YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A leading Nigerian prelate has said that the very structure of the state in Africa’s most populous nation is “dysfunctional” and “not working,” including the division of the country into 36 states and the role of the military in national affairs.
Despite fears under President Bola Tinubu and Vice President Kashim Shettima, both Muslims, that Nigeria may be headed for increased Islamization, Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto in the Muslim-dominated north also said he’s convinced the new administration won’t “instrumentalize” religion.
“I can feel comfortable in their hands that being a Christian will not be a liability to me,” Kukah said.
Kukah made his remarks during a Nov. 28 interview with Channels Television, an independent news outlet.
Despite heading a tiny diocese, 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.
In his new interview, Kukah suggested that the Nigeria state needs to be dismantled and rebuilt.
“The structure of the Nigerian state is unscientific. It’s dysfunctional. It’s not working,” Kukah said. “It’s the reason why amidst plenty, we are still in pain.”
The first mistake Nigeria made, the cleric said, was the creation of states, which he said was a stopgap strategy to try to prevent a civil war rather than a carefully considered act of nation-building.
By way of context, Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain in 1960 as a federation of three regions, each dominated by a particular ethnic group: The largely Muslim Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the west and the mostly Christian Igbo in the east. Groups in the south felt the political system was unfairly stacked in favor of the north, leading to a 1966 coup and counter-coup that set the stage for the Biafra civil war from 1967 to 1970.
Three years ago, the 1960s-era leader of the Nigeria, General Yakubo Gowon, acknowledged that the decision to break up the country’s three regions into a series of smaller states was motivated largely by the hope it would help prevent the country from falling apart.
Yet according to Kukah, the division into states was not well-considered and has exacerbated tensions rather than resolving them, comparing it to the 1884 Berlin Conference in which European colonial powers arbitrarily divided Africa into nation-states.
“We are not different from the Berlin conference,” Kukah said. “The big boys just sat down…these guys simply made their villages local government headquarters or their villages states.”
He said the arbitrariness with which the states were created has stoked ethnic consciousness, and people began thinking and acting in terms of ethnic identities.
“There are many governors who don’t know the ethnic groups that make up the state that they govern. There are many governors who probably have never traveled around even the state that they are governing,” Kukah said.
“They may never because apart from the State House, you go to local government headquarters, that’s a state visit unless you are cutting a tape somewhere,” he said.
Kukah said that “power is not just something that you hold. Power and office are two different things. Office is different. Power is different. You can have an office and not have power. You can have power and not have office.”
In addition, Kukah said the role of the military in Nigerian life has also been problematic, asserting that “the military destroyed the foundation of democracy.”
“Forget about good soldiers or bad soldiers, because the military had no agenda for coming to power in Nigeria rather than just anger,” he said.
“What we see now is what the military decided to give us with no scientific precision, with no attention being paid to minorities,” Kukah said. “That’s why minority agitations from the Niger Delta to the Middle Belt went unattended, so that we are where we are now.”
Known for his acerbic criticism of successive regimes in Nigeria, Kukah said that Tinubu, for all his shortcomings, is not “ignorant of the political terrain in Nigeria.”
“He’s perhaps the first person to come out of what we may call the human struggle, I mean, the civil society struggles of the last 20 or more years. So, it is difficult for him to make mistakes if he’s serious about what he needs to do that he already has an idea, and he evidently has a passion for human rights, for justice, for fairness, for equity,” Kukah said.
The cleric dismissed concerns that Tinubu, who ran on a Muslim-Muslim ticket, may seek to Islamize the country.
“People were wondering why I wasn’t shouting up against the Muslim- Muslim ticket,” Kukah said. “I focus on individuals and what I think they can bring to the table. They don’t have to be from my community, they don’t have to be Catholic, they don’t have to be Christian.”
Referring to Tinubu and Shettima, Kukah said “my knowledge of them is enough for me to know that these are not people who will instrumentalize religion.”
“They might have other flaws, but I can feel comfortable in their hands that being a Christian will not be a liability to me,” Kukah said.
He said for Tinubu to succeed in a “complicated country” like Nigeria, he must have “sophisticated listening devices that he is hearing the voice of the voiceless, wherever they may be.”