The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Most Rev. Dr Matthew Hassan Kukah, has maintained that he did not mince words when he recently came hard on the nation and the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari over his observed inability of the government to ensure security, peaceful co-existence in the country, equal opportunities for all, amongst others.
Kukah who spoke exclusively with our correspondent in Abuja, said irrespective of what anyone feels, he only spoke truth to power, challenging his critics to provide a superior argument to the issues he raised in the homily delivered on February 11, 2020, at the Good Shepherd Seminary, Kaduna, during the Funeral Mass of the late Seminarian Michael Nnadi. Excerpt:
Even though you have always been a social critic and public commentator, people were taken aback recently over your vituperation against the Federal Government, as you have also been widely seen to be a friend of those in power and as one who has been saddled with the responsibility of leading peaceful efforts in the past. Was the kidnapping and eventual death of Seminarian Michael the only source of your anger or there was more to it?
I don’t know. You have conflicted many things together. First of all, I object to the appellations. I am primarily a priest. I am not a social critic as people say. I am a priest and everything that I say and do, derive its inspiration from my conviction and vocation as a priest. But I don’t live in space, I live in Nigeria. So, my inspiration also comes from the social, economic and political realities around me. I am a friend of everybody and I consider it a great privilege that you could refer to me as a friend of people in power. It is not an honour that I take lightly. But I believe that I have an obligation if I really and truly love both my country and those who lead it in the way and manner that I do. I think even the worst of my critics will concede that I bear no animosity. Most of the things I do and say are not personal. So, to answer your question, a funeral is not a birthday party and a funeral of the circumstance that we are talking about is not the same as a baptism. We weren’t celebrating a victory, we were celebrating a tragedy. And I think if you look at circumstances and events around the world, some of the greatest speeches in the world have been funeral orations whether it is the Gettysburg Speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln or whether it is the speech that we find in Shakespeare’s Caesar, the speech of Mark Anthony. I mean, I was shocked actually myself by the way that Nigerians reacted to the sermon. But I must tell you that I had absolutely no… If you ask me whether I was angry, I was absolutely angry and I am still very angry, not at anybody, but at how we got to where we are today. That was the context of what I had to say. I don’t think I take anything back. But as I said, if I love this country less, I will not be saying the kind of things that I am saying and I think that circumstances and events in the last few weeks have suggested very, very clearly that people would have said what I said differently. I do not think that there are many Nigerians, including even those in government that would have offered a superior argument to cancel out some of the things that I raised.
Why were you shocked at the reaction by Nigerians?
Frankly, what I mean by I was shocked by the reaction; I knew what I wanted to say and I actually finished writing my sermon finally at about 5 ‘0 clock in the morning because I had had a draft. But what I am saying is; I didn’t imagine that it will elicit the kind of reactions that it generated right across the world. And that also taught me a lesson that perhaps; I can’t claim that I was just being clever. I think I must thank God and thank the Holy Spirit for enabling me to say the things that I said that struck the kind of cord that it did. And if for anything else, if it managed to wake Nigerians up, I think so be it. So, for me, when I say I was shocked by the way people reacted, I do not see anything in the speech that is a direct attack at anybody that is not empirical evidence. So, you may be unhappy that I said it, but what I always say to my critics is that it is better to provide a superior argument than about emotions. It is not about APC, it is not about Buhari as a person, but it is also an attempt that juxtaposes the promises that this government made with the realities that we now found ourselves in.
In that homily, you said “On our part, I believe that this is a defining moment for Christians and Christianity in Nigeria,” while also saying that “this is a solemn moment for the body of Christ. This is for us the moment of decision.” What decision? Is it to take up arms now or what?
Every nation comes to a defining moment. The people of Israel came to a defining moment. When Dan Fodio decided to stage his revolution, imagine Islam had come to a defining moment. A defining moment is a moment of preparedness. If you read the speech, there is nothing in the speech that suggested anything about violence.
So, prepare for what now?
Preparing because I personally believe that we Christians, there is a lot of assumption that we’ve had about this country that have proven that we were either naïve or we were innocent in the assumption that we had. A defining moment because I also believe that we Christians ought to have done far more than we have done; in part because a significant percentage of Nigerians today who are literate, who are educated, came out of our schools. A very significant percentage of Nigerians, who are in positions of power today, came out of our schools. Christianity has a message that I am saying it is a defining moment for Christians to stand and ask themselves, have we really and truly represented Jesus Christ and his message in a way and manner that could have altered the course of history? Or should we not be thinking a bit more seriously about the quality of manpower that we are teaching, training and deploying into the public space? So, it is for me, a period of introspection for us as Christians. The assumptions we have about how society should be organised, the assumptions we have about the significance of the message of Jesus Christ, like I said, yes, we are angry, yes, we feel frustrated, but taking up arms has never been an option because we don’t derive that inspiration from Christianity. Any Christian who has attempted to become violent or justify violence has had to leave Christianity in order to be able to feel convinced about whether he is the Malcom Xs of this world or whatever. So, there is no textual evidence in the Bible that suggests that violence can be justified.
My Lord, when you said: “Our nation is like a ship stranded on the high seas, rudderless and with broken navigational aids,” and “today, our years of hypocrisy, duplicity, fabricated integrity, false piety, empty morality, fraud and Pharisaism have caught up with us” and that “Nigeria, does not possess that set of goals or values for which any sane citizen is prepared to die for her,” including the statement that “this president has displayed the greatest degree of insensitivity in managing our country’s rich diversity,” don’t you think you went too far?
In uttering these statements
Too far as from where?
That you were too hard on the nation and on the government?
I wasn’t too hard on the nation. What I am saying is; how did we get to a point in which everything in this nation is now based on self-help? I think that my critics must also stop being hypocritical because I know that they agree with me when the lights are out; they disagree with me because they consider the consequences of being associated with the things that I am saying. Tell me one single Nigerian now that you can say, apart from those who are holding offices and like I said in my sermon, that the people who are ready to die for Nigeria now will be those who are dying to protect their jobs and not the nation. My credentials as a patriot have never been in doubt. They are still not in doubt. But my position is very simple: Patriotism is not a commodity that you simply just throw around. A nation has to earn the loyalty and allegiance of its citizens. Indeed, where we are now with Boko Haram started out as a revolt against the prevailing situation in the country. And I am saying that for me, it is also very striking that the governor of Kaduna State would say what he said yesterday (Monday) when he went to visit the people who have been…
Is it the statement that he will not negotiate with terrorists and bandits?
No, no, no. Well, not even that he will not negotiate with bandits. But he had at least said something that I found very striking and it is important for a leader to say: “I take full responsibility for where we now found ourselves because I think it ought not to have been so.” I wish he had said it much earlier. But the point I am making, therefore, is that when I say we are rudderless, it is like, will people be dying and all that we have are presidential spokespeople who from everything that they are saying suggest very clearly they are not in touch with their principal? We didn’t vote any of them into power. So, I do not think that a president can respond to a disaster by simply a spokesperson sitting somewhere and writing out a text for the people. Nobody takes any of those things seriously now because the spokesmen, with due respect to them, know themselves that they are only circumguessing what they think the president should be saying. And I am saying very simply that this is a tragedy that has befallen all of us. Our president cannot be everywhere. He can’t visit every family. But guess what? There is what you call photo-opportunity for every politician and they come with disasters. The idea of a president holding a hungry child or blood-stained whatever from what has happened, okay, those are the things that console people. So, the idea that 30 people have died today, 50 people died yesterday and all we have is oh, the president says or we say the president says; it is not the way to engage people. And as I said, for me, the idea is to rally our people now and we ask ourselves, to go where? Because clearly, everybody knows that we don’t have a sense of where we are going or what a terminal point really is. So, if you say I have gone too far, I don’t know whether as in far from where.
At the time you were delivering that homily, your representative here in Abuja at a function, also asked a question that the government found inexact. Did you set out intentionally on that day to descend on the government or was it a mere coincidence?
As I said, Mrs Waziri had invited me to speak at her book launch and it was all before this tragedy happened. I couldn’t renege on the obligation I felt I owed her. But I have taken the fight against corruption as an intellectual exercise and I am very, very proud, let me put it that way. When I speak about corruption, I think I know where I am standing. I am not a stranger to the conversation. I think that I can proudly say that President Obasanjo, Oby Ezekwesili, General Williams and I were the first people to become members of Transparency International in Nigeria. I am not a stranger to this conversation. I am saying don’t tell me that corruption is just about collecting money back from people who have stolen money. That is not fighting corruption. If you have my phone, I can beat you up and take back my phone. I have not ended the idea of you being a thief. You can spend all the years in prison, it doesn’t stop you. So, for me, most of these conversations are purely institutional and my argument, if you go back and read the full text of the paper, people just took the last three questions I asked and the paper ended with three questions. But it is not the substance of the paper. If you go back and look at the paper, I made an attempt at explaining that this conversation is an intellectual conversation and it is also a measure of the tragic situation we found ourselves that Nigerians don’t like…everybody tells you that they don’t like long grammar. But intellectualism is about a diagnostic approach to problems of the nation. So, my argument, very simply, was to say that if you think if we talk about fighting corruption, this I think are some of the principles underlying what we consider to be corruption because for now, the way governments have turned about corruption is, corruption is something that people who are in government positions do. We’ve not had any conversation about let’s say, corruption in the private sector. We’ve not had any very serious issues about other dimensions of corruption. So, if you talk about, did I set out to? No! The two incidents just happened and I couldn’t have told Mrs Waziri that I was no longer going to be able to deliver a speech that I had promised I would. But I would not be physically present.
At that event, Mr Femi Adesina, Presidential Adviser on Media and Publicity, challenged you to produce evidence on the President’s Asset Declaration, that his principal never made any promise on that. When is this going to happen?
Femi is my good friend and Femi is a pastor. I would not argue with a pastor. We are both churchmen. I don’t think we should be arguing on the pages of newspaper. I wasn’t there when they had their meeting, but what is very interesting and I am not going to show you, is the response I got shortly after that was said, people who sent me what they considered to be empirical evidence.
Who were the people?
Why would I tell you?
The CBCN also staged a peaceful protest against the killings going on in the country last Sunday which you participated. Was there no other way the Catholic Church could have expressed its grievances or displeasure other than resorting to protest?
Can you advise us? Suggest other ways.
I don’t know
You are a Catholic. You are a Catholic. We acted on your behalf and I believe that if you critique that position, you are free to be critical of it, but we don’t criticise for the sake of criticism. Offer us a superior argument, maybe there is a better way.
My Lord, you have been involved in various efforts in the country trying to find lasting solutions to the myriads of issues plaguing the nation. What is the concrete solution out of this menace of insecurity facing the country?
I don’t know what the solutions are. If I am in a position, I try to find what the solutions are from a range of people. And this is why our agony with the situation we found ourselves now is that one doesn’t get the sense that there is a genuine quest for solutions. What we find, unfortunately, is that you talk to people in government and they think that all this is about politics. Some of my friends in APC said to me, ah, you people just like Jonathan and PDP. Actually, I have more friends in this government than I had in PDP. Adams Oshiomhole has been my friend for over 30 years. Is it Amaechi who is my son? Or is it Kayode Fayemi who is my old friend that we started this conversation with? Or is it Tinubu or is it the vice president whom I have known from his days in Lagos? Or is it President Buhari himself whom I have known for quite a good number of years? So, frankly, if you are talking about APC, I have quite a number of friends. But this is not a friendship club. We are talking about our country. And as I said, I am sorry if in the process of conveying my sentiments, maybe, I said things slightly differently. But I am convinced that this is not about individuals or about not liking this person or the other person. No, it is not about that. Secondly, people often say to me, but you have access to all these people. I say well, I am sure that Archbishop Tutu in South Africa would have had access to Botha if he wanted. We have access to all these. I had access to Abacha. And there was a time somebody said to me during Obasanjo’s time; I was critical of something and somebody said to me, but you know you can reach President Obasanjo. I told the guy; didn’t I know where Abacha was when we were making the noise at the time that Obasanjo and others were in detention? So, I have been on this road for long enough to know that all my critics of today, if things change tomorrow, you will be getting the same outcome. I don’t care. Even if my brother became president of Nigeria today, it is not likely to happen, but if he became president of Nigeria today, I will not say simply because I have his telephone number, therefore, I will not deal with the issues as I see them. I have a responsibility. All of us have responsibilities and I think that for us as priests, our duty and responsibility, you heard the president of the conference say “we speak because we are borrowing the voices of our people.” The house I am living in, I didn’t build it; the food I eat, I don’t pay for it; the water I drink, I don’t pay for it, somebody else pays for it. I am enjoying the sweat from the brow of Catholics and Christians and men and women of goodwill, Moslems, all of them. So, I have an obligation to them. The day they tell me that I am not representing them properly, then that day I know I am in trouble. But for me, I have an obligation both to ordinary people and to those who govern us. And I think it is important, it is a measure of how a government feels if it can take its mind away from the belief that if you say something critical, it is because you don’t like our government. I see that constantly in Africa, when people don’t like what you are saying, they just look for a different pastor that is cheaper for them to pay or they look for where there is discount. But in reality, people want this endorsement.
In that homily, you also spoke about what separates Christians and Muslims in the country. In what way can we forge a kind of religious cohesion and harmony between Islam and Christianity in the country?
Again, we haven’t been right in our analysis of the problem of religion in Nigeria. The only reason religion seems to have gotten the upper hand is largely because of the nature of its universal claims. But it is the responsibility of government to ensure that these identities don’t become weapons of war. It is the business of government! I hear people say and some of my accusers say to me that, you know, you are inciting people. There will be no need to incite anybody if the ingredients of incitements have not been provided. So, actually, what the government should be concerned about is how is it that I am not able to hold my children together? It is not people like us who can be held responsible for inciting anybody. I remember when I spoke the other time; the Minister of Information said that what I was saying was capable of demoralising the military. We know ourselves what the truth really is. So, it is the business and responsibility of government to hold its citizens together no matter the level of disillusionment because I just realised actually that I have been speaking on the theme of national cohesion for the better part of almost 20 years. Because I think it is so, so, so important and this was how from the beginning of the life of this government, one of the things I said from day one, in August I think, was to make the case that national cohesion is more important than fighting corruption. Because you need a united nation first before people can be inspired to defend their nation and what you call corruption is actually a vote against integrity and a vote against the state. That is why if you love somebody, you will not hurt them the way our people in public life and elsewhere are hurting because corruption is a wound and it is a wound against a state that clearly you don’t love or you have no interest in. So, rather than thinking that those who are offering discount are actually offering what will last, I think that unpalatable as what some of us are saying may be, it is important to put it through a screen and see what the meaning is.
In terms of the political configuration of the country, where do you situate the blame? Is it on Christians or was it a deliberate action by owners of the country to skew it to the advantage of adherents of the Islamic religion?
On the issue of political appointments, you don’t need to talk to me. The evidence is out there. The evidence is out there. Run a list of what we have in this country and answer whether we’ve ever had this kind of situation before. You see, if you are a teacher and you come to class and a particular child raises the hand to answer a question and you pay no attention to them, after sometime, they will switch off. Everybody knows that the nature of the appointments that we have in this country, we’ve never had anything like this before. It is really a pity because it has the inadvertent effect of questioning the integrity of people who are otherwise eminently qualified for their jobs. And I was deliberate in making the point that the perception is that, it is perhaps more important to be a northern Moslem than to be a Nigerian. People can see, the evidence is out there. So, I am not making anything up. Secondly, and like I said, from the point of view of sacrifice, I am evidence of the sacrifice that Christians have made. Like I made the point, we weren’t stupid when we decided to live with; well, up till today, we are still living with the reality. But can you tell me that had the President of Nigeria been a Christian today, that the Moslems of Nigeria will fold their hands and accept the fact that the President is a Christian; that the Senate President is a Christian, the Speaker is a Christian; the Deputy Speaker is a Christian; the Majority Leader of the House is a Christian? Ask the average Muslim whether they will accept that question. Now, the point is that each and every one of these people is perhaps, eminently qualified. But there are certain decisions that you take in order to make sure that everybody feels a sense of belonging. That is what the constitution says.
What is your relationship with your home government? What efforts are you making in ensuring that you make available, the talents deposited in you in order to rescue the state from Fulani herdsmen, banditry, kidnapping and terrorists?
I don’t live in Kaduna. I am a citizen of Sokoto State. The point I am making is that we are here to collaborate. On the issue of governance, one person was elected to govern. In another four years, they will no longer be there. My office is not an elective office and I believe that if you come to Sokoto or if you go to Katsina, between Sokoto and Katsina, I am very lucky because I have two governors who are former Speakers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Their attitude, their disposition, their composure is completely different. The Governor of Katsina, for example, he is working very closely with us in the area of education and he is showing a light which is that, for the first time in the history of most parts of the core North, he is saying Christian Religious Education is now going to be taught in schools. He has bought a bus for one of our schools in appreciation for the work that we are doing. I am still having conversation with my governor in Sokoto, towards the same outcome. Because as a Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, the entire Catholic population in Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina and Sokoto that make up Sokoto Diocese, the entire Catholic population is less than 50,000. So, if I build a school in any of these places, it is most likely that I am building the school with the hope that 60, 70 per cent of the children who are going to come are going to be children of Moslems.