REVEREND Samson Olasupo Adeniyi Ayokunle assumed the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, on Wednesday, when he succeeded Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor during a colourful handing over ceremony witnessed by many Christian leaders at the National Christian Centre, Abuja.
Born on Friday, January 25, 1957 in Oyo, his home town in Oyo State, the President of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, NBC, who contested on the platform of the Christian Council of Nigeria, CCN, emerged CAN President on June 14, polling 54 votes to defeat his only rival, Elder Joseph Otubu of the Motailatu Church Cherubim and Seraphim Worldwide (MCCSW), who garnered 28 votes.
He becomes the seventh National President of the largest ecumenical body in Africa, CAN, after Dominic Cardinal Ekandem (1976-1986), Anthony Cardinal Okogie (1988-95), His Eminence Sunday Mbang (1995-2003), Most Rev. Peter Jasper Akinola (2003-2007), John Cardinal Onaiyekan (2007-2010) and Oritsejafor (2010-2016). Ayokunle is taking the mantle of leadership at a very critical moment of inter-religious tensions and crisis in Nigeria that have left over 400 Christians dead.
The biggest challenge the new CAN leadership will face is that of reconciling aggrieved parties in the association, especially the embittered President of the ECWA unit, Rev. Jeremiah Gado, who, until Tuesday, was in an Abuja High Court seeking an interlocutory injunction to stop Wednesday’s inauguration of the new CAN leadership. There are daunting tasks ahead of Ayokunle’s administration which will require collective efforts to resolve in the spirit of the association’s motto, especially the insurgency in different parts of the country. The motto of CAN is: ‘That they all may be one,’ with inspiration from John 17:21 of the Holy Bible.
The National Christian Elders Forum, NCEF, an elite group established by the Oritsejafor administration of CAN, has, in a related development, argued that the devastation of Christian communities and infrastructure through religious insurgency requires concerted Christian action to rebuild, pointing out that critical Christian infrastructure were deliberately destroyed by Islamists in a bid to wipe out Christianity in Nigeria.
Recent documents also predicted more serious religious crisis in Nigeria if proper attention is not paid to reports from the nation’s intelligence community. According to sources, the politically-motivated crisis may shake the nation’s unity in the wake of the killing of Christians by Muslims in the federal capital territory, Abuja, Niger, Kaduna, Kano, Nasarawa, Plateau and Benue States.
The sources also informed that the high rate of arms proliferation in key areas of Abuja and the six states is the reason this threat should not be taken lightly by the Federal Government, pointing out: “We are working with agencies and have been submitting prompt Situation Reports on Abuja and states concerned especially Kaduna, Kano, Niger, Nasarawa and Plateau as launch pads for those masterminding politically-motivated religious crisis.”
Playing politics with Boko Haram
In a farewell speech delivered at the ratification and the handing over to the new CAN President, Oritsejafor, dressed in milk-colour flowing attire, recalled how certain northern Christians, worried about happenings in that region, “took the pain to call on me to become the national leader of the Church in Nigeria”.
The immediate past CAN President went on: “With hesitation and uncertainty, I offered myself to serve. On assumption of office, I was confronted with a Church in dire need of pragmatic leadership, with both internal and external challenges. We came in at a period when the challenges of the Church had reached a point that lots of Christians in northern Nigeria had been displaced from their homes and churches. Some pastors, particularly in northern Nigeria, were closing their churches. Lots of fellow Nigerians had become internally displaced persons in their homes”.
The financial situation of the association at that time, he stated, was precarious, but “God helping us, we were able to raise the alarm both in Nigeria and in the international community that Boko Haram was a terrorist group when most people were playing politics with it”. Oritsejafor continued: “This necessitated my boldly addressing the American Congress and insisting that Boko Haram should be domesticated as a terrorist organization. To our delight, it was so domesticated though still wreaking havoc in some parts of Nigeria.
“We also took the pains to visit victims of the insurgency in most of the northern states, especially in Borno, Bauchi, Gombe and Plateau at the heat of the attacks to encourage our brothers and sisters to remain calm and peaceful. We were able to visit most Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps to provide them with relief materials and encouragement at personal costs.
“God also gave us the vision to initiate the building of The CAN Jubilee Resort and Leadership Training Centre which should serve as venue for church activities and revenue generation point for the body. Today, God helping us with the support of committed Nigerians, we have completed and commissioned the project. “It is also important to mention that we have initiated the process of building a six-floor car park that would help generate even more income for CAN. In fact, the drawings are ready for the commencement of the project.
“In our attempt to ensure the achievement of the primary goal of CAN, which is to unite the Church and expand the gospel regardless of our denominations, doctrines and regions, I also took out time to visit and fellowship with all the church blocs in CAN”.
There is no gain saying the fact that the rising tide of poverty in the country has played a significant role in the upsurge of radicalization among youths in the North. It was Guy Arnold, a British author, writing mainly in the areas of African history and politics, and international affairs, who, in 1977, lamented the Nigerian situation.
“Oil wealth has brought to Nigeria vast possibilities of breaking out of an old poverty and bringing development to all its people, but it has also brought with it problems: mal-distribution of incomes and rewards with their accompanying political and social complications; rising living costs; widespread corruption; violent crime; and a spirit of indiscipline that may easily arise when a country thinks it can solve all its problems with money—in this case from oil”, Arnold said,
Taking a cue from this, Oritsejafor, who is also the founder of Word of Life Bible Church, Warri, Delta State, having seen the precarious situation of Christians in some communities in the North, said: “We decided to provide a revolving loan to some Christians from Tafawa Balewa local government area of Bauchi State and Hausa-Kanuri and Fulani Christians from selected communities in both the North-West and North-East,” in addition to providing scholarships and other forms of empowerment to some victims of Boko Haram and, in some cases, feeding and securing alternative accommodation to seriously affected victims of attacks in different locations of the nation irrespective of their faith.
According to him, out of the desire of his administration to help Christians in diaspora key into the vision of CAN back in Nigeria, “we successfully established what is known as CAN-America where members are now praying for Nigeria and supporting many victims of attacks in Nigeria”. Just last week, the former CAN President said he was in Johannesburg to inaugurate CAN-South Africa.
Disunity among Christians
Despite what is generally perceived as a frosty relationship with the other religion, Islam, Oritsejafor affirmed that his administration encouraged and built interfaith relationship with non-Christians and “we participated actively in the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC).”
Acknowledging the disunity in the Body of Christ, he said time and space would not permit him to dwell extensively on the “challenges we went through before, during and after the election of the National President and Vice President”. His words: “Time and space will not permit me to make an analysis of all that happened because it will amount to defence. I have decided to let go of all the challenges and the several attacks I faced. I pray that God will heal our hearts in Jesus’ name”.
Reiterating his call for national/individual repentance and reconciliation without which there cannot be meaningful development, Oritsejafor averred that his administration had actually endeavoured to ensure that all parties were reconciled, expressing gratitude to the former leaders of CAN and good hearted individuals, who, he said, had made efforts to deepen the reconciliation.
“Let me use this opportunity to plead with us to ensure that CAN and the office of the CAN President becomes a respected institution,” Oritsejafor said. He pleaded with all those who may have been hurt by any of his actions for forgiveness, saying: “On my part, may I reassure this gathering that I hold no grudge against any man”.
In his acceptance speech, the new CAN President, while acknowledging the enormity of the task before his team, took time to appreciate the contribution of his predecessor who he described as humble, generous and committed to leading this “Christian ecumenical body with integrity”. Turning to Oritsejafor, Ayokunle said: “Whether people really appreciate your contributions or not, the Lord whom you served would reward you abundantly in the name of Jesus Christ. We shall not only say thank you with the word of mouth now, but by the grace of God, we shall invite the entire world very soon to help us celebrate the end of your tenure through a befitting send-forth service.”
Ayokunle, who, until Wednesday, was CAN Vice President, left no one in doubt about the major assignment before him, which is to reconcile all warring groups within the Christian body, urging his listeners to cooperate with him to achieve the onerous task. “We intend to facilitate a fellowship where love flows and peace prevails in all the member churches. To this end, all would be done to see that CAN is a united body and all wrangling within the body would be addressed for unity of purpose. This would be priority number one,” he said, stressing “we intend to lead CAN whose leadership is above board and would be able to provide credible leadership for Christians and other Nigerians to follow”, the new CAN leader said.
He pledged his administration’s commitment to support government to achieve noble goals that would lead to sustainable growth and development in the nation. “CAN is not anti-government and the government should not be anti-CAN. We are supposed to be partners-in-progress. Each should respect the boundaries that would lead to mutual respect”, Ayokunle said.
“We are not going to patronize the government and thereby fail in our responsibilities to speak against the excesses of those in political leadership. The Church is in the world to improve the world and shine as light of the world. The Church essentially is not of the world. We would stand out courageously and stand clean”.
Acknowledging that he had been called upon to serve at the most challenging time of the Church, he lamented that it is a time “when a Christian preaching in the street can be gruesomely murdered with impunity in the federal capital, the supposed centre of civilization for that matter!
“It is a time when a Christian who is not under the laws to fast by force at a specific period can be stabbed and abused for eating when other religious adherents different from his are fasting without those in authority and law enforcement agents making the attackers to face the wrath of the law.
“It is a time when a Christian clergy (ECWA Pastor Joseph Kura) working in his farm can be attacked by herdsmen and killed with impunity. It is a time when a whole church (a Catholic Church) can be attacked and their property vandalized for daring to worship their God on Friday without much done to arrest and sanction the criminals who attacked such a church”.
While sympathising with the families and churches of those affected by what he described as the senseless acts of religious criminals, Ayokunle called on the “government of the day to take decisive action over these occurrences because it is their constitutional duty to do so”. He added: “We shall not stop crying out for the government to do justice until we see that justice is done.
“Silence or inaction by those in government would continue to make the Christians express no confidence in them until they are ready to defend the rights of Christians and all Nigerians in this nation. We are aware, servants of God that we are in a time when the lives of those who speak against the ills of our society are greatly in danger”.
To assist the new CAN leadership in the task of raising funds to actualise some of its objectives, the NCEF initiated a trust fund to mobilize critical funding that will enable Christians respond to threats and challenges posed by the global Islamist movement.
“After years of preparation, the Nigerian Church finally has a strategy document for the expansion and preservation of Christianity in Nigeria. The strategy document was developed by the NCEF and it shall require funding to implement, to be managed by trustees representing each of the five blocs of CAN.
They include Lt. Gen. Joshua Dogonyaro (retd) – TEKAN/ECWA Bloc, Dame Priscilla Kuye (ex-President, NBA) – CSN Bloc, Justice Kalajine Anigbogu (retd) – CCN Bloc, Mrs. Osaretin Demuren – Chairman GTBank, OAIC Bloc, and Mr. Tunde Lemo – (ex-Deputy Gov., CBN) – CPFN/PFN Bloc”, the CAN President said. “While each denomination and ministry has the liberty of designing its evangelistic thrust as led by the Spirit, NCEF believes that the entire Church has a responsibility to unite to confront a common foe. A house that is divided, it shall not stand”.