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My Mom Couldn’t Recognise Me After 11 Years - Apostle Sunday Popoola
The President, Word Communication Ministries (WOCOM), Apostle Sunday Popoola, opens up on his private life, Boko Haram, leadership generally, among other issues, in this interview with BAYO ALADE, KUNLE ODEREMI and SAHEED SALAWU. Excerpts:
What can you recollect about your childhood days?
My very early childhood days were not very pleasant. My mom was separated from my dad before I was one year old. My Mom dropped me with my grandmother before I was old enough to be conscious of myself. My grandmother died, so, I found myself with my Mom in her new husband’s house. I enjoyed those times. Then, my dad came to pick me after about four years. He took me to his village and dumped me there. So, I never really lived with my mom or dad after that. Then, when my uncle I lived with died, I had to come to Ibadan to live with my dad. Therefore, my childhood days were filled with ups and downs; separation from my parents. There was a period I never saw my mom for 11 years. And even the day my mom was seeing me for the first time after those 11 years, she did not recognise me. She was coming to my secondary school after she found out where I was. I was the only one on the road to our school, and she and a relation of hers were coming. When I saw them, I knew, that was my mom. But then, she stopped and asked for me from me. I think that was a very embarrassing moment for her. She said, ‘do you know one boy called Sunday Popoola’. I looked and said, ‘I am’. And she broke down – she started crying. It would have been easy for her if it was somebody else who would lead her to me, but for her to be asking for me from me was very embarrassing to her.
At what age did you start schooling?
I can’t remember precisely when I started primary school. It was on and off, but I know I started secondary school at 15 because of the instability I told you about.
How was your performance in class?
In secondary school, I was always between the first and third positions. In the final examination, the school certificate examination, I was one of those who had the best result – Grade One.
What do you think accounted for your brilliance?
It was the grace of God. In those days too, for me to be kept in secondary school was the grace of God. I say this because it was difficult to pay my school fees owing to what was going on at home: my mom was not there; my dad was married to another woman, who was giving me a tough time. But the principal of my school, who happened to be a relation, kept me in school. Rather than send me out with other students, he would travel a distance to come and talk to my dad concerning my school fees. I think the hand of God was actually trailing my life all along so, I was kept in secondary school. I was doing very well. Those were the things that really compensated. I was a star in the school. I must tell you, I enjoyed my secondary school life thoroughly. I was loved by a lot of students all around me. I was like a little celebrity in the school.
Did you miss your mom for the long period she was out of your life?
As a child, I may not really have known, but when a mother is not there, there is obviously a vacuum left in your life. There are certain things that come from the mother to the child. Apart from the care that comes from the mother, there is an emotional connection that you draw from your mother which strengthens you emotionally and balances your emotional development. All those things were missing, but as a child, you never knew you were missing anything much.
What provided escapism or distraction for you in those years?
Do I really know? I am not sure! As a young boy, I was just free, living my life. Whichever way it came, I just took it. I just lived.
But you must have played some pranks as a child...
Luckily, maybe by divine hand, I was just a normal, ordinary moral child. I never really played any pranks. I am not claiming I was holy. There must have been some amount of little fighting, but God preserved me somehow. I just lived a normal child’s life.
Did you have any relationship with your stepmom?
Yes, I did. In the house, I was the servant – I did everything. She actually told me that I was going to be the slave of her children. And she made sure that all the period I was with her, I was the one doing everything around the house. She had three boys. That was the kind of relationship we had. I was at her mercy.
Did you contemplate running away?
It never crossed my mind. I didn’t know where my mom was. Where would I want to run to? I didn’t know any relation that I could run to, and here was my father. So, I had to stay with him and go to school. I don’t know how God did it, but such things never crossed my mind.
Did you have any hero who you wanted to be like someday?
There was no one that I can think of right now. I just knew inside me that I was going to be great. When I was to go to secondary school at age 15, my stepmother told me that I would never go to school because I was going to be slave to her boys. She said if she could not prevent me, she would consult the elders. I looked at her – a young boy of 15 – and said, ‘You don’t know the kind of person God has made me. Before your eyes, I will go’. And I went. There was nobody I could say I was looking up to, but right inside me, I just felt a sense of greatness. I still feel it.
Was there any pleasant thing about your stepmother that you can remember?
There is no single individual that is utterly bad; that has no good side, even armed robbers. There was one ... Anini, who used to steal money and then go to places where peasants lived and begin to throw the money at them. Definitely, there were good things about her. Even though I helped to do all the cooking, she still fed me. My father must have put down the money, but she was in charge. If she said I would not eat, what would I do?
When you left secondary school, what did you do next?
I worked in National Bank for two years. Then, I proceeded to the Polytechnic, Ibadan, for two years. And then, I went to the University of Lagos to study Chemistry.
In other words, you were a science student right from the secondary school...
When I was in secondary school, coincidentally, I was good all round. I led in History, Chemistry, Biology – I was good both in the sciences and the arts. But in those days, we had no mentors. Nobody was telling us about passion, career and so on. But you were respected among your colleagues when you said your combination was Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. We thought those were the things. So, I just put all the sciences together. If I had known that I was going to be a preacher, I probably would have combined R.K. (Religious Knowledge), English, which were more relevant. But in my ignorance, I just put all of that together, and I wanted to be either a pilot or a doctor.
But what did you have in mind when you got to the university?
By the time I got to the university, things had changed. I had understood life better. But because of what I was studying, I still thought of being a medical doctor; set up a big hospital, you know, make money and enjoy my life. The alternative was to be a big-time businessman, make money and enjoy my life. The other alternative was to be a politician and become the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Then God intervened, and I am a preacher, a kingmaker.
At what point did you begin to drift towards priesthood?
Actually, I got born again while I was in the Polytechnic, Ibadan. I started growing spiritually. I began to understand how to hear from God. I began to understand that there is purpose for living; God has a plan for you; God has a purpose for you; and how you can find out the purpose. It was during that period that everything just changed; I started to know that I was going to be a preacher.
After you left university, did you bother to look for a job?
Before I left university, I was already trying to get into industrial chemistry, set up a soap industry, but I gave up all on that because the calling of God had become very strong. So, I didn’t bother to go on. I just went into ministry.
How much politics were you involved in during your university days in the student union?
Coincidentally, I was a Christian Union member., and in those days, we didn’t know as much as we know now. In those days, most of us believed that politics was a dirty game and Christians should not play it because it would take you into iniquities. I was a very committed Christian and I served in the leadership of the Christian Union. I was the student evangelism leader. I went from church to church all over Lagos, helping them to train and set up their Sunday schools. So, I never had time for politics then.
You said earlier that there was no career counselling during your secondary school days. Would you say things are better in that direction in schools in contemporary times?
I would say they are better. I think there is something God has done in these times like my church. I don’t think even a university can compete with this church with the level of knowledge that is passed down to people. The members are trained in the choice of a career; they are trained in how to run a marriage; they are trained in how to do their work and excel; they are trained in fact that life is about contribution rather than what you take. So, many things that people never learn from the university, they are learning from the church. All the children passing through this place already know that it is not about Physics, Chemistry, Biology and such other stuff. They already know that where you were coming from, God gave you a particular gift that would enable you to contribute to life in a significant way, and that that gift of God is your divine configuration, which is unique, and that it is revealed through your passion. So, in the choice of career, they are being trained in how to know what their passion is. So, the choice of the course to take in the university or career to pursue has to be trailed along the line of their passion. Everybody is helped to actually choose a career based on their inward design – what they were created to do on earth, contribute to humanity and make the world a better place.
How would you describe the state of things in the country when you were in the university?
Let me start from even the food from the polytechnic to the university. We had three meals a day, at affordable rates. We had three-course meals. I remember in those days, we had a kind of an appetizer, we had the major meal, then ice cream, like a dessert, and of course, unlimited tea. You just go there and you take as many cups of tea as you want. It is far from that today. Most of the universities don’t have a proper cafeteria anymore. Now, you have students cooking in their hostels and those kinds of stuff. In those days, you didn’t have to cook in your hostels because you had well-organised cafeteria.
What went wrong and at what stage?
Things began to change in this country when the military took over. Actually, our economic problem began in 1983. About that time, we were told that milk was equivalent of 50 kobo in Ghana. And then we thought, ‘Ah! That can never be in Nigeria’. But before the end of that year, the price of milk rose. And we thought, ‘It’s temporary. With time, it’s going to come down’. Since that time till I am talking to you right now, it has not come down. It was about that time that more problems began to set in. A lot of the things students were enjoying started to be withdrawn from the universities and even from life generally. And things have grown worse.
We have had Christians and Muslims as leaders. Despite our religious tendencies, why has our situation not changed?
How do you know a devout Muslim or Christian? You know a devout Christian by his actions, by his work. I am not judging anybody, but I am only saying that religion is not what we are talking about. The fact that people proclaim to be Christian or Muslim is not what makes them godly. I am sure there are true Christians who have occupied positions and done excellently well and there are others who claimed to be Christians, who have been disasters. Being a true Christian is a matter of a personal encounter with God. I can also say that a tree does not make a forest. It doesn’t matter if a Christian is the governor or president; it takes more than a governor or president to rule well. What if he means well; has great vision and is committed, but all the others that are politically appointed are devils, who don’t share his vision? If he is trying to move the nation forward and others are trying to pull it down, there is not much he can do. Sometimes, we have very good Christians who might be president, governor or local government chairman or someone occupying a strategic position: they are visionary, they are committed; they want to do it, but the people around them, the party stalwarts begin to place a demand that many of them could not say no to, and that is how they degenerate in their governance.
Don’t you think the followers too constitute a major problem?
An irresponsive people would produce an irresponsible government. We Nigerians are very irresponsive in the sense that we exhibit ignorance whether the leaders do right or wrong. We never call for accountability. Rather than call for accountability, we see rogues and hail them as heroes. We are very irresponsive. We don’t talk when we should talk. We don’t act when we should act. Whatever they do, we just leave them. So, there is no way we would not produce irresponsible government. Many of us don’t know who our representatives in the wards are. We don’t know who our senators are. I have lived in England. My Member of Parliament comes to see me. He would send letters. He would want to know what I have to say about government. He expects me to call him to question, but not in Nigeria. They are servants and they should be called to question. Thank God things have improved by the last election. Thank God for President Goodluck Jonathan. At least where I voted, people came out very well to vote and a number of us stood there and made sure the votes were counted before our very eyes. When the final results came out, we wanted to how they would compare. It wasn’t very perfect, but that was an improvement over the past. In the past, I found out that a lot of the elite, intelligent people did not go out to vote. So, the politicians just went about distributing paltry sums of money to people who didn’t know right from wrong, area boys.
Was that not because people were poor?
Yes, poverty is a contributor to that situation, but I think the major contributor is ignorance. If the poor is well-informed, he would know that one of the fastest ways to change his plight is to have a visionary leader; a visionary governor, a visionary president. There is so much that the leadership can do in alleviating poverty. For instance, this nation has enormous wealth, which can be put into the provision of infrastructure and everybody would be able to work and generate enough money to leave the poverty level and even contribute to the growth of the economy of this nation. Nigerians are intelligent, hardworking, industrious people. But because the government is able to get money to run itself from oil without the productivity of the people, they have ignored the people. Whether Nigerians are productive or not, they can’t be bothered because they have plenty of money to spend to run government. And of course, about 80 per cent of the income of this country is used to run government. The country is rich but the people are poor because the wealth is spent on running government. But in civilised countries, the bulk of the money is used to provide infrastructure.
Actually, a nation thrives and prospers essentially through the productivity of the people, especially small scale industries. In Nigeria, all the small industries are dead because there are no infrastructure. Look at the issue of lack of power, for instance. There are people who live comfortably, send their children to good schools through mere production of ice blocks. The job a welder should deliver in two weeks, now, it would take four months. Lack of power has killed all the factories that are run in this country and government can’t be bothered because they have enough money to run on through oil. Sometimes, you really want to ask: has this oil that God has blessed us with been a blessing in our lives? Or we have turned it into a curse, because probably if we didn’t have oil, we would have been more sensible. After all, in those days, our main source of income was through the export of agricultural products. Those were the days the schools were well funded. Life was sweet. Why is it that now that we have free money is when we are suffering?
How do we get past these problems?
Well, we continue to pray and encourage and strengthen the hand of government because I believe God and we the people have given the power of the nation to our leaders. They should act in truth. They should act in righteousness. They should act with courage. If they do, the problems will be solved.
Are all those factors missing at the moment?
Yes, to some degree. It should be obvious to everybody. It was in the newspapers that that the people in power know some of the people behind Boko Haram are in the Senate, the police and the army. How did they know? The government cannot say those people are in such places without knowing them. Have you heard that somebody in the Senate, the police, the army or somebody in government hierarchy has been accosted for being part of the forces behind Boko Haram? Everybody pretends as if it is those who carry the guns and bombs that are really the issue. They are not. It is those who empower them and they are planted all over the place. I believe some of them are known. Maybe politics is what makes it impossible for such people to be dealt with, but this nation has a law and the law should not be a respecter of any person. Whoever you are, if you violate the law and breach the peace of the nation, you should be brought to book.
Let’s even leave this issue of Boko Haram and look at the problem of corruption and gross financial mismanagement that has been going on. Issues are raised, panels are set up to investigate, reports are written that indict people, but have you had that anyone was brought to book; jailed or anything being done? What has happened to all former governors who were indicted? They are freely walking all over the place spending the money. All of these are the issues. You see, three things are our problems in this country: injustice, inequality and lack of fair play. If we solve these problems, we solve all other problems.
Injustice is injustice. Injustice is when you call black white, right wrong, wrong right; when you set the thief free and make the victim suffer.
What do all the factors portend for the country?
I am not a prophet of doom, but if we don’t act fast, this nation will disintegrate. We are moving gradually towards the inevitable — separation — except God intervenes. But God is not likely to intervene unless we as a nation are prepared to pay the price.
What is the price?
The price is beyond praying. All of us must be prepared to stand for the truth and resist lies, injustice, inequality and lack of fair play. We must speak and act against these things.
Can this nation afford to break up as being canvassed in some quarters?
It would have been beautiful if we can remain together, but it looks as if we are two separate countries ill-advisedly brought together by the British to be one. I have a different opinion from many religious leaders. The Bible says you must not remove the ancient landmark. The British removed it. I have been involved in praying for this country for over 30 years with all of our souls; our being, yet, things are getting worse. If not because I have first-hand experience of God answering my personal prayers: my prayers for the sick, blind, dumb; my prayers for those who are demon-oppressed and I see miracle every day done by the hand of God, if I am to base the issue of prayer on prayers for this nation, I would have said God doesn’t answer prayers. But my personal experience with God in the other areas that I mentioned shows that God answers prayers. Truly, we see some answered prayers concerning this country. The main thrust of our prayer is for this nation to know righteousness, peace, progress and true prosperity. You cannot say a nation is prospering unless the welfare of the common people is taken care of. As long as the common people don’t have access to the basic necessities of life, a nation is not prospering. Nigeria cannot be said to be prospering. You can’t do what God has not done. We are trying to do what God has not done.
Then, is Nigeria an artificial creation?
Something like that. There were two entities which, for political and selfish interest, the British amalgamated. And we have been trying to work it for more than 50 years and it has refused to work. Is it not indicating to us that we are trying to do what God has not done? This country is praying. The church in this country is praying, but we need to do more than pray.