The Church, National Development And The Man, Archbishop Nicolas Okoh13 min read
By Godknows Igali, PhD
It was originally meant to be a gathering of Nigeria’s ecclesiastical hierarchy, as Head of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, offered his Formal Exit Thanksgiving Service on 22nd March, 2020. However, due to the global Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic, and in compliance with Government directives, Church authorities, opted for a lowkey worship service while on 25th March, 2020, the ‘Formal Presentation’ of the New Primate held in Abuja, involving few senior clergy and church legal persons.
Dr Nicholas Okoh, had sometime in the past, exited honourably from top position in the Nigerian Army Chaplaincy. This second ‘pull out’ therefore, saw to the official takeover of the leadership of one of Nigeria’s premier Christian denominations – the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) from him to Archbishop Henry Chukwudum Ndukuba. The 58 years old new Head of the Church, a theologian, is renowned within Christian circles for addicted prayerfulness and deep spirituality. Although born to parents from Orlu in Imo State, he had cut his teeth in missionary work in the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria.
It is common fact, that from his teenage years of evangelical work, undergraduate theological studies and up to formal ordination into priesthood, Ndukuba steadily traversed northern Nigeria with unimaginable devotion, eventually rising to become the Bishop of Gombe Diocese and Archbishop of Jos Ecclesiastical Province. In line with church traditions, at a Special Meeting in Asaba in September, 2019, the 175 Bishops of the Anglican Communion elected him to succeed Dr Okoh. Quite urbane and intellectual, he comes to the job with postgraduate degrees from vaunted institutions, i.e. Durham University, UK and Princeton (theological seminary), New Jersey, United States. More than that, those who know him well, are quick to judge that he talks little, but get the toughest things done on his kneels
HOW THE CHURCH WORK ALL STARTED
The story of this manner of succession in the leadership of the Church and its involvement in nation building goes further down history to the days when a future state to be called “Nigeria” was still at its foetal stages. Christianity had first come to Nigeria through the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th century by Augustinian and Capuchin monks from Portugal, when the monarch, King Alphonsus V, sent explorers towards Africa. At that time, they developed close relationship with the people of Warri area and the Benin empire. This was to the extent that one of the future Benin kings, Oba Esigie (1504-1550) established diplomatic relations with Portugal and ensured that his, son and successor Oba Orhogbua (1547-1580), received western (priestly) education in Lisbon. Oba Esigie, in 1517, even established his ‘Holy Arousa Church’, which still exists in some form in Benin City.
By the 17th century, the Portuguese and Spaniards who joined them left the West African coast, including the scratches of Christian work in places like Gold Coast (Ghana); with the exception of some presence in Sao Tome. In contrast, a new evangelical surge rose in Europe in mid-18th century, resulting in many Christian denominations forming groups and societies, with a fervour to adventure into the unknown recesses of Africa to spread the gospel. Some of these included Church Missionary Society (CMS) for the Church of England also known as the Anglicans, Holy Ghost Fathers (Roman Catholics), etc. Sierra Leone which was a settlement for freed slaves since 1808 was the breeding ground for these early works.
As it pertained to Nigeria, the Abeokuta-Badagry axis became the initial epicentre for church work. So, one Rev Henry Townsend from the CMS arrived in Badagry on 17th December, 1842, to rekindle Church work. Townsend, an Englishman had started working for the CMS mission field in Sierra Leone as far back as 1836. Interesting enough, he had learnt Yoruba language, then referred to as ‘Aku’ from freed slaves in Hasting in the United Kingdom. On Christmas day 1842, along with one Dr Thomas Birch Freeman, a Methodist Missionary, who was around the area before him, for the first time in Nigerian history, Christmas Worship Service took place in Badagry. Townsend, however entered Abeokuta in January, 1843 to start the great work which began the renewed Christian inroad into Nigeria.
Townsend was soon joined by Rev Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a former freed slave of Yoruba origin and had also been ordained as a priest in 1842. Crowther, who was actually raised by CMS missionaries in Sierra Leone, had received education at St. Mary’s Church, Islington, UK and later at Fourah Bay College (University), Freetown established in 1827, of which he was the first student. He later attended the elitist Oxford University, obtaining Doctor of Divinity degree.
Townsend remained in present west of Nigeria, Togo and Dahomey (Benin) where he championed the “Yoruba Mission”, and perfecting speaking the language. The penetration into Yoruba hinterland and indeed parts of what is Nigeria’s middle belt was also made easier by the influx of many freed slaves of Yoruba origin known as ‘Saro’ who were settled in Sierra Leone. Churches were quickly established in Abeokuta in 1846, Lagos in 1851, Ibadan in 1853, Oyo in 1856. These efforts were not alone as the Baptists led by Rev Thomas Bowen moved into Ogbomosho (1855) while Catholics set up a base in Lagos in 1868.
On the other hand, Crowther proceeded inter-land to the south-east, in what is today, Nigeria’s Ibo heartland and the motley of peoples of the Niger Delta area. Crowther’s adventure into the interior of Nigeria had been bolstered by his selection to participate in the series of ‘Niger Expeditions’ of 1841, 1854 and 1857, which were, British government sponsored joint mercantilist, academic study and missionary endeavours. These expeditions, enabled Crowther increase his rich multilingual skills, which already had Yoruba, Greek, Latin, Mende and Temne (Sierra Leonian) to include fair amount of Nupe, Hausa, Igbo and Ibani/Nembe (Ijaw).
Crowther, in whose footsteps Bishops Okoh and Ndukuba and the various hundreds of Bishops in Nigeria walk today, was consecrated as the first black man ever, to be made a Bishop in the Church of England in 1864, a position he held until his death in 1891. Aided by his “mentor”, Rev. Henry Venn, then Secretary of the CMS, he was designated “Bishop of the Countries of Western Africa beyond the dominion of the Queen”. In reality, he operated only “as Bishop of the Niger Mission”, but was influential, including reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Yoruba to the great English monarch, Queen Victoria, which she is reported to have described as “soft and melodious”. He also enjoyed respect of many within government and the Church.
Crowther embarked on his awesomely unimaginable evangelical work in a manner that took the church along with western education to the various people of Nigeria. With his initial base at Bonny, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, he reached out to the rest of Nigeria, going as far as Bida. Crowther’s focus on the coastal areas was also influenced by the fact that his missionary drive into the interior of Nigeria by land route had become hazardous as a result of perennial wars between Egba and Ibadan as well as the Ijaye War. He opted to go up the River Niger from its outlets to the sea. He established churches around Ontisha (1857) and in such coastal places Lokoja (1858), Akassa (1861), Bonny (1864), Brass (1868), Nembe (1871), Elem Kalabari (1875), Okrika (1880) as well as the Ndokwa hinterland.
Being a linguist, he also took giant steps in translation of the Holy Bible, Book of Common Prayer into Yoruba. Additionally, he produced a Vocabulary of Yoruba Language, Yoruba Proverbs in 1852 as well as helped pioneer compilation of vocabularies and reading books in Igbo in 1857, Nupe in 1860 and also Hausa. (Other Christian denominations such as the Presbyterians led by Rev Hope Waddel had earlier moved into Calabar in 1846, supported by Mary Slessor who arrived in 1876. In the Eastern parts of Nigeria, the Catholics also came by establishing work post in Onitsha in 1886). It was quite difficult for Christian missions to penetrate core Hausaland until 1889.
THE BIRTH OF CHURCH OF NIGERIA
With the advent of colonial rule, the CMS, which had churches in all of West Africa, went on to established an Anglican Province of West Africa, with headquarters in Sierra Leone. As a matter of fact, Sierra Leone had become a Diocese in 1852, while similar Dioceses had been established in major towns of British West Africa. These include Accra (1909), Lagos (1919), On the Niger (1920) and Gambia (1935). Against this backdrop, Church leaders from the Anglican Communion in West Africa, held Special Conferences in 1906, 1935 and 1944, all in Lagos, with the purpose of establishing a Province of West Africa. Finally, with a nod from the parent, Church of England, the new Province was inaugurated on 17th April, 1951 in Freetown by then presiding Archbishop of Canterbury and Head of the Church, Dr Geoffrey Fisher. The then Bishop of Lagos, Leslie Gordon Vining, became its first Archbishop.
After the exit and death of Crowther in 1891, church activities shifted essentially to Lagos, culminating in the formal establishment of the Diocese of Lagos and the appointment of a Bishop on Dec 10th, 1919. Afterwards was commencement of the building of Christ Church Cathedral, in Marina in 1924. Besides, Lagos had also become Nigeria’s federal capital. The initial Bishops in Lagos, Melvin Jones, H. Tugwell and of course Vinning, undertook major efforts to train young Nigerians who they not only ordained as Priests but later consecrated as Bishops.
New Dioceses such as Niger Delta (1952), Ibadan (1952), Ondo (1952), Benin (1952), Northern Nigeria (1959) and so many others sprung up in those early days, getting to a total number of sixteen, so were the number of consecrated Bishops. By 1979 after following the necessary church protocols, Nigeria was weaned from the rest of West Africa. It acquired autonomy becoming the Church of Nigeria, in full fellowship with Church of England and Anglican Communion worldwide, on St. Mathias Day of the same year.
THE CHURCH AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
From the swaddling days, of Townsend and Crowther, the Church, turned out to be the harbinger of social and economic development across Nigeria. So, Christian faith came as it were, with the “the Bible and the Plough”; i.e., the main agent of socio-economic development. Church workers came with new forms of agricultural practice, poultry farming, animal husbandry, tailoring, carpentry, craft and handicraft production and vocational training programmes. This was done in almost all places where they set up stations and helped considerably to add value to the livelihood and economic wellbeing of the local population.
Even better known, CMS and other denominations committed heavily into propagation of formal western education. This had two facets. First was the role which it played in the development of Indigenous Languages. As a way of enhancing the missionary work, the Church encouraged the development of local orthography, grammar and its vocabularies, classification of languages and even compilation of aspects of the indigenous literature. Crowther and other missionaries documented aspects of the literature, sociology and history of the various peoples, some of which could have been lost in the course of time. By 1859, Townsend started publishing Nigeria’s oldest newspaper, Iwe Irohin, in Yoruba language while Crowther and his son Archdeacon Dandeson Crowther, also opened a printing press in Bonny in the 1870s.
More profoundly promotion of western education. Crowther’s approach, well known to the CMS was “evangelization through education”. This made it easier for strong Nigerian potentates, who were largely animist to accept the faith. A good example was King Ockyia of Nembe, whose conversion in 1876, was preceded by the enrolment of his 11 children in school 9 years. The first Primary School in Nigeria was built in Badagry by the Methodist church in 1843 while Hope Waddel built the Presbyterian School in Duke Town, Calabar in 1846. However, it was the CMS that established a more formal school in Lagos in 1851 and went on to the first Grammar school, then CMS Grammar School, Barriga in the suburbs of Lagos in 1859, followed by St Gregory’s College (Catholic) in 1876 and Methodist Boys High School (1878) and even a Methodist Girls High School was established in 1879.
Besides this, Healthcare was a major aspect of the work of the church, as their coming to Nigeria was confronted by the existence of the scourge of Malaria and other water-borne diseases which made Africa a “grave for the white man”. In addition, there were other global pandemics which occurred in those early days, such as; Measles, the Spanish Plague, Influenza (1918-1920), Small Pox, Tuberculosis, Leprosy, Yellow Fever. The Church in Nigeria therefore, dwelt copiously on response to the challenges of health care. The first health care facilities built by the missionaries was a dispensary opened by the CMS in Obosi, in present Anambra state in 1880. This was followed by two additional facilities in Onitsha and Ibadan in 1886. However, the first actual health facility worth called a Hospital was the Sacred Heart Hospital built by the Catholics in 1884.
FOOTPRINT ON SOCIAL ADVOCACY
As time went on, the church in Nigeria passed through different revolutionary stages in not shying away from the question of the demand for social change amongst the various peoples. From the very beginning, the leadership of the church, especially Crowther who himself had been a victim, spoke harshly against Slavery and Slave Trade and campaigned rigorously against its cessation. More than that, the Church championed the crusade against other harmful cultural practices such as human sacrifice, obnoxious ceremonial rites, discrimination of persons such as outcast system, oppression of widows, killing of twins and the like. The Church also led the vanguard against inter-tribal or inter-communal conflicts, which itself was a breeding ground for Slave Trade. Townsend also opened what could be regarded as the first formal Orphanage in Abeokuta in 1861, in response to children displaced from the plethora of internecine ‘Yoruba Wars’ in the late 19th century.
THE THRUST OF POLITICAL ACTIVISM
Typically speaking, politics has not been one of the big spheres of the church. However, from the birth of the new Nigerian State in 1914, various leaders of the church of Nigeria, especially with the consecration of more indigenous Bishops upscaled the voice of the church on the unacceptability of rule of one class of people over others against their will.
Also, of note, most of the Bishops who were consecrated as the Church expanded around Nigeria and were vibrant and well educated. So, a good number of them were able to challenge, unjust governance practices, transparency and accountability, using the customary immunity of the pulpit as a launchpad. Further, some of these bishops were even outspoken against military rule and the level of social decay including corruption and impunity, electoral violence and the like.
THE MAN, NICHOLAS OKOH
Nicholas Orogodo Okoh, now exited deserve a word. Unlike others before, he came from a background of military service. As a senior military chaplain, his duty was to ensure that members of the Nigerian army (protestant faith) were in the right spiritual frame to defend the country. As he rose in rank in the army, so did he ascend in status, steadily in the church. He was born on 10th September, 1952, at Owa- Alero, one of sixty-five communities in Ikah North East Local Government, in Delta State. Owa-Alero is part of Owa kingdom and due to it footprint in agriculture, is known as “food basket” of Delta state. Interesting enough, it is the hometown of current Delta State Governor, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa.
In the dying days of the Nigerian Civil War, that is 1969, Okoh entered the army and fought in the war. From early childhood, those who knew him well attest that there was always a sign of a prophet and greatly inspiring leader who was set to emerge from his ancient the community. Not surprising, at the end of the war, he became religiously zealous while still serving as a young army officer. It was during this period that he began to develop an urge for freelance evangelism. This came to a crest in 1975 when his restless religious zeal became common knowledge. This urge drove him to enrol in pastoral studies at the Emmanuel College of Theology, Ibadan from where he obtained two separate diplomas, one in Religious Studies and the other in Theology. Thereafter he was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1979 and became a priest in 1980. He also continued further studies at University of Ibadan receiving Bachelor of Arts and later, Masters degree in Theology. Within the military, he rose steadily and got to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1996. Eventually, he was consecrated as the second Bishop of Asaba Diocese in 2001 and was later elected Archbishop of the Province of Bendel in 2005. With the eminent retirement of then Primate, Dr Jasper Akinola, the Anglican Bishops opted to bring in this soldier-cleric as their Head on 15th September, 2009.
Under Okoh, the Church of Nigerian experienced exponential expansion, now having a membership of over 18 million members and penetrated the most unreached communities with over 10,000 churches. Most of Okoh’s often forthright thoughts on both religion and society are contained in his several books, particularly the two volumes entitled “Not by Might nor by Power”. It is important to mention that he was one of the leading voices in what became known as ‘Anglican Realignment’ and ‘Co-fellowship of Confessing Anglicans’. They led the vanguard against the extreme neo-liberalism in the church and led many Bishops from the Developing Countries around the world to speak out “against Homosexuality and “breaking of fellowship with those who favoured same sex practice and the blurring of gender identity”. He particularly described homosexuality as “poisoning Nigerian society” and departure not only from scripture but from African identity. He was at a time, Chairman of Global Anglican Fellowship Conference (GAFCON).
Only God knows. While Okoh steps down, he joins the rank of Emeritus Bishops, Archbishops and Former Heads of the Church of Nigeria, but he remains a priest and a voice of reckon in the country. This is more so, as he steps down and Archbishop Ndukuba takes the baton at a time when some of the virtues and ideals which the church has stood for over 150 years since it came to Nigeria, remains largely unfulfilled. For example, society is still endemic with idolatry, superstition and cultism. Also, lines of social stratification, religious and ethnic atavism and upsurge in the political intolerance are at the highest. Fortunately, like Crowther, the new Primate is used to promotion of inter-faith dialogue and coexistence.
Again, the church which has, historically, invested so heavily in bringing the social wellbeing of Nigeria’s people, especially in education and healthcare, to where it is, must continue to play the expected role in reaching the unreached in society. This, lately, became clear with the scourge of COVID 19, as the Church and other faith-based organizations have already come to team up with government to do the needful., under the watch of the New Primate; a pointer of the future.
True, the Church has come a long way to stay and hell cannot prevail.
Igali, an Ambassador and Administrator, is a Fellow, Historical Society of Nigeria.