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Rev. S. T. Ola Akande: The legacy of spirituality and ecumenism

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This is my second tribute to the living memory of Baba Reverend (Dr) Ola Akande who recently celebrated his 93rd year on earth. And this is a testament to a life of dedicated service and exemplary humanity that continues to be relevant to a world where everything, including religion, is upside down.

In the first tribute to Baba, I characterized him as an embodied legacy divinely scripted and delivered to the world by the Almighty.

For me, Reverend Samuel Titilola Oladele Akande represents the fullness of a rich Yoruba culture with all its edifying values and ethos, and the incarnation of the saints who have touched God’s grace and therefore serves as the incandescent connection between heavenly grace and human weakness.

That is what Baba still stands for. And this together with his lifelong jewel of inestimable value, Mama Comfort Olalonpe Kehinde who also tuned 87th, and has remained an unshakeable pillar beside Baba.

While there is a lot to learn from the trajectory of Baba’s life and achievements, as my first tribute demonstrates, one cannot obviously exhaust the legacy which could fill many biographical and autobiographical volumes.

This therefore gives the lie to any capacity to capture Baba and his larger-than-life existence in just one piece of grateful tribute.

My encounter with Reverend Akande came at a time when my theological and intellectual search for meaning about life and existence were becoming intense and a bit confusing.

Like St. Augustine of Hippo, I was on a journey seeking for spiritual enlightenment. I studied the Scripture deeply while also renewing my acquaintance with the traditional Yoruba religion and metaphysics. I have also had reason to do a critical audit of, for instance, the Grail Message and even the Rosicrucian Order. I was not motivated to achieve membership, but only to just search their religious frameworks for what I was looking for—the knowledge of the divine and the meaning of life.

Reverend Ola Akande plays a significant role in directing my spiritual search in the right direction. With someone like him, you arrive at the knowledge of God in full and without any discrepancy.

But more than this, there are two other insights Dr Ola Akande has sown into my understanding that have remained enduring. From Akande to Kukah and Ehusani, Nigeria has been blessed with a crop of spiritual leaders whose spirituality remained deeply conducive to the stability of a nation that is sorely searching for peace and order. Note that I have not mentioned religion. This is because these are not religious leaders per se. But they are individuals who have felt the touch of the Prince of Peace, and who understand what peace or its absence means in a volatile country like Nigeria. These are not religious leaders who will selfishly mobilize emotional and religious sentiment to destabilize the polity.

On the contrary, according to the scripture, they consider Nigeria their own “Jerusalem” which the Bible instructs them to constantly pray for. And for them, peace is not just an abstract quality. It is an active substance that requires all hands to be on deck; all hands, that is, whether Christian, Islam or traditional. Thus, from Akande, I was able to deeply appreciate the figures of the younger spiritual incarnation like Rev.Fr. Matthew Hassan Kukah and Fr. George Ehusani.

Between Dr Ola Akande and Fr. Matthew Hassan Kukah, we arrive at a framework of ecumenical dynamics that sustains interreligious faith and peace in Nigeria.

From these two and many more like them, we learn the fundamental lesson that bigotry is not spirituality. The spiritual sees everyone as children of the Almighty, even if I believe that Christ is the Lord and you believe that Mohammed is the Last Prophet, and the last person holds on to Orunmila.

From Ola Akande down to Kukah and Ehusani, the spiritual does not exclude anyone. The difference between Orunmila, Jesus Christ and Mohammed is all it takes for all manner of religious violence to tear any nation apart. This is the Nigerian story; the tragic fall-out of our postcolonial predicament.

Since independence, there have been several terrible incidences of religious violence and conflicts that have nearly torn Nigeria apart. Yet, the ecumenical spirit has been kept alive by these and many other men of God.

It is through the spiritual foundation that the likes of Reverend Ola Akande built in me through the knowledge of the word in the Baptist church that I grew to appreciate Father Matthew Kukah’s mission and his crusading homiletics and energetic engagements on behalf of Catholics and Nigerians generally. Father Kukah does not suffer bad leadership and bigoted religious people.

He is cut from the same solid fibre like Baba Ola Akande. Indeed, it is the same concern for the postcolonial plight of the Nigerian state and the skewed religious framework that led to the partnership between the Kukah Centre and the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) on the significance of ecumenism in the Nigerian national project.

Baba Ola Akande’s ecumenical advocacy already points at the future if ever Nigeria would achieve the task of becoming one nation undivided by religion or ethnicity. The ISGPP is founded on the mission of making Nigeria work better than it is currently doing with regard to development and democracy.

The Kukah Centre for Faith and Leadership Research is a committed vision of inter-faith dialogue in Nigeria.

Founded in 2008, the Centre has three-pronged strategic objectives: (a) to deepen the quality of national discourse on coexistence in Nigeria; (b) to strengthen the capacity of citizens to engage government at various levels and promote inclusive governance processes; and (c) to expand the relationship between faith and public policy. The hope is that this partnership will constitute one of the foundational planks around which secularism in Nigeria would be better entrenched for the sake of one nation bounded in freedom, peace and unity under God.

At a more professional level, Reverend (Dr) Ola Akande’s spiritual impact on me transcends the fiery and valuable sermons that moulded my existence. Baba applies spirituality to his entire life, from being an educationist to being a politician! Spirituality is not private for him at all. He deeply understands the practical implications of what it means for God to rule in the affairs of men.

His life therefore serves as the first introduction I got to the place of spirituality in the workplace, and in the reform of the public service. It eventually dawned on me that no administrative reform is complete until the spiritual is factored into the service of the public.

Spirituality assumes something different about oneself, one’s relationship with others and one’s responsibilities within the context of collective duty to one’s family, one’s community, one’s organisation, and one’s nation. The first principle underlying spirituality is a deep sense of responsibility to a higher power and therefore higher calling (however the higher power is defined).

In our own case, spirituality derives from a deep relationship with God that goes beyond the acceptable circumference of organized religion.

Spirituality therefore transcends religion to envelope other beings to form a spiritual collective whose energies can then be translated into a spiritual capital.

Translated into organisational culture, spirituality becomes a key component that is required in the search for meaning and value that encapsulates a desire for interconnectedness with others in a manner that leads to a dedication to certain objectives.

Such a spirituality would encompass other notions like (a) a call to integrity; (b) edifying relationship—the realisation that people are connected to one another beyond any notion of instrumentality; (c) love in the workplace that treats others the way one wants to be treated; (d) a search for meaning within a bigger picture that drives one to seek for solutions to problems.

If spiritual capital is seen as the willingness of the public servants to work together with others in the attempt to bring a spiritual openness and collective energy to the achievement of productivity in the workplace, it becomes easy to see how spirituality of an average public servant can become a fundamental element in the achievement of good governance.

One could therefore imagine the tantalizing prospect of having Baba Ola Akande succeed as a politician when he came to the conclusion that Nigeria needs him.

The tragedy is that Nigeria rejected him when he pushed himself forward for service. Maybe he was too good for the country. Maybe we are still a long way from that consciousness of the role of the spiritual in drawing Nigeria back from the brink. Maybe we have allowed the religiosity of the unscrupulous to cloud our better judgment about the spirituality of the genuine religious leaders who meant well for Nigeria.

In Reverend Samuel Titilola Oladele Akande, and many others like him, we have the image of a moral exemplar in character and in deeds who spiritual dynamism and ecumenical framework enable the Nigerian leadership to commence a deep reflection on a national cultural readjustment programme that is urgently required to serve as the springboard for a moral and spiritual rebirth in Nigeria.

These men of God tell us that we have neglected the harnessing of spiritual capital for far too long. Like all other capitals—generational, social, economic, etc.—the spiritual has the potential to make us more humans in a manner that will help us as Nigerians to live in peace with one another. And spiritual humans like Reverend Ola Akande embody what Nigeria’s future looks like. Baba is the living face of national and religious leadership at its dedicated best, even at 93 years of age!

Olaopa, retired federal permanent secretary and professor of public administration


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