Encountering Akinola, Part one

This is the first of a two-part article.

By Frederick Quinn

Abuja, Nigeria, March 25, 2000

The taxi’s window fell out as we sped down Herbert Macauley Way. Past slower vehicles with window stickers like “Oh, the Saviour,” “God is My Co-Pilot, or “Sharia, Our Pride, Their Fear.” Past the Twins Plus Ice Cream Shoppe and the More Blessings Car Wash, and buildings under construction or left abandoned in Nigeria’s new federal capital.

In 1979 the rulers of Africa’s largest state, seeking to overcome North-South, Muslim-Christian, desert-rain forest differences, began moving the capital from crowded, coastal Lagos to the sparsely settled interior. Oil is king in Nigeria and, although gasoline is cheap, a truckers’ strike had caused forty car lines ups at gas pumps the week I arrived.

Flat and dry, Abuja was “big bush” before government ministries came north. Now it contains the sprawling headquarters of the President, National Assembly, and Judiciary, various ministries, and housing for civil servants. Mansions of the wealthy, topped with razor wire, stand among crowded tin shacks. Decades of military rule have squeezed the middle class badly, contributing to the appeal of Muslim fundamentalism in parts of the country. The Anglican Church of Nigeria created a missionary presence in Abuja in 1979, a new diocese in 1989, then moved its headquarters to the city now spread over a forty square mile grid. Abuja has no center, few distractions, and, unlike Lagos, surprisingly little traffic.

I had come to the wrong cathedral for the Archbishop’s Installation. The taxi driver had arrived at “the church with bumps in front of it,” the former cathedral was now reduced to parish status, since it could only accommodate a thousand persons each at its 8 and 10 am Sunday services. “The feast is not here, I will show you where it is,” a choir member told me, packing his robes into our rattling taxi. We sped in 100-degree heat far beyond the town’s edge to Life Camp, a government housing settlement. On the way to the church we passed a Fulani shepherd, thin and emaciated, with his slowly moving herd, grazing on such grass as the barren soil provided. The image returned to me later during the service as in a lilting voice, an African bishop repeated the passage from John’s Gospel about Jesus telling his followers three times “Feed my sheep”

“Why was the cathedral built out here?” I asked. “Because the government gave us land,” the choir member replied. Would there be African or English-language hymns? The choir member, who repairs Mercedes cars during the week, said, “English, this is a national service, but we will have lots of African music too.” The Cathedral, larger and longer than a football field, was overflowing an hour before the service. A huge but simple wooden cross, made of intersected tree trunks, extended from the plywood-paneled chancel walls. Draped from it were thick streamers of gold, purple, and white metallic cloth. The local architect, with whom I spoke, was faced with the challenge of a large space, a low budget, and local materials. His solution was a rectangular, high-ceilinged building with many windows to break up the surface. A team of young professional church members produced the design fee-free and saw the complex project through to completion. In addition to worship space for over three thousand seated persons, it has an adjoining forty seat meeting room for the Cathedral Standing Committee, a nine-story bell tower with offices, a residential compound, parking lot, and generator house to hold a much-used stand-by generator.

In a country known for corruption and inefficiency, the project “received the contributions of reputable companies who gave out generous discounts in materials purchased,” a church publication explained, adding, “All the provisions for worship, you name them, the doors, down lighters, clerestory windows, Holy Table, the marble floor, the air-conditioned ambient space, etc., all complete the soul-stirring experience and inspire sober reflection in worshipping God in the beauty of His Holiness.” Nigerian English is colorful and focused. A newspaper account said, “The mosque gulped up six million naira.” (Nigerian money) Another noted, “the legislator tramped on the intestines of his opponent” in debate. A roadside painted sign said “Emir’s Palace. Move on.”

The presentation service, which began at 10 am Saturday, March 25, 2000, took six hours, and included twenty-two hymns with no verses omitted. Three processions moved three-hundred and fifty participants into the church, including twenty justices of the Supreme Court and other courts in black robes trimmed in gold, and wigs, bibs, and striped trousers. Vergers in white robes and purple capes trimmed with scarlet, who pointed long verges decisively toward the crowd if the latter impeded the procession’s stately flow, led processions. A large choir, in the robes of many parishes, moved toward the chancel, as did seventy bishops, for whom flamingo pink plastic chairs had been set in place.

Two distinct services flowed into one. The Protestant, evangelical element, part of the old Church Missionary Society (CMS) British heritage was evident in Gospel preaching (all Biblical quotations were followed by a verbal numerical citation) and Victorian call-to-action hymns. Most bishops wore low church clerical garb and some parishioners carried notebooks to record “Sermon points and biblical quotations.” The African element was the service’s growing energy and some of the music. A brass band supported the hymns, and later added drums.

Not for a minute was the service chaotic; it had a carefully planned flow and Archbishop Peter periodically barked out commands from a large, multi-stepped marble throne to red, purple, or black-clad acolytes who went flying. Every ethnic dress of Nigeria was represented, flowing blue northern robes, elaborately folded Yoruba headpieces, floppy colorful Cross River pajama-like outfits, and ladies in resplendent tailored robes and matching wide-brimmed English hats. Members of the Mothers’ Guild wore distinctive headdress and wrap-around skirts. The cloth had a map of Nigeria, with a mother and child superimposed on it, and the caption, “With Love Serve One Another, Mothers Union and Women’s’ Guild, Diocese of Abuja (Anglican Communion) Gal. 5: 13b.”

The Minister of Defense, representing the President, who was out of the country, read the prayers of the people. Archbishop Akinola had met earlier in the week with the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian and the first non-Muslim elected to run the country in a free election. The Archbishop, who had a close relationship with the chief of state, later told me, “For the first time we have a Bible-believing Christian as president. He believes he has a mission to recreate Nigeria, to take it out of the mess it has been left in by Muslim leadership.”

The Presentation Sermon: Archbishop Akinola’s Five Points for the Future of Nigeria

Of medium height, Bishop Peter was a prelate of fierce energy. His presentation sermon on March 25, 2000 at the Cathedral Church of the Advent carefully laid out his future program, although no one listening that Saturday morning would have predicted the controversy he would ignite for his unyielding opposition to homosexuality, his active support for irregularly ordained bishops and breakaway parishes in America, and for his sustained criticisms of the Archbishop of Canterbury and presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church in the USA. Punctuating his carefully organized and vigorously delivered sermon with lively gestures and carefully-drawn word picture, he drew audible responses from the overflow congregation.

“Our church is the fastest growing Anglican Church in the world,” the Archbishop began, “faster growing than Canada, Great Britain, and the United States combined.” Using a text recommended by one of his children, the Prelate spoke on “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” “Nigerians must find a way out of this big jungle of sin, greed, and selfishness,” he began, lamenting “the level of corruption in this country.” Next he presented a five-point vision statement encompassing spirituality, evangelism, institution building, external mission, and finances. “Your destiny is in your hands,” he said, looking at his hands, lifting them up and down quickly, adding, “God is colorless. To answer many of our problems we must have sheer hard work.” As for stewardship, he remarked, “There are bishops who have not been paid for fourteen months. How can we say we are good stewards?” (In Nigeria junior clergy are paid $50 a month, bishops $150, plus housing, and a vehicle if the parish can afford it. Such figures are roughly comparable to low and mid-level government salaries.)

On external missions, the Archbishop said it was time for the church to think of sending missionaries to places like the Sudan, Rwanda, Botswana, and India. He said nothing about America. Adding a note about church quarrels, he remarked, “I do not have time for your quarrels, the church has too much work to do.” Pointing to the robed Supreme Court justices, he told the congregation, “If you say unjust, untrue things about your bishops, you will be in trouble with them.” The remark brought applause and laughter. At the service’s end, the Primate asked bishops and clergy to rise and take an oath they were not now or would not become members of a secret society, a problem in some parts of the country.

Slowly a drumbeat came in under the closing prayers. The choir, having earlier sung Handel’s coronation anthem, “Zadok the Priest,” began gliding to both sides, snapping fingers, and turning. Trumpets and a saxophone picked up the African rhythm. The Primate, resplendent in purple cope and miter with a sun and shooting stars, danced his way down the chancel. The House of Bishops followed, left, left, drop step. Right, right, drop step. Moving forward to meet them was the congregation, and diplomatic corps. A holy hubbub continued for several minutes while the crowd danced toward the third set of offering baskets to appear during the service.

At lunch following the service, three hundred people gathered over jollof rice and okra stew at the Sheraton Hotel. I sat between two bishops from Northern Nigeria, where possibly a thousand persons had been killed in Muslim-Christian riots, caused in part by the introduction of the Sharia, traditional Islamic law. “The big thing now is to restore trust. It will take a long time,” the Bishop of Wusawa, the Rt. Rev. Ali B. Lamido, remarked, noting that during the recent riots several bishops, there for a synod, were stranded at his house for several days, unable to leave the premises.

“Suddenly we saw some fanatics surging towards us. We had to turn back. Some of our colleagues who came by air had to stay in police custody,” the Rt. Rev. Peter Adebiyi, Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Lagos West, recalled. The consensus seemed to be this was a political, not a religiously motivated disturbance, fanned by crowds of unemployed, poorly educated young people. In the South, Muslims and Christians have lived together peacefully for generations. “We have to,” one bishop told me.

In February 2006 Muslim-Christian riots once more broke out in Nigeria. Akinola’s unequivocal response was a widely circulated letter. “May we at this stage remind our Muslim brothers that they do not have the monopoly on violence in this nation,” he wrote in his role as president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, adding if intimidation from Islamic fundamentalists continued, “C.A.N. may no longer be able to contain our restive youths should this ugly trend continue.” In a personal conversation during our March 2000 meeting, I asked him if a Christian-Muslim dialogue was possible. (A local Muslim leader had told me such an encounter with Christians would be welcome.) Akinola replied briskly that such a step would be ill advised, that problems between Christians and Muslims were grossly exaggerated, stirred up by a few militant Muslims. The Nigerian Christian Assembly, in failing to elect him a second term as president in June 2007, pointed to two issues, his insensitive remarks toward Muslims, and his closeness to the outgoing president.

Akinola was also widely criticized abroad for enthusiastically supporting Obasanjo’s proposed legislation making any expression of homosexual activity a crime in Nigeria. The draft law included a five year prison sentence for those who through media or in public demonstrate “amorous same-sex relationships, directly, indirectly, or otherwise.” In his “Message to the Nation” dated February 25, 2006, the Archbishop said, “The Church commends the law-makers for their prompt reaction to outlaw same-sex relationships in Nigeria and calls for the bill to be passed since the idea expressed in the bill is the moral position of Nigerians regarding human sexuality.” He had said earlier said “Homosexuality or lesbianism or bestiality is to us a form of slavery, and redemption from it is readily available through repentance and faith in the saving grace of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.”

Akinola’s comments in this vein directly contradicted Lambeth resolution 1.10 of 1998 that included provisions to encourage greater understanding of various expressions of human sexuality. The Episcopal Bishop of Washington, John Bryson Chane, wrote of the draft Nigerian law, “The archbishop’s support for this law violates numerous Anglican Communion documents that call for a ‘listening process’ involving gay Christians and their leaders. But his contempt for international agreements also extends to Articles 18-20 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which articulates the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, association and assembly…. Have we become so cowed by the periodic eruptions about the decadent West that Archbishop Akinola and his allies issue that we are no longer willing to name an injustice when we see one?”

Tomorrow: The archbishop’s past and future.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn, formerly a Cathedral Chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, has lived for several years in Africa as an American diplomat and holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was a visiting scholar at the African Studies Center. Dr. Quinn, who spent eight weeks in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2000, has written extensively on African affairs, including two books, Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People From the Continent of Africa (Crossroads, 2002) and “In Search of Salt,” Changes in Beti (Cameroon) Society, 1800-1960 (Berghahn Books, 2006) and has published articles in the Journal of African History, Africa, Cahiers d’études africaines, Afrika und Ubersee, Tariqh, Abbia, and the International Journal of African History.

Past Posts