[OPINION] Bishop Kukah: A Peddler of Hope

(This is the third and final report on the interview conducted with Bishop Hassan Kukah on March 7, 2021. For its entire recording, see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NVxw-vwBaI)


To put it mildly, Nigeria is a compelling and sensitive subject amongst Nigerians, especially among those who appreciate its potentials and are unhappy with its current socio-economic state and position. As such, any occasion that brings together a collection of experienced, informed, and well-meaning Nigerians to discuss old, recurring, and new issues that plague the country’s development has to be engaging. This is particularly so when such conversations center on issues relating to the country’s probable disintegration. However, when a personality like the experienced and outspoken, some might say “controversial,” Catholic priest, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, is part of such a conversation, one can anticipate a thought-provoking, revelatory, and inspiring exchange.

On this occasion of the Toyin Falola Interviews, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, a distinguished and patriotic Nigerian, sometimes referred to as “the activist priest,” was the guest of honor. Bishop Kukah hardly needs any introduction within the Nigerian space, as both in his capacity as a priest and as a patriotic citizen, he has contributed in various ways to steer the country away from chaos. His contributions have also been captured in several publications, including a three-part series published online by the host, Toyin Falola, prior to the interview.

After the customary introductions, the session began earnestly with the first question from me, followed by subsequent ones from the participating audience. My multi-pronged question was on the possibility of religious platforms being used for radicalization, how using religious platforms for incitement can be prevented, and whether His Eminence sees the pulpit as an instrument for social order or for preaching religion. In response, Fr. Kukah emphasized the importance of understanding the relativity of the concept of “radicalization,” as today’s radicals can be tomorrow’s leaders or dictators. He also explained that no priest or religious leader could embark successfully on a radicalization agenda without an enabling social environment. Thus, it is also important to appreciate the type of conditions that drive radicalization, creating a conducive environment for it to thrive. These social “ingredients” for radicalization include a sense of alienation among the masses arising from economic collapse, insecurity, and the government’s failure to live up to its responsibilities, a sense of marginalization from socio-economic and political processes, and a feeling of betrayal. 

According to Bishop Kukah, the pulpit is just one of many other platforms of dissemination. He further added that just as the classroom is for a teacher to teach, so is the pulpit for the priest to preach the word of God. Hence, incitement depends on if there are available state laws for public address that delineate boundaries and regulate conduct and if either party (teacher or priest) or anyone else runs afoul of these laws in the use of a platform to achieve any specific objective. Fr. Kukah also clarified that being a bishop does not place him above the law. However, following the models set by people like Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Desmond Tutu before him, it is important for him to give voice to the concerns of people who have been denied a voice to rectify social wrongs; and if this amounts to radicalization, then so be it.

The next set of questions were posed by Ms. Ayisha Osiri, (Director, Open Society for West Africa). These covered how Fr. Kukah has maintained his passion and commitment to Nigeria despite how monotonous and unchanging the nation’s problems have been; how Nigerians can forge ahead without too much reliance on the power class and the government; and how religion and culture have kept Nigerians divided, disempowering youths and women. In his response, Bishop Kukah, citing Romans 5:5, explained that he relies on divine assistance and that his position as a Christian, priest, and Bishop means he peddles hope. While admitting that it is frustrating to pick up a magazine from thirty-years ago and realize that Nigeria’s problems have fundamentally been the same, he also asserted that we have not done too poorly in some areas. However, he admitted that Nigeria’s unstable political system has not created a political atmosphere in which the right (non-accidental) leadership can emerge, and as a result, corruption prevails. Hence, what passes for governance in Nigeria amounts to digging a pit to fill a hole, a situation that has led to frustrations and hopelessness among many young Nigerians. He further asserted that there is a lot of work left to be done in changing the Nigerian situation, and it is his duty to preach hope and reassurance, providing the much-needed encouragement that a better Nigeria is still possible.

Concerning citizens’ overreliance on a government and political class that appear not to be committed to change and what alternative there is, Bishop Kukah lamented that the collapse of institutions in Nigeria, and the absence of an enabling environment for people to thrive, have fuelled this dependence. The country’s (mainly extractive) mono-economy that is organized around rent-seeking has limited the opportunity of the average Nigerian for independence from government patronage. As a result, change demands a new creative approach that de-emphasizes the role of money and adopts values that uphold ideas, performance, and character essential for building society.   

About the negative impact of culture and religion as hindrances to the empowerment of Nigerian women and youths, Bishop Kukah admitted that culture and religion have been tyrannical. However, he also pointed out that the duo is like a knife, which is dependent on the chosen usage. As such, they may be a force for construction or destruction. Nonetheless, he clarified that education and its consciousness hold the power to diminish the hold these have on the people and their sense of reason.

Questions from the youth wing were posed by the duo of Paapa Nkrumah and Ndidi Akara (both international postgraduate students). Those questions covered #EndSARS and youth alignment for change, the lessons from the past (civil war), managing ethnic, religious diversity, sexual orientation, and the question of building faith centers (churches and mosques) in tertiary institutions throughout Nigeria. Bishop Kukah responded by recognizing the savviness, level of consciousness, exposure, and networking amongst the youth. He expressed his belief that today’s youth are better poised to change the governance narrative in Africa, away from the tale of ineptitude, corruption, and oppression. And on this agenda, he said age is on their side. He also noted that though the #EndSARS movement is a first faltering step, it is a positive revelation of the possibilities of their collective capacity. Still, it is not proof that the youths have arrived, as it would take more than organizing protests to effect change. Hence, he encouraged them to go back to the drawing board and take cues from the past. According to Bishop Kukah, to change the world does not require shooting war but applying more creativity to the task, and though this may be difficult, it is not impossible.  

Bishop Kukah further explained that the Biafra experience, especially its topical nature today Bishop Kukah explained, was another pointer to Nigeria’s stagnation, having hardly moved from where it was when the conflict occurred, the wasted years and opportunities, and the tragic encroachment of the military elite into Nigerian politics through coups and counter-coups, which even today has the nation under the management of a transitioned retired military officer with various dire consequences. These consequences extend further to the incapability of the Nigerian ruling class, mostly made up of military elements, to manage ethno-religious diversity, a skill he claimed has become paramount to organizations and nations across the world, as demonstrated by the United States—the world’s biggest democracy, multi-ethnic and religious country—and others.

Bishop Kukah believes that the issue of constructing faith houses (churches and mosques), which has caused so much controversy within the university community, is the result of the government’s failure to manage diversity effectively. He noted that the naming of Nigeria’s universities after ethnic personalities is a source of further polarization within a system already divided along ethno-religious lines. He lamented that the tendencies are even more disturbing when one considers that these institutions, which are grounds for grooming young people, are exposing them to a culture of intolerance at a stage in their lives where they should be making friends. When these same young people become tomorrow’s leaders, it will not bode well for the nation. Thus, managing diversity is critical to national survival, as it builds confidence in national processes. 

Another set of questions, this time from Chido Onumah (experienced journalist, human rights activist, and author), covered issues of “the road not taken” in Nigeria’s development path, the existence of a unifying national sentiment, and the place of religion in the difficult situation the country now finds itself. In response, Bishop Kukah pointed out that Nigeria does not require “holy men” to direct its affairs, and neither is the country in shortage of God-fearing people with good character and integrity. Thus, when it is said that the search for outstanding leadership is to be found in men with the attributes mentioned above, it is a misguided notion because none of these attributes is “measurable.” The real problem, he explained, is in the arbitrary nature of the leadership selection process, which is why there is hardly any government functionary who rose up the ranks solely based on merit, competence, or capacity. Moreover, for a task as demanding and arduous as nation-building, there can be no shortcuts. In this regard, “the road not taken” for Nigeria is in its failure to tow the path of discipline, which explains the massive debris that is Nigeria today (constantly appearing as work in progress).  

Regarding the absence of a unifying sentiment towards national development, Bishop  Kukah explained that at the basic level, every individual wants to be happy, even if they go about finding happiness in different ways. Therefore, it is left for the government to create conditions suitable for everyone to thrive. He also noted that though a lot of people are angry at the moment, and most are making decisions under such influence, we cannot ignore the fact that even the geographical space we share binds us together. On this basis of a shared identity, some Nigerians have gone on to assume global recognition, so nobody should kid themselves that they stand to gain anything from the country’s disintegration. 

As for the role of religion in Nigeria’s predicament, Fr. Kukah believes that religion has been hijacked by political forces. The abuse of religion by this class has seen faith play a negative role in national activity—the killings in the name of the state and of “God”—which is the outcome of an emphasis on faith without reason. Likewise, the battering religion has taken in Nigeria is possible only with the complicity of faith leaders who compromise in the search for political favors, primarily for material power. As a result, religious leaders have a key role to play in changing the narrative by maintaining the integrity of faith and protecting religion from contaminations by state power.

Dapo Olorunyomi (multiple international journalism award-winner and publisher of Nigeria’s foremost online investigative news platform, Premium Times) posed the next set of questions that touched on the intersection of religion and politics. These include the status of minorities in Nigeria (The Willink Minority Commission report of 1957), state failure; the 1999 constitution and secularity; the possibility of the 1999 constitution to guarantee true federalism; the performance of Nigeria’s democracy against theocratic tendencies; and the overall performance of the Nigerian press. Fr. Kukah responded that the 1957 report still reads like yesterday, pointing out that nothing has changed in any direction. Many of the agitations of the concerned minorities—the matter of marginalization that the middle-belt contested against, and the issue of Islamic law—still exist. It is still the same politics of deception where those in power only pay lip-service to issues and never take any concrete actions to resolve them. He maintained that these long years of hypocrisy are finally catching up with Nigeria.

 Coming to the issue of secularity, Bishop Kukah said he does not believe that a new constitution will automatically fix all of Nigeria’s problems, as commonly believed. Constitutions do not foresee everything, nor do they activate themselves. Taking a cue from the American process of amendments that corrected the lapses of its 1957 constitution, His Eminence remarked that a combination of judicial activism from the bench and the civil society would fix most of these constitutional lapses. Furthermore, the provision of the constitution for state secularity is ambiguous; nonetheless, nations thrive even in ambiguity. In Nigeria, the experience has been such that this ambiguity has allowed for practices that are uncharacteristic of secularity. Therefore, until the independent arbitrational role of the Judiciary as the third tier of government is upheld and allowed the Supreme Court to test the limits and the claims of the constitutional provision for the state secularity, clear delineations cannot be created. 

 About federalism, Fr. Kukah reiterated that it already exists, but without the commitment from state governors and government at the lower local levels, no changes can arise even with the acclaimed restructuring. He insists that no amount of true federalism can change the character of Nigerian politicians, as this will require adamant resistance from a majority of the masses who must insist on a difference in governance practices. As for the matter of a new constitution, Bishop Kukah conceded that it is desirable, but it will not transform the citizenry, nor will it guarantee a change in the negative attitudes of the political class. Therefore, no matter how dignified constitutional documents might appear to be, without an active commitment by the people to defend, uphold, test, and apply its provisions, it is merely a piece of paper.  

Bishop Kukah noted that the challenge of theocracy, which has its roots in the colonial practice of co-opting religion and tradition into the center of governance created these theocratic tendencies, especially in northern Nigeria, where it resonates the most. As a result, there are people in that region (mainly in the bushes) who believe in the possibility of fighting their way into recreating the Sokoto sultanate and, unfortunately, the state itself is in a retreat, so these theocratic expressions become even more palpable. The Bishop was also of the opinion that the conditions in the North are clear indications of the inefficiency of theocratic systems, proving the toxicity of the combination of theocracy, religion, and politics. He further pointed out that the Church has had the most experience with the failure of theocracy and, as such, has come to agree with the separation of the Church from the state.

Finally, on the scorecard of the Nigerian media in promoting democracy, Bishop Kukah lauded the media as one of the institutions that have fought the hardest for Nigeria’s democracy. To him, the media has sterling credentials, and without its contributions, Nigeria’s democracy would hardly be of any quality. Fielding questions from the general audience on the quality of the Nigerian leadership, Bishop Kukah cautioned that no new leadership would crop up from anywhere, so we must endeavor to identify and applaud those within the government who are actually putting in the work and giving their best. This, he acknowledged, would go a long way in addressing the lapses in governance.    



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