The Bishop of Catholic Church, Sokoto Diocese, Matthew Kukah, who is also a member of the National Peace Committee, in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA, talks about the 2019 elections and governance in the country.
Nigerians may not forget in a hurry the roles the National Peace Committee played after the 2015 elections, especially the presidential election. Can we assume that the committee would continually be a part of our electoral process, even if it is only to ensure peaceful transition?
All Nigerians are anxious for our politics to get better. Sadly, the political prostitution of this ‘joining this party today’, ‘defecting to that party tomorrow’ makes the terrain slippery and the development of a political culture of decency and decorum difficult. There will always be a need for referees and so, yes, the roles might change but I think that generally, given the way politics is played in Africa, there is a need for an uncle and an aunty to be a source of encouragement for the people. African politicians need some level of moral restraint such as offered by the National Peace Committee.
The initiative by the committee that presidential candidates should sign a peace agreement generated a lot of interest few weeks ago, but some are saying it is high time the committee was backed by law so as to make such a deal binding on all contestants, especially with the fears that the elections might not be peaceful?
Well, you are right and at this stage, let us go with what we have. All great things started small. I am hopeful that we can carefully think out the best strategy to make the NPC work more effectively. However, we can fall victim to bureaucratisation because the credibility of the NPC lies in the quality of the people engaged and their independence. We are open to ideas but we need to be careful that the politicians do not take control of the NPC because people trust it.
For years, you have always engaged in intellectual discourse on the prosperity of Nigeria and why the nation must get it right. But despite the years you and some others have put into this, not much seems to have changed. If the situation persists, will you at some point get tired of talking about the country’s issues?
No, I am a priest and my faith is a guide. Faith is the foundation on which life is built. I am deeply appreciative and thankful to Nigerians for their inspiration. The level of appreciation I have received and continued to receive from people on the streets, in public spaces and so on, is inspiring and it is part of my oxygen. Nigeria is changing and it may not be changing at the speed we want, but I am convinced that we will get there. Yes and no. Yes, I worry that we could and should have gathered speed, but no, I am not discouraged because I see hope in the faces of people I encounter. This country is ours to build and we shall build it. All we need is to get the little chance to lay our own little blocks as opposed to looking up to the big people in power, many of who have really missed the road and are an embarrassment to public office.
The United States has expressed fears that there might be violence in the forthcoming elections. Do you think that is something to worry about, especially as the Independent National Electoral Commission said recently that the 2018 primaries were the most acrimonious in recent history?
The United States is containing their own ‘wahala’ (problem) so leave them and let us mind our business. I think it is great that they and other nations are interested in our affairs but their predictions will not determine our elections. Often, these nations are running with the hound and hunting with the hunter at the same time. So, no one is God and we must focus on getting the job done. Let them cope with Trumpism (the policies advocated by President Donald Trump).
Looking at such predictions from foreign bodies and how the foreign media, like The Economist, try to predict outcomes or favour one candidate over another, do you think we allow too much foreign interference in our elections?
I do not make prophecy. I take one day at a time and as I always say, we do not know who will be here on Election Day. People make predictions and people have come to live with predictions. Politics is a game and everything can be betted on so do not worry about predictions. The Economist has no vote; it is Nigerians that have the votes.
Vote-buying is another evil that is now manifesting in our elections. In your view, how did we get here? Can we strictly put the blame on poverty?
Vote-buying is a logical product of our system. Can you point at one single politician who is not the subject of negotiation – one who bought or sold favours – from the least to the top most? We are used to this culture of using one specialised vocabulary for the poor and another for powerful people. For example, we say the rich misappropriate and the poor steal. The poor are engaged in vote-buying/selling and how much are we talking about – N2,000 to N5,000? These heavy contracts that are being negotiated, the tons of dollars that are used at conventions and primaries, why do you not call that vote-buying? What you call vote-buying, as terrible as it is, is the fruit of the tree planted and watered by our politics. Every level of the competition is engaged in vote transaction, at all levels or parties.
Despite the stern warning issued by INEC in the run-up to the Osun election, the menace only got worse as the politicians went digital; making funds transfer to voters’ accounts. What is the way out of this menace?
It is only technology that will change our behaviour. Do traffic lights not change behaviour on the roads? We will be on this road until we respond to these issues by using technology and science, not moral suasion and exhortation.
You once said that religion is supposed to be a means of refining the society. Does it mean that religion is partly or wholly to blame for the issues we have in different parts of the country?
I do not know why you assume that religion stands alone. Who do you blame when a man uses a knife to cause injury to another person and praise a man who uses a knife to peel an orange? Do you praise or blame the knife or the person in whose hands it is? I have said it before; religion is so important that every Nigerian politician must pretend that they are religious and you see it every day and everywhere.
Ideally, religious leaders are supposed to offer moral compass, especially as political leaders also attend various religious houses. Is it that the Nigerian situation is irredeemable or we have never had leaders that are humane?
You can have a compass and still miss your way if you are distracted and do not focus on the direction offered by the compass. A road sign showing you how to get from Lagos to Ibadan, Oyo State will not take you to Ibadan by itself. You have to start walking if you wish to walk, or get on your bicycle or car if you wish to go to Ibadan. So, do not blame the moral compass, blame those who ignore the compass.
Many prefer clerics like you to stay away from political discourse. But given your contribution over the years, how do you cope when people abuse you for some of your actions and statements?
I can tell you that well over 95 per cent of those who disagreed with me have always turned round in the end. I am not always correct and people should not always agree with me, but I think before I express my opinion. There are many who, to use your word, abused me (though I will not put it that way), during the military regime, when they were in government and now, they are full of praises. I am used to that because I know that when people think that you have something to say, they want you on their side and if you are not on their side, they assume you must be on the other side. I have always been on one side; that is the side of Nigeria. My friends and enemies cross boundaries, parties and ethnicities.
For example, you were present at the reconciliation meeting between former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar. What did you think about the backlash from some people who felt that your presence subtly meant endorsement of Atiku?
No, not at all. Every action and inaction will always be subject to misinterpretation. So, it is all in the game.
There were protests in France some weeks ago over tax increase and other issues of governance, and in response, the government announced tax relief and increased the minimum wage. In our case here, people only complain on the social media. Would you say Nigerians are docile?
Well, it seems that the only time anyone is on the streets is when labour wants more pay. I feel saddened that we have not been able to appreciate the relationship between the streets and our democracy. Again, sadly, we are all hostages to the fact that no one wants to lose face with the government of the day. There are no causes for which we are ready to fight or die.
Given the level of poverty in the North and the seemingly lukewarm attitude of leaders from that region to address it, what is the solution as such neglect has continued to fuel social vices with such children being ready tools for terrorism?
Well, my people in the North believe that it is government that will do everything. Perhaps people are still hostages to the notion that there is no distinction between religion and state. The northern elite remain totally untouched by the seriousness of the problems – lack of education, health and social services for people have become Nigeria’s problems. It is significant to note that in 1999, our nation was held hostage to the declaration of Sharia in Zamfara State. Where are all the Muslim leaders who, in 1999 proclaimed Sharia in all the core Muslim states? Did you hear any single Muslim call for caution? At least, I can speak for Kaduna State, where Governor Mohammed Makarfi stood out as the only governor who said, no, we cannot do it this way and he shielded his state from the excesses. That is what you call leadership. The poor whom they deceived about the prospects of Sharia are now in Boko Haram. Zamfara is now an inferno of violence. It is supposed to be the model Islamic state. This is a telling lesson to us northerners and the rest of Nigeria on the danger of playing with the fire of religion. See where we are now. Does anyone have the honesty to answer the questions?
The way the government is handling the Shiites is also another issue of concern, as some even see it as a potential security issue. Do you see merit in the argument by some people that government might be brewing another crisis?
It is very interesting how this matter is being handled. Again, I have always wondered what would have happened if what happened in Zaria had been under a Christian President, governor or Chief of Army Staff. Sadly, but luckily for us, the government of the day would have been accused of a conspiracy to wipe out Islam by the Muslims of Nigeria. Now, please recall that the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria have been at the forefront of calling for the release of Ibrahim El-Zakzaky (leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria) as a legal and human rights issue. I believe that the Shiite problem is not so much a problem of the government as a problem that calls for Islam to internally interrogate itself and examine how it wishes to manage identity, religious freedom and modernity. Boko Haram and the Shiites are strands within Islam and yes, government can wage a war against them, in the end, only the Muslims have to think out clearly how to rescue and reign in these adherents. They have destroyed the values and nobility of the religion because most ordinary people cannot make the academic distinctions between the religion and the purveyors of violence, especially if the leaders seem to hope that all will just pass away or rely on the state.
The vice-presidential debate that held recently was of interest to many. With what you saw at that debate, did you see a ray of hope for Nigeria after the 2019 elections?
I had already said in an interview that I was looking forward to listening to both the Vice President (Prof Yemi Osinbajo) and Mr Peter Obi and I believe that we were not disappointed. They signposted the future, the possibility of a more analytical and intelligent elevation of candidates for the Presidency and the challenge of whether they understand where the world is going and how our problems might be resolved.
You said some time ago that the office of the President of Nigeria is the most powerful in the world and that it is also the most irresponsible (as reported). And few weeks ago, the House of Representatives started deliberations on the possibility of adopting parliamentary system of government. Would you say that is a step in the right direction?
What I said was that the office was powerful and open to abuse because of the severely limited checks and balances and the enormous powers available to the Nigerian President. The point I was making was not in reference to any President but the fact that if things remained the way they were, this office could be used irresponsibly and I believe you know it has been. Else, how could you hear of these humongous sums of stolen monies?
The refusal of the President to sign the Electoral Bill has been generating reactions. What is your stand on that issue and would you say there is more to our elections than the issue of the Electoral Bill?
Frankly, I do not know enough to make a useful comment. In the end, the man at the top has a great influence on how we conduct our politics and here, in all fairness, even President Muhammadu Buhari has admitted that President Jonathan was exemplary. I hope that the President can rein in some of his overambitious supporters, some of whom have tied their personal ambitions and future to him, and this is where the danger is. Often, greedy people do horrible things in the name of the man at the top.
The Federal Government has said it will continue to make reference to what it termed “16 years of misrule” by the PDP–led administrations. Do you see merit in that position as people also argue that we can’t deal with the present without analysing the past?
This is what Fela Kuti would call ‘Shakara.’ How many of those in power today in the All Progressives Congress were in power in these 16 years under the same PDP?
You once made reference to your encounter with the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, whom you said demonstrated the readiness to learn from others. Would you say leaders in Nigeria are needlessly arrogant, such that they can’t bend to learn from others?
Every leader has people they listen to. In the end, they take full responsibility. My worry is that very often, leaders who feel insecure find comfort in the bosom of a few people who seize the initiative and become their ears and eyes, seeing imaginary enemies and making them inherit them. Again, in Nigeria, this insecurity of leaders has meant that rather than reading a good book, they are busy with illiterate and dubious prophets who serenade them with songs composed by the devil in disguise. They never know until it is too late and they are too ashamed to acknowledge it.
Some people would say that instead of observing from a distance, being a part of the process could help. If not for your priestly calling and duties, would you have considered public office, even if it’s an appointment?
I have heard this over and over but I just laugh. I am immensely grateful to the Catholic Church because it gave me education. I thank my country because it has given me a home. You may not believe me, but please trust me when I say I am an average student. I believe that were I not a priest, most people would have ignored my writings and comments. I believe that people respect what I say and are generous to me because I am a priest. It is not something I earned, it is God’s gratuitousness. It will be dishonest of me to trade this gift for something as ephemeral as secular power. In any case, will Senator Kukah have refused to take N13m pocket money? Will Governor Kukah have refused to allocate security votes? Will President Kukah leave the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation alone? Will I govern from the sacristy? This work I am doing is hard and I am only trying, let me keep trying. For if I am unfaithful in this one, I cannot be faithful in the other. So, I will vote, but no, I cannot be voted for. Never.
There are people who believe that prayers answer all things and that if religious leaders had come together in their respective faiths, to combat the insurgency and the other national challenges with prayers, the problems would have been solved. Is that true or is it a misplaced belief?
It is only in Nigeria that we believe that prayers answer all things. God hears us but often His answers are not our answers. We have been praying our way into becoming one of the most corrupt societies in the world. That should worry you, my dear brother.
The continuous detention of Leah Sharibu and the remaining Chibok girls are still issues of concern. Is there nothing the Christian community can do about this?
The Christian community does not have an army or a security outfit of its own. She is a citizen of Nigeria, not some imaginary kingdom. I can only place on record my gratitude to The Nation Newspaper, which made her Person of the Year. It is not an honour to be taken lightly. Her future is in God’s hands and who knows, maybe God is preparing her for a greater life. She is a Christian and we Christians should understand this. God is preparing her for a central role in the world.
Culled from Punch