Matthew Hassan Kukah: Catholic Cleric And Social Crusader

Matthew Hassan Kukah: Catholic Cleric And Social Crusader


Bishop Matthew Kukah

He is a remarkable Nigerian. A Catholic priest born in Kaduna State in northern Nigeria and fluent in several Nigerian languages, he has worked hard to promote understanding across ethnic and religious fault lines.


An idealist in the sense that he wants Nigeria to be a far better country than it is and that he believes its peoples have the capacity to take it there, he is also a brutal realist in his assessments of the country’s current political and developmental state.


A frontline Catholic cleric and social crusader, he was recently appointed Archbishop of Sokoto diocese, by Pope Benedict XVI.


He has authored many books, including Whistling in the Dark, a collection of interviews granted during the military regime. The Church and Social Responsibility, Politics and Religion in Northern Nigeria are two of his fecund intellectual output.


His most outstanding book, which discusses the religious politics of northern Nigeria, Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria received an honorary Noma commendation in 1994.


Further to his credit are the books Democracy and Civil Society in Nigeria and Religion and The Politics of Justice in Nigeria.


In 1996, he co-published with Professor Toyin Falola Religious Militancy and Self-Assertion, Religious Revivalism in Nigeria. Other books include The Shattered Microcosm, The Collapse of the Moral Order in Africa, and The Mustard Seed volumes 1-5, then Towards a Just Democratic Nigeria, The Catholic Church and Politics in Nigeria.


Others are The Church and the Politics of Social Responsibilities, and recently Witness To Justice: An Insider’s Account Of Nigeria’s Truth Commission.


He has several chapters in books and journals and has presented hundreds of papers both in Nigeria and other parts of the world, was also at the famous St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford as a senior Rhodes fellow from 2002 to 2003, then at the prestigious Kennedy School of Government (KSG), Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, as an Edward Mason fellow, where he bagged an MA in Public Policy in 2004.


He presides over an ecclesiastical province that covers a population of about 14,133,000. Among this number, there are estimated 44, 366 Catholic faithful. The Archdiocese is reported to have 17 parishes, 39 priests and other clergy and religious servants.


In demand by governments and civil society as both a mediator and an analyst, he has worked with a wide range of Nigerians and foreigners who are trying to address the country’s chronic underdevelopment. His disinterest in taking up partisan positions in Nigeria and his drive to bring the country together gives him an important role as both actor in Nigeria’s political dramas and spokesman for those Nigerian nationalists who have been trying to push the country forward.


From a humble background, he started developing interest in the priesthood in late 50s. In the book This House Has Fallen: Nigeria In Crisis, he told Karl Maier that his love for the priesthood was because of the big cars then ridden by the white Catholic priests and the celebration of the Catholic Mass.


He was ordained a Catholic priest on December 19th, 1976. After his ordination, his quest for knowledge took him to the University of Ibadan, where he obtained a diploma in Religious Studies. He received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Urban University, Rome in 1976, then a Master’s degree in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, United Kingdom, and a PhD from the famous London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1990.


He just hit 3 score years on earth. He was our guest, this was not just an interview but a lecture, AWT and through the tunnel we present Rev. Father Matthew Hassan Kukah


AWT: Away from your cassock and ecceslestical calling. Sir, in 2010 you said there would be grave consequences for a Jonathan presidency, with insecurity and all the humpty dumpty, is it a prophecy’


Hassan Kukah: I said that Jonathan cannot run without severe implications for Nigeria. There were a lot of issues that needed to be addressed were he to decide to run then.


They included the agreement, the zoning provision, which is purely a political issue. He needed have to find a way of pacifying other segments of Nigeria within the PDP who took that policy as a given with all these structural deficiencies.


I also believed that we haven’t gotten to a point where we can pretend that region, religion, ethnicity and community don’t matter; tragically they do matter. We cannot create a vibrant democracy without creating an environment where everybody feels that their voices matter and everybody feels that they are part and parcel of that process.


Now, it seems to me to be a lot of work that was to be done in that regard, Jonathan did not before he ran.


For example, if you listen to the Igbo, they believe that if you follow the zoning arrangement, it should be their turn in 2015. As a Nigerian, I think that these sentiments are legitimate.


Secondly, there are those on the opposite side, the northern political elite who believe that if you follow through the zoning arrangement you are just completing the late Yar A’dua’s tenure, and when that tenure was completed, Jonathan should have stepped aside.


But importantly and thirdly you have many Nigerians like you and me who really couldn’t be bothered where our next president comes from as long as he is competent.


Dr Jonathan has not had the opportunity to prove that he is competent. We have nothing to show yet. The honeymoon is still here though a bitter one, policies have not been so clearly articulated.


He has a team, whether that team has delivered on some of the promises is another matter. And already the 2015 crowd is singing.


What really has he done differently from Obasanjo or any others made. So in many respects it’s not just about good declarations but whether you can mobilize the bureaucracy and other arms of government to support his initiatives is a fear I expressed honestly.


AWT: Sir, is Jonathan the problem, do you think that zoning and rotational arrangements are the best way forward for Nigeria and should have stayed,  you have once referred to the community you come from as a minor minority, when would you say the PDP chairmanship be zoned to them’


Hassan Kukah: There’s a difference between being in office and being in power. Some of these offices are fairly symbolic. If they meant so much northern Nigeria would not be the poorest part of Nigeria; because northerners have been in power for over 30 years, literally nonstop.


But the north is still the poorest part of Nigeria. I do not believe that because Dr. Jonathan is president therefore every Ijaw man necessarily will become a rich Nigerian. There will still be poor Ijaw people, jobless Ijaw people, even if Dr. Jonathan were president for 10 years.


Beyond the symbolic gestures, the important thing is the sense of calming frayed nerves. When you look at a country like Germany in the World Cup and you see a black man playing for Germany, it does something to you. So, for me, a lot of these things have symbolic value.


And, let’s be clear, we are still negotiating, we are still moving on that road. We haven’t gotten there yet and it is going to take us a while before we can say that these things don’t matter. But we see, even in certain democracies, like America, where we always pretended that these things don’t matter, without Obama being president there wouldn’t have been the Tea Party.


There are quite a few white people that still cannot live with the fact that a black man is president. But this is a country that has for the last 200 years been experimenting with what we are just trying to experiment with.


But let us be fair to ourselves, not every country has over 400 ethnic groups. The reason why identity matters in African politics is because schools, hospitals, roads need to be built, people need to make state money, employment needs to be provided.


Sadly, because we are still unable to design the architecture that can create a sense of belonging and a sense of wholeness, is why every public official is like a big village chief; his responsibility is to his community.


Although this is slowing down our march towards modernization, you must appreciate the fact that there are limitations from neutralizing identity. This can only happen when some quantum of modernization has taken place.


I mean, here, there is no way that you can try to run for office by telling anyone in the UK that you are going to build schools and improve the health service, you might talk about improvements but you are not going to say that because you are from Bradford, you are going to become Prime Minister by saying what you are going to do for the people of Bradford, it doesn’t work like that.


Based on where we are we need to inch our way and you must appreciate the fact that true leadership will have to emerge before people can look at themselves in the mirror and appreciate the fact that there goes my leader. For now, the unfortunate thing is that this is a reality we have to live with.


In a complex society such as ours we need something that creates a sense of belonging for people. In flashes of frustration Nigerians got so fed up with the military that when Abiola ran along with Kingibe–two Muslims–Nigerians couldn’t be bothered.


It didn’t mean that the problems of religion had ended, it just meant that Nigerians had become so fed up with the military that they could have put out anybody. Which is why Abacha was clever, when he came to power, he didn’t allow even a dog or a goat to run along with him because he knew that the way Nigerians were feeling, even a dog running against someone in a military uniform might win the election.


Take the two together, you cannot say that these things don’t matter, we must also be realistic, that we have a complex mosaic and it is important because this test, its resiliency will depend on a feeling by everybody that they are adequately reflected.


AWT: From a minority-minority, we have seen citizen/indigenship palaver, sir, what do you think are some of the issues of minority groups in Nigeria. Nigeria is often described as a country of three major tribes. What are some of the grievances of some of the minority groups in Nigeria that are not being addressed’


Hassan Kukah: There are issues related to a sense of belonging. If you look at the so-called minorities, you are looking at an imprecise concept, because the thing about ethnicity is that it do.


There are a lot of Igbos who don’t speak Igbo, a lot of Yorubas who don’t speak Yoruba, a lot of Yorubas who speak better Igbo than Igbos themselves. A lot of people who make a claim to a particular ethnic identity, but they don’t speak the language.


So there’s a sense in which most of the conversation is an exercise in hostage-taking.


But in reality if you look at under the military, at an individual level, some of the richest Nigerians today, especially among retired military officers actually are from minority groups. Sadly, their wealth has not spread around because it is all individualistic and sometimes not obtained in the proper way. But to the extent that a lot of communities feel…because under the military there was a lot of abuse…local governments were created…those who were members of the provisional ruling council took local government headquarters to their villages and projects of government were diverted to those communities.


And so, psychologically, people began to feel, we don’t have a voice because we don’t have somebody in power, and we don’t have somebody in power because we are a minority.


So gradually people began to get low self-esteem, but, my argument is that if you massively create infrastructure and increase movement and make electricity work, this is how you can blunt the cutting edge of ethnicity and minorities. The word has become an explanation for a feeling of what Nigerians call marginalisation and the sad thing is that once you use ethnicity as a means of defining that concept you will never escape it.


I think it is just another part of the vocabulary of bad governance which has been seen throughout Africa.


AWT: One would mistake that this encounter is with a political scientist, but we know you Rev. Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, tell us about yourself sir’


Hassan Kukah: I was born to Vincent and Hauwa Kukah on August 31st, 1952. He is from Anchuna, Ikulu Chiefdom of Zangon Kataf local government area of Southern Kaduna, Kaduna state.


I had his primary school education at St. Fidelis Primary School, Zagom, then St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary, Zaria, before proceeding to St. Augustine’s Major Seminary Jos, Plateau state, where I studied Philosophy and Theology.


I was ordained a Catholic priest on December 19th, 1976.


I went to University of Ibadan, where I obtained a diploma in Religious Studies.


I received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Urban University, Rome in 1976, then a Master’s degree in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, United Kingdom, and a PhD from the famous London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1990.


In all these there has been my movement as a priest, one which today has brought me to Sokoto.


AWT: In one sense, in answering the earlier question on minority. Your background comes to play. Now you are in Sokoto as Archibishop of the dioceses. Does it not mean we would need to lessen the conversation about ethnicity. When politics is based on an architecture of ethnicity and rotation along ethnic lines’


Hassan Kukah: (hmmmmm) this is a off side question, too smartly put. Well, I consider where we are now as a state of evolution. We have denied ourselves the energies of our people. Nobody believed three years ago, that anybody from the Niger Delta or from the Ijaw ethnic group would produce a president, it was inconceivable.


Vice-president is, as they say in Nigeria, a spare tire. It was assumed that Goodluck Jonathan would warm the seat until things change. When we spoke about the Ijaw you spoke about militants and kidnapping, bunkering, the destruction of the environment.


This was it. It was the part of Nigeria that exemplified all that was wrong with Nigeria. Suddenly we now have a president who is from the Niger Delta. The point is, the way these things go, that somebody can come from that background to be president could also serve as a signal to other people that you know what, perhaps we are in this game too.


You take a state like Kaduna which has benefited in a collateral sense from this. Our governor moved from Kaduna to become vice-president and Kaduna state has a governor who is a Christian, something that never really happened.


The northern ruling class had always treated Kaduna as some sort of sacred Jerusalem that could not be desecrated.


Suddenly, this has come without anybody raising a hand or casting a vote, in a sense that God designed his own ballot box and paper and there we are! So for me, and I don’t want to sound too esoteric, but a lot of things are happening in Nigeria, and the more these things happen, the more everybody begins to feel that there is a hopeful future for us. The idea of rotation and zoning may not have served its purposes, but it is still very useful. But while we are on that road, let us know that the greatest antidote to this concept is development.


People clutch ethnicity because they have nothing else.


AWT: Sir, still staying on Jonathan, what would be your verdict at his swearing-in you said that something had happened in Nigeria that might not happen again for 200 years. What did you mean by this’


Hassan Kukah: I just meant that it was unprecedented. An individual becoming deputy governor, becoming governor, becoming vice-president, becoming acting president and now president all within a period of less than six years, without anyone voting for him in the first instance, has never happened anywhere. It was not a statement about Goodluck himself but more an expression that God is saying something to us in Nigeria.


President Jonathan is a member of the Ijaw community, the fourth biggest in Nigeria, and from a state that produces about 40% of Nigeria’s revenues. After 50 years of being excluded, a person of that community is now at the helm of affair. To create the impression that Nigeria owes the Ijaw people is to misrepresent issues.


I don’t think that the presidency is an award to anybody for good behaviour.


The oil is not just being fetched with a bucket, a lot of people have paid their dues in different way. Without Nigeria there is no Ijaw oil. The issues are more complicated than that. To suggest that somebody will become president simply because his people have suffered is wrong.


There is no community that has not suffered. Dr Jonathan should expect no sympathy if he doesn’t perform. The steering is in his hands, if he allows himself to go into overdrive as a result of those kinds of sentiments.


The Ijaw people should support him, as every Nigerian should. He is President of Nigeria and he just happens to be an Ijaw man. I don’t think that every Ijaw person necessarily likes him.


The challenge is for him to rise beyond those limitations and assert himself as president.


Like they say of Washington, Abuja is where boys from the small town come to be big people. He has a chance and a date with history so we can only expect that he will rise to the occasion, but time is fizzling out on him.


AWT: You have said Nigeria is under civilian dictatorship, what did you mean and what prospects do you hold of it changing’


Hassan Kukah: What we’ve had in Nigeria for the last ten years is more of the same.


The same cowboys who were contractors under the military, people with military connections, many of these have navigated their way into power.


We ended military rule but we still had a military head of state. General Buhari still wants to be president, General Babangida wanted to be president, there are many soldiers who want to be governors, our Senate president is a retired general, etc.


These things have a way of recurring. It is not easy for people who have lived all their lives in a non-democratic culture to suddenly become democratic. These are some of the demons Obasanjo had to wrestle with; in many respects he couldn’t handle opposition as the president in a democracy should.


This was not about being a bad man, but could a leopard just change his skins, just like that’ I made the point that when a country has gone through a dictatorship what tends to happen is that if you don’t handle the thing well, you get more of the same results.


The big boys of yesterday change their uniform but there is little other change. This is why in Nigeria you still have people who have been governors under the military and they are still hanging around power. Not to take anything away from them, there is a political environment where money matters and to have been in office is how people accumulated resources.


It is an asymmetrical process in terms of the process of competition if people feel they can’t compete without resources.


AWT: Sir, Boko haram, a falut line that President Jonathan has faced. Religion, most recently in Kaduna, but I want us to place the Jos violence in your long study of the interplay of religion, power and politics in Nigeria, particularly in the north of the country and just the divide’


Hassan Kukah: The conversation about religion everywhere you turn is quite complicated. You mustn’t forget that our situation in Nigeria is peculiar because so many factors are conflated.


That religion developed such a sharp edge is not unconnected to the long period of military rule, in the same way that, under apartheid, religion achieved that kind of significance in the lives of people. The way the British dealt with issues of identity, ethnic, religious and so on, is still being played out in national politics.


Now, if you take Islam, a lot of people mistakenly consider when you think of Islam it is the same thing but even in the days of the Jihad, when you read some of the literature you see the Borno conversation was different from the Katsina or Sokoto conversations.


A lot of that has not changed. You then have the introduction of other brotherhoods, the Tijanniya, the Izala movement, and so on. Over and above that is the larger impact of international Islam with what is going on in Nigeria.


There are substantial numbers of Nigerians who are in sympathy with Saudi Arabia and Iran or Libya. All these things have implications for domestic politics and for domestic Islam. People are collecting money from different parts of the world. Where they build their mosques and who worships in those mosques has an impact.


There is a sense by which Nigeria continues to suffer what I would call collateral damage from conversation going on elsewhere. If you fast-forward to Jos, the picture has been slightly different. Jos became the major outpost for Christianity.


Coming from Southern Nigeria it took 100 years for the missionaries to come to what is now Plateau state. Catholic missionaries activities are about 100 years in some of the major parts of the Plateau. Subsequently, the Protestants came.


Consequently, Jos became like a buffer zone between the Caliphate and the rest of central Nigeria. For ordinary Christians Jos has had the sense of almost being a Mecca. In fairness to the Plateau, it is one of the most accommodating areas of Nigeria. Ibos, Yorubas, all kinds of people rose to economic and political prominence.


I think what has happened in Jos, tragic as it is, must be placed in context. In my view it is a question of the failure of the architecture of governance and the lack of capacity of those in power to manage plurality.


That is the only way I can put it. We are dealing with issues of episodic violence that can happen anywhere and have very little to do with religion.


The situation in Jos is complex but 90% of it, in my view is due to the inability of the political class to manage diversity.


We must note too the dichotomy that pitches Christians in the south, as you often hear, against Muslims in the north is a false dichotomy.

It ignores the millions of Christians that are in different parts of northern Nigeria … That feeds into the notion that there is an inevitable conflict, one moment it is north and south and another it is Christians and Muslims.


AWT: Sir, it sounds so easy the way you put it, what about the issue of settler and land certificates’ How do you see that playing out in that mix, in an environment that is as dysfunctional as Nigeria’


Hassan Kukah: Naturally, a lot of this comes down to the economics. People in Plateau, as in the rest of Nigeria, have made wrong choices. Some indigenous people made some wrong choices and they may not have had their own sons and daughters rise to prominence.


So 30 years ago, a piece of land sold for 100 naira has taken a completely different turn altogether. You have the same situation Lagos and in all the major cities in Nigeria. In my view it all comes down to economics. Why do we say that violence is about religion’ Why is it that the violence never takes place in Victoria Island or the places where the big boys live’


If it is about Muslims not liking Christians or vice versa but have you ever heard of the violence taking place in the posh parts of our cities’  If you have the resources you get the land. In my view, the issues we are dealing with are not about indigenous or settler politics, but rather about poor people venting their spleen and the politics of relative privation.


The realities are slightly different, for the first time in the history of Plateau, a man who is a Birom is the governor. There will be a lot of exuberance, how has this been managed’


The same is true in the Niger Delta as Goodluck Jonathan became President. It depends how they conduct themselves. People will be excited but it depends on how you manage that excitement. In my opinion, the situation in Jos hasn’t been managed properly.


AWT: Sir, one of the peculiar aspects of Nigeria is that it is almost evenly split between Islam and Christianity. What are some of the particular challenges that this split brings’


Hassan Kukah: I was a consultant to the Vatican for 5 years and I tried to make them understand why problems arise in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims and not in Gambia or Senegal. In each of those places Muslims are either majority or an insignificant minority. Nigeria is the only country in the whole world where you have an almost equal percentage.


This is why I think that we have a very special responsibility to prove that these religions can live together. Our major drawback has been the closing of the political space.


The opening of this space brings its own challenges but this is the only part of the world where we have this interesting challenge.


If you consider that Islam predated Christianity in some parts of Nigeria by 700 years or so, Christianity has grown enormously and has consequently generated some nervousness for many Muslims. It has become ubiquitous.


AWT: Sir, I would agree with you that Nigeria as it is can be likened to a Catholic marriage. It may not be happy but it doesn’t break up. But the president had warned of a repeat of 1966, if care was not taken, but what holds Nigeria together in your view’


Hassan Kukah: Well, that saying is not original to me, it was first said by a man who is actually a Muslim. I think what holds Nigeria together, and which unfortunately, is not difficult to find when you are not looking, is the sheer resilience of it and the fact that whatever else the British may have done, I think the positives of the Nigerian project outweigh the minuses.


I don’t want to sound esoteric again by talking about God’s plan and project for Nigeria. But I think that the country in terms of the sheer amount of energy and the sheer amount of human material and resources that it has must be a very special project. It is a pity that we have not had the men and women with enough vision to rise beyond the dung heap and do something more visionary.


But I believe that the end of military dictatorship and the beginning of democracy, with all its foibles and so on, should set us on that road.


So I don’t think anybody should become so paranoid as to begin to evoke the spirit of what happened in 1966. I think that, conservatively, 80% of Nigerians want to live in a democracy.


I think the events of the past eight months are quite significant: 20 or even 15 years ago Nigerians would have been out on the streets calling for the military on the fuel subsidy.


As we now see, a delegation of Muslim leaders went to the cathedral in Kano to address the Catholics whilst they were worshipping. We have cases of Muslims banding together and creating a wall to ensure that Christians can pray freely.


His Grace Onaiyekan breaking fast with Muslim faithful during Ramadan.


We have the same scenarios in Lagos. I think that many Nigerians are gradually moving beyond their religious frontiers.


AWT: How do Islamic leaders in the north see their situation today and your position on military response to Boko Haram’


Hassan Kukah: The north, like I have said earlier is the poorest part of Nigeria, it is where you have the highest concentration of non-literate citizens and households that are vulnerable in terms of economic power.


There is almost a total disconnect between the elite in the north and the ordinary people. There is a feeling of frustration — even Boko Haram has articulated this point.


A lot of anger from ordinary people in the north is anger against their own elite who they find are really not prepared to deal with the principles of Islam and are not addressing the social conditions around them.


Yes, I have a total objection to the military in the political space for any reason. One would have thought the politicians would have done more to get their heads around the problems of building social capital, improving the quality of life for ordinary citizens and strengthening the police …


Unfortunately, the political class has continued to use the military to compensate for its own inadequacies.


The military diminishes democracy substantially. I think it has contributed to the rise of violence. Boko Haram did not start as a violent organisation. They were causing no problems until the police and then subsequently the military began to use violence on them.


AWT: Did the five days of strikes and protests unite Nigerians of differing faiths, what were the lessons, should the government have removed the fuel subsidy’


Hassan Kukah: In times of crisis the church has a critical role to play. During the fuel subsidy issue the Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement. I think there was absolutely no doubt as to where the church stood.


We were not out on the streets carrying banners, but at least some of us were involved in facilitating communications behind the scenes across different members of society.


Despite Jonathan being Christian.


Government could never imagine that Nigerians would react in the way that they did. At the end of those five days, the government knew that it cannot push citizens around. One hopes that they appreciate the fact that, no matter how noble their intentions may be, they must develop a coherent mechanism of consultation on public policy issues.

The ordinary people of Nigeria have now found their voices across ethnic and religious lines. It is good for democracy. I think our country is the better for it.


AWT: Sir, we end request some papal prayers for aworship and our team.


Hassan Kukah: (Laughing) papal prayers…You are blessed, keep the good work going.


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