When Bald Men Fight for a Comb: Bishop Kukah and Political Miscellany
(This is the first report on the interview conducted with Bishop Hassan Kukah on March 7, 2021. For its entire recording, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NVxw-vwBaI)
Of course, a bald man with a beard could search for a comb until he is out of breath, but why would a bald man without a single strand of hair compete vigorously for a comb? The mission can only be explained in one frame—misplaced purpose. It is my considered opinion that many share the commonality of the syndrome alluded to in the aphorism of the bald man. They include the politician who builds his or her career on the economic destruction and social dislocation of society; those who create the illusion of security against the same society only to spend billions of naira on security details, including bulletproof cars; the people colonized under the yoke of ethnic and religious identities through which they do the bidding of the political elites responsible for their poverty, but turn around to complain about their pathetic condition understood not as a result of their social environment but extraterrestrial powers; and the “holy men” who sought after the financial contributions of the “unholy men.”
Many experts and seasoned scholars, including the former Nigerian Minister of Finance, now head of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, have, for a while now, concluded that states in Africa can survive without foreign aid if only they can stop the flow of wealth to western capitals, cities in Southeast Asia, and Islands in the Americas and the Caribbean. What is common in the sense that informs the proclivity of those responsible for this financial haemorrhaging with seismic socio-economic implications is what could be called the mosquito syndrome.
Recognizing how short its lifecycle is, a mosquito is super-determined to feed on human blood, sometimes to the extent to which it commits “suicide.” Two things: mosquitoes are not particularly built to feed on human blood; this only became a preference since other animals are permanently covered/protected against the penetration of their proboscis; the suicide they commit from bloated bellies is no aversion to human greed.
For many centuries, dating as far back as the evolution of the human race to a sedentary being, religion has served as the nucleus of social production while the economy has been at the root of its reproduction. For the better part of humanity’s checkered history, the religious institution has been directly responsible for the political development of a society. Balancing the interaction between these two is another fundamental question that has been raised in recent times with the rise of “dollar-pastors,” naira-worship Imams, as well as the simultaneous rise between religious establishments and corruption. In the least of its involvement, and one which is most frequent before the present century, wars were waged with the promise of victory by the gods, even though both sides of the belligerent forces could be assured of such by their priests, inspired by the gods. By implication, wars have been fought and peace has been made on the instruction or advice, as the case may be, of a religious leader. If we begin to probe the role of this institution in the rise and fall of empires, volumes of books will be published with entertaining accounts.
The role of religion in a society is indeed a paradox filled with many complexities and contours. One of the main callings of religious leaders has always been to help the “bad people” and “sinners” identify their priorities and pursue the right cause. However, neither this cause nor the society and the people involved are simple or predictable entities. The contours and complexities of this agelessly powerful religious institution remit lots of damages to society. It does this by inadvertently diverting the attention of the people away from the core issues bedevilling them. Faith values and beliefs are a part of the overall culture of a people. So, it is hard to exempt religious institutions from the composition of a society, both in the creation and management of the evils within the society.
In contemporary times, and with regards to African politics and the sweeping process of democratization, the only thing war priests have to predict for the political class is the contest for the ballot. During this age, as in the old, visions of the priests often defile the logic of political contest, which is to give victory to one of the competing parties. As if co-winners could be announced in political competition, various candidates are promised political offices by their priests, further exacerbating the heat and pressure for competition. Courtesy of their desperation, it has become an inherent feature of the political elites to manipulate the institution for their cynical ends.
Partly in respect to this, the institution has installed and dispossessed many political leaders of their positions. As Bishop Matthew Kukah, quoting another eminent figure, noted during the latest Toyin Falola interviews, “you cannot become a successful politician in Nigeria without pretending to be religious.” And as he correctly added himself, political power is still largely spiritualized in this part of the world to the extent that religious leaders are appointed as de facto spiritual fathers of political parties and candidates. Whereas, until recently, the state and the church were inseparable in Europe, theocracy has remained the hallmark of governance in the oriental world till date, with Africa increasingly dangling between democratic and theocratic governance featuring, at the moment, in the “governed” and ungoverned spaces.
More importantly, however, the priesthood was commissioned as a system for the purification of the mind, the society, and the state. Few have been steadfast in this pursuit, and the thought of one of the brightest of them all in contemporary Nigeria, if not in the whole of Africa, have been asked about the current state of African politics on the latest Toyin Falola Interviews. Born in the twilight of the colonial epoch, the eminent activist Reverend Father, Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah (I wonder why he doesn’t add Dr. to his name), belongs to the generation of those who witnessed and enjoyed the “golden age” in Nigeria. With a sound mind, an impeccable character, and tantalizing academic qualifications, he has been at the frontline of liberating the African political space from the vestiges of its contemporary colonizers for over two decades. If there is anyone to be asked to discuss the relationship between the state and religion in our current state as a nation, it can only be none other than the Bishop because of his ability to garner the courage of an activist, maintain the temperament of a priest, the demeanour of a diplomat, and the deep knowledge of an intellectual, and the sagacity of a statesman, all in one body just a bit bigger than mine. As I noted in an earlier piece, the Bishop is perhaps the only one at the moment who is able to combine and manage these complexities effectively.
To be sure of the no-gain intent of this submission, it is worth mentioning that with these attributes, Bishop Kukah has been able to navigate the hurdles of the Nigerian state with no scandal in a space where such has been used to silence or discredit many. The only scandal I can remember at the moment, as it is with every other, is in being accused of an attempt to use his network to liberate the people of Nigeria from the shackles of elite domination and systemic exploitation of the poor in the north through western education, an experience he recounted when engaged by Dr Abimbola Adelakun during the Interview. Like his mentor and master, Jesus Christ, Kukah has mastered both the art and science of human relations so well that he’s a friend to the good, the bad, and the ugly. If these attributes have not earned him a major scandal to destroy his career, they have brought him to the plains of persecution, heavy criticism, and threats only lesser to that of his master and Lord. Yet, with his neuro-radiance, he has continued to attract many to his voice, like the bee is attached to nectar. During the session at the Toyin Falola Interviews, I became the first bee to call others to this charismatic nectar when I asked about the role of religious platforms in the radicalization of individuals and society, and what his roles are when he climbs the pulpit. Informed readers can easily discern where this question came from.
About four months ago, the Bishop had, in his typical self, taken on the ever-worsening condition of the country on all fronts (economic, social, security, and political) as his Christmas digest during his sermon to his congregation at the Sokoto Diocese and interested Nigerians by extension. This got him into the verbal gallows of those whose ox he gored by his acerbic tongue. All hell broke loose, and Lucifer was on the errand for Kukah’s head. Failure to bring this revered head home to his detractors and colonizers of the Nigerian postcolonial commonwealth and destiny to roast, he was charged with public incitement, which is tantamount to treason, but only in the court of public opinion paraded on the pages of newspapers, radios, TV sessions, and other media outlets. All these were in consonance with voices in the Aso of the Rock and their political almajiri brothers vigorously competing for the position of the man with the silk, the rope, and the gavel.
Again, bringing life to his bald men and the comb metaphor, Father Kukah reminded all that the radicalization of the individual and incitement of the society against any government can only be achieved through the social milieu that the state has created. In other words, people don’t get radicalized on some phantom interest without tangible implications on their social environment.
It will amount to nothing less than sheer deceit and denial of a macabre height to believe some youth in this age of technological advancement and digital revolution with presence even in the skies for those in remote villages to feel, will join the modern crusading fronts only to be killed for some “Yemojas” in diaspora heaven. The picture of the heavy goodies becomes real only when the earthly reality becomes hellish, as both hell and heaven are dialectical symbolism that brings tangible realities through everyday human experience. The honourable Bishop even brought more nuances to this when he expressed the irrefutable words of keen observation and wisdom that those we refer to as the radicals of yesterday are leaders of today, the radicals of today will occupy the same leadership position tomorrow, and what he described as the cycle of radicalization would continue to unseat these ones as well, so long as we maintain a democratic state.
Like many of us, the Bishop regretted the harm the military has done to postcolonial development in Nigeria to the extent in which over half a century after independence, the country is stocked with an old soldier without a clue on how to run a ward, let alone the largest economy in Africa and one of the most complex states in the modern world. Father Kukah uses his platform in all dimensions to teaching the same way professors teach their students to excel in their academic endeavours. If the state will be the cog in the wheel of expected progress in the lives of his congregation and followers, it becomes incumbent on him to speak up (#sorosoke) for them since their voices have been systematically repressed by the same state. Indeed, accusing the great priest of any aversion or wrongdoing, as his detractors have consistently and shamelessly done without refuting his messages, is like waging a war without expecting an opposition.
Taken further by the social crusader, Ayisha Osori, on how he has maintained a steady passion for Nigeria even in its depressing monotonous crises and the relationship between the state and religion in Nigeria, the priest expressed hope and faith. Agreeing to the tiring monotonous state of the postcolonial condition of the state, which makes his works, written in decades past, remain relevant as recent publications addressing current situations. According to him, the major commodity message of a priest is hope: “We are men of hope, and our hope does not fail us.” His waned energy has been renewed and sustained by reserved energy, likened to the second energy that enhances an athlete’s possibility to finish a tedious race. However, in response to another question, he warned that faith without reasoning radicalizes as he delved deeper into the discussion about the state and religion.
After this very session, it became clear that there are two basic schools of thought on the role of the youth in politics, especially in regards to the “Not Too Young to Run” campaign. In my curious self, as Ayisha engaged the Bishop, I interrupted the flow to pose this question to both of them. On this, the jury will have no choice but to pause as the duo ironed out their positions excellently. While Ayisha insisted on the political culture and not the emotive sensation of age or gender consideration as the essential ingredient for a new Nigeria, the Bishop argued that though the political culture is an essential instrument for needed change in Nigeria, that culture can only be engineered by the new generation, not by the generation born and bred in the ways of the cultural divide.
Although the Bishop didn’t inform us of the ageing stretch that defines this “new generation,” this could be put at those between the age range of 18-35. Education and exposure, which the larger portion of the present generation possesses, thanks in part to technology, are described by Father Kukah as the repellant to the danger of religion and culture. The more distant young people are from their primordial identity enclaves, he noted, the better it is for the polity. He related culture and religion to a knife that could be used for good or bad purposes. For this, and considering that maintaining our diversity has been at the heart of current agitations, managing diversity, he explained, is a science that can only be understood and disentangled by those with the capacity to relate with the complexities of today.
The Bishop seems to douse the concern of many of us whose voices were represented by Ms Osori that the “Not Too Young to Run” campaign would only work in favour of the ruling elites whose wards would take their place in the name of being the youth. Referring to his vast memory on the postcolonial political ambience of Nigeria, he asked us to remind him if this memory has failed him to recollect any political elite who has managed to recycle his/her family in power at any point of this long durée. Of course, a slight exception to the rule would be with the peculiar exception of the Sarakis now living their last political dynasty. As he argued further, it is not that the Sarakis of this world do not wish to sustain a political dynasty as feared by the skeptics; the problem is that they cannot.
On the mention of this “impossicantibility” is the high probability that, following the departure from the old order, their children would detest politics and chart a new course for themselves; and where they sustain such ambition as their parents, the records of their parents will affect their success in a democratic state. What the Bishop is saying, to put it simply, is that elections in Nigeria are won on several considerations even though the people get to vote without making a choice. The vibrancy of the youth, he noted, is needed to engineer social change in Nigeria. The contradiction that the #EndSARS protest suggests could not elude the clergyman in this respect. He expressed his worry that a government that took over power on the vigour of the youth on the streets and on the social media space will be the one to order the killings of the same youths in a peaceful protest.
His position on the essence of a viable political culture was extended to the debate on the need for a new constitution to replace the extant one. This was in his response to the question raised by the eminent investigative journalist and publisher of Premium Times, Dapo Olorunyomi, on the ongoing unstructured constitutional debate. In his conclusion, a “Made in Highest Heavens Constitution” will not change the steady course to the abyss of the Nigerian state unless the people reinvent themselves. A new constitution, he said, could create the ground for change but it cannot all by itself see us through this endless postcolonial scene. If the constitution were to be the problem, he asked why, in spite of the ubiquitous presence of the holy books in the country and with multiple churches and mosques, there is no accountability or transparency in the system. The constitution doesn’t make the people good or bad, strong, responsive; only efficient institutions that uphold the social contract between the people and the state. Bringing to the fore his own experience, he recalled how efforts at bringing about inclusive development in his local government area by a Local Government Chairman was frustrated by the same Chairman who inaugurated a committee for the same purpose in the face of facts that defiled his cynical motives. In response to a question raised by the prominent journalist, Chido Onumah, the Bishop said the worry is that if the little room left for the practice of a federal structure cannot be optimized now, because of what he called the casino mentality that governs the entity, it is hard to suppose that either a restructured state or a new constitution will perform magic.
In as much as these two are imperative for the country to leave its current state of a quagmire, they lack the magical wand to create a better society, let alone an Eldorado. The casino mentality turns political offices into prebendal posts as it gives the impression of investment and expected returns in a political race, competition, or plan. When we stop deceiving ourselves, we will all realize that altruistic intentions and brilliant ideas don’t pay loans, and as such, political gladiators will always want to recoup their investment upon a successful contest. In this realization and to avoid the bald man and the comb predicament, the people can only consistently demand accountability, transparency, justice, and a certain level of performance from those in government right from the time of their campaigns.
Unruly campaign behaviour is a marked signature on pending unruly governance. Still, with Onumah, Bishop Kukah explained that politics in Nigeria is a coup, only that these coups don’t involve military boys and guns anymore. The clergyman must have forgotten that up to the last general elections, not only were the military boys there to carry guns and ballot boxes, the entire security architecture of the country was present to do the same in pitiable conjunction with political thugs. And it is this picture that separates a military coup from a democratic coup. Again, whereas the former used only brutal force and deployed some level of diplomacy afterwards to share the bounty and supposedly rule the state, in the latter, both force and diplomacy are weaponized and deployed simultaneously.
The Dutch Ambassador to South Sudan, Michel Deelen, raised a question about whether the current protest and agitations in Nigeria will last long or become wilder as the people are too busy searching for livelihood to continue to engage the government. In response to this, the Bishop anchored the nation’s fate on the youth he enjoined to colonize the street for a systemic and strategic purge of the Augean stable. At the moment, it is elevating that Nigerians are rising beyond limiting their political participation to the election period, as seen in the recent protests and burgeoning political awareness/consciousness. To this end, the Bishop commended the media for their role in charging the political ambience of the state even in the face of imminent threat and persecution.