Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah needs no introduction. This foremost public intellectual, Catholic priest and the bishop of Sokoto Diocese, is a well known figure in Nigeria’s public life. He has a reputation for saying the truth as he sees it, without pulling his punches, without seeking to please the powers that be. And he is not afraid to tell it from the other side, off the beaten track.
In this interview, Fr Kukah, as he is fondly known, is at his best, dissecting every aspect of Nigeria’s socio-political life. He speaks on his friendship with former President Goodluck Jonathan, President Buhari’s administration, the fight against corruption, the 2015 general election, the Shiite problem, hypocrisy of northern leaders, June , southern Kaduna crisis and a lot more. It’s loaded to the hilt; don’t miss out!
You earned the love and respect of many Nigerians for your stance against military rule in Nigeria. But that was risky. Why did you take the risk?
Such statements humble me. But then life is a risk. Living in Nigeria is a risk. And I think that from where I stand, and given my convictions and background as a priest, we live by convictions. Sometimes the convictions may seem to be very strong. I think the responsibility we owe the society is to look ahead and not necessarily at the events of the moment.
Did they come after you, or perhaps put pressure on the church to caution you?
Why would the church caution me? I think it is important to understand that the church can only caution me on matters of theological heresy. But on the social question, my convictions and those of the Pope don’t have to be the same. On the issues of theology, yes. But to answer your question, I never for one moment heard any priest, seminarian, nun or any Nigerian who said that they felt upset by what I was saying. To answer your question directly as regards if I were cautioned, the only incident that I remember, and unfortunately both them are late now, is the leader of the Bishops’ Conference then, Archbishop Obinna Obiefuna, and the late General Abacha. He told me that when they went to see the late General Abacha, one of the things General Abacha said was that he felt I should be cautioned because his hands were tied and I was making his government uncomfortable. But the way Obiefuna told me the story then, he said they felt what I was doing was all right. But that sounded a bit strange to me because on the day the Pope left Nigeria, all the bishops lined up to greet the Pope and General Abacha (I will never forget that meeting) shook me with both hands, telling his orderly that he must arrange for us to see later. Do you think a political leader like that will hate you and appear to be warm to you in public? It was nothing personal. I’ll give you another example of what Chief Ernest Shonekan said to us in a closed-door meeting. He said when he was the head of (interim national) government that Olisa Agbakoba was supposed to travel abroad and an overzealous SSS officer confiscated his passport; they wouldn’t let him travel.
He ordered that they release his passport and that they should also release Beko (Ransome Kuti) who was being detained. But he said a few days later he read in the papers that Beko was still in detention and that Olisa’s passport had not been released! He now called the head of the security agency and said, ‘I gave you this instruction; why has it not been carried out?’ The head of the SSS then said, ‘Sir, you didn’t put it in writing!’
What inspired the establishment of the Hassan Kukah Centre?
I think it’s my experience with Nigeria, my experience as a priest. I have been very privileged by the Catholic Church that brought me up to have served and seen government at very close quarters. In that process, I have seen the possibilities in Nigeria. I spent ten years in Catholic Secretariat, four as deputy secretary general and six as secretary general; service in which I also saw the church at very close quarters and now I am a bishop. I felt that I understood a little bit the strength and weakness of the church. I also felt that studying Nigeria, I have an opportunity – practically being an actor – I felt that we didn’t need to have the mutual hostility and suspicion that exist between church and state. I come from northern Nigeria, I don’t think there is any Emir in the north that would not pick my phone. And I felt that each and every one of these people I have the privilege of meeting really wants to do the best for Nigeria. The idea of creating the Kukah Centre is to see how we could begin to build confidence in institutions and in one another, and we can reduce the suspicion between the government and those governed. The idea behind this platform is largely to see if I can help to improve the quality of conversation among Nigerians.
Do you think politicians are making your job more difficult?
I don’t have a job. The more I look at this country, I’m more hopeful than many are. I’m a Christian and a priest. If I knew less of Nigeria, the length and breadth of this country and the sheer capacity of this country, I would not be saying what I’m saying. I’m mightily convinced because I have travelled the length and breadth of this country.
In his recent autobiography, Tony Anenih accused MKO Abiola of betraying the party by going behind to negotiate for Abacha to overthrow the Interim Government. Do you share this view?
I’m not a politician; I wasn’t in the SDP. What I can say is that if you read my book, Witness To Justice, because I had access to some of the communication between Abiola and members of the military elite, I was astounded that despite his situation, he still had this incredible hope in the people who were his tormentors. Again, it is the measure of the graciousness of the man – Abiola – but he is dead. I’m not in the position that Anenih and others were, but I’m sure it’s out there in the public domain – the circumstances, the key actors that compelled Abiola to do what he did and how everything ended tragically.
What options did Abiola really have after he complained that his friend, General Babangida, didn’t want to hand over to him?
I don’t know. I think one of the saddest things is that Nigerians are very calculating and opportunistic. The people who ought to be talking are not talking. Some of the key actors in the whole story are professors and public officers who have refused to talk. Political discourse in a country is enriched when we have this exchange of ideas. Tragically, I think too many Nigerian public officers have too many skeletons in their cupboards that they would rather not open them. I don’t think we have done justice to Chief Abiola’s legacy.
Silence is injustice to Nigeria’s history?
I think it is injustice on the part of those whom Nigeria has spent so much money in training. It’s injustice to scholarship, and to why the universities exist, an injustice to why people play the roles they play in public life.
What would you describe as the three most important lessons of June 12?
I have not paid attention to it in that way; but, one, no serious politician should ever trust the military, that they are capable of mid-wifing democracy. Two, there is a dearth of the sense of conviction in Nigeria. We are not people of our convictions. If we were, we would have stayed on the streets. That was what later happened in Burkina Faso twenty years later. Third, we don’t have political elite that believe in anything. We just have carpetbaggers who could do business with anybody in the name of politics.
Major Al Mustapha recently gave a completely contrary view of Abacha loot: he said the former military head of state was keeping the money in his personal accounts abroad because he wanted it out of the reach of Western sanctions. Do you agree?
I don’t have to agree. I have read that story, but first of all, where are the monies that have been gotten out of the grip of western sanctions?
So, you don’t think it’s true?
I really don’t know. Why will I take Al-Mustapha’s word for it? It has to be his words against someone else’s words before we can come to the truth.
You worked closely with former head of state Abdulsalami Abubakar on the peace committee. Some think he’s weak. How would you describe his leadership style?
He is a man I have great respect for. His weakness is actually his strength. He doesn’t have the reflex of a soldier. I was shocked by working closely with him to understand his level of understanding of issues. I think I never asked him if he went back to school after he left power. Again I repeat, his weakness is his strength. Because for a soldier to allow himself to be so ordinary that there was nothing he was bringing up that he would not allow to be subject to interrogations. I mean, I would call Gen Abdulsalami and try to schedule a meeting, I have never had to go to Minna for a meeting. He’s always the one ready to come down to meet with me. He’s done tremendous work. I really thank God for the role he played leading the peace committee.
Do you think his government should have investigated the deaths of Abacha and Abiola, given the sequence and circumstances that they occurred?
I think you should read my book. Also, we should understand certain things. Governments are governments and there are secrets that would be classified until after a period of time. And I think this is where, because we don’t have our convictions as Nigerians, we underestimate what we can do as individuals. You know the fate of those who believed in Abiola. They stood with Abiola. Shortly after that, they sat for Abiola, and thirdly, they took a walk. Everybody is now back in circulation. So, it is not the duty of the government. Like the late Dele Giwa said, it is the business of government to hide its secrets; it is the business of journalists to find these secrets.
Do you think General Abdulsalami should clear the air on the issue?
Like which issue?
If I were Abdulsalami, what would I say? Has any journalist gone to him to ask? And what would you ask? There is a medical report. Go back and read my book, I reproduced some of the medical reports therein. It is OK for me and you to be sceptical about that. If I were a journalist sufficiently interested in the issue, I would go interview those who reproduced the report and subject the reports to interrogation and interview those people with other ideas to make their case. Dr. Ore Falomo, Abiola’s physician, has made his case. For me, these are areas we need to focus on if we are sceptical about the issue. There is no reason we should not be sceptical, after all, Yasser Arafat, has been dead for many years now, but his wife is still going all over the place because she wants justice.
Some of Abiola’s family members are insinuating that Abdulsalami directly or indirectly knows about the death Abiola…
Whether it is the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Abiola, or Kudirat Abiola, it diminishes every one of us. In my book, I mentioned it that I’m amazed at how laid back some of the direct beneficiaries of Abiola are. Like the saying goes, how would I go to console the bereaved and be crying more than the bereaved? I have had that feeling. There are stories buried in the womb of time in Nigeria and I will say we are the worst for it. Again on this issue, whether it takes us 20 or 30 years, what makes the difference is the commitment to find out the truth. Here in Nigeria, it is not the complicity of the security agencies, it is amazing how prepared we are to dismiss things just because we want to move on.
You were close to former President Goodluck Jonathan. What did you find particularly interesting about him?
What do you mean by being close to Jonathan? I’ve had close relationship with thousands of people. One of the leaders I’m much close to is former President Shehu Shagari. I told President Obasanjo that people are saying that he is my friend, that if I hear people say that again, I will sue them for libel and he said he would also sue them for defamation of character. You can take that for a joke. But if you use the word ‘close’, I am close to most of them, but I would not like to use the word ‘close’. Back to Jonathan; I met Jonathan before most of the key actors. I first met him in November 2005, when MOSOP (Movement of the Survival of Ogoni People) celebrated the tenth anniversary of the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. I was the guest speaker. I knew him as deputy governor, governor, vice president and president. But, above that, I had to continue my work with the Ogonis from President Obasanjo through Musa Yar’Adua to Jonathan. I don’t abandon my friends. I’m not ashamed of them. I don’t have apostolate to saints. I’m a priest; I don’t discount or deny my friends. Despite my friendship with Jonathan over this long period of time, we never discussed a penny; we never discussed a dollar; we never exchanged a penny, and we never exchanged a dollar. Because, Nigerians associate closeness to people like this – money and transactions. I never asked Jonathan for a favour for one day and he never extended any favour to me. And when people make references about Jonathan, I tell them to return to the scene of the crime. What are the issues? Tragically, what I have talked about have come full circle, far worse than anyone could have expected. I thought we needed to stay with the larger picture of the issue. Up until today, no journalist has asked me a single question about Jonathan’s presidency. All I have heard are those running haywire over the fact that I’m defending Jonathan. I’ve never been able to figure out the meaning of that, beyond the fact that, as a convener of the peace committee, I commended Jonathan for what he did. And like I said in an interview, President Buhari came and did far more, commending Jonathan. And where are those who were running helter-skelter, because they thought that with Buhari’s presidency heaven has come down. Suddenly, journalists, who I knew, were writing, hoping that they would be given positions. All those who were abusing me have gone full circle. There was a lot of cloud and it hasn’t rained. Also very interesting, throughout the Jonathan presidency – you know this prayer they have in the Villa – I suspect there were a lot of people who told Jonathan to beware of Bishop Kukah because they thought I was Buhari’s friend. I don’t know if they put it in these words because they thought I was Buhari’s friend. So, I like it that Buhari’s people feel that I’m a friend of Jonathan. For me, it makes me happy that I’m not nailed down to one person.
Did you see his defeat at the polls coming?
Frankly, I was not seeing how the election would go. I was only praying for the election to be successful and peaceful. I had plus and minus and did my own calculations of what the consequences of a Jonathan victory would be for Nigeria. If we want to be honest with ourselves – I stay in Sokoto; I travel around northern Nigerian; I knew the things I heard on the periphery – it was almost as if, had Jonathan won, there probably would not have been a Nigeria now. Only God in his wisdom knows why things went the way they went and I’m eternally grateful to him that he (Jonathan) made that concession.
I’ve spoken to certain people in the PDP who said, ‘You see, Jonathan should have done what Yahaya Jammeh did.’ And Buhari made a point that for a man who has been in power and was still in the commander of the armed forces of Nigerian, if he had wanted to stay on he could have stayed on, all these guys who are making noise would have been the same people going to the Villa to prostrate, saying we thank God for freeing them from a religious bigot called Buhari. I know this country sufficiently to know that at the end of the day, whoever has the yam and the knife is the one Nigerians will follow. But I’m grateful that things turned out they way they did.
Share with us some of the behind-the-scene moves that led to a successful transfer of power?
Well, I had people give credit to the Peace Community; modestly I accept that. But (pointing at a photograph on the wall), you see that picture there? I think that picture was the most defining moment. It was taken on March 26; the election held on 28. It was after that picture was taken that we moved out to sign this accord which was like an irreversible clause, because both men had committed themselves to the fact that if this elections were free, fair and credible, they would accept the result. If you hear me say the things I said about Jonathan, it is because he fulfilled his own part of the agreement, because I know what it took to extract that commitment from him. So when I say the things I said about Jonathan, it is basically because of what happened in 2016. This is not the time to talk about it, but I know the time frame it took us to get Jonathan to do the thing that he did.
Did U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit influence Jonathan’s decision?
You know, like the saying goes: the snake is dead; does it matter whether it was killed by a woman or a man? The most important thing is that we have had a successful election. Again, I’m modest enough to say that I don’t think the peace community should take the glory. It’s for everyone who contributed to make the election successful. I was supposed to be at World Bank programme during that period, but I had to call off the meeting. I told them that I wanted to see through the election and I didn’t want to be somewhere else outside this country. I was in Germany a few days before the elections; I saw young Catholic children, who had no idea where Nigeria is, praying for the success of the election. So, if Kerry or anybody wants to take credit, they are free. But again, I go back to the words of the psalmist, “Not to us, not us, Lord, but to your name glory be given.”
There where people also telling Jonathan not to concede defeat…
Absolutely. That is why I said I have an idea. I have watched Jonathan closely. He has his weakness – like many of us, but I think Jonathan’s main weakness, whether it is exploitation or corruption, they are symptoms of a vulnerable Nigerian coming to the centre of Abuja politics without the architecture of brutality to be able to survive in a place like Abuja. If you come from his background with no people in the military, the police, SSS, and all other security agencies, who will protect you? A lot of other people would have been worse than Jonathan. For Jonathan to have literally acted on his own, for me, we needed a stable country and he provided that stability. I have never said that if Jonathan was found guilty of whatever, he cannot go to prison. I have never defended Jonathan in terms of whether criminality or allegations of criminality; that’s not my interest. My interest is that he offered us this platform. We would have started dancing on a wet grave.
Buhari’s government has arrested virtually everyone around him; do you think it is hypocritical of this government to leave Jonathan?
Well, I don’t think this government is capable of hypocrisy, since we have deified it. We have sanctified everything about this government. Let stay with that, and even if he proves to be hypocritical, that’s our collective responsibility. But let’s speak to the issues. I consider myself an intellectual. Oby Ezekwezili, Obasanjo, General Williams and I were the early members of Transparency International here in Nigeria. So when you talk about corruption, I think I have an idea of what the issues are. Beyond just the intellectual issue, I think that the issues are huge. I’ve never agreed to the way this government approached the issue of fighting corruption, because we became victims of single story, like Chimamanda would say. We misconstrue corruption to be stealing of money. The result is what we have now; we’ve just gone round arresting people. The same people you have arrested, you have not been able to try them to secure a conviction. The country is sinking, people are becoming despondent, and now people are asking and becoming nostalgic about the so- called period of corruption you are talking about. And like I said in my first interview, arresting a former president is not like arresting any other ordinary citizen, like me. Again, these are the issues that people felt I was defending Jonathan about. Now we are going to the second year now, Jonathan is still a free man. He’s not been brought to trial or arrested. And I said in one of my early interviews in The Punch, the club will defend itself. So if you talk about the arrest of his domestic staff and other people around him, I don’t know. Only the people ordering the arrest know.
Do you think that the government has failed in its anti-corruption war since it has not got even one conviction?
This government believes that corruption began and ended with Jonathan. Unfortunately, the paint was splashed on Jonathan to win the election, but both the president and members of his party have not been able to literally reposition themselves. I hear people saying that if Jonathan had remained president, this country would have sunk. Is this country better today than it was in 1999, 2000, 2006, 2012? Are we better off now? I don’t know. But the evidence is there. We’ve never been as doubtful of ourselves and capacities as we are now. We’ve never been as divisive as a people as we are now. I think the president’s reflex is that, somehow, he would roll out infrastructure across this country and everybody would realise how well intentioned
he is. But guess what? The destruction of pipelines suggests that there are certain intangible things you must address; it’s about how people feel about their participation in the process. For me, these are the issues. We are hearing all these huge budget figures. In fact, I was asking myself, was there a budget last year? I don’t know. My argument is that, from day one, I understand that Buhari wanted fighting corruption, but I didn’t believe that the issues have been properly framed. You can see corruption as sociology, you can see it as economic, you can see corruption as psychology, and you can see it as politics – it’s a range of issues. To the extent that we did not diagnose the causative factors of corruption and that we just narrow it to things that people in big offices do – that corruption is only what ministers and governors do, is wrong.
You don’t believe that anyone should be prosecuted?
No. No. No. Don’t take that shortcut; I’ve not said that. This is why I have problems with the conversation. For instance, whenever you’re going to see a doctor, do you just tell him you are suffering from malaria? If you know you are suffering from malaria, why did you come to the doctor in the first place? I’m saying the evidence does not make me conclude that corruption is just stealing money. What are the motivating factors? Why are people corrupt in Nigeria? The idea of when a little girl of 18, 19 years is getting married and the entire country will stand still because of the status of her father does not make sense. The fact that young couples that have contributed nothing to Nigeria are getting married, all they have is that their parents are in good positions, now you cannot be talking about corruption because the only way you can live this kind of life is with money you haven’t worked for. I imagine that people who are working hard, or know how hard it is to get money, would not allow this kind of thing to happen. For example, when the president said that every public officer must travel in economy or business class, that’s one step to take. You can say, as long as you are in government, the marriage of your children can never become a state event. If you are minister or governor, your children must school in Nigeria. If you don’t want to serve as a minister, it is not by force. Once you lay down these irreducible minimums, then you are on the road to dealing with the issue, because you are making corruption less attractive to people. Corruption is just a symptom of something terribly wrong in our society. Stealing money is just one of the manifestations.
President Muhammadu Buhari has often given the impression that Jonathan’s government conducted a malicious handover, stalling and putting a lot of obstacles in the way. Are you aware?
I don’t know. I wasn’t a member of the transitional team. The Peace Committee did a job and it absolutely has nothing to do with the handover. I wasn’t invited to the swearing-in of the president. I heard about it, but I wasn’t there because I don’t think that was my business. A midwife doesn’t go home with the baby. We had a free and fair election; the prize is the business of other people. And I’m happy that a lot of people who did nothing have suddenly arrived with their cutlery; fine, but we should not insult the intelligence of Nigerians that everybody is in for a take. Again, I was invited by the transitional team, but talk to the members, the chairman and other members of the transitional team, and tell me whether they recognised any of their recommendations.
The last presidential election saw some Christian clerics yielding their church altars as soapboxes for political campaign. Does that make you uncomfortable?
Why should that make me uncomfortable? This is why we have to return to the scene of the crime, where these annoying things took place. No politician ever entered my office in Sokoto. Nobody came to my church for prayer. So when you talk about all these clerics and all the money they took, go to where the presidential candidates, all the palaces and churches they entered, ask what they dropped there if you are serious about this conversation; because I’m seriously offended and upset when people keep talking about corruption and clerics. Those of you journalists who keep talking about it know. Why have you people suddenly gone quiet? Because you are complicit. Why have you gone quiet? All the places where politicians went and knelt down, all these prayer grounds, go there and ask. If they came to my church, come and ask me. But I know in the dioceses of Sokoto, no single politician has entered my church for me to pray for them. OK? So go to the palaces where presidential candidates entered; where they were anointed with horsewhip and feathers; where they were anointed. Return to the scene of the crime. I remember some criminals entered my house, took photographs and said this was the house Jonathan built for me. But go and ask Jonathan, apart from shaking hands, whether money joined us. After all, he sent somebody – Senator Anyim Pius – to come to my installation as Bishop of Sokoto Diocese; ask him whether he dropped a penny. But I was appreciative. If the president had sent him to the coronation of a traditional ruler or the ordination of some of these so-called Pentecostal pastors, would they go empty handed? But I’m happy that they probably looked at my face…. I’m not claiming righteousness. I’ve been in this world long enough, if we are going to talk about our country, let’s talk about our country. I’m ready, let’s all go through the corridors of scrutiny.
Pastor Paul Adefarasin asked his church members to register in the church office any party they may have interest in, an ecclesiastical clearing house of sorts. Do you think he’s crossing a line?
I don’t know of his church. I have never met him before. So, I can’t comment on that. He is free to tell his parishioners what he wants to tell them.
A number of mega churches in Nigeria own schools which their members cannot afford to pay for their children to attend. This contrasts largely with missionary schools. Why?
Almost all of Catholic schools were established to target the children of the poor. And many of the guys who are high flying today know where they came from. I’m not going to talk about the mega churches because most of them are established to expand the frontiers of the gospel of prosperity. Now, I don’t blame people if they have a gospel for the rich. But from my own experience as a Catholic and as a Catholic priest, what we grew up to know is that our schools are built to target the most vulnerable children. I can give you a few number of schools we run in Kastina, Sokoto, Zamfara and Kebbi states – the four states that make up the Sokoto Diocese. We are deliberate in targeting and ensuring that education is available, even if it is not necessarily free, to the vulnerable. Even in Loyola Jesuit, which you may consider to be expensive, and it is. But again, in keeping with the tradition of Catholic Church, they deliberately go out of their way to make provisions for scholarship.
In what significant ways has the church in Nigeria evolved in the last two decades?
Well, that is a big question. But I can speak about the Catholic Church in particular. When I was secretary general of the Catholic Secretariat, there were 36 ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Now we have 56 ecclesiastical jurisdictions. When I was secretary general, we had only Cardinal Arinze, Cardinal Ekandem; today compared to other African countries, I think we have done well. I think we are next to Zaire which is a very Catholic country. I’m not sure if we have the highest number of dioceses in Africa, but from the view of the Catholic Church alone, there has been a phenomenal growth and development. And the coming of Pentecostalism has created further expansion on the frontiers of Christianity in Nigerian. A lot of things have taken place in the last 20 years.
Recently, a big church was involved in promoting MMM, a Ponzi scheme, which the government strongly opposed. Is this a sign that the wall between the church and the world is collapsing?
Do you know it sounds strange to me? Believe me, I never heard of MMM. I only heard about it four days ago. I didn’t know what it was all about. I just read an article about it in the Guardian and the next day or so, I heard about its collapse. A big church was involved? Hey! I don’t want to talk about church. I always insist, please leave institutions alone and hold individuals who are criminals. It’s not all the members that sat down and decided to participate in a Ponzi scheme. If they did, they should face the wrath of the law. But the larger issue is that government is a regulatory body. That is why I feel very offended by some punitive decision that the government has taken, for example, excluding the churches from participating in broadcasting, excluding the churches in other engagements and so on, whereas what the government ought to do as a regulatory body is to say, ‘you are acting outside the law, this is what law says’. And this is where the bureaucracy and the politicians are complicit, because if you are going to kneel down before these pastors whom you are asking for blessing, giving endless duty waivers and contracts by proxies, doing all sort of things, you will fail to punish, because they then see access to government as an opportunity to exploit those chances.
Do you think the government could undermine the judiciary from the way chief justices were arrested recently?
I’m not in the position to comment on that because I don’t know the intricacies. You know, they have the Nigerian Bar Association, the National Judicial Council and so on. The Nigerian justice system is an entire tribe; they can look after themselves. But to speak to the issue, I think that the very fact that we are debating the moral dimensions of invading the houses of Justices raises question about strategy and the kind of thing I was talking about when I said that this government came in to fight against corruption without a game plan, because if you had developed a game plan, one of the first things to do is to examine what are the institutions? Where are the conveyor belts of corruption? Who does what? For me, if were the president, I would have spent one, two years in office without saying anything about corruption, except diagnosing, building full-proof cases and then deciding whether, indeed, we have water-tight cases that we can take to court. The very fact that we have ended up doing this and the government has to come defending its position is the measure of the level of this government’s lack of preparedness in the fight against corruption.
You once said the current administration is fighting the symptoms of corruption and not the root cause of corruption. If you were the president, what would you have done differently?
For me, if you are going to address the issue of corruption, I hear people talk about corruption, they are right; my argument is that government would have needed to craft a message; this is not about ministry of information. But by developing different strategies you can convince Nigerians that this thing – corruption – is not in their interest; because, so far, Nigerians are victims of corruption itself. So you would have to convince Nigerians that you have an alternative. Nigerians have been harping about the probity of the president. That is not really the issue. Like I have said elsewhere, when people take about the integrity of the president or governors, these things are important these things are important. But we are not looking for the Imam of a mosque or chairman of a parish council. I don’t mind whether he goes to church, mosque or not; let him fix the roads; let him get power on. If we are looking for people to handle our moral lives, they are already there. For me, it is not the question of whether the government’s intentions are right or not, but what the government would need to do is to convince Nigerians. Corruption is far beyond people stealing money. The dominant narrative is that corruption is about people stealing money. It has said nothing about parents traveling to Dubai, buying gifts for their children’s teacher. The process of becoming a vice chancellor of a university now is not different from getting a chieftaincy title. Corruption has got to do with a wide range of issues. That’s why I’m saying if I were the president, I would have spent one or two years frankly diagnosing. By this, you would allow the criminals go to sleep, like it is business as usual. Then you pounce on them and get result. Like I said elsewhere, you cannot be going to catch a monkey and be beating a drum.
You were not so critical of Jonathan, why?
Listen, Mr. Man, on Monday I will be 40 years as a priest. I have nothing to prove in Nigeria again. I am eternally grateful to Nigerians who felt I have something to say, but I have nothing to prove. If people want to talk about Jonathan and I, I can understand the tribe that is obsessed with this Jonathan thing. But the question they have not answered is, what will be my motive? Why will I be talking about Jonathan when not in power and cannot do anything for me? I have not spoken with Jonathan since he left office. I haven’t. And I don’t expect a call from him. If we run into one other, we will talk. Go back to the record of my interviews and read. The only time I was ever invited to Aso Villa Chapel officially was by South African Embassy when Nelson Mandela died. I was invited to pray for Mandela. I can say it here publicly; when former President Olusegun Obasanjo confronted me and was saying to me that I wasn’t vocal in condemning Jonathan. And I said, ‘Sir I wasn’t there when you went to bring Jonathan, what kind of vocality do you want?’ My friend, the Emir of Kano, also said to me that people are saying that I was not vocal in condemning Jonathan. OK now, all of them who are saying this have all gone full circle, saying that, please leave Jonathan alone and get on with the business, which is what has always been my position. Not because if Jonathan is a criminal, he doesn’t deserve to go to prison, but I have just found this obsession in some people. It is as if I can be defined now by whether I condemned or did not condemn Jonathan.
Do you think Nigerians are wrong to ask that question?
Again, like I have said, what is the motive? I don’t know. Maybe I’m not explaining myself well enough. But for me, nobody has asked me a question. Nobody has asked me to assess Jonathan’s administration. No journalist has asked me anything about Jonathan as a person. Most of the conversation is borne out of what people purported that I said in defending Jonathan. Go back to the tape of what I said on Channels TV and I stand by all I said in it. Almost 100 per cent of those who condemned me have gone full circle. Many of them have had the decency to call me. They said I am Obasanjo’s friend. I said fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But I think those who should be ashamed of themselves are those who took money from Jonathan, tonnes of it, and have decided to lie buried under the table and have decided to change causes in the middle of the race. Those are the guys who you should be talking about.
The Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, recently said he paid off herdsmen to prevent the escalating conflict in Southern Kaduna. Is this something you would encourage?
I don’t want to comment on Kaduna State. I live in Sokoto.
But you are from Kaduna…
I don’t live in Kaduna. We can have a long conversation on that. But there are allegations. The governor said he didn’t say that. Until I get what the real story is, I cannot comment.
There are growing concerns about the continued detention of El-Zakzaky and his wife, and that outlawing the Shiitte group might drive it underground. What do you think?
I am pained by the way this Shiites thing has gone. I cannot understand why we are behaving as if people have lost their right as citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria simply by belonging to a slightly different group. When I first saw the Shiites on the road, I actually wanted to write a letter to the president to say that there would be trouble when I saw them on the road between Kaduna and Zaria. But having said that, I cannot understand – because this cannot happen in any other country – that, as government claimed, almost 400 citizens have been killed, people who probably could have been scientists, Nobel Prize winners, or medical doctors. Even if they were mentally deranged, that we have lost almost 400 people and we are still behaving like it wasn’t human being that were killed is troubling. I said it during Boko Haram menace, that citizens don’t lose their rights by behaving outside the law. That’s why we have crime, criminality and processes. So that we are presenting this matter as if being a member of Shiite is criminal. It is difficult for me to understand. But again, it speaks to the way this government has taken on so many battles at the same time when people are miserably hungry. When people are in the worst form of human destitution, the government is opening up so many flanks. The governor of Kaduna State must think creatively. Can you be trying to solve the problem of southern Kaduna and the problem of northern Kaduna at the same time? How does that make sense? Every public office holder is a peacemaker. It’s OK for a leader to be impatient, but power must be used responsibly. And I don’t think that simply banning a group or declaring them insurgents when we have not defined what a crowd of an insurgency group is, when the government is still admitting that it is not that these guys are going around killing people. If they are, they should be subjected to the force of the law. But I find very hard that we have suspended the humanity of the members of the Shiites for political expediency. We are not in a military dictatorship where law and order defines everything. We are in a democracy. Of course, I know Nigerians will react the way they normally react; that is that to say that I support the Shiites? It’s not the issue. I’m just saying that we are not going to solve this problem by demonizing some set of people, because it will just heat up the polity. You are not dealing with 50,000 people, or a million people; you are dealing with millions of people. Finally on the issue of El-Zakzaky, is it OK that somebody like this is being held without any process? Every man is a brother, an uncle or a father or whatever the case may be. Somebody might be a criminal, but to his family he is not. And I think the very basic right that this people have sought to see the head of their family is a right that is available to them in law. I feel much troubled that we have not dealt with this issue in a much more humane manner.
A bill for the setting up a Christian court has just passed second reading in the House of Representatives. What is the point, really?
You know, I wanted to write an article, but I felt it would be misconstrued. But we cannot discuss the issue of a Christian court without dealing with other reality – what this group is reacting to? You know, the space has been created. I have said it before. I said, if any Muslim feels that this country is not conducive for him to practise Islam or a Christian feels this country is not conducive for them to practise Christianity the way they want, they should relocate to places where their religions are practised like they want. The issue of Shiites and Boko Haram is based on the fact that they feel that some of us do not practise Islam like it ought to be practised. If the northern political elite continues to tempt faith, by seeking to elongate their political life by falling back on the Sharia, which they use to mobilise their people but deep down in their hearts they have no intention to live by its dictates and thus create volatility in the system, we will, of course, end up with these kinds of reactions. Why will somebody not sponsor a bill for traditional courts tomorrow? We are going back, we are not getting better. This matter was dealt with in 1958, for goodness’ sake. The political elite in north who will like to criticize me are free to do so, but let’s roll out the data; let’s argue on the basis of the data. There is nothing that we are saying that is new. The Sardauna himself had the wisdom; in 1958 he sent out people to Pakistan, Sudan to find out how these things work. The report then led to the setting up of a penal code. I don’t understand! Everybody is drinking beer, living a loose life like every other person but wearing a toga of religious righteousness and pretending to be better than others. We don’t see their religious practices on their faces; we don’t see it in the way they conduct their businesses; we don’t see it in the way they run their families, and they are no less criminal than the rest of us. But when it is convenient, people start to beat this drum of dubious religiosity. I think, for example, for a public officer to use public fund to build a mosque or a church, It is not acceptable, but when we are tinkering with this kind of God talk, you will get this kind of reaction. So I cannot just wake up and say I am against those pushing for such bill because they know what they are reacting to. And it is a question of whether the government has the reflex to enforce what the constitution provides for. We’ve been on this matter for long. Why is it that successive governors in northern Nigeria could sign certificate of occupancy for people to build hotels and night clubs, but they cannot sign certificate of occupancy for the building of a church? And I am sitting down with people who tell me they want to have dialogue. Why will I not be able to build a church in Usman Danfodio Univeristy, Sokoto, or Ado Bayero University in Kano when in 1960 a mosque was built in the University of Nigeria Nsukka? Money being used to build these federal schools was not appropriated for Muslims. Money sent to states from federal government is for the citizens, yet governors are boasting that they have built 50, 80 mosques and so on. Meanwhile they cannot build hospitals; they cannot build schools. When I start talking about this, I get agitated. Let me use the words of the governor of Borno State: ‘the north represents the worst face of poverty and everything wrong in our society’. Talk to him, he could be even more brutal, because the statistics are there. We are falling on every index, whether it is health, literacy or access to social service. So there are more serious issues. But these people are just exploiting the vacuum. The states are in suspended animation in Nigeria. So when people accuse Shiites of running a parallel government, everybody is running parallel government in Nigeria. Why are you generating you own power? Is that not a parallel government? Why are you drinking from your borehole? Is that not a parallel government? Should you not be drinking federal government’s water? Why do you gather money to build a road to your village? You are running a parallel government. So if government is in suspension, people will continue to take that advantage. This is what is happening. I am pained by what is happening in the north. Like the governor of Borno told me, by 2030, the north alone will constitute two-thirds of Nigeria’s population, if not more. The children who are going to go to university in Anambra State alone are more than the number of children who will go to university in nine or ten northern states, yet we are going to occupy the same space. This generation that has access power by other subtle means is dying and it’s unable to reproduce itself. So, the space for competition is clear. When I addressed Muslim students some year years ago, I told them that you cannot go to study Arabic and expect that you will work in the NNPC. In the same way, you cannot go to study Christian Religious Knowledge and expect the same. Those days are in the past. So we must be prepared to compete. And we are not going to blackmail people as if we want theocracy as a substitute. We are not in heaven yet, we are still here on earth. So, I repeat, any governor in northern or southern Nigeria who makes a boast or believes that the number mosques he built or the number of those he sent to Saudi Arabia is a definition of his efficiency, he should be ashamed of himself and actually should be in prison for misappropriation of his state resources, because when you take money from Abuja, the money is meant for those in the state. But we have seen a people who pretend that they want theocracy when their theocracy is in Abuja or Dubai.
The Buhari government is nearly two years in office. Do you get a sense that people are pleased with his performance so far?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Look, like I told you earlier in this interview, I am an incurable optimist, but believe me, this is the first time in life – and I am struggling and praying that a flash of self-doubt has come to my mind – I am asking myself, if we continue like this, will we get to our destination? I am just worried that this government is focusing more on physical infrastructure and paying little attention to tangible things that make us citizens of this country, a feeling of a sense of, you know. Ask yourself, which part of this country feels OK. You may say that the north is in power but where is Boko Haram from? Where is the Shiite problem from? Then here we are with Niger Delta, we’ve never had to fight these number of wars at the same time. Unfortunately, while these things are going on, I sense a feeling of presidential distance. If I were the president, I will not invite the leaders of the south to meet me in Abuja. I said this to Jonathan, this thing is a struggle for territory. These guys are like bullies, if you concede space to them, you will not get back the space. So if these people are, somehow, getting away with all these and all you do is send soldiers, I’m sorry, it is not going to work that way. So those advising the president will need to advise him to be more visible. Look at the number of people who have died in southern Kaduna and Zamfara. There is what you call photo opportunities in politics. For instance, the sight of a president holding a child, a hungry child in an IDP camp or the sight of a president greeting a woman whose house has been burnt down and has got nothing to live on; these things don’t cost much money but they go a long way.
Are you basically saying that the president is dampening people’s hope?
I am not saying anything that you do not know. Take, for instance, Nelson Mandela of South Africa; Mandela had every reason in the world to take on the whites in South Africa; he had all the security reports. But somehow, after he became president, he was able to manage the situation. What I am saying is that ordinary people are exploiting the absence. Obasanjo had his sense of brashness, but at all time we knew his stance on issues. There is no way that what is going on in southern Kaduna and Zamfara would not require a presidential visit to see and assess the issues on ground. If you knew what is going on in Zamfara, what you read in the paper is little, because I don’t think that NTA, Channels, Trust, and other media platforms are on the ground. They operate from Sokoto or Katsina. What I am saying is that allowing these criminals to take on so much space makes it difficult to hold together. Even if you are putting up infrastructure, the fact that they are blowing up pipelines; the fact that you go to many parts of Nigeria to build a road and people will say ‘we don’t want the road, give us the money, we don’t want the road’; that’s why I am saying there is a certain kind of presence and engagement that this government needs to engage in with the citizens.
In what area would you want to see change?
In every area, seriously.
Do you agree with the suggestion to restructure Nigeria?
Well, we are always monosyllabic – restructuring, power shift, mega party, we just pick one word and believe it explains everything. If you talk about restructuring, that is what the National Assembly should be dealing with. I remember I found one typographical error in our constitution and during a chat with Justice Oputa, I asked, if I want to correct this error, what would happen? Justice Oputa said it amounts to altering the constitution. In a much more serious country, this is what the National Assembly ought to be dealing with. Let’s look back to South Africa; once their lawmakers were elected, they got into the House to append their signatures to the draft of the constitution, because the constitution had been thoroughly debated between 1991 and 1994. Now, every four years, we have a high turnover of lawmakers. The new boys – newly elected lawmakers – come in just to demand their own share. The issue of restructuring Nigeria is a constitutional issue and not what we could do on our own, and it talks to the reflex of the members of our National Assembly. But as you can see, their priorities are different from the priorities of the rest of us. The issue is important but we should not see it as what our politicians will do. Because we could up with what we call political gerrymandering; people will just create a space of what they are comfortable with. The issue is not about cutting Nigeria into pieces; it is really a question of whether we can have a slightly different narrative that could rouse us to a certain level of national consciousness. That has never happened before. You could go back to all speeches, except that of Tafawa Balewal; there is no presidential speech that you can look back at and be excited. I remember that the first black woman who went to the moon said she was 12 years or so when she heard President Kennedy say that they would land someone in the moon and she said she must be the one, and she started studying and working hard until she fulfilled her dream. The president’s speech on May 29 had some of that ingredient but most of that sentiment has fallen apart.
You have a very robust and healthy relationship with the Sultan. How did the two of you hit if off?
What do you mean? He doesn’t pay my bills. I have been begging him to pay my telephone bills, he refused. So, what’s robust in the relationship? I have asked him that we should have a joint account between the Sultanate Council and Sokoto Diocese as an expression for our robust relationship. He said no, instead he has been telling to bring the tithe that I collect in the church to him. So what’s robust about our relation? (Laughs). On a more serious note, we have a very good relationship and I am thankful to God for that. I also knew Sultan Maccido and Sultan Dasuki. I met Sultan Sa’ad at Hilton. One young man just called me and said there is a young colonel who wanted to see me. So they came to the Hilton and met me. Then he told me about his project; he was writing something on religious extremism then. I didn’t even hold his name then. However, one day, I was in Port Harcourt with Peter Odili, former River State governor, during my work of negotiation with the Ogonis and his call came in. He said, ‘Good day, Father’, I responded. We greeted and he told me how we met at Hilton some years ago. He is a fantastic man, a diplomat. I live in perpetual admiration of him, because I wish I have one percent of his ability to connect with people. He is incredible in terms of networking with people. His simplicity makes him accessible at all time. I walk into his palace anytime without announcing. About two months ago, I desperately wanted to take fura. So, I called him and told him I wanted to take fura and he told me that he was not in town. So he told me who to call. I called the man and they made arrangements for me to get the fura at around 11pm. That’s a measure of how close we are. He is a great man. He wants the best for our country.
You seem to like Jimmy Cliff a lot. Why?
I like music. I like Jimmy Cliff, Lucky Dube, Bob Marley. I listen to music a lot. I have a wide interest in literature and I spend my money on music and books. I guess this is because art spoke to me very well in terms of stories and experiences. I felt Jimmy Cliff’s brand of music spoke to me as a young man. It is the same way I feel about Thomas Sankara (former military leader of Burkina Faso) and Fidel Castro of Cuba. I have always been a little on the left on social issues. This makes my friends in the Catholic Church feel I’m a conservative. I do like Jimmy Cliff and music generally.
Professor Wole Soyinka has been outraged by the siege on him over his comments on his Green Card. Do you share his strong views over his frustration with the use – or misuse – of social media?
I met Yemi Ogunibiyi, who is his alter ego, and I said he should please tell Professor Wole Soyinka that if he needs to go on exile, he should come down to Sokoto; he is welcome. But I think, on a more serious note, he should know from the depth of his heart that the world loves and adores him and what he’s done. And it is not a question of how people agree or disagree with him. I don’t think that he should pay much attention to those miscreants on social media. I am surprised that he paid much attention to what they were saying. Last year August or so, people said I put the Internet on fire and were abusing me. I didn’t mind them. Again I come back to say I am very grateful to the Nigerian media. People have been extraordinarily gracious to me. I can count on one hand how many people have disagreed with me. On the other hand, I don’t want to name names but I can count how many of them came back to agree with. But I have always loved a good argument. I think that Wole Soyinka should know that he is much bigger than those who occupy the internet. He is lucky to have a Green Card; I have never aspired to have one. So, whatever, he wants to do with it, is up to him.
What do you hope to see in the country in 2017?
I really will like to see more well fed Nigerians, more bread on the table, more smile on the faces of Nigerians. I don’t know whether this government has a device to listen or know what people are going through. Look, every year for the last 20 or so years, I give my sister money to buy wrappers for widows, but this year I called my sister and told her that I cannot afford it. My sister gave me a very interesting response, saying even if you give anybody wrapper now, they will not look at it. People are looking for mudu of rice, who is talking about wrapper? That’s how frustrated we are all are. We must find a correlation between the frustrations and restlessness of Nigerians, expressed whether in the Niger Delta, the north or north east. We must find a correlation between the unacceptable social misery indices in the country. Nobody expects magic from this government but you either massively engage in policy reversal or think a little bit clearly. But every policy must be put the human person right in the middle. Any policy that doesn’t improve our welfare is dead on arrival. If you ask me what I would like to see this year, I will like to see songs on the lips on Nigerians.
Some persons believe the hardship in land is synonymous with moving from Egypt to the Promised Land experience of the Israelites; do you agree with this view?
Do you know what I tell people who use the word ‘messiah’? Christians are expecting a messiah, but I don’t think Muslims are expecting a messiah. Shiites are expecting a hidden Imam, so we must agree on a narrative. If you tell me we are heading to the Promised Land, Christians are not the only ones in Nigeria. You can use the Promised Land as a metaphor, but please remember that the journey to the Promised Land is not an easy one. But the problem is that I don’t get a sense of where this geographical Promised Land is and we don’t have an idea of how we will know if we have arrived at the Promised Land. We need to create that benchmark. This is what the government has not been able to tell us. I once asked the government, is this suffering redemptive? As a Christian, I look at the cross and the suffering of Jesus, because it is redemptive. But to a government that cannot answer our question on if this suffering is redemptive, how do we know when we have reached Golgotha?