Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Matthew Hassan Kukah during the week, had an interview with newsmen in Sokoto where he spoke, among other issues, on the controversy trailing his Christmas Day homily. Tribune’s OLAKUNKE MARUF was there. He brings excerpt.
How would you describe this year’s Christmas celebration?
We thank God and are very grateful to Him for this Christmas was very peaceful unlike the situation we had in the past. Of course, we know the anxiety on the second wave of coronavirus. We will continue in prayer and supplication to God for His protection. When this thing started, there was a lot of anxiety across Africa. Even Bill Gates said they didn’t know how much it would affect Africa but the prediction of many turned out to be wrong. The good news here is the assurance of God’s protection over us and over our country.
We will always try to encourage our people to observe all the necessary protocols related to the virus. We seem to have relaxed but this new call is an opportunity for us to remind ourselves about the reality of the virus.
Can you clarify your recent Christmas message?
What I said was my innocent Christmas message, which is something I do all the time, which I released on Christmas Day and it seems to have caught a lot of attention. Perhaps it is a measure of the state we are in, but I think it is important for us to focus on the freedoms that are available to us, which are freedom of speech and freedom to hold opinion.
I am sure you have followed the reactions, but whoever is ready to seek my opinion on the issue, I am always ready to share my opinion on the statement. One of the difficulties we have in Nigeria and many parts of Africa is how to manage views that are not the same as our own. This is how nations grow – fair analysis, our willingness to interact, exchange ideas, among others. The most important thing is for us to appreciate that this Christmas has come and gone peacefully, although many lives had been lost. Let me use this medium to condole with the family of one of you, Sam Nda Isaiah, the publisher of Leadership Newspaper.
Some critics have labeled your homily as an attack on President Muhammadu Buhari. What was the exact message you intended to share with Nigerians?
This is our country and we will continue to struggle to make it better. As I have said, constructive criticism is important, even in our public life. The full text of my message is available for whoever is interested to read it. My message in particular is that I feel very pained and many people have accused me of being very angry. They said they had never seen me as angry as this. I am not only angry but I am also really very sad that so many lives are being lost on a daily basis. We are not expecting miracles but it is important that human lives become meaningful to us.
It will be difficult to find any community that has been left untouched. We are going 10 years now (with terrorism) and my fear is for us to get used to death and losing people unnecessarily, or losing our country to men of the dark world.
My concern is for us to put Nigeria back on track so that we can collectively make contributions because, as I said, what has happened in the last few years is really troubling. Lots of lives have been lost and many people are unable to go home because their communities have become very dangerous to live in.
As you can see from the reactions, it is difficult to find a Nigerian that does not have an opinion on where we are. We may have disagreements about the condition but I think the responsibility of any country, even a family, is to ensure that people love one another and their communities. For that to happen, every citizen –
whether you are blind, whether you are lame, whether you are crippled, whether you are rich, whether you are poor – must always see a reflection of themselves in their country. That is why the constitution, in its wisdom, enshrined the Federal Character principle.
This Federal Character principle is just to say that the country ought to provide the mirror that everyone can look at and, more or less, see themselves. The constitution also speaks about what it calls sense of belonging where people feel that this is a country that belongs to them. For me, these are the issues.
Let me tell you the truth, I have not been able to read every comment that people have made but people who know me know that I never take offence when they disagree with me. I have said it several times, this country has been extraordinarily fair to me and you in the media can testify to it. I am grateful to God that He gives me the opportunity to express my view.
following the criticisms and reactions, what do you think of Nigerians and the country as an entity?
Frankly, anybody who knows me knows that I believe that this country is one of the greatest places on earth. We have no debate over who loves Nigeria more. I have never claimed that my views must be taken or are always right. No. We are human beings. I could be wrong, I could be right. You may agree with me. You may not agree with me. When you make your own contribution, we all can now see things slightly differently. For me, it is a marketplace of ideas. One of the troubling things in Nigeria is that when you drop something, everybody goes back to their little conclave and it is from there that they are looking at the larger issues. I am never really bothered because the country is ours to fix and we must try and fix it.
You were alleged to have said that if President Buhari was from the North, there would have been a coup. You were also accused of saying that the president was tribalistic.
It is very interesting. Somebody did a fact-check in Business Day newspaper and said it was clear that out of 103 appointments he (the president) made in the country, 81 of them were for Muslims from the North. Don’t get me wrong, this is something that everybody has talked about; it is not about loving Muslims or loving Christians, or loving Northerners or whichever. I am a Northerner and I think this is not something that is new. Anybody can check and bring out the numbers. Now, if you say you call for a coup.
It is unfair for a journalist or for any newspaper to say that I called for a military coup.
Some people have described your statement as being political in nature. How long before you join partisan politics?
I have always been in the political terrain. I don’t know how some Nigerians are so narrow-minded. I have listened to extraordinarily gifted young Nigerians who probably have never been to England before make brilliant commentaries about Chelsea, Arsenal, or football generally. Does that make them football players? Many football commentators cannot even kick a ball. Why would some people think that because Bishop Kukah is speaking, therefore, he is a politician? People who make this argument are totally ignorant of elementary politics. They are totally ignorant of the role of a priest. But I understand that many people do not see priests say the things I have said, which is okay.
A lot of people have never seen a priest play a guitar or a piano and when they see one, it surprises them. But the truth of the matter is that we are all in politics. Party politics? No. I am not a member of any political party and I cannot be. When it comes to voting, I exercise my right but that doesn’t mean that I am tied to a political party.
At the beginning of the life of this administration, people said I hated this government and the things that I said were because [former] President [Goodluck] Jonathan was my friend and someone I closely associated with and I wanted him. Interestingly, unknown to those people, Jonathan’s people had been saying all along that I was a Buhari man. Throughout the time Jonathan was president, never was I invited to the Aso Rock Villa Chapel to pray, because the people said I was Buhari man. The only time I was invited to the Villa Chapel was when I was invited by the South African Ambassador for prayers for the late Nelson Mandela. I have heard some very influential people say that Buhari was their making and I said that was wonderful.
Saying Buhari should focus more on governance and fighting corruption should not really affect governance or development. People say different things to me but I don’t care. I don’t have a problem with President Buhari. He is one of those that have my respect. I am unhappy with the way the government is being run now. I made my point very clear. I don’t have to like the president and the president does not have to like me. This is our country and it is not a friendship affair. If my brother or my father or my mother were chairman of a local government, it would not stop me from saying what I have to say about what ought to be done. So, it is a pity that ours is a place where there is a culture of praise-singing, and if you criticise, they say you don’t like the person or their governance.
ll the people that were criticising Jonathan, if they had said what needed to be said, probably things could have been different. Many of those who are criticising Buhari now probably care for him a lot more. But as for participating in politics, it is never a reason why I said what I said.
People say because Bishop Kukah has said this, he should take off his cassock and join politics. Well, if I wanted to join politics, it would have to be much higher politics, and it would have been in the time of Aminu Kano. That time has passed. If I wanted to join politics, I would have joined the PRP [People’s Redemption Party] , but the current political setup is not my game. The most important thing is that no Catholic priest is available for party politics
What is your take on religious groups’ reactions to your statement?
As I have said, my statement may have pleased some people and it may have displeased others. I saw something somewhere where people said one association from my village, in the name of a so-called pastor, was attacking me. I don’t even know the association.
A lot of people from my village in Barnawa even said they don’t know the association, let alone the pastor. If they are courageous enough, they should come out and say, ‘Bishop Kukah, you are talking nonsense, I don’t agree with you’. I want someone to be courageous enough to talk. When you hear criticism from someone, it is an avenue to sit back and think about the things they said and think about the motive. If you think my motive is not right, then fine. As I said, I really am not bothered when people disagree with my opinion. I haven’t denied you the opportunity to express your view. I really don’t worry about whoever disassociates himself from whoever opposed my opinion.
You said if you were to join politics, it would be PRP. If the party called you now, would you join them?
I don’t have any interest, and like I said, if I had to join, it would be the politics of Aminu Kano. I always say to a friend of mine that Boko Haram and all these things we are seeing in Northern Nigeria is because of the absence of Aminu Kano. It is not that he would have changed anything but it is about his kind of philosophy and principle. Ingredients of religion are missing in many of our people today, whether as Christians or Muslims. Religion has become an instrument of disintegration. Sometime when I speak, I hear people say ‘Bishop Kukah doesn’t like Muslims’; ‘Bishop Kukah doesn’t like Christians’; ‘Bishop Kukah doesn’t like Northerners’.
Well, I am an Ikulu man and I don’t like an Ikulu who behaves irresponsibly. I don’t like Christians who behave irresponsibly. So, it has nothing to do with Islam or Christianity. I just say that the way we are conducting ourselves and use religion to play politics is unacceptable.