Kukah as Sophocles’ Priest

Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah on Christmas Day connected year 2020 to year 2021 with a bridge of controversy. Apart from the ‘bad’ word he used which I dare not repeat here, he also said the president was nepotistic and ineffectual. He added for effects that he did not have to like our president and the president did not have to like him. “This is our country and it is not a friendship affair,” he declared. Kukah said some other things which the government and its worshippers did not like. The rumblings have followed us into the new year. But why is the government in perpetual unease? People who fart always hate foul smells. Or better put, now that death stalks butchers, they are screaming; what about the animals they butcher daily for a living?

Nigeria is not yet a graveyard, so we cannot all be still and silent. Where I come from, our ancestors questioned everyone and everything. Keeping quiet was never a precept they taught. In fact, they warned that the world is a jungle, if you are too quiet in there, birds will defecate on your head. The only thing that is sacred here is the just. Our ancestors made sure kings and gods served according to their respective mandates. If you were king, you must protect and respect the people, you must enforce the law evenly and justly. You must do justice to all classes of the people and be good shepherd to all. The divine got worshipped but they also had utilitarian duties. Gods that cannot save their believers are failed gods. Where the gods were found to be derelict in securing the town, they were ordered to restore the people to their old, original state – and step aside. Our ancient fought sinner-kings, they also retired angels who lacked impacts. That is why you heard the aged counsel their Egungun priest who danced for 20 years and remained in penury to drop the accursed costume and embrace Gelede.

Maybe Sophocles’s Oedipus should speak to all of us, to our government and the anti-Kukah ensemble. The settings appear darkly similar in death and misfortune. Confronted with a protesting crowd of troubled citizens led by the Priest of Zeus, King Oedipus asks softly: “My children…why are you sitting here with wreathed sticks in supplication to me while the city fills with incense, chants, and cries of pain? Children, it would not be appropriate for me to learn of this from any other source, so I have come in person—I, Oedipus, whose fame all men acknowledge. But you there, old man, tell me—you seem to be the one who ought to speak for those assembled here. What feeling brings you to me—fear or desire? You can be confident that I will help. I shall assist you willingly in every way. I would be a hard-hearted man indeed, if I did not pity suppliants like these.”

And the old man, the priest rises and speaks for the people. He tells the king that the city, as the king himself could see, “is badly shaken” and, indeed, “cannot raise her head above the depths of so much surging death.” Then he gives the kind of advice the all-knowing conquerors of Nigeria detest with all their soul. He asks the king to seek wisdom of experienced people in saving the land from rampaging deaths: “Oedipus, our king, most powerful in all men’s eyes, we’re here as suppliants, all begging you to find some help for us, either by listening to a heavenly voice, or learning from some other human being. For, in my view, men of experience provide advice which gives the best results…”

King Oedipus’ response is solemn in courtesy and empathy. From his exalted throne comes no insult; the people may wail but they are not tagged wailers. What the king offers is the soothing balm of practical solutions to the plague in the land. He tells his people: “…I well know that you are ill, and yet, sick as you are, there is not one of you whose illness equals mine. Your agony comes to each one of you as his alone, a special pain for him and no one else. But the soul inside me sorrows for myself, and for the city, and for you—all together. You are not rousing me from a deep sleep. You must know I’ve been shedding many tears and, in my wandering thoughts, exploring many pathways.” He has indeed sought counsel from the wisdom of the celestial. And the solution? The land must cast away “the polluting stain”  it has harboured—”which will not be healed if we keep nursing it.” And what is that “stain”? Go and read the play – or its Nigerian variant, Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are Not to Blame. Maybe, there is a clue in there, a solution to Nigeria’s own plagues of mass deaths, mass misery.

A woodpecker who claims to be a sculptor cannot be angry at protestations. You can’t mess up people’s lives with your incompetence – and luck – and demand an applause. It is sad that friends and foes got it wrong in 2015. The Yoruba would look at what happened and wail “A pe gbẹ́nàgbẹ́nà ẹyẹ àkókó yọ’jú” (we summoned sculptor, but it was woodpecker who showed up). That was what happened in 2015 and was further validated in 2019.  Besides, critics are not enemies. They are angels warning all stubborn chicks to stay off the dangers of the dung hill. Why do you think heirs apparent are asked not to take kola nut from alien trays and not to roam about drinking from one palm wine joint to the other? Aremo ma j’obi, ma r’ode emu, sebi k’Aremo ba le de ori ite baba re ni. Our ancestors said the warnings were issued so that the prince could live long enough to be king. And when he spurned their counsel, they left the doomed to proceed undisturbed to perdition.

The masked one was contracted to dance; he must dance. He is the cynosure of all eyes and cannot get carried away with his cheap popcorn. (Eni t’anwo, kii wo’ran). Our president is the main actor in this theatre, he cannot be praised for turning himself to a spectator. The investments on him and his government are very enormous. That he is failing and preening in that failure is tragic. Someone told me governments are humans writ large; that they suffer what man suffers and hanker after everything man loves and craves. The person told me all presidents want to succeed; I responded yes, they love to be praised even when failure is their area of specialization. You cannot pound half-boiled yam and not eat lumps as pounded yam. They get angry whenever their squirrel plans to climb the plantain tree and is reminded that its claws need to be very sharp. Each time the chicken of this government fails in dancing well, it blames, without shame, the hawk of yesterday – and descends on us, its owner, for expressing our disappointment.

What did Kukah do? He spoke against killings; he spoke against kidnappings and general banditry. He spoke against lethargic leadership. Democracy allows what he did. His calling as a priest okays it too. The culture of the African also demands calling out bumbling leaders. The leader can have his way but he cannot shut up the led from saying their mind. Society is safe only where the critic and the criticized fly, collide, and fly again. Here, we remember Chinua Achebe’s “Let the hawk perch and let the Eagle perch.”

The cleric and the state must exist but must not sleep in same bed. If they do, the people, their liberty, their souls will be ruined. Kings never like ‘fiery’ priests. There is a short incursion into history here. You remember that Kukah’s ‘outburst’ was a Christmas message. Exactly 850 years earlier on Christmas Day in year 1770, King Henry II of England, in his castle at Bures, Normandy, issued his infamous outburst against Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There are several versions of that outburst. One quoted the king as desperately asking: “who shall deliver me from this turbulent priest?” In Jean Anouilh’s 1959 play Becket, Henry is quoted bellowing: “Will no one rid me of him? A priest! A priest who jeers at me and does me injury.” T.S. Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is a celebrated dramatic representation of that history.

They are angry with Kukah because they thought every pastor should be Thomas Jefferson’s priest: hostile to liberty, always in allegiance to the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection of his own. This Reverend Father from Sokoto has shown that not all priests bow before power and put crowns on the heads of injustice. The man said so himself: “Why would some people think that because Bishop Kukah is speaking, therefore, he is a politician? People who make this argument are totally ignorant of elementary politics. They are totally ignorant of the role of a priest. But I understand that many people do not see priests say the things I have said, which is okay. A lot of people have never seen a priest play a guitar or a piano and when they see one, it surprises them…So, it is a pity that ours is a place where there is a culture of praise-singing, and if you criticise, they say you don’t like the person…” The irony is, this government is a child of nasty criticism and hysteria. But, as a Bantu proverb says, a thief never likes to be robbed.

 

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