Dr Mike Okonkwo is the presiding Bishop of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission, TREM, with over 160 branches in Nigeria and across the globe. The top Evangelist who will celebrate his 70th birthday come September 6, in this interview shares his life challenges, his turn around as well as the present anti-corruption crusade in the country. Excerpts.
My Parents and career
My parents were angry with me for choosing the Ministry. They did everything they could to stop me but I was resolute. They could not understand why of all professions, I chose the ministry. I was working in the bank, and very comfortable.
They said I had bright future in the then African Continental Bank, Lagos. And to worsen it all, of all places in the Pentecostal church, they maintained that if I want to answer the call of God, I should go and answer from the Anglican or Catholic. At a stage, they went and arranged for police to arrest me, frame me for something in order to distract me and change my mind. But nothing was going to change my mind. So, in another four years, I refused to have contact with them so that I would not be distracted. But I am glad to say before my father died, he was able to see and appreciate that this is the ministry God has actually called me.
My parents were disciplinarians. My father was a civil servant in the then Post & Telecommunication. My father sent me to Offa in 1957 to leave with a teacher. There, I passed my entrance exams to Mayflower Grammar school, Ikenne. Because of the need to understand my native language, after two years, I changed to Merchant of Life in Oba, a school close to Onitsha where I graduated in 1963.
When I left school, I worked in Port Authority in Lagos for a few months. What I saw there was frightening – how money changed hands. I was not comfortable in that environment and I told my parents, that the place was not for me. So, again, I had to leave. I moved to African Continental Bank. Even as cashier in ACB, I remember one day, as I went for lunch, somebody followed me and asked that I should change some counterfeit money for genuine ones for him, saying he would give me a share from it. I was afraid and I ran away because I felt somebody would be listening. It was during the civil war and we were afraid as non-indigene, so, I asked for a transfer and I was moved to Onitsha.
Thereafter, the civil war intensified, the Nigerian troops conquered Onitsha, we then moved to Awka and from there again, to Port Harcourt. At that point different branches of ACB were moving, eventually, we came to Owerri.
In Owerri, the manager did not like me and it had nothing to do with my job. He felt I should be coming around him like other people but I felt there was no reason for that. When the war intensified, they were now recruiting people into the army by force. Although banking was viewed as part of essential services during the war, as the war intensified, they had to recruit from the banks as well. One of the days they came to recruit, they conscripted some people into the army but they missed me because I went to buy cigarette. The manager was not too happy that I was not part of them.
I did not understand why he would want me to go to the army. He went to the camp and secured the release of those selected and asked that the exercise should be repeated and through a ballot system. Again, we did ballot and I won that I will not to go to the army. He was not still happy. Again, he organised that the military people should come to the office and pick whoever they wanted perhaps with an indication that they should pick me. We were busy at the counter that day and suddenly the manager called me and two others.
We went to his office and we met a military captain and his assistant. The manager said, ‘gentlemen, the headquarters said we should hand you over to the Captain.’ I wanted to run, and the Captain said he would shoot me if dared. Then I said okay, they should at least allow us to hand over our official duties. They agreed, and as soon as we stepped out of the manager’s office, we ran away. I ran for miles and again, I found myself in a military camp where one of my class mates was in charge. I told him what happened. That was how I stopped working in ACB. From there I went to look for my parents where they were being held as refugees.
By then, Dr Iloh was in charge of the Red Cross. I stayed with him for a few months. The war intensified and I was afraid they were going to catch me on the streets to join the army because that was the norm. So, when I found out that I could not escape it, I told my parents that my brother and I have to willingly go and register in the military. So, we did, and the training went for three months and throughout the period, we never fired one shot. After the third month, we got a pass to see our parents and that same day, we were told they were moving us to the force headquarters and to Gabon for further training since Gabon had recognised Biafra.
They distributed riffles and bullets to us, but I told my brother, he should not take the arms and ammunition. He asked why, but I said he should follow me. We went back through the gate we came in and the Sentry was there who sensed we wanted to run but we told him that one of the officers left his cloths half way and he sent us to get the cloths. Surprisingly, he agreed, and as soon as we got out of the gate, we disappeared into the bush. The next day, the war ended while every person, sent to war the day we escaped from the headquarters were all killed.
Those who were alive did whatever they wanted like smoking, womanising and all kinds of things. That was the turning point in my life. And since then, every step I took has been a miracle.
Here were several challenges, and even now there is no end to challenges. The first one as a Minister was when I lost my first child. I got married to my wife in 1980 and we had our first daughter in 1982. We went to a crusade in Abeokuta in December 1984, we came back before the Christmas and on the Christmas eve, She developed high fever and early morning of 26th she died. It was a day I was going to preach.
After praying and she did not come to life again, I left her in the room and still went to preach. I did not mention what happened to anyone. As a minister, that is one of the challenges you face. Another experience was that my immediate younger brother who was the only support I had when I went into a ministry. We were six boys and four girls our parents had. He had passed the high level exams and was to go for Medicine. But my parents did not want him to go as a way of punishing him for supporting my cause as a minister.
They wanted to know if that could make me change my mind. But as God would have it, he still went to the University, passed as a medical doctor, joined the Navy and still joined me in the ministry. He was one of our praise and worship leaders. So, in the late 80s, I was traveling out and I asked him to conduct an interview on my behalf. It was when armed robbery began as an issue then. Some robbers followed him to his car, closed-in on him inside the church compound and asked him to bring the key of the 504 car. I think the military instinct in him made him to resist and started fighting them and he was shot. They took him to one hospital in Akoka, that could not manage the situation, yet did not refer him. I was abroad, I got wind of the situation and I asked that they moved him to better hospital, but unfortunately, it was late, he died.
It was very devastating to me. But I made up my mind, challenges should not make me reject the call of God. I told myself that the best I could do is to be the best in my calling. There are also challenges of not having enough funds to do the calling of God. For me, if everything you need is already there, then you don’t need God. So, if it is God that provides everything you need, you must depend on God for your needs.
I have always said it that God’s hand is upon Nigeria. If not it would have been Nunc dimittis long ago. But God has a prophetic hand upon Nigeria. It is not an accident, irrespective of our different challenges, and contradictions. So, whether the devil likes it or not Nigeria is going to be very great.
On Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade
Everybody knows that corruption has killed us. It is not only endemic, in fact, the level is that if you are not corrupt, you will not be a good Nigerian. That is the level we have degenerated. And it is unfortunate calling Buhari Mr. Go-slow. How do you want him to come and clear the mess of 16 years in two days? I don’t know why we are never truthful with ourselves. If the only thing Buhari can achieve is just to instil fear of corruption, and all the machinery of government and agencies are working to dissuade corruption, then we would have achieved a lot.
Have you noticed that suddenly, electricity is working? EFCC has come alive? Where have they been all these years? The reason they were not working before was that no one would indict or punish them. I admire ex-President Jonathan so much, but he didn’t have the gut to fight corruption. I will also blame the men of God.
I will say the men of God, failed Jonathan. Because Jonathan was operating like somebody under some spell and we (the men of God) had the responsibility of taken him out of the spell, pray with him even for three days and whatever was holding him would have been removed. But we did not do that. Probably, he had the intention of doing the right thing but forces were against him and don’t forget he was not a matured christian. We would have taken him out and probably we would not be in this mess today.
On same sex marriage
The church should not be shocked about this because they are the part of the end time event. Don’t also be surprised if other strange things follow. I wont be surprised if bestiality is introduced. I will only be shocked if the church gets involved in it. If nations endorse it, nations don’t go by the Bible. They play politics. Parents must talk to their children and let them know that that is not the right thing.
On his wife
I don’t think I would have been able to achieve what I have achieved if not for the wonderful wife God has given to me. One of the things that is common to those who are called is that they are not only husbands to their wives, they are husbands and fathers to a lot of people. So, if you have a wife that does not understand this fact or that is possessive, she could destroy your work.
If everyday we are always fighting at home, with the huge responsibility I have in the church, I don’t know how I would have survived. I thank God for having an understanding wife, as people often come to thank her for something I had done. Again, she has covered a lot of my weaknesses, reaching out to people and places that I was not able to reach out to. She is certainly a huge contributor to the work God has called me.
Physical exercise and food
I do a little exercise, I don’t do exercise for Olympics. I eat red meat and little carbohydrate. I also swim even though I don’t have a swimming pool in my house. I do that occasionally when I travel. So, it is not about what I eat or how I exercise but the grace of God. And if there is anything I should ask from God more, it is His Grace.