Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Matthew Hassan Kukah in this interview with ANKELI EMMANUEL, speaks on the place of religion in politics, the fight against corruption and other national issues
What informed your decision to host Catholic Bishops in Sokoto being the Seat of the Caliphate?
The decision was not mine. The fact is that the opportunity to host this conference goes to every province.
In Nigeria, we have nine provinces and every province has an archbishop. And the archbishops have other suffragans. Last year, it was the turn of the Jos province, and because we follow the alphabetical order in the way we provinces host, the letter K comes after J. So this time, it was the turn of the Kaduna province which is made up of Kaduna, Zaria, Kano, Kontagora, Minna, Kafanchan and Sokoto dioceses to host.
Therefore, all the Bishops had to meet and it was about who would be the host. Usually, it is always the metropolis. For example, all these years, Kaduna has always hosted and it was easy for everybody because of the burden. Also you have to have infrastructure to receive people and so on and so forth.
So, when it was Kaduna’s turn, the matter was tabled and everybody seemed to be quiet until after sometime when I decided to raise my hand and said Sokoto will host. Of course, naturally, we got the usual reaction which was one of shock and surprise as to where we will get the resources; we do not have a pastoral centre and so on and so forth.
But, instinctively, I wanted to achieve two things. One is help to douse the unfounded anxiety and tension that there is somehow an inevitability of conflict between Christians and Muslims. So, I am Bishop of Sokoto and I thought it will be wonderful for us to showcase that as one great advantage.
The second thing is during my ordination, I saw practically what people didn’t see. From the Sultan Of Sokoto who is also the President General, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, to the then governor, now Senator Aliyu Wamakko, and even the ordinary people that did not even know me, they received me with so much warmth.
Most people who came to Sokoto then for the first time literarily went home with shock over how peaceful Sokoto State was. I therefore think it is important for us to scale up this story.
The second reason, of course, is personal to me. As a Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, I wanted it to be an opportunity to encourage my people and the body of Christ here. Yes, we may not be that many, but I also felt, if we got visitors of this quality and caliber it will give a lot of encouragement to the Christian community and the blessings that will come from the Bishops of Nigeria. They concentrated blessings here for over one week. Therefore, I saw an opportunity that I did not want to allow pass by.
Finally, I believe that it was not an act of man. I believe that in God we trust. I believe that God provided the means and opportunities and I think God has been extra ordinarily gracious because it is His work not ours. And the way people responded was fantastic. So, we enthusiastically looked forward to the day and good enough, his Eminence, the Sultan, the State Governor, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal amongst others gave their blessings and everything went well.
Hosting Catholic Bishops comes at a high cost. How did the diocese shoulder it?
When we started, we started literarily from ground zero and I trusted in the generosity and goodwill of the people I know. Everybody I spoke to felt the need to sign into the project. They easily encouraged us.
Secondly, I am not in a position to provide extra ordinary comfort for the Bishops of Nigeria because they know that this is Sokoto. But I also know that even amongst them there are a lot of people who were ready to assist if the need arose.
For example, when I was ordained as Bishop, usually you have to sew a new set of vestments for all the Bishops and I told the Bishops that honestly, we couldn’t afford that kind of burden because that was the truth.
But by the time I shut my mouth, the Archbishop of Onitsha raised his hands and said “do not worry I will pay for it.” So for me, this is in keeping with what my father used to say, “Hanya ya fikwudi”. Which means having people is worth more than money. Let me put it that way.
But more importantly, we do not have to do anything extraordinary because they know. Yes, we have to do the best we can if a visitor is coming to our house but this is the best we can do. Even if we did not have anywhere to keep them and they decided to ask my parishioners to receive them, the Bishops will be more than happy to stay with parisoners if we ran out of accommodation. So, hosting Catholic Bishops is not a competition. This is not Lagos, it is not Abuja. Sokoto is not Onitsha. So, I think even the Bishops themselves were also modest in their expectations.
What were the outcomes after the event?
First, it is the blessings. Secondly, the encouragement that we should all move on the path of using religion for the betterment of our common humanity.
Our country is hemoraging. So the Challenge before Christians in Nigeria is not how many Churches we build. It is not how much infrastructure we put out. The challenge for Muslims is not how many Mosques are built. The real Mosque lives in the heart of people and the real Church lives in the heart of people. And for me frankly, I measure the progress and quality of life of my people and I think with all sense of modesty, I am very happy that being in Sokoto here I can see, I can measure the little efforts that we have made.
When we go to the leper colony for example, when we go to the prison. When we go to the orphanages , when we go to places where there is crisis. My people have gotten used to us raising a bit of money and taking to these people.
And very often, they are surprised and they say to us that they have no Christians in their communities hence what are we coming to do for them?
This is what my conviction is. In the final analysis, denominationalism is a figment of our own imagination. Jesus founded a Church. He didn’t intend it to be what it is now, made up of different groups. He didn’t call us Catholics, we called ourselves just in keeping with the spirit of the mind of Jesus Christ which is that it is a Church for everybody, because the word Catholic simply means universal. Hence our doors are always open.
But, unfortunately, through human instrumentality we have now appropriated this denominationalism and they have become weapons of war. Based on my experience and based on the opportunities I have had in life, I will continue to work very hard so that we will create a more egalitarian society in which religion is not held hostage by politicians and some of us in the leadership because our responsibility and duty is to ensure that leaders and every human being do good to one another.
In certain quarters, people believe religion in Nigeria is a blessing in disguise. Considering how it is often being used to instigate troubles, do you share same thought?
No, religion is going to be a blessing in disguise. I remember when I raised this issue with the former governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, my good friend whom I like to debate with because he is a very fantastic intellectual. When I raised the issue, he turned the argument against me by saying that politicians are the ones being penetrated by religion. He said it is they, politicians, that are being held hostage by these different religions. And he told me some real fantastic stories.
So yes, you can spin the coin the other way round, like the Hausa man would say “Karanbanin Dan Akwuya Ya Tai e Hair Da Kura”. If you go into the demon of the politicians looking for the things that they have fought for, you will face the consequences. So, our responsibility and duty is to ensure the improvement of the quality and lives of our people.
You know, I have lots of friends who are politicians. They know me and I know them and a lot of my friends even within the Church are a bit disappointed because people think and say, I must be an extraordinarily rich person because of the big men that I know and they know me but that I am not rich.
But you as a religious leader you have to maintain a certain kind of neutrality that enables you to speak beyond a particular regime. You know some of my critics say, oh, Bishop Kukah is a politician and I said well, the good thing is that, it has taken me a lot of effort to transit between one government and the other. Nobody will ever say that, I picked up my phone to call and say, Mr. President congratulation and thank you for your new election, can I come and greet you?
So, I think religion is a force for good but we who are marketing that religion must show a face with enough integrity and believability. And I see it in the faces of so many persons. Like I said, you know a lot of the things are a bit easy for me because I have enjoyed extraordinary generosity in all forms from people whether Muslims, Christians, Southerners, Northerners, Easterners or outside the shores of this land.
Therefore, this one makes me very comfortable in my skin. And that is why I also feel that we must win this battle against the walls erected by us in Nigeria based on religion, because religion must be made a force for good. It is not enough for us to say that people who are killing do not belong to our religion. No. They belong to our religion.
The question we should be honest enough to ask is how did they get to that point? If your son becomes an armed robber tomorrow it is not something you are proud of but you must ask yourself what did you do. It is not necessarily because you condone armed robbery but their must have been conditions that you created by either your inability to take up your responsibility or not questioning him when he took on a particular life style.
Some Nigerians are alleging that our politicians are only using religion for selfish interests. Do you share that view?
I think we should not begin to go into that. Yes, I am a hard critic of any system that is not doing the right thing but I will not surrender my responsibility to politicians. The politicians, even the president of Nigeria I consider them as my sons, spiritually speaking. I remember when Senator David Mark was Senate President, there was a time I kept calling him and he never answered my call then one day he sent me a text that he has not been able to speak to me on the phone but that I should not forget that he is very convinced that I have the responsibility of ensuring that he gets to heaven.
So what I am saying is that politicians are supposed to take the cue from us by the quality of moral standards we are ready to uphold. Every politician is free to use any tool that he considers legitimate or at times illegitimate. But if you allow them to use the illegimate tools to get to positions then that is your business. So, I will not quarrel with the politicians for appropriating religion.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria in their wisdom via a statement issued by the President have warned that nobody should allow their alter to be taken over by politicians for campaigns. And I can speak for the Catholic Church. I know that even many of our members who are in politics are quarrelling with the fact that we do not give them such benefits. I felt very proud about that.
For us in the Church, I think that we are not very, very perfect. But we will try our best and we will continue to try our best for us to keep a critical distance because we are not political actors, and we are not spectators either. Our responsibility is to ensure that we counsel, providing alternatives and so on and so forth.
So for me, it is like not being able to stop the rain from falling, you will only get wet if you do not carry an umbrella. So you cannot stop the politician or anybody for that matter. Journalists can manipulate. And they are manipulating people. Priest can manipulate and they are manipulating people. The business class can manipulate and they are manipulating people. So it’s not the creation of the politicians. It is a question of whether you have enough moral integrity to ensure that you are not available for manipulation.
Do you see this change that swept PDP out of power after its 16 years in power, as a good one?
Look, what people continue to lack is what I have continued to say over and over again, that we do not have the discipline to understand the dynamics and the ingredients of politics. We are largely politically illiterate because the things we are expecting politicians to do for us are outrageous and they are never true anywhere in the world.
Now, there are many issues of personal morality because a society’s morality is an aggregate of individual morality. So how you conduct yourself as an individual, how you conduct yourself as a family, how you conduct yourself as a community, enthnically, sectionally or religiously will determine and have an impact on how that society conducts itself.
I remember that General Ibrahim Babangida as a Head of State made a statement a long time ago that if a woman had an abortion anywhere it is Babangida that is to be blamed. You know, we have this tendency to excuse ourselves. meanwhile, people are stealing money from Church, they are stealing money from Mosques, they are stealing money from town unions. They are stealing money from their NGOs, they are stealing money from the civil service. They are stealing money everywhere.
So, a society that has this culture will naturally produce politicians who are thieves. Now the reason why stealing in Nigeria has some level of justification is that there are willing recipients of the proceeds of this corruption.
If we the ordinary people set standards for ourselves, the politicians will know and they will fall in line. There was a time I served in one of these committtees, two or three years after we finished somebody told me that there was money going around and I asked where? How come that nobody approached me even though I was a strategic player? I asked why was it that nobody came to me with money? The man looked at me, laughed and said are they stupid when they know that I am a priest?
Please do not get me wrong, I am not saying I am a very good person, but I have a very good experience in the Nigerian system.
We are not as innocent as we think we are, and the politicians are not as guilty as we present them to be. What we are very good at doing in Nigeria is scapegoating. And you know scapegoating in the land of Israel was during the time of the end of their lenting season for example and they will bring a goat and the community will come, everybody put his hands on the goat and confess his or her sins on that goat. They will now release the goat and it will go into the desert. That was how the whole concept of scapegoating came about because the goat would have been said to have escape with their sins.
So I discovered that, we are very good at scapegoating. We are tranfering our duties and responsibilities to politicians. And I continue to ask, is it the politician that is responsible for lecturers giving mark for sex in our higher institutions? Is it the politician that is responsible for some of the odities committed in all the corners? So, the society needs to be cleaned up. And all of us, individually must take that responsibility because once we do that, then, we have a society that gives us the moral platform to ask questions.
Somebody said something to me only last week about the killing of thieves in North Korea or people suspected to have been corrupt. The person told me that they are lining them up to be fired together with their wives and he asked if such happen in Nigeria?
He also pointed out that people resign because they were accused of having committed an offense and he asked again can that happen in Nigeria?
It will not happen in Nigeria because Nigerians do not have the moral fibre to make that demand. Most of us cannot claim to be above the frame. We are in the mud together and that is why the Nigerian politician can afford to be arrogant and hold you in contempt because he knows that down the road you are going to come back and say “Rankashidede” and collect whatever he gives you. Therefore, he has to steal to be able to be so generous. And if we are very extravagant in our expectation of this generosity, then we are paying the price.
What do you think are the ingredients needed for a country to become great?
Greatness is a measure of the vision. Let us not even talk about a country first, let’s talk about the family. Now, you have two children and you are already planning for them or else you could be driving a better car than the one you are using now. See your IPad is dirty, you could have a new IPad but you decided to scale your priorities. Now, the kind of values you begin to instil on a child are those values a child will grow up with.
But you have to have the vision. You may be sitting here, saying by the grace of God my son must study in Harvard University, or my son must go to space, yes, it will happen but you have to start building the foundation from the scratch. You don’t wait until after your son enters Secondary school before you equip him with the vision.
You do not have to wait for your son to hit the street without enough moral armor so that he does not develop his own morality from the street. So there are no magic bullets anywhere that will make a great nation. But if you read about America, if you read about other great countries you will always find out that there have been individuals who have contributed their own quota.
Whether it is Nero in India or Mandela in South Africa, whether it is Churchill or Lincoln, you will always find that we have had our own fair share of them. This country would have been entirely different because there are two people that their vision was clinical and had the capacity to create national integration.
If you read the works of Awolowo, if you read the works of Aminu Kano. I always say to people jokingly that actually Boko Haram is a measure of the vacuum created by the absence of the kind of things that Aminu Kano was talking about. Because he taught us how you can use religion itself to create a more egalitarian society. So there is no magic, it is just that you cannot govern a country without a vision.
And I have spoken about this several times in most of my lectures. This is the only country where we don’t know that leaders are hijacked, kidnapped and brought to us. We are running a political process we know it is severely flawed. The outcomes are already contrived. And then when the elites decide who is going to be president, they bring him to us and literally find a way of breaking our hands and forcing us to vote.
Or you vote and the vote don’t count because the elites have made up their minds about whom they want. It is only when people get to power now that you suddenly realise where is the vision?
At least, you have to have a little bit of idea of what I want to do. I have never run a diocese before but I have been a priest for years. I have been secretary general of the Bishops conference. So I came to Sokoto with a little bit of experience and it also shaped the kind of policies I am embarking on. They are not perfect but at least, it has generated a certain kind of consciousness in me about managing diversity. About knowing that you don’t know everything and so on and so forth.
Therefore, what I am saying is that, the greatest challenge we have in Nigeria is that we have put the cart before the horse. And that is why we are just getting these outcomes. We are just sinking deeper and deeper into the pool of corruption.
The reason is very simple. It is that we do not have people whose imagination has become the basis of us casting a vote for them. And like I said, take a look at all the presidents we have had in Nigeria from the beginning to were we are today, who has presented Nigeria with a vision that has been subjected to interrogation?
President Muhammadu Buhari presented a vision of fighting Coruption. And I was one of the first people to say, this is a symptom, it is not a disease. I was intellectually convinced that what we had as means of fighting corruption could not deliver those goods because it lacks the analytical base for dealing with the issues.
And my argument then was, now we are trying to fight a symptom not a disease. If I see a leper and really want to help the leper I can give him a bit of money. But to go and buy Vaseline and give a leper and say he should rub on his hands so that his fingers will come back it is not going to work that way.
So, for me, great nations are also the result of the building blocks by one generation after another. The tragedy with the Nigerian situation is that we have never had any person govern this country for like a period of 10 years. Because if they had for good or for bad, we will have a legacy. All we have is a land scape of broken bridges, uncompleted bridges, hundreds of thousands of uncompleted projects.
This one will come and start, the next one will come and drop. That is the problem we have continued to face in Nigeria and we will never move away out of this until this country’s leaders are the result of vision that we can be subjected to analysis. Vision that can become the basis for mobilising people.
People will say, this my person has integrity, integrity is not a commodity that you can go and buy. You cannot be holding integrity on behalf of other people. Jesus Christ with everything, he was dealing with only 12 disciples and Judas was amongst them.
So, the idea that one individual can suddenly become a messiah is literarily not acceptable in politics. It has no philosophical formation in politics.
If systemic failure is behind corruption in Nigeria, how do you think it can be corrected?
Look, you will never be able to win the war against corruption if you have all these Banks that are barely unregulated, and the bureacracies that hovers around. Let’s focus on the physical policies that you have. If you have an economic system that allows people to move with billions of dollars or naira in a vehicle from point A to point B; if you have a system that allows people to dig trenches in their bedrooms to bury money; if you have a system that allows a man to access those amount of money at a time, then you are in trouble.
You can bring the angels to preside over Nigeria and they will be tempted. Mind you, the devil was an angel first. So the temptation is always there. So, it is not as if Nigerians are bad people. This is the mistake we are making. It is that we are being dropped in a pool of mud and there will be no way we will not get dirty.
In my view, the first thing to do is to focus on developing the scientific tools of deterrence. Go to Lagos, all that side going to Lekki and Victoria Garden City you will see there are alternative routes now. There is a bridge you can go but you will pay money to beat the traffic. Now no car can pass without having to pay. It’s not about being a big man. The system is there and it is checking you. So, if you have a system that is not manual it will greatly help out.
Science is blind to positions, it is blind to your lordship, it is blind to Rankadede, it is blind to any body no matter your position.