The Right Reverend Dr. Matthew Hassan Kukah, outspoken, courageous public intellectual and Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, who turned 70 recently, is a patriot and statesman of no mean stature. As highlighted by the effusion of glowing tributes celebrating his life of simplicity and impactful interventions, Kukah’s engagement with society and power is a legacy for all who mean well for Nigeria and the world around them.
Like iconic personalities of global peace with whom he closely identifies, Kukah believes that no price is too small for justice and peace. Since he began to traverse the Nigerian public space in the early 1980s as a columnist in the defunct New Nigerian, Kukah has remained a consistent member of the endangered and dwindling class of truth speakers to power. A landmark of his illustrious combing of the public intellectual space was his double tenure as Secretary to the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria and Secretary-General of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. Under that platform, he united an array of well-meaning political analysts and social commentators into a critical mass that educated the public and terrified the draconian military regimes of the Babangida-Abacha years.
He furthered this passion when he became the Secretary of the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission, also known as the Oputa Panel, a truth and reconciliation commission inaugurated in 2000 by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo to investigate human rights violations in Nigeria from 1966 to 1999. Although devious politics has prevented clannish politicians and ethno-religious bigots from harnessing the gains of that psychosocial healing process for national unity, Kukah has remained unbowed in his constant prophetic orientation towards social justice as a panacea to peace and progress. His consistency in promoting public good and engagement with power is a telling lesson on struggle.
A petite effervescent stormy petrel with a magnetic aura, Kukah exudes an encompassing personality. He seems to be a fine combination of Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eddy Murphy’s ‘Holy Man.’ He is a man of deep faith, prodigious energy and perceptibly superb health, whose modesty and love for life makes holiness a happy earthly attainment. Not one to lose sense of maturity and reason upon exposure to government patronage, Kukah has flourished in the public space with power and privilege and has remained unscathed.
Authoritative and prolific, Kukah in his intellectual dissection of the nation’s state of affairs, make invaluable commentaries, for academics and aspiring intellectuals, to texts on Nigeria’s socio-political culture. Just as his books, his opinion articles and essays are incisive, engaging and expertly crafted. In their richness, they are highly educative with illuminating insights that could alter perspectives, and at times downright provocative. In a celebrated interview granted The Guardian in 1996, Kukah made a controversial proposal which portended that Nigeria would be a very great country if we coalesced the dignity of the Hausa/Fulani with the industry of the Igbo and the extravagant celebration of life of the Yoruba. That innocuous ascription of cultural traits to the three ethnic groups was like salt on the raw sore of political pundits. The groundswell of diatribes and rejoinders to that interview, which spanned months, became known as the ‘‘Kukah Debate.’’
Born on August 31, 1952, Kukah, who hails from the Zango-Kataf, Kaduna State, a cluster of predominantly Christian communities that have become one of the most terrorised places in Nigeria. He had his early education in Zango-Kataf, and priestly formation in Zaria and Jos before his ordination in 1976. He later had postgraduate studies in University of Bradford and University of London, both in the United Kingdom, before proceeding to the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. It is a fluke of history that out of this oppressed, marginalised and repeated terrorised place comes one of Nigeria’s most authentic voices of social justice, peace and progress.