At Newswatch we always held a meeting, a colloquium, on the choice of a columnist for the magazine. It wasn’t a decision we took fleetingly, whimsically, because we regarded column writing as the top-of-the-line endeavour, an assignment that has to be entrusted only to those who had mastered the art of manoeuvring words, and who had the knowledge and the courage to do the job with spunk.
That is how we selected such eggheads as Niyi Osundare, Adebayo Williams, Pat Utomi and Matthew Kukah, among others. Even though we knew Kukah to be a priest we did not ask him to write a religious column. We simply wanted a column on Nigeria and its condition. Kukah accepted the offer and for more than a decade he delivered with relish a very refreshing elucidation of the Nigerian condition and the dwindling values of a country that promised so much at independence but delivered so little later.
On August 31 this year, the man who had risen from a Reverend Father to the respected Bishop of the Sokoto Catholic Diocese had reached the milestone of three score and ten and many Nigerians, friends and foes alike, have taken note. Why? Because Kukah has for many years touched, in words and deeds, the lives of people in the Catholic community, Nigerian community and the community of humanity. That is why he is the toast of today in this column.
Many Nigerians have said some kind things about him and those who have unkind things to say about him have maintained their silence or are at best murmuring some inanities beneath their breath. By and large Bishop Kukah deserves the encomiums he is getting across board. There are not many priests or pastors that can get, at 70 or above, the kind of attention that Kukah has received on his admission into the septuagenarian club.
Kukah schooled at the St Augustine Major Seminary in Jos, Plateau State where he majored in Philosophy and Theology and was ordained a priest on December 19, 1976. He got his Bachelor of Divinity degree at the Pontifical Union University in Rome in 1976, a Masters degree in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, United Kingdom. He capped his search for formal education with a Ph.D from the University of London’s School of Oriental & African Studies in 1990. From his learning trajectory it is clear that he set out to be a priest with a comprehensive knowledge of public affairs who would deliver homilies with considerable knowledge, passion and courage. And that is what he grew to become which is why he is a much respected public intellectual today. Many priests in Nigeria today concentrate their efforts on prosperity preaching, giving the false impression that if you fast and pray manna will fall from heaven and land on your laps. They are those who mislead the poor and give them the impression that prosperity can come without work, hard work. Their churches may be full but the lives of those who follow them are empty.
Kukah first got the attention of the watching public when as a reverend father he was posted as the Secretary of the Catholic Secretariat in Lagos. Before he got there that office was virtually unknown to those who had nothing to do with it. But on his arrival, Father Kukah as he then was, raised the profile of the office. He invited journalists and social activists to the place for good natured banter. From there he often issued well written press releases that received the favourable attention of the media because they were well written, the favourable attention of the media. He also granted great interviews that were full of wit and humour, which journalists deeply appreciated.
Before long the young priest had by virtue of his witty and humorous elucidation of issues, become a major talking point in the media and a regular source of good interviews. So whether it was a press release or an interview each of them had the Kukah imprimatur, a combination of good humour, stimulating wit and a decent story telling. That is how Kukah elevated the Catholic Secretariat during his tenure to a major news centre. And when he was promoted to the office of a Bishop and transferred out of Lagos many journalists were happy for him but were sad that their major source of news was closed even though they did not know who his successor would be and what skills he might bring to the table.
Kukah is not just a preacher who quotes the Bible and delivers the message of Jesus Christ only. He is a liberation theologian, who emphasises the liberation of the oppressed and shows deep concern for the poor and the inequality and injustice that are responsible for their hoi poloi status. In Latin America, liberation theology was the political praxis of such theologians as Gustaro Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Rubem Alves, and Jesse Miguez Bonimo. In South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu engaged in anti-apartheid activism for which he got a Nobel Peace Prize. After the collapse of apartheid this liberation theologian did not drop his guards. He turned his attention to the Nelson Mandela government and took a fearless stand against actions of the government that he thought were unjust. Mandela took exception to Tutu’s sometimes harsh criticisms, saying that Tutu had access to him and did not need to criticise him openly.
Kukah has been able to reconcile the sacred and the secular. He stays in the middle and uses the sacred words of the Holy Book in contextualising the problems and solutions of Nigeria and humanity. His wit, erudition and master storyteller qualities have elevated his preachings and homilies to a class act, which many people follow with abiding interest. Despite the depth and breadth of his knowledge he remains a searcher for more knowledge.
The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) in Abuja invited me as a keynote speaker at a colloquium organised by the Olusegun Obasanjo Centre for African Studies on July 16, 2019. The eggheads invited for the intellectual feast included Dan Agbese, Reuben Abati, Chris Anyanwu and Matthew Kukah, among others. The topic of the colloquium was Fake News and Hate Speech. Kukah made what I considered to be an impressive contribution at the colloquium to a subject that was not within the confines of his intellectual pursuit but he still wanted to learn more about the subject.
A few days later he phoned me, asking for a copy of my presentation. That shows him as a man who seeks to learn more when he thinks there is a gap in his knowledge of a particular subject. I obliged him.
Kukah has been very active not just in his priestly duties but also in the secular space. He was the Secretary of the National Political Conference under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government, member of the National Human Rights Investigation Commission (Oputa panel.) He was also a member of the committee for electoral reforms from 2007-2009. He chaired the Ogoni/Shell Reconciliation Committee established by Obasanjo to resolve the disagreements between the oil giant and the people of Ogoni land who felt oppressed by the oil major. The choice of Kukah for these various public assignments by several governments reflects the confidence that these governments had in his sense of fairness and justice, and the quest for peace and good governance.
In other words, the various governments saw Kukah as a priest of propriety, as someone who was a fighter for the public good. For several years he has been the Secretary of the National Peace Committee, chaired by the former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. That committee has contributed a lot to the sustenance of democracy, or what is left of it, in Nigeria.
The committee makes contestants for high political offices such as presidential and governorship candidates to sign agreements that they and their supporters will conduct themselves in a manner that will guarantee peaceful, free and fair elections. Recently, when Abubakar travelled abroad for medical attention the responsibility of getting the candidates at the Osun governorship elections to sign an agreement for peaceful conduct fell on Kukah. No candidate protested against Kukah on account of possible religious bias because most fair-minded persons generally perceive him as a fair and honest shepherd of the Nigerian flock irrespective of his religious affiliation.
However, some activists within the Buhari government do not seem to like his guts and they think that he is probably more of a politician than a priest. They have criticised him on account of his activism for good governance. But Kukah would not be discouraged as he continues unrestrained in his advocacy for a fairer, better and more egalitarian country. I give him full marks for his selfless advocacy on behalf of the poor and oppressed people of Nigeria.
At the height of the altercation between some officials of the Buhari government and Kukah he challenged them to a public debate on the performance of this government. The last time I checked which was this morning the government officials have not yet accepted the challenge. If they accept it and a debate is on the card I volunteer my service as a moderator without asking for any fee. If it happens it will water the tree of our interaction as a country of people thirsting for viable democratic governance that cares for the majority of its people.
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, priest, preacher, public intellectual and prognosticator, welcome to the respected club of statesmen. We wish you many more years of dedicated shepherding of the Nigerian flock, spiritual and secular.