In this explosive interview with The News Chronicle (TNC), Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, bares his mind on a number of issues – how his activism as a public intellectual impacts on his vocation as a priest, why his very powerful voice is rarely heard in contentious issues in his home state of Kaduna, what he thinks of priests who hawk miracles and prophecies, his assessment of Nigeria at 59 – and many more!
TNC: Greetings Bishop and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. I know how tight your schedule is, and I am sorry that we have to add to this tight schedule, despite the fact that I have always joked that you live a rather peripatetic, if not nomadic life.
You are a very well-known and respected public intellectual and Catholic priest, very much sought after and with a strong convening power. Some say you are controversial. What is your own opinion of Bishop Kukah, first as a public intellectual, and second as a priest?
BMK: I think we are very much prisoners of language. When people hear something for the first time, or something that flies in the face of what their prejudices may predispose them to believe, they call it controversial. I understand the fact that by the grace of God, I am perhaps the most visible face of the Church on the media in Nigeria. What is more, if you call me a public intellectual, I thank you for the honour but doesn’t controversy naturally go with that territory? The public has as many voices as there are people and therefore there are bound to be people who do not agree with you and (why should they if they are not convinced?) so they consider your views controversial because they fly in the face of or fail to fit the pigeonhole they have designed for you.
TNC: How do you think your activism as a public intellectual has affected your vocation as a priest – especially the popular perception of priests as people who have dedicated their lives to spiritual pursuits, and should therefore ‘live in the spirit’, insulated from the hassles and concerns of secular life? Does active engagement in secular debates not take something away from the notion that priests should be set apart?
BMK: Again, our public engagement must take something away from us, and that means the layers of assumptions that people have about our roles in society. The Irish have a saying and it goes like this: “A fish will not get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut.” Which is true, but they forget the fish could also die of hunger. Being in the sacred confines of the presbytery will be the easy part but no one would survive in that kind of life. Public engagement has been my greatest teacher. I have encountered people in their joys and sorrows, in their daily struggles to feed themselves and their families. Public engagement saves me from the naiveté of thinking that all is black and white. Where would I derive the moral authority to engage the powers that be about the conditions of the poor and the urgency of justice if I remained in the safety of my Presbyterate. You know they say, an egg cannot be an egg forever. If it does not hatch, it will go bad. It will be a disservice to my vocation if I shied away from the rough and tumble of the daily lives of our society. Indeed, Pope Francis has given us added encouragement when he said that, “Every Pastor must try to smell like his sheep”. It has risks, but the benefits far outweigh the dangers. Jesus lived in flesh, became incarnate, a man like us, bore our pains and sorrows and that is what every priest is called to be.
TNC: You are from Kaduna state and very outspoken on national issues. Surprisingly your very powerful voice is hardly heard on Kaduna issues – despite the fact that the State is often in the news for the wrong reasons. How would you respond to this?
BMK: It may be a fair comment and I have heard it. I am from Kaduna but I now live in Sokoto. It does not mean that the problems of Kaduna do not worry me, but I have decided to adopt a slightly different strategy in dealing with the problems of Kaduna State which, sadly, we have been forced to see in black and white. The Governor has not made things easy by creating this sad dichotomy. I have avoided that trap by taking a more matured and diplomatic manner that focuses on the larger picture of a more integrated society. I have also reflected on the problems in Kaduna which are merely symptomatic of the larger national problems. I am closely in touch with the local ecclesiastical authorities in trying to resolve the issues, avoiding grandstanding and taking the easy options. As the Holy Book says, “there is a time for everything”.
TNC: Not long ago, the Governor of Kaduna State, Malam El Rufai said he had abolished the indigene-settler dichotomy in the state, such that anyone who lives in the state and pays his/her taxes there should be treated as an indigene. While some praised him, some, including my humble self, criticized the move. What is your position on the Governor’s claims that he has abolished the Indigene-Settler dichotomy in the state?
BMK: On the surface, this looks plausible but I think this is a mere political gimmick. Profile those that the Governor has tried to show up as examples and see them from another perspective, see where they hail from and their religious leanings. I wish that the Governor showed more honesty in trying to build a more united State. If he had that attitude, he would not have treated the people of Southern Kaduna the way he has, he would genuinely show more respect to Christianity.
TNC: Let me ask a question that some people may consider sensitive: the question of priests who claim to perform miracles or even to hear directly from God, including on who will win or lose elections. While traditionally this is associated with Pentecostal churches, it is also becoming common among Catholic priests. Here Fr Mbaka of Adoration Ministry, Enugu comes to mind. How will you react to this? Do you really believe that God takes sides in the struggle for political power among His children?
BMK: This is religion as a tool of pecuniary transaction. What is important is the fact that there are gullible politicians who are looking for cheap prophesy and are being fed by charlatans who play God. This is not new and God does not take sides. Even the thief is a child of God. So if you assume that you can call on God to come and deal with him, he may be a thief to you, but God will tell you, he is my son. Those who conscript God to their cause, often do the same when they want to rob a bank or steal ballot boxes, they pray that they get away with their crime. So, it is absolute nonsense.
TNC: As Nigerians we seem to be people very concerned with forms, rather than substance: we all want to be seen and respected as devout religious people even when our conducts, especially outside the public glare, may be embarrassing to our creator. How would explain this apparent duality or double morality among Nigerians?
BMK: These are symptoms of a weak, inefficient and corrupt state that creates the conditions for these strange reflexes. Under a society with adequate policing and rule of law, we would not have to constantly conscript God to our assistance. The religiosity is often a blanket to cover the spiritual nakedness. In a society where things work, no one is constantly appealing to God the way we do in Nigeria. He is called upon to fill in where the government is absent.
TNC: Let me return again to the Catholic Church: with a number of recent scandals among priests – some have been exposed as paedophiles, some have sired children while still wearing their cassocks while others have embraced crass materialism – trying to serve God and Mammon – so to say. Some have recommended that priests should marry while others talk about major reforms – along the lines of the Second Vatican Council. Admittedly these problems are not peculiar to the Catholic Church. What do you think should be a way out of all these? Do you think there is a huge burden of expectations on priests and pastors which make many people apparently unforgiving of their infractions?
BMK: Yes, you raised very interesting and relevant questions but you conflate a few things together that are not exactly connected. I have heard many people come to the same conclusions that the tragedies of paedophilia and other scandals, priests being unfaithful, suggest that somehow, clerical celibacy is the cause. A significant number of priests have left and gotten married. But, like the rest of humanity, some of them have not been successful at it. Unfaithfulness in the priesthood will not be eliminated by marriage and I do not think that these crimes are the result of celibacy. I see them as real failings of unredeemed man. As you know, paedophilia and other forms of abuse of children occur far more in families. These sick human beings, irrespective of where they are, desire to be helped or punished as the case may be.
Celibacy was never really just about sex and there were times when priests were married and there are priests of other rites who are married. Their lives have not proved to be easier in the same way that Pastors are not facing less problems. The Catholic Church in its wisdom introduced celibacy as a vocation but even more importantly, as part of the higher gift of being a Catholic priest. The day anyone feels this is not their lives, no one stops you from moving on with your life. No one will arrest or prosecute you.
As for reforms, they go on all the time in the Church. But, as you know, when you carry the fears, hopes and anxieties of about one and half billion people, that is not an easy burden to carry and they are not easy expectations to fulfil. You respond to those who want Communion in the hand and those who do not want to. But, the Church as the saying goes, is ever and always new. On the contrary, I think our people show more love and concern for their priests than they are given credit for. We can only ask them to continue to pray for us as we do for them too.
TNC: Nigeria @59. How would you assess the journey so far? How would you assess the leadership style of the country’s past leaders? What would say is exactly the trouble with Nigeria? And how do you think Nigeria can be fixed?
BMK: You are asking me to write a thesis, indeed, many theses. We have not been lucky as a country right from the beginning. The motley of people who were brought together in a skewed manner as we had with the regions, programmed us to fail. Given the Muslims so much land mass and population and refusing to address the grievances of the Minorities – among other issues- have added to our confusion.
Military rule further destroyed the foundation for the development of a political culture. The result has been the indiscipline, corruption and the coup culture which pervades our politics today. It is impossible to mention one single way to address the issues. There is too much at stake, the military has dug its heels in and their ubiquitous presence in politics and economic life has made it almost impossible for a more radical approach to our politics and deprived the system of honour and capacity. However, perhaps, in a few more years, things might improve as more and more people, with relevant education and appreciation of governance, enter the system. They are too many people who have no idea why they are in politics beyond the desperate search for filthy lucre. But, with time, we hope more and more men and women with ideas will get into the system.