Today, we roll out the drums for Matthew whose other name is Hassan, the son of Kukah. The young man from Anchuna, Zangon Kataf, heard the Call and, forsaking everything, embraced the sacerdotal commitment of Obedience and Chastity. How does a brilliant lad forsake the world when he had everything at his feet? Wondrous are the ways of the Unmade Maker.
Hassan grew in knowledge and resoluteness, making a personal avowal to forever speak the truth to all and sundry in pursuit of the ultimate law: Love thy neighbour as thyself. Love — didn’t the Master Himself reduce the Ten Commandments to one — Love of God and neighbour? From December 19, 1976, when he was ordained a priest of the Catholic church to date, Kukah has impacted the society positively by demonstrating that religion can be a tool for development, understanding and social engineering.
Call him an activist priest and you will not be wrong. A critical analysis of Kukah’s interventions as a public intellectual affirm the truism in Franz Fanon’s words: “The future will have no pity for those men (and women) who, possessing the exceptional privilege of being able to speak words of truth to their oppressors, have taken refuge in an attitude of passivity, of mute indifference, and sometimes of cold complicity.” Kukah will not be caught on the wrong side of history.
His primary stage is the pulpit. His incredible gift of the gab sometimes riles tenants of temporary power to the extent that they ignore the message and attack the messenger. Didn’t the sacred scriptures teach us that, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own country” (John 4:44).
The great Cardinal Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) defined the prophetic mission as the incarnate Word — ‘to express the divine truth in human language.’ The Church must necessarily participate in this mission as part of its responsibility to the Word of God. For, as stated in Proverbs 12:19,
“The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”
However, speaking truth to power has consequences, some of which could be fatal. Those who accuse Kukah of playing to the gallery anytime he intervenes in the public space ignore the fact that it is infinitely more beneficial to the cleric to sing Hallelujah Choruses in praise of temporal power than to criticise those at the helm. A backward glance at three religious personages from other lands shows that Kukah’s activism, though laden with all sorts of inconveniences and insults, is part of a priestly tradition. Indeed, it comes with the territory of propagating the Good News and the need for man to stop being a beast to fellow man.
There was an Anglican Archbishop in Uganda who spoke truth to the brutal dictator, His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, LLD (honoris causa).
Archbishop Janani Luwum was assassinated by Amin’s goons on Feb.16, 1977 for demanding that Idi Amin put an end to extrajudicial killings, political repression, corruption and ethnic persecution.
The archbishop’s body was placed in a mangled car wreck in a staged accident. In 2014, President Museveni declared a public holiday in honour of the slain archbishop. “He chose to die for the truth,” said Museveni at the memorial in Luwum’s home village and burial site, 14 miles north of Kitgum in northern Uganda. “We salute him for that, and we shall always be grateful to his memory forever.”
Being on the side of equity and justice transcends creed or colour, as shown by the life of another Archbishop, Ernest Urban Trevor Huddleston, who supported the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa when it was most dangerous to do so. He opposed the Nationalist Government’s decision to bulldoze Sophiatown and forcibly remove all its inhabitants sixteen miles further away from Johannesburg. He established the African Children’s Feeding Scheme and responded to the discriminatory laws denying black children access to whites-only swimming pools, by raising money for the Orlando Swimming Pools to cater for black children. He changed the lives of many poor black children with thoughtful interventions. For example, he bought the first trumpet for a 14-year-old pupil of St Martin’s School, Rosettenville. The pupil’s name: Hugh Masekela, who went on to become a global music sensation. Huddleston was a black man in white skin. In 1955, the African National Congress (ANC) honoured him with the Isitwalandwe Award at the famous Freedom Congress in Kliptown.
Another man of the cloth who trod the lonely path of speaking truth to power and defying a conscienceless government was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, head of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa. Tutu was one of the titans of the anti-apartheid struggle. At the most crucial times he provided a shoulder for the oppressed black people to cry on and gave spiritual succour to the people, becoming in the process a mediator between rival black groups. He served as the Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate past human rights abuses committed by both pro and anti-apartheid groups.
In like manner, Bishop Kukah has served Nigeria and the church in many capacities over the years: Member of the Nigerian Investigation Commission of Human Rights Violations; Secretary of the National Political Reform Conference; Chairman of the Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation; Member, Committee for electoral reform set up by the federal government. He had been a very successful Secretary-General of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. He is currently a member of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue at the Vatican and Chairman of the Commission on Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria.
What Kukah shares with the great clerics preceding him is passion for lifting up the downtrodden. In spite of Nigeria’s many cleavages, this is one priest who can be truly said to be everyone’s neighbour. His commitment is best captured in the sentiments expressed in a famous Catholic hymn: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers that you do unto me”.
There is a sense in which Kukah’s commitment to the service of the common man mirrors that of a former Catholic Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis).
During the economic downturn of 2001-2002, there was much suffering in the land and the poor people’s cardinal could not hold his fire as he tackled the ruling elite head-on in a sermon broadcast on television: “Let’s not tolerate the sad spectacle of those who no longer know how to lie and contradict themselves to hold onto their privileges, their rapaciousness, and their ill-earned wealth,” Former President Eduardo Duhalde was among the congregation!
Like Bergoglio of yore, Kukah has never shied away from challenging Nigerian leaders to do what is right by the people. His comments at a virtual meeting with a committee of the US Congress on religious freedom still reverberate:
“Things have just unravelled in the last five or six years since the coming to power of General Buhari. He didn’t make Boko Haram happen but the fact that today the Northwest and North Central and literally the length and breadth of Nigeria have now been invaded by bandits, herdsmen and killers of all kinds of people who have come from God knows where and the fact that the government just seems to be either helpless or almost uninterested in dealing decisively with these people — this is what has added more confusion to the mix…”
While there is no doubt that he is a man of peace, still Kukah cannot wrap his head around the insistence of some people that the Nigerian Constitution should play second fiddle to their holy book. The Catholic Church has long settled the issue of separating church from state. It is clear where Hassan the son of Kukah is coming from.
Dr. Kukah’s perspicacity is displayed in his books and erudite publications among which are, “Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria” (1993); “Religious Militancy and Self-Assertion: Islam and Politics in Nigeria” (1997); “Democracy and Civil Society in Nigeria” (2001); “Witness to Justice: An Insider’s Account of Nigeria’s Truth Commission” (2011), and Broken Truths (2022).
As the mighty and the lowly recently gathered in Abuja to celebrate his 70th birthday, even Kukah’s ardent critics, not least among whom are the tenants of fleeting power, applauded a man whose life story is a litany of service to humankind.
Happy birthday, Rt Rev Dr Matthew Hassan Kukah. Ad multos annos.
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