Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Bishop Mathew Kukah, in a recent interview has expressed his optimism that things will no doubt get better under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari but the Bishop also expressed concerns that the honeymoon between the President and Nigerians may not last very long.
According to Bishop Kukah in the interview with Vanguard, ‘corruption is the only thing that works in Nigeria.’ He also averred that unless there is a positive response from the some of the identified challenges in the country, the much sought national integration would elude us as a people.
(Excerpts from the interview)
Were you inspired by President Buhari’s inaugural speech?
Nigerian presidents are not foremost for delivering good speeches. And I think President Buhari’s speech was quite a bit an improvement on what we are familiar with. Happily, it does not have a nine-point or ten-point agenda. Beyond the speech itself, it is important to appreciate the kind of narrative that brought him to power. A speech should set a tone about what a nation is to expect.
In fairness, the speech dealt with some of those issues. What has become famous is his expression that he is a president of everyone and belongs to nobody. At least, the strength of that statement is a great ambivalence. I think for me as a Nigerian, I am pretty hopeful. But for me as a Christian, I am waiting with bated breath. I live in Northern Nigeria and I believe that 90 percent of the problems in terms of national integration will be solved by how the north responds to some of these issues.
How do you mean?
I made the point because a lot issues concerning national integration whether it is in the areas of the provisions of the constitution, are not clearly defined. And for me as a Christian I believe that living in Northern Nigeria, I still don’t get the sense that freedom of worship, expression that are guaranteed in the Constitution are sufficiently protected and taken care of.
But I am very hopeful and I am impressed that President Buhari is the first Nigerian President to show impression that he is prepared to wrestle with that problem. And you don’t find that in his inaugural speech, rather you will find it in the speech he delivered to the Catholic Bishops Conference. He said things that had never been said before. And I hope that he will have the ability and capacity to deal with some of those issues.
The issues demand salient questions. For example, why is it that churches are treated with so much contempt and tolerated like nuisance in Northern Nigeria? Why is it they have become subject of attacks? Why is it that despite the provisions of the constitution, the right of worship is being frustrated in the North? I don’t think that there is a single governor in far Northern Nigeria that can proudly say that he has signed a certificate of occupancy allocating land to Christians to build churches? Most of the lands that Christians have are lands that were given by the colonial administrations. This is totally unacceptable. And Christians have to buy land to build churches.
For example as I am talking to you, I am waiting for a phone call in respect of the land we want to buy at Tsafe for the building of a church because our church was burnt down. This is not the first time, it was burnt down in 2011. We are relocating the church to another site for safety reasons. What I got from government for the burnt church cannot build a church. Right now, if I want to negotiate to buy a land, I cannot wear my suntan (pastoral regalia) because I will be told that I cannot buy the land. And I cannot live in a country like this. This is totally unacceptable.
We buy land and build a church with little resources, but when a woman has an abortion in that locality, the first thing Muslim youths will do is to go and burn a church even if it is sited five kilometres away from the scene of the abortion.
There is no single governor in northern Nigeria except former Governor Makarfi of Kaduna, who commiserated with Christians when churches were burnt down.
For the first time in the history of our nation, President Buhari in his address to the Catholic bishops said very clearly that religion is not the business of government because most of the mosques in the north are built by government. I have heard a governor who boasted that his administration built mosques more than any one before him. And the money was meant for the development.
Unless we find a platform of resolving those things, whatever Buhari may have said in his speech will not make sense. I don’t expect him to solve the problems in three or five years but we can at least put machinery in motion with enough honesty and sincerity.
Buhari cannot solve the problems of Nigeria, but he can point at the direction. I commend him and I am hopeful that we can begin to tackle those problems. That is why I said that unless Northern Nigeria sufficiently positions itself, we may not solve some of the problems.
What should be the priority of the administration?
It irritates me when such questions are asked. Why asking me what I think should be the priorities? If you are asking such question, you are asking for a 180 million answers. Buhari was not appointed, he was elected. If he was appointed, there could be element of surprise. What I am saying is that Buhari begged, cajoled and mobilised for our votes based certain clear principles that he articulated.
The man has given me a manifesto. My business is to study the manifesto as a means of judging whether Buhari is faithful to his promises. If you ask me now, I will tell you that Buhari’s priority should be to visit Sokoto. Let him come and have dinner with me and I will tell him the things I need him to do. But that is not the issue. Based on the commitment he made to us, it is not fair to ask Nigerians what they expect from this government because those issues have been articulated.
What do you make of this perception that Buhari is a Northern irredentist?
If the allegations against Buhari had enough bullets, he would have been shot down and his political ambition would have been killed. People were able to move beyond those claims and voted for him. As far as I am concerned we need to resolve the issue of religion. I am convinced that as things stand now, I don’t see anybody in the horizon that has the capacity to deal with the issue of religion as it is manifested in Northern Nigeria than Buhari. He is best placed. He has got the moral reflex. From the point of view of his body language, track record and what all of us know he is the only person that I see that the ordinary Muslim in Nigeria can trust. I am not making an angel out of him but that is the fact.
Also, the modesty of his personal life in the last number of years shows that Buhari has the moral reflex to address the question of religion in Northern Nigeria. From his speech, we found that his love for this country has never been in doubt. He admitted the mistakes of the past and having that honesty is important.
With all the noise being made that he is a religious fanatic, not one day was Buhari sited in a mosque. I am not sure he went to the mosque like Nicodemus at midnight. Muslims don’t pray at midnight but it is a measure of how he saw his new role that he never went to address northern traditional rulers or group of people.
We need to give him all the support that he requires to achieve all the things that many of us are very passionate about. We will never make any progress in this country as long as we continue to deny our common citizenship. I am seeing the prospects that things will be different in the next four years.
Watching Osinbajo seating with sheiks in the mosque was an indication that things will be different with time. That was against the notion then that if anything is happening in the mosque a Muslim political leader will represent the Federal Government while the Christian goes to the church. That is totally outrageous and opposed to citizenship. Again, there is no reason why the next ambassador to Saudi Arabia should not be a Christian and there is no reason why the next ambassador to the Vatican should not be a Muslim or anybody for that matter.
There is nothing to suggest that any Nigerian cannot be anywhere without religious consideration. If we don’t send that signal, the rest of the world will continue to treat us like a divided nation. Any ambassador being posted to Washington today is not a small person and the ambassador of South Africa to Washington is a Muslim. The percentage of Muslims in South Africa is not significant but they wanted the best man for the job.
So, are Nigerians to demand more accountability from elected officials?
Accountability just like everything is not something that is given. It is not something that is on offer even between friends and families. It is something that you need to demand but not in a judgemental way. But it is something that you need to demand. That is why those who are good are crunching the numbers because when you hear about stolen billions, many of us cannot connect with the numbers. My late friend, Dr. Bala Usman used to tell me never to ignore these figures whenever I see them in the budget.
Is it true you asked President Buhari to forget about chasing the so called thieves and focus on governance, since corruption is so endemic in the country?
The text of my convocation lecture at Abakaliki did not contain such report. What does going after thieves in Nigeria mean? Between 1999 and 2007 how many governors passed the anti-corruption test? How many did we see on the EFCC list? How many convictions have been secured? So, if Nigerians want theatre and drama that is fine. But we are thinking about bread on the table. I am sure the lawyers in Nigeria will be very happy if Buhari says he is going after the criminals.
We can appreciate the fact that the success of these elections is not something that the lawyers like to celebrate especially the most senior of them. If Nigerians want him to prosecute the thieves, that is fine but Nigerians did not elect the President to prosecute thieves.
There are different ways of doing that. We elected a President not to look for scapegoats. We elected the President to get a job done and I am convinced that if Buhari wants to prosecute thieves he will do it because as the President there is no kind of information that he cannot access. Prosecution of corrupt people does not necessarily have to be done through theatre and drama. Obasanjo did it quite efficiently. He got back a lot of money without shouting. There were a few theatricals, but Obasanjo himself did say to my hearing that there were people who returned money even through pastors. So what is the use of wasting money trying to prosecute somebody? Doing that quietly without noise will be better because the business of governance will go on.
The institutions responsible for prosecution should be made to do that effectively. All I am saying is that getting information about the transactions of corrupt people is easy. It does not have to be Buhari who will be championing it. The institutions are there. There are various arms of government that can point a moral gun at these people.
This is the only country where you can go to the Senate from the EFCC and become a minister even while having a case with the EFCC. We are on a moral free fall. It is such that after some have been on the television their people will come out to say that their children are being witch-hunted.
I am not against prosecution, what I am saying is that the business of governance should not be abandoned. I said it during Oputa Panel (hearing) that the unfortunate thing about prosecution in Nigeria is that the criminals have the money to get the lawyers. Since these things can be resolved institutionally, why going on a wild goose chase? Nigerians don’t even have to know who the criminals are. Obasanjo, who has a very retentive memory, can tell Nigerians the people who brought back money without making noise. He only told them to go and sin no more.
Only a foolish man will appreciate that going after the biggest thieves in Nigeria, is the biggest solution to our problems.
God has his way of getting things work. Given the enormity of the issues we are dealing with, creating distraction should not be encouraged because once that route is taken, there would be distraction. All I am saying is that Buhari has come to do a job and I think he was moderate about his expectations about corruption. We should understand that corruption is pretty well equipped in Nigeria. I am not saying that it should not be tackled, but if it must be done it is important to have the wisdom of David and Goliath. Corruption is everywhere in this country, it is in the judiciary, police, the church and everywhere. Indeed, it is the only thing that works.
The question we will ask ourselves is how other nations tackled corruption and I think we can actually come to a point where unearned wealth becomes unfashionable. These corrupt people are sick. There is nowhere in the world that people do the kind of things they do in Nigeria. It does not make sense that after stealing from your mother and father, the money will be taken outside the country. The morality of the stealing is another thing.
A lot of people who do all these don’t know anything about modernity. What is responsible for our crisis in Nigeria is the crisis of development. I hear some of these governors saying that they cannot develop in an environment of insecurity whereas it is their criminal activities that brought about insecurity. It is their inability to govern that brought insecurity. That is why I consider dictatorship a far worst crime than colonialism. If Buhari is lucky it will take him six months before they start abusing him because he has to earn trust. I know the honeymoon is not going to last. But he should be supported to do the job.