Bishop Kukah: Four Decades of Exceptional Service to God and Humanity
By Justine Dyikuk

The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, His Excellency, Most Rev. Mathew Hassan Kukah will be forty years as a Catholic Priest on 19 December 2016. This man of God needs no introduction in Nigeria. The quintessential ecclesiastical and elder statesman is a remarkable Nigerian who has stood tall in both spiritual and secular affairs. While the preparations for the celebration of these forty years of faithfulness in the service of God and humanity for this servant of God are in top gear, it is essential to give honour to whom honour is due. Indeed, we know the celebrant as someone who is not only an idealist in the sense of one who has the theoretical framework of where he wants Nigeria to be but also “a brutal realist” as Africa Confidential describes him, who constantly gives a proviso of how Nigeria should work based on his many years of contact with the faithful on the pastoral field, people of divergent creeds at ecumenical gatherings, academics at scholarly fora and governments at local, state, federal and international levels.

While it is not easy to describe a man of all seasons in few words, it is worth recalling that it is the likes of Matthew Kukah, Tai Solarin and Wole Soyinka who defied time and circumstances to engage various military juntas head-on for what we are currently enjoying. These prophets and other veteran Nigerian journalists, whom we don’t often remember such as, Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed and Ray Ekpu, from 1984 fearlessly taunted various military regimes regarding Nigeria’s chronic underdevelopment for a return to civil rule. His appointment as a member of the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission of the Federal Government of Nigeria which took place between 1999-2002, Secretary of the National Political Reform Conference from February to July 2005, Chairman of the Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation by Federal Government in 2005 and a member of the Electoral Reform Committee from 2007 to 2009, places him as a timeless elder statesman whose testimony is always trustworthy. Kukah-effect is felt in the area of promoting ethno-religious understanding across fault lines in Nigeria. It would be recalled that at the Northern Peace Conference which was organised by the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, and held in Kaduna on 7 December 2011, the Peace Ambassador who spoke on the “Roots of ethno-religious crises in Northern Nigeria” accused religious leaders of conniving with politicians to perpetuate injustice on the people through sectionalising their religious views while stressing: “For me, if Christians in Kebbi, Zamfara are complaining, let Muslims, too, in other places complain so that we begin to have good ways of overcoming these challenges. We need a society that is struggling to ensure equality.”

Little wonder then, Nigeria’s influential Leadership Newspaper called the diminutive but outspoken Kukah “ a rabble-rouser for peace” comparing his role in the country as an advocate of Catholic social teaching to that of St. John Paul II in Poland or Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.

His Harvard pedigree as well as vast years of experience and knowledge in Nigeria’s history has afforded him a wide range of opportunities for addressing the challenges confronting Nigeria. While speaking at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) Christmas carol at the National Christian Centre, Abuja on 11 December 2011, Bishop Kukah had said unless the government allows true democracy where citizens would be free to express their feelings, crises may continue to bedevil the country.

“Any system of government that denies ordinary citizens the opportunity to express their fears, to express their anxiety is courting trouble because these emotions would find explosion elsewhere. We have enough evidence on our highways.” As usual, he did not only give a single narrative as he insisted that the citizenry too has an invaluable role to play in nation building.  “We don’t expect government to do everything for us. All of us love this country with all our heart” the cleric noted.

He is no stranger to criticisms – Well, His Master, the Lord Jesus Christ is a sign of contradiction. This appears to why he is not afraid of giving his honest assessment of the state of affairs, any time. He talks truth to power without mincing words. In an article which was published in Bauchi Caritas Catholic Newspaper titled, “Kukah: The Amos of our Time,” Rev. Fr. Sylvester Jalo has this to say about the man of the moment: “Like Amos, Kukah is not slow to call a spade by its name when it becomes necessary. Unlike other self-seeking prophets who keep quiet in the face of evil, he talks truth to power cutting across political and religious circles. Amidst many people who parade themselves as prophets in Nigeria today, the prelate distinguishes himself as one who blends his ministry as a priest with a prophetic outcry for justice, love and compassion for the common man.”    

Jalo continues: “In the search for justice for the oppressed and bread for the hungry in Nigeria, he had learned how to speak without mincing words not minding whose ox is gored. He has resolutely refused to toe the line of simplistic and defeatist philosophy of 'If you cannot beat them, join them'”  while stating that he is “a person of great substance of faith, good morals, a patriotic citizen and dedicated servant of God, a Church Father and overall, a well meaning Nigerian who desires a better life for generality of Nigerians especially those at the margins of society.” For Vatican analyst John Allen, “What’s not up for argument is that in this vast, fascinating, and endlessly conflicted African superpower, Kukah’s is a voice that matters.” In like manner, Africa Confidential had said of him: “His disinterest in taking up partisan positions in Nigeria and his drive to bring the country together gives Kukah an important role as both actor in Nigeria's political dramas and spokesman for those Nigerian nationalists who have been trying to push the country forward.” He is one Bishop that is identified with a mighty voice and a mighty pen. Francis Cardinal Arinze and Jean-Loius Cardinal Tuaran had hoped that Kukah’s episcopacy in the seat of the Caliphate would be an opportunity for the Catholic Church to promote Christian-Muslim understanding and collaboration in Nigeria. Former president Goodluck Jonathan has this to say about Kukah: “Your worthy antecedents of unbridled patriotism, clarity of thought, selfless service, unwavering courage, and enduring belief in our nation’s great potentials for abiding greatness have come to signpost your life of fulfilment and distinguished service to God and country.”

On his part, General Muhammadu Buhari, now President Muhammadu Buhari said: “You have earned the respect of the Nigerian society across religious, ethnic and cultural divides as a result of your moral uprightness and intellectual achievements” but noted, “I am personally apprehensive whether the demand of your new office may deny the nation your effective participation in some of the sensitive decision making processes.”

Way back the year 2000, British journalist Karl Maier, who reported from Nigeria for the Independent, captured Kukah as: “Gregarious yet serious, intellectual but down-to-earth, small and compact but bursting with enough energy for two men, Father Kukah is somewhat of a phenomenon …. He travels the world and is on good terms with the present and past heads of state; he is the local boy who made good, a symbol that it is possible for someone from this forgotten part of Nigeria to make a mark.”

Bishop Kukah is one Priest and Bishop who continues to live a lasting legacy for young priests in Nigeria and beyond. Former President Olesegun Obasanjo had this to say about Kukah: “I know that in addition to the seriousness and single-minded with which you attend to and address your pastoral work and responsibility, you gave no less attention to those national assignments with the permission of your Bishop...” He never allowed any of the positions he held in public life to distract him from his calling as a priest and eventually as a Bishop. By being an obedient son of the Church, he teaches clerics obedience and servant leadership epitomised by Jesus Christ. He is one of the few Nigerians who have added their voices in the counter insurgency efforts of the Federal Government. Delivering a public lecture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, on the topic, “After the Insurgency: Some thoughts on Reconciliation Nigeria,” on 27 March  2014, the academician after identifying the remote and immediate causes of the menace advised the Federal Government to expedite action in establishing a Counter Terrorism Unit and diagnosing the problem of the Boko Haram imbroglio.

The Bishop also gave developing a proper understanding of governance, eradicating poverty, discovering the key strategy of the insurgents and filling the leadership vacuum which brought about the insurgency as possible panacea. He further identified appreciating history, reviewing the role of the military in our democracy and evaluating the challenge of leadership and recruitment to public life in Nigeria as helpful counter insurgency strategies.

The KUKAH CENTRE (TKC), Nigeria-based policy research institute is the Bishop’s pet project aimed at delivering on the dividends of faith, leadership and public policy. Disclosing the purpose of the centre at the Nsukka lecture, he noted: “Presently, I have set up what I call, The KUKAH CENTRE as a nursery bed for generating new ideas. I am frustrated by the seeming death of the rigour of debate, controversy and the constant confrontation with the demons of injustice...” He continues: “If scholars do not wrestle the demons that threaten our collective present and future, we will remain hostages to nightmares, convulsing in swivel chairs, turning and turning but going nowhere. By the Kukah Centre, we are trying our best to see if now and in the future, we can light more candles rather than cursing the darkness.” This is without doubt one institution that has come to stay.

In demand for a just and egalitarian society, he has served as a mediator, an analyst, and a shepherd bringing justice, fair play and succour to the common man. Kukah is a man of all times - he has proved to us that it is possible to dine with government and political office holders and be different. Perhaps it is why governments fear him, civil society groups long to hear him, academicians honour him and commoners celebrate him – not as a super hero but as a humble priest who struggles to witness in season and out of season. Like Pope Francis, who was 47 years as a priest on 13 December 2016, he is one of the few privileged priests who have crossed 40 yet are strong and in active service.

Born on 31 August 1952, he attended the St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary, Zaria, Kaduna State and graduated in 1970. Thereupon, he went to the prestigious St. Augustine’s Major Seminary, Jos, Plateau State where he obtained a Bachelor of Divinity and Diploma in Religious Studies from the University of Ibadan in 1976. He had his post-graduate studies at University of Bradford, UK where he obtained a Master in Peace Studies (1981); a PhD in London University (1990) and a Masters in Public Policy at the JF Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (2004). Kukah was a Senior Rhodes Fellow at the Oxford University (St. Anthony’s College) between 2001 and 2003.

The Prelate was ordained a priest on 19 December 1976 and worked as an Associate Parish Priest in Kaduna from 1977 to 78; he was a lecturer and Dean of Studies at St. Augustine’s Seminary, Jos (1978-79; he also served as Rector of the Junior Seminary in Zaria (1981-82).  Among other appointments, he was the parish priest of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, Kakuri, Kaduna as well as the Vicar General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kaduna in 2004.

It was while he was Vicar General that Pope Francis appointed him on 10 June 2011 to succeed Bishop Kevin Aje who had reached the ripe age of retirement. He was subsequently installed as the 4th Bishop of Sokoto Diocese at the trade fair ground Sokoto on 8 September 2011 amidst a mammoth crowd of priests, religious, lay faithful, traditional rulers and top government functionaries from in and around the country.

Kukah’s engagements are, no doubt, also based on his track-records and assessment of past and present socio-political realities which have stunted our growth as a nation. He has indeed used his life and ministry as a place of encounter. As one who believes in Nigeria, Kukah has consistently maintained that building statecraft involves the citizenry and all stakeholders – he believes that state architecture would improve if leaders and the led do the needful. Since students of Sport, Media and Culture at Staffordshire University, UK are fortunate to study a weighty subject as David Beckham as part of their degree, I look forward to when a weightier personage like Matthew Hassan Kukah will be studied in our universities. Until, then, as we roll out the drums in celebrating this faithful priest of God, we pray that his episcopacy will continue to bring the much needed witness Nigeria needs to be counted among the comity of nations. God bless Bishop Kukah as he turns 40 years as a priest in the Order of Melchizedek – Ad multos annos!

Fr. Justine Dyikuk is a blogger and a freelancer. He is also the Editor of Bauchi Caritas Catholic Newspaper and the Communication’s Director of Bauchi Diocese. He can be reached through – justinejohndyikuk@gmail.com.



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