“The uninterrupted evolution of uniform terms pleased everyone—except pastors and bishops; it was the very best substitute for religion; a safe, conservative, practical, common law diet through and through”
— Henry Adam
Most Reverend Mathew Hassan Kukah is undoubtedly a mystery; a sort of boy scout who has remained the open conscience of Nigeria’s troubled nation for more than three decades. Praise is inappropriate to pay tribute to his great personality. On the contrary, a deconstruction and questioning of his many crafts and expeditions will be more welcoming and receptive. From his days as a Roman Catholic priest, making his way in Abuja, the newly established capital of Nigeria, to his role as Secretary General and Administrative Head of Nigeria’s Catholic Secretariat, headquartered in Lagos, Kukah, both on the pulpit and secular Nigeria wanted to give a new impetus to our national conversation from an equal prism of social thought and ecclesiastical philosophy.
His speeches – often awash with Middle Belt menthol; mixed with Latin and hardened by the rough edges of Zango Kataf – evokes both his rustic life and his sophisticated life of letters. A mixed bag where local wisdom and modernity intersect. He is as captivating as he is dignified. Kukah’s understanding of the Nigerian nation, its history and the socio-political dynamics of its ‘multi-culturalism’ is legendary. And even puts him on a par with a national orator.
In addition to his oratorical skills, it is the very striking and limitless issues that Kukah brings up in our national discourse that has carved a niche for him. His interrogation of Nigeria’s fault lines, where ethnicity and religion are used as weapons for political endgames, situates Kukah as a daring shepherd unbroken by the orgy of ethno-religious politics over persecution. It is Kukah’s intrepidity and nervous enthusiasm in tackling the Nigerian profligate and destructive ruling elite that has helped elevate the Catholic bishop as a behemoth within the Nigerian discursive space.
This writer has met many bishops, cardinals; from Timothy Dolan of New York; George Stack of Cardiff, among many other Papal Nuncios, adds Kukah to the chain of intellectual Catholicism exemplified by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). Yet Kukah emerges as a global figure, combining philosophy, theology, politico-religious science, and intellectual foundation in a broader context that in many ways defines him as a pacesetter. His intellectual desire, unlike some other Nigerian intellectuals, is supported by deep and testable science and knowledge production that will remain timeless in the annals of history.
His works have, over time, since he published Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (1993) as the guideline for sound national discourse. This was followed by Religious militancy and self-affirmation: Islam and politics in Nigeria (1996); Democracy and Civil Society in Nigeria (1999); Witness to Justice: An Insider’s Account of Nigeria’s Truth Commission, The Church and the Politics of Social Responsibility (2011) down to Broken Truth: Nigeria’s Elusive Quest for National Cohesion (2022), there is an awareness to take the Nigerian crisis beyond the periphery question . A step to go beyond the surface and seek practical answers about what ails Nigeria? How can Nigeria work for all of us as an egalitarian society? Kukah seems to place a checkered and unsolved puzzle. All in all, the truth is Kukah’s armor, just like his miter and staff. James V. Schall, a Jesuit priest and scholar at Georgetown University, emphasized in his book, Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (2004), that there are no ways to avoid the truth, nor does truth stand out from theology, religion, politics, and philosophy. central to our being and a wonderful signpost.
In Broken Truth…, a prelude to his 70th birthday today, Kukah sets out to deconstruct the issue of national cohesion and the many obstacles to a nation-state. In the book, Kukah’s invocation of contemporary themes such as the construction of national identity and the enlightenment of our ‘Africanness’ is top-notch. He argued for a more mundane narrative of Nigeria’s greatness as opposed to the sordid tales of “cultural suicide.” Kukah is also relentless to historians who are used to twisting the clock of history by twisting the role of British colonialism in Nigeria and Africa’s political culture.
He is bold enough to wrestle with Prof. Ali Mazrui over the debate over the intertwining of colonialism and Christianity. The book is as historic as it is contemporary, replete with Nigeria’s launch pad to a so-called Eldorado.
Born on August 31, 1952 in Zango Kataf, Kaduna State. He was educated at St Fidelis Primary School, Zango; St Joseph Minor Seminary, Zaria and later Philosophy and Theology at St Augustine Major Seminary, Jos Plateau State. Kukah also holds a Bachelor of Divinity from Pontifical Urban University, Rome, Italy; a master’s degree in peace studies from the University of Bradford. He will later complete his education with a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Kukah has also held several scholarships and fellowship programs at Oxford University; the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, United States and other prestigious educational institutions.
Overall, Kukah is a shining light for both the nation and the Church; a moral compass and a common law deity as Henry Adam stated above. His contribution to the nation from his role as a member of the Commission on Human Rights Violations (Justice Oputa Panel), the National Political Reform Committee and National Peace Committee to his interventionist role in Ogoni land and Niger Delta to clean up the environment shows Kukah a personality that is untouchable in so many ways. As vox populi — the voice of the people — Kukah pushes Nigerians towards democracy, freedom, social justice and a united Nigeria, devoid of the vagaries of political-religious fundamentalism. Feliź Cumpleaños Vox Populi, Vox Pastoris the Great Shepherd!
- Obi, a political communication researcher, is based in Abuja