By Theophilus Abbah
In the years and seasons that I farmed and cultivated sources under torrential rains and harsh sunshine for seductive headlines that would turn the heads of newspaper adherents and squeeze few hundreds of Naira from the pockets of those who could part with money for stories, I hunted for Father Mathew Hassan Kukah, now Bishop of the Sokoto Diocese of the Catholic Church.
As authoritative as iroko tree, as credible as truth, and as deep as the bowel of the Atlantic Ocean, Bishop Kukah did not just thrill me; half a story sprinkled with few comments from him was a guarantee for copy sales that pleased editors and publishers in abundant measures. My first encounter with him was in cloudy circumstances at the Catholic Secretariat in Lagos, but all that stuck to my memory from the event was his image as a slender young priest, renowned for his political discourses than homilies from the pulpit. That was in the early part of the 2000s. Later, in the years polluted by Boko Haram terrorists, I would repeatedly seek interview opportunities with him and solicit to publish his enlightening essays on national issues. But one encounter dug a hole in my memory, a hole that is yet to be refilled by time and an overflow of knowledge, almost a decade after.
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At an opportunity to steal a headline on Boko Haram crisis from his lips, Bishop asked me an intriguing question: “What is Boko Haram?” Why would he cast such stone at me, when anyone could define the dangerous sect as merchants of death, killers of modern civilization, and a bunch of wrong-headed religious zealots?!
But it was a mere rhetorical question that he would answer thus: “Theophilus, you can’t defeat an enemy you don’t know. What is the philosophy of Boko Haram? Who are their leaders? How are they organized? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What strategies would best disarm them? What I’m saying, in essence, is that, as a country, we’re fighting an enemy within, an enemy we don’t really know. How do we defeat this enemy if we are blind to their mission and vision? In other climes, governments would commission an in-depth research that would unravel the sect, and then tackle the crisis from the point of knowledge. The way we’re going about this Boko Haram violence, it would take us over a decade to overcome it…”
Though those were not his exact words, the sentences constituted the essence of an interview Bishop Kukah granted me at Protea Hotel in Asokoro around 2010. Twelve years after, we are still groping in the dark, aimlessly throwing punches into the air, and being led into error, from one misfortune to another, as terrorism metamorphoses in colour and speed, and providing reasons why Nigerians voted out and voted in presidents. What a prophetic Catholic Bishop!
I’ve since followed the Bishop, not on Twitter or Facebook, or on any other social media platform, but in books, pages of newspapers, and online, reading his mind on historical and contemporary national issues. I could sum up my impression of him as a firm, courageous and fearless priest, who would not look across his shoulders before baring his mind, or double-speak in order to be politically-correct. For instance, as a Catholic priest from a non-Hausa and non-Fulani speaking ethnic community, Bishop Kukah unsettled political waters, stirring up mud and dirt to the surface with his well-researched book, Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria. The work, unarguably standing alone in the genre of literature on politics in northern Nigeria, is unsparing of northern political actors who have used (and still use) religion as a tool for manipulating the vulnerable people to ascend to high political offices. Not just for the writer, but also for the reader, it takes a lot of courage to assimilate the truth or expose in the book with green cover and yellow title.
However, Bishop Kukah would pass as a leading protester from minority groups in northern Nigeria, if his writings were concentrated only on the warped politics of religion in the North. Reading his intimidating work, Witness to Justice (An Insider’s Account of Nigeria’s Truth Commission), a book that provides an uncommon insight into some behind-the-scene events during the Oputa Panel, makes it clear that Bishop Kukah is as constant as day and night. In it, the Bishop elaborately reveals the team’s dissatisfaction and frustration with the Obasanjo regime’s treatment of recommendations, among them the ex-president’s rejection of payment of compensation to victims of the brutal Abacha military regime. A reader who is familiar with the habit of authors in such privileged position would expect to read multiple pages devoted to white-washing dark moments, and eulogizing the government that provided them with the rare privilege of serving (and benefiting) from such projects. But that would not be Bishop Kukah. Without mincing words, the book provides graphic details of what happened, including a clear presentation of testimonies (or revelations) about the controversial circumstances surrounding the death of Chief Moshood Abiola. Perhaps, Witness to Justice, provides a better account of the tragic drama than any other narrative written in an attempt to provide near-factual details of what really occurred behind the facade and simplistic impression that ‘Abiola died in the presence of American diplomats.’
By walking on the strait and narrow path, and charting his way with the rod of truth, the Bishop has remained relevant in every administration, even if hated for not joining the company of men-pleasers. There is hardly any government in contemporary political history who did not think Bishop Kukah has a role to play in its programmes and strategies. For instance, the National Peace Committee, led by the Bishop and former Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar, has remained a constant feature in elections in Nigeria for about a decade now, fostering peace among rival political parties and candidates. But it is not only in the political parlance that Bishop Kukah has made his mark. In the Catholic community in Nigeria, the Bishop is a pillar, such that in the biography of the late and unforgettable Cardinal Dominic Ekandem, two pages are devoted to Kukah’s supportive roles in the Cardinal’s leadership.
His lush hair, with sprinkles of gray and absence of baldness, show that Bishop Kukah looks like a middle-aged man in his 50s, not a 70-year-old man. That is not because he is idle; he is still prolific in his writings, having added a new seminal work, Broken Truths: Nigeria’s Elusive Quest for National Cohesion, released in 2022. Not materialistic, highly accessible, and always lending a helping hand to those in need, the Bishop is one of a kind, almost a lone voice in his campaign for national cohesion and political rebirth. On August 31, 2022, he clocked the enviable Septuagenarian age of 70. May God grant His Grace long life in the service of the Church and humanity at large.
Abbah is the Programme Director at the Daily Trust Foundation in Abuja
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