Regaled in his characteristic, ecclesiastic robe; soulful and colourful, he mounts the serene but stupendous podium. The congregation dissolves into silence - pin-drop. His visage broadens, brightens and eyeballs look deeply straight into the soul of the audience. They look at him expectantly as they do week in, week out -like sheep belonging to an ever caring shepherd. To the young ones, he's a father and to the older ones a shoulder to lean on. With a delightful, expansive figure, broad shoulder and masculine handsomeness he walks slowly towards the edge of the pulpit... the silence became even chillier.
And, he spoke. For the Presiding Bishop of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM), Bishop Mike Okonkwo, preaching to multitudes is what he has been doing for decades without relenting. Pragmatic, modest and down-to-earth, he has been able to lead the TREM to an enviable height. But as a man of dreams, Bishop Okonkwo has not given up in doing much more for his God. As he clocks 70 in September 6 this year, the suave and soulful bishop shares his life's dramatic and sometimes tragic episodes with Mary Ekah...
You do not look your age. What is the secret of your ever-young looks? You see, a lot of people have confused good looks with health but I do not agree with that. And that if you do exercise, watch what you eat and all that stuff you will remain fit; but for my own case, I attribute it to God's grace. Yes, I do exercise but I do not do it rigorously like I am going for the Olympics because some people really stress themselves just because they want to look fit. I have found out that fitness is not really about your size. So I do a little exercise as I can and what I do most recently now is to play a lot of table tennis. I like to swim but I am not too sure of the swimming pools we have in this country and I don't have a private one so I swim only when I travel outside the country otherwise what I do like three times in a week is to play table tennis. But as for food, I eat everything! They say don't eat red meat but I do eat a lot of that and a lot of carbohydrates. I am not trying to say that it is wrong for you to check on what you take into your system but truly for my own part, I won't say because I have been careful about my diet. That is not true; rather, it is just God's grace upon my life.
What role has your wife played in all of these? She has played wonderful roles I must tell you. I cannot thank God enough for the type of wife He has given to me because I have always asked myself, 'What if God didn't give her to me what will my life be like?' I know a lot people will say this for the saying sake to just cover up but I am being very honest. I don't think I would have been able to achieve the much I have achieved through the years if God did not give me the type of wife that He gave to me because with the kind of assignment we have as ministers of the gospel, two things we must tell ourselves and also understand that it is part of our callings, is that you are not just husband to your wife but you are husband to every person that is a woman in your church. You are also father to every person. Now if you have a wife that does not understand these things, and is possessive, she is going to destroy your work. And for me I do not know how I would have been able to survive if every day we fight at home with the huge responsibility that I have in the church.
There is no way I would have been able to survive it and so I have had an understanding wife whereby people will come and be thanking her for something she didn't know I did. You know that kind of things. Probably, you have assisted someone outside long ago and have even forgotten about it and suddenly someone goes to her and thank her but of course she would know that I have done a lot of such and would not really be bothered. But if it were not somebody who understands, she would come back home and begin to fume and rage and all these things have a way of creating problems. But to be honest, God has been so good and she has covered a lot of my inadequacies. She is somebody that is good at knowing people individually and reaching out to them when I am not able to. So she is a huge contributor to the work that God has called me to do.
Can you share some of your experiences, especially before your callings? Before my calling, I lived all my life with my parents. My father had been in Lagos for a very long time even before we were born. We lived in Apapa and I schooled in Baptist School, Idi-Oro. My parents were disciplinarians and at time we were forced to leave our immediate environment to live with relations somewhere far from home. My father was a senior civil servant then and so we were a bit comfortable. In 1957, he sent me to Offa, Kwara State, to live with a lecturer in Offa Grammar School and there I gained entrance into Mayflower Grammar School, Ikene in Ogun State.
I was in Mayflower for two years but due to the fact that I was being mocked by friends all because I couldn't really speak Igbo very well, I had to go to my parents and tell them that I wanted to change school. And so I changed to another school in Onitsha and that was where I graduated in 1963. But all through, my parents made sure I went to church regularly. We were Anglican and I was a member of the choir at St. Jude's Anglican Church, Ebute Meta. Although I was so religious I never had a real experience of who Jesus was. My parents too were very religious but that personal encounter with Christ was not there. My father was so disciplined and helped a lot of people and he never believed in bribe. He had all the opportunity to have amassed wealth by virtue of the position he occupied in his place of work then but he never misused that opportunity but believed in integrity and I guess I imbibed that spirit from him.
One of the rules he laid at home then was that we should never collect anything from anybody for favour he had done to them. He would warn that people are going to bring foodstuff, drinks and other things, that we must not take them and as a young boy at times when people bring such things, you want to collect them and keep but when my father comes home, he would order me that I should go and look for whoever it was that brought them and return them to him or her. That is how my parents brought us up in such strict religious atmosphere. But my turnaround happened during the war. When the war intensified, there were certain things that happened in my life then. When I left school, I worked in Ports Authority in Lagos just for few months like between January and April and the type of things I saw there were so frightening; how money changed hands and all that.
And as a young boy in 1963, I was not comfortable in that environment. I decided to move away from such place thinking that this kind of environment where people were collecting money that does not belong to them was not for me. Eventually, I moved to African Continental Bank where I worked till the war started and even at the bank, I had another experience. Because when something is strange, you find it difficult to cope and that is why I cannot understand the kind of society that we are in today. I remember one day when I was working as a cashier, and somebody was watching me so closely, I didn't know. And I was going for lunch and the person followed me and he said to me that he had some money which were counterfeits and wanted me to collect those counterfeits and change for real money and that we would share the money.
I told him bluntly that I wouldn't do such a thing and you have seen how I ran that day from where I went to have lunch. Because I was afraid that probably somebody was listening to us and might come to arrest us. So when the war intensified, all the people of Eastern extraction were afraid thinking they were not safe in the Western region. So I asked for a transfer and was transferred to Onitsha. And as the war kept intensifying and the Biafran soldiers conquered Onitsha, we moved to Awka and then to Port Harcourt and eventually we came to Owerri and in Owerri, I realised that the manager there never liked me and I never knew why. All I knew was that it had nothing to do with my inefficiency at work because I was working very well. When the war kept intensifying, the army was now forcibly recruiting people into the army.
So one of those days they came to the bank to recruit people into the army and as the solders came into the office that day and forcefully took away some young men to join the army, I had gone out to buy cigarettes and as I came in I found that they had been conscripted and the manager was not too happy that I was not part of them. And I didn't understand why he wanted me to go to the army and as if that was not enough, he went to the soldiers' camp and released those people and said that we were going to do ballot and whoever it fell on will be taken to join the soldiers. And when the ballot was done, I won as those that would not go to join the soldiers. So another thing he did was to go and organise for the military people to come to the office and pick whoever they wanted.
We were really busy the day they came, and suddenly I was told the manager wanted to see me and when I got to his office, I met him with the second in command of the military and there he announced to me: 'Gentleman, the headquarters says we should hand you over.' And my first reaction was an attempt to run and the man said if I did that, they would shoot me. And I calmed down and asked them that they should at least allow me to go and cash some money, make other arrangement and hand over work to whoever was going to take over from me. They agreed but as soon as I stepped out of the manager's office I ran away. I ran for miles and eventually I found myself in a military camp where one of my classmates was in charge. I told him what happened and that marked the end of working in that bank for me.
From there I went looking for where my parents were staying as refugees and started staying with them but the war kept intensifying. I felt that with the way the war was going, one day these people will catch me on the street while I am wondering around and in those days if you were male, your parents will hide you and at times when they see soldiers coming, they would hide me in the ceiling because those army can castrate any person and people were being killed anyhow. So after the entire hide and seek games, I eventually told my parents that they should allow my younger brother (now late) and I to go and register as officers in the army and we went and registered in the military.
We did training for three months and throughout that three months, we never fired one shot with a gun. They never gave us any gun to use. They were just teaching us the theory of war and after the third month, we returned home to see our parents and as we came back that day, they said they were moving us to the military headquarters and a lot of ideas were coming to our heads that probably they were sending us for further training in another camp. When we got to the military headquarters at night, they were distributing guns and bullets. That was about the time the war ended. As my younger brother wanted to collect the gun, I told him not to and he asked me what we were going to do, I told him I didn't know but that he should just follow me.
He followed me and we went back towards the gate where we came in from, and the security guard there accused us of wanting to run away but I quickly told him that one of the officers left his cloth half a mile away and wanted us to help him get it and he allowed us go out surprisingly! And as soon as we left that gate, we disappeared into the thin air. To cut the long story short, the next morning it was a one Nigeria -the war ended! And everyone from the camp that was sent to war that day got killed. Looking back, I now know that it is God that kept me, directed my path and hid me all the while because of the assignment He has for me because as soon as war ended, everybody celebrated by smoking, drinking and womanising but one day, I came to Lagos with Dr. Iloh and at that time, Scripture Union was very strong and was reigning in the campuses. So at home, when we were about to retire, one of his cousins and another niece who had then received Christ, said they were going to pray and they never invited me for the prayers.
It was like, they were telling me, see, 'you are not part of us because you have not received Christ.' I felt so lonely right there and I said to myself, I was going to turn a new leaf and so when I got to my bedside that night, I told God that if there is anything you will do with this life, I give it to You. I didn't know what I did, but all I know is that as soon as we got back to Enugu, the next Sunday I was in church and I never went back again. My friends then said, it will not last but it has lasted till now. So I started serving God, not knowing what it really meant. Some people say they see lightning and thunder during their callings but I didn't see lightening or thunder, but I knew inside me that this is what God was calling me to do. And I answered the call and for me it has been a journey of joy and victory. God led me step by step and every step has taken me higher and higher in the Lord.
At what point did you meet your wife and how were you able to choose her? Both of us were in the same church. She came from Scripture Union and joined the church before I joined. And the moment I saw her, I loved her and wanted to marry her but I didn't have the courage to talk to her. Ordinarily, I am a shy person; it is only on the pulpit that I am bold. I do not know how to 'toast' women. So when I saw her, I desired to marry her but the only way I could express my love and desire was through quarrels with her. I would always attack her and she would also attack me. She felt I was too arrogant because then I would drive to the church with my father's car but she came from a humble background and had lost her father at a tender age and so things were not too rosy for her then.
So she always felt I was intimidating her with my wealth and that I was also arrogant. So we were like cat and dog. Eventually I found out that she was so attached to my eldest sister and so I had to work through my sister to get her. I told my sister how much I loved her and how I desired to marry her. I was still a young Christian -now people fail to understand the will of God concerning them in marriage because they are not sincere. Even if you have never heard the voice of God before in your life, if you don't even know how God speaks, if there is sincerity in your heart, God will make you know He is the one speaking.
I loved her but I was not going to insist that I would marry her if God did not confirm it. And she was also willing to let go if God did not approve of it. But there were certain things we asked God to do to confirm that we were meant for each and so He did and here we are today. Actually, I eventually spoke with her about my interest and she said there was no problem and I spoke to my parents about her. They said there was no problem. She also spoke to her people and they gave us the go ahead. We also spoke to our spiritual head but I was surprised he almost stopped the marriage from coming to be. Apparently, our spiritual head had eyes on her too. I knew that because at a point he said he was going to kill me. But however, he had to give up at a stage and let go of her. That was even before I answered the call because I was still working in the bank and going to church and so committed with the things of the Lord. But after we had agreed that we were going to be married, I then answered the call.
And then and people bombarded her with so much words of discouragement telling her that she was going to go hungry and who in the world married a preacher and expect to do well in life. And my parents capitalised on that being that they wanted me out of the ministry. But for me, I never gave a damn and I was ready to call the relationship quit if was going to be a barrier to my serving God the way I wanted. And then for another four years that followed, she travelled to the United Kingdom for studies and I was here in the ministry and in the UK a prophet spoke to her that her husband was a preacher and was in Nigeria. So at the end of her school days she came back and we wedded.
As a minister of the Word and an elder statesman what is the way out of the insurgency in the North-East? We should intensify prayers and also government should negotiate if they are willing to negotiate. And then ensure that the military is rid of saboteurs. At least, let the government do what it could do as a government. Above all, we should intensify prayers and trust God to help us to stop it. We should also support the government and not just accuse, judge and fight them.
On the issue of same-sex marriage, what do you think the church, schools and homes should do? The Bible is very clear about it. And why are we shocked that these things are coming up. The believers should not be shocked about this same-sex marriage thing because these are part of end-time events. And don't be surprised when there would be other strange things that come up. I won't be surprised if bestiality is introduced. I will only be shocked if the church gets involved in it. We are the church and we have a doctrine that guides us.
If nation endorses it, nations don't go by the Bible. They play politics. But the church must take a clear stand by not accepting such a thing and parents must keep talking to their children about it for them to know that it is a totally wrong thing to do. The parents and church have a huge responsibility in this otherwise, when your child goes to school and see two women or two men kissing each other, he or she may think that is the normal thing to do. So we must make our children know without any fear that this is what the Bible says about same-sex marriage. Two men cannot produce babies neither can two women. So the church should be very vocal concerning this.
At 70, you must be winding down on your activities; are there succession plans on ground? I am actually praying to God about that. I have told God that I am 70 and this work must continue. And that we need people who would be able to take it to another level. It is obvious that some of the great dreams I have may not be fulfilled in my life time. No one lives to fulfill his or her dreams except such dreams are not great ones like the ones God has shown me and if you think you can do that, you are stupid and not sincere. Elijah didn't fulfill all God told him. So I have started thinking about that and I trust God that since He knows the sincerity of my heart, He will let me know who succeeds me.
Most of your contemporaries in the ministry have private universities; do you have anything against running one? I do not have anything against men of God running private universities but I do not believe everybody must run a private university. At times some of these things border on competition. And when you get involved in what God did not commission you to do, you pay for it yourself and then you begin to do all kind of things to make it work. Where my heart is right now is to train people on vocations because I have realised over time that Nigerians don't know how to do things with their hands. For example, we cannot do good tilling and our bricklaying is not straight. You call a plumber to fix some pipes and he is ready to put the pipes on top of the zinc and go away, saying he has concluded his work. We are too much in a hurry. We should learn to perfect our crafts. So when thinking when it comes to education is on craftsmanship - how we can fine-tune the skills of people so that they can be self-employed and also become employers of labour.
What is your advice to the present administration, especially as it has to do with the anti-corruption war? First of all, I am a minister of the gospel and not a politician and as a minister of the gospel, you are supposed to represent all constituencies. When it comes to the issue of politics, your desire should be how the citizens should benefit and not what your own interest is. So what informs my position whenever any issue is raised, is how we can all be partakers of dividends of democracy. That is the issue because that puts all of on the same pedestal - whether you are party A or B and whether you are a Christian, a Muslim or an atheist. In Nigeria, the President is neither a pastor nor an imam. He is the president of Nigeria. And Nigeria is not a church nor any religious body but a group of different people.
The only thing that would put us on a level ground is the person who can give dividends of democracy - where electricity is working, roads are good and many other facilities are made available. Talk about President Buhari's anti corruption issue - everybody knows that it is no longer a hidden thing that corruption has killed us. And here we have everybody saying, "Mr. Go Slow". Do they want Mr. Go Slow to come and clear the corruption of 16 years in two days? Why are we never real with ourselves? If the only thing Buhari could achieve is to institute the fear of corruption that would be okay. I am not expecting him to do any magic and even if we give him eight years, he cannot clear corruption. Corruption is not peculiar to Nigeria that means that even in Britain and America, there is corruption but the only thing is that they are wise in the way they carry out their own corruption. But here we are not wise and we do it with impunity.
So if President Buhari can only put the fear in people, things will work out. Okay, haven't you noticed that suddenly electricity have started working so effectively and also that EFCC has suddenly become active again? That shows that these institutions are there but the reason they are not working is because they know that no one will implicate then. And let me add also that I admired former President Goodluck Jonathan so much but he didn't have the guts to fight. I will also blame the men of God for his woes. Men of God failed President Jonathan.
You know why we failed him? Because the man was operating as somebody under some spell and if he was under a spell, we as men of God have the responsibility to have taken him out and pray with him for about three days and whatever was holding him would have been broken but we didn't do that. I mean to rule Nigeria is not easy. There are forces that would be controlling you and so possibly he had the intention of doing what is right but because the forces were more against him, he caved in.
What is the highest temptation you passed through? It is true that the three things that any man of God or man of integrity should guard against are power, women and money. Power comes in the sense of being proud when God begin to use you and every man of God must guide against that. And again when you are a renowned man of God, all sort of women will be attracted to you because of the callings of God you have upon you. That has nothing to do with your age, it has nothing to do with whether you are married or not. Of course, I have been tempted in different areas by women. Am I not a human being? I would be surprised if I have not. Women have tempted me both within and outside the country and people will think that because I am tough that is why I have been able to overcome their temptations but I can only tell you that it is the grace of God that has sustained me. It is just God's grace that keeps me. There are some who have fallen not because they wanted to fall, but somehow they did.
That is why I will always be grateful to God because there are people who will come to knock on your hotel room and who have no business being there, wearing all manner of things that will easily make a man fall. If I am there without my wife around me and then I am not wood. There is no point pretending, I am flesh and blood and still hot. But I thank God I have been able to overcome that by God's grace. So anything you are and whatever grace you are carrying, know that it is not because of whom you are but God called you and it is His work and so you must always return the glory to Him. So I live heavily on the grace of God on my life. His grace, unmerited, unearned and undeserved has carried me thus far.