Kukah: Walking and talking at 63
IN his stimulating book, Outliers (2010) a pleasure to read for its clear prose and its vigorous intelligence, Malcolm Gladwell, one of America’s leading public intellectuals, revolutionizes the way the world thinks about success and successful people by turning conventional wisdom on its head. “Success” he says, “arises out of the steady accumulation of hidden advantages: when and where you were born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were, all make a significant difference in how you do in the world.” With the intuitiveness of this statement, Gladwell tears down the myth of individual merit to explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth, and luck account for success – and how historical legacies can hold others back despite ample individuals gifts.
This is the story of Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah. Coming from a little obscure village in Zangon Kataf, a map-less location on the Nigerian universe, that Kukah himself once described as “a village in the middle of nowhere,” no one could have imagined that the boy would grow up to become a priest who will chart a better course for the Church and society, spanning into volumes of various initiatives geared towards the progress and prosperity of Nigeria. Fate or fortune would have turned out differently for Kukah were it not for his grandmother, a weaver of baskets, who paid the three shillings needed for him to write the entrance examination into St. Joseph Minor Seminary, Zaria, where his priestly journey began in 1964. All his grandmother needed to be sure of was whether he would, after becoming a priest, also drive a pick-up van like the White missionary priest she saw driving past her village. The rest is history.
“We have to keep walking and talking. Welcome or unwelcome.” This was the last line of a text message that Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah sent to me two days after the controversial Channels TV interview that he had, advising the new government of President Muhammadu Buhari to focus more on governance rather than concentrate its entire energy on probing the last administration. This interview brought the highly learned Bishop to the epicentre of national media attention. Overnight, commentators of all shades and colours took up Kukah’s statement. The most vociferous critics accused him of attempting to derail the Buhari-led government from its determination to recover looted funds and its coveted fight against corruption. But Kukah only advised that the fight against corruption should follow the due processes of the rule of law.
For a person intent on courting public attention, being at the heart of a media storm is a good way to make a name. But for a man of towering intellectual and public pedigree that Bishop Kukah is, such an idea cannot pass the litmus test of truth. Here is a man who rose to national prominence in the 80s and 90s for his fiery columns and articles in several national dailies. This was a critical period in our nation’s political history when many Nigerians shied away from freely expressing their views on politics and governance because of the brutality of military dictatorship. Bishop Kukah was one of the not many Nigerians who stood up and fought on the side of the oppressed masses. He earned the privileged status of a thorough-bred public intellectual not only because he is a man of broad cultivation, having studied at Bradford, London, Oxford and Harvard, but also on account of the robust intellectual aptitude and brilliance that he brings to the exchange of ideas in the public square.
The controversial interview brought to the fore the growing intolerance of opposing views that has become a signature of our evolving democratic culture. Fortunately, this attitude is not surprising or new to Kukah. Some years ago, a respected Nigerian professor in the U.S. canonized Bishop Kukah (then a Reverend Father) as “Nigeria’s spiritual guide and confessor” for his active role in promoting good governance and political participation. Barely a year later, another highly revered Nigerian professor fiercely berated Kukah for allegedly meddling into partisan politics to the detriment of his priestly calling. What this professor meant by meddling into partisan politics was Kukah’s fiery criticism of the government of the day.
When he had the opportunity to make a response, precisely in an essay published in The Guardian in June 2011, Kukah did not mince words in educating his traducers: “I consider myself a public intellectual with a duty to interrogate politics and political behaviour as part of the process of nation building. I am political because I am human, but not a politician because I am a Catholic priest!” Earlier in 2010, in his 18-minute speech at TEDxEuston London, Kukah spoke about his convictions in these words: “My definition of a priest is that it is impossible to be a priest and not be concerned about the social issues of the moment.”
Those who shape and mould public opinion, whether they are journalists, writers, or intellectuals, bear a sacred responsibility of trust on behalf of society. They must strive never to betray public trust through their art. It is part of the social responsibility of the journalist or writer that he should strive to lay a foundation for a better society by creating a moral mirror through which leaders and citizens can constantly look at themselves and reflect on their duties and responsibilities towards seeking the attainment of the common good. This ideal is only possible where there is freedom for people to hold differing opinions and opposing views, without vilification.
On August 31, 2015, Bishop Kukah turned 63. No matter what anyone may think about him, one thing no one can take away from him is his unflagging love for Nigeria. Over the years, he has galvanized and stimulated ideas for charting a new political future for our country. Even at 63, he remains a bold and undaunted spirit, passionately interested in the pursuit of the good of Nigeria. If for no other reason, for his robust contributions to nation building, we owe him our best wishes of good health and strength in his service of God and Fatherland. May God bless the high priest of the Caliphate!
• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.