Depending on where you stand on the active controversies of the day, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, 65, is either a passionate public intellectual animated and driven by his love for his fatherland and how to make her take her rightful position in the comity of nations or he is a political gadfly and peripatetic scholar who probably would have been more ‘troublesome’ if not for the restraints imposed on him by his cassocks.
By his own admission, he is intellectually restless. If you have ever engaged him in a political conversation, lasting for some twenty minutes or more, this intellectual restlessness seeps through. In a space of twenty minutes, he would have moved away from the original topic to other themes, often making wisecracks as he criss-crosses several topics, quoting relevant passages and anecdotes he has read from books, newspaper articles and internet postings on the themes and enjoying several bouts of guffaws and hearty laughter in the process. Sometimes he is able to reconnect effortlessly to the original theme of conversation, at other times you need to wait patiently for the opportunity to politely bring him back to the original topic of the discussion.
Kukah, Catholic priest and Bishop of Sokoto, aside his priestly vocation, seems to channel his intellectual ‘nomadism’ into many interventions in political, social and religious discourses through his books, numerous opinion pieces in newspapers and as a highly-sought after public speaker. Now his restless intellect seems to be angling towards a sort of resting place or ‘home address’ in the Kukah Centre, which was set up a few years ago with offices in Abuja and Kaduna.
Originally meant to be called Centre for Faith and Public Policy, it was observed to Bishop Kukah that as a Catholic priest, there was a big risk that the chosen name could be misconstrued as a Centre for the propagation of the Catholic faith. It was also pointed out to him that since quite a number of literate Nigerians know him and what he stands for – despite his intellectual restlessness- that it would be a smart branding to name the Centre after him as the founder. Following from these logics, what was to be the Centre for Faith and Public Policy became The Kukah Centre.
Though the Centre has organised many roundtables and carried out some projects in the past, on February 15 2018, it organized an ‘inaugural lecture’ on ‘How to Make Democracy Work for Africa’ at the Yar’adua Conference Centre, Abuja.
The keynote speech was given by the Ghanaian President Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo while the Vice President Professor Yemi Osinbajo was the Special Guest of honour. The occasion, which was chaired by former Head of State General Yakubu Gowon, attracted several dignitaries including Senate President Bukola Saraki (who sent a representative), the Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara, some state governors and high-ranking traditional rulers. Though the event took place on a working day, the 450-capacity auditorium hall at the Yaradua Centre was full to capacity. Bishop Kukah has always been a man with immense convening power.
In his paper, on why democracy is not developing as it should in Africa, Professor Osinbajo blamed the elites for manipulating identity politics. As he put it, the “elite, it appears prefer the status quo which sets the lowest possible bar for political advancement that is identity politics; where do you come from? Or to which religion do you belong? ”
“And it is through that paradigm that most issues are analysed. So the real issues that concern our people are often diminished – good governance, jobs for a growing population of young people, poverty alleviation, peace and security, etc.
“Those are never properly analysed, or even allowed to take their prominence in public debates especially in debates leading to elections,”
The Vice President also identified the failure of the nation-building processes in Africa. For him, there is an urgent need for the deliberate “forging of a national identity and purpose, built around agreed values and principles” to engender commitment to national goals and sustain peace and security across the continent. He contends that a country’s capacity for state-building will ultimately depend on the capacity to which such a government is able to deliver on the rule of law, order, good governance and social goods.
Drawing from the Nigerian experience, Prof Osinbajo argued that the perception of the citizens on the efficiency and fairness of the justice system is often affected by the slow pace of trials and the manipulation of the systems by those who can afford superior legal representation. He argued that for democracy to really take root in Africa, there may be a need to rigorously challenge the whole talk about ‘African exceptionalism’ often used by anti-democratic forces to justify their opposition to liberal democracy. For him, the values espoused by liberal democracy should be seen as having universal applicability.
In his keynote speech, the Ghanaian President Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo used different words and phrases to reiterate several of the points made by Professor Osinbajo. He underlined the point that though Africa has come a long way in this current wave of democracy in the continent, it should not be taken for granted that everybody has accepted democracy as the preferred mode of governance. Talking about Ghana, he said: “It has taken us this long for a consensus to emerge in Ghana that the democratic form of governance is preferable, and that rapid growth of the private sector in an open market is the better route to prosperity of our nation”
He noted that though Africa’s democracy is still relatively young, “there is far more self-confidence among Africans today than there has been since the very early days of self-government. Freedom and the principles of democratic accountability are strengthening the determination of Africans to build a new Africa, that is neither pawn nor victim of the world order.”
President Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo called on African Union (AU) member countries to demonstrate a commitment to “strengthening and protecting the institutions and culture of democratic governance; respecting human rights, religious freedom, the empowerment of women, and the rights of the individual and minorities; building strong market economies and facilitating the free movements of people, knowledge, goods and services across member states.”
He proffered advice to his fellow African leaders: “I hesitate to prescribe policy initiatives for other countries, but, on the matter of education, I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending that all African countries adopt the policy of free compulsory education from kindergarten to senior high school. This is one of the most important things we have to do, if we are to make the transformation from our current state of poverty to prosperity.”
He is optimistic not just about the prospects of democracy in Africa but also about the ability of the continent to share in making the 21st century an African century. As he put it: “If we work at it, if we stop being beggars, govern ourselves intelligently and honestly in freedom, and spend Africa’s monies inside the continent, Africa would not need to ask for respect from anyone. We would get the respect we deserve.”
The very encouraging thing about the presentations by both Vice President Osinbajo and the Ghanaian president is that they are still in positions to walk the talk. As someone once said, philosophers have already interpreted the world, the point is how to change it. Identifying the problems of Africa or any African country is often not the problem. The point is often implementing the lofty ideas we often find in brilliant papers such as those presented by both the Ghanaian President and our own Vice President as well as other speakers at the Inaugural Lecture by The Kukah Centre.
In addition to the very brilliant ideas presented at the Kukah Centre, I feel there is also a need to highlight two additional important factors in any discussion about democratic consolidation in Africa:
One is that the current challenges faced by liberal democracy in several African countries are not totally abnormal in countries transiting from authoritarian systems (sometimes called ‘democratizing societies’). This is because the freedoms guaranteed by liberal democracy (especially freedom of speech) allow several bottled up feelings under authoritarian rule by several groups to be ventilated almost simultaneously. This is why it is argued that in democratizing societie the structures of conflict will often be aggravated in the short to medium terms. Even in mature democracies, it is not abnormal, for the democratic space to temporally contract or suffer reversal. Essentially a democratic space can contract or expand depending on the episodic balance of forces between democratic and anti-democratic elements.
Two, is the need to encourage a culture of peaceful change of government. Studies have shown that a major reason for the phenomenon of sit-tightism by African leaders is uncertainty of how they will be treated without power. Ghana has had three sitting governments defeated in relatively peaceful elections in its current 25 years journey with liberal democracy. Nigeria has had only one sitting President defeated. There is certainly a need to correct some of the mistakes made at the initial stage of the Buhari government which may in future be an unintended disincentive for Presidents who lose elections to concede defeat.