By Obi Enweze
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, or simply Bishop Kukah as the legion of his admirer call him, is from the once harmonious Zangon-Kataf Archdiocese of Kaduna, but was appointed Bishop of Sokoto on June 10, 2011. He was introduced to the Nigerian national conscience through his fiery and relentless advocacy for the suffering majority of Nigerians, through his insightful and erudite publications in the New Nigerian Newspaper. Truly his conscience was nurtured by truth, as the motto of the newspapers proclaims.
With his incessant championing of the poor, distressed and economically strangulated Nigerians, Bishop Kukah became an instant hero, and gained celebrity status. His fame grew in leaps and bounds, even beyond the borders of Nigeria. Yet, he professed to hate politics like leprosy. He once told Vatican Radio, “When it comes to the problem of poor governance, the country is blighted by monumental corruption.” He went on to say: “Politics in Nigeria is almost like armed banditry…as the price is so high and because a climate of impunity has become so predominant.”
With words like these, Bishop Kukah was seen as a voice of hope and reason. At the height of his social crusading, the affable Bishop authored a powerful “Prayer for Distressed Nigeria.” This prayer was adopted across the nation by Christians and is recited till date in churches across Nigeria.
However, many were loudly curious when, through his writings, he was seen as supportive of another Matthew, this time the infamous Olusegun Mathew Okikiola Obasanjo. The noise even became louder when the great cleric allegedly declared that he was a Nigerian first, before being a Christian. On the face of it, the statement sounded innocuous and correct, but many put different twists and turns to it. It became a rather controversial, even discomfiting proclamation. Even so, that proclamation did not taint his respected image as his open support for Obasanjo did. While many condemned what was seen as a leap into the murky waters of politics, I was one of those who excused it. My reasoning then was simple. Obasanjo had endeared himself to many Christians through his speeches after he was freed from jail, and cleared of the charge of treasonable felony (allegedly for planning a coup, which carried a death penalty). Obasanjo had openly declared, “God gave me a second chance and I will use it to do good.”
Obasanjo had professed his gratitude and love to God for granting him another opportunity to remediate his past errors and the consequent damages. His words resonated with Christians and many people of goodwill and faith. In a nation looking for salvation, Obasanjo capitalized on the deep sense of the ailing nation and presented himself as the God-sent messiah. Therefore, it was understandable that a Bishop who devoted his life to the distressed would favor someone who came in promising to walk in the ways of the Lord.
Even so, Obasanjo’s presidency revealed itself as ungodly, and Bishop Kukah saw that first hand, too. A clear example was when Obasanjo appointed Bishop Kukah to the Oputa Panel that probed human rights abuses over many years in Nigeria. Obasanjo assured the Bishop and Nigerians that “there will be no sacred cows.” However, when Nigerian sacred cows, including former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, refused to even acknowledge requests for appearance by the Oputa Panel, Obasanjo blinked and left Justice Oputa, Bishop Kukah and other members of the panel to close shop without prying into many areas and instances of serious human rights violations. To make matters worse, Obasanjo invoked sedition, a crime that is no longer in many criminal codes, to go after some journalists.
In what many agreed was the purging of all political taints, Bishop Kukah was quick to tell the whole nation how worthless Obasanjo’s words and promises were. In all, we heaved a sigh of relief that the love-fest between an imperial president and a credulous priest was over and that our social crusading Bishop had learnt not to trust even his brothers once he stepped into the arena of politics. From the look of things we were wrong, because the prelate seems about to repeat the same exact mistake.
Bishop Kukah’s first misadventure into partisan politics started through small messages and little signs here and there. Some of us who respect and love him are today worried that his recent attack on OkeyNdibe is one of the signs that he is, once again, inching closer to the powers-that-be. OkeyNdibe’s criticism of the Nigerian government’s inadequate response to the ceaseless killing of defenseless and innocent Nigerians by a dangerous sect, Boko Haram, and his relentless advocacy for the poor is well known. He recently wrote an article where he contended that the manner in which the lives of Nigerians are disregarded has become troubling to the point of being tragic. In his signature style of driving points home with elaborate example, Ndibe poignantly but colorfully argued that the Nigerians who are daily slaughtered in the most gruesome manner by Boko Haram were being treated as if they were ants and not human.
In a move that surprised most of us who admire him, Bishop Kukah recently deviated markedly from the subject of his public lecture to unpardonably excoriate and ridicule Ndibe. The most troubling part of Bishop Kukah’s uncharacteristic message was when the Bishop stated, “If Ndibe were a Ugandan, Rwandan, Zimbabwean or indeed, from most African countries, would he write this and still come back to his country? Indeed, the answer is that there is hardly any other African that can write this rubbish about their own country, even if they had no family in the country.”
For a cleric, a Bishop for that matter, to so shamelessly incite the government to violate a writer’s human rights as a proper deterrent for those who offer social commentaries is most shocking. The message was crystal clear: there should be danger for those who critique their government. And such danger should not be limited to them, but also extend to their families. For once, I am happy that President Goodluck does not seem keen to muzzle voices of dissent. As a devout Catholic and one of the folks to whom Bishop Kukah ministers, I urge and expect a retraction.
I want Bishop Kukah to remember the wonderful and living example of Cardinal Anthony OlubunmiOkogie. As Archbishop of Lagos, Okogie was a staunch advocate for respect for human life, the dignity of man, justice and fairness. He fought selflessly against oppression and was a regular commentator on issues of national importance. Many still remember how Cardinal Okogie volunteered to die in place of a Muslim woman condemned to death by stoning for adultery. But for people like Cardinal Okogie, the tyranny and human rights violations during the military era would have been more.
Obi Enweze is former Secretary of NADECO in USA and CANADA, and a Knight of the Catholic Church