Bishop Hassan Matthew Kukah of the Sokoto Catholic Diocese has a robust definition of his flock. His patriotism is predictable. His preoccupation with matters of good governance, responsible statesmanship and the welfare of ordinary citizens has become axiomatic. Above all, his abiding preoccupation with the ultimate moral burden of political leadership has been consistent and unrelenting.
Equally unmistakable is his insistence on the common good as the measure of leadership relevance. On the ancient divide between church and state, Kukah is crystal clear: God and Caesar may have their different pathways but their aims do not collide. The designs of the Almighty can only come true on earth if Caesar rules wisely and does right by the people placed under his watch. So, Caesar and God are conjoined by an ultimate common moral purpose and civic responsibility.
Their common aims include order, peace, contentment among men on earth and hope for blessings from above. In a landscape littered with a vast array of sundry prophets and religious merchants, a high priest and credible ambassador of the Pope who defines his flock as his nation deserves national gratitude and universal appreciation. Bishop Kukah has maintained a consistent excellence in navigating the treacherous balance between his duty to God and his responsibilities to fellow men as a citizen of a specific country, Nigeria. On this score, Kukah has earned his stripes as one of the more credible moral guardians of the Nigerian nation.
He is above all also a notable ambassador of the papacy and of God on a troubled Nigerian nation space. For what he means for us, Bishop Kukah deserves our unstinted gratitude not just as a leading icon of our national Christian priesthood but mostly as a moral asset and civic institution. Predictably, the Bishop’s very incisive and patriotic Easter message has in the last few days been greeted by a torrent of poisoned darts and a barrage of insults from the prime town criers in Aso Villa.
The pair of court messengers paid to speak no evil from the corridors of presidential power have themselves taken to the pulpit to heap opprobrium on Nigeria’s most enlightened and credible man of God and moral asset. These gentlemen have usurped the cassock of unlicensed priesthood with decontextualized biblical quotes to counter a whole Bishop. Against the backdrop of Buhari’s shrinking leadership, diminished moral profile and vastly eroded governance and political credentials, the infamous Aso Rock pair have even mounted an alternative pulpit, quoting copiously and blasphemously from the scriptures to justify their utter disregard for respect, decency and sensitivity to popular feelings.
Let us not deny the labourers some due work for their privileged station and generous rewards. An understandable obligation to their servile duty of disrepute management is clearly understandable. In fairness, the infamous duo could be excused for springing to quick attention in choreographed defense of their besieged principal. That is why they get paid and pampered with our tax money. But court messengers charged with defending a crumbling unpopular emperor have a clear wise option: hide under the immunity of the Bishop’s saintly cassock to maintain dignified silence. In his Easter message in question, Bishop Kukah did what he does best. He spoke truth to power as he is so often wont to do. The content of his Easter message is neither novel nor far-fetched.
The content and general drift reflects exactly the dominant subject at every Motor Park, beer parlour, board room or kitchen table. Every traveller who has suffered kidnap or abduction is now a Kukah. Every school leaver who can neither find work nor purpose in life is a Kukah. Communities condemned to harvesting corpses from farms and town centres are subscribers to the Kukah message. The nation’s ever growing choir of mourners in a new national industry of death are singing the same dirge as Bishop Kukah at Easter. An ever expanding roll call of orphans and widows all over the land are united by the Kukah message and spirit. In every poor home where the next meal has become an uncertain conjecture, the Kukah message has become a banner of protest and an anthem of despair. At Easter, then, the eminent Bishop spoke for all and to all of us.
And yet, Kukah, the man of God, was not being an unapologetic prophet of the apocalypse. He chose the timely symbolism of Easter, the promise and possibility of renewal, the gift of redemption and salvation through the mandatory requirement of penitent sacrifice to appeal to Nigeria’s uniqueness. Bishop Kukah spoke from a place of crystal patriotism and uncommon concern for nation and fellow citizens. He appealed to our ability to retrace and retract from the brink, to heal, to course correct and self-repair. In this regard, Kukah’s message was ultimately one of hope and conditional optimism. If our leaders hear our wailing and heed wise counsel, we can be saved. It is also at a politically auspicious moment. A million hands have been raised by aspirants to the presidency.
This crowd at the gate of national salvation indicates so many things; a multitude is clamouring to right the wrongs of the last seven years. There can be no clearer indication of how bad the times are. It may in fact also indicate that in a nation with boisterous energy and infinite resourcefulness, most channels of productive exertion are shut, leaving only a thriving political industry swarming with mostly desperate hustlers and fake messiahs. In this situation, to insist, as the presidency has done, on a separation of pulpit and soap box would therefore be immoral.
We are now in a situation where the populace are groping for meaning in a place where basic survival has become a daily ritual requiring prayerful supplication. The pulpit has become a soap box. Either is now both. In our daily lives, a new set of prayers and good wishes have crept into our faith suffused national psychology. ‘Happy New Month…Happy New Week’. All this is totally new. ‘Happy new year’ is perhaps too far away now. No one knows what might chance tomorrow. We now live day by day, week by week, month by month.
People now pray to get to their destinations, to live to the next day and to grow into tolerable mid age since old age has become a farfetched hard to attain luxury. It is patently cruel to deny the existential manifestations of this bad season. Official privilege and the pomposity of public office should not inflict blindness and numbness to widespread anguish. Nor should we be hectored into blaming anyone else other than the current leadership and regime for the bad times in which we live. Somebody and something has abridged our happiness and replaced it with bitterness.
Ordinary citizens are not the ones breaching the national power grid every other day. We are not the ones allowing terrorists and bandits free passage to interrupt schools, invade airports, bomb rail lines, abduct passengers on highways, kill our soldiers or rape our kidnapped wives and daughters. We are not the ones who have allowed the national currency to degrade to worthlessness or elevate basic good living to the exclusive preserve of a privileged few. The calamities that now assail us from every direction are the handiwork of the sovereign we elected, pay tax to and surrendered our rights to. In return for our collective obligations in this fractured social contract, see what we have!
This is hardly the way to compensate a willing and forbearing people. In bad times, religious leaders have an obligation to call the attention of leaders to the things that irk the people and stand in their way to heavenly salvation. The people remain the reserve bank of a committed priesthood. Without us, the pews will be deserted and the message of salvation will echo in empty chambers with sepulchral silence. Make no mistake about it. Bad leaders cannot but have an adversarial relationship with socially conscious men of God. I do not expect Mr. Buhari to give Bishop Kukah a hug any time soon. They are more likely to shake hands from a detached distance.
If a dinner ever became expedient or required by courtesy of the ceremony of state, the butlers will need to order many long spoons for Kukah to dine with Buhari! Bad leaders value docile followers and a sedated citizenry. But socially and politically conscious and committed men of God crave followers who are alive to their civic obligations. The gospel is meant for the living! Priests need an audience of secure, content and fulfilled men and women to fulfill God’s divine mission and plan on earth. God’s purpose on earth cannot be fulfilled if the citizens are broken and battered, live in a broken homes, a broken society and a dysfunctional polity. In fact, a broken nation is an outright derogation of the divine intent and plan for a wholesome universe. It may be wise to give unto Caesar his due but only if Caesar tidied up his robe and held his end of the rope by ensuring an orderly, secure, peaceful society in which the people are content.
If Caesar Buhari defaults in his earthly obligations as a leviathan, he vicariously invites the representatives of God to invade his domain by assuming a more combative role. The existence of bad leaders is the origin of Liberation Theology or a politically conscious clergy. Latin and Central America became the epicenters of Liberation Theology because they were also the headquarters of some of the most bloody and fearsome dictatorships in world history. Bishop Kukah is neither the first nor will he be the last of a breed of men of God who embrace popular causes and seek to balance their obligations to fellow citizens with their ultimate responsibility to God.
It is a long tradition that has seen good men burnt at the stake or administered hemlock for believing differently from Caesar. On the scale of these more gruesome fates, the insults from Aso Rock court messengers in Bishop Kukah look rather meek and mild. People-oriented commitment is not the preserve of just the Christian priesthood. The Muslim Ulama and Imams share this binding moral obligation. A few weeks ago, the Chief Imam of the Apo mosque in Abuja, Nuhu Khalid, was instantly sacked for calling out President Buhari on the serial failings of his administration. The sack was needless and foolish.
The Imam had made his point which merely amplified a pervasive discontent. Imam Khalid was walking in the path of a great tradition in Islam which recognizes that great religion as first a way of life in which matters of the spirit and the polity are inseparable. In times past, rebellious preachers have been expelled for believing and preaching differently from kings. In contemporary Christendom, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope John Paul, Mother Theresa and Pope Francis belong to this great tradition in which the relevance of a person of God begins on earth. They all come in a lineage of priesthood for whom goodness on earth is the greatest act of devotion to God. For the politician, the soap box is the pedestal for marketing his programmes and defending his stewardship.
On the other hand, the pulpit is the stage for men of God to defend the faith and expound the gospel. Incidentally, the pulpit can become the fountain of hope for congregations seeking succour in a bad place. That is where we are now in Nigeria and men of God like Bishop Kukah are right to weaponise the pulpit to right the wrongs when Caesar derails. If king Buhari desired friendlier Easter messages than Bishop Kukah’s latest one, he should have tidied up his robes much earlier. Unfortunately for this administration, it is now quarter to midnight.
• Chidi Amuta is a veteran journalist, author and public affairs consultant.