Who in the Nigerian political and ecclesiastical circles would not know the then Fr. and now Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah? Lately, he has been in the news.
But this should not be new, given that he is often in the news; what is really new is not just the controversial visit he and his team of National Peace Committee paid to President Muhammadu Buhari but also the view the committee expressed to the President in the course of their meeting with him.
Of specific note is the committee’s position on the President’s handling of the long over-due war against corruption in the country.
In a recent interview with one John L. Allen, Jr – an American journalist and former Vatican correspondence for the well-known US-based National Catholic Reporter (NCR) – Bishop Kukah was reported to have expressed the wish for the “progress” Nigeria must make, in his words, to “find its soul”
He expatiated the rationale behind their visit to President Buhari with specific reference to the President’s fight against corruption.
In the course of that interview, Kukah inadvertently presents his vision or style of ecclesiastical political engagement in the murky waters of Nigerian politics.
Many Nigerians are yet to see through this vision to really understand the interest it truly represents, especially given that these Nigerians have come to accept it uncritically as the correct approach to politics by the Catholic Church in Nigeria.
In other words, Kukah presents us the kind of politics, he believes, will bring about the anticipated progress in the country’s search for meaningful socio-political change for “its soul.”
I wish to join Kukah in this search and hopefully lay bare Kukah’s kind of politics for what I think it is and then proceed to present a different vision of politics that, I argue, will more effectively and meaningfully help the country “find its soul.”
This is an intellectual exercise whose raison d’etre is NOT dogma or faith-related.
I want to believe that Bishop Kukah will at least tolerate from me a robust argument against his position and politics as well as agree that we can politically and intellectually disagree and still be adults enough to remain as friends we have been over the years.
My friendship with Bishop Kukah goes as far back as the mid-1980s when both of us were doctoral students in the area of religion and politics.
He was in Britain and ahead of me while I was in Canada.
Out of his doctoral studies emerged his pioneering work in the field, Religion and Politics in Northern Nigeria since Independence and mine resulted into my first book, A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicization of Religion in Modern Nigeria, which he did me the honour to review at its launching.
We both had the passion to see how we can use the idiom of religion to bring about socio-political change in our country.
Then came the most turbulent years of the pro-democracy activism or, better, when military dictatorship and pro-democracy activism were at their respective heights in our land.
With many activists either silenced, imprisoned, forced into exile or simply killed, the only organized institution that the military could not touch was the Churches, leading to Kukah gathering a number of us at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Lagos, where he was the Secretary-General, as a kind of think-tank.
In our group were Ruben Abati, Femi Falana, Pat Utomi, to name a few of us who would usually meet at night to rub minds towards bringing about the collapse of military dictatorship and the ushering in of democratic governance in Nigeria. Kukah was instrumental in the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria bringing me to the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria as the pioneer Director of its Department of Church and State (2000-2003).
But we began to part ways – of course, on ideological and political grounds – around 2000 when Kukah got deeply involved with Olusegun Obasanjo who, by this time, had become his bosom friend and the country’s President.
The relationship yielded him (Kukah) well-heeled political appointments as well as placing him on the central stage of the murky waters of Nigerian politics.
No time epitomized this better than when he was appointed into the membership of the Oputa Panel as its Secretary.
From then on, it was a no-going back in his close relationship with the then President Obasanjo and his political party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
While the then Fr. Kukah, by this time, could arguably be regarded as a national hero, he definitely had become an icon of sort within the Christian circles and a role model of political activism for the Nigerian Catholic Church hierarchy.
In my book, Crossing the Rubicon: A Socio-Political Analysis of Political Catholicism in Nigeria, I had a generous mention of Kukah’s brand of politics.
By this time I had come to see him as exemplifying those activists who believe in working as insiders in order to influence the powers that be to be upright and work for the common good.
I disagreed with him on this, believing that while there may be some merit to working from the inside, the merit cannot outweigh the long-term advantage of working
This is because, as church leaders and/or activists, our role is that of being the voice of the voiceless not by openly becoming partisan but by way of strategic and open neutrality that must be people-oriented.
Herein lies the credibility and moral right we will validly have to criticize any and every political party and leadership class in power.
For, more often than not, once individuals, especially religious leaders, get themselves too close to the corridors of power, they can easily be enticed into seeing things more from the purview of the ruling class than the masses, leading the individuals, with time, to become ill-prepared and ill-disposed to suffer for the masses or work in their interest.
The foregoing brings me to the recent anti-Kukah vitriol in the country.
Two reasons, according to John Allen, appear to be behind this, namely: (1) the perception among many Nigerians that Kukah is “covering” former President Goodluck Jonathan as a payment for “the graft from the [President]; and (2) that “Kukah is trying to pressure Buhari not to go back on a secret deal to leave Jonathan alone as the price of taking power.”
I cannot imagine and, therefore, do not believe the veracity of the first reason; the Matthew Hassan Kukah I know cannot descend so low.
The second reason, however, could circumstantially have some veracity.
This is because Kukah has been recorded elsewhere to argue that if Jonathan had not accepted the verdict of the last election and peacefully conceded victory to Buhari – the first of such act in the country’s history – Nigeria would have been engulfed in a civil unrest that, in the first place, would have resulted in having no country today for Buhari to fight his war against corruption.
In other words, that singular act by the former President Jonathan is good enough to have him and his government officials exonerated from being probed.
Elsewhere, and on a related note, Kukah had cautioned Buhari that his fight against corruption should not be fought on the pages of the newspapers or through what Kukah rightly described as “public lynching” of those suspected to be corrupt.
For Kukah, such a fight must, as a matter of fairness and justice, be waged through the necessary respect for due process and rule of law.
No justice-minded person, in my view, should argue against this position and expectation; and here, Bishop Kukah is on solid ground.
What is baffling, however, is Kukah’s seeming loss of his well-known brilliance and smartness to recognize the elitist character underlying his position on Buhari’s war against corruption, especially as it relates to President Jonathan.
Going by his argument, Kukah is unknowingly, perhaps, suggesting a very politically unhealthy precedent for the country.
A future corrupt or corrupted President could easily get away with his corruption and its accompanying loot by simply, like Jonathan, conceding victory to a more popular opponent.
But more baffling is Kukah’s inadvertent demonstration of the double standard that also characterizes his politics – an assertion the following account will try to elucidate.
For the eight years his bosom friend, then President Olusegun Obasanjo, was in power, it was common knowledge in the country that Kukah was dining and wining with Obasanjo and his party.
Such was the case that he could more or less pass as the “unofficial Chaplain” of Obasanjo’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
For instance, Kukah himself recalls how he was “invited to the PDP Presidential Retreat held at the International Conference, Abuja on Saturday, May 19, 2007”, following the 2007 general elections.
Although, according to him, he “neither saw nor received the formal invitation” he “nonetheless honoured the invitation out of respect for this audience.”
Under this circumstance, only a close and highly respected priest-member of the party – a chaplain or spiritual guide of sort – could dare attend such a high-powered and exclusively partisan gathering.
Also for the eight years of Obasanjo’s Presidency, he was using the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to selectively fight his political opponents and settle political scores with them.
The years of Jonathan’s Presidency were more subtle; officials of the Department of State Security (DSS) in particular, on behalf of President Jonathan’s government and with his tacit support were carrying out “public lynching” of his and PDP’s political opponents. These officials, without qualms, were allowing themselves to be used by Jonathan and his party to settle political scores.
To buttress the veracity of this assertion, one needs to recall the inglorious role national security agents played for President Jonathan and his wife in the long-drawn political “war” between them and the then Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, or the never-proven weighty allegations that stretch from offering bribes to security officials to sponsorship of terrorism which were principally levelled against the main opposition, the All Progressives Congress (APC), culminating in its offices being raided by the DSS after accusing it of cloning voter’s card.
All through those years of both Obasanjo’s and Jonathan’s respective presidencies, Kukah was largely silent over their “public lynching” of opponents, disregard for due process and the rule of law.
With the political fall from power of the deeply corrupt and unpopular PDP and barely two months after the emergence of President Buhari’s government with a mission to fight corruption in the country, Kukah suddenly wakes up to notice “public lynching” of people accused of corruption, recognize the imperatives for the respect for due process and rule of law in the fight as to caution Buhari, according to Kukah, for disregarding this imperatives.
On a different matter but arising from the same Kukah’s political mind-set and double-standard approach to politics, one recalls his denouncement of one Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor and his leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).
The denouncement was with special reference to his “perceived closeness” to President Jonathan and his government, leading to the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigerian (CBCN) – to which Kukah belongs – withdrawing its membership from the association.
Oritsejafor would again be denounced, following the case of his alleged involvement in the controversial $9.3 million arms deal in South Africa for the then President Jonathan’s government, leading Kukah to advise his fellow Church leaders to so distance themselves from “the corridors of power” that they “should not be seen as playing the praying wing of the party in power.”
As Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama – Kukah’s fellow bishop and President of the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) – puts it while chiding Oritsejafor: “It is not acceptable for a Christian leader to be seen always with the President.”
It is not our intention here to argue for or against Oritsejafor whose own record of church leadership vis-a-vis church-state political relationship obviously and rightly deserves a separate treatment.
What is of interest to us here is this: excepting Oritsejafor’s alleged involvement in the arms deal, what Kukah and his fellow Catholic bishops condemned Oritsejafor of doing with regards to his closeness with President Jonathan and his family as well as political party (PDP) is more or less similar to what Kukah himself did in the eight years Obasanjo was President.
Thus, Kukah was to Obasanjo what Oritsejafor was to President Jonathan and both Kukah and Oritsejafor were obviously sympathetic towards their respective friend’s political party (PDP). Just as Oritsejafor was Jonathan’s spiritual adviser, so too was Kukah, as we noted earlier, invited by the PDP to its retreats for spiritual counselling.
Such is the case that one can validly argue that the writing of the history of Obasanjo’s Presidency will not be complete without a generous mention of the role the then Rev. Fr. and now Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah played in that governance.
Thus, Kukah seems to betray a political mentality that is best described, for want of a better expression, as politics of convenience and self-interest; that is a politics largely pursued on the basis of its accruing benefits to the individual.
On this note, keep in mind our earlier observation of Kukah’s rise to a high profile status in the nation and within Christian circles.
Juxtapose this with his fraternization with Pastor Oritsejafor who is a member of the National Peace Committee on whose behalf Kukah has privately and publicly been chiding President Buhari.
In one of his public statements, Kukah had vouched for the personal integrity of the members of the Committee among whom is Oritsejafor.
Yet, this same individual, as we noted earlier, had been castigated and vilified by Kukah.
Apart from Kukah’s obvious double-speak here, one wonders why, in a country like Nigeria with so many pastors of Oritsejafor’s stature to choose from, Kukah found him a more convenient and suitable choice to work with.
Perhaps it is because of Oritsejafor’s position as the President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN); but this is an association on which Kukah had passed similar judgment as he did on its leader, leading to CBCN – to which Kukah belongs – withdrawing from its membership, even if temporarily.
By virtue of the withdrawal and as a matter of principle, Kukah was not supposed to be doing business with Oritsejafor and, by extension CAN.
That the contrary was the case lends credence to the speculation that Kukah would have no qualms in disregarding this principle if only to satisfy his interest in keeping alive his noted status on the national scene. We may never know the real and subterranean reason for his action here.
But one thing is sure and certain: by pontificating good political behaviour to a no-nonsense President Buhari of anti-corruption fame through the mediation of a National Peace Committee whose membership is ethically tainted, Kukah unknowingly and circumstantially compromised the good intention he professes to be behind the Committee’s visit to and admonition of Buhari.
Besides, it would appear that between the choice to uphold the fight for the common good – the war against corruption – in the country and that of protecting President Jonathan’s interest and, by extension, the PDP for which he and Oritsejafor hold common sympathy, Kukah chose the latter. In the end, the entire mediation is either self-serving or suspect at best.
It is in the context of the foregoing that many Nigerians are rightly or wrongly criticizing Bishop Kukah.
Some of us believe that he and his co-travellers compromised their integrity and moral right to criticize or caution President Buhari.
To say this, by the way, is not to suggest that Buhari himself is a saint.
On the contrary he is not; and who among us is? What is not beyond doubt, however, is this: to many Nigerians, between him and former President Jonathan, Buhari was the lesser evil of the two.
And his probing Jonathan’s administration is a good omen and precedent for the country to find its political good health.
This is because by the probe, Buhari is directly or indirectly setting himself and his administration up to face the same treatment from the government that hopefully will succeed him.
The country will, indeed, be the richer for this development!
As a matter of fact, it could very well be a necessary component to the overall tool towards the eventual realization of Kukah’s dream of the country’s progress towards finding its soul.
On and above this component, it worth adding that unless and until socio-political activists – be they secular or religious – not only distance themselves from the corridors of power but also be willing to pay whatever the price for their outspokenness against the injustice and impunity of those in power the sweet talks or dream of the country finding its soul will remain a mirage.
Besides, any meaningful and effective talk or activism for Nigeria to “find its soul” must begin from bottom-up, NOT top-down as Kukah’s style of political activism seems to advance.
In other words, any political activism for social change in Nigeria or anywhere else, to be meaningful and effective, must not only be necessarily rooted in a grassroots-based socio-political conscientization of the people but also lived out practically through an on-going solidarity and interaction with them within the context of their experience and interest.
The preceding remarks do not take away Bishop Kukah’s outspokenness and brand of political activism; but in whose ultimate interest?
We ask this question because Kukah has been heard speaking in favour of church leaders distancing themselves from the corridors of power, believing that “we cannot speak the truth to power” or “hear the wails of the poor and the truth” as long as we have closeness with such powers.
But as we have noted above, the same Kukah who makes and believes this statement does not seem disposed or prepared to walk his talk – to live out his talk in practice!
Thus his kind of politics is principally elitist and, therefore, out to serve elitist interests.
Besides, its practical expression in a manner that exhibits double standard, double-talk and self-interest together not only portrays it as unprincipled but also lacking of the political integrity and moral justification to challenge the opposing grassroots politics.
Furthermore, that brand of politics does not have the socio-political disposition and capacity to midwife the long overdue needed socio-political conscientization necessary for Nigeria to truly “find its soul.”
Is Kukah still popular? I say “yes”!
But for goodness sake, he is not in the ranks of the likes of the Oscar Romeros and Desmond Tutus of the world that people like John Allen seem to place him.
Of course, in a place like Nigeria where there is a dearth of people-oriented political activism among the rank and file of the religious leadership, Christians and Muslims alike, John Allen’s picture of Kukah could easily but wrongly be seen as true.
For, as the saying goes: in the land of the blind the one-eyed is the king!