INTERVIEW: Bishop Kukah hits back at Presidency, challenges Buhari’s spokespersons to public debate

The Bishop of Sokoto Diocese of the Catholic Church, Matthew Kukah, has responded to a taunt by the presidency that he should join partisan politics.

The presidency had spoken in reaction to Mr Kukah’s Easter message, titled “To mend a broken nation: The Easter metaphor,” in which he said the President Muhammadu Buhari administration has enthroned corruption and destroyed every aspect of life in Nigeria.

In a statement signed by the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, the presidency accused Mr Kukah of hatred of Mr Buhari and of playing politics in the most un-Christian way while millions of Christians commemorated Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

But in an interview with Arise News on Tuesday, which was monitored by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Kukah doubled down on his criticism, stressing the dangers of nepotism and accusing the administration of inability to handle the nation’s diversity. He also challenged the president’s spokesperson to a debate on the situation of Nigeria.

Read excerpts from the interview.

ARISE NEWS: Well, Bishop Kukah, I am looking at ThisDay newspaper, Page 5 story. It says, quoting the Bible, Presidency tells Kukah to avoid foolish controversy, dissensions. And somewhere down the line, you were referred, by Garba Shehu in this instance, to James 1 verse 27, that what you should be doing; you should be visiting orphans and widows, instead of generating controversies and dissensions. And if you want to join politics, both Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina claim, saying you should just dump the scapular and join partisan politics; because in their reckoning, your Eastern homely was not about Christ, it was about partisan politics. Are you guilty as charged?

Bishop Kukah: Well, I do not know whether any of them (Adesina, Shehu) has the ability or capacity to think about guilt or no guilt. But let me, first of all, set the record straight. I delivered my sermon to my congregation in our cathedral, so the hearers or the bearers of the message were primarily the good people of the Diocese of Sokoto. And of course, I am not unaware of the state of mind of my two friends, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, when it comes to talking about Bishop Kukah. They seem to suspend reason unless, of course, Garba Shehu has plans to convert to Christianity, is a closest Christian or an anonymous Christian.

I appreciate the fact that when it comes to talking, he has not quoted the holy Quran and all he does is end up with some convoluted interpretations of the Bible that are embarrassing in their contexts. And I am surprised that Femi Adesina, who I believe is a regular Christian in the FourSquare Gospel Church, I am surprised that he is unable to help his friend put the facts together.

But let me simply say I have made an offer to them and I still make the offer that they choose the venue and choose the time and just let me know. I will like to sit down with the three of them, beginning with their honourable minister and both of them; let us sit down and talk about Nigeria.

I am ready to pay my way. And I still repeat that offer to them. Dr Abati, you have been a spokesperson for the president and I am sure you know better than anybody else. In your time, as a spokesperson, I do not remember that I read messages written by you because the job of a spokesperson, which you did extremely well, was to highlight and elaborate, debate and put to the public government policies and what government intends to do, and use it as an opportunity to clarify government policies as it affects governance and the people.

These are the only spokesmen that have spent a lot of time buying photocopy papers and simply typing away texts. They have been involved in all kinds of writing of the poorest quality; (they) never talk about the issues. The first thing is to show you their inefficiency, because they are used to writing statements as opposed to talking to Nigerians about policy. And all that this tells you is that 99.9 per cent of the things they write are simply second-guessing what’s in the president’s mind.

They have no contact with the president, they have no contact with the government policy and all they are doing is writing on behalf of the president. There is nowhere in the world where the job of this nature is being done and has been done so poorly.

If you may please indulge me, because I need to explain to you and to Nigerians where I am coming from. Let me cut it short by talking about the last 20 years.

Dr Abati, we are no strangers to one another. We knew where we were in 1999 before democracy. I need to state where I am coming from so people can understand by context why I feel the way I feel. The first thing to say is that I have served three successive or even four presidents since 1999.

I served in the Oputa panel, I served as a member of the electoral reform committee, and I was appointed secretary of the political reform conference. I spent about seven years, beginning from the former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration right through to this government, going in between Abuja, Kaduna and Ogoni land to reconcile the people of Ogoni land with Shell. My book will be out before the year runs out.

So I am saying, therefore, I was also crucial to the signing of the second peace accord between General Buhari and former Goodluck Jonathan. And if you excuse me, Dr Abati, I have never told you this and we have never spoken about this, but you played a very critical role that Nigerians do not know and you probably do not even remember. Because when you came to the signing of that accord, you were the one person at the time that ex-President Johnathan then, as we had planned a meeting with former President Jonathan and the meeting didn’t happen because General Buhari and John Oyegun and all their team had all moved to Lagos because Asiwaju Tinubu was celebrating his birthday, and given his status at the APC, his birthday was more or less like a public holiday for the APC.

So General Buhari could not be at the meeting because the peace committee had decided that they wanted the two of them (Messrs Buhari and Jonathan) to sit down, based on the things we had heard and we were hearing, as you can remember, the General Buhari famous statement about the elections and the outcome, that if the election did not succeed it will be blood for the monkey and blood for the dog.

All of us were aware of the tension that existed in the country at that time. I am responsible, led by General Abdulalami, in getting both men to sign the Peace Accord. As you know, the point I want to make is that on the morning of that day, just two days before the election when General Buhari had agreed, finally we were able to track him down and he agreed he was going to meet with us at 8 a.m.

But we did not know how to meet with former President Jonathan who had told us he was flying to Asaba, Delta State at 9 a.m. If you remember (Dr Abati), I called you and I was able to reach you on the phone and I told you that we have a text of the Peace Accord that we wanted President Jonathan to please sign, can you help take the text to him. And I asked you if you have your Ipad with you and you responded yes. Then I sent you the mail. And you took it to former President Jonathan and he signed it

And I was able to persuade former President Jonathan to shift his journey to Asaba and come sign the Peace Accord. And the rest is history. I am saying so because I am not a stranger to the process we are in. While we were sweating and doing all these things, Femi Adeshina was being paid a salary by Orji Kalu and he did a good job in The Sun newspapers as a journalist. Garba Shehu was working for former vice president Abubakar Atiku.

And Lai Muhammed was working for Tinubu so I think everybody should be able to answer his father’s name. And I can say that the reason why I am emotional and passionate about the things of this country and where we are today is because I have paid my dues.

Let each and every one of my critics tell me where they were at the most critical moments in Nigeria’s history. It is not that now that people’s bank accounts have swollen that they can probably try to preach the gospel to others that they themselves do not believe in.

ARISE NEWS: In recent months, you have been quoted as saying amongst other things that you are opposed to nepotism and insecurity, not President Buhari, that President Buhari still takes your calls even though you are highly critical of him. And you recently supported his position even though he was criticised for declining his assent to the electoral bill because of that clause making direct primaries compulsory. You said that you agreed with that position. So my question here is what is your response to the fact that you have been accused of hatred of President Buhari and his government and there is some kind of personal vendetta against the president?

Bishop Kukah: As I said, you know my two friends are desperate to be seen as doing their jobs. Nigerians, including those who can barely read, know that they have done a terrible job in their assignment because, as I said in the beginning, as spokespersons to the President, all you have to see is to see what the spokespersons of the President of the United States of America are doing and to see what the spokesperson of the rime Minister of the United Kingdom is doing.

As I have said, when was the last time you saw either Mr Adesina or Mr Garba sitting and addressing the Nigerian media by taking questions from them? I am saying President Buhari knows that I have the greatest respect for him. And I believe he is a gentleman. But for me, as the president of Nigeria, he has done a terribly bad job, as the president of this country. Nothing I am saying is new. Tell me all the messages that I delivered that I was wrong and we can talk about that.

But for me, a Muslim would be the last one to tell me what an Easter message should contain. You see, I understand all these things and President Buhari knows himself that it is nothing personal.

And, one thing the president said to me and I was humbled, because when I heard rumours that people were telling me the president was angry with me because I have said things I had said at the beginning of the life of this administration, is that please get on with the job of governance and the fighting of corruption can go on pari pasu, as one should not cancel out the other.

The Buhari apparatchik all descended on me. Today 99 per cent of all are now the ones asking me what I see that the rest of the Nigerians did not see? But one thing the president said to me, and I asked him whether he had heard and how he felt, the president said in quote, you can quote me verbally, he said, “Bishop Kukah, I know where you stand on any issue in Nigeria.”

What has connected me with President Buhari and what has connected me with 99 per cent of Nigerian Muslims is not the Catholic Church. It is my public position in a lot of things. And I am not saying this because I expect people to agree with me. And I have said this several times, Nigerians have been extraordinarily magnanimous, because I have not heard many people saying to me “we disagree with you.” And I have never spoken because I know the issues. The primary beneficiary of the things I am saying is myself. And I speak my mind. If you agree with me or you do not agree with me, let us clarify the issues.

So for me, all these people saying I am attacking the president, where did I attack the president? Because I did not attack his person. Is it about nepotism, is it an issue that is a stranger to us? And the two critical things that I have fundamental disagreement with this president on, is his inability to manage diversity effectively and efficiently.

I have studied diversity as a subject and I understand what I am talking about. The second thing is that those who think that these things are about President Buhari, I have never dealt with the issue of his character because I believe he is a gentleman.

But as far as being the President of Nigeria is concerned, because we are talking about two different things. And please just indulge me: there was an interview that former First Lady, late Stella Obasanjo of blessed memory, granted to a State House magazine. She was asked many questions about her husband.

They asked her to rank her husband, as a husband, as a president and as a father. It was very interesting because I remember that interview. Mrs Obasanjo said “as a president of Nigeria, I rank my husband between 80 and 90 per cent because I live with him and I know he is doing very well.”

But as a father, I think she ranked him maybe 30-40 per cent, then as a husband she scored him 30 per cent or something of that nature. What am I saying? I am not the first person to disagree with President Buhari’s policies. His own wife (Aisha) has done so.

I live in northern Nigeria and I can tell you the things one is hearing every blessed day. And you do not need to hear them, all you need to do is to be alert. So these guys should not be sitting in their air-conditioned offices drinking coffee and thinking that somehow everything is just hunky-dory, it is just that we do not seem to appreciate.

Let them disagree with the text of my sermon or any of the things I have written.

ARISE NEWS: Father, I think it was a couple of months ago you made a Christmas message that a lot of people reacted to it. In fact, some were even calling for attacks on you and your life. I will like to know how you live to know all of these calls for attacks by these various groups. And also, you had the chance to speak with the international body in America and you made some vital recommendations about the things going on in Nigeria. For the goodwill of elucidation during the Easter period, we will like to get those copious notes on how we can fix a lot of our problems, needling problems I should say, father

Bishop Kukah: First, I should say in another month or so, my new book titled: Broken tongues for elucisive quest for coercion in Nigeria, which is a collection of some of my convocation lectures, would be out and it would illustrate to you some of my agonies and some of my struggles. Look, I am a Christian and I think anybody who has a good level of faith must also be convinced that you do not measure what you are saying by his many hands in support of you..It is only truth that validates itself.

I have never tried to speak because I want people to agree with me. I have only spoken my mind and I have always constantly thanked all the media that have made this opportunity available to me. What I will tell you on Monday I will tell you on a Tuesday. And what I will tell you in the morning I will as well tell you at night.

I am sorry I have got my own faults but even my worst enemies would tell you that what I would not do is prevaricate, especially when we are dealing with a very clear issue of moral choices.

And during my time in America, I tell you that 90 per cent of the many things that were said were actually based on ignorance because people did not understand the context of what happened. Generally, including my friends from the presidency, I went to address the American congress and I told the American congress bad things about Nigeria.

And unfortunately for many of us, the Americans know far more about what is happening in our country than anybody.

And secondly, I did not go to address the American congress. I went to a conference and I had three platforms. (At) the conference, I spoke about the theme of the conference which was on religious persecution of Christians specifically. I spoke on the prosecution of Christians.

My Muslim critics say why did I not speak about the killings of Muslims. I said another speaker was asked to speak on the killing of Muslims and I said sorry I wasn’t in the position to amend what I said. And again, can you name one single thing that I said that you can disagree with?

Contextually, that was why I took the time to tell you where I have come from in the discussion about Nigeria and I feel that I have just little to prove to Nigerians about where my heart is regarding this country.

A lot of the guys are saying what they are saying was not where we were with Lai Muhammed and Asiwaju Tinubu and all the members of NADECO and all the difficult things we had to deal with.

Yesterday (Sunday), my good friend, Dr Fayemi Kayode, we were just joking and laughing over the phone about the message. But because of the kind of background he has come from the struggle, I used to joke with him that he was the first person to start up a pirate radio and this is where you have ended up.

So the problem with our situation in Nigeria is that there is no consistency in the system. There are very few people that can tell you these are the things that have qualified us to be here. Now if the elections hold, many of these people who are presidential spokespersons today may have to find another job somewhere.

So for me, if it is talking about Nigeria. Just ask me the questions or where you think my analysis is wrong and, of course, I am not saying because I am right but this is how I feel. So when people react, I am actually very happy because they do not have to agree with me. I am a public intellectual. My responsibility and duty is to provoke conversation. But we are living in a semi-feudal environment where people would think the man is talking and the woman too is talking. and big men are talking and small men are talking.

We are in a democracy and a good number of the operators of this system do not understand the ingredients of democracy. They think democracy is about building roads and seeing the infrastructure we are working on. No! I think the thing that makes democracy what it is is intangible and they are about freedom of expression. They are about expanding the frontiers of freedom of human imagination and thinking.

So any attempt to limit those ideas, democracy collapses and it is about managing diversity. So if I tell you the way I feel about what this government has done, I know what I am talking about, the facts bear me out and the records are there about how we are fighting insecurity. Have we ever had a time in Nigeria when we say all the people holding security positions in Nigeria are all Christians and all Muslims and are from one tribe?

How do you run a country like that? On issues as sensitive (as this), you go to the FBI and CIA, they are all learning Igbo and some speak Igbo and speak Yoruba. You have to have listening devices across the board.

Nepotism is horrible, it is evil, precisely because it denies you as a leader an opportunity to hear other voices and what you have. All of you end up in an echo chamber where all of you are speaking the same language and thinking the same.

For me, when I speak like this, if my mother or father happens to be President of Nigeria, and they are not because all of them are no more, but I will take the same position if there is any evidence that everybody is not being carried along.

You cannot satisfy everybody, but at least give people the impression that they matter. You were not invited by people from one religion or region. For me, what we are doing is killing democracy. And by allowing banditry to gain the kind of scope it has gained, we are actually trying to use democracy to kill democracy. Those are the things that I am passionate about.

And that is why I am resistant to anything that tries to close those doors of opportunity.

ARISE NEWS: You talked about Caesar and God as part of the problems we have in Nigeria, Can we resolve that conflict between Caesar and God as we move towards a new transition in Nigerian politics? And you said the system has broken down and you provided more than enough illustration of how we fix this broken system called Nigeria.

Bishop Kukah: Well, Dr Abati, remember that every Nigerian who raised his hands to say he wanted to be president or governor told us what they were going to do. And I have never taken President Buhari out of the promises he made to Nigerians.

And I am saying to his so-called spokesperson, let them tell me and give us chapter and verse and tell me all the promises that were made. There is a box we can tick. For me, those are the issues we should be talking about. The people who are now telling you they want to be your president is because they believe that they will solve the problems of Nigeria. And your responsibility and duty, and I put it in my statement, we must now look at a gift horse in the mouth. We are no longer interested in the promise you are making because politics in Nigeria has always been surrounded where all these parties, the PDP, APC, they just carry their people, pay a few women and poor people to gather in the stadium for few minutes and clap for themselves and everybody goes home.

We must now insist, because we are better educated than the people asking for these positions on the other side. This is where the professors are, and this is why we have this great tragedy that the universities of Nigeria have not been given the respect that they deserve.

And the fact that our universities are closed suggests that we have opted and opened the doors for the bandits. So most of these things that we are talking about are a result of politics without the refiining ingredients of intellectualism and diagnoses.

It is our duty and it is the business of the media, and I thank This Day for now opening up this opportunity, but it should not be a monologue. Nigerians, we must create the opportunity to be able to interrogate all these people and design the mechanisms because the reasons why people like us are talking, my opponents like the spokespersons of the president, think that we have cast our votes, let us all go to sleep. And the obligation we have is to pray for our leaders.

And that takes me to answer your question about Caesar and God. Dr Abati, I am a priest and I have studied a bit of theology, so I understand this issue. So I am not going to take lectures from illiterates who do not understand scripture. The idea of the debates between Caesar and God, if you remember the text in the Bible, what was the issue? They approached Jesus and they said, are we to pay a tax to Caesar or what are we supposed to do? Jesus responded and said give me the coin, whose Image was on the coin? And they responded, it was that of Caesar. Then Jesus said to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And give to God what belongs to God.

Nigerians in their naivety, let me say secular analysts across the world, have taken this to mean that Jesus was talking about the separation of religion and politics only superficially.

The real context of what Jesus was saying, which you could only insinuate by extrapolation Jesus said okay the coin belongs to Caesar, so Caesar has dominion over the coin. But who is Cesar answerable to?. Cesar is answerable to God. Therefore, the coin and Caesar belong to God.

And that is why you say politics should be an art, it is a call from God and it should be an art of serving God. So those who think that what Jesus was saying is that politics is here and religion is here, and all these journalists who are talking to me, ‘bishop please go back if you want to be a politician‘; you are journalists, were you trained to go and work for any president?

I understand that I am political but I am not a politician.