It’s notoriously difficult to measure these things, but there’s a strong case to be made that Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria, has one of the hardest jobs in the Catholic Church.
Located in extreme northwestern Nigeria near the border with Niger, Sokoto is overwhelmingly Muslim and the seat of the former “Sokoto Caliphate,” the traditional seat of Islamic rule in West Africa. The tiny Catholic flock of around 30,000 in Sokoto is about .2 percent of the population, and it’s long been consigned to second-class citizenship, frozen out of the media and public life, perhaps seen but rarely heard.
Especially with the rise of the radical Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram, life for the Christian minority in northern Nigeria has become increasingly perilous, and they often have the sense of facing it alone – not feeling great solidarity from fellow believers around the world and, for that matter, even from the largely Christian areas in the south of their own country.
In that context, Kukah, 63, in many ways is their great hope.
He’s one of Nigeria’s most respected Catholic intellectuals, holding 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 has a 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.
Kukah currently is in the United States on a speaking tour sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organization that supports victims of anti-Christian persecution. He’s already appeared at St. John’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Boston, he speaks Tuesday at the Catholic Center at New York University, and he finishes up with a talk at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., on Friday.
Crux spoke to Kukah on April 24 about Boko Haram, the challenges for Christians in Nigeria, and the broader way forward for a country that’s simultaneously both Africa’s emerging superpower and also a deeply troubled place.
Crux: The Nigerian military has scored some recent successes against Boko Haram, and President Muhammadu Buhari says they no longer control any territory. What’s the situation like on the ground?
Kukah: The situation has become very, very complex. Nigerians themselves, even Nigerian Muslims themselves, struggle to understand what Boko Haram has come to represent.
It’s true that Boko Haram has been routed during the last six months or so, and really significant progress has been made. Technically they’re no longer in control of any Nigerian territory, which is good news. However, we’re not too sure what might be happening elsewhere, whether they’ve slipped across a border and are reorganizing. We’re also not sure what relationship they might have to other radical groups, such as ISIS.
We know they’re getting support from someplace. Our experience in Nigeria is that if we were simply dealing with a local organization, the battle would have been over a long time ago. There’s been a tremendous mobilization of resources and personnel [for Boko Haram] that’s clearly beyond the capacity of the local Muslim community.
In the vast, fascinating, and endlessly conflicted African superpower of Nigeria, Bishop Matthew Kukah’s is a voice that matters.
Where’s that support coming from?
It’s difficult to say. We know that Boko Haram has made a ton of money from kidnappings, from drug running, from human trafficking, from all kinds of things. There’s a suspicion, for instance, that they might be using the Chibok girls as a bargaining chip, a sort of “natural resource” they’re trying to exploit for a payoff.
Beyond that, it’s very difficult to know what their direct sources of funding are, but what we do know is that a lot of people from the outside obviously have put a lot of money into Boko Haram.
You’ve said that at the beginning, Boko Haram’s anger wasn’t directed so much at Christians, or even the Nigerian government, but rather corrupt local Islamic elites. Do you still believe that?
That’s still my view. Basically, what Boko Haram reflected, at least in its origins, is a struggle within the Muslim community itself to define what constitutes Islamic purity. That’s still happening, as we see in the tragedy in Kaduna State of the killing of 347 members of a Shi’ite group by the security forces.
The truth of the matter is that Boko Haram and these other Salafist movements are engaged in battles internal to Islam, which are only partially directed at Christians.
Is Boko Haram “anti-Christian”?
Of course it is, even if that’s not the only aspect to it. They certainly believe that Christianity is inferior to Islam.
However, it’s important to say that those prejudices didn’t just pop up overnight. They reflect the long-standing attitude of the Muslim political elite in northern Nigeria, who have systematically denied Christians access to land and access to space in public life. They prepared the ground that Boko Haram has exploited.
Having treated Christians as outsiders for so long, they made it easier for Boko Haram to pitch the idea of an Islamic state. If the political elites of the region had integrated Christians into economic, political and public life, Boko Haram would not have had a chance.
Burning churches, for instance, is part of a tradition that goes back 30 years. It started in 1987 and has continued persistently, and the government has done next to nothing. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan or Libya, churches were burned. When cartoons were drawn in Europe that Muslims didn’t like, churches got burned, even though our people had nothing to do with it.
The Nigerian state has done nothing to protect Christians, and as a result you have a whole generation of militant young Muslims who believe they can act with impunity.
Do the Muslim elites understand how they helped pave the way for Boko Haram?
They’ll agree with you, but not in public. I wrote a paper not long ago that raised this issue, and it got a lot of attention across northern Nigeria. A number of key political leaders called on the phone to say, ‘We don’t disagree with what you’re saying, and we admire your courage.’ However, they won’t say that openly because it’s not “politically correct.”
The PC thing to say in northern Nigeria is that we’re not like Boko Haram because we tolerate Christians, we let them be … seen, but not heard … and we’ve been peaceful.
Do you believe that for now, Nigeria has seen the last of Boko Haram?
I don’t think so, because unfortunately, by now “Boko Haram” is really just a metaphor for all sorts of resentments being expressed by citizens and groups against the corruption of the Nigerian state.
Whether we see more Boko Haram-style violence depends in part on how the government tackles the deep problems we face – how it ends up dealing with the problems of the Shi’ites, for instance, or how it responds to the movement in Biafra. They have to deal with a serious problem in the quality of social services, the fact that so many young people don’t have jobs and are living nasty, brutish lives.
That’s how Boko Haram got started in the first place – they called attention to the corruption of the state, and, “We can offer you something better.” Again right now, there are a lot of voices saying the status quo isn’t working, and until those problems are addressed, the situation will continue to be volatile.
If Boko Haram does come back, I don’t think it will be quite as massive, because the environment has changed. Had Gaddafi not been overthrown, Boko Haram wouldn’t have had so much access to weapons and so on. Gaddafi had tremendous influence in Africa, and his death led to the movement of a lot of arms into Nigeria. However, it would be naïve to think that if the underlying problems aren’t solved, something like Boko Haram couldn’t flare up again.
What kind of support do you get from Christians in southern Nigeria?
Unfortunately, differences in ethnicity and region have affected the Christian community. Those differences sometimes deny Christians a sense of themselves as members of one body of Christ, so the problems Christians face in the north have never really generated a national uprising by Christians across the country.
As a result, Christians in northern Nigeria often feel like they’re fighting the battle alone. From the point of view of the perpetrators, if they don’t see Christians taking to the streets anywhere in protest, if they don’t see Christians demanding that the courts and the political system do something, if nobody’s complaining, then they feel it means there’s not much for them to worry about.
Are things changing?
I wouldn’t yet say they’re changing, but since I got to Sokoto [in 2011] we’ve tried to be a little more assertive in getting Christians to claim their rights as citizens. For example, we got Catholics out into the streets for a Corpus Christi procession, which had never been done before. We also mobilized and took to the streets as part of the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign over the Chibok kidnappings. So, we’re beginning to stick our necks out in public.
Here’s one sign of progress. During Holy Week, I went on a pastoral visit and had a meeting with the governor. I took two students from one of our schools with me who had the best results on the national exams. Both are Muslims, and I took the opportunity to challenge the governor, saying, “We’re providing the best education in your state, in this case to Muslim students, yet if we want to build a school we have to buy the land.’ There and then, the governor publicly offered to buy land for us.
That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s possible that gradually we could begin to see slight changes.
What sort of support do you get from the Church in affluent places such as the United States and Europe?
My greatest agony is that the Catholic Church is not doing enough in terms of solidarity. I very much appreciate the invitation [to speak in the U.S.] froim Aid to the Church in Need, but we require far greater solidarity from the American and European churches than is presently the case.
On a monthly basis, Pentecostal pastors from the States are flooding into Nigeria, bringing money and other support for their congregations here. The Evangelicals in Nigeria have received millions from their American counterparts to help survive the excesses of Boko Haram, but the Catholic Church doesn’t have the same commitment. Muslims, too, have resources pouring in from the outside, but often we Catholics find ourselves almost literally standing alone.
Groups such as Aid to the Church in Need and Catholic Relief Services are trying, but it would be very helpful to see the leadership of the church in America and Europe show greater solidarity with Africa. For instance, we’d love to have a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops come to Nigeria to see what’s happening, or to receive an invitation from the bishops of England and Wales to brief them.
We definitely require a far greater show of solidarity than is presently the case.
What are your main needs?
Right now, the best thing we can do in Sokoto is to build schools and be able to have our children in dormitories. The children, especially the girls, remain very, very vulnerable, and that’s the greatest contribution we can make.
We’re a tiny share of the population, but we wield an influence out of proportion to our numbers. Our schools post the best results in each of the four states our diocese covers. If we had a bit of support, we could expand their reach. Those schools serve a valuable social purpose, because they integrate the children of both the poor and the rich, as well as people of different religious backgrounds.
It’s important that these be boarding schools. If you go back to the Chibok girls, part of the story is that they were all from schools that don’t have dormitories, which is why they had to be brought together in one place for exams. Right now, we have to look for buses to get students to and from school, and it’s something we worry about because of how vulnerable children are, especially girls.
What would it cost?
To build a dormitory that can hold about 200 or so students, we could do it for about $100,000, and with another $100,000, we could build a decent set of classrooms. I’d like to be able to build six new schools, and I think I could cover the cost for about $1 million in all.