The trial of Bishop Kukah

Poor Mathew Hassan Kukah! He has had it up to the nape of his cassocks. The torrents of abuse have now transformed into a tsunami of vilification. It was just as well that the week ended with the congregation of Catholic Bishops removing the ground from under Bishop Kukah by wholeheartedly supporting President Buhari’s anti-corruption hurricane.

Never in Nigeria’s public history has a hitherto respected man of god tumbled so fast in public esteem. Never has a man so widely admired for his cutting intellect become a master of pompous equivocation and fatuous obfuscation. Never has the implacable Nigerian intellectual lynch mob been so fast and furious in dismembering and devouring its victim.

It is a sad spectacle, and a consuming Nigerian tragedy to boot. Many of us who consider ourselves friends and admirers of the gutsy and cerebral Bishop of the Sokoto Catholic Diocese can only watch in pained silence as the man of god appears to unravel in a drama of self-demystification. But in revolutionary situations, everybody must answer their fathers’ name and one must be ready to drop a friend because of principles rather than drop principles because of a friend.

These must be revolutionary times in Nigeria indeed. It is only in revolutionary times that people lose total respect for priestly cassocks and other symbols of traditional authority. It is only in revolutionary times that the sacred become desacralized in bitter profanity and people move from hero to zero. The man of the people becomes the enemy of the populace. The dark night does not recognize sacerdotal distinction. As the mob brays in implacable distemper, the expiring ruling class that has held Nigeria hostage must note this development.

Bishop Kukah’s superiors in the Nigerian Catholic nomenklatura must be clicking their tongue in sagely relish. A child can have as many new clothes as an elder, but he can never have as many rags. Many of the superiors of the Sokoto Bishop must be rubbing their palms in smirking satisfaction. Only the barely discerning would not have noticed a certain froideur, a chilly discomfort among the Catholic hierarchs as Kukah rose to secular apotheosis as a liberating theologist and friend of the rich and powerful at the same time. As the Yoruba will put it, nobody must stop a youngster from climbing the hill of Langbodo.

In retrospect, perhaps it will be said that the Sokoto bishop chose the wrong time to cross the Homeric frontline between the Nigerian powerful and the teeming powerless; and between whistle blowing against the powerful or becoming a loud and brash megaphone of its rearguard rally. Not even the most gifted and proficient trickster knows when the trick will fail, and in revolutionary situations one cannot be too careless in his choice of enemies.

The last straw, it seems, is Kukah’s stirring at the behest of the controversial Peace Committee. Let it be bluntly and baldly stated that this committee is not about peace at all. It materialized as a last ditch ruling class initiative to force General Buhari to accept dishonorable defeat and hence to stave off the revolutionary turmoil and anarchy that would have accompanied electoral miscarriage. It is a wearisomely familiar Nigerian ploy to impose “peace” in the absence of social and political justice. But they misjudged the mood of the nation and the fact that Nigerians have had it with their ilk.

Bar a few misguided ones who are glad to be dredged up from peat bog of political oblivion and the odd naïve do-gooders, most of our newly minted peaceniks are compromised scoundrels working for the old regime and traditional mischief-makers on a typical pay day. Available reports indicate that some of them were already privately gloating about the inevitability of a Jonathan victory. They came to bury Buhari and not to praise him. But it bombed spectacularly. Perhaps this is one of the “spectacular” things that Jonathan did which Kukah referred to with deliberately oblique disingenuity.

Having failed in their core mission, they have now transformed into a “peace” council to disturb the peace of the nation, and to stalemate the inevitable sanitization of the polity. They have gone about endlessly chattering about due process and the fact that this is a democracy and not a military order. One wonders how democracy and due process would have fared had they succeeded in suborning the sovereign electoral will of Nigerians. Let this be the last time President Buhari will give them a decent hearing.

Kukah’s attempt to defend the motive of the peace council has brought a gale of angry denunciations on the internet and social media with many of them charging the Catholic supremo with perfidy and betrayal. This columnist read about three hundred of these angry rebuttals and only a few were willing to stake their integrity on the integrity and honesty of the bishop. It was redolent of pent up fury and misgivings, as if they have been waiting for Kukah to cross the line.

Kukah’s attempt to correct a purportedly mischievous slant that gave the impression that the council went up to President Buhari to bargain for a soft landing for the disgraced and discredited Jonathan drew even more tempestuous tirades. And then in the unkindest cut of all, a shadowy and hitherto unknown organization going by the name of CUPS came out to directly impugn Kukah’s integrity and claims to probity in a well-detailed allegation of sleaze and corruption.

This column will refrain from publicizing the salacious and insalubrious details, but they go to show how far Bishop Kukah’s stock has fallen. It is a remarkable development and no matter his public grandstanding and defiance of the gravitational pull of seamy scandals, the plucky priest must be having some anxious private moments. Even if they remain at the level of mere allegations, that they are ever broached at all shows how public perception can be influenced by the power and putrescence of offensive associations. The bishop’s cup is full and it overflows indeed.

It may well be too late to ask the august catholic prelate to return to base. For a man of such calm and deliberate mien, such choices are not lightly made in the first instance. As we have said, everybody must answer to his patronymic in these perilous times. Like a savage hawk remarkable for its hunting prowess and ferocious precision, the Nigerian ruling class knows the particular moment to home in on its intended prey and which foibles and personal peccadilloes to zero in upon.

In a postcolonial society infamous for its political dysfunctionality , the transition from civil society activist to state actor is a very precarious affair indeed. In Nigeria, only few people, if any at all, have been able to manage the transition without major scars. This is because inchoate and disadvantaged civil society feels abandoned and neglected by one of its own. Like vultures waiting for the ethically deceased, they bid their time waiting to take their pound of flesh or carrion and the quiet hysteria of private abandonment soon gives way to the public hullabaloo of angry and messy divorce.

The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese seems to have had it coming for quite some time. There might have come a time when a practical patriot like Kukah might have come to the conclusion that it might be better and more nation-rewarding to remonstrate with the Nigerian powers that be at close proximity than to demonstrate against them from a far distance.

As a minority scion of the most minority of ethnic formations, Kukah might have concluded that he stood no chance raising hell among the hell-bound majority monsters—as he himself once memorably dismissed Nigeria’s major ethnic formations. It may well turn out to be a bridge too far, but in the brutal power calculus of Nigeria’s political coliseum, innocence is not a virtue but a symptom of suicidal naivety.

Who will then speak and speak up for the Nigerian minority ethnic subaltern? As a devoted watcher of Nigeria’s volatile and explosive political gymnasium, this columnist entered into a private correspondence with the father who art in Kaduna then over his seemingly seamless transition from civil society activist to state actor. Yours sincerely wanted to know whether the transition was conscious or seemingly unconscious. It was a particularly illuminating exchange whose details must remain private and confidential.

What did it for this columnist was Kukah’s out of proportion reaction to a Soyinka piece detailing the ills and ailments of the Nigerian postcolonial state. As usual with the implacably agonistic Nobel avatar, it was a merciless and astringent critique dripping with venom and vitriol. The old literary lion does not take hostages in these matters. But anybody who has watched Nigeria’s descent into political infamy over the decades would side with Soyinka’s angst about the fate of his beloved country.

What seemed to have drawn Bishop Kukah’s particular ire was Soyinka’s damning conclusion that nothing good could come out of the Nigerian state as it was constituted. It is interesting and intriguing that Soyinka’s response to Kukah was a mixture of puckish humour and elderly irritation. Subsequent events seem to have proved the Nobel laureate right.

Thereafter, certain changes in Kukah’s public personae became noticeable as he moved closer and closer to the sanctuary of state power. An imperious swagger seems to have been added to the bouncy gait even as a pompous and pomaded puffery became the order of the day. A moody irascible brio and prickly condescension became the sine qua non of Kukah’s public engagements. The bishop’s secular beatitude was in full progress.

But such beatitudes do not beautify, and neither do they ennoble in the tumultuous and turbulent context of a postcolonial nation roiling in crisis and contradictions. In such circumstances and situations, it is the bounden duty of all men of god to speak truth to secular power and not to become carpetbaggers and reactionary rearguard rallying points for the retrogressive and anti-progress rump of a failed ruling class.

The current pope is an outstanding exemplar of this sacred moral responsibility to the powerless of the earth; and so was the old much admired and revered Polish pope, the illustrious Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. We dare say that in the last decade and a half beginning with the Oputa Panel, Bishop Kukah has been rather remiss in that historic and sacred duty. If it is not too late, this gifted priest should find his route back to public restitution and redemption.


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