By Phileas Jusu*
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UMNS) — The Rev. John Wesley Yohanna of the Mungo Dosso area in Nigeria has been elected a United Methodist bishop by delegates of the West Africa Central Conference. Yohanna, 49, succeeds Bishop Arthur Kulah who was recalled from retirement about five years ago to lead the Nigeria Episcopal Area.
The Nigeria Episcopal Area encompasses three annual (regional) conferences — the Central Nigeria, the Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria annual conferences.
“I have a huge responsibility resting on my shoulders,” Yohanna said. “It is to pursue peace as articulated by West Africa Central Conference theme (‘Seek Peace and Pursue It’). I need to serve the people of the United Methodist Church in Nigeria and show servanthood leadership to ensure transparency in every transaction that I make and picking everybody along the peace and development process,” said Yohanna.
Yohanna was elected Oct. 6 at Bishop Baughman Memorial United Methodist Church on the first ballot with 57 votes of the 65 clergy and laity delegates from the four nations that form the West Africa Central Conference — Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous worldwide, according to the CIA World Factbook. Half of the nation’s roughly 170 million people are Muslim, while 40 percent are Christian. That religious division has been a source of violence in recent years.
“Since my election Saturday night, I have received several calls from non-Christians congratulating me on my election victory, and they are looking forward to working with me as the bishop of The United Methodist Church. With the foundation already laid by General Board of Church and Society workshops, we will be able to continue with interfaith dialogue in our Episcopal Area,” Yohanna said.
Challenges facing Nigeria
Nigeria faces other challenges. As of 2009, the country had the world’s second highest number of people — 3.3 million — living with HIV and AIDS.
“I will work hard to restore the functionality of the hospitals and health centers within the episcopal area,” he said. “We need skilled volunteers, sufficient medical equipment and drugs to keep our medical institutions running. Once we have the machinery in place, we would be ready to combat malaria and HIV effectively.”
Beside this, malaria has taken its toll on Nigerian rural and suburban population. The 2012 Malaria Consortium report indicate that 2,969,950 cases were reported in 2007 out of which 10,289 died.
Yohanna has to help glue together the leadership of three annual conferences. There have been internecine fights among various church leadership caucuses.
Those squabbles affected the West Africa Central Conference gathering. Only one annual conference in the Nigeria Episcopal Area — the Central Nigeria Conference — sent delegates to the gathering.
A communique signed by the 13 absent delegates titled “TOTAL BOYCOTT OF THE NORTHERN AND SOUTHERN NIGERIA ANNUAL CONFERENCE DELEGATES TO THE 2012 WEST AFRICAN CENTRAL CONFERENCE” reads in part: “Any attempt to impose or elect anybody on our behalf will not be acceptable to us in the interest of peace, unity, justice and fairness”.
The release cited a flawed process leading to the nomination of episcopal candidates, unresolved boundary demarcation disputes and doubt over the fairness of Bishop Arthur Kulah in the process as key among other reasons for the boycott.
Wants to build bridges
Yohanna said he will seek to build bridges with supporters of the boycott.
“I will engage everybody in having dialogues with all stakeholders, and these are the common people in the church whose voices have been drowned for too long,” he said. “In the church of Jesus Christ, we learnt a leadership model from Master Jesus. Christ came to reach those at the bottom to bring them to the top as evidenced in the scripture that says ‘if I am lifted up, I will draw people to myself’ (John 12:32).”
In a similar vein, Yohanna said leadership is not thinking of being at the apex, but it is about the people at the base. It is about offering more privileges to the less fortunate.
In the West Africa Central Conference, like the United States, a bishop is elected for life on his or her first election.
Before his election, Yohanna was the administrative assistant to the bishop of the Nigeria Episcopal Area. He was district superintendent in the Central Nigeria Annual Conference from 2005 to 2010. He has served in several positions in the Central Nigeria Annual Conference including director, Council on Ministries; secretary, Board of Ordained Ministry and a pastor at Saladuna and Piribi local churches. He was also an instructor at Ahmadu Bello University at Zaria-Banyam Theological Seminary from 1991 to1993.
Born to staunch Evangelical United Brethren parents, Yohanna spent his formative years in the Karim Lamido local government area of Taraba State, Nigeria.
The Evangelical United Brethren missionaries had a lasting impact on his parents, and they handed down to him and his siblings an unshakeable faith. He draws inspiration from the name John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, and this has seen him through his faith journey fraught with various challenges from persecutions in the church and threats of arrests. God held him with God’s victorious right hand, the bishop said.
“My prayer for Nigeria Episcopal Area is to restore peace in the Nigeria UMC by going to the people, discussing with the people and finding solutions together with the people,” he said.
Another issue Yohanna discussed was to restore the church’s various ministries, namely aviation, education, agriculture and medical.
Furthermore, Yohanna hopes to improve visibility by increasing membership of The United Methodist Church in a predominantly Muslim area by reaching out to the eastern and western parts of Nigeria, even in Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria.
“I pray that all the UMC boards and agencies will come to our aid at this juncture in the history of our church to move us from the lower rung of the ladder in order for us to reach the mountaintop in all our ministries,” he said.
Yohanna was consecrated Sunday, Oct. 7, at King Memorial United Methodist Church in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
*Jusu is a United Methodist communicator based in Sierra Leone.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.