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Saturday, March 26, 2011

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AMERICANS AND THEIR GOVERNMENT

I now know the difference between the American people and the American government and its foreign policies. Americans are humane, loving and conscientious people. Most of them do not approve of the commissions and omissions of the American government. In his Cairo speech to the Muslim nations, President Barak Obama emphasised the difference between the people and the government when he said:I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum...”
Yes, President Obama carried with him not only the goodwill of the American people but the goodwill of the many people around the world. Unfortunately that goodwill was sacrificed on the altar of a foreign policy that was destined to create more insecurity in today’s world, for Obama has reneged on all the promises he made in that beautiful speech – rapprochement with Muslim nations; halt construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories; be fully involved in a realistic road map to permanent peace, and a two state solution, etc. Guantanamo Bay is still in business. Today, there is hardly any difference between Obama and his predecessors in matters affecting the Muslim nations. This is not representing the good people of America!
 It is indeed ironic that as amiable as the Americans are, their government fails to show this in its dealings with the international community. This failure on the part of the government has made people to hate Americans (instead of the government), with extremists willing to pay the highest price to hamper America’s interests or cause the demise of innocent people.
Through the use of missiles or bombs, America has been militarily involved with about 22 countries; if we add to this figure other countries visited by America’s bomb before the two World Wars, we would end up having the number risen to at least 40 countries. These include, but not restricted to: China 1945-46, 1950-53; Korea 1950-53; Guatemala 1954, 1960, 1967-69; Indonesia 1958; Cuba 1959-61; Congo 1964; Peru 1965; Laos 1964-73; Vietnam 1961-73; Cambodia 1969-70; Lebanon 1983-84; Grenada 1983; Libya 1986 and 2011, El Salvador 1980s; Nicaragua 1980s; Panama 1989; Iraq 1991 to present day; Somalia 1993; Bosnia (Republic of Srpska) 1995; Sudan 1998; Yugoslavia 1999; and Afghanistan 1998, 2001 to date. This is not counting the number of countries committing atrocities with weapons overtly or covertly given or sold to them by the US and its agents. It is a well-documented fact that Israel is the largest beneficiary of US military and financial aid even as the country uses the funds and equipment to further their criminal activities in Palestine. Israel has broken more international laws on warfare and genocide than any other but enjoys the highest patronage of the US Government. Incidentally, when the UN needs equipment to stop wars and genocides, the same US government is not so forthcoming. You only need to read the book, Shake Hands With The Devil, by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, UN Force Commander, United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to get a vivid picture of the level of hypocrisy involved.
 I don’t want to think of Operation Desert Shield which quickly became Operation Desert Storm and how all these affected the Muslims. Or the consequences of Operation Restore Hope that has left Somalia ungovernable until this day. In all these operations, including the bombing of a pharmaceutical complex in Sudan, spearheaded by America, numberless innocent women and children were killed. Then came the big bang: what we now know as the War on Terror triggered by the so-called 9/11 “attacks” and the concoction of a false dossier of Iraq’s WMD, resulting in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq respectively.
More loathsome is America’s double standards and incongruities in dealing with similar issues where its interest and principles collide. The United States government, not its people, is responsible for the enthronement of non-democratic elements in countries where democratic ones would not do its bidding; agents of this government have been fingered in the assassination of heads of state and powerful individuals in countries where the deaths of such people serve its interests. There is an underlying principle in all this; the US has no permanent friends, only permanent interests!
The Afghan Mujahidin (Taliban Fighters) were once at the White House in 1985. On the lawn of the building, then President Ronald Reagan introduced Mullah Umar (currently one of the most wanted men by the US) and others with the following words: “These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of the founding fathers of the United States...” How quickly that changed when they asked the US for proof of Osama bin Laden’s complicity in the 9/11 “attacks”!
   
 President Reagan with Afghan Mujahadin (later Taliban) fighters

When the Taliban were fighting against the Soviets, America and many Arab nations assisted them with modern military arsenal; the America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped with covert training in guerrilla warfare, tactics, and even supplied raw cash to help recruit new fighters. The idea was simple: the enemy of my enemy is my friend! Through America Osama bin Laden, and by extension, the Taliban and al-Qa’ida got all the skills they possess today, and are now amply paying back their benefactor who suddenly turned against them after using their Mujahidin to rout the Soviets. Fatten your dog to bite you, as the Arabs would say.
Many countries around the world, following America’s footsteps, have used this war on terror mantra to imprison, subjugate, torture and kill devout Muslim activists who risked demanding for political freedom or raised dissenting voices to unjust rule. In the name of war on terror every atrocity was permissible; and America would look the other way. Any voice of Islam, an Imam, preacher, scholar and every leader of Islamic organisation is under surveillance by the secret service of his country acting on instructions from America. Make no mistake about it, your telephone/mobile lines are bugged; you have no secrets whatsoever in words or geography; they know who you speak with, and where you may be at any given time; you are a potential terrorist, and so a close eye must be fixed on you. Quite a lot of us do not even know that there are data banks and mainframe computers that glean information from our emails and which record our voices and scan all for keywords. There are analysts whose sole responsibility is to filter voice and data chatter for key phrases, words and names.
Many have ended up in Guantanamo Bay without just cause. It is part of the new anti-terrorism act in the US to suspect, arrest/abduct and detain anyone for an indefinite length of time. They are even flown to cooperating countries where secret torture cells exist at which the ‘suspect’ undergoes what is referred to as ‘rendition’- another word for torturing a man until he ‘confesses’ to crimes. This shameful and inhumane practice came into light only during congressional hearings in the US. Due to the fact that torture is forbidden on US soil, they secretly take people to other lands for torturing. In an ironic twist, the US publicly calls these cooperating nations human rights abusers for arresting and detaining their citizens without charge or trial!
Numberless countries have allowed America to use their airspaces and airports for the capture and onward transfer of suspected terrorists without due process or travel documents. These innocent Muslims would be undeservedly imprisoned in this infamous Bay only to come out with one ardent desire which they were not even thinking of before: kill as many Americans as they possibly can! They came into Guantanamo Bay sinless; they graduated as full time terrorists. Testimonies of former detainees abound, chronicling their ordeal while in detention, the torture both physical and psychological; the abuse both sexual and mental. The lives of these, mostly, young Muslims will never be the same again however much they try to forgive and forget. Their bodies and souls would for ever bear the scars of inhumanity, cruelty and injustice. The whole world is watching, and nobody is doing anything about it or even describing it with the appropriate adjectives because they are scared of the military and economic might of the US.
Has the war on terror made either the world or America any safer? On the contrary it has produced more enemies to the United States, and made the entire universe, vast as it is, very unsecure indeed. What is the aim behind this war that has divided the whole world into only two classes: ‘you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists’? If, on the one hand, America has purposed, by this war on terror, the extermination of Islam or weakening of adherence to its tenets, then America has failed woefully. The awareness of Islam and the rate of conversion to it in non-Muslim lands increased manifold shortly after the onset of the so-called war on terrorism.  And if, on the other hand, the war was orchestrated to water America’s insatiable thirst for oil, in this, also, America has failed, for thicker oil in the form of innocent blood has been running in the streets of Baghdad, Mosul, Kabul, Peshawar and many other Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani cities. This same thirst for oil is reproducing similar war rhetoric from America towards Libya recently, like the one shamelessly aired during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. That was not what we saw from America and her allies when the wave of demonstrations in the Arab region and North Africa started with Tunisia and later Egypt. Could it be that Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Muhammad Hosni Mubarak were acting the script in line with America’s agenda in the region better than Gaddafi’s defiant posture? Why was America’s leadership confused, lost vigour, and did not think of a military solution when people in Egypt rose against Mubarak’s rule? Is it not more civilised for the so called free world to leave the Libyan people to sort out things for themselves as did the Tunisians and Egyptians? Surely the US and NATO need not invade the country; especially as people doubt their motives, regardless of their reassurances. The people of Afghanistan and Iraq will not forget in a jiffy the reassurances of the US and its allies before invading them and turning their world upside down. Surely they could make Gaddafi stop the bombing of his people without bombing his country too. I am sure others may not see a parallel in the case of Libya and the others; they may even submit that the people of Egypt were not bombed. Yes, they were not bombed and the bombing in Libya should be stopped, but by who? If we go by the records, the US is in no position to head that effort.
This side of the US Administration is its more prominent and ugly side. The other side is worthy of emulation. The US government I have seen is efficient and less opaque than my own government. The process of selecting its leaders and public office holders is less dishonest too. The people have a better say in the affairs of the land and how it affects them. Its domestic policies are for the most part good and commendable. It is its foreign policies that stink to high heavens.
I have seen the difference between the hardworking, warm, good-natured and tolerant majority of Americans and the hegemonic, war-mongering and ruthless hypocrisy of the American government through its foreign policies. I have also seen the efficient and just way their country is managed. I have seen the people of the United States of America and they look so different from the government of the United States of America.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

THE AMERICA I SAW

What was on my mind the day I got my visa to travel to the U.S? What was I thinking about America itself? I had an image of a faithless, unfriendly nation and people; a secularist nation that has nothing to do with God; a nation with a foreign policy that is all out to hamper Islam and the Muslims.
The way the visa interview was conducted and the amiableness of the officials of the State Department I met in Washington DC before moving to the remaining destinations made me to start reconsidering my position with a certain level of scepticism.
‘Why do you want to travel to the U.S sir?’ The visa officer asked me.
‘I’m a guest of the American government…,’ I answered.
‘Where are you visiting in the States…?’
‘I don’t know, but my invitation letter mentions about five states….’
He, and whoever was listening to the interview in the hall, laughed. It is not the usual way of responding to questions in a visa interview, perhaps.
‘Can you recall any of the five states…?’
‘Washington DC, I think…’
‘I can see’ the visa officer continued, leaving the other line of questioning, ‘that you are an Imam. Kindly tell me about that verse in the Koran that rebukes corruption, and enjoins speaking the truth.’
‘Well,’ I started, ‘you are asking about two verses, actually, and not ‘the verse’. Yes, the Qur’an mentions corruption as well as speaking the truth, but in two separate surahs and verses; the former in al-Israa, the later in al-Ahzaab.’
If I knew that this visa interview would be a religious Q & A session, I might have got better prepared, and, in that case, have even given the exact number of verses and surahs in response.
‘My Imam’, the visa officer said, ‘collect your visa here, tomorrow. Yours is Embassy Collection. And, by the way, preach more against corruption; encourage people to always speak the truth.’
What! Has he spotted any traces of corruption in me, or have I not been speaking the truth? Was this a subtle way of describing the image of some Nigerians in his psyche given his experience in dealing with ever-increasing flood of visa applicants; and that people like me should do more in the area of fighting the menace of corruption, deception?
It was later that I learnt about the American Embassy, Abuja, having two collection points for successful visa applications - the one at Lobito Crescent, somewhere around Rock View Hotel, Abuja, and the other at the Embassy itself for cases like mine and those of government officials.
 And with that good counsel my interview was complete. Is it so easy; as if I was conversing with a friend? Visa interview for the United States of America…? No excessive questioning; no request for bank details – nothing? I’ve witnessed how a few people who were ahead of me on the queue were asked all sorts of questions, and ultimately denied visa. The nature of their questions was more like what I was told about the hardship in securing the US visa – but not mine. This visa hall will remind you of the day of judgement. You see people with loads of papers trying to convince the officer or prove the veracity of the stories they narrate. These visa officers are so trained that in no time they will put such documents to the test, render them useless. Owners of such papers would be quivering, moisture running down from their foreheads and sweating in a fully air-conditioned visa hall.
‘Have your papers sir,’ the visa officer would say to such applicants as failed to prove the validity of their claims, ‘I’m not convinced of your reasons!’
The outcome of the visa interview is clear, on the one hand, by the melancholic expression on the darkened faces of those who failed; and, on the other, by the exuberant, jubilant chronicle on the countenances of the successful. And it begs the question, why are people desperate to leave Nigeria by all means necessary to the unknown?
Every part of the trip was highly organised; nothing was left to chance. Halaal meal was requested for all Muslim participants along with their confirmed reservations for the round trip on Lufthansa Airlines, and other local flights that we used within the U.S. The air hostesses, guided by a piece of paper that has our seat numbers, will start moving to and fro the aisles at meal time trying to locate us, as they do for young travellers, to serve us our halal meal before other passengers. Of course there were many Muslims on board, who, as it appeared, had not made any request for Muslim meal, so they were served what was on the menu like everybody. This was my first lesson on this journey. I, as a travel agent, have never requested for Halal meal for any of my Hajj or Umrah pilgrims on Lufthansa and neither have the pilgrims, for once, ever asked for it. (Although liquor is part of the menu) only halaal meals are served on Emirates Airline on which we carry 90% of our pilgrims; it would be meaningless requesting exclusively for what is served to all passengers on board, but I still deem it a serious omission for Hajj/Umrah tour operators not to request for halal mean for those pilgrims who opt to travel by scheduled, foreign flights.
Many people in the past had said that Islam resided in America though there were no Muslims; and in places like Nigeria, Islam was absent in the midst of Muslims. Now I know what they meant; the Americans practise the virtues that Islam teaches though they are not Muslims, and in Nigeria many Muslims behave in ways opposed to Islam’s tenets; only that now there are Muslims in America. In spite of traces of Islamophobia, an attendant of Mr Bush’s tyrannical ‘war on terror’, Islam is the fastest growing religion not only in America but throughout Europe. Some of the Islamic centres I visited include: Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, Instilling the Islamic Vision, Mohammed Schools etc.
I learnt that America is a nation of immigrants, people from myriad nationalities who were attracted by the prospects of a better life and the American dream, who earnestly believed that through hard work and adherence to the law they could contribute to the advancement of America and be her citizens. And now, the lives of their progeny, the first-generation Americans, have proved them right. In spite of incendiary rhetoric about immigration after the sad events of 9/11, America has gained and is still gaining a lot through immigration. There are louder voices calling for the appreciation of the fact that immigration (including the illegal and undocumented) is an integral part of the American dream. Even former Secretary of State Colin Powell envisioned an immigration policy of "secure borders, open doors…” for immigration has made America what it is today.  What lessons are there in this for some states in Nigeria who see immigrants as settlers usurping privileges that are the exclusive preserve of the indigenes? This is not to say that the United States has not its fair share of xenophobia and hostility to immigrants. The only difference is in the government’s determination to curb it and punish offenders.
Immigration has produced a religious diversity in America that can hardly obtain anywhere else; a religious diversity that defies all secularisation theories. If there is any country that can truly be described as a multi-religious nation, it is the United States of America.  Dr Dinges, one of our lecturers, calls this ‘a free-market religious economy’. Every religion is represented in one form or another in America. Now I know that America is not a godless country; as it boasts no fewer than 1,500 denominations; two-third of Americans say religion is important to them, with many (others) saying something like ‘I’m spiritual, not religious’ – with their level of education and scientific hegemony. Americans spend more than $70 billion annually to one form of religion or another. For the first time in my life I went into a Jewish temple and engaged a rabbi in religious dialogue. This visit taught me a lot on the similarities between the Shariah and the laws in the Talmud. I witnessed two religious services, the one at the Hindu temple, and the other at the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That was another opportunity for interfaith dialogue.
The Mormons have a university, the Brigham Young University (BYU), Salt Lake City, Utah, a quasi-Christian state in which the doctrines of the Bible are strictly enforced: no illicit relations between male and female students; a dress code is observed on campus (everybody is decently attired – no nakedness in any form); no drugs….; smoking is strictly prohibited in the open, and in private; and even tea and coffee are not allowed. This university is not a seminary; Christian subjects are not taught here. BYU is a world class institution by all standards, equipped with state of the art education facilities, offering almost all courses except medicine about which, Sandra Rogers, International Vice President (of the university), told me that they ‘are working on it’. There is religious freedom as the Muslims are served special meals in Ramadan, and a prayer room (musallah) designated for them to offer salaah. Nigerian religion-based universities have a lot to learn from this. Honestly, if my children must study outside Nigeria, rather than take them to Dubai, Malaysia etc. where they are certain to imbibe the evil habits of drug addiction, debauchery and other vices, I would take them to this Christian university!
 Ms. Suzanne Ginsburg, Ustaz Abubakr, and Mr. William Toney Seabolt Jr. on the Certificate Day.
Americans are an industrious folk. In all the five states we visited during our stay I’ve repeatedly seen commitment in people’s movement to and from their places of work, morning and evening. Many people there work in at least two places in a day; if they close from one, they proceed to the other, and so on. Whenever I woke up for early morning prayers I observed from the window of my hotel room the same faces that I saw yesterday either alighting from a bus or waiting to board one; the same set of people you shall continue to see going into the metro-station, taking coffee or buying a ticket to a destination. This chain of events happens at exactly the same time daily; just look at your watch and the folks you are studying, you will be saying: ‘yes, indeed, right on time’! They are ever punctual and hardworking. This is very Islamic. Sadly, I failed to see these Islamic traits in some of my Middle-Eastern business partners and brethren who deem sleep as another form of worship based on an erroneous interpretation of a tradition in which the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, was quoted as saying ‘sleep is worship’. Yes, when we sleep in accordance with the precepts of Islam, we obey the laws that Allah has destined for living things to rest from the tiring activities of the exertions associated with our quest to earn our daily bread. Therefore, the Qur’an sets the night for rest, and daytime for subsistence (an-Naba’ 78:9-11), so that no indolent person would hide under the pretext of sleep is worship, languidly remain in bed throughout the day and expect manna from heaven. Unfortunately, many Islamic countries have missed the mark on this plain principle, for in Ramadan, for instance, their citizens are encouraged to sleep throughout the day, from dawn to dusk, for shops, factories and even government offices remain closed during daytime because of fasting; normal activities resume after the late-night prayers, taraaweeh at around 9pm. This is the direct opposite of the purport of an-Naba’ 78:9-11 referenced above. The aftermath is obesity and slow economic growth. Their seemingly fabulous wealth, one might say, is in spite of this indolence and not because of it. They need to remember that several war expeditions of the Prophet (SAW) took place in the thick of Ramadan. Islam abhors sloth and indolence. The Americans are indeed more Islamic in this regard than many Muslims. No wonder then that the Muslim Ummah (community), with all its oil wealth, is centuries behind nations like America in technological advancement.
We had more than 30 appointments for the period of this programme, meeting government officials, organisations and agencies; it was only on one occasion that we waited for about 7 minutes for the arrival of our host, a head of an agency, who had to come late because there was an accident on the way. That was the only time that the commencement of a meeting within the programme was delayed. Other than this isolated case, all meetings were right on schedule! What is familiar to us in Nigeria is for the head to come late. Punctuality is for the everyday people; the masses, but leaders come at the eleventh hour. This is unfortunately inscribed in our attitude and how we do business and relate with one another. Fix appointment with anybody for 10 am, for example, and see what time he will come. There are two separate times for Islamic functions these days: the speaker has 11am on his letter of invitation, while the general public will have 9am. Why? Because people are wont to come late, so, it is better to announce a false time. What a pity! In America everyone respects the time. Be punctual if you really want to meet them, otherwise they will attend to somebody more serious. This punctuality of the Americans is Islam in action!
I saw people, in the period of three weeks that we stayed here, walking their dogs very early in the morning before they set out for work. They walk the dogs daily not only for cardiovascular benefit but for more uses to the beasts as they spend greater part of the day caged or locked within a place when their masters are at work. Rights are not confined to humans; animals also have a protected share in it. When I saw squirrels (in the open, not in a zoo or any enclosed place), at liberty, moving freely everywhere, in parks, the beautiful garden in the fa├žade of the Capital Hill, and even around the lawn of the White House in Washington DC; these gorgeous animals, the admiration of beholders, enjoy themselves unhindered, unharmed and unthreatened by the presence of people, tourists that feed them happily. I said to myself: you are lucky this is America; in Nigeria, you will be in the soup as fresh bush meat!

 
                                                          A Squirrel
This is another Islamic trait here which is in complete variance with what you see today in some Muslim countries where animals are ill-treated. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, mentioned a special place in Hell reserved for  a woman who imprisoned a cat till it died of starvation – she neither fed the cat nor freed it so that it could feed itself. (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 1, Hadeeth 712). Muslims should, therefore, be the ones to teach the world the right way of relating with animals – with tenderness, care and mercy. 90% of the people involved in transporting cattle across the (River) Niger to the Southern part of Nigeria are Muslims, yet see the ordeal these unfortunate animals go through. They are herded, crammed in trucks in large numbers; their legs are constricted with cables, and the journey may last two to three days, if the driver does not have a stopover, for another day, at places like Tafa etc. This is aside from daily occurrence of heartless people (of all faiths in Nigeria) transporting three to four live goats, sheep and what not on (okada) motorcycle. Do not even mention the plight of poultry; those are tied together at the legs by the dozen and hung like dried tobacco leaves from the sides of tricycles on the way to the market or from the market!
A visit to Crossroads Urban Centre (CUC), and the Catholic Charities taught me that humans share the same characteristics of compassion and the urge to help those in need; Americans are no exception! In Utah, we were informed that CUC ‘is a multipurpose non-profit, grassroots organization’ which helps to organise low income, disabled, and minority Utahns to be advocates on their own behalf in addressing essential issues affecting the quality of their lives. The Centre also provides direct services to help meet basic survival needs. Through what is called ‘The Charity Basket’ Christians bring their tithe, Muslims their sadaqah, and others, whatever it is called in their religion (a good example of religious harmony and peaceful coexistence); they pool their offerings into this basket monthly for the support of the needy – groceries, diapers, rice, clothes (new and used), etc. CUC is not a government agency; these items are not provided by the American government. It is the result of the effort of ordinary people like you and I. 90% of the staff is made up of volunteers; they are not paid for what they do here; they have their job elsewhere but volunteer their time, talent and resources to render service to the needy. I was moved to tears after a tour of the building, especially the store full to the brim with all sorts of things and seeing the poor, homeless people come to collect their rations. It does not matter who you are, why you want help or whether you have genuine papers to stay in America or not. You have come for help, and help you will get- no questions asked! Render assistance to the needy anyway is the slogan. I wondered when this kind of thinking would permeate the Nigerian psyche. One part of me argued that when the Nigerian man is settled and comfortable enough like the Americans he can think  of volunteer work while another countered by asking ‘what about the already rich and comfortable?’ Why are some Muslim nations insisting that the recipients of zakah must have genuine residence permit? Islam is indeed in America!
I asked Sheikh Fuad Adeyemi, the Imam of Al-Habibiyyah Mosque, Abuja, and my predecessor in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) of the United States about the origin of Al-Habibiyyah’s Food Basket, aimed at helping the poor, and its free Ramadan iftaar programme. Imam Fuad said: ‘wallahi (by Allah), I got the idea from the United States of America during the IVLP!’
Our visit to the Catholic Charities USA in Tulsa, Oklahoma, elicited more tears. St. Elizabeth’s Lodge of CCUSA Tulsa ‘provides transitional lodging, without cost, for working families with children, for an average of four months.’ This lodge is made up of two bedroom flats, the like of which you see in choice areas of Abuja, fully furnished. They are given to working families with a plan for long-term housing, allotting a portion of their income towards permanent future housing. Beneficiaries cut across faith and race. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian to qualify for the lodge. Other services include feeding the homeless one meal daily, namely lunch. Also, volunteers make this possible. I know it might rankle in the minds of some readers that such an arrangement is merely a proselytization gimmick. To answer that I ask, what is your effort to have yours as Muslims?
We were at many other charities that offer special services to the homeless like providing them with a place equipped with lavatories and a large hall where they could relax, watch television and drink tea or coffee. Also, the homeless have access to drawers and lockers for a month to keep their valuables; at the end of the period they are expected to surrender the lockers if other users need them otherwise they retain them for longer periods. Another charity provides shelter for a night through mounting canopies with blankets, etc. in vast areas. The homeless are welcome to this place to spend the night; in the morning everybody is expected to leave until another night.
Next week, insha Allah, I shall write about the difference between the American people and their governments and agencies.


Ustaz Abubakr and Pastor Yakubu Jordan Bowman, Church Administrator, Domininion Chapel International, Abuja.