The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Bishop Matthew Kukah, speaks with TOBI AWORINDE about his recent visit to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, President Muhammadu Buhari’s appointments and more

What is your reaction to those who view you as an apologist of former President Goodluck Jonathan, the Peoples Democratic Party and an overt critic of President Muhammadu Buhari?

I don’t understand what you mean by apologist. I take it that you are talking about the strange claim that I have always defended former President Goodluck Jonathan at all costs. I am not sure I need to answer this question again because I have already dealt with the issue in earlier interviews.

What you may call defence of Jonathan was issue-specific. I commended that he conceded defeat and what it saved us from. I argued then that it offered us a good starting point for stabilising the nation. Happily, President Buhari has openly sounded even more eloquent and lyrical in his praise of Jonathan. So, if you want to be fair then, admit that President Buhari is also an apologist of Jonathan. Some thought that by now, Jonathan, Mrs. Diezani (Alison-Madueke) and others would already be in prison. I had warned that the system would defend its own, and secondly, that it would not be an easy fight under the rule of law. Where are we today?

Do you agree with Buhari that Jonathan’s government is to be blamed for the country’s current economic woes?

This is a redundant proposition. Nigerians voted out Jonathan to end the economic woes of yesterday. The present is in your hands to assess. In my first interview in the life of this administration, I warned the President that the honeymoon would not last and that he better get on with the job of governance. Today, you make an honest assessment yourself. Is the economy better now or not?

What are your thoughts on Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade so far?

What do you want me to say? Make an empirical assessment yourself. Again, when I warned of the challenges of fighting corruption in a democracy, the problems of processes and the capacity of the corrupt to stall and frustrate the system legally, some said I did not want to support the fight. Isn’t the same government now saying that Mrs. Diezani’s case has been stalled due to lack of resources? Have you heard her name mentioned again? Have we recovered the $6bn they said she stole? Strategy, not raw power, leads to victory.

What inspired your recent visit to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission?

I am not sure of what to say. I really did not imagine that I would be talking about this but since it is now public, let me briefly explain as best as I can. Yes, I went to the EFCC to visit the acting chairman, to invite him for an event with the Kukah Centre. As I got up to leave, I told him I needed to do my spiritual duties and then requested to see the detainees. I had no idea where the location of the facility was, nor did I even know who was there. I was out of the country when I heard my friend, Reuben Abati, had been held but I did not know where. I just said I wanted to greet the detainees, whoever they might be.

Mr. (Ibrahim) Magu then decided to accompany me and Abati was the first person I met as we entered the place. There were about seven or so other young men, none of whom I recognised but I greeted and shook hands with them. As I greeted them, Mr. Magu decided to show me their toilet facilities, assuring me that they were up to the standard. Abati, who was beside me, answered in the affirmative and I went on to see the showers, which looked quite neat. I was told that (Musiliu) Obanikoro and (Femi) Fani-Kayode were there too but that they were in the clinic. Mr. Magu took me there and we met both of them having a meal. They were glad and obviously surprised to see me. We chatted and then, I tried to encourage them, reminding them to trust in God’s will. After that, the four of us prayed together. I blessed them and left.

As I bade goodbye to Mr. Magu, a young man stepped up to me to ask about my visit. I spoke to him but had no idea it would be news. Nonetheless, there is nothing that I regretted saying to him. I had no idea that it would become a media event till someone forwarded the news item to me later that evening. It was not meant to be a media event, and I was pleased with Mr. Magu’s courtesy towards me. Trust Nigerians. This has elicited all kinds of reactions, but I am glad even about the publicity that has followed my visit. My conscience is my companion, not the eyes of the public.

I just call on my fellow Nigerians to know that we all share a common humanity and that there is a distinction between sin and the sinner, and that while people are still under investigation, we must ensure that their integrity is intact until the courts have proven their cases against them. It could be any of us tomorrow. Should you as journalists not worry that a fellow journalist, Dr. Reuben Abati, is in detention? Or does prejudice over his accusation simply make you look the other way and say he got what he deserves, even when he has not been arraigned before a court? I don’t think a visit to someone in detention is necessarily an endorsement.

As a religious leader, whose following cuts across various political and ideological divides, aren’t you worried that your visit to the EFCC detention facility could make you appear as an ally of Abati, Fani-Kayode and Obanikoro, prominent actors in the Jonathan government?

The opposite is actually my belief. It is precisely because I cut across these divisions and based on my convictions as a Christian that I would go to visit anyone in adversity. Jesus our Master, the source of our inspiration as Christians, associated with prostitutes. He ate and dinned with sinners openly in defiance of the hypocrisy of his time. Jesus was a friend of public sinners and I am a sinner.

I did not know whom I was going to meet in the EFCC detention centre. Did these people lose their personhood by serving in Jonathan’s government? Indeed, contrary to what you think, it is precisely because I am a leader that I decided to do what my religion encourages me to do. The late Pope John Paul II, now St. John Paul, visited a man, Mehmet Agca, who attempted to assassinate him, in his prison cell.

As a Christian, do you recall that the first two people, who accompanied Jesus right into heaven from Golgotha, were two armed robbers? Did they share the proceeds of their theft with Jesus to have received his mercy? Did Jesus ask them about their theft? I am not better than those who are in detention. Even without stealing money or committing a crime, I could easily have been where they are. We must remember that we are where we are due to God’s mercy, not because we are more righteous. St. Francis said whenever you see someone in difficulty or adversity, always say to yourself, ‘There goes I but for the grace of God.’

Nigerian Presidents and leaders have suffered the humiliation of detention. Did (Chief Olusegun) Obasanjo not come from prison? Was Buhari not in detention? Was General Abdusalami (Abubakar) not about to be retired from the Army when he became Head of State? Did Alhaji (Shehu) Shagari, our former President; his vice, Dr. Alex Ekwueme; and scores of others not spend time in detention? I will visit any suspect or convict, whether armed robber or murderer, in prison, not because I approve of their acts, but because God does not ever forget or erase the name of any of His children from His love.

I visited people like Chief Olu Falae, Ambassador Yusuf Mamman, National Democratic Coalition activists and so-called bomb throwers at Alagbon Close during the Abacha era. I visited the late DSP (Diepriye) Alamieyeseigha in the company with the late Oronto Douglas when he was sick in Lagos. I visited James Ibori when he was in Kaduna Prison in the course of one of my prison visitations. I have visited Rev. King in Sokoto Prison. There are many more, but I name these just to make the point.

I do my best as a Christian to console and comfort. I am in the business of saving souls and not a judge. I do not have an apostolate to saints and angels. If I can bring succour, I will do that because I am a priest not a politician. Will you refuse to visit the sick in the hospital simply because you did not make them sick? Or will you refuse to visit someone in the hospital because they had an accident while drunk or speeding? When he or she recovers, they might listen better if you preach about the evils of alcohol, but for that moment, he or she needs succour and counsel, not a sermon. These are my personal convictions and they may conflict with yours, but that is perfectly okay by me. I help the sinners, you can care for the saints and let God decide. Just make sure you are doing something.

Do you agree with Jonathan that his government was devoid of nepotism and incarceration of political opponents, especially in comparison with the current administration of Buhari?

I am not prepared to make any comparisons, but I am deeply troubled about how this government has turned out to be so insensitive to the social, regional, religious, political and cultural structures and composition of our society. The skewed nature of political appointments is totally unacceptable, has no moral basis and flies in the face of fairness and justice. There is serious disaffection among Christians in the way and manner that the President has dealt with the issues of appointments as they concern religion. The forces that brought him to power defied these boundaries and their sacrifices offered a rare chance for us to break with the twin evils of ethnicity and religious bigotry. The frustration is palpable.

I have many northern Muslim friends in government and in the All Progressives Congress who are seriously embarrassed by the way things have turned out with these appointments. So, it is not even enough to say that all northerners or Muslims are happy with this. Dr. Junaid Mohammed, for example, is a Muslim, a northerner, who also fought Jonathan. Anyone who deceives the President that all is well is simply dishonest and neither wishes him well nor loves this great nation. We are haemorrhaging rather badly. The President’s wife dealt the last straw. The President must quickly reverse this if he is to recover his integrity and lay any claim to the moral authority of fighting corruption. The marginalisation of most of his key supporters has left the President quite vulnerable.

Ex-President Jonathan recently drew the ire of several Nigerians when he said the $2.1bn arms fund being probed were used to purchase military equipment and that his National Security Adviser at the time, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.), could not have stolen it. What do you think of the criticisms that greeted his comments?

Well, until we get Jonathan, Dasuki, and the generals on the stand, we should go beyond mere speculation, name-calling and stone throwing.

What is your reaction to the recent revelation that clerics were among those who benefitted from the $2.1bn arms fund?

Clerics are citizens and why should they not benefit from the windfall? If the windfall has turned into a whirlwind or an earthquake, then those who benefited should drown in it. There is no clerical way of stealing and all thieves must and should face the consequences of the law. So, I do not care because punishment belongs to the criminal, not his status.

My fear is that those in power will not have the courage to follow through with these investigations because of the fear of the addresses the investigations will lead to.

It will be unforgivable for criminals to be left off because of status or influence or social standing if we want to change. After all, will they turn around to probe their own personal prayer merchants or destroy the humongous structures that they have helped to erect? These are the issues. Those in power are not innocent and I am not talking here of today. The invidious tag team collusion between those in power and some businessmen, who masquerade as men of God, is at the heart of what is wrong with religion today. It has led to the co-option and domestication of religion by the powerful who use the religious leaders to reinforce and strengthen their hold on power through manipulation and patronage. In the process, the cutting edge of religion has been blunted. Religion is a moral cleanser and in an environment like ours, religious leaders must raise the bar of probity, and speak the truth to power prophetically. Recall the eternal words of the famous Lebanese writer, Gibran Khalil, a great Catholic thinker, who said, “Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.”

Do you foresee the EFCC and the Department of State Services going after some clerics?

How do I know? But why not, if they can find the evidence? I suggest that you focus on the crime not the status of the criminal.

What would be the implications of an EFCC probe of clerics?

What implications if people are proved to be guilty? If the evidence leads them, why should they not follow through?

What are your thoughts on the recent probe of judges and justices?

Were they probed? I only heard that their houses were broken into. Again, I think the most important thing is that the government must have the reflex and temperament for the principles of democracy and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Impatience (and) indignation, no matter how righteous, are no substitute for the democratic ethos. Everyone is entitled to their privacy and dignity and there are laid down procedures for responding to allegations.

Are you satisfied with the Attorney General of the Federation’s defence of the arrest of the judges?

I am neither an attorney, a judge nor a general. Sorry, I am just a priest.

Do you back the resignation or suspension of the arrested judges?

We are in a democracy, not a mobocracy such as people often tend to promote. Building democracy, like childbirth, is labour-intensive. We must have patience and discipline; discipline is not just about queues.

Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo recently accused Jonathan of lacking the will to stamp out Boko Haram. Do you agree?

The Vice-President has information that we don’t have. If the government is really serious, they should subject this whole charade to a public hearing. After all, did we not hear that a member of the team investigating this same expenditure was found with $1m in his home?

Did Jonathan ever express to you his challenges in fighting Boko Haram?

In what capacity? I published an article titled ‘Bread not bullets’ at the beginning of the insurgency. In it, I laid out the difficulties of focusing on a military solution.

What are your thoughts on the recent release of 21 Chibok schoolgirls?

Well, we are happy they are back. I salute the dedication, patience and hope of the parents. We encourage the government to intensify efforts to bring the others girls back. We salute the efforts of the Federal Government.

Are you in support of the ongoing negotiations between the Federal Government and Boko Haram?

I called for and supported negotiations based on my own experience early on in the insurgency, but I was shouted down by those who knew better. Now, we have come full circle. We can only pray.

Is Buhari right to vehemently oppose restructuring for Nigeria?

I am not aware of his opposition. I am not aware that he is vehemently opposed to restructuring. I imagine it depends on how the issues are framed.

How you think the internal crisis rocking the APC will affect the 2019 polls?

Talk of the moment, not 2019. To see a party, which came to power with so much goodwill, now frittering it all away is a measure of how Nigerian politicians understand the dignity, sacrifice and discipline that characterise party politics as a means of building a nation. The lack of honesty and discipline in sharing the spoils of victory has exposed the party’s moral underbelly. Now, the APC has been suffering from the side effects of very limited effective blood circulation in its body system. It now has to figure out how it can survive a heart attack.

I hear the rumblings and calls for a new party. This will be cowardly and will only further divide our people and deepen our frustrations. I often counsel my parishioners that the solution to a troubled marriage is not a new marriage but self-examination.

My grandmother used to say that whatever made ‘mama vulture’ bald will also make ‘baby vulture’ bald. We need a serious moral overhaul and a system that can make politics honourable, not the same carpetbaggers jumping ship. If parties become mere conveyor belts for the ambitions of a greedy and sybaritic elite, then we are in serious trouble.

Perhaps the APC should have spent more time cleansing itself internally, taking stock of the environment and strengthening its moral fibre, rather than all the energy it spent composing elegies of banditry and despoliation of the PDP. Soul searching and self-cleansing could have gone pari passu with a concerted but silent plan to rid the nation of the unacceptable excesses that characterised the past. The party would have developed a clear vision of a new dawn and provided a platform for rallying all the young men and women who voted it to power.

Punishing the irresponsibility of yesterday was important but it should not have become the main preoccupation of government, especially when it had not settled down. Now, the falcon has become the falconer. It may not be too late, but the President needs to quickly rethink a new strategy, reverse his hegemonic tendencies and seek dialogue and consensus within the APC family. It can be done because God will not abandon us. The APC parades some of the most brilliant and patriotic members of the political class. They should dig dip into their arsenal of sagacity. These young turks should seek to claim back the soul of the party rather than trying to jump ship.

How did you find out about the young man on trial for allegedly impersonating you?

Since February or so this year, many people called me to say that they had received requests from me for funds to celebrate my 58th birthday with internally displaced persons and asked me to confirm. I was pleased that even people I did not know, who sought my number and called me, prefixed their inquiries by saying that they did not associate this kind of thing with me. That was consoling. Calls continued to come from prominent Nigerians, ministers, senators, generals, some of whom had to look for my number and I had never even met. It got to a dangerous point when I was told that the young man had somehow cropped my picture and whenever he called with the number he was using, my picture would appear via Truecaller (a mobile application)!

I sought the advice of a senior police officer, who asked me to make a formal complaint to enable them to start investigation. I was quite impressed with the police, their dedication and efficiency. The rest is history. But in appreciation, I wrote to officially thank the Inspector-General of Police, listed the officers involved and asked him to help me thank them formally.

Have you met the accused impersonator?

I have not met him because I was told they had to bring him out of prison to address the issues. So, he is still in prison, I think. I was shocked to note that he had been tried before when he did the same to a very prominent Nigerian and the judge seemed quite lenient because he simply asked him to pay a little fine or go to jail for a few months or so. After my report, the police swung into action and discovered to their shock that it was the same young man. To prove how serious things were, the police took him back to the same court and to the same judge just to make the point that he was a recidivist. However, the judge in his wisdom again, gave him a short sentence with an option of a ridiculous fine despite knowing how much money the young man had fleeced from people! I feel sorry for him and hope I can finally meet him. He is serving his sentence outside Abuja. But I will trace him because I hope I can help him.

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