Bishop JOSEPH EKO NWIKONZOR, the Presiding Bishop, World Harvest Glorious Assembly, Inc, Bori, Rivers State, Chairman, Rehabilitation Committee, Ogoni Peace Project, in this interview with NWIILE DIIGBO ZINI, in Port Harcourt, discusses his mandate and how his Church has taken advantage of the Rivers State Amnesty Programme to bring repentant cultists to Christ.
Sir, what was the situation in Rivers State like before the Church decided to intervene in the case of repentant cultist?
Some years back, Rivers State generally, was submerged in inter and intra cult related crises. The case was so bad to the extent that, most of our communities were completely sacked, lives were maimed, people were killed and dehumanized, property worth hundreds of millions of naira were destroyed.
Aside from that, Churches in the local communities suffered also. Many innocent Christians were killed and their property damaged. Some pastors were kidnapped also. Crusade, fellowships and other evangelical activities were halted in many communities.
In such seemingly hopeless scenario, God spoke to some of us to do something about the crises. We had consultations among ourselves. We consulted other stakeholders also. We got the Government involved. In 2017, the government of Rivers State introduced the Amnesty Programme for repentant cultists and criminals. Thousands of cultists embraced the programme. But, unlike the rehabilitation government did, I decide to tackle the problem differently by bringing repentant cultists to Christ first, before rehabilitation and re-integration. That’s why we succeeded.
Looking back now, can you say that security in the state has improved? What exactly, you have done that is different from what the State government is presently doing to rehabilitate repentant criminals and cultist?
Well, the insecurity in the state is not completely wiped out. There are still pockets of security challenges here and there. But there is a huge difference between what it was then and what it is now. With God’s support, my Church has been able to achieve relative success because we trained the boys beyond mere skill acquisition. We brought them first to Jesus Christ who says, “I come to save the lost”. So, the first we did was to deliver them to Christ.
You see, when government launched the amnesty programme, many of the “Jesus Boys”, as these repentant boys and girls are now called, were skeptical to embrace the programmes, considering the insincerity of government in previous instances. So, I decided that the Church must be involved to help strengthen the confidence of the boys. I personally took upon myself the task of meeting the boys in the creeks and bushes, no matter the remoteness of their camps. I interacted with them and assured them that government is honest with the programme and that Jesus Christ is ready to accept them, despite the fact that they have been rejected by their parents and even the society.
They believed me. Then I began to prioritize them according to their needs before deciding how to train and reintegrate them. It was after meeting the boys, I discovered that, giving them mere vocational skills will be useless without first giving them Bible-based moral and spiritual rehabilitations. This approach, which even the government never contemplated, I think, made all the difference. I am happy to tell you today, that many of these young men and women who once kidnapped pastors, burn down communities, disrupted crusade and Church services and communities are now believers, evangelists and even pastors bringing others to Christ. That’s amazing. The greatest mandate God gave me was that I should bring sinners to Christ. What I am doing now is part of that mandate.
Sir, considering the successes so far, some think the government of the State has been giving you some material support. What’s your take on that?
We are deeply grateful to the Rivers State Government who opened the window of Amnesty through which we saw the problem on ground. But aside from that, I am yet to receive any material support from the state government. The best of support we have got so far, is not from the government but from some public-spirited individuals, institutions and some faith-based NGOs. For instance, when we had the need to train the boys in discipleship and character development we partnered with Ogoni Peace Project; the peace-building arm of Bori Business School. We also sought help from the University of Nations (UN) for the training of the boys. Youth with a Mission International (Y-WAN) and the University of Nations offered the initial scholarships to the boys. In fact, I can’t find a suitable word with which to express my sincere gratitude to REV. PAUL DANGTOUMDA, whose generosity and openness know no bounds. The management of Bori Business School, under its provost, PRINCE DAVID GBARATO and the President Ogoni Peace Project, CHIEF BARINUA NWIKPONEE also deserved my thanks. They proved very supportive in many ways. Every member of World Harvest Glorious Assembly contributed to help our efforts bear fruits because we had little support from outside the Church.
It is on record that several amnesty programmes have been launched without success. To what will you attribute the failure of government to make such programme work and how did you succeed with little materials at your disposal and no government support?
I think the reason why most government amnesty deals fail in this country is that, they are usually poorly planned and poorly implemented. Even when government puts billions of naira into such programmes, the political will is not always there. By the grace of God, I have had the opportunity to visit and minister in Malaysia, South Africa; and some other countries and have seen how deviant young people are rehabilitated and re-integrated. Globally, amnesty programmes are intended to maximally reduce crimes, turn lawbreakers into productive members of the society. To achieve these goals, training and rehabilitations are often holistic.
For example, the South African Amnesty Programme in 2003, had key components like, strong political will to reduce violent crimes, amnesty acceptance, retrieval of weapons and enrolment, character reformation and development through religious training, psychotherapy, social welfare services and faith-based training. After all these, people were then given life-basic skills and then re-integrated into the society. That was why South Africa got almost 80% success.
But, here in Nigeria, the story is far from being successful. Nigeria’s amnesty programmes are only based on skill training and payment of monthly stipends. Character reformation and development which is supposed to be the foundation of rehabilitation is left out. But, settling cultists, criminals or other socially deviant young people with mere cash or skill, as far as I know, does not reduce crime but only encourages it. So, instead of leaving crimes, some young people take to a life of crime so that the government can call them and settle them with cash. For any amnesty deal to produce desired result, it must be faith-based as well as holistic. This is exactly what World Harvest Glorious Assembly is doing in collaborations with Ogoni Peace Project, Bori Business School and some faith-based NGOs. This is why we are getting result where many have failed. This is why the boys are leaving the bushes and creeks to embrace not just the programme but Jesus Christ who forgives sinners.
So, what message do you have for Nigerian youth generally?
My message goes first to the Jesus Boys (and girls) of Rivers State. I strongly caution them never to return to their vomit no matter the temptation as heaven and earth have celebrated them for their bold steps to drop their axes, guns and matchetes to embrace Christ. They must stand firm as a challenge to all other young people across the country yet to denounce cultism and criminality.
To the generality of the Nigeria youths, especially Christian youths, they should know that the country is warming upon for elections. I advised them to take active part in the electoral process to elect credible leaders. But they should not allow themselves to be recruited by politicians for violent purposes. Many of our youths have spilt more than enough blood in the name of politics. We do not want that to repeat itself. We cannot be complaining about unemployment in Nigeria while our youth continue to kidnap or chase away investors. No matter how long any person may have traveled in the darkness of violent crimes and cultism, we are saying: come, Christ is prepared to wash you clean of your sins.
In case any repentant cultist or criminal wants to get rehabilitated or in case an individual or group wants to support your rehabilitation project, how can you be reached?
Our door is open. We welcome prayers, moral and material supports. We desire to see more individuals and organizations stepping forward to partner with us to train and assist more of these repentant boys and girls. We will also want to collaborate with public-spirited individuals, governments and faith-based NGOs in order to increase and sustain the relative peace and security we now enjoy in Rivers State.
We can be reached through this address: World Harvest Glorious Assembly Inc. No.1 Lipnee Street, Opp. Kenpoly, P.O. Box 324, Bori – Ogoni, Rivers State, Nigeria.
Tel: + 234-8036688316