ABUJA, Nigeria — There are plenty of ways to measure a Catholic bishop’s importance: the size of his diocese, perhaps, or how good his connections are in Rome. If the standard is relevance in one’s own country, however, then few prelates could hold a candle to Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria.

In May, Nigeria accomplished an exceedingly rare feat by African standards, which is watching an incumbent head of state peacefully cede power after losing a reasonably free and fair election. Kukah received a fair bit of the credit, having helped organize a National Peace Committee to ensure that all contenders would accept the results.

Kukah’s perch in Sokoto is tiny by Catholic standards, located in the country’s predominantly Muslim north. It’s the kind of obscure diocese whose bishops are rarely seen or heard.

That’s unless, of course, the bishop holds a Ph.D. from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has a list of books to his credit longer than some small publishing houses, and seems to have a special gift for putting complex ideas into accessible and ever-provocative ways.

The diminutive but outspoken Kukah has been called a “rabble-rouser for peace” by Nigeria’s influential Leadership newspaper, which compared his role in the country as an advocate of Catholic social teaching to that of St. John Paul II in Poland or Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.

Here’s how British journalist Karl Maier, who reported from Nigeria for the Independent, captured Kukah back in 2000:

“Gregarious yet serious, intellectual but down-to-earth, small and compact but bursting with enough energy for two men, Father Kukah is somewhat of a phenomenon …. He travels the world and is on good terms with the present and past heads of state; he is the local boy who made good, a symbol that it is possible for someone from this forgotten part of Nigeria to make a mark.”

Kukah first rose to fame by writing widely quoted newspaper columns in the 1980s over issues such as nuclear disarmament and the Northern Ireland peace process, and his international acclaim has made him popular outside Catholic confines.

For example, he tells the story of recently being in a Nigerian airport when he was introduced as the Catholic bishop of Sokoto. A Muslim who overheard angrily disputed that characterization, insisting, “He’s our bishop, too!”

Kukah’s been in the spotlight again of late, stirring Nigerian debate over whether, and how, to hold the improbably named loser of the recent election, former president Goodluck Jonathan, accountable for alleged corruption.

At a time when most Nigerians are fed up with decades of naked looting and want to see heads roll, Kukah had the temerity to suggest that governance should be more important to the new regime under President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army general, than splashy show trials.

“I consider myself a public intellectual,” Kukah said during a late August interview in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. “My job is to stir the hornet’s nest, generating new ideas and pointing the way forward.”

In many ways, stirring the nest is a good shorthand way of capturing Kukah’s métier.

In Abuja, the national capital, Kukah is literally the city’s spiritual father. He was the first Catholic priest ever to celebrate Mass here in 1982, when the new capital was being built. So deep is his imprint that one of the first Catholic parishes in Abuja was named “St. Matthew,” ostensibly for the author of the Gospel, but in reality a reference to Kukah.

Just walking through the lobby of a downtown hotel with Kukah is a lesson in his celebrity.

Every few steps, a new knot of Nigerians forms to shake Kukah’s hand, to snap a photo with him, and to express an opinion on his latest piece of punditry — all the while as he tells stories of meeting titans such as Kofi Anan and Angela Merkel in various corners of the property.

Celebrity, however, is not quite the same thing as popularity. There’s no doubt that Kukah’s once-universal respect has taken a hit lately because of perceptions that he’s “covering” for the deeply unpopular former president.

On Facebook, somebody posted a picture of his bishop’s residence in Sokoto with the suggestion it had been paid for by graft from the Jonathan regime, while others have suggested Kukah is trying to pressure Buhari not to go back on a secret deal to leave Jonathan alone as the price of taking power.

(For the record, Kukah denies both charges.)

How bad has the anti-Kukah vitriol become? This Day, one of the country’s leading dailies, carried an opinion piece on Sunday suggesting that Kukah’s recent message has been “anti-people and from the pit of Hell.”

Kukah insists he does not have any prejudice against the Muslim Buhari, pointing out that back in 2007, when Kukah wrote an article trying to contextualize comments made by Buhari about Muslims having a duty to vote for fellow Muslims, he was accused by many Christians of breaking ranks.

He also recalled that critics once faulted him for not moving to jail Buhari, who was part of a military regime in Nigeria, when Kukah served as secretary of a government human rights commission in the early 2000s.

That said, Kukah clearly intends to play a watchdog role with the new regime.

Speaking to Crux, Kukah pointed out that as a candidate, Buhari spoke to the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference in February 2015, insisting that “I am not a religious fanatic of any sort and never have been.”

Kukah summarized Buhari’s message as, “government’s business is to protect life and property no matter what somebody’s religion is,” insisting that the speech should become a “vademecum for Christians.” (That’s a traditional Catholic term for a sort of handbook or guide.)

Does he believe Buhari meant what he said?

“It’s not a matter of whether he was serious,” Kukah said. “The point is, he said it, and now I can hold him accountable for it.”

On the most traumatic recent force in Nigerian life, the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram, Kukah has a predictably nuanced line, beginning with saying that the group is not motivated primarily by anti-Christian prejudice.

“In Nigeria, this is my position, it’s not like somebody would walk up to you and kill you just because you’re Christian,” he said. Such sentiment, he said, “does not define Nigerian Islam.”

Yet Kukah also believes that Boko Haram, at least at its origins, did have a religious mission to “purify” what they regard as the traditional Islamic leaders of northern Nigeria — a whole cluster of emirs and sultans who now hold largely ceremonial but still important posts — whom Boko Haram members had come to see as corrupt.

“They are honestly concerned with the purification of Islam,” he said. “It’s not just that they believe it, but the truth is out there for all to see. A governor appoints his friend as an emir, and they know how much [that emir] is part of the corruption of the state.”

While acknowledging that Christians have a limited right of self-defense, he says the resort to force should always be “ad-hoc,” and that the state should be the party that ensures security.

“If you have an absentee mother or father and the kids are fighting over ice cream, order can only be restored when the mother or father takes responsibility,” he said. “You can’t expect the kids to solve it themselves.”

Yet Kukah is no shrinking violet in terms of defending Christian interests himself.

At the moment, he’s spearheading a case before a national human rights panel involving Christian members of the police force in his part of the north who were denied permission by the commissioner to marry fellow Christians because those officers have Muslim-sounding names — names they took in the first place, according to Kukah, to short-circuit workplace discrimination from the north’s Muslim majority.

At bottom, Kukah passionately believes that Nigeria’s fundamental problem isn’t Boko Haram, and it’s not even the jaw-dropping level of corruption here that leaves Africa’s largest producer of oil in the humiliating position of having to import refined gasoline.

He describes those maladies as “symptoms,” with the disease being Nigeria’s inability
“to find its soul.”

By that, Kukah means that a concept of citizenship and a shared national ideal is less important to most Nigerians than chronic triggers of conflict such as geography, ethnicity, and religion.

“Democracy is the best opportunity we have, but we need to wear our long-distance running shoes,” he said.

“We have a golden moment right now to move in this direction,” he said. “I hope we don’t waste it.”

Whether Matthew Kukah’s diagnosis of the Nigerian situation is correct can certainly be debated, and right now many commentators are taking undisguised glee in doing just that. What’s not up for argument is that in this vast, fascinating, and endlessly conflicted African superpower, Kukah’s is a voice that matters.