How A Nigerian 'Village Boy' Set Record In U.S. As Scholar, Clergyman

At the University of Port Harcourt, he made a first class in Economics in 1984, won the MKO Abiola National Essay Competition two years after, which earned him a job at the African Concord as a journalist. He later moved into banking (1989) and a few years after proceeded to the United States where he bagged an MBA at the Ivy League Columbia University, New York in 1992. And then he got hired on Wall Street as an investment banker. But in 1998, he walked away from that lucrative job on hearing the divine call to pastor a Redeemed Christian Church of God parish in New York.

Now Nimi Wariboko, 47, a Nigerian based in the US, originally from Rivers State, got promoted last Monday as a full tenured professor of Christian Ethics in the oldest graduate colleges in the US - the Andover Newton Theological School in Boston. (Andover started the first Master's degree in the US in 1807) He made that mark only after two years post-doctoral experience as a full time college professor. The same process had taken 12 years for many others. Wariboko had broken US academic records in 2006 when he completed his PhD at the Princeton Theological Seminary within two years, something that should normally take at least five to six years.

In this interview with LAOLU AKANDE, Wariboko, the pastor, and college professor answers questions about his academic feats, life in the US and his Nigerian background, among others.

What are usual criteria employed to judge an associate professor due for promotion to full professor?

In my seminary, the oldest graduate school in the United States, there are three main criteria. First and foremost is the quality of one's scholarship. The Committee will give the candidate's books, book chapters, and journal articles for all members of the Faculty to assess and give reports. They will also send them out to outside renowned and cutting-edge scholars in the candidate's field to evaluate and send confidential reports directly to the Committee.

The second criterion involves the evaluation of the candidate's service to the seminary. Here the Tenure and Promotion Committee evaluates the candidate's work and participation in Faculty and Departmental Committees, teaching competence, student advisory, thesis advisory, community day events, and preaching in chapel services. Faculty members, students and staff are all encouraged to send in reports and evaluations.

Finally, the candidate's participation in academic, civil and cultural organizations is assessed and evaluated. For instance, the Tenure and Promotion Committee would like to see that the candidate is playing active roles in professional and academic associations. I would also like to mention that all reports, evaluations, and assessments sent to the Committee are confidential and the candidate does not see them.

If the Committee is satisfied in all these fronts, it will make a recommendation to whole Faculty. The Faculty will then vote to accept or reject the recommendation. If the recommendation is accepted, the Dean and the President (the Vice Chancellor equivalent) will send the Faculty's recommendation to the Board of Trustees (I think we call this, Governing Council in Nigeria) and the Council will vote to accept or reject the candidate for promotion. It is a very arduous and long process. It takes up to seven months, from start to finish.

Tell us more about your scholarship that convinced the Tenure and Promotion Committee to recommend you for promotion.

In less than two years, I have published four acclaimed books on ethics, four papers in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, five chapters in books edited by renowned scholars, two book reviews, and two papers at various stages of review in major peer-reviewed academic journals. This 17-piece body of work in two years is on top of the five books and 18 papers and chapters I had published before coming to the seminary. In addition, in the two-year period, I have delivered over 62 sermons and public academic lectures (at conferences and symposia) in the United States, India, and England.

I was elected twice as the chair of the Ethics Colloquium (2008-2009, and 2009-2010) of the Boston Theological Institute, an association of ethics faculty of nine universities, divinity schools, and theological seminaries in the greater Boston area, including Andover Newton, Harvard, Boston University, and Boston College.

I am a specialist in economic ethics, with particular focus on monetary systems, and African studies. By the grace of God, I have established my scholarship at the forefront of different fields (Economic/Business Ethics, Christian Social Ethics, African Religious Studies, and African Anthropology). Some of my recent publications and work have even focused on theology and science.


The Tenure and Promotion Committee of my school, commenting on my scholarship based on its own assessment and that of evaluations solicited from experts in top America higher institutions (including Harvard, Princeton Theological Seminary, Boston College, University of Texas at Austin), had this to say on its April 23 report to the whole faculty: "He is regarded as a person of unrivaled productivity, who promises to continue to produce innovative work at a great pace. The voices from these evaluations use superlatives ('brilliant,' 'a prodigy,' 'most important scholar of his generation') to describe Nimi's academic accomplishments and abilities."

In our earlier conversation you had described your promotion as an amazing gift. Given your kind of productivity, why did you say so?

What is amazing about this promotion is that an African village boy from Abonnema, Rivers State, who, by the middle of 2004 was not even in a doctoral degree programme, has made it to the rank of full professor by the middle of 2009.

But to look at the story only in this way is to miss the full extent of God's grace in the whole process. The story of the transformation of academic status could be traced to 1993 when the good Lord empowered me through a self-teaching process to begin to write scholarly books and papers in multiple fields. So, I have a 16-year record in academic research and publication. This is, indeed, a magnificent story of divine intervention in my personal life.

Since you mention your transformation, let us now shift focus and inquire into the journey that brought you to this stage in your career. Where did your academic teaching begin?

In 2000, the New York University (NYU) hired me as an adjunct lecturer in African history. This was amazing to me. Then I had only a Master's in finance and accounting, and not in history. I got the offer because a history professor had read publications in African economic, management, and political history and recommended me to the University. At the time, I was working full time as a parish pastor. The following year I was promoted to adjunct assistant professor of social sciences without a doctoral degree. The promotion was based on the strength of my publication record and teaching skills.

While still at NYU, I was also invited to teach at the New York Institute of Finance. I taught "Advanced Mergers and Acquisitions" and "Security Analysis" to Wall Street executives. I left NYU to go to the Business School of Hofstra University, Long Island, New York where I served as an adjunct assistant professor of international business.

Let me also talk about my training before my Princeton days. I graduated from the University of Port Harcourt in 1984 with a Bachelor of Science degree (first class honours) in economics. I later got my MBA (Finance and Accounting) from the Columbia University, New York City in May 1992. In between the two degrees, I worked as a staff writer and editor in three Nigerian newsmagazines, including the African Concord and Financial Post. Later, I worked at Allstates Trust Bank, Lagos.

After graduation from Columbia University, I again, in December 1992, worked in Allstates' corporate finance department and left. Then I returned to Wall Street in April 1994. On the Street, I served as an investment banker, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and investment-banking consulting.

It was while I was working at Allstates that I published my first book in 1993 on financial statement analysis by Spectrum Books, Ibadan. The following year, I came out with my second book on bank analysis and valuation. I continued my academic research and publication while on Wall Street and as a pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Brooklyn, New York City.

Even as a clergy, God helped me to climb the promotion ladder fast. I became a deacon in May 1997; an assistant pastor in 1998, leaving my lucrative investment banking career to become a parish pastor; full pastor in 2003, and reaching the highest rank of Coordinator (in the United States) in October 2006 when I was appointed the Coordinator of Zone 18, which covered parts of New York State and the whole of the state of New Hampshire. In June 2007, I became Coordinator Research, RCCG North America, a position I still hold by the grace of God.

What, in your Nigerian background, prepared you for your US experience and feats?

I can easily point to four things. First and foremost, I was brought up to rely on a loving God and to serve him as the beginning and end of all avenues to success and enduring prosperity.

Second, from an early age I was taught the virtues of hard work, discipline, honesty, love, courage, and communion.

Third, is the I-can-do attitude that is in the DNA of all Nigerians. We believe that all things are possible and the fact that someone has not achieved a feat before is neither an obstacle, nor an excuse for not trying. And we usually add to the statement, "by the grace of God," to show our humility or dependence on the Being that is greater than us.

Finally, living and striving in Nigeria is always a struggle and a war against existential angst and if I survived that environment I can survive anywhere.

How do you recall your academic and professional preparation in Nigeria?

Nigerian education was hard and we were really drilled in those days. Getting a degree was harder than getting a tooth from a hungry, ferocious lion. We were told to work hard since we were the leaders of tomorrow and the sky was our limit. By the way, we were also told that by year 2000 all the nation's problems would be solved. I believed those talks as a primary school boy, grammar school student, and as an undergraduate. These were hopes and trainings that set me on fire.

The government, and our teachers also told us that education was the passport to success and that a good performance would take us to places. Learning was honorable then.

I believe that the University of Port Harcourt gave me an excellent education. In those days, we had the "School System" and we were all trained to be multidisciplinary in our search for knowledge and truth. People like Professor Claude Ake believed that narrow-minded and one-track intellectuals could not solve Nigeria's problems. Since then I have come to value multidisciplinary approach to knowledge and never wanted to be a one-track pony. This is why I have published in multiple fields and studied multiple fields. At the university level, I have taught history, anthropology, religion, theology, ethics, economics, finance, and management.

Finally, leaders like Zik, Awo, Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas, Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi, and my mum greatly influenced me. I wanted to be a great educated national leader like Zik and also speak oyibo like him. From Awo, I learned not to drink and smoke. I am teetotaler like him and I have always been that way, even before I got born-again. For a time I did not dance because I read, as a boy, that Awo did not like to dance. I only now dance for Lord, Jesus Christ.

As a child my mother bought me a lawyers' wig and wanted me to be a lawyer like Nabo, who was my cousin. I studied hard in primary and secondary schools to be a lawyer, only to change my mind in Class five. My mum always promised me one whole chicken and rice if I came first in any exam. In those days, the 1970s when I was in primary school, chicken and rice were a rare treat and the promise of it could make a village boy like me work real hard in school.

Finally, as a boy, I once read in Drum or Spear magazine that there was nothing in history that Prof. Ade-Ajayi did not know and if he did not know it, it meant it did not exist. Whao! I wanted to be that smart. It was a joy of my life when in 1997, Ajayi was at the Yale University and writing on Bishop Crowther and he asked me to do some historical research for him. He later gave me some advice on my history paper on the 1869 Bonny War, which was published in 1998. I came to know him through his daughter, Funmi who is my friend.

Do you think US-based Nigerian professionals can contribute significantly to Nigeria's development?

The answer is a resounding "yes." What is lacking is a viable national mechanism for doing it. On my part, I have been trying to do a few things. For instance, I have talked to people like Professor E. J. Alagoa of Port Harcourt. We discussed how to arrange for Rivers and Balyelsa intellectuals abroad to spend sabbaticals in the universities in the two states. We are planning a journal for Ijaw studies. I collect books and send to him, which he distributes to higher institutions there. Last October in Washington D.C., I spoke with Professor Soludo, the Governor of the Central Bank, who was encouraging me to come home and serve the nation. He knows of my enthusiasm for national service.

In March-April 2007, when my good friend, Chief Ikechi Emenike, was contesting the governorship of Abia, I took time off from my busy schedule and traveled to Umuahia to tour various local government areas in the state to help him prepare a viable economic development plan for the people of Abia. I also write an economic column for his monthly newsmagazine, The Economy.

In January 2006, Pastor Elsie Obed and I organized a training programme for Pastors in Port Harcourt. We were both based in the United States, but we felt the need to encourage and thank the pastors, who were doing a good work in the area. The programme has now become a yearly one.

Is there anything in your US experience that has indicated to you any form of discrimination?

Racism in the United States is pervasive and is often subtle. One has learned to navigate it, by God's grace. Knowing its existence and the possible hindrance it can cause to my aspirations, I have learned to work harder and pray more to God so as to earn my place. Having said that, I would like to add that there are far more good people in the United States than bad people. I have made great friends here and met very nice people.

What is your ultimate aspiration as a scholar?

I have one ultimate goal in life: to love and serve God and serve Him well. All my learning is to enable me make heaven and better serve all children of God while I am on earth.

What inspires your seeming academic shift from economics, and MBA degrees to seminary studies?

I got born-again while I was an investment banker. I became hungry and thirsty for the word of God. My appetite for God's word is limitless. I feel ignorance is a dangerous luxury when one is serving the Almighty, all-knowing God. I love to read the Bible and to understand what God is saying to us.

It was not long after I got born-again that I went back to school to equip myself to study the word at higher levels and also help others to understand it at deeper levels. By the way, I have not left economics as you can see from the list of my publications. I have only combined economics with theology and ethics.

As a member and pastor of the RCCG, how can you describe the growth of the church at home and abroad, and what burdens do you think the explosive growth of the church places on its leaders and members?

RCCG is a phenomenal church and its rapid growth has imposed some inevitable burdens or constraints on it. I will comment on four of the areas the leaders in North America, under the leadership of Pastor James Fadele are focused on right now. I am limiting my comments to North America because it is an area I know very well as a pastor and coordinator. I know that we are trying to rationalize the operations and administration of the Church.

Second, we are tackling the issue of pastors' welfare, well-being, and training. Third, is about how to pass on the faith to the youths, the next generation, as well as properly integrating them into our activities in the now. Finally, how to maintain the high standards of holiness the church is noted for without hindering the rapid growth momentum.

Describe your life - family and all - in the US since you relocated?

We are a Christian family and God is protecting and blessing us. The children are doing well in school and we are all healthy. My children were raised in the church and trained to serve God in the church from an early age. My wife is also a pastor.

Tell us a little about your wife.

As they say, behind every successful man there is a powerful woman. I am happily married to Pastor Wapaemi Wariboko. She is also a full pastor in RCCG and a high school history and social science teacher here in the States.

She did her first degree at the University of Port Harcourt and her Master's in education at the New York University. God has blessed us with two boys (16 and 7 years old) and one girl (15). My wife is a granddaughter of Chief Ernest Ikoli, the late nationalist and pioneer newspaper editor and owner in Nigeria and daughter of Chief Erasmus Nicholas Spiff of Twon-Brass, Bayelsa State.

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