Yearning for One Nation Bound in Freedom, Peace and Unity
GUEST COLUMNIST BY Matthew Hassan Kukah
Today, most Nigerians have become cynical about conferences, seminars, committees, commissions and so on, because it is generally perceived that these initiatives are largely a distraction from the main problems of our dear country. There are two classes of respondents to these events. The first are those who believe that governments do not have the political will to follow through with recommendations no matter how laudable they are because often, they present inconvenient truths that are not politically rewarding at the time. Then there are those who believe that these initiatives are empty of content and government often simply wants to be seen doing something or that they want to score political points.
I can speak rather authoritatively on this because I have served in about five Presidential initiatives and one initiative undertaken by the Northern governors nearly 10 years ago since our return to Democracy. In 2015 or 16, the Northern governors then created the impression that they wanted to deal with the problems of Boko Haram. In each of these cases, members of the committee work, hand in a report which is received in Government Houses amidst a rainbow of klieg lights and media bash. They shake hands, thank and smile with the members and everyone goes home to await the fire next time. We can say the same thing about our endless national and international conferences, conversations, seminars about dialogue and peace. The rituals continue and there is a sense in which we can say Nigeria is a country governed by conferences and seminars.
Despite my seeming cynicism, I remain optimistic that these diagnostic initiatives are very important. For example, a good number of the issues being discussed in INEC today were debated and discussed at the Political Reform Conference in which I had the honour of being the Secretary and the Justice Uwais Committee on Electoral Reforms set up by the late President Yar’adua who had the sense of decency and honesty to admit that the elections that he won were flawed and he decided to do something about them by setting up the Committee.
It was significant that your son, Professor Attahiru Jega was a member of that committee and he turned up as the Chairman of INEC. He laid a good foundation which our brother Professor Mahmud is working on today. So, we should not give up. At some point, serious minded people can and will dig up these reports and make use of them. For now, my hope is that even within the shortest time available to us that His Excellency can do something no matter how small so that others can build on it for the future.
You have chosen the theme of Diversity, a theme that I am very interested in because without it, we have no future as a country. Our inability to manage our diversity has accounted for the tragedy that we find ourselves in today as a country. Rather than facing some terrible choices that the political class has made in managing our differences, we have ended up with the wrong diagnosis. These wrong diagnoses have led us to the popularization of ill-conceived ideas to which we now ascribe our differences and problems. For example, it is common to hear Nigerians say that Religion has become a problem for our country. We follow through with this falsehood by suggesting that the problems of Nigeria centre around an inherent conflict between Christians and Muslims.
At the elite levels, we also say that there are problems between northerners and southerners. At another level, we hear that there are problems between minorities and majorities. At another level, we say that ethnicity is what is killing our nation and so on. In my view, these ideas may be popular but they are more a symptom than a disease as I will illustrate. You are welcome to disagree with me and that is fine because it will expand my own knowledge. Indeed, it is the lack of debate around these issues that has compounded our problems as I will show.
First, if we say that there are problems between Christians and Muslim, what exactly are the problems and how are we going to resolve them? Will these problems be resolved by Christians converting to Islam or vice versa? I once received a gift of a rather provocative book from a friend of mine titled, A World Without Islam. I recall my friend calling me on the phone with a lot of excitement and saying, I have just read a book which I know you will like and so I bought a copy for you. I was quite intrigued about the contents of the book and wondered who could be crazy to write a book like this.
However, the book, based on good scholarship simply concluded that if Islam or Muslims vanished from the world, there will still be no peace because communities or nations will simply go back to the wars they were fighting before Islam emerged. We can come to the same conclusion with a book titled, A World Without Christianity! And by the way, my friend who gave me this book is a northern Muslim!
I am arguing that we must find other reasons to explain the deep hatred in our society today and I want to argue that it is tied to other sources not what has become popular today. The Kano civil war of 1984 was fought because the Caliph of Sokoto, not the Pope installed a new Emir. When Ife fought Modakeke over the years, how many Fulanis or Ijaws fought with either side? When the people of Umuleri and Aguleri in Anambra fought and killed themselves, how many Hausas or Kanuris were there?
The people of Somalia have only one single ethnic group and they speak one language, but who wants to go and live in Somali today? We must therefore find other reasons for conflict in our society. We must look elsewhere if we are really and truly looking for how to build a good society and how to live in peace with one another. So, our hatred and violence against one another does not have much to do with Religion, Ethnicity or even region. It has to do with how politicians handle identities, how they manage the concepts of fairness and justice.
So, you might ask, what is the source of our conflicts in Nigeria? I do not have the answers but I wish to refer to a theory in the Sociology of violence advanced by an American scholar called, the theory of relative deprivation by a man called, Ted Gurr. In his view, first of all, deprivation is relative, that is, our perception of what we do not have is often relative to our situation or conditions. Some communities might be feeling deprived because they do not have roads, others because they have no water, no jobs, or they have no schools or that they have no representation at the highest levels of government.
Where there is a threshold of deprivation, people might react violently if they feel that the reason why they do not have is because others have. Thus, Christians have been upset by the Buhari administration because of the skewed nature of his appointments and how these appointments are perceived to have favoured Northern Muslims. The President and his team say, but other Christian leaders have done the same. You may not agree, but that is not the issue. The issue is what the aggrieved persons feel at a critical point. The point is that when people feel that others are better than them, they get jealous and may resort to violence to resolve their discontentment.
The challenge therefore is not that people are angry or are tempted to violence, but the reasons are, who left the door of justice open for injustice to enter? Why, when and how did injustice creep in? Today, northern Nigerians romanticize the past by evoking the spirit of the Sardauna of Sokoto and we all create the impression that we all was well. Mention is made of how people like Audu Buba, Sunday Awoniyi, Jolly Tanko Yusuf and others were incorporated into power. The past was not perfect but at that time, people felt a sense of belonging. Today, with the creation of states which balkanized the north, how do people feel? We cannot answer these questions if we do not create the space to answer one another.
I grew up watching how our grandmother dealt with us. If a child stumbled and fell on the ground and started crying, our grandmother will ask what happened. May be the child fell down through his or her carelessness. She will clean your tears while asking, what happened? If the child cannot speak, he or she could point to the ground suggesting that it is the ground that made him or her fall. The child will do this by pointing at the ground. Grandmother will use her hand to hit the ground saying Shege, why did you make my Hassan fall? The victim will feel relieved and we will all return to the field of play.
Your Excellency, I want to thank you for giving me a platform to raise some issues today, those issues that as a Christian and a northerner, I feel have made me fall to the ground. I will like you not to judge or dismiss what I am saying. I am not a young man and I am also a Christian leader and an elder statesman. I believe that there is an urgent need for us to talk, and talk in a way that gets us results in the short, medium and long terms for a prosperous Nigeria. You may not resolve the issues now, but at least as a prominent politician, I will want you to accept that without talking and listening to one another, things will get progressively worse for our region and country. Here, I will list only five Questions and hope that through them we can begin to plan for a more harmonious future in our country and get beyond the politics of religion, region, social class and ethnicity. If we can address these issues, I can assure you, Nigeria will be on its way to achieving national cohesion. We can add to the list from both sides so that over time, generations will do their bit and pass on to the other generation.
The first point I want us to look at is our common citizenship. Today, Nigerians speak of themselves as Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Southerners not as citizens. This is very unfortunate because it only feeds into and creates deeper fault lines that separate us. A study undertaken by a good friend of mine, the late Professor Rauf Al-Mustapha who taught here in Bayero University observed clear perceived grievances and feeling of being outsiders in Kano by certain groups based on ethnicity or denomination despite being Muslim. Such groups include women, youth, southerners and groups like Shiites and sub groups that are treated as outsiders within Islam. How do we close the gap and focus not on our religious faithfulness to God and our common citizenship? We are living in one country, held together by a Constitution which most people are not happy with but it is what we have. Despite its imperfections, our Constitution has enough provisions to ensure national cohesion.
Second, Christians in Northern Nigeria are under severe stress and this has been so from the beginning. It is often not easy for those who are in power and have privileges to understand how the perceived victims feel. Christians do not feel a sense of belonging despite their enormous contribution in the areas of Business, Education and so on. Whether this is true or false is not the issue, it is that this is how they feel. Beyond Kano, Christians feel merely tolerated and their freedoms compromised. Perhaps you can say this language is strong or, as my critics sometimes say, Bishop Kukah you are being divisive.
My job is to say how I feel not how you think I should feel. Often, those in the minorities in given situations of injustice, whether they are Women or Youth, Christians or Muslims outside their comfort zones are often accused of being ungrateful and that they do not appreciate the generosity of their hosts. But, we are in one country, given out to us by Lord Lugard and today, no one should be treated as a stranger anywhere nor should anyone claim to be host to anyone. It is the duty of government to make the laws that guarantee that we all obey such laws.
For example, how do we explain the fact that Churches are seen but not accepted as part of our heritage in our cities? Why is burning of Churches tolerated? Why and how can a citizen taken the life of another on the grounds of religion and nothing happens? How is it that across the northern states, you can find land to build a Restaurant, a Hotel, a Cinema House and so on with no problem, but there is no land to build a Church? Governments in the North for example, often say that Christians should seek written permission from those around where they want to build a Church.
How and what is it about Christianity that makes so many ordinary Muslims in northern Nigeria uncomfortable? What makes some Christians uncomfortable about Islam? We all claim to be descendants of Abraham which mean we have a common parentage. So why are we being denied our legitimate inheritance? Muslims make the same claims but the solution is not an exchange of excuses, but a determination to build harmony. The answer is to create an opportunity to hear out one another in forums such as these. The rights to practice our faiths should be adequately protected. Christians feel quite insulted when, as we have here in Kano, Land allocation forms that say that the land cannot be used for a Church or a brothel! This is not only an insult, but humiliating to Christians. We should openly show these wounds so they can be washed and treated.
I hear Muslims say that in his days, the Prophet allowed Christians to pray in his mosque or that Muslims found refuge with a kind king in Abyssinia. I also hear quotations from the Koran to the effect that there is no compulsion in religion or that if God had wanted us to worship him in one way only, he would have made us one. So, who are those standing in the way of God today by denying other people their rights on the basis of religions? We are not asking you to give us your mosques, but by God, give us land to build our Churches, rebuild them when they are burnt and do not merely say that the criminals are merely miscreants.
These miscreants are not spirits, they have parents and they have addresses even if they are on the streets. Our Governors should lead by example and do the right thing. When you stand with the victim, you point at a higher ideal about the future and you shame the extremist. Wherever a place of worship is desecrated, anywhere and any religion, we human beings are diminished and God is not pleased by this no matter where and when it happens.
Third, Governors should take some courageous steps towards integration. When President Bush appointed Colin Powell as Chief of Defense Staff in a racially charged environment like America, he sent out a signal. When his son followed the same line and appointed Codoleeza Rice as Secretary of State, he was making a point. White racists were unhappy, but these prepared for the coming of President Barrack Obama as the first black President. Today, Joe Biden has appointed many Nigerians who were born or grew up in America to key positions and no one has raised a voice against the decision though many racists are not happy, but the President has demonstrated courage and vision of what kind of society he wants to build.
Today, the UK has a Prime Minister that is the son of immigrants and there are Africans and Nigerians now in Parliament and holding key positions in the UK. We must aspire to these ideals if we are to compete in a global world. Governors should make certain appointments and create opportunities that point in the direction of genuine integration. At a time when Christians were denied access to the media here in Kano, things changed when General Abacha appointed a Catholic as Governor. So, my appeal goes beyond Kano to all the Governors. Do radical things that comfort the afflicted even if they afflict the comfortable! There will be discomfort but the future will be better.
Fourth, Secularism, that very serious threat to Religion is rearing its head rather aggressively. We will not solve the problems by putting people in prison. On the contrary, imprisonment merely toughens people and serves as a rallying point for others with grievances. We Christians and Muslims must therefore step forward not to merely erect walls of protection for our individual faiths, but by dialogue, find ways of working together for the common good of all. What we see as the rejection of religion is not the rejection of faith.
It is rather a lifting of the veil imposed by dogma at a time when citizens want freedom to think, to dream and to be what they want to be. The duty of the state is to ensure that space is created and that our views and actions do not hurt other people in the course of our freedom. Jails are not the solution unless due process is followed. I therefore appeal to the Governor to see all citizens of the state as his wards to be helped and guided by moral suasion, nurture and love.
The people of Kano stand alone as the only state that did not take over schools after the civil war and I commend your predecessors. Without St. Louis and St. Thomas today, the story of the Male and Female elites of Kano would be different. Therefore, I speak as a Priest when I say, please stand with the Church and let us see how we can give our children a future in Education. I call for the creation of Chaplaincies for Christian and Muslim children in all our Educational institutions depending on the circumstances. In most of the Universities in the northern States, Vice Chancellors have not allowed the construction of Churches despite the provisions for these by the competent authorities at the highest level of government.
We need the moral voices of Chaplains in our Universities so as to reverse the ugly trend of youth involvement with drugs, cultism and other forms of fanaticism which pose a serious threat to the moral fibre of our society. Imagine if we had Chaplains in our Universities, Christians and Muslims as we see in the Military working with Brigadier General Buba Marwa in his challenging assignment in the National Drug and Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA.
Finally, Your Excellency, I appeal to you and your colleagues to help our nation embrace and deepen Democracy. Freedom is one of the key ingredients of Democracy and it is more valuable to citizens than what we call dividends of Democracy. Overhead bridges are good, roads, electricity and so on are good, but we did not need Democracy to build them. Indeed, history tells us that these infrastructures were better developed under tyranny and dictatorships whether in Malaysia, Singagore, South Africa or Germany. So, I appeal to you to please help appreciate freedom because it is fundamental to justice. Freedom is not synonymous with irresponsibility, disobedience to law.
Freedom comes with responsibility. In a Democracy, literally everything is the result of negotiation, consensus, persuasion, debate, argument and so on. Bans do not develop a society as many parts of the world have realized. When you ban drugs, alcohol, films, speech, you drive people underground because the human spirit will always find other ways. The demand for these things will go underground and you would have handed a new economy to the underground mafia.
So, let us debate the issues, let us debate our future, let us debate how we can build a great nation together. It is better to educate people about the harm of alcohol, drugs and other social ills than outright bans. Parents, Teachers, Religious Leaders we should all join hands in raising a society that knows honour and duty. I call on our politicians to develop the required skills for managing diversity because its mismanagement is killing our country. We will never be good Muslims or Christians if we do not embrace, respect and honour one another and our faiths. I call on our politicians to make politics more honourable by treating us all as free citizens in a free country under God.
The frustrations and anger over a Muslim-Muslim ticket is based on the insecurity and fear that our people feel. Muslims would feel the same if it were a Christian-Christian ticket. Our women have a right to quarrel with a Male-Male ticket. In all, only a justice system, visible to all can save our country. Justice is like rain, even if you are blind, you can feel it. Similarly, we do not need to be Christians or Muslims to feel justice. We want to feel it because we are in our dear country given to us by God.
This paper was presented by Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah at the conference on Harnessing Nigeria’s Religious Diversity for Sustainable Peace and National Development, held in Kano on December 1, 2022.