Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese who turns 70 tomorrow, August 31, deserves celebration for his service to the church, community, nation, and humanity; and for his achievements as a true citizen who has used his priestly circumstances, boundless energy and prodigious intellect to promote the causes of justice and the common good. He stands shoulders above many of his contemporaries in his many engagements in the last four decades. He has been a priest for close to 50 years, but his range of influence goes beyond the pulpit to include scholarship, public intellectualism, civil society advocacy and the courage to provide leadership, even in the most difficult situations. He is easily one of the best-known faces of the Catholic faith and priesthood in Nigeria. He remains an admirable advertisement of the virtues of Catholicism and the Church.
I am not a Catholic but I admire the Catholic Church, owing largely to my interaction over the years with Catholic priests like Bishop Kukah. I like the fact that the Catholic Church in Nigeria invests heavily in the training and education of its priests. It is mostly in the Catholic Church that you would find such exemplary priests who are usually educated to the highest levels possible. Many Catholic priests parade Ph.Ds as if it is a minimum qualification, and in most cases Catholic priests display other skills, with language, research, public engagements, and an unusual hunger for knowledge. Over time, the Anglican Church has also shown a similar commitment to the education of its priests, but the Catholic Church remains far ahead. In a country where many pastors and priests are at best spellbinders, hypnotists and clownish motivational speakers, and petty merchants with very little knowledge of the Holy Book, it is ever so refreshing to attend a Church or listen to a priest who speaks from an abundance of insight and talent. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah belongs in this category. In the late 1980s, the ’90s and till date, he has been a shining star of the Catholic Church of Nigeria, who through his example inspires the younger generation, within the priesthood and the general Nigerian community.
I first met him on the pages of newspapers through his writings. In those days, the opinion pages of newspapers were dominated by persons of high intellect, most of whom dissected issues of the day, in beautiful prose, and with great erudition. Fr. Matthew Kukah, as he then was, was one of the most prolific, churning out essays, week after week. Those were the days of intimidating columnists sand contributors on the op-ed pages: to have your essay published on the same page with a Matthew Kukah, Pat Utomi, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Chinweizu, Sonala Olumhense, Odia Ofeimun, Olatunji Dare, Edwin Madunagu, Biodun Jeyifo, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Pini Jason, Andy Akporugo, Stanley Macebuh, Fred Onyeoziri, Emevwo Biakolo, Amma Ogan, Sully Abu, Effiong Essien, Ashikiwe Adione-Egom…was like winning a jackpot. Many of us framed the pages, and looked up to the big names. The times are different today. Our newspapers have stopped serving culture and society and the reader as spaces for great intellection, the tradition of old has been replaced by “opinionitis”, a very dangerous disease which pushes just about anyone to think they can inflict bad prose and thoughts on a vanishing breed of readers anyway. Matthew Kukah’s contributions to public discourse was frequent, and often well-received. He was not afraid of debates or intellectual pugilism. In those days, one subject on the pages of a newspaper could result in months of rigorous debate, from a multi-disciplinary perspective, by persons who respected each other’s intellect but nevertheless had the capacity to weave words into prose and good sense. This was the tradition that we grew into, from university to the field. Kukah was a major source of inspiration and a good sport. Many of his opinion pieces and extended essays remain timeless.
Bishop Kukah’s stature began to flower, even more so in his position at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria: he was first a Deputy Secretary General, then he became the Secretary-General of the Catholic Secretariat, located in Lagos, directly opposite Tafawa Balewa Square or Race Course as it was originally known. Under his watch as leader of that Secretariat, it became an important intellectual rendezvous for civil society groups and public intellectuals in the entire Southern Nigeria. Kukah built a very strong relationship with the media, promoting, most actively, both the Catholic Church, and the activities of the Catholic Bishops Conference, focusing on issues of justice, peace and development. When Nigeria descended into chaos in 1993, with the annulment of the June 12 1993 Presidential election, church and society rose against the impunity of the military establishment, and called for an end to military rule and respect for the people’s sovereignty. The majority spoke with one voice that military absolutism had defeated the purpose of good governance and that it was time for the Nigerian military to go. The Catholic Church spoke truth to power on the pulpit and on the streets. Leaders of other churches – the Anglican, the Methodist and Pentecostal Churches also joined the protest. The. Catholic Secretariat in Lagos served the Catholics as an intellectual power house. Kukah had able lieutenants: Fr. George Ehusani, his then Deputy who would later succeed him as Secretary-General. There were others too: Rev. John Uba Ofei and Rev. Fr. Iheanyi Enwerem.
On a regular basis, the Secretariat issued press releases and also organized seminars and conferences on various topics of interest with stakeholders brought together to chart the way forward for Nigeria. I was a familiar participant at those Sunday evening sessions. Many of us became so close to the Catholic priests, we began to also talk about liberation theology. Nigerians had been so badly treated many priests felt it was their obligation and ecclesiastical duty to help free the people from the shackles of of oppression. Even when there was no seminar, the doors of the Catholic Secretariat were always open. I later developed the habit of stopping by whenever I was in that part of the city. On a good evening, there was always sumptuous dinner. And the fridge was always full. Beer, wine…And there was Fr. George often twanging away on his guitar, trying out a new song, or reading a poem. He would later succeed Kukah as Secretary General and indeed that period – the Kukah-Ehusani – could be remembered as the golden years of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. Kukah left behind a legacy that raised the profile of the Secretariat and the Church.
Beyond his public intellectualism and duties as a priest, Bishop Kukah has also been very active within the general community as an agent of peace and promoter of good governance and the common good. He is a compulsive bridge-builder, with friends in virtually every corner, and so well established is he among the political and private sector elite of Nigeria that many of his critics try to take pot-shots at him that he would still need to make up his mind whether he wants to be a priest or a politician. In recent years, through his major project, the Kukah Centre, he has been working in Nigeria’s post-military dispensation to promote the cause of peace, good governance, and stability. The Centre in collaboration with General Abdusalami Abubakar, Nigeria’s last military ruler up until 1999 to date, has jointly promoted a National Peace Committee, which gets politicians before elections to sign peace accords and give undertakings that they would embrace peace, as well as promoting peace in Nigerian communities. Kukah was a member of the National Human Rights Investigation Commission, Nigeria’s equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also known as the Oputa Panel 1999 – 2001, Secretary of the National Political Reform Conference under the Obasanjo administration in 2005, Chairman of the Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation Committee since 2005, and member of the committee for electoral reform, 2007 – 2009.
In addition to this, Bishop Kukah is a strong advocate for inter-religious harmony, using every opportunity to promote tolerance and peace. For his efforts, he has been appointed to the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue at the Vatican and as Chairman of the Commission on Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria. He has also enjoyed a level of visibility and influence that many priests can only dream about. He has probably given as many homilies at events organized by other churches as he has done on Catholic occasions. Political leaders seek his counsel. The intellectual class and the commentariat respect him as one of their own. The establishment at state and national levels seek his attention and counsel because they know that he can be trusted to say the truth without fear or favour. He is not a prosperity or attention-seeking priest. He and others like him including those that I mentioned earlier are cut from a different cloth. Priests of his type present a different model from that other Catholic priest: Fr. Ejike Mbaka of the Adoration Ministries in Enugu. It is a measure of the diversity of the Catholic Church that it is even possible to mention an Ejike in a tribute to Bishop Matthew Kukah. As it were, virtually every Nigerian government has learnt to respect Bishop Matthew Kukah. The only exception has been the Buhari administration whose agents and spokespersons recently developed a passion for harassing the priest. He has challenged them to an open debate. They have not been able to take on that challenge. Meanwhile, Kukah has remained unrelenting in his chosen task of speaking truth to power and exposing chicanery, hypocrisy and the stupidity of hegemons no matter how dandified.
It is not surprising that Kukah is a much sought-after public lecturer. He has given lectures on virtually every important platform in Nigeria, from convocation ceremonies to funerals to anniversaries. He stands out as a consistent man of intellect, with a transparent public spirit. He likes to tell stories: his usual style is to tell a story, catch the attention of his audience with some humour, of course except he is discussing such grim subjects as the killing of his kith and kin in Zango-Kataf in Southern Kaduna or members of his diocese in Sokoto state, or any form of religious persecution, or the failings of the power elite, having learnt the art of choosing his topics with purpose. To mark his 70th birthday, Bishop Kukah is announcing his plans to build a befitting edifice for the Kukah Centre, one of Africa’s leading policy think-tanks. He and the Centre deserve every possible support on a sustainable basis. The Centre would be a major legacy offering from a priest who is on way easily to becoming a legend. Ahead of tomorrow’s event, he recently released a book titled Broken Truths: Nigeria’s Elusive Quest for National Cohesion. Author of many articles in academic journals, Kukah remains conscious of his training and exposure as an academic: diploma, University of Ibadan, B.A., Pontifical Urban University, Rome. M.A., Peace Studies, University of Bradford, (1980), Ph.D, Political Science, University of London (1990), Edward Mason Fellow, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; Rhodes Fellow, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, Honorary Fellow, Nigeria Academy of Letters. The harvest from his fecund mind has been rich and impressive including some of the most authoritative books on aspects of Nigerian history such as: Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993) – perhaps his most seminal work, Religious Militancy and Self-Assertion: Islam and Politics in Nigeria (1997); Democracy and Civil Society in Nigeria (2001); Witness to Justice: An Insider’s Account of Nigeria’s Truth Commission (2011), and Broken Truths (2022).
At 70, Bishop Kukah can reminisce with a strong measure of contentment that he has been able to impact many lives, using his chosen vocation of priesthood to make a difference in the lives of those to whose spiritual health he ministers and the larger community of men and women who have drawn inspiration from his wealth of knowledge, humility and accomplishments. As a person, Bishop Kukah is friendly, kind-hearted and always ready with a listening ear. Nobody has given him any national honour. He probably does not need it. Nigeria’s security agencies have stalked and questioned him. He has been abused and threatened for his no-holds-barred homilies. He has been labelled a religious bigot. He is, however, not afraid of authority figures because of his own commitments to a higher cause and his understanding of the dynamics of power. Those who use power and position to oppress the harmless, do so only for a while until they are reminded of the ephemerality of their advantages. Whatever may have been his travails, Kukah’s critics lay the blame at the doorstep of the ambivalence of his insider-outsider relationship with power and politics. But it can be said of Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah that he has lived a life entirely of service and that is the best kind of life. He deserves to be celebrated. What we will be celebrating is not material things and the celebrant is not likely to be decked out in flowing babariga or agbada, the accent would be on service, innovation, ideas, goodness, justice, peace and humanism. I join others in wishing Bishop Kukah many happy returns of the day. He is one of the few redemptive figures in a community of pastors and priests where sometimes it is difficult to truly know what has happened to Christian leadership in our land. To Bishop Kukah: 70 Hearty Cheers!
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.