By Owei Lakemfa
When a government like that of Muhammadu Buhari, President and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, is doing very well, it is manifestly immoral for a Bishop to divert its attention, especially with unsolicited homilies.
That is the problem I have with Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Sokoto Archdiocese. He has this strategy of waiting until the Easter period of salvation to release nuclear-powered inter-continental missiles against the Buhari Presidency as if he were the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, putting Russia in its sight.
In the 2021 Easter Buhari-Kukah war, I had uncritically taken sides with the Bishop, lambasting Baba Buhari. But as I waited for the 2022 war, I was tempted to advise Kukah to be silent as I suspected that the Presidency not only had a format prepared to respond to whatever he said, especially if it is the truth, but also to possibly fire scud missiles at him.
I should have listened to my instincts and the Bishop would have been saved the headache of an attack spokesperson of Buhari instructing the Bishop on what he should say, and what parts of the Christian Holy Book he should quote or is permitted to quote.
Kukah fired the first shot in the 2022 Easter war with his 19-point Homily titled, ‘Mending a Broken Nation.’ In it, he declared that: “Nigerians can no longer recognise their country which has been battered and buffeted by men and women from the dark womb of time.”
The Buhari administration, he wrote, “sadly has divided our people on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and region, in a way that we have never witnessed in our history.” The falsehood, he said, had been created that somehow, one religion is superior to the others, adding that “the way out is for the state to enforce the secular status of the Nigerian state.”
Government, he argued, has shown far greater commitment to integrating so-called repentant terrorists than getting their captives freed. The military, he said, has the capacity to end banditry, but that: “In reality, the military cannot fire beyond the radar set by their Commander-in-Chief.”
He argued that all criminals should meet the full force of the law. The Bishop wrote that with everything literally broken down except corruption, our country has become “one big emergency national hospital with full occupancy.”
Consequently, he argues: “We stare at an imponderable tragedy as the nation unravels from all sides. The government has slid into hibernation mode.” The Presidency, he said, is not a human right based on ethnic, religious or regional sentiments, and that: “We have no need for any further empty messianic rhetoric laced with deceitful and grandiose religiosity.”
To his fellow religious leaders who eat from the table and cannot speak truth to power, he reminded them that: “Caesar’s embrace is often full of thorns…A leader must know when to call Caesar a fox and not a horse (Luke 13:32).”
The Buhari Presidency did not respond to the points raised by what it called the “bully-pulpit” because they were “merely assertions” based on hatred. It condemned Kukah for not devoting his Easter message to “Christ’s death and rebirth so Man might be saved – but to damning the government in the most un-Christian terms.”
It wondered why with the jostling for the 2023 elections in the two leading parties, Kukah “could still find the time for a lengthy homily…” The Presidency accused the Bishop of neglecting the Bible’s teachings in James 1:26 which states that: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
The Presidency proclaimed that this is a time in Nigeria: “… as in Titus 3:9 to ‘avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.’” Quoting Galatians 6:1-2, the Buhari government said even if it were “…caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” not criticise it. It claimed that religious leaders who choose to criticise government “do an injustice to their flock by filling their ears with talk of division and hateful thoughts.”
Bishop Kukah had specifically declared that “the real challenge before us now is to look beyond politics and face the challenge of forming character and faith in our country.” However, the Buhari Presidency disagrees, giving Bishop Kukah two options: either “to leave government to the voters and the politicians they elect… or else, he should put away his clerical garb, join partisan politics and see how far he can go.”
I think Buhari’s challenge that Kukah removes his cassock for electoral contest is a knockout punch. Imagine a Kukah who went to seminary as a boy, ordained a priest in December 1976 and has remained in the church since then, being in an electoral contest with Buhari.
Before Kukah’s ordination, President Buhari had been in politics first as military governor of the North-East, then Borno State, and then Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources. Buhari had in December 1983 returned to full politics as Military Head of State. Even in retirement, he had served the Abacha dictatorship as Chairman of its Presidential Task Force, a body that ran a shadow government.
While Kukah was busy in the church, Buhari had in 2002 become a full-time politician, first as a chieftain of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), then as leader of his own party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and then leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Unlike Kukah, Buhari also has experience running for the Presidency in the last five general elections: 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019, winning the last two. I do not think that Bishop Kukah should be ashamed that he would lose any secular elections because when there was an election on whose life was to be spared between Jesus Christ and Barabbas, a convicted murderer, the latter won by a landslide. And when Governor Pontius Pilate asked: “What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, let him be crucified.” Matthew 27: 15-22.
In the 2022 Buhari-Kukah Easter war, even the Bishop missed out on the symbolism. For instance, people tend to forget that when Our Lord was nailed to the cross, he had two convicted thieves on either side. So, while we were celebrating Christ rising in the Easter period, the Buhari Presidency seemed not to have forgotten the two others nailed on the cross, so it freed two convicted politicians: former governors Jolly Tavoro Nyame and Joshua Chibi Dariye. This is a master stroke against Bishop Kukah and his supporters.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.