The Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Matthew Kukah,
tells TOBI AWORINDEthat the foundation for the Boko Haram crisis in
parts of the North was laid years back by leaders of the region
It’s over six months since the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls.
Should the Federal Government/military have taken more dire measures
I know that we are anxious and, like every citizen, the feeling of
hopelessness is numbing and even humiliating. But what is most
important to the girls, their parents and us all is their safety,
sanity and life. I want to believe the government and our military are
doing their best, given the seeming cynical, hypocritical posturing of
some of our international friends who love our oil and care about
milking us more than they love us. Whatever it takes, whenever they
are free, we want to see them alive and hopefully healthy. Their
healing is another project, but I do not believe that their
predicament is the result of the lack of will on the part of the
government or the military agencies.
The military has become the subject of many scandals these past few
weeks. One of such scandals is the beheading of one its pilots, which
it denied, despite a number of confirmatory reactions by family
members and friends proving Boko Haram had killed him. How would you
react to the military’s response to the development?
These are life-and-death issues and they should not be the subject of
politics. I am saddened that, in pursuance of our obsession with
self-flagellation, we prefer to believe Boko Haram propaganda or any
propaganda that makes our military look bad. Each and every one of us
is a soldier, a security agent. We are all in this together and we
shall either hang together or hang separately.
No country behaves the way we do. I know that our public officers have
not inspired us and that they have left too much to be desired, but no
one abuses his father, husband or wife in public. I have been a critic
of the military, politics and all aspects of national life. But these
are not normal times. As they say, you have to drive the hawk before
you scold the chickens. This is not President Goodluck Jonathan’s war.
He is here today, gone tomorrow, and Nigeria will be here.
We cannot make the issue of the tragic death of a patriot a matter of
speculative cheap talk. He has a family, he has died for our country
and what his family needs is emotional support. We are in a war and
misleading propaganda, lies and half-truths are the subject of every
war. Why should the military be allowed to fight Boko Haram and then
turn around to defend itself against a cynical populace?
I recall a minor incident in 1970 just after the war. We were playing
football when a soldier passed. One of my friends was laughing at
something and the soldier thought he was laughing at him. He started
pursuing the boy, who ran and ran until he vanished. The soldier came
back panting, cursing and we heard him say, ‘Bastard, do you think I
sold this eye in the market for money?’ It was then we realised he had
one eye, he had obviously lost one in the war and he assumed the boy
was laughing at him. I have not forgotten that incident. But that is
how painful these things are.
Not a few have called for the beheaded pilot to be honoured as a
national hero. Do you agree?
Anyone who lays down his life for his country deserves the highest
honour. We have sinned against our heroes, whether in sports, the
military or any other area. You see how much premium is placed on the
ceremonies of a dead American, British or Italian soldier. The fault
is in the government and the military itself. But you media men and
women should do more; much, much more.
Again, the military was listed among perpetrators of torture in
Nigeria, according to an Amnesty International report. What is your
take on the allegations against the military?
This question is annoying, very annoying. You know human rights are at
the top of my agenda. But please, why has Amnesty International not
done a report on human rights in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United
Kingdom, Italy or the United States and so on? Why did they not do
reports on Guantanamo Bay or on waterboarding or the wars in
Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and and so on? When the big powers make human
lives look like nothing, they are not interested. Human life and human
rights are a leveller.
When you are facing life and death, what do you expect soldiers to do?
There are rules guiding war, as contained in the Geneva Convention,
and these are what we should be focusing on. But everyone knows that
when difficulties of war set in, no one goes around waving these
What is more, the United States knew about all these rules and it
still found its way by changing the international and national
vocabularies. (American politician and businessman) Donald Rumsfeld’s
memoir, ‘Known and unknown,’ has a chapter dedicated to how the United
States literally suspended, twisted or broke every rule in the game to
clear the way for its fight. The section is called Law in a Time of
War; that is, law as warfare in a time of war. His accounts are
fascinating but they cleared the way for the kind of terrible, gross
violations that Amnesty International should have been concerned
First, to avoid the United Nations Convention on treatment of
prisoners of war, the Americans invented the idea of referring to Al
Qaeda suspects as unlawful combatants. And secondly, to clear the way
for them to get away with bending, twisting and breaking the law, they
took their case to a legal no-man’s land called Guantanamo Bay, where
the only laws were the ones they made or invented as they went along.
Please, read me right and read me carefully: I respect Amnesty
International and I admire the great work they do. However, I worry
that flogging poor countries has become their pastime and they are
setting one law for the big boys and another for the lesser mortals.
War is the final breakdown of respect for life and under those
circumstances, too many bad things happen to poor innocent people. But
our military must be held accountable by the laws of war, so as not to
create the impression that we are in a tea party. Why is Amnesty
International oblivious to the lives that Boko Haram is destroying? I
have spoken out against the unacceptable mistakes and excesses of our
soldiers as it concerns innocent civilians, women and children and we
must keep condemning them. But we must not behave as if these are
According to Amnesty, Nigeria is among the group of countries that
signed a pact about seven years ago to denounce torture as an illegal
act. As a country, are we not to be worried that, according the
report, Nigeria, as well, uses torture as a means of carrying out
Read my book, ‘Witness to justice.’ I have a whole long chapter on
torture. There is the ticking-bomb theory in torture, which argues
thus: Imagine that a man has planted a bomb somewhere and it is timed
to go off. You are holding the man and he refuses to give you
information, what will you do? Should you respect his right not to be
tortured or should the right of those who face impending death trump
his own life? We have seen from the stories of kidnappers and payment
of ransom that some of these arguments are really academic. There is
overwhelming evidence now that some western countries that pay ransom
under the table have inadvertently been funding Boko Haram, and Boko
Haram has realised that white people have more economic value. So,
again, it depends on what side of the fence you are sitting on. There
are no moral absolutes and these issues are not as easy as they seem.
What is your take on the recent trend of mutiny in the military?
Which mutiny? They are being tried. But, I do hope that the military
is merely going through the process. These young men are victims of a
bad war already. We are fighting a fratricidal war and not fighting
outsiders. It is bad and sad enough that Boko Haram has set us against
ourselves. The military high command must know that we will confront
them with our moral guns if they attempt to kill anyone. Let them
serve some punishment, be retired and sent home. But death? Forget it.
Many feel that the Boko Haram insurgency is all about eliminating
Christians in the North. What do you feel?
This is a tough question and it is the subject of a book or a Ph.D
thesis. I will try and summarise my views for you. Please, be patient
because I will give you a very long, short answer. Those of us who are
far away from the scene can be romantic about our theories, but
Muslims in Nigeria have to deal with many problems themselves. They
have to address questions about perception of their religion and how
they left the door open. They have to deal with the level of honesty
about their relations with Christians or, should I say, non-Muslims
beyond the moral platitudes.
As we are talking now, it has been reported by the Catholic Diocese of
Maiduguri that about 185 churches have been burnt by Boko Haram. I am
in touch and know the painful stories of the church under crucifixion.
The question is not how many mosques, if any, have been burnt. So, how
else can we remove a religious dimension to this? But this is only
half of the story because it raises other questions: Why is this
happening only in northern Nigeria? Muslims in the South-West of
Nigeria have not gone around burning churches and killing people or
destroying the properties of Christians. Northern Muslims must answer
why this ugliness is peculiar to their region and their version of
There are immediate, short- and medium-term explanations and I may not
be correct, even in my analysis. However, I believe that there has
been too much hypocrisy in northern Islam, based on how the elite have
used the religion to deceive, belittle even their own people.
Secondly, some of their leaders have thrived in pretending to place
Islam over and above their nation, not to talk of other minorities
within their enclaves. When you deny Christians chances to go on
pilgrimages; when you build hundreds of mosques and deny Christians
lands; when you deny non-Muslims places in the bureaucracy or in
public life, what are you saying to your children? When you privilege
one group and make the other feel inferior, you are opening the window
and the young people growing up can see the difference between Cain
and Abel. When you pretend that we are children of the same father,
and you openly discriminate against me, one of us must be a bastard.
Years of this apartheid have sown the seeds of a feeling of
superiority and that is why these youths treat Christians and
properties with seeming contempt. When our churches became objects of
target practice, all these years, the leaders merely looked the other
way or stayed in silence or fear. The children of Boko Haram have been
fed by this sour broth of hate. This is what has bred the bitterness
that the northern Christian minorities feel, and time is running out.
There is need to discuss these issues for the survival of the region,
but where is the leadership with courage to summon us to the table?
My brother and friend, the Sultan, has shown courage and I have known
him for some time. But, like all religious leaders, he has only a
moral voice and there are those who do not necessarily support his
openness and courage. He has spoken out on some of these issues, the
real challenge is for the politicians to wake up and walk the talk.
The President has to do more to protect minorities and to ensure their
constitutional rights, especially in the area of religious liberty.
What will you say concerning the issue of the insurgency being reduced
to politics, especially between the All Progressives Congress and the
Peoples Democratic Party?
Even if we are powerless, God will not forgive anyone who uses our
tragedy for politics from whichever side. This country has been so
severely wounded; our future depends on fixing it and Nigerians must
distance themselves from anyone who offers any simplistic solution to
this problem. In moments of crisis, real politicians adopt
bipartisanship. I have said it over and over, we have to have a
country before these cowboys can have access to loot the treasury and
head to Dubai for their sickening orgies. Tragically, we have no
political class. All we have are men and women who are out like
vultures circling around the carcass of the Nigerian state.
Does it really matter if we have a Muslim-Muslim or
Christian-Christian presidential ticket in the country?
Having a ticket is not enough if you have no idea of the destination.
We are the ones who continue to hoist this nonsense by constructing
dubious identities. What difference does it make if the Muslim-Muslim
or Christian-Christian tickets are bandits out to kill you. Should you
simply sit and be killed by someone because he shares your church or
mosque? You would wisely say you want your life and it does not help
if you are killed by your mother or an armed robber. You are
Some have called for devolution of powers. Is that really the country’s problem?
Whenever we run out of ideas, we simply drop one more word. The words
are both imprecise and they never say anything new and then Nigerians
grab it and present it as a solution to our problems. Power-shift,
rotation, zoning, true federalism, and so on—all absolute
nonsense—because even those who use them have not spent time
reflecting on them. When anyone of these expressions becomes popular,
they are bandied as the solution to our nation’s ills.
The issues of how best to resolve our problems is the subject of far
more serious reflections requiring deep mental acumen, which our
politicians do not possess and are not predisposed to deal with. We
imbibed the culture of dreading long grammar, which is another way of
saying we do not wish to be called to account, to submit to logic and
deep thinking. We thought merely expanding the political space through
state and local government creations was a solution. But we have come
to a dead end and are looking like the mother who thinks she can solve
the problem of family greed by simply giving the children more empty
plates rather than food.
What will you advise people of various faiths, as 2015 elections approach?
I am not a bishop of various faiths. I am a citizen of Nigeria first,
who happens to be holding an office of a Bishop of the Catholic
Church. My choice as a citizen should be far more important than some
narrow consideration. We continue to use religion as an excuse for not
doing our duties as citizens.
Regarding the controversy surrounding $9.3m, what would you say are
the effects of this on the average Nigerian?
I have neither seen the money, the plane nor the arms. How should a
mere $9.3m affect an average Nigerian, when billions lost to fuel
subsidy have not killed us? If cancer did not kill you, why should a
boil kill you? It is the least of my worries now.
There has been a lot of backlash against the President of the
Christian Association of Nigeria, Ayo Oritsejafor. How do you feel
about the criticisms?
I am not Pastor Ayo. After all, as the Hausa say, you cannot eat
onions by borrowing someone’s mouth. If his back is lashed, how can I
answer for him?
Some want the Catholic body to completely pull out of CAN. Do you support this?
There is no one in the Catholic Church called ‘some.’ The Catholic
Church existed before CAN and it fathered and mothered CAN. We do not
look at the direction of the wind to take our decision.
With the 2015 elections around the corner, do you think the heavy
militarisation of the last elections of Ekiti and Osun could serve as
a positive reference point for Nigeria’s democracy?
I have not monitored elections in a long time and I was neither in
Ekiti nor Osun. I am not sure they necessarily affected the outcomes
based on what I heard from those who were there.
Many see 2015 as being a critical factor of Nigeria’s unity. How
important are the 2015 elections to Nigeria?
2015 is a date on our calendar. It will come and go. People will die
and others will be born. People will win and lose elections and so on.
How do you see the electorate having a voice in deciding the leader they get?
By going out to register. The ballot paper is the voice. So, no ballot
paper, no voice.
What would you consider to be the recipe for conducting a peaceful,
free, fair and credible 2015 election?
Ask my friend, Professor Attahiru Jega, who is paid to ensure that.
The Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Matthew Kukah,