My oldest friend is Christian, wife, mother and one of the most enlightened and compassionate people I have been privileged to know. From youth, we shared a passion for reading and writing, and as we became adults, our passion for discussing all manner of issues that we thought our impressionable minds had prepared us to dissect and discuss grew. We both come from parts of the country where faith and ethnic identity are profound markers in quality of life, politics and security of all citizens. Our relationship has survived major turbulence around our often conflicting perspectives when our values and others we valued were involved in numerous conflicts.
At a stage, we shared a love for the captivating prose, the depth of intellect and even the sophistry in the writings of (the then) Father Hassan Mathew Kukah. Inevitably, we began to disagree on the values of his outings as a public intellectual burdened by a cross, (pun intended) which was how I saw him. She saw in him a voice that was both the champion of an aggrieved party in multiple disputes, as well as a bridge between the parties. Our point of convergence has been that we are unlikely to agree on most of what the Bishop of the Sokoto Diocese says.
My friend sent me the text of the Convocation Lecture delivered by Bishop Kukah last week at the 10th C.O. Ojukwu University in Anambra State. I admit, I read it with mixed feelings. I expected to see traces of the recent Bishop, lamenting the murder of a young Seminarian, kicking against attempts to gag citizens in social media, lending his voice to the rising outrage at the unspeakable indifference and incompetence of the Buhari administration and other populist causes like restructuring and banditry. I was also certain that given the context and locale of the lecture, he was likely to play to a gallery that has matured for tweaking around some of his more popular recent themes like hegemony of Northern feudalism in Nigerian politics and the maturation of Boko Haram as a weapon against Nigerian Christians.
These are, of course, my summary of the issues which the Bishop peddles around these days. He will appreciate some degree of inexactitude, being a master at calling a tree a large forest, or insisting that the head of the truth are its feet. In this lecture, which, to be fair to him, he admitted to have written under some pressure, the good Bishop did not disappoint. He delivered a bag of gross over-simplification, cliche and stereotyping that did not suggest that he is outgrowing his diminishing reputation as the mouthpiece of lost causes.
Serious students of American history will cringe at the Bishop’s glorification of two hundred years of American democracy, a process inspired by the highest human ideals but nurtured by the worst forms of abuses of humanity, from the genocide of the indigenous population, to the use of millions of African slaves to lay the foundations of the US economy, to a horrific civil war fought to give birth to a freer capitalism, to the gruesome attempts to preserve racial privileges and unparalleled inequalities and the monstrosity that sums it all up today: Trump’s success at wrecking all received wisdom about the world’s leading democracy.
The Bishop appeared to have forgotten to mention that the most unique element about American democracy is that it cannot be replicated or even poorly attempted. The Bishop attempts to paint a picture of a nation that was cobbled together out of agreements and consensus over a fair balance between what was best and what was possible. There are empty spaces here representing the views and positions of the slave/black citizen; the indigenous population; the millions of Latinos and other nationalities who form the margins of a hardened nation with no room for the weak, and a world on the receiving end of the power of a democratic nation, which must impose its worldview all over the globe in order to remain strong.
Playing to his gallery, Bishop Kukah attempted to hang the basic problematic of Nigeria’s wobbly federalism and stunted democratization process around Sardauna Ahmadu Bello’s insistence that what Nigerians needed was to understand their differences, and not, as Zik would have it, to forget their differences. This was the original sin, the point of departure when, for people like Kukah, the North pitched its tent against the progress championed by the rest of Nigeria, particularly the Igbo. This attempt to create a falsehood has been successfully challenged, at least in terms of its fundamental contribution to the nature of a federal system that could not be run successfully of the designs of only a section that arrogates to itself the role of deciding what everyone needs.
You will not hear from Kukah, of the courage and the wisdom of Sardauna’s advise that a new nation put together by force and planning on surviving as one, a nation of many ethnic groups, with at least two major competing religions, with vastly different cultures, history and aspirations, at different levels of economic and social developments, that nation needed to appreciate its complexities and design a future that addresses at least the minimum requirements for all of its segments. To forget that we are Nigerians but also stoutly Muslim and Christian, Kanuri and Kalabari, equally proud of our small size as groups or our sizes in millions, is to commit the error of the gazelle that agrees with the tiger that they are both tigers.
Bishop Kukah is now securely in place among those who believe the nation’s future lies in adopting their prescriptions over what is best.The idea that defending values that are not ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’ harms the growth and development of our democratic culture insults millions of people and creates an avoidable resistance, which breeds the very forces that challenge the foundations of our existence. It is the mirror image of the view that all national problems are traceable to an insistence that there is only one trajectory of development and growth, and its source and goal are to destroy strongly-held cultural and religious values of other people.The distance between Boko Haram ideology and some among us who believe the nation is not worth preserving because it is not designed by their wishes is closing by the day.
Bishop Kukah represents that breed of Nigerians that believe that half -truths and outright falsehood will cow the North into acquiescence and keep it out of the conversation on a future that is built on stronger foundations and values. You see this in the discredited refrain that Boko Haram represents a Muslim agenda to exterminate Christians and that ‘feudalist’ North is against restructuring the country. Unfortunately, they fail to look at their time, because if they do, they would have moved on from these tiresome fiction as the very northerners who voted for Buhari had long made their feelings known regarding his failures, and they want a new nation that appreciates its differences as well as its shared interests and values more that all other regions.
There is a future for Nigeria, one which holds the prospects for genuine rebuilding and the rediscovery of a vision of a great nation with room for every group and faith. Sadly, there is also the real danger that between the failures of the Buhari administration to secure citizens and promote their economic welfare and the prophets of doom like Kukah, the nation has little chance of survival. This will be a great tragedy, but it will come long after a bright mind in religious garb like Bishop Kukah has worn himself out with recurrent irrelevance.