ROME – One of the Catholic world’s most experienced prelates in terms of living cheek-by-jowl with Muslims insists that there is no real divide between Christians and Muslims in Africa, above all in his home country of Nigeria, and that clashes perceived as religious are generally an index of the failure to build a genuinely democratic state.
“There isn’t really a Christian-Muslim conflict in Nigeria, that’s a cover for something else,” said Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria, an overwhelmingly Muslim area in the country’s far north which has been a stronghold for the radical Boko Haram movement.
“What people call Christian-Muslim conflict, there’s nothing inevitable about it,” Kukah said. “I think the Western media has constructed it, and it’s very popular. And it’s also very popular in Nigeria, but I have said over a 30-year period, there’s no real conflict between Christians and Muslims.
“The same Muslims and Christians work together in the bureaucracy. They serve together in the army and in other arms of government. What we call violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is really the failure of law and order,” he said.
Kukah spoke to Crux on March 24 during a summit on the African church sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, and held at the university’s Global Gateway center in Rome.
Despite heading a tiny diocese and being fairly diminutive in stature himself, Kukah has an outsized presence in Nigerian public life. Holding a Ph.D. from the University of London, he’s one of the most trusted and admired religious leaders in the country, having served on a national commission for political reform, and having led negotiations to end a conflict between the Shell corporation and the Ogoni ethnic group over oil operations in the Niger Delta.
Kukah is also a fixture on Nigerian TV and the op/ed pages of local newspapers, with an uncanny ability to say things that seem provocative at the time but later turn out to have been right on the money.
Asked about what Africans think of Donald Trump, Kukah suggested that he’s popular among many Christians in his country who think he’s going to stand up to Muslims, and “held in contempt” by most Muslims for the same reason.
Kukah’s fundamental argument is that if Nigeria had a real democracy capable of equitably distributing the country’s potentially vast resources, what people often perceive as religious and ethnic conflict would essentially disappear.
“Right now the driver [of the country] is asleep at the wheel, because if we had been able to fix the issues of human integrity, jobs, and families, security, and so on and so forth, we would not be having this conversation about supposed Christian/Muslim tensions,” he said.
The following are excerpts from the Crux conversation with Kukah.
In the West, we generally hear about Christian/Muslim interaction in Nigeria only when there’s violence, such as the latest Boko Haram outrage. What are we missing?
What you say doesn’t even come anywhere close to what Nigeria is. It’s an extraordinary country. I often say jokingly that after what we’ve gone through, Nigeria is like a Catholic marriage … you might not be happy, but you don’t break up!
So when people talk about the possibilities of Nigeria, I look at it in a slightly different dimension. What is it that has kept our country together? Because it has every reason not to be together, but it’s held on.
The significance of that is often lost on people. We’ve got something that you can’t find in the entire Middle East nor anywhere else in the world, which is the 50-50 percentage presence of Christians and Muslims. It’s unique.
And along with uniqueness comes the difficulty of making bricks with that straw. What I mean is, it happens against the backdrop of a very dysfunctional state, a very convoluted state, which has antecedents of colonialism and all the layers of distortions and contradictions, and so on and so forth, and the British trying to weld this nation together. There’s also evidence now beginning to emerge that actually the British probably didn’t even have the best of intentions regarding the possibility of this country holding together.
We’ve had a civil war, fine, but not much different than you’d find in other countries. Less than 10 years later, an Igbo man became the first vice president of Nigeria. It’s this resilience that is often missing [in how people talk about Nigeria].
What’s the significance of an Igbo becoming the first vice president of Nigeria?
The Igbos went to war, a very bad war, against Nigeria. We fought almost a three-year civil war. They were the vanquished. It ended only in 1970, and by 1979, an Igbo man became the vice president of Nigeria. That’s not a small achievement.
To put this in an American context, it would be as if Jefferson Davis became vice president of the United States shortly after the civil war.
Absolutely, and look at how long something like that took.
The second problem stems from the ideology of Islam and its obsession with the state and power, as well as the peculiar nature of Nigerian history, especially the Muslim community of Northern Nigeria who ran things from 1804 to 1903 when the British conquered the state.
Perceptions of historical injustices [complicate co-existence with Christians], how Muslims see the narrative about the experience of what the colonials did, the allegations of treachery and the possibility that because the missionaries came with white skin, there was the perception [that Christianity is foreign.].
That perception still exists, that Christianity is just the spiritual arm of the colonial state. We’ve had some difficulties trying to work out of those shadows. Unfortunately, what has really not happened in Nigeria, just like in other parts of Africa, [is that] we’ve never had a sense of urgency about creating national cohesion and working through constitutional rule to bring that about.
Nigeria became independent on Oct. 1, 1960 and almost 30 or 40 of those years was under the military who staged all kinds of coups and so on and so forth. A lot of that delayed the project of democracy. Had we not had military rule in Nigeria, we would have been able to move forward very quickly to deal with issues of national integration.
That period also damaged Christian/Muslim relations, to the extent that almost all the beneficiaries of military rule were the northern Muslim elite.
I asked you a question about Christian-Muslim relations, and you’re talking about the delayed project of building democracy. We should explain that the reason you’re doing so is because in your view, to overcome communal or sectarian tensions, either along Christian-Muslim lines or ethnic and tribal lines, what’s necessary is to build a truly democratic state in which everyone feels they’re equal stakeholders.
Absolutely. What people call Christian-Muslim conflict, there’s nothing inevitable about that. I think the Western media has constructed it, and it’s very popular. And it’s also very popular in Nigeria, but I have said over a 30-year period, there’s no real conflict between Christians and Muslims. We’ve never had a crisis come from a Church or from a Mosque. We’ve never had a situation in which someone said you can’t read the Bible or the Quran.
The same Muslims and Christians work together in the bureaucracy, they serve together in the army and in other arms of government. What we call violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is really the failure of law and order. When you go back and read the stories after these crises have taken place, it’s often people were arguing in the market, or it’s often there were debates over boundaries of land or whatever. A lot of the issues that have led to violence have very little to do with religion per se.
Can I challenge you on that? I and my colleague Ines San Martin were in Nigeria 18 months ago, and one of the sites we visited was that parish outside of Abuja that was bombed by Boko Haram in 2011. We met with about 50 survivors, all of whom had lost family members. We asked them if this a religious attack and they believed it was. They said, ‘They bombed us in a church on Christmas Day, and then took credit talking about their great victory over infidels. How is that not religious?’ When you hear that kind of thing, what do you say?
First of all, what we don’t do in Nigeria is a real crime scene investigation. If you go back to that case and see what really happened, a bit of it is slightly different from the popular narrative. The man who was the security guard protecting that church [and died in the attack], for instance, was a Muslim.
The Nigerian situation is intricate, but because the Christian/Muslim divide has become the natural folk claim, and whenever the West sees conflict in Africa, it’s either tribes or religion, so getting a sense of the problem and answering the difficult questions is complicated.
The issues are much greater than a simple religious clash. As Cardinal [John] Onayiekan would say, 360 days out of the year we celebrate together, we’re in the market together, we’re in offices together, we’re in the same political parties, and none of that suggests that we can’t come to the same conclusions.
To give you a simple example, we have a president now in Nigeria, General Buhari, who tried to be president at least three different times and couldn’t make it. But in the election that he finally won, the chairman of his party was a communion-receiving Catholic.
In fact, we’ve spoken to Cardinal Onaiyekan and he openly said he voted for Buhari.
I didn’t vote for Buhari, because I didn’t vote for anybody.
But my point is that Nigerian politics doesn’t necessarily fall along Christian/Muslim lines.
Exactly. We’re not doing much to highlight the realities with which Nigerians live, and fixing Nigeria is actually what should be the most important project. Right now the driver [of the country] is asleep at the wheel, because if we had been able to fix the issues of human integrity, jobs, and families, security, and so on and so forth, we would not be having this conversation about supposed Christian/Muslim tensions.
I live in Sokoto, and I go to Sokoto with my full regalia every day that I have to travel. I arrive at the airport, the kids who pick my bags up are Muslims. Once, someone walked up to me at the airport lounge, and introduced me to a friend as the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto. Another Muslim joined the conversation and said, “No, don’t go calling him the Catholic bishop, he’s our bishop in Sokoto, too. When you call him ‘Catholic’, you eliminate us.”
These are the things that I have personally experienced in Nigeria. It has very little to do with the popular narrative about Christians and Muslims. The Sultan of Sokoto is the highest-ranking Muslim [in the area]. I walk into his house at 10 at night, it’s not a problem. I don’t have to be invited to come to dinner, I just turn up. And he’s disappointed if by 11 PM I tell him I have to leave. This is true.
It’s an exciting country, and I hope and pray that sooner rather than later we can turn the corner and begin talking about human things as opposed to alleged tensions between Muslims and Christians.
You’re painting an optimistic image, with the root problems being a failing state and democracy. Is the situation so unique that it’s impossible to reproduce, or are there lessons Nigeria can offer the rest of the world?
There are, but I think we haven’t gotten there yet, because we still have to sort ourselves out. It’s not as if there’s electricity in the Muslim side and not in the Christian side, or as if there’s running water on one side but there isn’t on the other side.
Given the inability of the state to equitably distribute resources that are so hugely available, the ordinary person in Africa still sees Nigeria as a problem. That’s not really fair, given the extent to which Nigeria has held the continent together – we were on the front seat fighting the Zika virus, we brought peace to Sierra Leon and Liberia, and so on. But we’ve not been able to earn respect commensurate with our contribution, largely because we’ve got a lot of work that we haven’t done. We require honest leadership committed to building a fair society.
I think this is where the Catholic Church needs to buckle up and do much more than it has done, much more than it is doing.
We need to come to the starting point of politics. I don’t think we should be talking of the church from the point of view of cardinals, bishops, parish priests, and so on. We should be talking about leadership recruitment [among the laity]. We have not been very successful in doing that. But today, I think there’s a sense of urgency about it.
A lot of that is also seen in my decision to set up the Kukah Centre which deals with issues of policy making. Because I’m interested in ensuring that the Catholic voice gets heard.
When did you create the Kukah Centre?
Three years ago.
What’s it devoted to?
Public policy, religion, faith. www.thekukahcentre.org.
The great thing about the Centre is that it was an American friend of mine who told me ‘Look, you have to set this up because you have the power to summon. Almost everyone you call in Nigeria would come.’ And with a sense of humility, I’m quite pleased about that. Because when we decided to present the concept paper, I invited then-President Jonathan, and he physically came. It’s actually the result of my experience with public life in Nigeria, having sat in three or four different initiatives.
This is what has given me a special sense of urgency. Also, doors might be closed, but they’re not locked. There are a lot of things we can do to improve the quality of public policy, but also to make sure that the moral voice of the Church gets heard. Because people do take the Catholic Church very, very seriously.
What does the typical African, or typical Nigerian, think of Donald Trump?
It’s very interesting. First of all, I wasn’t too sure, but I really didn’t mind that Donald Trump won the election. I think why he became popular in Nigeria …
You’re saying he’s popular in Nigeria?
Absolutely, absolutely, especially within the Christian community. You’re talking about Nigeria after Boko Haram.
So it’s because they think he’ll stand up to Muslims?
I think those are the issues. Many people have felt beaten, and they also felt that moral issues were not being addressed. It’s not as if I expect Donald Trump to change the world, but hey!
At another level, there was a side of me that really wanted Hillary Clinton to win, because I think that women deserve a fair shot, especially given what was happening to them in other parts of the world where they’ve managed to climb the ladder of power. The woman in Brazil has been pushed off, the one in South Korea has been impeached, the one in Argentina has been pulled off for trial, and so on. Plus, I had a great admiration for Bill Clinton … but then, I don’t have a vote in the United States.
But you’re saying that if I took a poll among Christians in Nigeria, Donald Trump would do pretty well?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
What about your Muslim friends in Nigeria?
I think the Muslims substantially hold him in contempt, for reasons that are quite obvious.
Were it not for the way that Nigerian [Christians] feel about Boko Haram and global terrorism and all that, I personally wouldn’t have much affection at the social level, in terms of dealing with social issues such as refugees, for Donald Trump – everything Trump stands for, I’m against. So, I think it’s a question of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” I can understand the frustration that’s driven people to that position.
There isn’t really a Christian-Muslim conflict in Nigeria. That’s a cover for something else.
But as I hear you talk, you’re saying Trump is pretty popular among Christians but Muslims hold him in contempt. It does seem there’s a certain divide there …
It’s not black and white. The divides are there, but it depends on weather you instrumentalize them.
Let me give you a very nice example. Our former president, [Olusegun] Obasanjo, told me a very interesting story. Nigeria was playing a game in the World Cup. Whenever Nigeria was not doing so well, the supporters turned to one of these Christian appeals to Jesus, and somehow, it worked. So one day they take up one of these Jesus songs, ‘Jesus give us a goal!’ or whatever. And a goal was scored, and all of them broke into celebration.
The president’s chief of staff, who’s a Muslim, started celebrating. Obasanjo jokingly said, ‘This goal was scored in the name of Jesus, why are you celebrating?’ And the guy said, ‘Listen, once a goal has been scored, we’re all Christians!’