No Christmas message in Nigeria in living memory generated quite as much reaction as that of the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Mathew Hassan Kukah, issued on Christmas Day, last year. While some people and some groups hailed it as telling truth to power, other persons and groups condemned it as politically partisan, communally divisive and a call for a coup against the sitting President.
The reactions fairly neatly mirrored the country’s worst fault lines, North versus South and Muslim versus Christian. That itself was a tragedy, beginning with the poor choice of occasion. The Pope and Christian leaders at all levels always issue messages at Christmas that radiate hope, compassion and inclusiveness. On that account alone Bishop Kukah’s message was not a success before it stoked controversy, anger and in-fighting instead of love and unity.
The main gist of the message was meant to project the prevailing feelings of insecurity and socio-economic despair felt by many Nigerians as the year 2020 ended. A majority of citizens probably feel that the Buhari Administration has not done nearly enough to tackle the problems, especially insecurity. Yet, the truth is said by different callings using different language. Leaders of the political opposition, labour unionists, civil society activists and newspaper columnists are not expected to spare punches when they comment on the current situation. Clerics however are expected to tell the truth using the greatest store of wisdom, to radiate hope and to encourage the search for solutions.
Bishop Kukah’s message did none of that. He may not have exaggerated the situation, but he certainly used the most flowery and graphic detail to emphasise it. No wonder that many people thought he spoke like a politician and not a cleric. Besides, it was successfully pointed out that under previous administrations, he chose his words much more carefully under similar conditions and he pleaded for patience and understanding where he now emphasized despair.
The Bishop’s Christmas message laid heavy emphasis on the regionally lopsided nature of President Buhari’s appointments, especially in the security sector. It is true that this has caused ill feelings among Southerners and Christians in Nigeria and has not at all helped the cause of national unity. The president should be encouraged to change his ways. It was however very wrong of Kukah to rope in all northerners and all Nigerian Muslims into an alleged hegemonic agenda. Even worse, he gloated about the raging insecurity and socio-economic dilemma in the North and said the Buhari Administration’s alleged nepotism caused it. This gloating was totally unbecoming of a senior cleric. He is at least as guilty as the administration he accused of poisoning inter-communal relations in this country.
The worst part of Kukah’s message was the allegation that if a non-Northern Muslim ruler had done what Buhari did in the manner of lopsided appointments, it could have precipitated a military coup. This allegation is not true in Nigerian history, where some of the bloodiest coups were staged against Northern Muslim rulers. The very mention of a coup at this time led to charges that Bishop Kukah was calling for one. He strenuously denied it but the accusation against him is justified because there is such a thing as self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the whole, we urge Bishop Mathew Kukah to in future chose his words more carefully as befits a senior cleric. There are many other groups and individuals in Nigeria that could describe the national situation and the Buhari administration’s conduct in the goriest of terms, if they like. By the time clerics become confused with politicians and activists in terms of message and occasion, then their words will gradually lose the weight that Nigerians now accord to them.