Monday, October 5, 2015 1:09 pm
By Iheanyi Enwerem, O.P.
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 news, given that he is often in the news; what is really news is not just the controversial visit he and his team of National Peace Committee recently 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 Correspondent 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” (cf. http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/08/24).
He expatiated on 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 presented 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 now 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 from the outside. 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.