Pioneer Bishop of Akure Diocese of Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, Rev. Emmanuel Bolanle Gbonigi, was in the trenches with pro-democracy activists during the military era. He was popularly referred to as the ‘NADECO Bishop’ because of his activism during the military era. In this interview with BABATOPE OKEOWO, the nonagenarian Bishop emeritus said Nigeria cannot afford two chambers of the National Assembly and that the Senate should be scrapped, even as he regretted that democracy he and others fought for has been corrupted by elected representatives
Kindly share your encounter with law enforcement agencies during the military regime? General Muhammadu Buhari and I are friends. Between 1984 and 1985, when Buhari was the military Head of State, I used to write about what his government was doing.
He accommodated my criticisms but his deputy, that General from Ilorin, Tunde Idiagbon, of blessed memory didn’t like it at all. He wanted me to be thrown into detention. He ordered the then military administrator in Ondo State, Navy Captain Mike Akhigbe to get me locked in detention. I was invited thrice by the then head of the National Security Organisation (NSO) to his office.
The first time I went there, I had prepared myself for detention. I packed along paraphernalia that I would need, but they didn’t know I was aware that they wanted to keep me in their custody.
So, when I got there, they said their superior was sent for by the military administrator. At different intervals, they would tell me that their boss apologised for keeping me waiting. The third time they came, I told them not to bother that I had prepared myself to spend the night there. They were shocked. So, later, they asked me to go.
Was that the only encounter you had with the security agency?
There was another time they invited me to their office. That day, the military Head of State was to visit Ondo State. So, they were keeping everywhere secured. As usual, they asked me different questions and they wanted to detain me. I was shocked when I saw many people outside.
The public, including taxi drivers, were demanding for my release. They insisted that if I was not released, they would not go home despite the efforts of the security officials to disperse them. When they realized that the people would not budge, they released me. The last visit I made to their office was different.
They came to my residence with the official vehicle of their boss and said I would go in the car to their office. But they met the Registrar of our church, who was a lawyer with me. I can’t remember his name now. He is from Ilaramokin. He insisted on going with me.
They said they only came for me but he said since he was present when they came, he would not allow them to take me alone without going with me. Eventually, they agreed that he should be allowed to come with me.
When it was late in the evening, they told the Registrar that they only prepared a place for me to sleep, but he said he would spend the night sitting on the chair. At a point, they surrendered and allowed us to go home.
As one of the people who fought for the enthronement of democracy in Nigeria, can you say democracy is in the right track now in Nigeria?
As one of those who fought for democracy in our country, I love Nigeria, my country very much. It is the one God has given me and I prefer it to any other country. Now to answer your question on how democracy is being practised in Nigeria, I will say what is practised not true democracy. What democracy means is that power and all the things in the country belong to the people.
The people are owners of the power and all the good things God has bestowed on us. In order to use these things well for the welfare of the people, the people have to elect few people to represent them. This is what we call the legislature. For instance, at the national level, we have the House of Representatives.
They are there to represent the people, their constituencies and not to satisfy themselves. They have to listen to the people and do what they want. And they need to work hard, so that people get what they need. We also have the Senate, which is also expected to do the same thing.
They are to represent the people and use all resources God has bestowed on us in such a way that the needs of the common people are met, especially the poor, the needy, and the unemployed.
Part of what the people expect these representatives to do even up to state level; the state house of assembly is to work hard is to use available resources for people’s benefits. But what we are seeing in Nigeria is not so. To that extent, when we ask ourselves are the elected officials both at the federal and state levels really doing what they were elected to do?
The answer is no. Most of the time, they are working to fill their pockets. Even when they are campaigning to be elected, they would say they are going to serve the people but when they get there, they do otherwise. What I rightly described as looking for positions to get possessions. Very many of them openly give out money to voters to buy their conscience. I will say yes,
Nigeria is a failed state because it is not doing what it ought to do. It is not serving the needs of the common people. People have no work to do. When we look at what God has given us in this country, they are not harnessing the resources to provide for the needs of the citizens. Rather, they prefer to serve themselves instead of serving the people. It is a failed state; people don’t feel secure.
During the military era particularly when Gen. Muhammadu Buhari was the Head of State, you stood up bravely. When Buhari was asking to be voted President in 2015, did you believe in him that he will change the fortune of the nation for good if elected?
He is a human being. I am a huma being like him. When he asked to be voted for as President of Nigeria in 2015, I thought he would do well. But things we are experiencing are not what he promised.
Some ethnic nationalities are clamouring for division of the country. Do you see that as the solution to Nigeria’s problem?
I do not believe that the way out of the crisis is for everybody to go his own way. In 1914, the ethnic groups were joined together by colonial masters; they joined us together by force contrary to our own will. And we had what is called the amalgamation. And we have been struggling since then to be one country.
Well, it will be better for us to pray together and ask God for the grace to help us out of our problems, so that we can continue together as one country.
Because if we break-up, it is not going to be as easy as some people think it will be. There will be fighting among states and countries for borders. Look at some of the states in the country, the people fight on land boundaries, and sometimes, it becomes serious, that they fight and kill themselves. So, if we now break into smaller countries, it will be more serious.
My appeal is that we should not separate into small countries; it will not help. Rather, it will worsen our situation. Let me remind you that those who seek election for possessions are still there. They will be the one who will be jostling for power and still not make things better.
Let me say that if we pray to God, cry to Him that we have made mistakes and have done what we ought not to have done and repent and change from being selfish, greedy, heartless, lack of concern for the needy, and change to become servant leaders, then will then change for good.
What is your view about the different arms of government that we have in Nigeria?
How do you think the outlook should be? Let me say this; we don’t need the Senate, we copied it from the United States of America. America’s economy is strong enough to have two chambers of the National Assembly and also cut out their administrative duties. But, in Nigeria, we don’t have the financial strength for such. We copied it from them and we are doing worse, and yet we don’t have as much money as America, and our senators take home millions of naira monthly.
And they have come not out to clearly state that it is not so. In a country like ours with no good economy, for our senators to take home more than N20 million, while young and able bodied educated citizens who are without jobs, and Federal Government is even contemplating on how to reduce workers’ salaries which they do not even pay regularly, with some states paying half salaries; it is uncalled for.
Another thing bedeviling us is having our retirees, who have served us to be owed unpaid salaries. How do we want them to survive, feed and take care of their children and immediate family at that new phase of their live? We even heard and read stories about retirees dying without receiving their pension and gratuity, which is why they feel our situation in this country is hopeless.
But it is not totally hopeless. If we go back to God, seek for forgiveness, repent and change our ways. God will surprise us for good. And if we scrap the Senate, we will save enough money to take care of the needy.
If there is no need for a Senate, do you think we need the local government as a tier of government?
Yes, we do need the local governments and we need the House of Representatives. Those who represent different parts of the country discuss the needs of the people they represent. Only if they go there to truly represent the needs of the people.
The local government is the closest system of government to the people. If the local government is well organized and is well equipped; we need them very much if the appointed political leaders are there to serve the people.
You have a group known as Yoruba Unity Forum. What has become of that group?
I am no longer a member of the group. I left when I found out the group is no longer fulfilling the reason why it was founded. It was founded by the late Mrs. Dideolu Awolowo. She invited some Yoruba leaders to Ikene, in Ogun State.
It got to a point she sent a message to me through an Archbishop, who is now retired. I told him; kindly tell Mama that, at my age, I am now retired. I am more than 70 years old and that what I want to do are three things; rest, read and write. God has given me 70 years to serve. I want to rest, read and write.
She kept on pestering me; she said that even if I am on a wheelchair, I should join her. She kept on appealing to me to join them. She said this body has just been established; they haven’t named it then. They have made me the chairman and she told me that I have the freedom to choose the deputy chairman and I told them I need someone I can trust who is agile and could speak the truth.
Our emphasis was to work hard to make sure we protect Yoruba culture because psychologists said if the culture of a people dies, the people die. We cannot allow Yoruba culture to die. The most important aspect of the culture is the language, and we could see that Yoruba language is dying. Mama said that she saw how passionate I have been about Yoruba culture, even when I was still a teacher; how I had taught Yoruba language to the children; how to do their pastoral job in Yoruba.
So, the group was given Yoruba Unity Forum. So, instead of us working together to protect Yoruba culture, I realised the majority were using the group as a stepping stone to get political offices. It has happened before. There was a group called Yoruba Parapo. I was made their chairman and we did very well but after a while, I found out people were using it to get political offices in Abuja.
I was still the Bishop in Akure. I called them and advised that let us work together for the good of all and in doing that, the good would go round instead of chasing personal ambition. Most of the time we held meetings, and assigned work to people to help us achieve what we need to achieve for the welfare of Yoruba people and Yoruba as a whole, people will just go without fulfilling it.
Do you think Yoruba has a future in Nigerian nation?
Yes, we are part of the nation. If we do what I have said, repent and do the will of God. We have been very selfish and greedy. In fact, when you look at what we do from time to time, we are heartless; we don’t pity children, the sick, the weak, just themselves alone and that’s all. If we repent,
God will help us, and all things are possible for him to do. All powers in heaven and on earth belong to God. But we are because we keep doing our will and not His will. If individuals surrender their lives to Him,
He will help us and we will be surprised and glorify Him. God is waiting to help us. Let us go to him, and Nigeria will become a good county. Nigeria is going to be great.