It is true that the hallmark of great men is how they effortlessly impact the lives of people they meet, in extraordinary ways. I am one of those impacted by Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah. As such, it is an incredible honour for me to pay tribute to this great man. I count myself privileged to celebrate the man, the blessings of his priesthood, the benefit of his kindness , and his boundless passion for justice and a better society.
On this occasion of his 70th birthday, today, 31st August, I am in transit, on my way back to Nigeria from a week of engagements in Paris pertaining to the security situation in Kaduna State, and I desperately rue the fact that I will not be back in time to honour His Grace in person, at the event to celebrate this landmark. I will nevertheless put down my thoughts in the best way that I can, to capture the essence of Bishop Kukah at 70.
In the first place, the force of his personality, the unabated passion for his calling, and the all-round vigour with which he approaches national conversations and life in general, totally belie his age. Such effervescence and vitality can only be a blessing from God Himself. His zest for his life’s work is as unrelenting as I have ever known it to be, as he marks this platinum age.
Brushing aside the varied effects of time and distance on our relationship, what I find enduring are the values which Bishop Kukah instilled in me and several others during our teenage years, even while he was far away in Lagos, the United Kingdom, and the United States, before his return to Kaduna.
When he took me under his wing, I had the duty of organizing his personal library comprising articles, books, rejoinders, pictures, and paper presentations. I can recall there were about 5,000 of these works at the time; that is how prolific he has always been. My work afforded me a close relationship with the Bishop at the time, and I was taught first-hand the values of humility, contentment, discipline, courage and moral uprightness. This relationship came at a crucial point in my life when I could have been easily derailed by the frivolities of youth. I am ever grateful for Bishop Kukah’s steadying hand.
Bishop Kukah is many things to many people; down-to-earth, yet, dignified; disruptive when the need arises; courageous and courteous; humble, and kind. These are some of the virtues for which he is widely regarded. What is clear is that he is the embodiment of a true priest who has taken on the person of Christ, using his voice to speak of God, his feet to hasten to the help of fellow man, and his hands to bless.
These virtues are the fruits of genuine self-discipline and deep faith in God. Because of his modesty, not many know the extent of Bishop Kukah’s scholastic achievements, or for that matter, the beginnings of his journey. Kukah was born on August 31, 1952 in Anchuna, Ikulu Chiefdom in Zangon Kataf local government area of Kaduna State, to Pa Vincent and Mama Hauwa Kukah. The journey of destiny is hardly associated with grand beginnings. Neither of his parents might have guessed at the time, that this infant would be a torch bearer and a revered servant of the Lord. He had his primary education at St. Fidelis Primary School, Zagom. After this, it was his grandmother, a basket weaver, who paid the three shillings he needed for his entrance examination into St. Joseph Minor Seminary, Zaria. From there, he proceeded to St. Augustine Major Seminary Jos, Plateau State, where he studied Philosophy and Theology.
He was ordained a Catholic Priest on December 19th, 1976, of the Gidan Bako Catholic Mission in Zangon Kataf local government area. The ordination mass was coordinated by His Grace, Archbishop Emeritus, Peter Jatau, Rev Fr J.C.Murphy and Rev Fr J.Obrien. Even they must have had no idea that their newly ordained priest would rise to become a pointer of hope and inspiration in both the Lord’s vineyard and the entire nation.
After his ordination, his quest for knowledge took him to the University of Ibadan, where he obtained a diploma in Religious Studies. He received a Bachelor of Divinity at the Urban University of Rome in 1976, a Master’s degree in Peace Studies, at the University of Bradford, United Kingdom in 1980, and a PhD at the famous London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1990.
Kukah was also at the famous St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford as a Senior Rhodes fellow from 2002 to 2003, then at the prestigious Kennedy School of Government (KSG) Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, as an Edward Mason Fellow, where he bagged an MA in Public Policy in 2004.
In his sacerdotal duties, not only has Bishop Kukah headed parishes as a distinguished and committed servant of God; he has also trained and mentored priests from our home Archdiocese of Kaduna and beyond. He served as Parish Priest, and then was part of the Catholic Secretariat as Deputy General Secretary and later General Secretary. In the latter role, his passion for nation building came to the fore, as he was the brain behind two sets of composed prayers; first, a prayer against bribery and corruption, and second, a prayer for Nigeria in Distress during military dictatorship. He held several pastoral positions, peaking at Vicar General, before his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI as Bishop of Sokoto Diocese in 2011.
Perhaps what has caused Kukah to stand out, towering above most, as more than just another Bishop, is his work as a statesman and nation-builder, which has also earned him a bit of a reputation as a “ruffler of feathers”.
Bishop Kukah took several risks and endured many perils for the betterment of Nigeria; many of these are not public knowledge. A few people may know the travails he miraculously survived during Nigeria’s years of military rule; travails brought on by his relentless engagements with the media, members of the academia and the civil society.
Some of his engagements around the June 12 saga, for instance, were very troubling for the General Babangida-led government, and this overlapped into the Abacha years alongside his advocacy for the Ogoni people, leading up to the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight others.
At some point, after the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II of blessed memory to Abuja in March 1998, General Abacha made it clear that Kukah was a stone in his shoe which he was constrained from removing, as he was being monitored by forces extending outside the shores of Nigeria. Kukah always made it a policy to distribute copies of his engagements to embassies and foreign missions.
Since those times, Bishop Kukah has made significant contributions towards sustainable peace and stability of Nigeria. He has served in a Human Rights Investigation Commission (Oputa Panel), National Political Reforms Conference, and the Ogoni-Shell Mediation initiative under the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He was also active in the Electoral Reform Committee set up by late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, and the committee set up by Northern State Governors on the security challenges in the region, along with many more initiatives like the National Peace Committee.
As prolific as he is voracious, Bishop Kukah has published numerous scholarly works. His most outstanding book, Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (published in 1993), discusses the religious politics of Northern Nigeria and received an Honorary Noma commendation in 1994.
He has participated vigorously in expanding the Nigerian National Question via in-depth scholarly research, which has birthed several formidable publications. Along with the above-mentioned work, he also authored Democracy and Civil Society in Nigeria (1999). In 1996, he co-published with Professor Toyin Falola, Religious Militancy and Self-Assertion: Religious Revivalism in Nigeria. He also has to his credit, The Shattered Microcosm, The Collapse of the Moral Order in Africa, The Mustard Seed (volumes 1-5), Towards a Just Democratic Nigeria, The Catholic Church and Politics in Nigeria, Whistling in the Dark, The Church and the Politics of Social Responsibilities, and his experience in the Oputa Panel, Witness To Justice: An Insider’s Account Of Nigeria’s Truth Commission. His latest work, Broken Truths: Nigeria’s Elusive Quest for National Cohesion, was unveiled only two days before this happy occasion.
Bishop Kukah’s work in inter-faith relations is also remarkable. He is known to build friendships cutting across lines of religion and other diversities. His ecumenism is widely famed for peace-building and oneness irrespective of difference.
His positive inter-faith disposition was shown in the father-son relationship he had with President Shehu Shagari, as well as the late Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammadu Maccido. In fact, Kukah wrote a tribute for Shagari’s autobiography Beckoned To Serve, and paid a similar tribute to the Sultan Alhaji Sa’ad Muhammadu Abubakar III on his celebration of two years on the throne. It might not have been too surprising – for those who believe in fate or serendipity – that in June 2011 the Vatican promoted and posted Kukah as Bishop to this same province which he had honoured so highly.
As Bishop Kukah stated in a 2020 homily, every religion has the seeds of its own redemption or destruction, and the fine line between faith and reason is fundamental to how a society builds its moral code. Bishop Kukah is one of the few who has taught us to tread that fine line effectively. Indeed, very few have straddled the nexus of Faith, Citizenship and Societal Reform as eminently as Bishop Kukah. Perhaps on the continent, he is comparable only with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of blessed memory in this regard.
Now, in The Kukah Centre, he has established one of Africa’s leading think-tanks geared to guide the continent towards attaining the full flower of democracy and democratic governance. This is another shining achievement in a life firmly dedicated to this cause and moving from strength to strength.
It can be argued that great men are not born; God Himself moulds them into greatness with His mighty hand. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah has thus been moulded as a gem and a precious gift to our generation. I happen to be one among many who are privileged to look up to him as a priest and a guide. His tutelage is an immense privilege for which I remain eternally grateful.
I humbly recall that through Bishop Kukah’s direct influence on my life, I built several valuable friendships, and met many distinguished personalities. Some of these individuals are no longer with us. Many years ago, at the Bishop’s instance, I served as an assistant to the great sociologist and historian J.D.Y Peel during his work in Kaduna while writing his opus Christianity, Islam and Orisa-Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction. Peel died in 2015, shortly before his book went to press. Bishop Kukah similarly introduced me to the erudite scholar and political thinker Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who sadly died in Nairobi, Kenya in 2009. It was also Bishop Kukah who introduced me to Dr John Kayode Fayemi, who in 1997 established the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a governance and development think tank. As a matter of fact, all of my relationships within the CDD can be traced clearly to the Bishop.
Bishop Kukah thus remains, in my opinion, a Prince among Priests, a Statesman and a Scholar. Personally, he has been a treasured guardian. His adversities and accomplishments are a body of instruction and inspiration. He continues to live his life to model godliness, and to use his words of wisdom to inspire peace. He is a repository of knowledge that continues to give, with no signs of slowing down at 70.
The Bible has taught us that elders who lead well are worthy of double honour. Few are more deserving of such honour than Bishop Kukah. Today, we are privileged to celebrate a truly great man, an exemplar of faith, an icon of social justice and a force for the betterment of Nigeria.
We therefore celebrate the grace and mercy of God, who, having brought Bishop Kukah to the age of 70, has ensured that he is striding along in strength, impact and fulfilment of purpose.
To mark this auspicious day of his birth, I join millions across Nigeria, the Continent of Africa, and the world, to felicitate with Bishop Kukah, and to wish him many more joyful returns of this day. We pray that God Almighty will continue to endow him with grace and good health to forge ahead on this path of purpose. May God multiply the life in his years, and the years to his life.
Samuel Aruwan is the Commissioner, Ministry of Internal Security and Home Affairs, Kaduna State. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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