Fr Mbaka and the Prophetic Voice in Nigerian Politics, By Stan Chu Ilo
That Fr Mbaka’s New Year Oracle against President Goodluck’s bid for a Second term has attracted so much national interest reveals the far reaches of the influence of this richly blessed and gifted man of God. It is also significant that the two most senior Catholic clerics in Nigeria—our beloved Cardinal Onaiyekan and our irrepressible Archbishop Kaigama—have come out publicly and quickly to distance the Nigerian Catholic Church from Mbaka’s oracles. Mbaka, however, has never pretended to be the official mouthpiece of the Catholic Church in Nigeria. His messages are addressed to all people irrespective of denomination, religion or sect. But what do we make of such oracles as Mbaka’s especially if his recent New Year Oracle contradicts his previous message given three weeks before this one?
An important clarification needs to be made here which can help one to evaluate the credibility of the many voices of prophecy which are all fighting for space in influencing the outcome of the next presidential election in Nigeria. The first point is that prophecy is not prediction. On the contrary, prophecy is the reading of the signs of the times in the light of God’s will and Word.
Secondly, prophetic oracles are not fixed because it is based on the event as read in the light of God’s Word. God can promise to bless someone today, but then tomorrow the person loses the promise because of sin and disobedience. Because the people who receive prophetic oracles and the times in which they live continue to change based on the good or bad choices of people, the prophet must continue to monitor and interpret the signs of the times which may lead to a fresh re-reading of the events in the light of the Word of God. So it will not be out of character with the prophetic tradition for a preacher like Mbaka to give a new oracle which is different or opposed to the one he gave a month earlier. But how do we know that these things are not being fabricated and why should anyone fret about the changing oracles of any preacher man in Nigeria? This is a complex reality especially in our country where falsehood has eaten deep into our society—political and religious institutions and systems.
Indeed, there is a deficit of trust in these institutions and legitimate doubt about the character and credibility of utterances and oracles being made by religious leaders and ministers. This is unfortunate because many religious men and women are using the name of God in vain and fabricating miracles, oracles, and predictions to achieve a self-serving end. However, the gift of prophecy is still needed and can be found in the utterances of any preacher or serious Christian who is open to being used by the Holy Spirit who lavishes gifts of many kinds to all people.
Because most prophetic utterances relate to historical realities which affect the daily and future lives of people, many have come to associate prophecy with predictions about the outcome of an event ( for eg. an election), fortune-telling, and blessings or curse coming upon someone or some people in the future. But the biblical understanding of prophecy is quite different from this. The Bible identifies the prophet as a legatus divinus, the messenger of God; the bearer of an important revelation from God.
From a biblical perspective, prophecy relates to the mediation, transmission and interpretation of God’s will in the words and actions of men and women. The prophet is one who utters God’s Word and whose life reflects the will of God. He or she is chosen to speak on behalf of God in order to communicate to God’s people the will of God so that the people can respond in obedience to God in order to find the face of God and receive God’s blessing and avoid falling into the pit of sin and destruction. The prophet does not stand alone, he stands with God in the name of the community because the vocation of a prophet needs to be validated and received by the community. And every community of faith usually has to validate any prophecy based on the canons of faith accepted by the community of faith. Indeed, every community has a moral and spiritual responsibility of receiving, discerning, and judging the reality of the prophetic word for the good of the community.
This way, the community guards itself against false prophets and charlatans who may be angels of death in shinning amour. The prophets are standard bearers; they stand on the mountain top as sentinels of truth and bearers of light and hope which can help illumine the dark places of human history and human societies with the truth of God which alone can heal society and restore what is broken. Prophecy then relates to how God’s revelation is received, communicated and enacted in history. Prophecy may refer to the future but in a secondary way. It does not simply refer to a distant future, but to the immediate future and present realities to which God calls God’s people even though as we know that what we do today affects what happens to us tomorrow. Because Jesus Christ has revealed to the world all that we need to know about the God who we cannot see, and all that we need to know about our lives and our destiny, and because he has brought the whole of God in union with the whole of humanity, every utterance after his glorious resurrection are to be read in the light of what he said and did which has been entrusted to the faith community, the church.
There is also a second meaning of prophecy which is important in judging the quality of the utterances of those who claim to speak for God to our people in the confusion and complexity as well as the fear and anxiety surrounding the next general elections in Nigeria. French theologian, Yves Congar offers us some insight here which I will love to employ in this essay: (i) Congar proposes that prophets are individuals who are possessed by God, caught in the grip of God. Such individuals are so seized by God that they are lifted beyond themselves; (ii) prophets co-operate in being seized by God, that is they allow themselves to be used by God, and they think less of themselves and more about God, the good of others and how they can become instruments in God’s hand for mediating God’s purposes in creation.
In this regard, prophets free themselves from attachment to the things of the world, money, power, ego etc in order to be possessed by God; they open themselves to the experience of being converted, to the experience of being broken, humbled by divine love, and totally consumed by a single vocation of being used by God for realizing the divine purposes in the life of God’s people. Prophets, according to Congar, listen to the Word of God in multiple places and they allow the Word of God to dwell in them so that they can undergo a second conversion from self to God in order to better serve the community. (iii) The prophet dedicates himself or herself to completing the demands made on him or her by God.
Possessed by the revealed insight and empowered by the experience of rebirth, the prophet is distinguished by being fully committed to his or her mission irrespective of the obstacles they encounter. In this way, the prophet shines forth the truth of God first by his or her lifestyle which alone can illumine the complexities of history. Prophecy sometimes may not simply be words but counter-cultural deeds which contradict the decay in society. Prophecy is word and deeds which reflect authentically the Word of God to people and the will of God and the direction to attaining the values and virtues of the kingdom of God, the reign of peace, prosperity, righteousness and good of order.
From the perspective of biblical teaching, the entire baptized are called to be prophetic. Prophecy is not simply the claim or prerogative of a single individual; prophecy has a communal element in both discerning the voice of God and in enacting and living out this Word in concrete history. The Holy Spirit arouses Christians to prophecy spontaneously and occasionally as was witnessed in the New Testament. This prophetic function is primarily directed to equipping Christians to bear authentic and credible witness to the values and virtues of the faith through the service of love, reconciliation, justice, and peace. But the prophet is fundamentally one who reads the signs of the times and who is courageous enough to allow God to direct him or her in committing themselves to the construction of a better world through God’s grace. This calls for a spirit of humility and vulnerability. How does Mbaka and other men and women who are making predictions about the next election fit into this? I will give a few indications here to stimulate further conversation and input from other people better equipped spiritually and intellectually than me.
Mbaka is part of a growing number of priests, preachers, and ‘big men of the big God’ who have not only become powerful in Nigeria, but also command enormous following beyond Nigeria. These ‘men and women of God’ have assumed—for better or for worse—legendary and mythical status and inhabit hallowed sacred chambers with their miraculous powers, inspired and hope-filled messages, spiritual claims and their famed and unusual mysterious encounters with God. This is not unexpected in a country with no critical culture, blind faith, and often shallow catechetical formation. Such men and women of God like Mbaka command a strong following because gullibility have added to the vulnerability imposed on the masses of our people by poverty, inexcusable and worsening socio-cultural conditions. Like many other prophets and preachers in Nigeria with his kind of gifts, Mbaka is ministering hope to the hoi polloi who are latching on to anything which offers them a semblance of solidity and reliability as guide and source of consolation where other things, people, and institutional religions are failing them.
Recent Pew Research reveals that Nigeria still commands the top position as the most religious country in Africa with only 0.03% of Nigerians claiming that they have no religion. But religion has its limits and religion has often and continues to be abused in Nigeria and globally. This is why many people today no longer care much about religion because they are confused and tired of being misled. Given the high premium placed on God in Nigeria, it stands to reason that religious claims and counter-claims will continue to shape the texture of our national life; and that those who can somehow tap into this religious consciousness in a positive way have a better chance of impacting the lives of people in Nigeria for the better. This is why religious leaders and religious prophets like Mbaka are needed in our land. However, we need to hold them accountable and not simply savor without discernment any kind of prophetic staple which comes out from their spiritual perambulations.
Most of the prophets who are emerging today in the Christian Churches of Nigeria are unconventional; they read and interpret the bible in their own unique way, and have a different narrative map of the universe. They do not fit into anybody’s estimation or norms of traditional priest-craft whether in traditional Catholicism, Anglicanism or other forms of Protestantism. Particularly in the Catholic Church, the bourgeoning of Pentecostal and Charismatic priests in Nigeria and the rest of Africa from available research will challenge and may topple conventional Catholicism in many ways in the coming years. 40 years ago, Pentecostalism was considered something akin to sectarianism and craziness in Nigeria; today it has become the new face of Christianity and all of us are ‘dancing or bouncing in the Lord.’
Catholicism is defined by a clear/specific and normative interpretation of divine revelation, a solid structure of authority in the church, and systematically articulated canonical requirements and rules on virtually every item with regard to church and politics, priests and politics, the role of the laity in the society, and the channels of communication between the local church and state officials and the outside world. However, this Eurocentric pattern and model does not sufficiently take into consideration the fluidity and complexity of the situation in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. It does not sufficiently address the kind of limit situations many Nigerians are facing in their lives with regard to failed governments, ancestral curse, childless marriages, search for a life partner, witchcraft, maternal mortality, Ebola, joblessness among many other things. Our people are looking for hope and for a dynamic experience of God which transforms their lives and society from within and they are not finding it in controlled church structure and systems.
Mbaka and the rest are filling that void. Indeed, those priests like me and many Catholic bishops in Nigeria can only theologize and dogmatize about the lack of theological depth or lack of form in what Charismatic priests like Mbaka are doing, and the putative prophetic utterances which they make. However, if truth be told most Catholics and non-Catholics appear to listen more to Mbaka than to their bishops or parish priests; they will take their problems and grief to Mbaka with greater confidence than seek the counsel of bishops or Catholic scholars, church designated exorcists and trained systematic theologians. I have found many Catholics and non-Catholics in my travels in Canada, USA, Scandinavia, Western and Central Europe listening to Mbaka’s messages and songs. These messages and songs are among the top rated on Utube much more than some of the deep theological discourses of some of us theologians, normal everyday priests and bishops and lay experts on the true faith.
When I think of how far Fr Mbaka has come from our time in the seminary in Owerri and from his early beginnings from the humble family of Mbaka in Ituku, it is simply a testament to how much God can do with simple people, who in humility and total trust place their entire life and ministry in the hand of God. I have been with Mbaka several times and remember over ten years ago when we went for a short stay at a lodging facility run by the DDL sisters. We had a good and engaging long evening and went to bed late. However, I woke up the next morning and saw him prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament, clutching his Bible with tears in his eyes. He was in that posture for more than two hours and I really regretted making that journey with him because I wasn’t prepared for such long prayers or having to fast the whole day. I do have a very deep respect for Mbaka and thank God for the work which has been accomplished in him. He is a very deeply spiritual and prayerful priest who meditates daily before the Blessed Sacrament, a lover of the poor, and a friend of God. I have never seen anyone who has devoured the bible and committed it to memory as Mbaka except perhaps Bishop Eneja. Mbaka has always been a man in love with God’s Word.
What is however worrisome to me is his constant incursion into politics and especially the partisanship which he brings to his prophetic messages. Eight years ago Mbaka endorsed my good friend and town’s man, Aka Nso, to be the governor of Enugu state and this did not come to pass. I thought Mbaka’s credibility was in tatters but his followers still stuck to him because there is something about him which goes beyond his mistaken and unfortunate forays into politics. There are many other unfortunate examples which do not bear repeating here. But it is important that preachers and ministers be guided in their utterances by the Word and deeds of the Lord Jesus Christ and the wisdom of our Mother Church.
One of the amazing things about the example of the Lord is how he preached and confronted the forces of evil in his times and the political and religious class who held the people in bondage in biblical times. Jesus gave clear teaching and laid down principles for living well for society and individuals and warned people about the consequences of not living a good life or not living their lives according to God’s commandments and God’s will. He pronounced his famous ‘woes’ to those who were placing heavy burdens on the people something which Mbaka did so well in his New Year Oracle. However, Jesus was never partisan except by siding with the poor and the down trodden not only in his words but in his lifestyle. Jesus never undertook personal attacks on individuals nor did he degenerate into name calling. Rather the good Lord preached the Word of truth to everyone with love, showing them through images, symbols and parables the ugliness of their lives. His method of preaching and reaching out to the people pierced their conscience and in some cases hardened them even more against the messenger.
Jesus was courageous in confronting sinners, and the powerful political and religious leaders of his times. In each case, he gave them a mirror to judge their lives in the light of the reign of God. However, he was also strategic enough to apply the right balm to their wounded souls and the right remedy for their hardened consciences. He adopted prudential judgment in choosing the words to say, the occasion to say these words, and the best place to communicate the message. He was wise in his choice of words showing that he loved the sinners while hating their sins. In doing this, he invited all people to a new way of life and opened the doors of mercy to all. His message was convincing and attractive because it was so strong and so appealing. This way, he was able through the courage of the truth and the force of his character and credible life style to call the people to change their lives and surrender to God. Through his many sacrifices for the good of people, Jesus was able to summon people to follow him not as a temporary release from the pastiche of daily life, but as a radical and total commitment to bringing about the reign of God. Jesus was no soothsayer, who will adopt fetish release of birds (like Mbaka claimed he did to find out what God was saying about the choice of president for Nigeria) to find the face of God; his life was the very revelation of the Word of God; his life was the message.
There are few indications in the Bible for identifying false prophecies or false preachers. According to the foremost Catholic theologian, Aquinas, prophecy is a transient gift rather than a habit of the soul because it relates to temporal events interpreted through the Word of God. This is why preachers and prophets should rely solely not on their subjective judgments or interest in order to utter the Word from God. Prophecy is one of those gifts which are easily prone to abuse and falsehood because most of the times the preacher or prophet is also affected by the outcome of the prophecy. Hence there is a temptation to bend the Word of God to suit one’s interest—personal or cultural. In the Old Testament, false prophets were those who simulated prophetic gifts and thus uttered oracles which did not come to pass (Deut 18: 22). This does not include those ‘false prophets’ in whose mouths God put ‘false prophecies’ to test the fidelity of his people (Jeremiah 4: 10; I Kings 22: 19-23). False prophets subvert God’s Word and divine will.
False prophets are often deluded by their own selfish caprices and in the process deceive and mislead God’s people; false prophets also preach prosperity Gospel to sinful people rather than conversion of life (Isaiah 28: 7; Mic 3: 11). False prophets in biblical times uttered self-induced favorable oracles to curry favors from kings and sinful Israel and consciously misled the people for their own selfish benefits and gains. Scripture refers to false prophets as thieves (Ez 22: 20), immoral, unholy, venal, impious, liars, professionals and deceivers whose words did not come to pass and whose words and proclamation did not agree with God’s will and Covenant ( Jer 28: 9; Jer 29: 8-9; Deut 13: 1-6; I King 22: 6 etc). Jesus warns the Christians to beware of false prophets (Mtt 5: 7). How to guard against false prophecy in the church and society is a matter for another day but at least the community and the prophet are implicated in both prophetic proclamation, discernment and enacting of God’s Word in history. This should be the first principle for guarding against false prophecy in our churches and in our country. But what happens when our churches are as confused, conflicted and divided as the prophets we find in Nigeria?
It is obvious though that no human being can totally live like Jesus, but the good Lord calls us to follow him through radical obedience and to walk in truth, righteousness and justice. We cannot, therefore, throw away the baby and the water bath. We need maverick preachers and prophets like Mbaka in Nigeria today who will dare to challenge the status quo even though he appears to do so in an unorthodox and confusing way. Mbaka can be helped not by sanctions or interdicts which often shut down the voice of prophets in the church, but rather he needs a community of discernment around him. It could be made up of preachers, religious and laity with whom he can share the word of prophecy and discern collectively what God is saying before sharing it with the wider audience. He also needs help on method and needs to focus on what his vocation is through the Adoration Ministry. He cannot be all things to all; he will flounder overtime if he does not stick to one model of ministry. He needs a community so that he can be lifted above being a lone-ranger or a spiritual sole administrator or a daddy who listens only to himself and the adulation of followers. This could lead to pride of self and ultimately lead one away from God and the community.
I will like to add by way of conclusion that Mbaka’s changing prophetic oracles reflect the changing landscape of Nigerian politics and religion where nothing seems to stay the same. The Nigerian prophets are the product of the Nigerian culture. Nigerians move from one church to another and from one religion to another and one party to another and from one prophetic oracle to another based on economic interest, needs and other selfish reasons. We seem to be living in a country without any transcending national ethos; a country with no clear moral and spiritual or political leadership; a country constantly in search of her true soul; and a country where the expedient is always preferred to the true. We live in a country where nothing stays the same anymore, where there is no stability and where everyone seems on edge. It is not surprising that there are no enduring spiritual and religious traditions in our land, no one is passing on knowledge and practice to others and our people are longing more for quick and temporary solutions to permanent problems and for immediate gratifications rather than a disciplined and comprehensive approach to problem solving. This is why the Catholic Church and indeed all churches in Nigeria should rise above this confusion and become the true standard bearer of prophetic truth which lifts our gaze as a people beyond this veil of confusion and uncertainty even as we prepare for national elections.
It is not enough to condemn Mbaka for daring to be prophetic. Many people might claim that Mbaka has an inadequate grasp of the gift and content of authentic biblical prophecy needed for our troubled times in Nigeria. However, one may ask what alternative voices do we have from our churches who have dared to challenge whatever government in power whether at state, local or federal levels? Is it not true that most of our church leaders across denominational lines have been too acquiescent to the powers that be and have received so much monetary, car, plane, or land donations from those in power that they can no longer speak up for the suffering masses or condemn the failed ruling class who are responsible for the suffering and pain of most Nigerians.
What Mbaka says of the ruling party at the federal level is true! It is only in Nigeria that $20 billion will disappear from the national treasury and go unaccounted for and the people will be dancing on the street for leaders who preside over this rot. It is only in Nigeria that 100,000 barrels of our oil wealth will be stolen everyday for the last ten years totaling a loss of over 35 billion dollars and people will be praising the ruling party. It is only in Nigeria that military barracks will be sacked by insurgents and hundreds of our boys and girls are being kidnapped, killed, and married away and people pretend that all is well. It is only in Nigeria that the unemployment rate of Nigerians under 30 years of age will reach 50% and we are claiming that we have a democracy or a government.
Our country is very sick and we need prophets like Mbaka to remind us of how sick we are just in case our social conscience have been dulled by the tokens which we receive from governments in election years. As a prophet, Mbaka should simply read the signs of the times and proclaim as he has done that the present situation in Nigeria today is not from God and needs to be changed. However, whether the PDP or APC can change this unacceptable situation is an open question because we have a deficit of leadership, character, vision, and integrity across both aisles? Nigeria has an unworkable and deadening dysfunctional moral and spiritual deficit and it is a serious albatross to us all whether at home or abroad. No prophet has a mandate to compel the conscience of the people; prophets can only stir the conscience and steer the wills of the people to embrace the ways of God by by rejecting anything in their lives and societies—economic, governmental, religious, cultural or social—which is contrary to the reign of God.
Professor Stan Chu Ilo is a Research Fellow at the Center for World Catholicism and Inter-Cultural theology, of DePaul University, in Chicago, USA.