The thoughts of Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto as expressed in a keynote address at the conference held under the theme, The Muslim Agenda for Nigeria: Challenges of Development and Good Governance. The conference took place at Fountain University, Osogbo and organised by Islamic Welfare Foundation.
I believe that the challenges we face are challenges of national development. It is therefore important for us all to note that whatever may be the situation, we are faced with a predicament which was captured in Rev. Jesse Jackson’s concession speech to Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidential Convention of the Democratic Party. In his concession speech, Rev. Jackson said something like this to Mr. Dukakis, “Your great grand parents may have come to this country in ships of privilege while mine came in ships of slavery. However, whatever ships may have brought our great grand parents to the United States of America, you and I are in the same boat tonight!” Similarly, I have said over and over that Christian, Muslim, or unbeliever, we are all in the same boat called Nigeria. Our challenge is to steer it to safety.
Today, religion faces a serious crisis of identity around the world. Although conflict has been a part and parcel of the narrative of most religions, events in the last few years have created so much anxiety that it seems safe to say that ordinary believers and non-believers are visibly terrified by what is being done in the name of religion. The key actors, who have turned religion from a weapon of love to an arsenal of fear and savagery, claim that they are acting in the name of religion. They believe that they are acting to expand the frontiers of power and authority of their religion. They believe they are defending religion and working for God. As it is, they have become the worst advertisement for their religions and how non-believers see both.
In most situations around the world, crises have thrown a spanner in the already troubled relationships between Islam and Christianity. In almost all situations today, the wars fought in the name of religion are largely based on the unresolved issues in the larger questions of geopolitics and power play by the super powers. The wars, from Africa to the Middle East, are first of all, fought on the lands of the poor people of the world. They are also fought for the control of their resources. The Cold War ended, but its intrinsic goals of power and domination have not changed. So, all of us, from Africa to Asia and the Middle East face double jeopardy: first, our people are dying while those alive are losing access and control over their lands and resources.
In Nigeria, the situation is almost the same only that it is related to the machinations of the internal colonial elite. Right before our eyes, what we call religious crises are often crises over unresolved antagonisms within the cleavages of the political classes. In their pursuit of their personal exploitations for accumulation, they are blind to the boundaries of religion and ethnicity. But in real life, our people are being held hostage by the darker forces of politics as politicians generate and deploy hostile narratives to divide the poor and the weak. The challenge in all this is that we, who are believers in the two universal faiths of Islam and Christianity, need to sit up with greater honesty and commitment. In this way, we can build a world that is in the image and likeness of our Creator. To do, this, I will list a few themes that require some reflections on our path as citizens and believers.
The face of religion and Boko Haram
Although we all seem to pretend that Boko Haram has caught us unawares, the worst thing is that we continue to hide our heads in the sands of self-deception by further denying the roots of this ugly side of our humanity. That Boko Haram, its disciples and victims are localized to northern Nigeria should be instructive. What this calls for is an honest review of the root causes. We need to ask what it is about the past or the present that has led us to this ugly and deadly path.
It is my considered view that northern Islam has to confront the realities of taking its religion into the modern world of democracy seriously. Muslims in northern Nigeria cannot accept democracy and reject the inclusive nature of its philosophy as it is the case today. The driving force of democracy is that it presents us with the best instruments for managing our diversity, creating inclusiveness and breaking down the boundaries of exclusion. Unfortunately, northern Islam has continued to privilege religion as a source of identity, power and control. A hypocritical elite continues to believe that it can claim the benefits of democracy but use it only to consolidate its hold on power. This is what has laid the foundation for what is now Boko Haram.
We must locate the current crisis of Boko Haram within the context of the inability of the northern Muslim elite to live by their own dubious creed of being Muslim. They preached Sharia Law, but only for the poor. They preach a religion that encourages education, yet their own people are held in the bondage of ignorance. They came to power on the basis of a democratic society, but they turned around and declared Sharia to generate a false consciousness among the poor that they want a theocracy. They did not wish to live by the same standards, so they decided to live their own Islam in the capitals of the world away form the prying eyes of their own people. Boko Haram began as a revolt against this mendacity, subterfuge and hypocrisy.
Now, I hear Muslims in northern Nigeria hiding under the cover of the facts by saying: “These Boko Haram people are not Muslims. They do not represent us”. Well, first, they are your own children. You must take responsibility for what has made them what they are today and to the rest of society. They claim they have been inspired by the Quran and no other holy book. They say they want to build an Islamic state. So, they are Muslims. After all, from the debates of the Constituent Assemblies of 1979, 1988, and 1995 and beyond, did their fathers and grand fathers not stage walk outs demanding Sharia Law? Was it not to tame them that President Babangida declared what he called, no-go areas in the debates about our Constitution?
Let us just have the honesty to ask, what has gone wrong? Those the New Nigerian Newspapers referred to, in 1980, as mini-Ayatollahs have since come of age. They promised what they could not deliver and they have not had the honesty to tell their children that building an inclusive society demands tolerance and accommodation. However, since Sharia was discovered as a vital blue chip stock in the stock market of Nigerian politics, the northern elite has continued to reap dividends on their investment. The promise to institute Sharia has become the most potent tool for political mobilization and organisation. Till date, the tactics may have changed, but the essence has not. Rather than face the tough questions of how and why over 15 million children in the northern states are on the streets, how and why the northern states are falling behind on almost every index of development, the northern Muslim elite continues to live for just the moment, with no plans for tomorrow. Should we pretend that a society that allows the forced marriages of its young daughters could frown at the idea of a group kidnapping and forcing young girls into sexual slavery? Islam must have an honest look at the mirror and have an internal discussion.
Contested histories, narratives and identities
Somehow, we have a problem of a contested sense of history among our people especially in relation to British colonialism. For some strange reasons, scholars of history have often tried to create the impression that there was somehow a correlation between colonial exploitation and missionary activities in most of Africa. Sadly, an honest reading of the history leads to the conclusion that the colonial state was here to exploit our country and our resources. In the North, despite conquering the caliphate, the same caliphate worked out a modus vivendi, which first kept missionaries out of the Muslim areas while, at the same time, co-opting the rump of the caliphate into the business of running the state. They superintended the taxation regime during and beyond the colonial period. Turning this injustice was at the heart of the late Aminu Kano’s philosophy, theology and politics through out his life. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that Boko Haram is another name for the vacuum created by the absence of the Talakawa genre of politics enunciated by Aminu Kano.
In the process, the British created what I have elsewhere called, the Anglo-Fulani hegemony which became a platform for the political ascendancy and dominance of Hausa-Fulani hegemony. Frankly, not much has changed in texture and ideology.
The rest is history but our people have never been the same and national integration has remained a deferred dream. The rest of our history has been a fruitless but dishonest attempt at resolving these problems because the political elite has never been patriotic and honest both to its faith and nation. Rather than rebuilding our nation, we have spent a lot of time blaming and holding one another responsible for sins that are beyond us. There has grown a strange idea that, somehow, Christianity and the West have a relationship of sorts. Yet, those who hold this theory do not extend the argument further by logically claiming that Islam and Arabism should be the same!
It is this twisted logic that believes that, somehow, someone like myself should take the blame for invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. For being a Christian, I should take the blame for some cartoons drawn in a country I have no friend in, I should be responsible for a Miss World contest even though no daughter from my village has aspired to participate in such a move. For all these, Mr. Chukwuma should have all his life’s work up in smoke. For all these, Christian churches should be razed to the ground. What do we hear? The parents and uncles of these children do not raise a loud voice. They stutter about peace and tolerance and weakly plead that we move on. Happily, in his address to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference during his campaign, General Buhari stated that all these must end and every devil, hiding under religion, will be named and cast out.
Flowing from this has been the problem of managing plural identities in Nigeria. We still continue to see ourselves only as Christians and Muslims. Rather than focusing on our common citizenship, we behave as if our Islam and Christian identities dropped from heaven and we are in a theocracy. While other people are living rationally and using these religious traditions to develop and grow, in our hands, religious identities have become tools for war and death. They have become tools for access to political and economic power. These identities have now become markers that seem to determine where we shall be and how far we can grow in our society. It will be a great tragedy if we are unable to roll back this ugly misuse of religion.
Paul Kagame has banned the use of ethnic categories. The United States no longer speaks of Negroes or Blacks and Whites. We do not hear about White and Black coffee. The options are open because now, the stewards, rather than ask if you want black or white coffee simply say, “How do you want your coffee, sir?” We require a language that incorporates respect not one that divides. We should consider banning the usage of Christians and Muslims as categories for defining ourselves as the two words have become inherently divisive and conflictual and only trigger a sense of identity consciousness of Us and Them.
In your part of the country as in other parts of the world, I hear about families with Christians and Muslims living together, marrying and intermarrying and so on. In the North, this is anathema. Every time I bring this up, I hear people say that this is what Islam teaches, that the religion allows Muslim men to marry Christian girls (and hopefully make them Muslims) while Christian men cannot marry Muslim women. If this is not apartheid in broad daylight, I do not know what it is. If this is not a case of privileging one religious identity and making it superior to another, I do not know what else to call it. If this is not an assumption that Christian men and their women are inferior and by extension their religion, I do not know what else to call it.
If this is not a case of assuming that Muslim men, their women and Islam are superior to Christianity, I do not know what else it is. When we take this into consideration, can we then blame the members of Boko Haram which, at least, has had the honesty of following the script to its end by insisting that we all convert to their Islam or die? Can Muslims in northern Nigeria and elsewhere understand where all this hatred has come from? These are the roots of this intolerance in our society today and this is what Islam has been turned into.
Things will only get progressively worse if we do not have the honesty to make the laws that free us from this distorted and antique world view. It held racism together. It held apartheid together. It feeds on fear and now, black and white South Africans now feel they are in free society. How do we progress with this given that marriage is such a key institution for national integration? Our lawmakers and the judiciary must seek to end this tragedy that bars national cohesion. Neither Islam nor Muslims are benefiting from this abuse. Martin Luther King told us: “You will never be what you ought to be until others are what they want to be”.
The Constitution, Bible and Quran
Nigerians behave as if our own brand of religious affiliations is different and distinct and, somehow, our sacred books are superior to the Constitution. From the point of view of our faiths, yes, but in reality, the story is more nuanced. The Constitution, which is what holds us together, has assured us that Nigeria aspires to the ideals of a state where there is no favouritism of one religion over the other, or where people are discriminated against on the basis of religion. We spend a lot of time and energy debating over whether this is secularism, secularity or whatever. Whatever may be the case, we are running a democracy not a theocracy. The question is, how can the ideals of the Constitution guarantee the unity and common values of our citizens? In other words, how can we believers subordinate ourselves to the Constitution as citizens without hiding under religious claims to behave as if there is any serious conflict? The Constitution guarantees us freedom of belief and this means believing what we wish, when we wish and how we wish, as long as we are within the law. This Constitution allows us to exercise these freedoms within the confines of the laws of the land. It is the duty of the state to support this. It is also the duty of the state to support the exercise of these freedoms as a right to all citizens. It is the duty of the state to protect citizens when these rights are threatened or denied. Therefore, when Christians or Muslims are denied places to exercise their rights to worship or denied the rights to practice their religion, it should be the duty of all of us as believers to support one another. In this way, religion can play its role in society more effectively.
Interfaith dialogue and making Nigeria safe for religion
As I said at the beginning, religion is in trouble if I may put it that way. We have a duty to rescue religion from the grip of secular forces who wish to use religion for empire-building and power brokerage. We need to rescue religion so it can become a tool for harmony, development,and celebration of our differences and the nurturing of our common humanity. Secular forces are waging a war against religions, not Islam or Christianity per se, but against organised religions.
We should be focusing more on our common human identity as citizens of Nigeria under a Constitution. This is not a Christian country. It is not a Muslim country. There is no place here that belongs to Muslims or Christians, rich people or poor people. There is no part of this country that belongs to Yorubas, Igbos, Ijaws or any ethnic groups for that matter. Despite all our crowns, turbans, beads and so on, we are not presiding over any religious or ethnic kingdoms. All our so-called kingdoms exist because there is a country called Nigeria. We are still a semi-primitive and agrarian society on the road to modernity. It is the inefficiency and corruption of the political elite that has allowed what seems like the triumph of the centrifugal forces in our society. There is only a country called Nigeria made up of 925,000 square kilometers of land which is being defended by the armed forces of Nigeria. This is why Boko Haram is a Nigerian war waged by Nigerian soldiers from all over the country and not a war by Kanuri warriors!
The soldiers who are dying in the North-East are Nigerians, not Muslims or Kanuris. We need to become more imaginative in thinking about how to develop as a country. Religion has become an obstacle that now blurs our views of one another. We need to move away from this and see what we can do together for the safety and growth of our citizens.
Our goal should be to create a great country where ordinary citizens can live in freedom, peace and security, where their humanity, more than their religion, will be the basis for their acceptance. For, in the end, we must have a country before we can live as Christians or Muslims. With no country, being Christian or Muslim will simply leave us in the precipice of life. Why are the migrants from Syria and other parts of the Middle East not moving into Iran or Saudi Arabia if religion were more important that national security? Why are they seeking security in the lands of infidels? It is time for us to rethink the real role of religion in our society. One way is to rescue it from the clutches of ethno-religious entrepreneurs that stalk out landscape.