August 31st, the conscience of the nation, the cerebrally fearless Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, will be 70. Surely, he is the darling of all writers especially journalists. So much ink would be poured in his honour by those who know how to do it best. Yet, as his blood and student in the field of religion and society, I have decided on this occasion to reflect on his many interventions on the role and place of Islam in Northern Nigeria especially on his last Christmas message that accumulated so much dust amongst people who still believe that the Bishop is an enemy of the Islamic religion.
Not unexpectedly, the Christmas homily, not unlike his previous and successive speeches and homilies, had generated a plethora of bile reactions from the Muslim North, particularly from apex muslim organization in Nigeria, the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), on claims that the homily was simply an attack on Islam. In a response, the JNI described the homily as a poisoned arrow fired at the heart of Islam and Muslims in Nigeria.
The Bishop had in the homily accused President Buhari of uncritically favouring the Muslim North rather than seeing the whole country as his constituency. “It is curious that President Buhari’s partisanship and commitment to reinforcing the foundations of northern hagemony have had the opposite consequences. For a long time, beyond the call of politics, very prominent northerners with a conscience have raised the red flag, pointing out the consequences of President Buhari’s nepotism on national cohesion and trust,” he said.
“One Northern Imam after the other have posted videos of lamentation on the social media asking why, with all the cards of power in the hands of northern Muslims, everything is bursting in the steams. How come our region has become a cesspool of blood and death? Why did President Buhari hand over a majority of the plumb jobs to Northern Muslims? Was it for efficacy and efficiency? What was the logic? President Buhari must pause and turn around because his policy of nepotism had been rejected by the god’s”, the Bishop added.
As a student of the Bishop for so many years, I have severally followed and have, sometimes, intervened in the many debates he has either started or joined in the course of his writing and speaking career that has spanned the last 30 or more years. But the Christmas homily storm, could, no doubt, be described as the most apocalyptically scary, to say the least. The issues raised by the Bishop have continued to generate more vituperations far more than any of his interventions at any time in the history of his engagement in public discourse.
But I am not surprised because, one: as a student of Philosophy, I am aware that the quality of a submission can be measured by the quantity of the reactions to it. This means that the Bishop had raised an issue/issues that is/are of interest to society which ought to, in turn, generate disagreements and agreements that could take us to the door of escape. Two: Master wordsmith, Dan Agbese, said of him somewhere: “l can think of no public lectures or speeches delivered by the Bishop that left the accumulated dust of our placid sense of outrage undisturbed. Blame it on a) his courage to speak truth to power and b) the moral burden of his calling thrust upon him , daring him, I would imagine, to padlock his lips when our secular kingdom suffereth violence in the hands of venal men who serve the few more and the many much less.”
Although the Bishop was involved in many productive debates with, for instance, Dr. Ebenezer Obadare, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Femi Fani Kayode, etc, and at a time, with some Christian clerics for describing their practice of Christianity as criminality, the most fiery and consistent subject that keeps rearing its ugly head in all the debates has been his views on Northern Islam in debates with the likes of Mohammed Haruna, Adamu Adamu, Hakeem Baba Ahmed, etc.
Recall that in 2016, it took the intervention of some prominent Nigerians to end a scary debate between the Bishop and his good friend, Mohammed Haruna, on what Haruna referred to as ‘Bishop Kukah’s Attack on Islam’ brewed by a keynote address the Bishop delivered at Fountain University, Osogbo, to a Muslim organization in which, among other things, he said: In your part of the country as in other parts of the world, I hear about families of Christians and Muslims living together, marrying, intermarrying and so on. In the North, this is anathema. Everytime I bring this up, I hear people say this is what Islam teaches, that the religion allows Muslim men to marry Christian girls (and hopefully make them Muslims) while Christian men cannot marry Muslim women. If this is not apartheid in broad daylight, I do not know what it is.”
In it, the veteran journalist profusely referred to the homily delivered by the Bishop at the funeral of Governor Patrick Yakowa of Kaduna State as evidence that the Bishop has been consistent in running tirades against Islam. He said: “That homily was more an attack on Muslims than it was a tribute to Governor Yakowa. The bishop used the opportunity to ride on his hobbyhorse of what he says is the use of Islam by the Northern Muslim elites to impose their hegemony not only on the North but also on the rest of the country. In so doing he denounced those he described as “riff raff and scoundrels” who were alleged to have rejoiced at the death of the governor. Such scoundrels, he said “quite rightly, did not represent Muslims or Islam.”
On the Yakowa homily that literally caused a gridlock of angst among Northern Muslim elite, the bitter reactions are well documented in a book I co-authored with Adamu Adamu, Mohammed Haruna, Prof. Steve Nkom, Abubakar Gimba, et al, titled ‘Governor Yakowa’s Funeral Homily: Matters Arising.’ And the reactions have, especially Abubakar Gimba’s, now as then, remained fresh on my mind. In his review at the Book presentation, Mike Ozekhome said: “Abubakar Gimba, former Pro-Chancellor of IBB University, Lapai, Niger State, fired the first salvo. He accused Kukah of singling out and denigrating Moslems, with such phrases as ‘religious bigots’, ‘dubious religious manipulations’, ‘members of the nefarious mafia whose selfishness hindered the development of Kaduna State in particular and the North in general; ‘those who have projected Islam as a basis for power … and created the condition that now threatens the foundation of our society’; and ‘one of the worse shows of selfishness by an unproductive and selfish cabal who have deployed religion to hide their goal.’
But what is the Bishop’s obsession with Northern Islam? Again, apart from his Doctoral Thesis published in 1993 detailing how Northern Muslim elite have been manipulating the noble religion to inflict hardship on minorities and to, as well, gain political and economic control, only few years back, the cleric, at the funeral of a seminarian killed by kidnappers, said: “Today in Nigeria, the noble religion of Islam has convulsed. It has become associated with some of the worst fears among our people. And that: “This president has displayed the greatest degree of insensitivity in managing our country’s rich diversity. He has sub-ordinated the larger interest of the country to the hagemonic interests of his co-religionist and clansmen and women. The impression created now is that, to hold a key position in Nigeria today, it is more important to be a northern Muslim than a Nigerian.”
Key words in every of the Bishop’s outings have been: hagemony, northern Islam, religious bigots, religious manipulators, selfish cabal, Kaduna mafia, those who projected the noble religion of Islam as the basis for power, etc.
No doubt, while the anger on the Bishop for given the hezy impression that the Muslim North has been the exclusive beneficiary of the Buhari-led government inspite of the nightmare that majority of them have continued to face is justifiable, his alleged antipathy against Islam and Moslems can only be a sop for the unlettered. For a very long time, his lordship has been able to make the distinction between Islam and Islam as projected by the northern Muslim oligarchists who have remained the enemies of the entire region irrespective of religion and ethnicity.
Or, do northerners who project Islam as the basis of power, or deploy it to inflict hardship and injustice on others, representatives of the religion? Obviously, Kukah’s fault lied in his inability to make a clear distinction between Islam and what the wicked and retrogressive parochialists present to us as the religion. Adamu Adamu captured this well in his contribution to the Yakowa homily controversy when he said: “I think Bishop Kukah had largely succeeded in making that distinction in a way that was not immediately obvious to many, because it was blurred by the dust other parts of the eulogy might seem to have raised for them.”
Yes, the distinction between the culpable minority and the innocent majority should have been obvious. It is this culpable minority whose stock in trade is the manipulation of religion to quench their inordinate desires that are responsible for why the Muslim North has become a pool of blood. It is also responsible for why the North is today defined in superlative terms: the most violent; the most impoverished; most insecure; most backward in education, etc.
Sincerely, northern political and religious leaders – JNI not excepted, must take off time to ask why we have, contrary to what obtains in other climes, a brand of Islam, assuming it is, that breeds millions of children on the streets known as almajiris; a brand of Islam that has no space for intermarriages with non-muslims; a brand of Islam that Boko Haram and other bloodthirsty elements claim to be its missionaries; a brand of Islam that has one moral standard for Ganduje and Ribadu’s daughters, and another for the talakawa, etc. This for me ought to be the hard material that leaders of the North need to tailor on rather than the tons of vitiol targetted at the cleric for saying nothing but the scathing reality.
As he celebrates his 70th birthday, a lot of admirers, well-wishers and friends will join him to dance at the market square, not because of the power of his rhetoric, his wit or controversies, but because of the uncommon courage he exhibited by whistling in the dark now and in those sad and treacherous days when soldiers were up in arms to violate and defile all that was most sacred to man.
And this is what endears him to so many Nigerians some of whom are Muslims, others Christians, and still others “atheists”. He stood for them not as brethren-in-faith but as brethren-in-creation; the latter surpasses the former.
This may also explain why Nigerians see him not as a Catholic priest but as a priest for all: a priest who could speak for the “atheists”, the Muslims, the Christians, Catholics, Igbos, Biafran agitators and even Boko Haram adherents whenever they have a just cause or what defines their humanity is at stake. The great man may have realized this clearly during their tours, when he was a member of Nigeria’s Truth Commission set up in 1999.
What all this means is that the anniversary is coming at an appropriate time – a time with challenges to toughen the bishop’s enduring character. It’s a time of supreme complacency when “a monstrous tyranny” never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime is threatening our national unity: the genocide in southern Kaduna, Boko Haram in the north-east, vandalism and destruction of our national assets in the east and some parts of the Niger Delta, cynicism and hunger, general insecurity in nearly all parts of the country with a call for separation of the marriage of 1914. The anniversary should renew the strength of His Lordship and encourage him to rise in defence of our nation against the doom that is about to consume it. This, as I said, is the basic character that endears him as a priest for all.
Here’s wishing him many more years in good health.
Damina wrote from Holy Family Parish Gidan Bako and can be reached via email@example.com