There was a time when the church was very powerful… Things are different now. The church today is so often a weak, ineffective voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is comforted by the church’s often vocal approval of things as they are.
Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, (April 1963)
Two days before the Nigerian presidential election due on March 28, 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari, the two leading candidates in the running for president, met at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel in Abuja to sign an agreement and solemnly renounce violence in the vote. The witnesses to the agreement were led by Abdulsalami Abubakar, the retired army general and former head of state of Nigeria. In the background but also a witness was a cleric, Matthew Kukah. In his day job, he also worked as Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto in northwestern Nigeria.
This agreement was the work of the National Peace Committee, chaired by General Abdulsalami. His deputy was Ebitu Ukiwe, a retired naval commodore who served as second-in-command to Nigerian military ruler Ibrahim Babangida from August 1985 to October 1986. Bishop Kukah served as secretary.
Emotions were feverish and threatened to boil over. There was a credible fear around the world that the aftermath of the vote would degenerate into mass violence.
There were three good reasons for these fears. First, the announcement of the presidential election results four years earlier had been followed by an outbreak of serious violence in which 943 people were officially killed. The actual numbers were almost certainly much higher. Second, a previous peace agreement signed on 14 January 2015 between all political parties, including the parties of President Jonathan and General Buhari, and of which former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan and his Commonwealth counterpart witnessed, Emeka Anyaoku had proved rather vulnerable. Third, the Independent National Electoral Commission had postponed the presidential election from February 14 to March 28, 2015, making all parties quite nervous.
Many people were skeptical about the peace agreement. While the votes were still being counted on March 29, a columnist wrote in the nation, a newspaper published by leader General Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, called it “misconceived.” But the symbolism of President Jonathan and General Buhari embracing each other as they renounced public violence and agreed to follow the polls was not lost on the country.
The peace agreement did more than last. The Guardian newspaper described it as “the peace that was not foreseen”. As proof, the 2015 Nigerian presidential election set many records in Nigeria’s history. It remains the only one in which the opposition defeated an incumbent. It is also the only one not to have entered competitions for the electoral tribunal.
INEC may have organized the elections, but its work would have come to naught were it not for the high level and concerted effort that has gone into ensuring a soft landing for the country. At the head of that effort was Matthew Kukah. Convening the National Peace Committee was his brainchild and he was the Svengali behind the deal.
This was the culmination of a life that had marked him as an officiating minister in the marriage of theology and civics in Nigeria’s abusive relationship with its citizens.
Providence had prepared Kukah for the role. Kukah is Bakulu (Ikulu), one of the ethnic communities indigenous to the Zangon Kataf Local Government Area of South Kaduna – a part of the country that has seen a great deal of trouble, violence and killings. His family has a history of leadership and service. His younger brother, Yohanna Kukah, the Agwam Akulu II, is the supreme ruler of Ikulu. There is the palatable thought that Kukah could have ended up on the throne had he not entered seminary.
Born on August 31, 1952, young Matthew Kukah was old enough to experience the colonial segregation that ravaged the lives of the peoples of Southern Kaduna under the ominous practices of Lugard’s “indirect rule.” It made its way through St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Zaria and St. Augustine Major Seminary, Jos, where he earned his degrees in philosophy and theology, leading to his ordination as a 24-year-old priest on December 19, 1976.
At the time, there were not too many native priests from northwestern Nigeria, and Kukah could have easily been content with a quiet but influential pastoral life. Instead, he forged an intellectual and academic quest for peace studies, equipping himself with degrees from the University of Bradford in 1980, culminating in 1990 with a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A version of his PhD research appeared in 1993 under the title: Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria. He also has a graduate degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
In nearly 46 years as a priest, Matthew Kukah has successfully combined pastoral, civic and intellectual roles. Six years after becoming a priest, Dominic Ekandem, Cardinal Archbishop of Abuja, took Kukah under his wing and invited him to work as a special assistant in Abuja. After completing his Ph.D. work, Kukah returned to Nigeria where he worked first as Deputy Secretary General and then Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria. He would later return to Kaduna as the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Kaduna, from which role the Pope ordained him on September 8, 2011, as the first Nigerian Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto.
When he was appointed bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto in 2011, Kukah effectively became the administrator of the country’s second-largest territory after the president. The Diocese of Sokoto includes the states of Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, and Zamfara, including three of the four main outposts of the Caliphal system established by Dan Fodio (excluding Zazzau). Ironically, his seat is also in Sokoto, not far from the seat of the Sultanate. It is a testament to Kukah’s unusual combination of skills that on the one hand he has been able to develop friendships with the communities while at the same time increasing the confidence of his congregation.
The Pope may have appointed him to the Diocese of Sokoto, but Kukah easily forged a role as Bishop of Nigeria. He always accepted the priestly vocation as a public service in which the altar is only a platform and the land is its congregation.
Kukah arrived at this point with considerable preparation. From June 1999, he combined his role in the Catholic Secretariat with the position of Secretary of the Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations, better known as the Oputa Commission, which ended in May 2002. Three years later, in 2005, Kukah also headed the Secretariat of the President Obasanjo’s National Conference on Political Reform.
Through all these different roles, Kukah never hid his own ethical and intellectual struggle with calibrating the pitch of his voice against the inequality and injustice that ruined the lives of most of the people he came from. This struggle was routinely captured in his public interventions on various aspects of the Nigerian plight. Over the past decade, he seems to have crystallized his cadence with confidence.
No one could accuse Kukah of having an “ineffective voice with an uncertain sound.”
For his problems, Kukah arouses both deep admiration and committed attacks in equal measure. Not once was he accused of “mixing up several issues and again missing the point”. In fact, however, it is the Nigerian rulers and their boosters who have chronically missed the point and have often mixed things up.
It is easy to attack those who point this out and who try with equal perseverance to make it clear that there is nothing inevitable in the Nigerian plight.
Considering he turns 70 on August 31, 2022, it’s fair to say that Bishop Kukah has earned his place as both the nestor of this vanishing race and the voice of a nation seeking a conscience to hold it accountable. .
Prof Odinkalua lawyer and teacher, can be reached at: [email protected]