YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Nigeria’s internal conflict is “a Molotov cocktail of anger, frustration, religious extremism, toxic politics, corruption and deep rut,” according to a leading bishop in the country.
Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto was speaking to Crux ahead of the country’s 60th Independence Day, observed on Oct. 1.
“Every Independence Day brings a sense of foreboding for Nigeria and Nigerians. You look everywhere for a sign of something to smile about, something to hope for, something to find encouraging, and something to cling to and you are looking for a needle in a haystack,” Kukah said. “The frustrations mounts, the criminal political and bureaucratic classes get more daring in their exploits, stealing the country blind and leaving an entire nation bleeding.”
This year, Nigeria’s Catholic bishops called for a 40-period of prayer in preparation for the anniversary, which began on Aug. 22, calling for peace.
“The bishops have called for an end to the killings and several other Nigerians have made the same call, including the leadership of the Muslims who have, rather strangely been even more hard hit,” Kukah said.
Nigeria has suffered from attacks by the Boko Haram terrorist group in the country’s northeast and Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, where the Muslim north meets the Christian south.
“The walls of Jericho fell not by gun fire but by prayer. The walls of Communism crumbled not by nuclear power but by, among other things, prayer,” the bishop told Crux.
“We in Nigeria are quite at home with what prayers can do and have done for us. For us as Christians, we have no standing army, but it is the most powerful weapon we have. So, it is a call to prayer, and it will achieve what God plans for us,” he said.
What follows are excerpts of Kukah’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: Why did the bishops’ conference in Nigeria call for a 40-day period of prayer ahead of Independence Day?
Kukah: It is self-explanatory, and a decision taken by our Conference. The walls of Jericho fell not by gun fire but by prayer. The walls of Communism crumbled not by nuclear power but by, among other things, prayer. We in Nigeria are quite at home with what prayers can do and have done for us. For us as Christians, we have no standing army, but it is the most powerful weapon we have. So, it is a call to prayer and it will achieve what God plans for us.
Can you describe the security situation in the country today?
The bishops have called for an end to the killings and several other Nigerians have made the same call, including the leadership of the Muslims who have, rather strangely been even more hard hit. The Catholic bishops told this president that if he cannot govern or secure our country, he should resign. That has not happened, but we only have a moral voice which we have used very well. Stalin mocked the pope, wondering how many divisions the pope had. Today, we know better.
I cannot describe the security situation to you, nor can anyone in an interview of this sort. But Nigeria is literally caught in a vortex of violence and every segment and section of the country is feeling it in different way. It is just a matter of scale and where you are looking. It is however significant to note that the theatre of war is northern Nigeria and the key actors and most destructive forces are those fighting for an Islamic caliphate. A northerner is in power, northerners are in charge of the security apparatus, and so on. So, this is where we are. Nigerian conflict is a Molotov cocktail of anger, frustration, religious extremism, toxic politics, corruption and deep rut.
What assessment would you make about the way the government has been handling the crisis?
I think this government has honestly done its best. This is all it can do and this is the hand that fate has dealt us. If you challenge Mike Tyson and you are knocked out in the first few seconds, you may have done your best because that is all the strength you have. This is why we said if your best is not good enough, please step aside. However, the President himself has told the Service Chiefs that their best is not good enough but as you know, it has all become a joke. That is why, prayer is the best option we have because we are really and truly in a dangerous place.
Leading up to the country’s Independence Anniversary, how well has the Federation fared in terms of ensuring that every Nigerian feels they belong?
Well, every Independence Day brings a sense of foreboding for Nigeria and Nigerians. You look everywhere for a sign of something to smile about, something to hope for, something to find encouraging, and something to cling to and you are looking for a needle in a haystack. The frustrations mounts, the criminal political and bureaucratic classes get more daring in their exploits, stealing the country blind and leaving an entire nation bleeding.
We had a joke called fighting corruption and we even set up a Commission. But guess what, from its inception till date, not one of its Chairmen has finished his or her term. The current Ag Chairman whom the Presidency has continued to build a moral world around is now facing massive corruption charges. A case of what happens when the hunter becomes the hunted. Yes, our anniversary is here, but Ali Baba and his 40 friends are still in charge.
Obviously, there have been crises in the Nigerian federation, Biafra – and independence movement in southeast Nigeria that led to a 1967-1970 civil war in the country, and still a potent force today – being an example. How big have been the threats to the country’s unity?
Before Biafra there were Odua’ Peoples’ Congress and the Niger Delta Militants, all before Boko Haram and the Islamists. So, Biafra is a consequence of the corruption of the Nigerian state. These youth groups are expressions of the frustrations that face their generation. They are not the problems and they are not the ones on the dock: The accused is the Nigerian state!
Besides the country’s ethnic divides, there are economic and social inequalities. How comes that Africa’s largest economy should still be host to some of the continent’s poorest people?
What again should I say? You sow corruption, you reap poverty, no two ways about it. The day the political elite decide to play by the rules of politics and try to manage pluralism better, we will see its impact on poverty and safety in Nigeria. There is a correlation between economic conditions and people’s predisposition to violence.
Going forward, what do you think needs to be done to bridge the divides?
I have no easy answers. Politicians were meant to build bridges, but they only build bridges to steal votes or the commonwealth. If the political elite are not prepared to do their job, they make it easy for violence to continue and the persistence of violence knocks on the door of those who control the stock exchange of violence-the military! And we do not need that because they have often been worse than the diseases they have come to cure.
What role should Nigeria be playing in Africa going forward?
I think the first role is to take itself seriously, cure itself of the ineptitude and corruption that has reduced its prestige and capacity to assert itself. You cannot be a leader merely because of your population. Population helps, but if you are stealing from your people and making them poor, then you become a liability to everyone. When Nigeria is ready to lead, everyone will know. But leading Africa raises other questions as to the quality of governance across the continent itself, else it will be a case of one-eyed man as leader. The quality must improve across the board.