The Life and Times of a Primus Inter pares: Prelate Sunday Mbang – Toni Kan
His Eminence, Prelate Emeritus Sunday Mbang’s autobiography, My Life and Times, is a compelling narrative of a full life lived in service of God and humanity.
As someone who has co-written over 10 biographies, I know first-hand that the very act of writing a biography is an excursion into a labyrinth of lies and half-truths. Autobiographies are worse because to ask a man to tell his own life story is to give him a blank cheque to lie and dissemble This is why much of what we call biographies and autobiographies should ideally be called by their true name – hagiographies.
But if you are looking for self-praise or ego massaging or dissembling, then this book, My Life and Times is not the book for you. This is a book of unvarnished and simple truths, one that tells the story of a man and a legend, a teacher and preacher, a father and leader who sees himself as no more than a simple anvil in the smithy of the Lord.
Within the pages of this book you will encounter miraculous stories of God’s favour, you will read stories of self-denial and self-abnegation, you will find chronicles of resilience, tales of adversity overcome, and memories of close encounters with death and destitution but despite the author’s hard work, dedication and diligence not once does he take credit for his resounding successes.
As he puts it “I was also aware of this undeniable fact that apart from God and Jesus Christ, I was nothing and that I could also do nothing.”
Who is Prelate Sunday Mbang? Why does his life merit a book? And why did Nigeria’s political, business and religious elite turn up in large numbers to witness the launch of his autobiography?
The answer begins from the small village of Idua in Eket Local Government Area of present day Akwa Ibom state. Born on August 26, 1936, Prelate Sunday Mbang believes that the Sunday in his name is on account of the fact that he was born on a Sunday. My fact checking tells me that this may not be true. August 26, 1936 was a Wednesday. So, there are two questions arising; was His Eminence really born on August 26 or did his father name him Sunday for a whole different reason?
His father’s name was Pastor Coffie Eka Mbang, an itinerant preacher in the Qua Iboe church. The elder Mbang was married to Judith, an industrious woman who supported her husband’s earnings as a preacher with proceeds from her farming and her petty trading.
Coffie and Judith had a large brood whom they all insisted on giving an education. To find out how that was achieved on their meager resources you will have to read this book.
Coffie was a man who took the biblical injunction not to spare the rod and spoil the child in all its literal glory. He was liberal with his whip and his word was law. Once when his son Sunday Mbang wanted to stay back at his grandmother’s, Pastor Coffie had refused and to show that his words would not be trifled with, he did something dramatic:
The reaction of my commander-in-chief father who never tolerated disobedience to his laws was to force me to go with him, tied to his bicycle. He took me back to his station by force, not minding insults thrown at him by onlookers, especially elderly women
Pastor Coffie’s draconian sway over his household while an irritation, however, laid a solid foundation from which his children sprang and we celebrating one of his children who took to heart the scriptural injunction that God’s word is “a light unto my path and a lamp to my feet”.
On another occasion, the young Sunday Mbang had visited a friend’s home and was given a bunch of bananas as gift to his father. When Pastor Coffie saw his son bearing the gifts, he went bananas. He reminded his son that he was not to accept gifts and ordered the young man to return the bunch of bananas:
I trekked back to Effoi with the bananas… This donor was extremely surprised at my father’s behaviour. He took it back from me without any comment.
For context, Ekpenebo to Effoi was about 3 miles.
Yet, by his own admission, Sunday Mbang was the apple of his parents’ eyes. “My mother had a very unusual affection for me over my other siblings. Sometimes, I have wondered whether God revealed this to my mother, leading her to pay more attention to her son of many gifts.”
While his mother doted on him, his father took him along on his proselytizing. He even taught his to ride his Raleigh bicycle, something that left his son in awe. But his father had a reason for this decision as we read “his reason for this unusual gesture was to enable him send me on errands to my mother in Idua and other areas.”
And it was from living with his father and attending church with him that he learnt the word of God and developed a life-long love for hymns and singing:
It was in Ekpenebo that I sang in the church choir. In latter years, this singing took me to the Regional and State Festival of Arts at Umuahia and Enugu respectively. I always came tops at these festivals. It also helped me sing with the University of Nigeria Nsukka chapel choir and the two-thousand strong choir in Jerusalem, Israel
Now, if living with his father was a study in spartan discipline and observance of rules, the young Sunday Mbang’s experience in the home of one of Nigeria’s most illustrious founding mothers, Margaret Ekpo, is a case study on child abuse and domestic violence.
For a man of the cloth who has travelled across the world, jailed in Russia and detained in Thailand, almost killed by federal troops during the war, endured three days of hunger on a Lagos bound ship, Prelate Sunday Mbang refrains always from anger or name calling but in this book, he makes an exception with Margaret Ekpo whom he describes as “notorious and indomitable”; an “iron lady”; a “mixed blood cruel woman”; “her royal highness”; an “irate woman” and a “tough bone to crack” amongst others.
Prelate Mbang’s time with Margaret Ekpo even though occurring before he was 10 years old was an indelible and traumatic experience that has stayed with him even as an octogenarian. It is a cautionary tale about how we treat children especially those entrusted to our care.
You will have to get a copy of this riveting chronicle of Prelate Sunday Mbang’s life to fully understand the trauma Margaret Ekpo put the young boy through in his rich uncle’s house.
It was his father’s death that led him to become a man of God but like Jacob who wrestled all night with the angel refusing to let go until he blessed him, Sunday Mbang wrestled with God, refused to accept his calling, choosing instead to pursue an education until one day God made him write and post an application letter he has no recollection of writing or posting and all, as they say, is history.
But in considering that history, we must begin by asking how Sunday Mbang pivoted from Qua Iboe to Methodist Church? It all began with an act of defiance, his first direct defiance of his father. Sunday Mbang chose to study at Methodist School unlike his brothers and it was that singular act that led him to his destiny.
Writing about it half a century later, you can still feel the emotion of fear in the words set down on paper “…nobody living with my father, whether siblings, relations or house-helps must disobey or discuss my father’s authoritative laws. Disobedience to them was met with the worst consequences in the form of the rod.”
Why did his father let his act of disobedience slide? Maybe a higher force made him capitulate because had Sunday Mbang not gone to Methodist school, we may never have heard of Prelate Mbang.
But heeding the call was one thing, stepping into his destiny was another. His path was strewn with thorns and filled with hurdles as the devil sought to truncate his destiny.
But God was always one step ahead. Of the 48 who applied for “Candidating” only two of them were accepted into Trinity College, Umuahia where Sunday Mbang spent 3 years and upon completion of his studies in 1965, he was posted to Kaduna then Yaba then Portharcourt before they settled for Ete in the Portharcourt/Ikot Ekpene district.
Reverend Sunday Mbang was 29 years old but already clear in his mind that he wanted to serve God in humility, simplicity and self-denial. Upon arrival at his post, a well-to-do politician offered him a Volkswagen Beetle to assist with his work. Sunday Mbang refused.
Chief J. Edoho, had offered me firstly, a gift of a brand-new Volkswagen car and secondly, a world-class motorcycle probably to ease my work in Enwanga Circuit. I had refused to accept these unusual gifts and finally, he offered a Raleigh bicycle to me which I accepted… The reason for my action was simple and unadulterated. I never wanted or wished material and mundane attractions to become stumbling blocks to my educational interests.
This disinterest in worldly things and material comfort would continue through-out his life even when he was at the pinnacle of his career as head of the Methodist Church in Nigeria, Africa and the world.
His life has always been defined by simplicity.
From Ete where he achieved a lot for God, Reverend Sunday Mbang proceeded to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to take a degree in the Department of Religious Studies in the Arts Faculty but no sooner had he arrived than the fact of his lack of funds was made manifest but God was a step ahead bringing him help:
Mr. Abel Okoroafor, an assistant registrar in the university, who was also the president of the Student Christian Movement asked me to live with him as he was willing to pay my tuition fees and other charges. In addition to this divine help, the man I met in Ete, Mr. Essien Akpan Essien, a businessman, was also ready and willing to come to my aid.
But his time in Nsukka was short lived and truncated by the Nigerian civil war as he writes, “In May 1967, the University of Nigeria went on her long vacation never to reopen as the war had started and intensified.”
While his fellow undergraduates enlisted in the Biafran army he refused to noting that “I had to help in providing the necessary spiritual help in all forms to the various army units in Nsukka.”
The university was finally shut down and Reverend Sunday Mbang had to return to the ministry. His war time chronicles are as funny as they are painful, painting a picture of death, destruction and desperation. Men and women eating in a buka are bombed by Nigerian air force planes and one day in Ikot Ekpene, Reverend Mbang was virtually “forced” to baptize children from 6am to 6pm because their mothers believed that once baptized “their wards would qualify for eternal life if the ferocious war tragically ended their lives.”
Twice during the war as he journeyed from post to post, Federal soldiers arrested him and accused him of being a Biafran soldier but each time God sent him a helper.
Lieutenant Colonel Ikoiwak, a close friend appeared… My father and this man had been colleagues, brothers and friends in the Qua Iboe Church ministry. The colonel was fortunate to witness what the ignorant soldiers were doing to a clergyman, He ordered the soldiers to free me. The offending soldiers were undressed, court martialed and shot dead in my presence.
When it came time to continue his education, God was one step ahead as always and even though there were hurdles God saw him through getting him on a Lagos bound ship at the last minute and because his fellow passengers refused to share their food with him, the penniless Reverend Sunday Mbang fasted for three days. Arriving Lagos, he would have died of hunger if their ship had waited for its turn but a woman going into labour had made them berth earlier than planned and then Reverend Sunday Mbang, broke, hungry and tired had trekked from Apapa to Yaba and as God would have it, the man he had come to see, “Bassey Bassey, a close relative and friend” had chosen not to go to work on that day.
Arriving at the University of Ibadan, Prelate Mbang writes that he “headed to the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts for my admission. There, I met Professor E.B. Idowu, a Methodist Church Nigeria senior priest and the Head of the Department of Religious Studies.” His meeting with Professor E. B Idowu is instructive because their acquaintanceship brought Sunday Mbang joy and heartache in equal measure but leading him ultimately to ascend to heights hitherto unimagined.
Degree in hand, Reverend Sunday Mbang headed on a scholarship to Hebrew University, Tel Aviv thanks to his brilliance. “I had “graduated with grade two upper division with a star. With the splendid final examination results, the University of Ibadan offered me a post-graduate scholarship.” But he had barely settled in Israel when the Yom Kippur war broke out and unsure what to do, Reverend Sunday Mbang was having lunch at a cafeteria one afternoon when a man struck up conversation with him and in the space of an hour he had been offered admission to Harvard university where he graduated with a Masters in Theology and as he writes “almost got myself in a marriage with an African American woman. But God and my friend, Mr. Essien of Samphill Nigerian Limited, saved me.”
I have taken time to share these stories in order to highlight the miraculous occurrences that have defined his life and which bear out in every way the bible verse that says “God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.”
Done with Harvard he returned to the University of Ibadan as “Lecturer Grade I in the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts” but less than two years into his job as an academic he was appointed a bishop and “chaplain to the Patriarch of Methodist Church, Nigeria.” He had to move to Lagos with his young family.
His Excellency President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote in his foreword to this book that he “spent four hours on the first night reading without any desire to stop until I was overpowered by sleep.” His Excellency Governor Emmanuel Udom noted in his that Prelate Emeritus Sunday Mbang’s “ storied life, here aptly captured in this book, is bound to remain a compass for many on how to navigate the pitfalls and perils of life” while His Eminence Cardinal Onaiyekan describes the book as “a fascinating hymn of praise to the Lord who does great things in the lives of His chosen ones.”
These are all true but what they fail to say is that the book is a thriller and page turner. Beginning from his arrival in Lagos as Chaplain to the Patriach and election as the Prelate of Methodist Church Nigeria, the reader will find it immensely difficult to put this book down sleep permitting or not.
Bishop Mbang’s arrival in Lagos did not go smoothly. For some reason he met a changed Professor Idowu who was Patriarch and to whom Bishop Mbang was to assist as Chaplain. The former mentor and mentee relationship was strained and grew increasingly so until Patriarch Idowu is unceremoniously eased out of the church and Bishop Mbang, the youngest and least experienced Bishop in Methodist Church Nigeria emerges head of the almost 150 years old church. He was just 48 years old and would occupy that seat for 22 long years.
But the church he had been elected to serve was a deeply divided one with over 30 pending court cases and he thus spent his first five years playing peace maker and to the glory of God, His Eminence, Prelate Sunday Mbang managed to heal 15 years of strife and bring all the warring factions, the Absaloms and Achitophels, together in line with his “three Rs programme of activities: Reconciliation, Revival and Re-organisation.”
His successful unification of the Methodist Church Nigeria was a major boost and has been replicated across the world. His exploits at home would echo abroad and bring him acclaim across Nigeria, Africa and the world leading him “to wear 5 divine crowns at the same time” as Prelate of Methodist Chruch Nigeria, President, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN); Chair of the African Methodist Council; first black Chairperson of the World Methodist Council, and finally, co-Chair of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC).
As co-Chair of NIREC with His Eminence Muhammadu Maccido, Sultan of Sokoto, they worked hard to keep inter-religious crisis at the barest minimum and used their clout to douse tension whenever and wherever it reared its head.
Before I conclude, let me comment on something I found a bit disconcerting and which I suppose his editors should have pointed out and insisted on remediation.
There are only three references to Prelate Sunday Mbang’s wife and two to his children. His wife is mentioned in the “Dedication” where we learn that her name was Enobong and that she was a lawyer. The second reference occurs when the reader is casually informed that “my wife and Ini, my first son—arrived in Lagos to discover, sadly enough, that no accommodation was provided for me” while the third mention occurs when he writes about his growing rift with Patriarch Idowu: “I immediately made alternative arrangements for my wife to travel with the secretary of conference, with his wife, in my car.”
The “silence” if one might call it that is too deafening for his readers who would have loved to know how this globally acclaimed man of God managed the home front especially for a man of God with a progressive bent of mind who allowed women to move from the “pew to the pulpit” during his time as Prelate and who disagrees with Apostle Paul who wanted women to be “quiet” in church.
Writing on this subject he notes that “God created all men and women in His image and likeness” and “Whether we men, like or not, a woman saw and dialogued with Jesus Christ first after His death and resurrection.”
Finally, we live in a country and a part of the world where knowledge and experience are seldom chronicled thus leaving gaping holes and lost knowledge because every human life is a case study worthy of documentation especially when the subject has lived an interesting and successful life. The world needs to know how easy or treacherous the journey of success can be.
Prelate Sunday Mbang has, therefore, done us a world of good by sharing his life story just like his friend, His Excellency President Olusegun Obasanjo GCFR has done so many times.
What his story does for us, in the very first instance, is to show us without equivocation that what men usually call luck is God’s grace doing “great things in the lives of His chosen ones” as aptly put by Cardinal Onaiyekan.
But on another level his life also bears out the Igbo aphorism which says that when a man says yes his chi says yes.
Born in a small village, the young Sunday Mbang by sheer hard work and diligence distinguished himself and ended up standing before kings and presidents and popes.
His book, My Life and Times, is in that sense a profound exposition of what the grace of God can do in the life of a man who has been truly called of God. It is also a resounding homily about selflessness, self-denial and self-abnegation which are hallmarks of exemplary leadership.
To conclude I must borrow from TS Eliot in his seminal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” where he provides a disquisition on self-abnegation. TS Eliot wrote that “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice; a continual extinction of personality…but of course only those who have personality…know what it means to escape from such things.”
Aware from a young age of the hand of God in his affairs, His Eminence, Prelate Emeritus Sunday Mbang CON made self-denial, self-abnegation and the extinction of personality an abiding principle by stooping always to serve man and God but the abiding irony is that in stooping he always rose to conquer.
It is my pleasure to commend this book to all and sundry as a primer on agape love, selflessness, diligence in service, leadership by example and unalloyed faith in God.