1: My job has been made very easy for three reasons: The President has been able to subordinate his feelings in such a way that it should be an inspiration to the rest of us because it is impossible for us all to cry more than the bereaved. Secondly, I do know that the national mood has helped to bring calm to the family of the First Lady. To my personal shock, I have received so many telephone calls, emails and text messages from my friends who are consoling me over the death of Our First Lady or the wife of your friend. Stella, true to her name and like a meteor, has really shone over our nation and we are grateful to God that she passed this way and touched so many lives.
2: We are here for the same reason, but our sentiments vary. But over and above it all, we are here to accompany our First Lady on her journey home. Many of us had a chance to encounter her; others saw her from a distance. However, on the whole, she was very much loved for her simplicity, love, care, and the sheer amount of joy she brought to many who knew her. True to her name, she indeed brought the stars down to brighten those dark moments of our lives. Only last week, I was conscripted into helping to put finishing touches to the events leading up to her 60th Birthday. I had been asked to help with the songs, the choir and the readings. It was only on Saturday night that I spoke to Mrs Amusa her Secretary. I recall rounding up our telephone conversation by telling her to tell her Madam that I hope they can now leave me alone. We ended on that note. Now, she will celebrate that birthday where she really belongs. But for us, we gather here to escort her, but of course to also remind ourselves of our collective mortality, something we do not think about so often.
3: Not unexpectedly, the whole 120m Nigerians have as usual become experts in Air disasters, search and rescue operations and so on. The blame account is always in credit and, whenever things go wrong, we know that there is always enough blame to go around in every situation. This is why, while we mourn our First Lady and the 117 other Nigerians whose lives suddenly came to an end, we need to look at the lessons. At this period of the Ramadan when our Muslim brethren are fasting and it is believed that the gates of Paradise are permanently open, may God receive our prayers for all our departed brethren.
4: I am not surprised that very little attention has been paid to the Management of Bellview Airlines and how they also fare in these sorrowful times. Not unexpectedly, Nigerians, notorious for confusing symptoms with the disease have already come to various conclusions even before an investigation has started. Rumours, gossips are sweetened by outright lies and served as a delicacy of truth. All this is done without care or concern for families who are numbed by pain and loss. The Bellview Family along with all those involved in the Aviation industry deserve our sympathies no blame in these dark days. I would never want to imagine what must be going on in the minds of those who work for this Company. I recall my friend Captain Austin Okon, the former Chairman of ADC Airlines telling me how stressful it is to own an Airline. Every day, he told me some years back, as long as your aircraft is airborne, you can never sleep or rest until your last Aircraft has safely landed at the end of the day. The burden is so heavy because you never know what might happen anywhere any day. You do not know what each telephone call portends.
The predicament of Private Airlines today is part of the larger Nigerian problem. A tragedy such as this must not make us forget all the great things that Bellview and other local airlines have done over the years. The most critical question for us to ask is, how did Nigeria, the richest and most populous African nation come to end up with not a single national craft for so many years? How did over 20 aircrafts vanish from the skies with no accidents? Where would our nation be without the gallant and patriotic efforts of the likes of Bellview? So, please let us spare a thought for these compatriots who have filled a void created by the carelessness, corruption, brigandage, irresponsibility and sheer wastage that has left us where we are today. How did the Tokunbonisation of our national life commence? When a young man comes smiling and announcing that he has bought a new car and wants it blessed, I naturally expect that the car could be 15 or 20 years old. Twenty years ago, who would have believed that motorcycles would take over the lives of the richest nation in Africa? How did governments in Nigeria come to preside over the funeral of the entire national assets of our land? Can you name one single Federal asset that we can be proud of today? I still recall the sense of pride I felt only last year when I saw a Bellview Airline sign on a High Street in London. I recall the pride I felt when ADC and Bellview became synonymous with technology, punctuality and so on. These individuals deserve our praise and solidarity at these moments. They have rescued a nation abandoned by its Governments. The real lesson we can learn here is whether this tragedy can awaken the patriotic instincts of our nation and make us a caring people concerned with the safety of each and every one of our citizens.
A second lesson should help us draw attention to a sense of duty. In these days precision technology, hundreds, thousands of lives depend on one person committing an act or error or carelessness. One nut not tightened, one block laid carelessly, one careless glance is all it takes for carnage to occur on our roads. If the events of the last few days can make each one of us more conscious on our duty posts, then following the principles of Subsidiarity, each little part will do its own bit to reinforce the whole. If these events can make us see God in all we do, our brethren who have lost their lives would not have done so in vain.
5: Our Gospel reading challenges us to the reality that indeed, contrary to what we tend to think, getting into Heaven is not very complicated. Secondly, we also realise that there is a continuum between this life and the next. During the National Conference, a gentleman whom I have known for sometime came to see me and to complain about an ailment that was life threatening. He needed some money for surgery that was so urgent and he had a time frame. I called up a man I had great respect for at the Conference and shared this problem with him. He asked me to send the gentleman to him. I did and was shocked to hear that the gentleman had given my friend some two hundred thousand naira! This was someone he had never met. I called to thank him, but he literally dismissed me by saying: Rev Father, where shall we take all we have to? We will do whatever we can because those we help in this life will serve as our witnesses in the hereafter. I was numbed. Both men in this real story are Muslims and yet, I do not think the gentleman who helped my friend had read today's Gospel!
6: What is the First Lady's legacy that we would like to imbibe? Understanding this legacy and imbibing it is the best gift we can give to her name. Why did she not take up the task of pursuing some grand global agenda that would have put her on the world stage? Her husband was already a global citizen with access to loads of resources. Why did she not decide to focus her attention on ensuring that the brightest children in Nigeria have a chance to do better? Why did she not decide to do something with those we might call normal people? Instead, she took on the cause of children with disabilities by setting up the Child Care Trust. In the course of her work, she demonstrated that it is possible for a weak body to hold a beautiful soul. She gave succour to many young men and women who would have had no future. Their parents now see meaning in the lives of these children. I was delighted to see these children with disabilities enjoying access to technology from their wheel chairs, a thing of envy to other children. Again, through her, these children have come to see the face of God's love. They did not need to look up to the skies at night to see the stars. No, a Stella shone over them.
8: The First Lady has taught us many lessons and I will like to draw your attention to a few of them. The first lesson is based on the fact that all of us have to make certain decisions in life and sometimes they may be difficult. But, in matters of faith, painful decisions have a redemptive value. The decision by Jesus to go to the cross was rejected and contested by Simon Peter when Jesus indicated that it was what awaited him in Jerusalem. When Peter insisted that Jesus should not go to Jerusalem, the Lord said to him: Get behind me Satan (Jn 16: 23). Again, in one of the rare show of emotions, we are told the story of a young man whose encounter with Jesus is fascinating. The young man had asked what it was that he had to do to enter Heaven. He was rather impatient because while Jesus narrated the Commandments to him, he brushed all this aside by saying he had already kept all of them since his early days. We are told that: Jesus looked steadily at him and was filled with love for him. He then told him; You still need to do one thing: Go, sell off everything you own and give the money to the poor and then come follow me ( Mk 10: 17ff). There are many stories embedded in this encounter. But let me refer to just two of them.
Being handsome or beautiful, rich or powerful are being gifts of God. But if they get into our head, they lead to pride and can destroy us. Secondly, any privilege has its own problems. The young man had obviously not worked for his money for at his age, he could never have made the money he is reputed to have. So, naturaly, he had inherited the money from his dead father or uncle. Filled with pride and arrogance, all he really wanted to know from Jesus was not the word of God. So, at the back of his mind, the real question he was asking was: How much will it cost me to pay my way to Heaven? Our First Lady was obviously a privileged child. But, unlike our friend above, she was filled with humility and that is why she did not allow the trappings of power to obstruct her search for eternal life.
9: There is a second lesson which we need to learn from the First Lady's personal experience. It is that when we have found God, we must indeed be ready to make all the sacrifices necessary to hold on to Him. Thus, the decisions over our salvation do not respect social ties. This is what Jesus meant when he said that to follow Him; we must be ready to abandon Father, Mother and all other ties. This is what He meant when he enjoined us to Hate Father, Mother, Brothers and Sisters for His sake ( Lk 14: 26 ). He did not mean the hatred that drives us to kill. No, he meant the hatred that enables us to defy all human considerations that stand in our way when we make that final decision to follow what we believe He is calling us to. This is why He called Peter, Satan. The decision for Christ overrides all other consideration no matter how culturally based they may be.
When the First Lady approached me over the need to reconcile with the Catholic Church, I was amazed by her humility. She came across as very determined to come to terms with her Catholic heritage. I remember jokingly telling her that there are no First Ladies in Heaven and that we are all sinful children of God who must save our souls. I recall her shock when I said to her that if anything happens to her, she could not have a Catholic burial. She responded in a way that seemed to say: What is there in life again? God has been good to me. It is time for me to find him. This is why she took very seriously the question of her reconciliation with the Catholic Church. This is why I seemed to have sounded adamant when I spoke to His Excellency Otunba Gbenga Daniel on the issue of whether to have an inter-denominational service or celebrate a funeral Mass for the First Lady. I know she is smiling down at us because this is what she really wanted dearly.
Here, the First Lady has left us something that should be worthy of emulation. She believed she had come to a point in her life and she wanted to be right with God in a manner that she believed would guarantee her a place in Abraham's bosom. I believe she shared her sentiments first with her beloved husband before she spoke to me or any other person. I can still hear the ring of her voice as she literally warned me with finality when I held the door for her at the Presbytery of the Pro-Cathedral in Garki. She said to me: Father, tell your friend I am serious now o! My main worry was how and when I could take up this problem with this my friend. I have come to know my friend. If you catch him in a good mood, everything will go well. But, on a bad day, it will be disaster. Surprisingly, when I finally confronted him, I was amazed at how relaxed he was. Everything else is water under the bridge. Thank you very much for being an instrument for her salvation.
It is by the grace of God that we did welcome her back into the Catholic Church just after the Political Reform Conference at a very quiet ceremony. Since Dr Abebe has let the cat out of the bag, I have very little to say. But this needed to be said because there are many Catholics who imagine that we are doing this because she was our First Lady. I recalled that after that day's ceremony, her excitement was child like and infectious. I have rescued my soul, she said to me later on the phone. I remember saying to her, You better hold it tight. Perhaps I need to make some clarifications here. The First Lady did not imply that she was blind and now she could see, or that she now regretted her other religious experiences whether in the Baptist Church or in the Villa Chapel. For her, as she told me, The thought that I can now go to Mass when I like and then receive my Holy Communion brings joy to me.
I do not think that this is something that any of us should see as a feat. No, rather, I consider that her husband's role in this is commendable. He gave her the support that she required and proved that true love is nothing rather than supporting one another in our struggle for self growth and development. Here, I really wish to thank His Grace, Archbishop John Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja who offered some very useful advice in terms of how we could proceed with this event. He finally very graciously signed all the necessary papers and granted the dispensation that was necessary to enable the First Lady return to the embrace of the Catholic Church. His Grace was to preside over her Birthday Mass which was billed to take place at the Cathedral in Abuja. I know he would have been here physically, but he is in the Vatican right now with other Bishops from around the world.
9: There is a lesson here for those men in Nigeria who wrongly claim that women have no religion. According to this false thesis, all that good women can do is to obsequiously follow their husbands to their Churches or Mosques whether they belong to those faiths or not. I do not understand why those who propagate this logic fail to extend it further by arguing that these women should also be expected to abandon their jobs and languages and follow their husbands to their professions whether they are Bankers, Lawyers or Doctors or renounce their own tongues as conditions for marriage. Although this preposterous theory has become popularly accepted, it is part of this long tradition of the assault on the rights of women by a patriarchal society that has continued to see women as appendages to men. There is no theological evidence to support the theory that women must follow their husbands to their own Churches or mosques to guarantee a happy home. Indeed, how far should these women follow their men? Should they follow them when they take to armed robbery or when they become alcoholics? Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that it is not desirable for husbands and wives to worship in one Church. I believe this to be a worthy and desirable aspiration. However, true religion is to be found in actions. If a man respects you enough as a person, he should respect your wishes and your rights and these rights include the right to be who you are. I am merely saying that no person should be compelled to act against their will in the name of religion. People often argue that tensions arise when women do not follow their husbands to their Churches. No, tensions arise when people who profess Christianity or Islam do not practice it in full and then they begin to seek excuses and use religious differences as cover. Why does not speaking the same language not have the same effect? It is when love grows cold that men begin to find excuses. We all recall perhaps the most popular verse in the Bible which is John 3: 16 which says God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son to save us. Well, in the Book of Revelation, we are told that on the last day, God will put us in His mouth and will spit us out because we are neither hot nor cold ( Rev 3: 16). This is the challenge. Fatalism and Indifference in are dangerous. God calls each an every one of us individually and we must follow our consciences and seek His will whether in marriage or in our profession. God will not need your husband's or father's references on judgement day. So, all good husbands must work hard to ensure that they support their families as we all struggle on the path of faith. Here, the First Lady's own persistence and the President's magnanimity serve us a great lesson.
10: Finally, let me make two pleas to Mr. President as one way of honouring our First Lady. Despite what people tell you, things are hard in Nigeria. The war against corruption should continue relentlessly. We are glad to note that our nation has nudged up a few rungs on the ladder. Let us use our place on the Index to judge our leaders. However, there is a genuine concern that people have no idea where the proceeds of the corruption victories are going to. My friend Alhaji Ribadu said last week that the proceeds are going back to the Federal, States, Local Governments or the relevant agencies where these monies were stolen. I hold a slightly different view. Those who let this money be stolen should not benefit because it is their carelessness or collusion that enabled the money to be stolen. I suggest that all recovered monies from the corruption war should be ploughed into practical people oriented programmes such as the provision of water, health care etc. Once people perceive that there is a correlation between the recovery of stolen monies and their welfare, they will naturally feel more enthusiastic about the war against corruption because if every naira translates into free drugs, boreholes, or light, then the war will already have more determined recruits. For now, it can be assumed that ordinary Nigerians believe that all those in government are thieves. In these circumstances, perception is reality and this image diminishes democracy.
Secondly Sir, in the name of the First Lady, grant reprieve to all those Federal Civil servants in Lagos and Abuja whose lives have become characterised by anxiety and pain over the sale of their houses. I can assure you that majority of those I am associated with and whom I daily encounter, have no way or means of coming up with those stipulated amounts that your Ministers are asking for. Reversing this policy will be one great way of justifying the tremendous love and affection that this great woman imparted on those on the margins of society. It will be one way of rewarding the affection that these same Nigerians have expressed here today. The policy negates all that is noble in the fight against corruption. It is a joke to say the least and if the Federal Government persists in making its workers homeless, it is courting disaster.
11: We all remember the late Rev Martin Luther King and his famous I Have a Dream Speech. I wonder how many of us here have read that speech. The Rev King did not start to narrate his dream until he had told the American society the nightmares of black people in the United States. With a sense of history, he traced the historical evolution of the injustice perpetrated to the black man in the American society. One hundred years after signing the Declaration of Independence, he said, the American society had pushed African-Americans into what he called: Lonely islands of poverty in the ocean of prosperity and turned them into exiles in their own land. On the promise of the American dream, the Rev King said, the black people came to cash the cheques issued by the American Government and discovered that the cheque had bounced. On the cheque, he said, was marked the words: Insufficient funds. But, Rev King said to America: We refuse to believe that the Bank of Justice is Bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the vaults of the Bank of Justice.
Finally, Dr Abebe has shared with most of us flashes of the type of person the First Lady was. In the short period of time I got to know her, I was intrigued by the kind of relationship she had with her husband. For example, after the formal ceremonies were concluded on the day of the blessing of the union, we were all entertained in the Presidential dinning room. The First Lady was sitting by the side of the President. They got into their usual banter and the President said something to the effect: If I come back again to this life, I will marry you all over again. And you know what, the President continued, I think I will like to come to this world as a Gardner to which the First Lady replied: And, do you know what, I will be a rose in your garden!
Mr President Sir, God, the owner of the Garden needs a beautiful rose for a birthday next month. He has taken His rose without asking you. Be a man, Sir. Accept His Will. God bless us all and may the soul of our First Lady and the souls of all our brethren rest in Peace. Amen. God bless our dear country.