Andy Esiet, Calabar
Recently the Cross River State Chairman, Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), Dr. Lawrence Ekwok spoke with some newsmen in Calabar on the forthcoming 2023 general elections in Nigeria and the role of Christians touching wide range of issues like the Muslim Muslim ticket, June 26 PVC Sunday, vote buying and others, Excerpts :
The PFN recently took a resolution stating it’s position on the 2023 election, can you tell us more on this and what informed it?
On the 16th of June, we held a National Executive Council meeting of PFN in Lagos comprising all the 36 states Chairmen and Abuja, the FCT along with all the national officers led by the National President, Bishop Francis Wale Oke.
One of the resolutions taken in that meeting was to declare 26 June, which is the last Sunday of June Permanent Voters Cards, (PVC) Sunday in all Pentecostal churches. What that means is that leaders of churches are to ask their members to attend services with their PVCs. The essence of that is to be able to know how many of our members have PVCs and how many have not gotten theirs. That will accord us the opportunity to help those who have not had theirs get it. Ultimately, the idea is for us to have the statistics of how many church members are registered voters because we see a situation where we are likely going to vote for just one candidate so that we would know the number of votes we have, may be 10 million, 20 million, 30 million or whatever. This is what we are carrying out and this is what we are sure we are able to deliver. That is the essence why when we went back to our various states we mobilised our members, the national also mobilised and we are achieving results. That was the decision we took.
What is the statistics you have gathered so far?
The exercise will start this Sunday, 26 June. We are working hard and we are sure no matter the situation, we should be able to attain 70 percent mobilisation. We are receiving reports from across the states. In some cases some pastors are leading their members to registration centres- the exercise is massive and we are sure we would garner very high figures.
Before now some churches were not keen to mobilise their members, how do you intend to tackle the situation?
Let me begin with the position of PFN. As pastors, in the past we felt we should restrict ourselves to praying for leaders and only told our members casually to try and register and on election day go out and vote their conscience but like I told someone somewhere, we have realised that we are not doing our complete job. If you study the Bible you would see that prophets anointed kings. For example, Elijah anointed Jehu, Nathan anointed Solomon, Samuel anointed Saul and he also anointed David. You may ask what anointing is and I tell you anointing is the process of enthroning a leader like saying this is the authority God has given you and this is the way to lead the people. For us in PFN, we felt, having seen what we have seen these past years, the heat is on pastors and churches. Look, if you saw what happened in this church the past two Sundays after services, you would have seen the queues the crowd waiting to see pastors. Some had no need for counselling but stories like, “my children have been driven away from school, I cannot pay my rent and the landlord is driving me away, I have not eaten in the last two days” and so on. I can tell you the last two Sundays, they took less than 30 percent of what was taken to the bank because you cannot see someone who has not eaten for two days and you carry money and put in the bank for evangelism work. No. So we felt we should be more involved in the process of electing leaders who can attend to the needs of the people. That way we can take responsibility and that way if the person is not doing well, we would call him to order. We can tell him we helped put you there and if you don’t do well we will remove you in the next election. The reasons we look at these present leaders and allow them do what they are doing is because they know we did not have a part in putting them there. That is the reason they are doing what they are doing with ignominy. For instance if we play active role in electing a governor in 2023 and he knows our role we can tell him look, this is what to do and if he does not listen we can tell him in the next election we will remove you, he will sit-up. That is why we thought we should be part of the process. Christian leaders are no longer going to sit on the fence. We are not going to pretend about it. We are not voting for parties, we are voting for candidates We can vote for candidate A in presidential election in one party and another candidate in party B in the governorship election. We are going to operate according to our own convictions. We are not just going to decide who to vote for but we are interacting with them.
We are not just deciding who to vote but we are interacting with them. We are interacting with all key presidential candidates, we are also interacting with all key governorship candidates. As a matter of fact we have started in the state already. We met with one last week we are having another on Monday.
All I did in the state was to bring together twelve leaders of different churches with the widest spread of churches across the state. We are putting together a team that is strong enough to mobilise large numbers of voters and among them are pastors who have 500, 400, 300 branches across the state. Before I brought them I asked every one of them what his mind is and the response was, Chairman, where you lead us is where we are going…We met here took a decision to invite the candidates and one of them has come. One of the pastors told me, “my church has never been involved in election process but we assure you we are going to give you 300, 000 votes” and this a church where what their leaders say is what the members do. At the national level they have set up a strategy committee to interact with all presidential aspirants. We don’t just want to act based on sentiments but on facts. We ask them basic questions, “You have held office or this position before, what are your records and this is what you are promising to do, how do you want to achieve it?”. We want to be sure what the facts are before we take a decision – we are not going to sit on the fence anymore.
In 2019, I organized a Town Hall Meeting at Metropolitan Hotel and all the key governorship candidates came except the present governor and at the end of it, we were asked to announce our position but we played down on it because we had no clear directives from National but that has changed. This time we would tell everyone this is where we are going. So if we fail, yes, let us fail but let us vote for the person we are convinced about and fail rather than sit on the fence.
INEC says it will not decentralise the registration centres . What is your take on this?
INEC is under pressure because they did not envisage the upsurge in the number of people at the registration centres and do they have to restrategise? Somebody had asked why is it that one can open a bank account in one place and can operate it anywhere in the country yet that is not the case with PVC. Maybe with time they will take that into consideration but I think in the branches there is no limit to the number of voters to be registered unlike in the polling centres. Yesterday , one of my nephews went to one of the polling units and saw about 300 people waiting to be registered. I think with the appeal for an extension of the registration deadline and I hear they have been taken to court, they maybe an extension. INEC should be happy with the high turn out of eligible voters and if they fail to extend the period, then there is a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise voters. They should because there is still time; we have almost six months to election
I am particularly surprised with the high number of those without PVCs which is the reason it had been easy for some of those persons to do what they were doing. Look at what is happening in Benin, Lagos,Enugu and even Abuja. That shows that almost half of the voting population in Nigeria did not have PVCs. So let people think they would continue to do what they used to do. The game is up for them.
What is your position on Muslim- Muslim presidential ticket?
On the Muslim- Muslim presidential ticket, such a thought is the height of arrogance, it is the height of insensitivity, it is an insult to the body of Christ, an insult to the church. That is why they don’t want to insert the position for religion in the census. Let them put that even if some people bring fake figures to be counted, the world would know how many Christians are in Nigeria, how many Muslims, how many atheists we have. Why are they afraid? The truth is that Christians are in majority in this country. Our research team has found out that Christians are 54 percent of the population in this country, maybe more but not less. And if you want to win an election as President of Nigeria and you undermine 54 percent of the population are you ready for victory?
They think they would continue to do what they used to do like carrying ballot boxes and ballot papers to a particular place to thumbprint, then they have missed it. Look, because they could not do what they used to do they resorted to the use of money to buy votes. Even this use of money, if the EFCC is serious it will not happen. 2023 will not be business as usual. I read that one governor says he will deliver 100 percent votes to one presidential candidate and I said he will come and hold my hand to press for the candidate because if I don’t press for the person it is not 100. Some people just talk as if they are God. Do they bring the materials to your house and you thumbprint or how is he going to achieve that?
PFN and other Christian bodies did not do much to ensure the candidates of their choice emerge at primaries, why?
I agree with you. You probably would have a
heard of Greater Nigeria Project (GNP). That is the focus body to be able to raise Christian leaders into parties to become candidates. In Cross River State, we sent a number of people to contest the primaries but because we went late, we couldn’t make any serious impact. We had aspirants for House of Assembly, House of Representatives and even governorship but because we did not start early, we were unable to have delegates to vote for them.
If you give us another eight years, the story will not be the same. There is along term plan and a short tem plan. It is either we adopt a party for Christians or a strategy where we can successfully field candidates to contest elections.
Vote buying what is your take on it?
Our duty is to tell our members don’t accept money to vote for anyone because you are selling your destiny or selling your future. Actually it is your money that was stolen. These people distributing this money, you as journalist carry out research on their background, how rich were their parents? Where did they inherit the money? And you will discover that it was actually your money they stole after they held government positions to become billionaires. So if you must collect money, collect and eat it but don’t vote for them.
I like the revolution that is going on now, “I no dey give shishi”.
Do you know the money some of these people have stolen is enough to establish several industries that can employ millions of Nigerians?
Giving the rate of poverty in the country, what welfare programme do churches have for their members?
Welfare for members, every serious Pentecostal church has a welfare unit. Before I became pastor, I was Chairman of our church welfare committee where we raised money on some specific Sundays and we identified those who had challenges. We did so with widows, orphans and so on but as times got harder where everyone is affected you can hardly have enough to go round- that is the situation. You will see people who have lost jobs because companies have shut down, people who finished school ten, five years ago without jobs… Churches are going through a lot because of the difficult times. They are making do with what is available. Churches rely on tithes and offerings but if a person has no job, how would he give as offering?
As a person, my wife and I decided that within our life time, we should be able to train a minimum of 1,000 people through the University and also a minimum of one thousand people to acquire skills. Most of those working with me, I picked them from secondary schools and saw them through the University and the question is, do we have enough to achieve that objective? So to do the best we can we just pick one, two three in a year. Also in the church, we take some people to train in the University and some to acquire skills but the resources are not enough to meet the needs of everyone.