Matthew Kukah: Bishopric beyond the cathedral

Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of the Sokoto Diocese, recently celebrated his 70th birthday with a renewed effort at deepening the Nigerian leadership trajectory. Kukah, to many Nigerians, is one man that has taken his bishopric beyond the walls of the cathedral.

As a Catholic priest, he does not only preach peace; he acts and lives it on a day-to-day basis by his exemplary lifestyle and the role he plays.

As an apostle of peace, he champions peace initiatives, not only in Christendom, but also in larger society. His campaign for a responsible and responsive government was evident in his fight against bad government, which birthed the launch of a N200 million Kukah Leadership Centre; an initiative geared towards grooming future leaders.

Kukah was ordained a priest in Kaduna in 1976 at age 24. In addition to his work as a parish priest, until his elevation as a bishop, he was the secretary of the National Political Reform Conference (2005) and from 2005 onwards he served as the chairman of Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation. Additionally, he was in the committee for electoral reforms from 2007 to 2009.

In nearly 46 years as a priest, Kukah has combined pastoral, civic and intellectual roles. After the completion of his PhD, Kukah returned to Nigeria where he worked, first as the deputy secretary-general and then secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria. He would later return to Kaduna as the Vicar-General of the Kaduna Archdiocese, from which role the Pope consecrated him as the first Nigerian Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto on 8 September, 2011.

Kukah received his primary education at St. Fidelis Primary School, Zagon; St Joseph Minor Seminary, Zaria, before proceeding to St. Augustine Major Seminary, Jos, Plateau State, where he studied Philosophy and Theology. He was ordained a Catholic priest on December 19, 1976.

Later, he obtained a diploma in Religious Studies, University of Ibadan; Bachelor of Divinity, Urban University Rome; Masters in Peace Studies, University of Bradford; and PhD, Political Science, University of London.

Campaign against bad governance

Kukah, has always been candid about his love for good governance in reference to the Holy book, which says; “When the righteous are in power, the people rejoice”. To this end, he used and continues to use the pulpit as a vehicle to promote social justice, peace and unity of the country.

Kukah is well known for speaking truth to power, just as he spoke against corruption and nepotism. His messages (homilies) as the Catholics would call it are directed against societal ills, which are always seen as an attack against the federal government, especially by those who handle the image of the government.

“For his troubles, Kukah inspires both deep admiration and committed attacks in equal measure. Not for once, he has been accused of “mixing several issues up and missing the point once again.” In point of fact, however, it is Nigeria’s rulers and their enablers who have chronically missed the point and habitually mixed up issues.

“It is easy to attack those who point this out and who, with equal persistence, seek to make the point that there is nothing inevitable in the Nigerian condition. As he turns 70 on 31 August, it is fair to say Bishop Kukah has earned his place as both the doyen of this vanishing breed and as the voice of a country in search of a conscience to hold it to account,” Chidi Odinkalu, a lawyer and former chairman of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission, wrote in a recent publication on Kukah’s 70th birthday.

Despite what some Nigerians think about him, particularly those in government, the Bishop strongly believes he is not an enemy to government or those in government, but that his insistence on good governance is in the interest of one and all.

Read also: Osun: X-raying Kukah peace committee and militarisation of electoral environment

Over the years, he has become a household name in Nigeria, as citizens see him as their Spokesman and Defender of the defenseless.

Many Nigerians see him as the Desmond Tutu of Nigeria.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was a South African Anglican bishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. He was Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, in both cases being the first black African to hold the position.

Campaign for responsible and responsive government

Over the years, Kukah has been unrelenting in his campaign for a responsible and responsive government. In April, 2022, Kukah demanded for ethical responsibility in governance. According to him, the political class deceived and continues to deceive already pauperised and groaning masses with all sorts of immoral acts.

“Ethics in the political arena is an imperative mix for every qualitative leadership both politically and otherwise. Doubtlessly, the state of things in Nigeria has turned topsy turvy. It’s so sad, that in an era of betrayals, nothing positive seems to be coming the way of millions of Nigerians. Our political leadership is misty with discouragements, fraud, sufferings, undemocratic inanities, hunger and official immorality and gobbledygook”.

However, in August, Kukah stated that the president Buhari led administration has lost the moral right to fight Boko Haram based on the government’s political appointment records. “… I have said that Buhari’s recruitment process has the tendency to cause a threat because we have lost the moral right to quarrel with Boko Haram, who says unless you accept our way, you will die”.

As such it is not surprising that the Kukah Centre seeks to secure the future by raising and training leaders for the next generation. “We need leadership with responsibility that will provide us with security, justice and equity and democracy dividends. He called the Nigerian elites in all corners of governance and followership to be proactively and responsibly involved in shaping a livable Nigerian climate.

“Too much blood has been spilled through insecurity, yet our security echelon is ornamented with vain and crazy encomiums. Our youth have been recklessly abandoned by the government, while thugs and election riggers are rewarded with works and contracts. We don’t have good roads, because our leaders hurtfully fly above the skies and clouds”.

Peace initiatives

Upon Nigerians return to democratic rule in 1999, the Olusegun Obasanjo led administration thought it wise to deepen the peace among all the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria by constituting a Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (known as the Oputa Panel).

Kukah combined his role in the Catholic Secretariat with service as the secretary of the Oputa Panel. Three years later, he also headed the secretariat of President Obasanjo’s National Political Reforms Conference (NPRC) in 2005. His being part of the National Peace Committee, alongside the former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, has helped to ensure peace at during elections in the country.

His inter-faith dialogue has promoted conversations among the nation’s faith communities, as well as between faith leaders and public policymakers. Kukah is seen differently by many people. While some people see him as a spiteful irritant, others believe he is a beacon of hope and progress. His position on every issue is very clear and concise.

Similarly, his inter-faith dialogue made him a champion of respectful and cordial Christian-Muslim relations. Kukah served as chairman of the committee on Interreligious Dialogue in Nigeria and West Africa and was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

His Kukah Centre for Leadership has grown steadily in reputation and strength that today it is regarded as one of the best of such centres in Africa. The Kukah Centre is basically involved in fostering inter-faith dialogue, good governance, leadership development, memory preservation and knowledge promotion. These programmes are geared towards ensuring the much-needed national development; through memory preservation and knowledge promotion, the centre has raised awareness on critical issues of national and historical importance with active engagement of stakeholders.

Through the centre, the bishop carries out a lot of scholarship, and philanthropic activities.

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