Hold politicians’ feet to fire, Bishop Kukah tells Nigerians

Bishop Matthew Kukah of the Sokoto Diocese of the Catholic Church is the Convener of the National Peace Committee which has been getting stakeholders to commit to peace in elections in Nigeria by signing Accords.

The Committee parades eminent Nigerians as members with General Abdulsalami A. Abubakar, GCFR as Chairman and the latest of such Accords was signed ahead of the Kogi, Bayelsa and Imo governorship polls. Before Kukah’s involvement with the National Peace Committee, he had been part of many other national assignments including the Oputa Panel which, under the Obasanjo presidency, investigated human rights abuses in the country.

In this explosive interview, the Bishop speaks on the job of the National Peace Committee, how Nigerians can grow institutions around which democracy functions, the fallout of the Supreme Court judgments on the 2023 presidential election, the Tinubu administration, the concept of justice and the Oputa Panel among other issues. Excerpts:

People praised the idea of the National Peace Accord when it started. Looking back, do you think stakeholders in the political space fulfill its terms during election seasons?

 I think there is a total misconception of the work of the Peace Committee and we continue to hear people say the agreement has been signed, yet nothing has happened. Therefore leading to a question like what is the Peace Committee doing about it? Let me repeat what I have always said in response to all these. For those married, two people come together; they gather people in the church or mosque as the case may be, and the people who come around, come at the invitation of those getting married.

They pledge to love each other and honour each other until death do them part. Now, the promises that we all make are subject to different circumstances and conditions. Merely making the promises is no guarantee that life is going to be humpty dumpty. No. As problems emerge, families have to find a way of resolving those problems, while keeping their eyes ahead of what marital stability ought to be. Similarly, when we call people to sign onto the Peace Accord, we also have a duty and responsibility to engage them. That means ordinary Nigerians should acquaint themselves with the contents of the peace statement that is being signed because I think this is what is seriously missing in the Nigerian democracy.

You can get into the most expensive Lamborghini, but if you just sit in it and do nothing, it will not move by itself. Nigerians think that after we have elected people, all we need to do is go play golf and continue with our lives, read the news or write the news and go to the market that people are going to trust us and do what is in our best interests. Collectively, as priests and civil society, we all must continue to hold the feet of these people to fire. They are not perfect people. Poll after poll has always illustrated that politicians all over the world, not just in Nigeria, are the least trusted category of human beings.

Despite that, people kill themselves to get into public life. The United Nations poll showed very clearly that the most trusted people are medical doctors, next to them are hairdressers. The point made is that the Peace Accord is merely a symbolic gesture; the rest of its fulfillment is left to the commitment of Nigerians to hold their political actors to account.

Is there a time that we will carry out research on the culture of electoral violence including snatching of ballot boxes which herald our elections?

 Happily, there are no ballot boxes to be snatched again. If that were to happen, things have changed dramatically. I was reading an article a few days ago written by a former British Prime Minister, John Major. He made a point that he delivered a speech somewhere and he asked those in the audience who believed that Britain has lived up to the spirit and letter of its laws after 850 years to raise their hands and not a single hand went up. I think we have engaged in too much self-flagellation and that is largely as a result of the communication facilities and all things that are now available to us to see all that is happening elsewhere. Truth be told, these processes take time when we talk about institutions.

Nigeria became independent in 1960, and we beat ourselves everyday asking why we are not like America and other countries. Again, ask yourself this question: Is it just an election? When the Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ, comes together to organise an election, is it different from what happens nationally? Even in the elections of priests and bishops, there are tensions, even in processes that are supposed to be divine. Is there any single thing involving elections that is not the subject of contestation? You watch football and see what happens. We must place these things in proper context. What is 23 years in the life of a nation? Because traffic is a bit slow on the other side. The infrastructure and institutions of state are severely weakened, they are corrupted but we must also not forget these processes and everything that involves a contest takes time. It is part and parcel of life, but what makes our elections so tense is that this is Nigeria, a heck of a country with extraordinarily intelligent and brilliant people who cannot lower the bar of their expectations and there is nothing wrong with that. It is natural that we will have these contestations. The question is for us to grow the institutions around which democracy functions. Again, to radically struggle to ensure that the hands of the judiciary are tied behind their backs and they have nothing to do with electoral outcomes.

That means academicians, intellectuals and civil society groups must debate the issues with the National Assembly and hope that we can amend the laws because it is the nature and quality of the laws that are eliciting this kind of reaction. Truth be told, I think that we are relatively new in this game and we are not getting what we deserve, but I think that we must keep our eyes on the ball and know that the next election should be better than the next. We have lived in this country, and we know that ordinarily that there are things that have happened in this country that if it happened 20 or 30 years ago, we would have been living under the military but the fact that even the soldiers themselves have decided to keep their hands behind their backs and the fact that no editorials have been written calling for military takeover shows that Nigerians are committed to a democratic culture. It is long in coming, but we must continue relentlessly because it is the only guarantee against war and returning to the state of nature.

Considering that the Supreme Court has upheld the election of President Bola Tinubu, what do you think of the administration? Do you think it is getting its priorities right? What are your impressions?

 Let me start by saying I read both Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi’s statements which should be the stuff of seminars and the struggle for regeneration. I think those statements are worthy of note. To talk about this current administration, I don’t want to say it is too early, but for me, one of the biggest challenges that this government has faced from the very beginning is the quality of its communication and the qualities of the kind of strategies that it has in terms of communicating with Nigerians. I think that the people’s hearts may be in the right place but I think that the quality of decisions that have been made so far, whether it is the removal of fuel subsidy, certain policy decisions have unleashed untold suffering on ordinary Nigerians and everybody can see it. I think the government needs to have a conversation that suggests to ordinary Nigerians that, “no, we are on the road to Golgotha, but guess what? There is going to be redemption and we need a sequencing of outcomes. If we do this, suffer for a period of time, this is what we are going to see.” I think that hasn’t come out. I think it is a little bit too early in the day for us to see things one way or the other, but given the volatility in the market and its impacts in the lives of ordinary Nigerians, this government’s intentions need to be properly articulated, otherwise people are going to get very despondent sooner or later despite the good intentions. I think on balance, there is very little anybody can do except to prepare for the next election and to strategically figure out how to engage the government. In the area of policy, there needs to be a much clearer articulation of what government intentions are. We need to have an idea of how long this ‘suffering’ is going to last, what are we to expect, when and how? I think these are the critical issues.

Don’t you think saying six months is early is lowering the standard because some will argue that six months are enough to outline a roadmap and start to show signs?

 As a metaphor, it can’t be better than when you get into a plane and when the plane is about to land, the cabin crew tells you to be careful when opening the lockers because items may have shifted during flight, and as a result, items could fall and cause injury when the locker is opened. What I am saying is that Tinubu had over 20 years of intense preparation for this, but the process of team selection in Nigeria creates its own problems. The idea that a Nigerian President must choose 40 or 42 ministers, and, as you saw in the administration, you have to go back to beg the governors who say they gave you the election. I feel sorry for a Nigerian President because elsewhere, you will be dealing with Curriculum Vitae and letters that have been generated over a period of time.

A Nigerian President should spend a lot of time looking at the best person to run a ministry so that he would literally hit the ground running, but I think that the structure is so self-constraining. I am not making excuses for anybody and I am just saying the very fact that you have to rely on governors to give you the names of ministers and you rely on external agencies to be able to do things that ordinarily, you, composing the team, need to be able to do. The coach decides the players to play no matter how good they are and the coach decides who comes in at what time depending on the skills that the person has.

I agree that by now, one would have thought this is what we want to do, this is who can do it and this is how it needs to be done. As I said, the best solution to this is for us to continue to harass those in power. If you stand up to be elected and get elected, you must be prepared to face the consequences of that election and that means we must constantly hold your feet to the fire. That is why I am saying institutions and instruments of engagement must be in full blast. Also, we must help to clarify public policy by articulating the things that need to be done and where the country needs to be heading. These are the kind of things that, ordinarily, policy institutes, independent think-tanks should also be doing, but it depends on if the government sees power as something that our party has won and nobody can tell us what to do, then it becomes a tragedy and a farce. It is really a question as the title of a book suggests: ‘How Do You Create a Team of Rivals.’ That is, even from those that contested against you, now that the contests are over, who can best help us do XYZ?

Six months later, do you miss your old friends, President Muhammadu Buhari and Femi Adesina, who used to respond to some of your statements at that time? And what is your take on the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas?

 President Buhari has served his time and I respect that he also knew that there was nothing I was saying that was personal. I imagined Adesina and his team had a job to do and they needed to do that job. I would expect and I hope that Pastor Adesina knows that there is a Foursquare Gospel Church in Daura and I believe that the President of Foursquare should send him there as a pastor so that he is quite close to his godfather. Having said that, I mean President Buhari has finished his term and there is very little else to be said for or against the administration. Everybody had a job to do, there was nothing I said about Buhari that was personal or disrespectful. I am shocked to hear the kind of things that people are saying about those who served in that administration.

But, that is talk for another day. On the issue around the Middle East, it is one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Nobody imagined that we would be where we are today and I don’t know how this is going to be reversed. I have gone to watch tapes and read up stuff about things that had happened right through from 1917. It is an area in which I have been very much interested. I came up with a proposal and I set up a team for example. I listed Obama, Mary Robinson and President Obasanjo. For me, that body was not supposed to be dealing with the issues of what to say to Netanyahu. No. It was just to ensure that traffic continues to flow as far as human life and survival is concerned and that the corridors that have been created are effectively and efficiently managed. As you can see and you have heard so far, that is really not the case.

Going forward, I think it must be clear to everybody, even Netanyahu, that his days are numbered politically, but I think most importantly, you cannot move forward or go backward in any sense of seeking justice if you are not going to talk about the creation of a state for the Palestinians.

Again, to say that is to say the Palestinians must also look back at the terrible and horrible mistakes that they have made, the opportunities that they weren’t able to take after Oslo One and Oslo Two and even looking back to the elections in 2006. What if Hamas had been allowed to take over power? Worse case scenario, Hamas would be wearing suits and become statesmen. Maybe the conversation would have been different. I think going forward, I don’t know how this genie will be put back in the bottle, but we are set for a very long painful and troubling road and my heart goes out every blessed day and every morning to the people of Palestine and the tragedy that has afflicted them. Of course, we hope that it is in their good interest that those who can should help to release the hostages, so that Netanyahu will have no more reason to continue in this wild goose chase.

 Hypothetically, what would you call justice in the Middle East? You served in the famous Oputa Panel where many of today’s political actors sought justice for the ills perpetrated against them. As someone who has seen it all, what would you say about the actions of the same people in recent years?

 One day, Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli Chief of Defence who had a patch on his eyes, was asked how it felt like being the leader of the most powerful army in the world with just one eye. He said for all that there is to see in this evil world, one eye is enough. I have seen a lot, there is no doubt about that. When I finished the Oputa Panel, I wrote a book that was 650 pages and people said nobody was going to read it, so I cut it down to over 400 pages. The good news is that almost everybody who has read it said once they started reading, they couldn’t stop. I have tried to tell my own story as I experienced them. The new book I have written is ‘Witness to Reconciliation’ which is about my work in Ogoniland. We have got selective memories. Nigerians choose to remember what they want to remember, how they want to remember and when they want to remember. We are the ones who go out to vote for these people. Remember during the Oputa Panel, people said the panel was set up by President Obasanjo purely to get even with Babangida, General Abdulsalami, Buhari and so on and so forth. As I said, I took trips and spoke with each and every one of these generals. Remember the same Nigerian media and civil society were shouting that none of these people must be allowed to participate in the political life of Nigerians. In the same Nigeria, Buhari didn’t stage a coup, he was elected. Please let us not outsource our sins to other parties, we are the ones committing the sins ourselves and we are the ones to repent.

The second point is that elites, civil society and the media very often resort to one liners, they don’t even read the summary of these reports. When I was in Oxford for some time, universities invited me to come and speak about the Oputa Panel, and I often joked that here in Nigeria, I don’t remember any university telling me to come and talk about what happened at Oputa Panel. We have a shortage of memory and it is so selective. For me, it is our business. Like the late Dele Giwa would say, it is the business of the government to hide secrets, (but) it is our business as media people to find those secrets. If people stand up for election, it is left for us to design a programme of public scrutiny. This is the responsibility that we have as media, intellectuals to remind people of such short memories that there are consequences for forgetting so quickly. It is little wonder that the sins of yesterday are repeating themselves and they are actually growing in magnitude.

On justice, Justice Oputa from whom I learnt so much used to say justice is a three-way street – justice for the perpetrator, the victim and society. Jokingly, I said to Justice Oputa one day, ‘can I make an amendment to your concept of justice? I think there should be another way, which is a four-way street – justice for the perpetrator, victim, larger society and justice before God.’ What constitutes justice to one person is injustice to another, but there has to be an aggregate of sentiments that says an environment was created for me to thrive only that I just didn’t make it. You go back and read Peter Obi’s statement, which is really exceptional in its content. There is no animosity, there is just clarity of thought to say this is the road not taken, but these are the consequences, and we must continue to renew ourselves. I am happy that this process went all the way to the Supreme Court as it has always been the case. The challenge now is what can we gather from the crime scene in order to make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistake? If we can do that, we would have justice not just for the political class, but even for ordinary Nigerians.

When ordinary people feel that if you do this, this is what the outcome is going to be. Someone else’s justice is another person’s injustice. For Netanyahu for example, justice might be, let’s get back our captives. For me, I think that the Egyptians, Russians and the Chinese need to lean very strongly on Hamas and those who know them to make sure that these people are released because if they are released, it will be difficult for Netanyahu to find something else to do. Netanyahu will probably be thrown off the ship as new elections will be conducted and a condition might then be created by which this kind of conversation can be heard.

•    Interview first aired on Arise News


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