A Conversation with Moses Akpanudo
Nigeria’s Biafra War claimed more than 1 million lives, but it saved Moses Akpanudo’s soul.
The teacher and business student fled his home in southern Nigeria after the civil war erupted in 1967. His wife, Jessie, had just given birth. They took refuge in the city of Ukpom, home of Nigeria Christian Bible College.
A minister gave Akpanudo a copy of The Eternal Kingdom by F.W. Mattox. The book was “just like a curative medicine,” Akpanudo said. “It took care of my anxieties and my ignorance and (it gave me) my desire to know more about God.”
After his baptism in 1970, Akpanudo moved his family to Nashville, Tenn., where he earned a master’s and doctorate in business at Vanderbilt University. Jessie received a bachelor’s in home economics from Lipscomb University. They returned to Nigeria in the late 1970s and began teaching.
“Dr. Moses” and his family quickly became symbols of education in Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom state. They established Obong Christian School, which educates more than 1,000 children in southern Nigeria. For 17 years annual Youth Forums have brought 2,000-3,000 students to the campus. The Mount Morris, Mich., church supports the school.
Now the Akpanudos focus on higher education. In 1997 they launched a College of Management and one year later started the University of Africa Project (later renamed Obong University of Nigeria) with the goal of establishing a full-fledged Christian university. The Rivergate church, Nashville, supports the work.
Moses and Jessie Akpanudo have five children. Sons Imo and Esang are administrators at the high school and college. Daughter Uto is an attorney in Lagos, Nigeria. Youngest sons Usenime and Suto Idem are pursuing doctorates in the United States. The couple has nine grandchildren.
After Vanderbilt, was it hard to make the decision to come back to Nigeria?
No. I’m a Nigerian to the core.
Some people who were instrumental in my going to America … had a strong fear that I would not come back.
But for me, I had cut my path clear. So, after I had defended my dissertation in early February, I headed home. I got permission to graduate in absentia.
In your opinion, how have churches of Christ changed in Nigeria since you were baptized in 1970?
(Then) I saw only five churches of Christ in the three surrounding counties. But today we have more than 70 churches in these three counties.
We’ve also made progress in the area of youth evangelism. When I spoke to our elders (in Nigeria) many years ago, before the youth forums started, I asked them to try to involve the young people in the ministry. The answer I got was, “Those people are rascally and cause trouble.” I told them, “Well, if you don’t train them, when all the good men are gone the rascals will take over.” That really caught (their attention) and they allowed me to go on with the youth program.
Churches around (here) came the first four years, then they came statewide, then nationwide – and even internationally, since the young people in Cameroon usually attend.
In your opinion, what is the appeal of Christianity in southern Nigeria?
Nigeria (practiced) a lot of false worship – ancestor worship and all forms of idol worship. It has no form, no format, and nobody is sure whether it helps or not.
But the church has hope for people to endure their problems, to have hope that there will be rest in heaven. The mission of the church is very appealing.
Preaching the gospel encourages people in all walks of life. (They find) faith in the body, and the poor are taken care of.
There is no indigenous organization that has such a setup.
What challenges do you see in the future for churches of Christ?
The big challenges include leadership, training people who will carry the baton when we are gone.
Secondly, we have to equip the young people for what it takes to be a leader, to help them have a good job, learn a trade, to be able to support themselves and the church.
And thirdly, (we need) to try to keep out the seeds of denominationalism, which are sweeping across this continent, primarily from the United States.
Since many poor people can’t go to hospitals, they go to witch doctors and they pay little by little until they’ve paid a lot, and this doesn’t help. So that’s why we do medical programs and health education.
Nigeria has several preacher training programs. Why does your country also need a Christian university?
I discovered that the Bible training programs, which were prevalent in this country before I became a Christian, would not carry Nigerians far … in the area of leadership. I pleaded with the brethren … to train young people so that they can be equipped in all directions and … have Bible training daily.
At that time, in 1993, the federal government (of Nigeria) threw open the door for private organizations to build universities, and I thought this was the greatest challenge — the greatest offer — that anybody could make to help us expand the kingdom of Christ.
How will liberal arts education ensure the future of the church?
Education will train people. Broad-based education will guarantee better jobs for the future. People with better jobs — people with strong Christian faith — can keep the church growing better than people with no means of livelihood.
The university has large buildings that stand higher than the other structures in the village. When critics say, “This is too big,” how do you respond?
Well, nobody grows taller than a leader, and our institutions are living institutions.
If we grow tall, our people will grow tall. They’ll be pillars. They’ll develop that ambition. So, we are trying to bring the best to our society, and that’s why we are here. And I’m very happy to say that.
Do you work outside the school?
Yes. My chief duty is to plant churches where there are none. That’s why I am not an elder of the local church. I qualify, but I like to evangelize. Within the past 17 years we have been able to plant 32 churches of Christ. … Our dream is to make sure there is a church of Christ in every village.
Secondly (I have) an honorary chieftain’s title because of my role in society. That enables me to give advice, and people come (to my home) all the time for consultation.
All of your children are involved in the school. How do you keep them from feeling like they’re living their father’s dream? Or is that even a problem in Nigeria? Do families here share common goals?
Right, especially if you sell the dream to them. If you don’t sell it to them, they won’t have it, no matter where you live. You have to … let them see how it relates to their future, how it relates to society.
You can see how every morning people are waiting to see me, because they have problems that the government is not able to solve … so they come here (hoping to find) a solution right away. These are the sorts of things my children have accepted as responsibilities for leadership.
And that’s why it was easy for us to acquire 250 acres of land (for the university), because the people believe in it.
What can churches in the West do to effectively help the work in Nigeria?
Let them realize that Nigeria in the 21st century – Africa in the 21st century – is not the Africa of the Dark Ages, not the “Dark Continent.” With that realization, we need churches of Christ to try to help us financially and in their prayers.
Do you encounter criticism because of your close ties to the United States and U.S. churches?
No, not here. Nigerians generally like Americans, except in the Muslim areas (in the north) … and Muslim country is about 1,000 miles away from here.
Sometimes it seems that much of the world has turned against the United States. Do you agree?
You need to rethink that. You have friends you have not considered.
Like when Elijah, God’s servant, said “I am the only one left,” (1 Kings 19:14), God (showed Elijah) he was not alone. We have many people who love God. We are not alone.
And America is not alone. Many, many people pray for the progress of America because your success is our success.
And if you fail, the world will fail. We know that.