The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Bishop Matthew Kukah, speaks to on the socio-economic situation in the North, President Muhammadu Buhari’s performance and the forthcoming 2019 elections
You were one of those who vehemently opposed Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency from the outset. How would you describe the quality of leadership in Nigeria in the immediate past era?
Vehemently opposed to Buhari? Where did you get this from? I think you were sold this dummy in the heydays of ecstasy, frenzy and euphoria of the Buhariphilia, who jumped out of every corner of Nigeria believing that their redemption was at hand. Sadly, today, a good chunk has since apostacised. I never doubted the sincerity of the President’s intention to fight corruption. However, no matter how much you hate leprosy, you cannot cure leprosy by just giving Panadol to the victim.
My fears were threefold and based on experience. First, no matter the goodness, holiness or devotion of any human being, wait until he or she has power entrusted to them and see what they become. So, even in the most optimistic of situations, set goals and expectations and let the person prove himself or herself. Secondly, what Buhari kept saying about corruption did not seem to be the result of some deep reflections. His claims and strategies had never been interrogated. And finally, I insisted that national cohesion was far more urgent a task than just saying ‘we are here to fight corruption’. That informed what you may have referred to as vehement opposition. I was simply warning against too much blind trust and now we are where we are today.
What worries you most about this administration?
I am worried over the lack of fresh ideas, focus, vision and a seeming insensitivity to public feelings; a kind of contempt for how people feel and the impact of policy choices, on the part of this government. This is a season of anomie and alienation. The (Buhari) government seems closed to ideas that challenge their assumptions and apparently does not care what Nigerians think and what they feel. Else, there is no way that you can have a government make the mistakes that this government has made; refuse to engage citizens and simply refuse to give a damn. It is disturbing and, clearly, the government is listening to other drummers. Technically, no one suggests that their views should be taken, but this government has given Nigerians a feeling that they were sold a dummy. This is sad; very sad indeed.
Buhari and the military under his government have continuously claimed that Boko Haram has been defeated. Do you believe them?
Well, this is part of the problem and I think we should let the evidence — not the sloganeering and propaganda — do the talking. The government has refused to listen to the views of Nigerians about the rather incestuous and non-plural ways it has dealt with security and the appointments of their heads. Perhaps the government has a reason for allowing members of only one faith to monopolise the security apparatus, perhaps because it thinks Boko Haram is a problem within Islam and only Muslims can address the issues. Either way, our country is haemorrhaging in a way that ending the Boko Haram conflict will only open a new chapter in a country of people suffering the collective trauma, fear, self-doubt and a feeling of being totally disconnected from the state that has no empathy. With the government seeing this purely as a military operation, we can spend all the money in the world, but we will be nowhere near having a united nation or people. This battle has become a military operation with all its consequences on the economy and the dynamics of the engagement.
What was your reaction upon hearing the news of the Dapchi girls’ abduction?
My reaction was that of shock, sorrow; a tragic sense of déjà vu, and some level of near despair.
Do you agree with Buhari that his response time to the Dapchi girls’ abduction was better than that of the previous administration to the abduction of Chibok girls?
This comparison does not arise. One tragedy is bad enough; a repeat is a disaster. It is like asking whether dying by injection is better than drowning.
Do you think Buhari owes Nigerians an apology, considering his commitment to rescuing the Chibok girls and defeating Boko Haram within the first few months of his presidency?
Why should he apologise? I believe this government has done its best and this is about all it can offer. So, they should be judged not on speculation but on the reality. The issue of an apology does not arise because what we are seeing is the best that is on the table and this is the best team for the job in their view.
Buhari’s health was a major talking point last year with the President spending several weeks on two medical trips. Do you think Buhari owes Nigeria an explanation about what he was treated for?
You mean he should apologise that he was sick? I think we should respect everyone’s privacy. You don’t lose that by being a public servant. I was not happy the way we handled the issue of the President’s health. Others behave differently and I think we should learn not to play politics with everything in Nigeria.
Does his physical fitness worry you, given the possibility of his running for a second term?
There is a Hausa proverb which says, ‘You cannot borrow someone else’s mouth to eat onions’. No one has the right to decide on anyone’s health and as to whether they are capable of a particular function. It is left for the insiders of a party to decide whom they will field as a candidate even if the person is on a stretcher. Today’s weightlifter could fall sick tomorrow. Let the party decide who their best candidate is.
Three of the major promises of this administration are to fight corruption, boost the economy and conquer Boko Haram. Would you say the government has made any significant stride in these areas?
I have said repeatedly that personal opinion does not matter in the long run. Look at the reports from the Federal Bureau of Statistics, the United Nations Development Programme, Amnesty International or Transparency International. What does the evidence suggest? You cannot pick and choose what you want to believe. Or look at the entire Nigerian landscape littered with corpses, destroyed businesses and buildings, all the ravages of war. This is very painful.
What achievements do you think the Buhari government has made?
There is a Minister for Information; he has that duty, not me. They said they have technically defeated Boko Haram, reflated the economy, and brought back some Chibok girls and the Dapchi girls, bar Leah. We now have 7,000 megawatts of electricity and so on. They are also telling us about new multi-billion-naira projects which they are embarking on with no idea when they will be completed. The faces of Nigerians tell a different story and, sadly, we are not communicating with one another.
How do you feel about the recent revelation that senators receive N13.5 million monthly as running costs and that House of Representatives members receive N12m monthly?
Senator (Shehu) Sani has done his job. It is left for Nigerians to decide what to make of it. It is a pity that we are in such a state of stupor that nothing can rouse us from our apathy and this country will continue to sink. Will the President, Vice President, governors and ministers ever come clean or does it require reverting to the Freedom of Information Act? In the mafia, they call this destructive secrecy ‘omerta’, an oath of silence under pain of death. This is why Senator Sani deserves our respect for taking the decision he took. We hear that the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) is claiming ignorance as to these sums. But, as I have always said, governance in Nigeria is a criminal enterprise which functions above the law.
What are your thoughts on governors’ transition to senators when their eight-year tenure is completed?
Well, what else is there for some of these people to do? Can they go anywhere to deliver a lecture or write books on their experiences? This country stands or falls depending on what the governors do.