Kukah and the perils of preaching politics

By Philemon Bulus


Rev. Father Mathew Hassan Kukah

One of the emerging dilemmas in Nigeria’s democracy is the serious threat it regularly confronts from misguided utterances of people lacking experience and wisdom in politics or governance who exploit the unscrupulous exuberance of the media to ambush public attention.

The indiscriminate propagation of such utterances usually sparks political outrage capable of escalating simmering contentions into public disturbances. The reality of deliberate incitement of political crises by non-political actors, frequently curtailed by the swift intervention of the DSS to take the culprits to task, is looming larger on the political arena, as the 2023 elections draw closer.  

Rev. Father Mathew Hassan Kukah’s extraordinary Christmas message rattled its intended target in the Muslim North, by insinuating that no “non-Northern Muslim president” could indulge in what he described as President Buhari’s “nepotism” without provoking a military coup. It was a comment that many saw as an alarming tacit incitement of the Christian populace, delivered on a day traditionally devoted to soothing spiritual sermons promoting peace and unity. But, even in the ensuing exchange of predictable threats and rising acrimony among Christians and Muslims, the Reverend Father retorted: “Whatever I said can please or displease anyone, but that is my own opinion and doesn’t stop others from saying their own opinion. If you think my motive is wrong, say yours.” Such a defiant riposte would be typical for a politician, but from a reverend father, it sounded ungodly!

Obviously, Rev. Father Kukah is torn between his call and his calling. He unknowingly manifested this conflict when he sought to rationalise his unrepentant response to the discord he instigated with the political missile in his Xmas message by declaring ““I have no problem with Muslims, Christians or adherents of any other religion but what I do not like is when someone is using religion to play politics, it is wrong”. The reverend father cannot distinguish between preaching religion and playing politics, so he plays politics in the mistaken belief that he is preaching the gospel on Christmas Day, thereby reversing his role from healer to spoiler of human relations by inciting when he should be reconciling.

Rev. Father Kukah must nevertheless be conscious of the Biblical injunction “Give what is God’s to God and what is Caesar’s to Caesar”,  a divine  definition of the two most essential components of human society and existence, being that which is exclusively Almighty God’s and what is devolved as human responsibility. Only God, the Omnipresent, bestrides the entire universe but human beings should strive within their assigned roles and functions as depicted by reference to Caesar, the ruler of his people. Ultimately, harmony through peace and justice in adherence to God’s injunctions is the desired and designated purpose and objective of human intervention.

What a wonderful world we would have should this be understood and adopted such that religious leaders like Rev. Father Kukah would willingly restrict themselves to guidance and counseling of political leaders and citizens through persuasion to achieve good governance and peaceful co-existence. Political leaders and citizens would then be constantly conscious of Almighty God’s injunctions! Each of them would be performing within their areas of competence and discharging their respective assigned duties knowing that accountability is to God.  Democracy would thrive with little or no incitement, rivalry and do-or-die politics, yielding enduring dividends.

It is compelling to wonder how or why 69-year-old Rev. Father Mathew Hassan Kukah got enmeshed in such unfortunate conflict of interest that contradicts his 45 years priesthood credentials and career. Kukah was ordained a Catholic Priest on December 19, 1976 and attended the University of Ibadan for a diploma in Religious Studies, Pontifical Urban University, Rome in 1976  for a Bachelor of Divinity, University of Bradford, United Kingdom, in 1980 for a Master’s degree in Peace Studies and University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1990 for a PhD. During his doctoral studies he produced his first book, ‘Religion and Politics in Northern Nigeria’ and was a consultant to the Vatican for five years. 

Impressive as these theological and priesthood credentials are, it is remarkably ironic that Rev. Father Hassan Kukah did not proceed to gain fame and national recognition from the divine calling but rather focused on the politically contentious subject of his academic research, ‘Religion and Politics in Northern Nigeria’, and the “liberation” fervors simmering among his southern Kaduna people. From then on, all indications prove that the political agenda was of greater concern as he steadily wormed his way into the earthly embrace of politicians. 

His godfather was none other than President Obasanjo. Thus, Kukah became a regular insider at the Presidential Villa and bagged some prominent political appointments including member of the Justice Oputa Investigation Commission on Human Rights Violations, Secretary of the National Political Reform Conference, Chairman of the Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation and member Electoral Reform Committee. He even attended the PDP Presidential Retreat held at the International Conference, Abuja after the 2007 general elections. 

Rev. Father Kukah was chosen to preach the sermon at Stella Obasanjo’s interdenominational funeral service in Abeokuta in 2005 while he was Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Kaduna, instead of Archbishop John Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja. In the sermon he also disclosed that Stella had earlier approached him to enable her get wedded to the First Nigerian so that she can receive communion adding “it is by the grace of God that we did welcome her back into the Catholic Church just after the Political Reform Conference at a very quiet ceremony”. Kukah referred to President Obasanjo as his “friend” on several occasions. “I have come to know my friend. If you catch him in a good mood, everything will go well. But, on a bad day, it will be disaster,” he remarked.

He also counted President Goodluck Jonathan as a friend and rose to his defence especially against initial indications that President Buhari’s anti-corruption moves would not spare him. However in 2017, Kukah dismissed insinuations that he was close to former President Goodluck Jonathan for what he could get, saying “despite my friendship with Jonathan over this long period of time, we never discussed a penny, we never discussed one dollar; we never exchanged a penny, and we never exchanged a dollar.”  The Catholic bishop was also seen in a photograph alongside Sheikh Gumi, Obasanjo and then PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, when news reports said they met to reconcile the former president and vice president.

These presidential friendships questioned the independence of Kukah and the credibility of his posturing as a non-aligned priest who speaks truth to power. His numerous political statements have overshadowed his religious sermons as he advocates partisan and ethno-religious causes, which fan embers of discord rather than fostering peaceful co-existence. Curiously, the cleric established the Kukah Centre as a policy research institute that prioritizes “interfaith dialogue” and “involves actively promoting conversations among Nigeria’s faith communities”. One shudders to contemplate what the Kukah Centre’s research outcome will be.  The alarming aftershocks of his latest inciting outbursts lend credence to Reverend Agbali’s observation that Kukah “is a high-ranking church official, who has been hanging too much around the corridors of power, so much that the incense of power has also filled his lungs, maybe with nostalgia.”

Nigerians must resist all forms of incitement and adopt peaceful co-existence as the enabling environment for democracy to thrive and yield sustainable dividends. 

Philemon Bulus writes from Jos

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