The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Matthew Kukah, shares with TUNDE AJAJA his thoughts on the state of the nation, 2023 elections and the response of the current administration to prevailing national challenges
There have been deaths and chaos as a result of how government handled the #EndSARS protests and it has almost grounded the country, what do you think about this development?
A lot has been said and it is still unfolding though. As you can see, the state is reacting with militaristic reflexes, concerned with regime security not the larger issues being introduced by the young people.
Some people fear it is a revolution in the making and that the youth have finally summoned their long-lost courage, where do you think this would end, especially with the way things have turned out?
Revolutions are happening every day. Women taking their places in public life and young people achieving what we did not dream of; all these are revolutions. Revolutions do not happen when you break down buildings or overthrow governments. (It happens) when you overthrow the bad habits of yesterday. If we can get these politicians to be less suicidal and destructive in managing our resources, that will be a revolution. The best revolution is the one in which all of us can see a mirror of our success, it is inconvenient for those who have been benefiting from the stagnancy. Criminals in uniform, criminals in politics, criminals in business, in the churches; all have reduced our nation to a shameful cesspool. This must end and I am mightily pleased that the young people are channelling their energies to changing their future and not relying on us who have been self-indulgent and immorally stolen their future. It is unacceptable and to that extent, I am fully on this side of history.
How did Nigeria get to a level where policemen see their duty as ‘we’ against ‘them’?
‘We versus them’ is how the crooks have run the system. The Ali Baba and his 40 thieves mentality who, when looting, pretend that they are detribalised. But the most detribalised persons are armed robbers and they have only one objective, the object of their theft. To these people, Nigeria is their object of theft and what it produces is the oxygen they feed on. So yes, they created an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ culture in which the thieves stand on one side and we on the other. So, we are products of this contradiction.
Can we conclude that the ills in the police that the protesters are fighting against bear the same semblance with the disconnect between the government and the governed?
When governments cannot pass the legitimacy test, they seek props. Under colonialism, they sought props in traditional institutions; under apartheid, they sought props in people like Rev. Abel Muzorewa or Buthelezi; under military rule in Nigeria, they sought props and co-opted traditional rulers, religious leaders, academics and so on. This legitimacy thrives on manufactured consent; it provides false but contrived solace. So, if they do not agree with you as a religious leader, they will find a soft target through subterfuge, bribery or blackmail. That is what creates the ‘Us versus Them’ when it comes to how governments operate. You can see that when these crises come, governments begin to engage these hirelings. I saw a young man in a video in Abuja claiming to be a representative of the indigenes of the Federal Capital Territory, threatening his fellow youths with violence. I felt sorry for him because how many of his uncles who are indigenes are in Asokoro? Aren’t they all condemned to the periphery of the same Federal Capital Territory? How many of them have running water, roads or schools? But this is what the system does when it offers the victim poison or a somnambulant and seduces them to a state of slavish compliance.
Many foreigners, like an influential United States-based pastor, TD Jakes, and the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, have also shown solidarity with the Nigerian people on this EndSARS protest, how best do you think the government should address this to return normalcy to the polity?
We thank them. After all, Pastor Jakes is an Igbo man; he is our son among the millions in America. Yes, global concerns are necessary. After all, do governments not go around seeking foreign endorsements? They must live with the consequences of their actions. The world has drawn a red line and no one in the world can accept the dehumanisation that has come to a head in this government. It is tragic and very sad indeed the endless loss of lives.
Many people have given up on the country and they are relocating in droves, but your passion for Nigeria seems unwavering, what sustains your optimism about Nigeria or are there times you almost gave up on the country?
I am a Christian. Christianity makes very serious moral demands on the followers of Jesus Christ. We are encouraged to remember that we are in the world, but not of the world. We believe in neighbourliness; we are one another’s keepers and we will be judged by the standards we applied to implementing the teachings of Jesus. It is in this regard that one of the first accusations against Christians was that by their teaching, they were turning the world upside down. Christians have a duty to insist that darkness and lies are not an option, and confronting these structures of injustice is our primary duty. As a bishop, I superintend over the fulfilment of these goals of the gospel, So, I am impatient with injustice because I know what we can achieve as a people. I am impatient with Christians who place loyalty to ephemeral structures such as the thrones of power and party longevity over the moral goals of the gospel. It is a shame if a Christian cannot make a moral difference in politics.
You said in a recent interview that governance is a very serious business and should not to be left to politicians, do you think that is the undoing of Nigerians?
Yes, we parade some of the most illiterate and ill-prepared people in politics. Too many people have crept into politics with the mentality of their earlier lives. So, we have contractors, drug dealers and people with fake certificates all over the place. Listen to the charges when they take one another to court. Too many people have little knowledge of the complexities of the country; they have limited understanding of geopolitics and global economics and politics. This is why their only concern is to steal resources, enrich themselves and so on. We are well below par in part because often, political appointments are based on feudal and partisan religious and ethnic considerations. How many offices today are occupied by people who are really qualified? How many first-class young men and women are out there and cannot find a job now? These are the real issues that #EndSARS throws up.
Until the Edo election held, the Peace Committee, which you are part of, never intervened in state elections. Initially, people felt we were making progress in our elections until the fear of violence in the Edo and Ondo elections became frightening, do you have reservations about 2023?
I do not know, but 2023 has already started. #EndSARS might be the ultimate sanitiser that could flush out too many of the bad guys that have poisoned the atmosphere. If the youth can hold their dream and vision, Goliath might just begin to count his days as David steps up. If the youth can hold their dream, they will play a critical role in determining the future of our politics. After all, the men of yesterday and today have perfected the stealing of elections by rejecting science and technology. It is what the youth have in plenty, and with it criminality can be sabotaged and a more transparent system installed.
People have accused the President of being very nepotistic and such people believe that it might be hard to revert to the status quo ante when he leaves, do you hold such views?
No, I think on this nepotism charge, President Buhari stands alone. I do not see any other Fulani man, northerner, Muslim or southerner, Christian or whoever that will have this kind of a world view that is totally oblivious to the principles of fairness and equity. I do not see anyone who will try to replicate this nonsense which has grown out of paranoia and fear of both the past and the future. He probably is trying to build a hegemonic wall that will crumble before his own eyes because I do not know his support base in the North or within the Muslim community beyond the victims on the periphery who believe in ours and ours alone no matter the level of our poverty as long as it is inflicted by one of us.
To what extent has nepotism affected the country as a whole because some people believe it is a bigger problem than corruption?
Well, I am not happy that I was being proved right in my comments that I didn’t think there was evidence that the President really understood what corruption is beyond seeing it as stealing money by public officers. In his world, perhaps, all these are culturally normal, helping the kindred. Sadly, this is not where the world is going because family is no longer blood based but interest-based. Global brotherhood is the direction the world is taking and nepotism often has a severely limited shelf life. How many children of the high and mighty have grown the family business after the death of the patriarchs? Check it out.
The fight against corruption was one of the cardinal promises of this administration, but like you pointed out in a previous interview, not much has changed. How best do you think corruption can be tackled in Nigeria, knowing that it has become an integral part of the country itself?
Corruption to me is not politics; it is development economics. If people invest in the system by virtue of its inclusiveness, everyone will be ready to defend it. It is technology that fights corruption, not moral exhortation. Notice how a few things have been resolved by electronic cash transfers. The challenge is a faceless policeman to keep guard. Take the traffic light for example; can you negotiate because you are a general or a bishop? If technology levels the field, everyone will comply. The useless grandstanding of trials and cases does not achieve much. The key word is ability to track.
As you mentioned earlier that there are no scales to measure the fine attributes Nigerians always want in their leader, what kind of man should Nigerians vote for as President in 2023?
Don’t worry, the situation (before 2023) will throw up a leader. Once you have a system that rejects or does not favour certain individuals or situations, it will be like cashing a dud cheque. Our atmosphere favours criminality and that is why we are producing what we have and why the system is skewed against probity.
The minimum qualification to be Nigeria’s President is a school certificate; do you suggest we raise the bar as soon as possible or it may not change much?
Qualifications are important but in the final analysis, it is the heart that matters. Once you are in a position, the best qualification is self-assessment: what do I know, what don’t I know, who do I know, whom should I consult, whom should I assign to what, and how can I be helped by those who know better than me? These are the issues and this is why nepotism is a self-destructive and a self-consuming cancer because you only see a reflection of yourself. Nepotism blinds because governance becomes an inheritance, not a duty and a responsibility. You lose sight of the common good. In a plural society, it destroys the foundation. This is what has produced this rage because it only honours blood.
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A lot has been said about restructuring and Pastor Enoch Adeboye warned a few weeks ago that it was either the Federal Government did it or the country could break up. What do you make of the clamours for restructuring as a solution to the feared disintegration?
Well, Pastor Adeboye is better placed than myself to make the statements because one of his pastors is a vice-president and he laid his hands on the President. He has an inside track.
Nigeria marked its 60th independence anniversary a couple of weeks ago, and some people feel there is nothing to celebrate due to the failure of successive leadership to do what is expected of them, what do we place this down to?
First, those who think there is nothing to celebrate are indulging in self-pity and they are not being realistic. In their private lives, can they say there is nothing to celebrate? If they have not done anything with their lives, whose fault is it? A national celebration like this has to be seen in different contexts. In what areas have we failed even as individuals and where have we succeeded, such as in our personal or family success. All the young football stars, entertainers and writers making waves and who are millionaires now, including musicians were not born at independence. National celebration is an aggregate of individual, community achievements. So, they (should) stop focusing on what they think we have not achieved as a nation. That is another level of conversation.
At the moment, what saddens you most about Nigeria?
I am saddened by how the political class doesn’t care about its people. I am saddened by the hypocrisy that passes for governance. I am saddened by the humongous theft and misuse of our resources. I am saddened by the criminal negligence of the weak and the poor. This country should have no pact with poverty but as it is, we have struck an unholy marriage with everything that diminishes a people. I know what we can achieve. I know the huge talents we have. I see them every day in the energy of the young people who seem to have no place to turn to. I see a society in which public officers make stealing a philosophy and where people are stealing for their families beyond many generations. However, as I see it, the worst is over. The youth have lit a candle and you know what the Chinese say, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Nothing will be the same again. I am heartened that in my lifetime, by the grace of God, I may see a nation that has respect. Prayerfully, I hope the youth keep their dreams alive, stay the course, learn about their country, dream big, work hard, love one another and help to end this misery by standing together. The worst may soon be behind us. We will create not a perfect world, but at least one that is free from the stranglehold of feudalism, nepotism, greed, hate and injustice.
Unlike before, more clerics, especially Christians, are speaking up against bad governance, but some people believe that could bring the church to ridicule?
I do not know what you mean by ridicule. For me, I speak not because I am a religious leader. I speak because I am a citizen making a contribution to how I feel my country should be governed. So, I am fulfilling a duty as a citizen. I am a citizen who is a Christian not a Christian who is a citizen. I was born a Nigerian who became a Christian by choice. I did not become a Christian who started looking for a country. When you contribute, sometimes, you might be wrong but it can be corrected by more wisdom. Silence is a crime, especially in times of turmoil when we are searching for directions. All voices must come in or else, some others, including a fool, will speak up for you.