The Catholic bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Most Rev. Mathew Kukah recently addressed a press conference at The Kukah Centre, Abuja, where he spoke on some burning national issues including ethnic agitations, restructuring of the country, President Muhammadu Buhari’s medical trip to London and one- year of the 8th National Assembly among others. MAGNUS EZE was there.
THERE are too many agitations in Nigeria, why?
Let me tell you one of the reasons behind the Kukah Centre and why I feel very passionate about this initiative. You know my feeling is that this is a country like no other. There are very few countries in the world that have the incredible quality of manpower that Nigeria has. And I have remained very worried that there is very little distinction between the conversations that take place at Ojuelegba bus stop, beer parlours and palm wine parlours and conversations that take place in our universities. I am convinced about the nobility of our intellectual class and I think that we have a responsibility to talk to some of the issues that we have raised, but in a much more scientific manner. The real question which I think we need to address is; what right do citizens have to express themselves and how should they express themselves? Now, there is a little story that I like to tell, I just came off a plane, and normally, I don’t like all this turbulence in the sky, it really frightens me and I am sure it does many other people. But one day, there is a story of a little girl who was inside a plane when it went into turbulence and everybody was of course, calling on the blood of Jesus Christ. Everybody was quite frightened but the little five-year-old girl was running on the isle of the plane unconcerned. So, one woman pulled her and said, listen, you know we don’t know what is going to happen and the little girl said I have no worry because my father is the pilot.
Now I wish we can come to a point in which we can say as Nigerians, beyond all the turbulence, somebody is in charge. I do not think that the problems of the Niger Delta, the problems of the South East or the problems of Nigeria should be left to and can be resolved by the kind of people who present themselves whether as Boko Haram or those who claim to be avengers. I mean, it is a measure of the irresponsibility or let’s say, the extent to which the intellectual class has relinquished its responsibility. So, because I think the issues are huge, I don’t think the Avengers are speaking for anybody other than themselves, I do not think that IPOB is speaking for anybody other than themselves. But somebody left the windows open, their agitations are legitimate and in a democracy, people should be free to express themselves. But my response is to say, look we are running a representative democracy. If Igbo, Yoruba, Tiv, Igala persons have a problem, we have a representative. If people want to pull out of Nigeria, under the system we are running, there are processes for dealing with those issues. So that would be my response.
The second point is that we cannot speculate as to intentions and motives unless you legitimately bring somebody to court to say, why have you done xyz? You can only speculate and I don’t think we should be dwelling on speculation as to intention.
What’s your take on President Muhammadu Buhari’s health; are we back to the Umaru Yar’Adua days?
All I can say as a priest is that I have done what I can do to pray for my president and pray for people who are sick and we do that and do that all the time. But I do not think that the health of any Nigerian should be the subject of politics or speculation and it is also something I find very troubling because nobody does the things we do in Nigeria. Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and for the better part of ten years nobody had the faintest idea what was happening to Reagan until he finally died. There are presidents and heads of states elsewhere; who have been sick and they have died but no country breaks into songs and dance and ridicule. The way things happen in Nigeria and for me they are very troubling but I think the responsibility we have is to pray for our president and pray for the victims of any form of ailment because who knows, I mean we don’t know who is going to be next.
Why are you coming up with the fix Nigeria initiative?
Actually, I have written severally on this theme, I think I have been talking about fixing Nigeria for the better part of 15 or 20 years; if you google some of my articles, as I said in my public lectures because I believe that this country should be fixed. Who should do it? I do not know. I think we have depended too much on the political class. This is the only place where too many ill-equipped and ill-prepared people have stumbled and fumbled their ways into power. They are holding power but they actually have no idea of what to do with it, the result is what you see. Does it make sense that most people become governors, and all that anybody or your legacy is to wait for EFCC to come knocking? Does it make sense that people who have this wonderful opportunity to govern our country are not concerned seriously about legacy? Does it make sense that we are in a country where as I have said, too many people have found themselves in power? And if you go back from 1960 up till date, and I have something I have written that almost every Nigerian president has found himself in power purely and simply by accident. The idea behind the Kukah Centre is that there is a distinction between office and power and that yes, there are people who are holding political offices but they are not holding offices because they sat for exam and had the best results. That is not why they are president, governor or ministers. I think the responsibility of all of us who have gone to school is that we can help to support these people in different ways and that is why we made the point that there is so much cynicism between those who govern and we, the governed. The assumption for example that every public officer is just out to look after himself and out to steal money; and that anybody who is in power is necessarily unable or incapable of doing good, my belief is that we need to engender more cooperation and collaboration so that together, we can really fix this country and I draw from quite a bit of experience. I have seen democracy elsewhere, I have seen democracy in the United states, I have seen the dependence and the hemorrhage of intellectuals from Harvard for example, when a Democrat is in power, you also notice a certain kind of hemorrhage for example from Yale and other places when Republicans are in power. That is really what ought to be the case, we need to come to a point in which a good number of the governors in the South East for example, cannot turn left or right without finding a decent scholar in the University of Nigeria Nsukka. The average governor or minister in Nigeria should be able to have telephone numbers of people that have the requisite competence. That is really my interest that there are those who are better equipped and better informed, they have the intellectual power, they don’t have the office but those who have the office can rely on them and blend so that, together as I said we can try to see how best to fix Nigeria.
Is fixing Nigeria initiative a reaction to the recent call for restructuring of Nigeria along some lines?
I thought this is really a ball that has been thrown in different direction by politicians. I have never believed in a lot of this conversation about whether you call it restructuring or whatever because we are really not getting to the issue. When we talk about fixing Nigeria, it is that the vehicle is already on the road, it is probably not gathering the kind of speed we want and we are looking for those that have ideas. For me, there is a certain climate of intellectual laziness that I am impatient with in Nigeria. If you remember, in 1998, after the death of Abacha we were all in this country; we always had what Chimamanda refers to as the single story. The big word that came out of the South-west and across the country was that we needed power shift. And the media wrote copiously about power shift. We didn’t have to tell anybody; we didn’t ask anybody what was power shift. But everybody was sold to the idea and against the backdrop of a larger debate by the south east, the Igbo were the first to complain about marginalization. Then it entered the national vocabulary and everybody began to claim marginalisation. But after Abacha’s death, the solution to Nigeria’s problem became power shift. Alright, power shifted, it went to the South West, to compensate the Yoruba. Eight years of Obasanjo the Yoruba said no this is not the kind of power shift we wanted. Then people started saying well, maybe we need something slightly different. There have been all kinds of talks, they talk about rotation. Again, I was the secretary of political reform conference; that debate went on, it never really got anywhere. Then we were talking about true federalism which to me is a bit of a copout because it doesn’t say anything, and the good thing about Nigeria is that you can throw any expression, you can become popular, nobody will ever ask you to explain what you mean. Now we are talking about restructuring Nigeria and I am really unsure, my personal conviction is that I think we are the first people who require restructuring. Whether it is the point of view or just the intellectual way we see this country. Those who talk about restructuring have really not explained what they meant. And there are those who talk about true federalism as if there is real and imagined federalism anywhere. The truth of the matter is to go back to what our late papa, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa said, when at the political reform conference when we were talking about rotation and he said look, we can from now till the end of the day but all we are talking about power, it is not rotation of power, it is rotation of corruption. The truth is that we haven’t gotten our hands around why things are the way they are in Nigeria and I think if we are honest with ourselves, it is easy that we blame those who are in power but more and more of us are unwilling to take responsibility for the things that we are doing that are wrong. I think my personal conviction is that you can restructure this country but it is like trying to put back into the bottle. There is a lot wrong with the way Nigeria has been designed now but whether we can go back to where we were, the state of innocence, if I may call it that is an open question. But I know that perhaps Nigeria is the only country in Africa and other parts of the world that was colonized by the British that tampered very badly with the colonial provincial arrangement. The Indians didn’t do it; they are probably doing much better than we are. If you know Nigeria is the only country that has states across Africa. I don’t know any other country that has states and these states were created not as result of people sitting and thinking through. They were created purely as you know very well; to stop Ojukwu from leading the Igbo to rebellion and since then state creation has just been the ability of the military elite to simply distribute this country into bits and pieces. I don’t believe that the situation is hopeless, I think as we saw with the election of Buhari for example, when Nigerians see something that they can follow. Now, whether the government has been able to deliver but we can agree that there was a momentum, so I think what is wrong with this country and has remained wrong is the lack of a leadership vision that can become the goal to which our aspirations should aim. We haven’t gotten around that kind of conversation and I think this is again some of the things in a very modest way, we hope we can put out there for public debate.
Recently some Christian leaders expressed concern about attempt to make religious laws especially sharia law part of Nigeria’s constitution; what is your take?
I think it is a very sad thing that after 50 years, we are still debating some of these issues as to what the role of religion is. I think the best explanation that I can give and the best inspiration I got from this debate listening to it from 1977 was given by no other than Professor Ben Nwabueze who in just about one or two lines summarized everything there was to say. He said, Islamic law can become the source of law in the same way that many other cultural norms can become the source of law because our constitution should be an aggregate of all the cultural norms and aspirations; the good things in all our cultures. So, I think that it is too late in the day to debate the issues of the constitutionality of any other law other than one that draws inspirations from the Nigerian constitution.
Again if anybody wants the implementation of sharia law in whatever shape or form, just like the agitation of the Avengers or the IPOB, they know what to do; they should go to the National Assembly and debate their case. The reality of the situation is that, if our experience is anything to go by, in 1999, 11 or 12 northern states declared sharia, adopted sharia. You travel around the same northern states and tell me where the same sharia is operational. Nobody came with a gun or bomb to blow out sharia. I think the really what is critical is how to end this incredible and unacceptable elite deception. The law of God is written in our heart and I don’t think that anybody needs to frame any law to make me do the things that I need to do. And because we don’t have a legal system that commands the respect of all of us; in fact because of the corrupt political process, the legal process itself and the corruption of all as Nigerians, we continue to quarrel with the nature of the law.
I think Christians, Muslims, non-believers alike, should be free to canvass what they want, but they must understand that there are processes. If they want amendment to the constitution, people know what to do, but I don’t think inherently that we can stop anybody from asking for what they think is good for them.
What’s your assessment of the National Assembly in the past one year?
Frankly, I haven’t paid much attention to what is happening there. It’s a bit troubling, unfortunately because for somebody like me, the only thing we have been concerned about the National Assembly is the fate of the Senate President. It’s unfortunate and it is also a measure of how the political class has seen its duty and responsibility because I think the National Assembly is a major component of the tripod of democracy and unfortunately, beyond the Senate President being in court and beyond the anxiety about the purchase of vehicles, the real issues, the nitty-gritty of what is going on; very little of it has touched the ordinary people. I think perhaps, what is very critical is what kind of bills are in place to really impact on the lives of Nigerians. I think perhaps, with a little bit of more education, we need to be thinking a bit more clearly about what kind of power we have as ordinary citizens; because I guess from what you are saying many of us think that what is happening in the National Assembly is an initiative of the members of both chambers. But I think there hasn’t really been much input from the point of view of ordinary people.
I am sorry to say, but I wish that we had a little bit of more drama concerning the issues that can help us end poverty. There are a lot of backlogs that we inherited from the military and I have not seen the National Assembly address itself to some of those issues. And for me, those issues are definitely far more important.
Part of our problem relates to the process of recruitment to public life in Nigeria; the high mortality rate in the National Assembly does not allow all the continuity. So, every group comes, it’s not only buying new cars, but changing new houses. The Assembly has not been able to inspire and capture the attention of the ordinary Nigerian.