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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #16

A Meeting of the Minds
(Anthony Olubunmi Cardinal Okogie in Conversation with Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation



His Eminence

Anthony Olubunmi Cardinal Okogie

                                                     Catholic Archbishop of Lagos



Interviewed  By

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye





Additional questions by the committee of Intellectuals




Anthony Olubunmi Cardinal Okogie


Anthony Cardinal Okogie

Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie

Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie


Chinua Achebe Foundation

Prof. Chinua Achebe

is best known for his unyielding crusade for good governance, human rights, equity and social justice. Arguably, the most vocal Christian religious leader in
Nigeria, Cardinal Okogie’s views are regularly sought after by the media.  Bold and fearless, he has been unsparing in his criticism of military dictators. During his tenure as the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, the organization took center stage on issues such as religious freedom and human rights.

Born on June 16, 1936 in Lagos, Nigeria, Okogie was ordained as a priest on December 11, 1966. He holds a licentiate in sacred theology; his plans to study in Rome were set aside when he was called to Nigeria as a pastoral assistant at the Holy Cross Cathedral. He was later drafted into the Nigerian army where he was a chaplain. After a subsequent period of service at the Holy Cross Cathedral, he became an instructor at King's College.

In 1971, he was ordained titular Bishop of Mascula and Auxiliary of Oyo, and in 1973 named Archbishop. Okogie became the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, and, from 1994 to 2000, headed the Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria.

He was proclaimed Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in the concistory of 21 October 2003, and holds the title of Cardinal Priest of Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel of Mostacciano. During his cardinalate, Okogie, as cardinal electors, participated in the 2005 papal conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI

(From the Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia:                



Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye has published articles as well as poems and short stories on various social, literary and political topics, which have appeared in several newspapers, magazines, journals and internet sites in Nigeria and abroad. The most recent, Jennifer’s Handbag was featured in Confluences, an anthology of short stories published and launched recently (July 2005) by the Association of Nigerian Authors, Lagos branch.  Educated at the Universities of Port Harcourt and Ilorin, Ejinkeonye is currently on the Editorial Board of the Independent, a national newspaper published in Lagos, Nigeria, where he writes a well-read column every Wednesday.





Thank you, Your Eminence, for taking part in the Chinua Achebe Foundation interview project. Let me begin with this question:


Do you think it is possible to find any one person in government who might wake up in the morning concerned for the good of this country?


Thank you very much, my dear brother; you are welcome to my little place.

Well, I am not God. All I can tell you is that we need to focus on any rays of hope.

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Now, a country that has no good roads is not worth its name. If the roads in your country are in bad shape, you will not be respected. If there is a lack of safe, drinking water for the majority of people, the rest of the world will not respect you. If constant electricity – a basic in the poorest countries in
Africa – cannot be guaranteed, the world will not respect you. If you cannot feed yourselves and depend on others or import most of your food, the world will not respect you. That’s first and foremost, because these things are for basic comfort, and are not luxuries. 


Why is it that with all the human and natural resources that Nigeria has been blessed with, the country has not been able to get its act together? Just imagine the number of poor people we have in the country; no one cares about them. Where are the water projects, the electricity projects, the road and agricultural projects that the common man yearns for? People’s human rights are constantly suppressed in this nation. Things are not going well, because people lack basic amenities; but who will help them?


What does this say about the quality of leadership Nigeria has had?


There has been a leadership crisis in this country for a long time. Look at other countries - China, India - rapidly developing…many countries of the third world -in Latin America, Asia - are picking up. This thing [development] takes time, discipline, proper planning, and visionary leadership with a focus on GOD’S teachings. There is not a single African nation that is doing well. Why is that? Nigeria can lead the way for Africa, for the black world. We will get there by the Grace of God and through the leadership of a God-fearing leader who is willing to serve the people.


The other day, a library project was launched with N6 billion! And the people of that community? Granted that a library is an important thing, but what is more important to the languishing people? We are told that Nigeria is in poor shape financially, yet in under an hour such an amount of money is collected! To build a library; but how many people in that community will read there? Which is more important, to feed those hungry people, build schools, hospitals, etc., or to build a library?


You see, all there is are empty boasts, unnecessary projects… as if we will never die. We cannot think that it is easy to immortalize one’s name; the next person or generation may not believe in your significance and will demolish whatever you have put up.  For instance, there was a stadium built somewhere around here. They named it after someone, but as soon as the man was out of power, the next man renamed it. So that is what happens…there is decay everywhere. Look at City Hall (in Lagos Island), for example. Go there now and you shall have to hold your breath. The place is totally vandalized! The windows are completely destroyed. But in the old days…oh, my goodness; the place looked great! That was City Hall.  Think of the amount of money we spend on maintaining this Cathedral.  Do you know when it was built? City Hall is a disgrace juxtaposed with the Cathedral. All its marble slabs are broken up. The pieces kept dropping on people. But, I asked; if the pieces keep dropping on people, shouldn’t the building be repaired? Now its central air conditioning is out. Just go and see. Yet, somebody spent money, the nation’s money, to put up that structure; yet look at what is happening to it.


We have had six years of democracy; do we have any reason to celebrate?


If you are celebrating to thank God for the gift of life, yes. But if we are celebrating achievements, I don’t see what we have achieved that is worth celebrating. That’s what I will tell you. People claim that they have not yet seen the dividends of democracy, so go round the country, and ask the question you just asked me. They will tell you all sorts of stories!


We are being told that the price of petrol will go up yet again -- in a petroleum producing country! In Europe, once it is predicted that the price of petrol will go up, even before it is actualized, something would have been done to cushion the effect on people. Some amenity might be subsidized, or something.  In Nigeria; well, I stand to be corrected if such a thing ever happens. That’s why we are constantly on strikes.  Things are simply not being done well!


What can you say about the culture of lawlessness reigning in the country now?


It all boils down to what we have just discussed. In addition, there is a great lack of education, and comparisons are very obvious. Remember the late General Tunde Idiagbon and General Muhammadu Buhari? When they were in power, there was law and order in the country, because they introduced the War Against Indiscipline.  When General Idiagbon was ousted, all those good values went with him. So, what it means is that Nigerians can be successful at whatever they wish, but there seems to be a need for the enforcement of certain rules. It appears that someone has to direct the country constructively; that’s it. If we lack the appropriate leadership…you see… in Nigeria, when laws are made, ironically, the law makers are the very first to break the laws. So when the rest of the people see public officials breaking the law, they say: ah ah, are you better than me? And they promptly follow suit. This is what is happening.


The government is now harping on bribery and corruption. But the people in power are corrupt themselves. Now, to show us leadership, it is not enough to single out one, two or three people as scapegoats; those who know better are simply waiting for the day you will default, and they will proclaim it. Read the papers go on the internet, to Nigerian websites, to see what is going on.


I would like  to take you back to your youth…to recall your days as a primary school boy growing up in Lagos; was the youth of your time more motivated than today’s youths?


During my youth, I will say that things were by far, I think, better than what subsists today. There was respect for elders. The education we had was quite different. We had teachers who taught us with love. It is true we were tele-guided, as it were, but it was for a definite, good purpose; to build us up.  We were not simply left on our own like what obtains these days. We saw our elders as models. If you did anything wrong, they were there to correct you; and when you behaved correctly, they would commend you.


In those days, the teachers were regarded as second parents. Although, there was no undue familiarity, they tried to treat their pupils as their own children. They made the children trust in them. But all that is gone now.  In those days, teachers did not work simply to receive salaries, but felt they had a role to play in moulding the children in their care and by extension, the rest of society.


Now, the other day, I saw one of my former teachers; I bowed down to greet him, even though he was kneeling down himself – you know, the Catholic way of greeting bishops…  But, I told him: “no, stand up! He refused and said: “No! no! I have to do it, because of what you are now.  You see? That will not happen today. 


I grew up to know the likes of (Herbert) Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mbonu Ojike and the others. They behaved exceptionally. Their’s was not a politics of bitterness. You could see that they all had a similar goal-- to bring our nation up to the standard of developed nations. But today, such is no longer the case.


Your Eminence; some of those who have ruled Nigeria belong to the generation you speak so glowingly about. Why have we witnessed such a failure of leadership and character among them?


In every generation, you have capable, qualified individuals, and those that are not as gifted in this area. A nation can only be successful if the most qualified individuals run the affairs of the country.  When I was growing up it was clear what kind of individuals we wanted to run things. Today in Nigeria, nobody cares. Empty barrels, they say, make the greatest noise. So, if you have money, and you can talk, you can do anything!  So, this is what is killing Nigeria today. There is no yardstick by which you can say: this is why we are putting this man in such and such a position. There was a time when the idea of Federal Character was the trend; this just killed merit and competence. What has Federal Character got to do with running a country? It was said that parts of the country geographically larger than others should benefit from more resources.  But that’s wrong. Now, I am not from here, Lagos. Even though my mother is Yoruba, my father is not: he is from the Benin area. Strictly speaking, I should be living in my father’s place. However, look at me sitting here. That is Catholic Church for you.


What, in your opinion, are the fundamental characteristics of great leaders?


Well, a strong moral and spiritual center [belief in and followership of GOD], good character [incorruptibility], integrity, honesty and fairness are some. Once you have the first, the others follow in most cases. These people are few but they are there, ask the average Nigerian and they will tell you who they are…


You know one’s up bringing also has something to do with it. You see, some of these people [corrupt and inept leaders] could not have benefited from a proper upbringing.  If you want to make a leader … for instance in the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church -- I, for example, was shocked when at my tender age, I was made a Bishop -- I had not spent five years in the ministry as a priest! But they were definite moral and spiritual qualities they were looking for.


When the leader is not up to the task, his subjects will kick against him, because

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example teaches better. We have been unfortunate with bad leadership, because those who have been in power suffered a lack in their up-bringing. Alright, look back a little; let’s start with their education:
  what schools did they attend? How did they behave as adolescents? Many of these people came from incredibly impoverished [spiritually, morally as well] backgrounds, and just went crazy at the sight of public money. Some of them don’t even have the common decency to respect others. But these are the basic things one learns from home. So the result is what you see happening; these are the problems.


I must say -- there are some governors who seem up to the task -- I am not naming anyone -- but you just open your eyes, and you shall see what I am referring to. Some are capable, while some are not.  For some others, the moment they get hold of public money, they turn their heads away.


But a few work very hard to give good governance. The majority of the time, when it is time to appoint ministers or commissioners, the government just looks for names that ring a bell. Oh! This man is a doctor, the other one is a professor, this one is this or that, and that’s all. And there are some appointees who are not being employed in their fields of expertise. When, say, an engineer is placed to head the Ministry of Education, one has to ask; what is he going to do there?  An engineer in the health sector; what is he going to achieve there, when there are other areas where he can excel?


What would you say is to blame for the collapse of the educational system in Nigeria?


The education I enjoyed was designed after the model established by the missionaries. The missionaries set a very good standard, a solid foundation. And as people began to set up schools, they tried to model them after those of the missionaries, and even tried to make theirs better. So, there was healthy competition at the time.


Today, however, nobody seems to care. Even parents seem not to care any longer. But, you see; one can’t blame it all on government; I must be frank with you. Parents and the government and society all must play a part in this. But unfortunately, the government insisted it could do it all alone. And that marked the beginning of a major decline in that sector. Indeed, money is not all it takes to properly educate children.  It is just not possible.


With the oil boom, it appears that parents abandoned their responsibilities towards the family in their bid to make quick money. Bribery and corruption became commonplace, because the law had become less effective. There were virtually no suitable norms to guide the society. Everyone seemed to be running after money and power, and so on.  Well, the collapse of the morality of the nation set in. Now, people in high office, who are supposed to be models in the society, misbehave with their own staff, or even with children; what then is to be expected?


Unfortunately, things are getting increasingly worse. Take our universities, for example. New ones keep springing up, because there appears to be no clear cut yardstick for establishing academic institutions. And who are the products of such universities? A man with a PhD obtained in Nigeria today will not be offered a job in England to teach in a respectable English school, based on his certificate.  They will first have to test him. However, anyone from England with a PhD who wants such a job here would have no problem getting it. So what is the real value of the education children of these days are receiving?


What do these developments portend for Nigeria’s future?


The future of Nigeria, I am happy to say, is in the hands of our youth. Unfortunately, they are unaware that the future for them is not yet bright. All our so called leaders of today tell the youths that they are the leaders of tomorrow, and this is not fair.  I would like them to show me what plans they have for our youth that will prepare them to effectively lead tomorrow? It is so sad - what do they have to hand over to these youths?


Now there is talk about our debt relief being written off. Now, how is Nigeria going to take advantage of this? The money accruing from oil, in excess of what the budget was based on (due to the windfall); what are they doing with it? Where is the government’s account of it? This is what we are talking about.


And some of these youths now are already gathering themselves. They are not fools. They are collecting themselves, trying to form small groups. For example, in the Catholic Church, or what about here, in Lagos; we have the Young Professionals Association. The young people are grouping themselves, looking forward to the future; but what does our future look like? Are we going to remain like this?  So that’s the situation. It’s a pity, but what can you do?


Your Eminence, you are aware that when leaders of other countries fail to perform, the electorate is able to remove them by vote. In this country, however, there seems to be a continued erosion of the powers of the electorate? It seems that the people no longer have the power to choose their leaders…


This is what I am telling you. We are still saying the same thing.




Our votes no longer count? 


Vote! How can they? The people in power feel they know everything; they are in

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power, and so they can do what they like.
  Look; if their conscience is in the right place, if they feel that they are doing the right thing, why are they so desperate for re-election, rather than allowing their good works speak for them? That is the test of a good leader. I am ready to be removed from here any time. If it is the will of the Pope, all he has to do is issue a transfer order, and the person concerned is removed; but not so with Nigeria’s leaders.


Once they find themselves in power—a problem possibly peculiar to Africa -- once they get into power, they never want to leave. Why? It is not as if one is talking of one’s father’s property! It’s not made exclusively for such people! By the stroke of luck someone finds himself in power for two, three, four or five years. At the expiration of his term, why doesn’t he just go? Why must he insist on staying on and on, shamelessly admitting he does not want to go…he wants to remain in power? Why?


Is there a correlation between poverty and electoral malpractices; because if people have enough to eat, maybe, they would not easily succumb to the manipulations of politicians?


That’s what I am telling you, brother. You see, food is rotting on the farms, because there is no transportation. Those who try to bring the food out are over-tasked. They are either waylaid by armed-robbers, or delayed at police stops or by whatever, whoever. They are so many, many obstacles. They pay, say, ten naira here, move a short distance to be asked by yet another group for fifty naira or more in bribes; by the time they get to their destination, some of the foodstuff has become rotten, because of undue delays. Then, of course, the price escalates.


What message do you have for the general electorate?


Well, all I can tell them is that even a hundred years is not forever. We must continue to pray to God to help and assist us. We must pray for good governance, and the end of election rigging. Even then, people should vote only for people who truly deserve their votes.


Is the war on corruption winnable?


Yes, it’s winnable…it is winnable, if there is the will. There have been attempts to curb bribery and corruption, which seem to be working. We have cases where people have been caught and arrested; that shows you that, sooner than later, things will improve. And we are beginning to see for ourselves, one by one, those who are corrupt, and those who are not.


On behalf of the Chinua Achebe Foundation, I thank Your Eminence.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.

Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Anthony Olubunmi Cardinal Okogie in Conversation with Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye