By Olu Fasan
PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari is showing typical behavioural strains. Beleaguered leaders, who are out of touch with reality, usually find solace in the echo chambers of sycophancy and tend to see enemies in even well-meaning critics. That’s how to view the Presidency’s recent attacks on Bishop Matthew Kukah, Bishop of Sokoto Catholic diocese, for his flawless critique of the state of Nigeria under the Buhari administration.
A kii fi ete sile pa lapalapa, the Yoruba would say, meaning: “One doesn’t ignore leprosy to treat a rash.” Nigeria is infected with the leprosy, some say cancer, of misrule. But instead of tackling this chronic disease, which manifests in several ills, such as a comatose economy, ravaging insecurity, grinding poverty and social tensions, the Buhari government is fighting the rashes of uncomfortable criticisms.
Thus, Bishop Kukah is attacked for venting frustration over nepotism and governance failure; Dr. Obadiah Mailafia is harassed for saying, rightly, that Boko Haram has political sponsors; columnists like me are branded “Buhari’s enemies” for exposing the utter incompetence and intellectual emptiness of his administration; and ordinary Nigerians are called “wailing wailers” for complaining about poor governance.
But, with his recent intervention, Bishop Kukah stirred up a real hornet’s nest in the Presidency. Two weeks ago, on December 25, he gave a Christmas speech entitled “A nation in search of vindication.” It was a tour de force, a brilliant exposé of the soft underbelly of the Nigerian ship of state.
Pointing to the “endless bloodletting,” the “collapsing economy,” the “social anomies,” etc., in Nigeria, Bishop Kukah concluded that “the prospects of a failed state stare us in the face.” He posited that Government appeared to be in “suspended animation,” saying: “As our country drifts almost rudderless, we seem like people travelling without maps, without destination, and with neither captains nor crew.”
But the main thrust of his criticism was President Buhari’s nepotism and pursuit of a Northern hegemony. “Every honest Nigerian knows”, Bishop Kukah averred, “that there is no way any non-Northern Muslim President could have done a fraction of what President Buhari has done by his nepotism and gotten away with it. There would have been a military coup a long time ago or we would have been at war.”
It was a bombshell statement that set a hare running in the Presidency, causing them to go off in the wrong direction. The Presidency said Bishop Kukah was stoking “the embers of hatred, sectarian strife and national disunity.” Lai Mohammed, information and culture minister, accused him of calling for a coup. “Calling for a violent overthrow of a democratically-elected government, no matter how disguised such a call is, and casting a particular religion as violent is not what any religious leader should engage in, and certainly not in a season of peace”, he pontificated.
But, as Bishop Kukah himself made clear, he wasn’t calling for a coup. Yet, it suited the government to frame his statement as a call for a coup to divert attention away from his real message. In May 2020, Colonel (retd) Abubakar Umar, former Kaduna State governor, warned Buhari that his sectionalism “shall bring ruin and destruction to this country.” He was not accused of calling for Nigeria’s disintegration. Whipping up sentiments about a coup serves the Buhari’s government’s interests better than alleging plans to break up Nigeria!
Yet, truth is, Bishop Kukah did exactly what religious leaders should be doing: speaking truth to power. My Christian, and some non-Christian, readers will be familiar with stories of frosty relationships between prophets and kings in the Bible. Prophets always rebuked, even harshly, erring kings. Some kings hearkened to the prophets and mended their ways, others like king Ahab, who tried to arrest Prophet Elijah, did not. With what Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State described as a “repressive” attack on Bishop Kukah, President Buhari could be accused of behaving like king Ahab!
But religious leaders should be irrepressible. In the UK, the Church of England is a thorn in the flesh of successive British governments. In 1985, the church published a hard-hitting report, “Faith in the City”, attacking the Margaret Thatcher government for creating greater inequality. Thirty years later, in 2015, the archbishops published another report entitled “On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future”, attacking the government for leaving the poorest in a “vicious circle of decline.” Yet, Britain is far, far better-run than Nigeria.
Those accusing Bishop Kukah of being “a politician” for criticising the government, therefore, miss the point. On the contrary, religious leaders who speak out of both sides of their mouth, who ignore injustice, abuse of power, corruption and bad government, are those playing politics. True men of God should speak truth to power!
Which brings us back to Bishop Kukah’s speech. Can anyone honestly disagree with anything the intrepid and cerebral bishop said in the speech? Are the socio-economic, political and security situations in Nigeria not so dreadful as to trigger fears of this country’s descent into a failed state? Is the Buhari presidency not truly nepotistic and sectional?
At his inauguration in 2015, Buhari declared: “I belong to everybody, and I belong to nobody.” But a few months later, he said “constituencies that gave me 97 per cent cannot in all honesty be treated equally, on some issues, with constituencies that gave me five per cent.” And, ever since, he has governed with that mindset: filling most of the country’s top or strategic offices with Northern Muslims, not to mention his inner circle or kitchen cabinet, which is entirely made up of people from his ethnic group.
The trouble, though, is that President Buhari doesn’t want Nigerians to condemn this and other flaws of his government. Those who do, and do so vociferously, are branded enemies of his government, and, even worse, of the country!
But Buhari is fighting the wrong enemies. The enemies he should be fighting are within his government. They are the utter lack of leadership, vision and competence.