Bishop Hassan Kukah: The Radicalisation of Religion
Second report on the interview conducted with Bishop Hassan Kukah on March 7, 2021
The different stages of both social and political development are well documented in human history. Given their interconnectivity, they combine to serve as an anchor of every human society, moving them higher to their desired positions. The first phase of human social evolution recorded religion as a tool for social control so that collective ideas and socially identified philosophies can be transmitted into the people through its agency. As such, religion became very useful in transmitting values and even ideas to the people, while it was simultaneously considered as the platform for social advocacy. This is precisely because early society was constructed in such a way that nearly all members of the society, either willingly or otherwise, were conditioned to accept the existing religion as their collective creed, which did not only dictate their moral and ideological values but also enforced these principles using every means possible. However, the world began to gradually move away from the confines of religion as more information is generated and discovery is made in science and technology. Nevertheless, the sacredness of religion was unquestioned but its previous general control was losing its grip on the people. In the unfolding events, even when one expects that this religious influence and importance would be emasculated by these developments, it became stronger and occupied its social position.
The two most popular and politically powerful religions in the country are Christianity and Islam, which boast of intimidating numerical strength. Because of their numbers, they are well placed to make social decisions or inspire social movements capable of revolutionary actions. Even when some members have reservations about what their religious leaders say, they are mostly bound by religious injunctions to follow their prescription and take their advice strongly. Moreover, because some of these religious leaders are politically inclined and socially vibrant, they miss no opportunity to contribute to sociopolitical debates. By their mere participation in these social activities, they indirectly empower their members to follow a particular direction.
In essence, that religious platforms are used as veritable tools for social regeneration cannot be a strange thing to the human society. At each time in human history, religion has always capitalized on its social significance and popularity to enforce ideas, influence people to follow a particular direction, or inspire them to take a particular step, as long as it would add to them richly, including making them follow a specific political course of action. Religious influence keeps expanding even in contemporary times. In a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual, and multi-religious country like Nigeria, religious platforms often collide in their contradictory philosophies, and when this happens, social eruptions are not impossible in the long run. However, despite its capacity to influence people’s opinions, individuals who operate under a different religious identity would always demonstrate their sense of aversion to another religious group’s position on the political, economic, and social situations of the country. This is exactly the case with Nigeria. In what follows, I explain how this holds bearing to the man Kukah and its overall relevance to the contemporary social conditions of Nigeria.
In Nigeria, Bishop Reverend Father Kukah falls into this category. Apart from being a religious head, Father Kukah functions well as a seasoned intellectual whose sense of social evaluation reveals the extent of his astute academic brilliance. If he had not been functioning in the domain of religious leadership, it is uncontentious that he would have comfortably been a seasoned academic, molding and shaping people’s lives from the theater of the classroom. But since he has already been recognized in the religious platform of Christianity, Kukah is seen as one of the most, if not the most, controversial religious leaders in the country in the 21st century because of his sociopolitical stance and uncompromising criticism of underperforming government administrators. But because Nigeria is divided along the cleavages of religious pluralism, his constant evaluation of the government has been given an ethnic and religious tone by individuals committed to silence him. Rather than be bothered, the Bishop has shown an admirable level of confidence and zeal.
The most recent interview I had with Bishop Kukah was both educative and enlightening and, more importantly, reassuring and appealing. When asked if the religious platforms can be used for radicalization, Kukah became elaborately analytical with his familiar logical reasoning. From his response, we got to know that some social experiences determine religion’s position on social events. In other words, context is important in determining the responses of religious organizations to the prevailing political challenges because of its sensitive position in the making and shaping of the society. The Bishop believes that the radicalization of religious platforms is preceded by a chain of actions and a series of inactions of the political class. And once religious leaders take a radical position against the government and transmit their grievances into the sermons that the congregations would consume, no one can accurately predict the possible outcome. The reason for this is clear. In many instances, followers of religion accept the words of their leaders as sacrosanct and would act on them to the letter. Since religious leaders have this significant influence on their members, people who are wary of what can be done using the pulpit are usually fast to raise alarms about what religious leaders say, arguing that their utterances are incisive. Obviously, having this social power has affected many things in Nigeria, and the choice of their political representatives is one of such consequences.
Social conditions usually predispose people to radicalization, and according to Bishop Kukah, people can be radicalized when they feel betrayed by their government or leaders. Even when the reasons for radicalization are interminable, Kukah identifies these three factors as propellants of radicalization—social conditions, the feeling of betrayal, and marginalization. He conveniently educated us, his audience, about these recalcitrant issues that keep challenging the development of the people. For one, the social conditions are concrete proof of the state of health of a people generally. Comfortably, one can predict the political status of a country by merely looking at its social configurations and systems. In a society where people have lost their voices, the probability of their wellness cannot but be uncertain. A people’s voice is very important in their determination to entrench a beautiful democratic culture. This is because it is through this process that the government recognizes their input and significance in the nation-building process. In essence, when they are suppressed or intimidated by the government elected to represent their interests, they would face various traumatic conditions that would be accumulating gradually. When this reaches its elastic limit therefore, they would be emboldened by the assurance that their fight for recognition is just and natural in a social setting. Even if they were matched with superior force by the totalitarian regime in power, they would follow their dreams of freedom with actions that have consequences.
Political representation is usually a product of the ideological concession of peoples in the society where the ones vying for political offices convince the electorate of their capacity to bring about the desired changes needed in the same society. Before the electorates concede to following a particular political platform or identity, there must have been a series of meetings that would guarantee mutual understanding. When viewed from this perspective, the relationship between the political representatives and the electorates is synonymous with that of a contractor and the client, the seller and the buyer, and not the one existing between the master and the subordinate, or the superior to the inferior. In most cases, the poor understanding of this situation forces the occupants of a political office to misbehave. Individuals, the people, the electorates on whose sweat and shoulders the politicians ride to their offices, deserve accountability, transparency, and quality service delivery. However, whenever this is not given, the feeling of betrayal is imminent, and the corresponding outcomes can be devastating. Looking at the chain of unkept promises by the Nigerian government in recent years, the electorates have obviously been betrayed.
Also, marginalization can be a valid reason for radicalization. Colonial experience has mandated that peoples of varying cultural and religious philosophies are combined to function as an entity, and because of this condition, the responsibility of management has been unprecedentedly wider. More importantly, countries that are as diverse as Nigeria need a more inclusive system to make people have a sense of belonging. Nigeria is multicultural and is ethnically diverse too. Admittedly, the political philosophy needed for the management of the country must be socially appealing in orientation because managing diversity is sacrosanct to the successful driving of such a place. People are as diverse in political understanding as they are in their cultural identity. They can be as diverse as their religious sentiment too. It is equally possible that people can maintain a different social understanding according to the diversity of their ethnic affiliation. Therefore, an impassioned leader, or sets of leaders, are required for a successful running of a place like Nigeria. However, that has not been the case in its history. Nigeria is confronted with ethnic jingoism of unknown magnitude, religious sentiment of unusual height, ethnic bigotry of surprising standards and tribal politics of unimaginable proportion. All these are observable in the highest echelon of power. Hence, these conditions make radicalization inevitable.
Even when Bishop Kukah is earnestly castigated by individuals that are hit by his very critically flagellating disposition to the government of the day, not many people can doubt his nationalist conviction. He remains a progressive Nigerian who believes that Nigeria can be great, and perhaps because the country is urgently on the trajectory to its deserved development, it experiences a sudden challenge after running into the hands of political jobbers who consider opportunities to serve as some grace to swallow the public fortune. Kukah believes that the dream country that many Nigerians have in their minds can be achieved through the continuous dedication of interest to the issues that are happening in the country. It is the observation of the social responses, reactions to these critical engagements that would show if the country is on the right track. Since Father Kukah has enjoyed the goodwill of the people during his criticism of government policies and representatives, he has observed that he was speaking the minds of many repressed Nigerians who do not have the platform or effrontery to speak truth to the center. It is on this social acceptance of his position that the hope with which he continues the said assignment is manufactured. He admits that even if other things have failed him about ascertaining Nigeria’s prospect to work as a beautiful nation, his hope continues to serve as the renewal of his strength to keep the good work going. As a result, hope has been useful in his journey.
Whereas the problems confronting the country are multifaceted, it is intellectually stimulating to know that someone like Reverend Kukah pinpoints the root of the challenges to something very logical that even the most basic individual can relate to. Among many other things, Kukah submits that one of the principal factors for Nigeria’s problems is globalization which has appeared in the world with many countries and civilizations unprepared for its management. People around the world are caught by surprise that something as fundamentally or experientially crucial to the development of the world generally can come this suddenly and with this intruding force. Part of the elements of globalization is the Internet, which is forcefully changing the configuration of society through its monumental project of collapsing spaces and boundaries. Because humans now have access to happenings and developments of different democratic environments, they continuously improve their standards for measuring leadership or its attendant usefulness in human society. Someone in the corner of their village in Ibarapa, Oyo State, Nigeria, with active access to the Internet is aware of the democratic culture of the United States of America, put to the test when their recent out-of-office President became unconstitutionally imposing. For this, they instinctively raise their sense of global citizenship and want to replicate what Americans did in checking him, by protest or criticism, in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, the infancy of Nigerian democracy would always encourage politicians to negate this form of development. Leaders in a multicultural society like Nigeria are always suspicious of all and every comment against their leadership (pre)disposition. As such, any comment coming from a public space is first read with an ethnic mindset, religious sentiment, cultural bias, or other forms of identity indices, and would react inflammably, throwing objectivity and caution to the wind. Therefore, in this kind of environment, the attainment of peace and tranquility tends to be eternally difficult. The globalization age has ensured that people have access to information in its immediacy, and because of such access, individuals have become more alive to their democratic duties and corresponding rights as citizens of the same country. The flow of information brings people to make a comparative judgment between the government of one country and the other; and on the occasion that they would be deprived of these fundamental human rights in their own country, they would always take the democratic means of calling out the government for others to be aware of their political situations. Kukah cites the recent successful campaign against the police brutality that the average Nigerian youth were facing. Tagged #EndSARS, the movement’s success was a credit to globalization because through the Internet and the social media industry, the youth exposed the growing decadence enshrined in the country’s democratic culture and expressed their anger and frustration against a system that had hitherto discounted and disenfranchised them. In essence, the more they are aligned to the globalization agenda, the more they would make appropriate modifications.
Another challenge that Bishop Kukah mentions as an impediment to Nigerians’ common progress is the problem of dysfunctional leadership perennially confronting the country. Blighted by leadership decadence, the country has continued to suffer immeasurable pains that are preventable if it had purposeful leadership. Throughout the six decades that Nigeria has experienced freedom, less than one-third of the time witnessed the ascension of political leaders who are not a product of military culture. To consolidate his points, the current Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, falls within this category. He identifies that although these military officers usually cite the situation of stupendously proportional mismanagement of public resources as their reason for overthrowing successive democratic governments, this, however, still does still not change the fact that the military is not particularly trained or suitable for human management, much less diversity management. The military, continues Father Kukah, is only competent in forcefully handling transnational conflicts so that the territorial integrity of their country would not be disrespected or trampled upon. Thus, when these military officers take the position of leadership forcefully, the results would not be in any way different from what Nigeria currently experiences.
As a corollary to this assertion, the unpreparedness of successive Nigerian leaders has been a raging issue in their democratic identity. Citing presidents in their fourth republic, Kukah solidifies the argument that when leaders do not have the proper picture of their imminent national assignment, they would indiscriminately embark on actions that can be detrimental to the health of the fragile unity they keep as a people. Looking at General Olusegun Obasanjo, the Nigerian President between 1999 and 2007, for example, he was a man who gave up on the hope of existence as he was condemned to death and was waiting for official execution by the government of Abacha. Months later, he found himself in the corridor of power. Nothing can prove more that he did not have the psychological preparation to lead a country as diverse as Nigeria. Fast-forward this to President Umar Yar’adua, the man who was physically plagued by health challenges and yet succeeded Olusegun Obasanjo. His mind must have been consistently divided between finding lasting peace and stability for himself and catering to the welfare of the country. This could not but have consequences on the ways he led. The accidental ascension of his successor, President Goodluck Jonathan, is also public knowledge. After him, however, a man who made the public remark of not being ready to run further for public office, Muhammadu Buhari, found himself there. The rest is history, as they always say in public parlance.
During the interview, many other questions were asked about the possible continuation of the country as a single indivisible political identity and what could be done to prevent the country from imminent collapse, going by the heightened ethnic and religious sentiments that have pervaded society. Kukah, in his often logical and evidently tactical sense of evaluation, responds that the immediate facilitator of peace and enhancer of unity is the ability to manage diversity. However, this would not be achieved using a bottom-up approach; as different political analysts usually suggest, it would be a top-down thing this time around. The leaders at the echelon of power should understand that diversity is a part of the modern world, and its management is pivotal for the enhancement of collective development. Migrations and resettlements caused by factors that are not here to be explored have necessitated that people of different cultural and religious identities would be found under the same political system and would need to be well managed for the society to move further. Therefore, being nepotistic reflects one’s insecurity than one’s sense of control. Once they provide the space for divergent identities and make provisions for a friendly atmosphere where everyone can achieve their goals, there would be peace and stability for everyone, and Nigeria would move forward.
Toyin Falola is a Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin
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