The Sleeping Giant
On Valentine’s Day 2015, a remarkable meeting took place between the political leaders of Nigeria’s Muslim and Christian communities.
President Goodluck Jonathan had kept the Christians in power since the previous election in 2011. His opponent, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, representing the Muslim north, hoped to unseat him.
As usual in Nigerian elections, tensions ran high. Since democracy was restored in 1999, deaths from sectarian violence in Nigeria had run into the hundreds. Christians feared that their domination of federal politics was about to end. No one really knew what would happen next.
The Valentine’s Day meeting, however, of which Haggai leader Matthew Kukah was the convenor, made one thing certain: both candidates were fully and openly committed to peace. They said in a joint statement: “We call on all fellow citizens of our dear country, and our party supporters, to refrain from violence or any acts that may in any way jeopardize our collective vision of a free, fair, and credible election.”
On polling day the following month, Muhammadu Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan by roughly two million votes. Observers generally praised the election as being fair. Jonathan was generally praised for conceding defeat and limiting the risk of unrest.
For Bishop Kukah, achieving a free and fair transfer of power, in a country divided almost 50:50 between Christians and Muslims, is the fruit of a long struggle to end Gospel poverty.
Born into a family of modest means, Bishop Kukah was ordained a Catholic priest in 1979 and completed his Haggai Leader Experience 20 years later.
“What struck me most was the awesome nature of the dream, and the statement by Dr. Haggai that we must dream for something so big that it would fail if God were not in it.”
He took the challenge seriously. By then, Matthew Kukah was a renowned churchman with connections to Harvard and Oxford Universities. He has been featured prominently in the New York Times, CNN, BBC, Reuters, and AFP. He returned from Haggai, though, “opened up to the urgency of bringing Christians – and Nigerians – together in the Gospel.”
He threw himself into public life in his country, serving in four presidential initiatives, including the Truth Commission (1999-2001), the Political Reform Committee (2004), and the Electoral Reform Committee (2007-2008). Between 2005 and 2014, he singlehandedly negotiated an end to the long, drawn out conflict between Shell Petroleum Development Corporation and the people of Ogoniland in Rivers State.
His greatest test, though, arrived in 2011 when the Pope appointed him the new Bishop of Nigeria’s northern Sokoto Diocese.
Often referred to as a caliphate, Sokoto is the spiritual heart of Nigerian Muslims. Just a few months previously, Muslims and Christians had been locked in a bitter ongoing conflict that had claimed hundreds of lives. Matthew Kukah’s installation as Bishop took place at the height of a wave of almost daily Boko Haram violence directed at Muslims and Christians alike.
Yet as one journalist wrote, “when Bishop Kuhah was installed in Sokoto, not one Muslim citizen threw a stone; or shouted an obscenity; or detonated a bomb; or threatened the thousands of visitors ” Bishop Kukah’s reputation had gone before him.
The same journalist concluded, “Father Kukah is a missionary in a nation desperate to hear and live as God wishes. The cross he bears is to constantly remind us that there are better ways to live than we do.”
Bishop Kukah is fond of echoing the advice of Pope Francis – that “a shepherd must smell like his sheep.” He is disciplined in his own life, and he expects the same discipline of his peers. “If you are a leader,” he says, “God is asking to use not only your personnel, but also your houses, your space, and your other resources to be of service to the people in whatever way you can.” He adds, “The lack of commitment towards supporting the work of the Gospel and the culture of surrender to Islam and secularism are painful.”
His ongoing passion is to “infuse the values of the Gospel into Nigeria’s public life and to help create a just, free, and fair society.” Since Nigeria is now the richest and most populous nation in Africa, and is increasingly emerging on the world stage, Bishop Kukah’s goals have never been more relevant.
He remains, he says, “saddened that our country, despite its enormous resources, is still weighed down by corruption and injustice.”
To further his struggle for a more egalitarian society in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he has set up a Think Tank called the Kukah Centre, which addresses the issues of the role of faith in public policy.
Bishop Kukah has been called a rabble-rouser for peace and nation-building in Nigeria. He is comfortable with the title. To be ending Gospel poverty in a country that could so easily break down into religious violence, and to do it while living in the heart of the Muslim community, is no small achievement.
Bishop Matthew Kukah
Roman Catholic Bishop of Sokoto
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