Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Chief Shepherd of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Episcopal chairman for the Commission, Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Church in Nigeria, an expert on Peace Studies who was also Chairman of the Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation Committee between 2007 and 2009, leading social and civil rights crusader, defender of the downtrodden, spoke recently on the AriseTV progamme, “The Interview” in his characteristic fearlessness and outspoken manner on “the State of the Nation”.
Let me fire what you might call the first salvo. Let’s start with that which has engulfed the whole world globally and has affected the way we live. How would you assess the response so far by the Nigerian government to this pandemic COVID-19?
First of all, let me thank unequivocally our President, the members of the Presidential Task Force for the extra-ordinary efforts they have committed to dealing with this very, very difficult problem, a problem that we had no rehearsal for, a problem that nobody would have ever dreamt about, a problem that even the most well equipped, better structured or infrastructured societies have tremendous difficulty in dealing with and then go on from there to say what we sowed yesterday is what we are reaping; lack of preparedness for anything, our inability, unwillingness, lack of commitment to educating our people, our inabilities, weakness and reluctance to make feeding our people a primary duty and responsibility, our inability to provide for the very basic things that make for the development of good citizenry. So, the confusion and the chaos we find around us is largely a manifestation of the job that we did and did very poorly yesterday. I am talking of the years that have come and gone. So, coping with this problem the easy thing is to find who to blame; but the reality of the situation is that very frankly we are in pretty good hands, we are learning by the day and this is not a time to let our guard down. We must cooperate very fully with all those who have been charged with the responsibility of this problem. I appreciate their eminent qualifications, patriotism and commitment. The least we can do as citizens is to continue to do the best we can in our little spaces. But this is a very difficult battle, very difficult time for the history of the world and for the history of our country.
I just want to quickly make a quotation from your homily at the funeral mass of late Seminarian Michael Nnadi. Of course, that was a very touchy moment for the body of Christ, not just Catholics. You couldn’t swallow your tongue and you quoted very extensively politics and religion, how they have become a mix, how they have put a lot of the Northern children on the streets of Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, Sokoto and the rest depriving them and that, that must have led to the growth of terrorists, bandits, Kidnappers, people who are hopeless, homeless with no hope for tomorrow. What are your thoughts? Those were very caustic messages you sent to the authorities. Bishop?
Thank you very much. I actually must tell you that I was quite shocked by the way the sermon was received but also gratefully so. But I must tell you that religion and politics is my area of academic interest; religion, politics and society. So, when I say the things that I say, they are based, first of all on my conviction as a Christian because I am pretty clear about how society ought to be and Jesus said to me very clearly that I have come so that you can have life and have it to the full. So, anything that impinges on the state’s inability to make life better for the citizens under its care, not only does it irritate me but it summons me to question the state. So, to answer your question, there is nothing here that I said that is new. The former Emir of Kano, my good friend and brother, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi has paid the price; he has lost his throne; but that is also a statement of the level of preparedness by the Northern oligarchy in dealing with the problems it has generated by its inability to govern effectively and efficiently. No part of this country has produced military or civilian presidents or Heads of State as Northern Nigeria has done. The North still insists that it wants to hold on to power at all cost, yet it has lacked the capacity to translate this power into a meaningful and useful impact on the lives of even its immediate constituency. Even the thieves who steal from other parts of the country behave in a much better way than the thieves from Northern Nigeria and they steal as much as everybody else. But everybody who steals, you can see evidence that most of the thieves in Nigeria have either built clinics, they have tarred roads, have given children scholarships, built schools and have done all kinds of things. But you cannot find in Northern Nigeria in 99 percent of the constituencies of the Northern elites any evidence of a thief who served in Abuja or elsewhere passed here. I call the Northern elites, therefore, to account for why we have saddled the rest of Nigeria with this excess baggage. And for me these are the issues. The tragedy is that the Northern elites have used religion as a cover much more than any other group of people in this country and that religion is Islam. And the point I am making is that by behaving this way, the Northern elites have deprived Islam of its nobility because nobody, nobody ever says…and the religion itself says so whether it is the Holy Quran or the saying of, let’s say, the founder of the Caliphate, for example. Usman Dan Fodio said the society can live with the unbelief but the society cannot live with injustice. The Northern elites that produced the Almajiri are now the ones turning the Almajiri into victims. It is a conversation for another day but I think that what all these calls for is a clear questioning of the nature of the state that Nigerians want to live; the nature of the future that Nigerians want to live in and for me, these questions are many. They are questions that we must continue to contest and I think that is what governance is all about. I think going forward, it raises the issue of who really has the capacity to govern Nigeria. What answers do they have to the problems that this country has because sadly we have never been able to insist that people who want to govern this country, should have minimum level of understanding of the dynamics of state and how states are designed? This is why we are ending up going from one violence to the other; going from one crisis to the other.
You called the Nigerian elites thieves, whether in the North or in the South of Nigeria. You even adjudged that one seems better in terms of development of its people. Let me bring you how some of your opponents would describe Bishop Kukah. Your words, I mean your choices are seen as intemperate. Take, for example, the words “nepotistic, nazistic” and remember the way you described even the president by saying, “no one could have imagined that in winning, President Muhammadu Buhari would bring nepotism and clannishness into the military and the ancilliary security agencies. Don’t you find that very costly because some people will say with your eminent position you can reach the rulers and leaders and tell them where they are going wrong instead of making it public?
I am not…even the wife of the president who is married to him had reasons to say certain things that you think would have been said in the other room. It hasn’t happened that way. I think that if you want to be honest, ask yourself what is the meaning of nepotism and ask yourself whether you think that baptizing the word by using other vocabularies says anything different. Are you telling me that you are living in this country, you are a Journalist and that you are not aware of the skewed nature of the appointments that we have in this country? Are you telling me that you are in this country, you are a Journalist, a very well informed one for that matter and that the appointments of the security chiefs of this country, that we have ever had a time in this country when things have been the way they are? Well, I am sorry maybe you and I see things slightly differently and I think that somehow if you’ll rather the medicine is couched differently when saying so; but I think the only thing that would make me respect your position is if the evidence leads you to a different conclusion because if you take what I say, you may not agree with the language but a funeral is not a birthday party. We are having a burial. If you read whether it is the sermon or at the burial of Caesar or John Kennedy, we are not living in normal situations but to say that is not to say that if there is anything that we have to take away, the question of language is a different matter altogether. You are romanticising the issue; but whether you disagree with it, that is really the question and whether the question leads you to a different conclusion, that is a different question. You may have the diplomatic nicety to say things slightly differently depending on where you stand.
On the second point of saying I have access to these people, let me give you an example if I may just crave your indulgence. One day I said something when Obasanjo was in power and I know you know very well then and now President Obasanjo and I are…I can’t talk about him as being my friend but we have mutual respect for each other. I worked very closely with him; but there was a day we were having coffee and somebody said to me in the Villa…I had just said something critical of the government and somebody said to me you always come here and see the president, why don’t you come in private and have this conversation? I am sorry I am not a private citizen. I am a public citizen and there are times that it becomes necessary for any leader with moral authority to lend his voice to the oppressed. And what I said to that gentleman, I said ask President Obasanjo when he was in prison and we challenged Abacha, didn’t I know how to reach Abacha? You know I don’t go for political convenience. My interest and my constituency is this country and a lot of politicians will come and go and I have gotten very used to the fact of those praising me today being the ones to attack me tomorrow. I can live with that. As long as we are struggling about how to make this country a better society, if you want to keep my mouth shut, govern well, govern effectively, do the things you said you are going to do. For me, it is as straight forward as that. It is not a conference about table manners or manners of talk. I think even my worst enemies will concede that I have never deliberately attempted to disrespect anybody in the things I have to say and how I have to say them. But as to things that make me angry and they happen once in a while, I will try to be as restrained as possible but I don’t think you can quarrel with the evidence I have presented in that sermon.