans but he didn’t have time to start the work. So, it was part of the things handed over to me to accomplish. Thank God it is done.
You talked about ACNN; when I was in Asaba, I noticed that it was only the Pentecostals that occupied the television space. So, I decided to start my own television programme. When I came here, I thought of negotiating with NTA or the independent stations. In that crisis of mind, I thought of starting our own television, and discovered it was possible. God added blessing and it is now possible. Again, you mentioned DIVCCON; it is the subject of my Master’s degree dissertation in 1984. The topic is Divine Commonwealth. Since then, I haven’t been in a position to bring it into practice. After my inauguration here in Abuja, I started praying on how to go about it, and thank God it came to pass. The Way of the Cross is something I saw in Israel and decided to find a way to bring it to Church of Nigeria so that we will follow Jesus during the Lenten season. Thank God people accepted it.
Some of these spiritual programmes have made some people feel that this is not the Anglican of old. What can you say about that?
Those are people who don’t know much about the Anglican Church. The prayer book compiled by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer is one of the most profound spiritual books in the world. There is no language it has not been translated to. The spiritual depth of the book is next to Bible. So, what we are doing is just to scratch the surface. The Anglican Church has always produced profound men of spirituality.
What influence has Mummy Okoh exerted on your life and ministry?
What people don’t know is that a man like me depends on so many people to function. Before I talk about my wife, take a look at a typical Sunday morning; imagine how many people who prepare me for worship. People, like my children help with my robes, my driver is as constant as the stars. People prepare my food. The people behind my preaching are many. I am most grateful to all of them. Then, for my wife; she has no choice because we agreed to accept the primacy bond together to move to Abuja and I have found her as a strong supporter. When I was to leave the Army, I consulted her. We were in charge of Army churches in Lagos then and that year was my promotion year. She said that where ever I go, she will follow me. I have found my wife and all of them to be very loyal and very dedicated.
Which of your achievements will you regard as the most prominent?
One thing that though I might not call it achievement but will rather say I have survived, is the struggle with the Revisionists, the people who are in the theological fast lane. My predecessor started the fight and we thought he will push the fight further but he opted to retire. When I was brought in, I tried to do all I can, reasoning, attending meetings, seminars, reading books etc. to see if I can accept homosexuality as a life style, whether I will accept same sex marriage as a way of life for the church. We have also asked the bishops to study and see if that is the way God ordained life to be, and what becomes of the society. We came to the conclusion that it is not so. We have tried to resist the western world beckoning on us to come on board. We in the leadership have been vilified, they said we are illiterates, we don’t know what we are doing etc. now standing from the point where I am and looking back to the past ten years, I said God you have not let me down. I will hand over this church to my successor an orthodox Anglican Church. So, I will rather say that the ability to defend the Anglican orthodox faith is perhaps the most important thing we have done.
Is there any hope that these people will be brought back to reasoning?
They have gone very far. They have gone past lesbianism and homosexuals, they are now in transgender and they are still going further.
Can you say that your successor will be able to carry on this legacy?
I can vouch for him because he has never shown inclination to yielding to such a thing. But he requires prayers and support.
There are some dioceses that had issue of same sex problem among the priests. How was this handled?
We cannot deny having such elements in our church but what we are saying is that it is not the way of the Lord and that it is not going to be in our church. It will not be the standard in our church, it is the way of the devil. It happened in the diocese of Aguata, we investigated the clergymen. Those who were involved, some of them ran away to the U.S., some decamped and pleaded for forgiveness and the archbishop had to retire.
Looking back, do you have any regrets?
Yes. I regret that as I’m about to leave, we have not achieved unanimity in payment of salary, because up till now, provinces and dioceses all pay their own clergy and workers. I would have loved a situation where salaries are paid from one central location. In other words, at the end of the month, the body in charge of finance or treasury will pay those who are entitled for salary and then those who are entitled for pension. It is a major thing that will have to look even during the tenure of my predecessor. But he had lots of problems to pass through and one of those problems is disciplined preferment, that is, such a discipline that will control everybody. If the preferment is done recklessly, it will be difficult to have a central salary system. Another one is disciplined ordination, if you ordain a large number of people in one year, you will upset the balance. And bishops will sign an undertaken that they will be of good behaviour in keeping to discipline.
If the Western world remains unrepentant, does it mean the Anglican Church worldwide will be divided into two?
I really don’t know. In the first place, the Anglican Church worldwide has never been the same, as there are different groups; and they all answer Anglican Church. It doesn’t mean they are all answerable to Canterbury. The important thing is: If the main body continues to promote that wayward lifestyle, people will be entitled to decide where they want to go.
Are you also of the opinion that Canterbury shouldn’t be the only head of the church worldwide?
For me, the point is not where headship resides. At a time, the idea was muted that Canterbury should remain the historical head but we should also have chairmen who will preside over the Anglican Communion apart from the Archbishop of Canterbury, in rotation of about four or five years. But for me, that is not the point. If we follow the bible and teach what it says, we are already one. Canterbury can be the leader if history allows but the point is, “lead us not into temptation”.
What is your word for the church you are leaving behind?
My word for the church is; hold on, fasten your seat belt, be vigilant, because false teachers are around, false doctrines are around. So,fasten your seat belt. Don’t get carried away by modern Christianity. Modern Christianity is in a hurry, and their emphasis is on self, financial breakthrough, you fast and pray for financial breakthrough, for promotion, for money, for anything that is just for you. But that is not the emphasis of old time religion. The old time Christianity talks about sacrifice, service to the people, service to God and suffering for righteousness etc. These are the core issues that mould a person into a noble one