By Sesan Laoye
Going by the content of Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah’s Christmas message to his congregants, it was not unexpected that it would invariably attract a maelstrom of reactions.
In the Christmas message which was delivered on December 25, 2020, Kukah had reviewed the parlous state of the country, the challenge of insecurity and the seeming widespread feeling of angst and alienation that had crept into the fabric of Nigeria and put the blame squarely at what he described as President Muhammadu Buhari’s engaging in the practice of nepotism and seeming institutionalizing of northern hegemony in the country’s governance space.
“Every honest Nigerian knows that there is no way any non-Northern Muslim president could have done a fraction of what President Buhari has done by his nepotism and gotten away with it”, the Bishop had underscored. It was indeed a hard-hitting message but then as even the Presidency has now belatedly come to admit, it was also well within his rights.
However, while several of the reactions have tended to dissect the Bishop’s message with a view to pointing out what the commentators’ consider to be flaws in his logic, a handful have clearly gone beyond the limit. One of these is that from the leader of the Muslim Rights Concern, MURIC, Professor Ishaq Akintola who described Kukah’s allegations as unfounded and went further to request his stepping down from the National Peace Commission.
But if we are to excuse the tone and temper of the statement from the MURIC chief, the one from the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), a body headed by the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, is much more troubling.
First, it did not come immediately after the Catholic Bishop delivered his well-publicised sermon which means that considered attention was given to it before it was released. And second, it is coming from a group that is considered to be one of the most influential Islamic groupings in the country and which has the Sultan as its leader.
Even more disturbing is the fact that quite paradoxically, the central kernel of the outrage against Kukah, which namely is his critique of the government’s handling of the security situation in the country, has also been the substance of equally critical comments from many other leaders, institutions and citizens alike, of which the Sultan and this newspaper are on record as having reached such equally critical conclusions and publicly expressed same. If the six blind men of Hindustan went on a trip to feel the elephant and came out with differences in tone and reference on account of which parts of the elephant they actually touched, does that take anything away from the fact that all of them had indeed touched the elephant. If the text of Kukah’s critique does not completely begin from the same premise and also reach the same exact conclusions as those made by the Sultan, the Borno Governor or the Northern Elders Forum, does it make it any more of a critique than the others?
So is the Bishop now being excoriated on account of his person and identity and not the facts of the matter? Is this a fair, just and measured way for an esteemed body like the JNI to wade into the fray if it considers it to be one?
Among other specific protestations from JNI in its statement that was signed by its Secretary-General, Dr. Khalid Abubakar Aliyu, is one affirming that Kukah had in his statement allegedly denigrated Islam and Muslims, and going further to advice the Bishop Kukah “should not take Muslims kindness for timidity or foolishness.”
Getting to the heart of its grouse with Kukah, the statement vented:
“Though the message is disguised as a political hogwash to deceive the innocent, there is no doubt that it was a poisoned arrow fired at the heart of Islam and Muslims in Nigeria, hence the need for this intervention.
“The bishop’s statement was a prepared address considering the occasion and the audience, one cannot but agree that it was a calculated attempt to insult Islam, which is typical of him.
“His veiled insinuation that Muslims have a pool of violence to draw from, is disgusting, disheartening, as well as condemnable.’
In reading through another section of the statement, we tend to discover that part of the annoyance with the Bishop has to do with the fact of his geographic location and the accompanying ‘dismay over his biting the fingers that feed him:’
“Kukah is the bishop of the Sokoto Diocese located at the seat of the Caliphate and the heart of Islam and Islamic scholarship, culture and practices in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Despite the status of Sokoto to the Muslims and Islamic history, Bishop Kukah was warmly welcomed, accepted, accommodated and accorded respect deserving of his position as a religious leader.
“Across the length and breadth of the Northern Nigeria, Kukah has friends and associates among the Muslim society. Without fear of any contradiction, he is most accepted and accommodated Christian clergy to the leaders of the Muslims in the North.
“They accorded him all the support he needed, despite some reservations from some quarters about his tendencies to bite the fingers that feed him.
“In spite of the liberality, congeniality and the camaraderie extended to Bishop Kukah in Sokoto and all over the Muslim North, he throws all sense of decorum and common sense to the wind and fired invective salvos on the Muslims and Islam without any justification.
“By this and his several similar inane attacks against Islam and the Muslims, the bishop has lost the friendship and the hospitality of the entire Muslim populace.
“How can the Muslims continue to be hospitable to the one who proves to be ingrate many times over?
“How can the Muslims be comfortable in associating with a bitterly vindictive person disguised in the garb of religious clergy?
“Muslims in Nigeria cannot be charged and be held responsible or accountable for the actions or inactions of government just because it is headed by a Muslim,” it further explored.
“We will never accept to be used as punching bag of the vindictive bishop.
“It is mind boggling to imagine why Bishop Kukah is always keen in pushing at the national fault lines; religion, tribe and north-south divide.
“In being accommodative and kind, the Muslims are adhering to the teaching of the glorious Quran that even in times of war, the Muslims should offer assistance to those who seek their protection. Quran chapter 9 verse 6 is categorical on this…
“Kukah and his likes who enjoys the pleasure of denigrating Islam and Muslims at any slightest opportunity should have lowered their guard, so as to have some peace of mind because the spark which Islam kindles can never be extinguished,” the statement echoed.
Put in context, there is indeed a sense in which this line of reasoning is misplaced and erroneous. Kukah is a Nigerian citizen and one protected by the Nigerian constitution to live and work in Sokoto. He is also within his rights to make comments on issues he feels bothered about and the reasonable way to disprove him is through the marshalling of alternative facts which the JNI has not done in this statement. Groups to whom much has been given like the JNI should be more circumspect before making statements that could indeed be inflammatory.
The reality of the Nigerian situation today is that too many of the strings that bind the diverse peoples of the country are presently under stress. It is indeed a time when frank and sincere discussions of the Nigerian crisis should be encouraged and entertained. And if a scholar-priest in the mould of Bishop Kukah has made his submissions on the subject, the expected response from a group like JNI, if it is that minded is to also contribute to the discourse in a manner that conduces to the eventual resolution of the conundrum. We think that the current intervention is not just it. It does not do sufficient justice to the image of the JNI that many hold and the people it represents.
And while the dust of the JNI statement was yet to settle, another group, took up the gauntlet, demanding an urgent apology from Kukah for slighting the Ummah or his relocation from Sokoto. The group, the Muslim Solidarity Forum who in a statement signed by its leader, Professor Isa Maishanu accused Kukah of having made ‘malicious comments’ and went on to ask him to make a formal apology or take his exit from Sokoto.
As the details underscore, perhaps emboldened by what they have perceived as the kid gloves treatment being demonstrated by the Federal Government and other authority figures on the subject, this group, like several other fringe voices that are now latching on to the issue, are driving their bus in a most provocative manner. Strangely, neither the Sultan of Sokoto nor the Governor, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, has thought it fit to directly respond to their outbursts.
This is most unfortunate and perhaps the only way to effectively tame it is for government to be seen as being even-handed and firm. This is more so when we recall that only a few months back, the government, through the Department of State Security had come out quite heavily on former CBN Director, Dr. Obadiah Maliafia when he had made statements on a media chat that were said to be potentially injurious to peace and harmony in the country.
It is this preposterous demand on a citizen by a group within the country that has ignited the fires once again and now attracted the belated response of the Presidency on that subject.
We say belated because this is not the first time that such threats have been issued by one group or the other. And being familiar with our history, and notably the tensions that stoked the firs of the 1966 pogrom and which was to culminate in the bloody 30-month Civil War, it is instructive that any government in Nigeria must strongly respond to any such issues of excess that fundamentally threaten the peace of the nation.
But even in responding, the point has to be stated that given that these issues come up now and again, and has indeed come up once again in the Kukah instance, it is then important that concrete proposals be put on the table to comprehensively address them.
From where we stand, we think that the solution to this challenge lies in the present administration taking away its opposition to the long running calls for the restructuring of the country. The truth of the matter today is that Nigeria is an unwieldy , fractious and ill-performing state in search of a more coordinate and defined state structure that is capable of inspiring national greatness and unleashing the true fires of development, prosperity and achievement. A lot of what is hindering this at the moment is widespread citizens’ disaffection over matters of structure and justice. Two simply cannot walk together except they agree.
Indeed, with an eye on history, it will be recalled that a significant chunk of the expanded crisis of 1966 is indeed traceable to perceptions that government did not push hard enough to assuage concerned people over the acts that had truncated the first Republic. That we are writing this even in the week of the remembrance of those sad events speaks volumes but the point really is that history was given for people to learn from it. And that is how we intend it to be.