NCLF interviewed Albert Okoye, National Chairman of Overseas Fellowship of Nigerian Christians.
NCLF: Please describe the make-up of Nigerians in Britain?
AO: In Britain, we have Nigerians in all works of life. Nigerians were of course among many Africans and other nationalities forcefully relocated to Europe and the Americas in the era of slave trade. Consequently we can find some third, fourth and even fifth generation Nigerians here in the UK. All of those early settlers have embraced the UK as their new homeland but a good number of them still consider themselves of Nigerian origin and indeed identify with Nigerians, actively participating in Nigerian events. There however appears to be a preponderance of first generation immigrants as historically, most of the earlier visitors to the UK returned to Nigeria following completion of their business unlike some other ethnic groups who settled earlier. That trend has in part been attributed to the vibrant economic atmosphere of the relatively new nation at the time in much the same way the relatively exponential immigration in the last three decades has been blamed on economic dearth. This argument perhaps best explains the make-up of the Nigerian migrant who is more than likely to be highly skilled and motivated to impact the British society. There has in fact been a prolonged lamentation by the Nigerian government over the “brain drain” to more economically stable nations like the UK. It is therefore not surprising that we have an over-representation of Nigerians in medicine, research, the civil service, IT, the media, … Some Nigerians have said that in almost every profession, you’ll find a Nigerian. In addition, several have come to study in UK universities. Some universities are now actively targeting Nigeria as a market for quality students and scholars. Skill acquisition has also been at the core of Nigerian migration as many Nigerians come to the UK for training and specialization and promptly return to Nigeria.
There is of course the athletic prowess for which those of us from the African continent are known accounting for the large proportion of athletes with Nigerian first and surnames who competed for the UK. These include Abi Oyepitan, Philips Idowu, Christine Ohuruogu. Football fans will be familiar with Shola Ameobi who actually grew up within the OFNC family and has maintained the connection despite finding fame as a premier league footballer. He is indeed a great ambassador and role model for younger british males particularly those of Nigerian extraction. We recently did a feature on him for the OFNC Magazine and he will in fact adorn the cover of Arise Magazine coming out later this month. At the same time, Johnny Akinyemi, who was born in the UK and had never visited Nigeria, competed in the rowing for Nigeria. There are at least 3 MPs of Nigerian origin, including the labour shadow minister Chuka Umunna and about 38 councillors some of whom have and are currently serving as Mayors.
NCLF: Approximately how many live in UK? And where in UK are they concentrated?
AO: It is difficult to give an accurate figure, but the Central Association of Nigerians in the UK recently estimated that there are about 2 million people in the UK of Nigerian origin. You will find most Nigerians in the big cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. The OFNC has observed a wider dispersion of Nigerians across the British Isles as reflected in the increasing number of our branches to cater for their yearning for Christian fellowship. We most recently established branches in Hull and Exeter which would not readily earn the appellation of ‘big city’, supporting the view that Nigerians follow the skilled jobs. In Aberdeen, working in the oil industry, in any university town and in the case of medical personnel, in almost every part of the country where there is a hospital.
NCLF: What religious beliefs have they brought?
AO: Nigerians are generally religious people with Islam and Christianity jointly making up over ninety percent of the National religious belief. Orthodox and evangelical christian practices are equally prominent as are traditional beliefs and practices, which vary from one community to another. These religious beliefs are similarly represented in the UK Nigerian population with perhaps a slight prominence of Christianity over Islamism. It is perhaps therefore not surprising the degree of Nigerian Christian activity in the UK most commonly observed in the number of vibrant Nigerian-led churches.
NCLF: What is the approximate size of the Christian community in terms of numbers and churches in the UK?
AO: It is presently difficult to quote figures as the OFNC is still in the process of mapping out the location of Nigeria- led churches in the UK. We are also working at generating a comprehensive database of membership of our churches as we believe that this is of vital importance to our goal of building a unified body of believers that can raise one voice in order to influence policies. Conservative estimates and previous efforts at chronicling BME church activities puts the number of churches at a few thousands with several hundred thousand Christians. It is worth mentioning that although led by Nigerians, many of the churches are multi-ethnic in composition which introduces another layer of complexity in making estimations. The Congregations of these churches are growing steadily, and the sizes of many such churches as the Kingsway International Christian Centre, the Redemed Christian Church of God and Christ Faith Tabernacle have been noted by many Christian and secular organisations. It is also noteworthy that a large proportion of Nigerian Christians attend and are actively involved in White as against Black Majority churches. The Overseas Fellowship of Nigerian Christians is an organisation with no allegiances to any denomination. We estimate that our members are drawn from over 250 different church groups. I for instance attend Harrow International Christian Centre, which is pastored by an English man, but has a congregation which comes from over 50 countries.
NCLF: What religious or secular organizations are there in the UK serving the Nigerian community?
AO: We have so many organizations. The Overseas Fellowship of Nigerian Christians draws all Nigerian Christians, regardless of denomination. There are other denominations which draw large Nigerian memberships. In addition, we at the OFNC work with some Christian organizations that specifically deal with Nigerian issues, such as LoveJos, which campaigns against persecution in Jos, a city in central Nigeria, which has been the focus of much anti Christian violence. In turn, these organizations work with international agencies such as CSW, Release International, and others to bring persecution of Nigerian Christians to the forefront of discussion and prayer in churches, government and the media. There are other secular organisations which represent ethnic, (including tribal) social (including sports) , professional (medical personnel, lawyers, IT professionals, etc) interests of Nigerians in the UK. There are two all-embracing ones, the Central Association of Nigerians in the UK, (CANUK) which brings all other organisations together and the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation, (NIDO) which brings all individuals together.
NCLF: What cultural traditions have they brought? Clothes, food, etc?
AO: In most major cities, you will find shops and restaurants which sell Nigerian products. There is an array of Nigerian attire which are worn all year round but you are most likely to see people dressed in colourful Nigerian robes and dresses in summer, on their way to a wedding or some other social outing. Here, you will hear Nigerian music, which is generally acknowledged as very dancey. The traditional aspect of our wedding ceremonies Really define the importance the Nigerian culture attaches to this noble institution. It is not just colourful but also depicts the solemnity of marriage.
NCLF: How well are Nigerians integrated in UK, with whites and other blacks
AO: Nigerians are easily identified wherever they go, as goal getters. Secondly, in the UK, Nigerians gather together, with less reference to ethnic origins. But although you find Nigerians gather together in groups that are distinct, and although you can recognize Nigerians by such attributes as their names, Nigerians are well integrated in the British society. Several have made contributions to Nigerian life in the UK, but others have been influential in UK life generally. I have already mentioned sports stars and MPs, but in addition, there are doctors, lawyers, even taxi drivers, who provide a service outside the Nigerian community. With second and third generation Nigerians, there is less reference to Nigeria as their homeland, and they are very likely to be as British as their neighbours, except perhaps that they may occasionally eat Nigerian food, visit Nigeria or sometimes, speak a Nigerian language. The OFNC is a prime example of how well Nigerians are integrated into the British society at least within the Christian element. As hitherto alluded to, over Ninety-five percent of the current members attend and are active in white majority churches as against BMC’s. We encourage members to be effective agents for change in their local community and the nation as a whole and evangelize through their local churches.
NCLF: What is the future for Nigerians in the UK, in your view?
I strongly believe that a lot of the positive attributes of Nigerians will in the near future find expression and add even greater value to the UK society than is presently the case. Nigerians are goal getters and often have a singleminded pursuit of success whilst being filled with a lively energy. They rarely complain and have a great capacity for hard-work. As a christian, I am sufficiently convinced that the good Lord orders our steps and that He has a purpose for establishing the Nigerian community in the UK at such a time in the history of this Nation. We will fulfill that calling as long as we remain focused on Him, acknowledging Him in all our endeavours and do not fall victim of what a large segment of the UK society has been bedeviled with…godlessness! I believe that Nigerians will continue to play a major part in UK life. We are investing a lot of time and resources in our children to position them to contribute their skills and God-given talent into building this nation. Nigerians will continue to reach out and embrace the community they have adopted because for us as Christians, our prosperity is locked into the prosperity of the Nation where God has planted us.