A prominent Nigerian bishop said last month that Nigeria’s government is ignoring the violent persecution of Christians in the country, and failing to act on jihadists and other groups responsible for the growing number of Christians killed in Nigeria’s agricultural regions.
In a fiery Christmas Eve homily, Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto called for a movement of political and social solidarity among Nigerian Christians, evoking as an example the Black Lives Matter movement.
The bishop, a member of the Vatican’s Dicastery on Integral Human Development, said on Christmas Eve that: “Before our eyes, a dubious jihadist culture has held our nation to ransom with the government simply looking away.”
Widely regarded as one of Nigeria’s most outspoken voices against political corruption and Christian persecution, Kukah pointed blame directly at the administration of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
“Before our eyes, the capital letters that spelt Nigeria are falling to the pressures and irruptive forces of primal ethno-religious nationalisms,” Kukah said in his Christmas Eve homily.
The preaching has since made waves across the country, with some analysts saying it outlines a new and powerful chapter for the Church’s political voice in Nigeria’s faltering political landscape.
Read more about Christian persecution in Nigeria, from The Pillar's Fr. Justine Dyikuk.
‘A change of strategy’
Preaching in Sokoto’s Holy Family Cathedral on Christmas Eve, Kukah, 70, charged that Nigerians are “enslaved by bandits, victims of forced marriages and forced conversions.”
In incisive commentary, the bishop condemned what he described as “a caste system” and “ruination identities.”
Kukah explicitly charged President Buhari with corruption and failure in leadership.
“It is sad that despite your lofty promises, you are leaving us far more vulnerable than when you came, that the corruption we thought would be fought has become a leviathan and sadly, a consequence of a government marked by nepotism,” the bishop said.
“In my Christmas message last year, I pointed out the fact that you had breached the Constitution by your failure to honor and adhere to the federal character provisions of our Constitution. The evidence is all before us all” Kukah charged, according to a text of the homily obtained by The Pillar.
Without equivocation, Kukah underlined that: “A caste system has emerged in our country. It has consolidated its hold and blunted the cutting edge of all institutions. A majority of its children are swimming against the tide for survival with no support, while the other caste smiles in the comfort of their life jackets. How did caste emerge in our country?”
Kukah evoked the Black Lives Matter movement, as he said a caste system is emerging among Nigerians, in which Christians in much of the country face discrimination by government agencies, including police forces and courts.
“In her groundbreaking book, the American writer Isabel Wilkerson, puts it so succinctly when she said: ‘The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power, which groups have it and which groups do not.’ Black Americans responded to caste by founding [the] Black Lives Matter movement,” he said.
The bishop called for a movement of social and political solidarity among Nigerians:
“We need to rally together to destroy those who have institutionalized a caste system in our societies because every life matters,” he argued.
Without such a movement, Kukah said that Nigerian Christians have begun to internalize culturally a sense of self-doubt and defeatism.
On the identity crisis he observed that, “unable to diagnose the causes of the demonization and the ruination of their identities, Nigerians have come to a conclusion: something must be wrong with us as a people. It is as if Dante Alighieri had Nigeria in mind when he warned in his timeless poem ‘The Inferno,’ — Abandon hope all who enter here!”
To address the problem, Kukah called for change:
“We need a change of strategy so that we can turn a new page. We need a new strategy to confront those who sit on the throne of power in arrogance and are determined to reduce our country to a jungle,” the bishop said.
“We need a new strategy that separates men and women of honor from those who have chosen dishonor.”
"We need a new strategy that provides a clearer moral guide for ordinary citizens who, based on the moral strength of culture and religion, are seeking to build a good society, even if with straws.”
"We need to stand up and stand firm. We need new mechanisms for saying no to the violence of governance,” he said.
‘The hands of mediocres’
Kukan, born in the southern part of Kaduna state, commended the president “for the efforts you have made in the area of infrastructure - measurable improvement in the landscape especially in the area of roads” and “honesty of seeking to end malfeasance in the electoral processes.”
But the bishop asked why the president would allow his party, the All Progressives Caucus, to run a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket in the country’s 2023 general elections — a move that has bucked Nigerian political customs, and incensed Christians.
"Am I to believe that you knew and could do nothing about the Muslim-Muslim ticket within your Party? Still, we pray for a free, fair and credible election" the bishop said.
In a sharp rebuke, the bishop prayed God would give the president “more years of good health,” while he wished “that millions of our citizens had a chance to enjoy just a fraction of your own health by a measurable improvement in the quality of health care in our country.”
And Kukah condemned nepotism in the Buhari administration, fingering it as an albatross of the president's two-term tenure in office.
“Nepotism is a cancer which has consumed us in the last few years. We have paid the price of nepotism entrusting power into the hands of mediocres who operate as a cult, and see power purely as an extension of the family heirloom.”
“Clearly, in almost every department and with all indicators, our nation has become a tale of two cities. We have wars between the rich and the poor, men and women, across generations, along party lines, social classes, religion, ethnicity and so on. The center has given up in almost every department. Fixing our country and getting it back requires courage, honesty, truth, humility, trust and firm commitment. Lies and blackmail are no substitute,” Kukah maintained.
The bishop also reminded the political class about their responsibility to the Nigerian people.
“You are seeking power at a time that the nation is in severe distress. You must demonstrate that you grasp the length and breadth of the problems that our country faces. We have heard your promises, but we do know that promises before elections are sweet, but actions after elections are often bitter.”
Kukah also used the occasion to warn the citizenry about fanning the embers of war and enthroning nepotism by stating that: “We are already overwhelmed by violence and our future hangs in a balance. Do not further fan the embers of hatred and divisions. Seek to create a vision that can unite our country. Learn the mistakes of the past especially in the areas of managing our diversity and designing an effective mechanism for power sharing.”
Suggesting that “our glory has departed,” he challenged officeholders to reform Nigerian political ambitions.
The country’s ambition must go beyond “holding handshakes across Europe and America” while “being the poverty capital of the world and one of the most violent states - [as well as] our suffocating internal and international debts.”
One of the fastest-growing countries in the world, Nigeria should aim to gain “global influence,” he said.
‘Firm and honest commitments’
Concerning religious leaders in Nigeria, the member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue observed that “in the last few years, we have seen a lot of effort in the area of interreligious dialogue. However, for dialogue to be meaningful, we need some firm and honest commitment. We need to see visible fruits of respect and we must also try to show this in practical terms.”
“Amidst the growing concerns about the relationship between Christians and Muslims, the situation in Nigeria remains tied to political manipulation of the levers of power and favors by the political elite. We leaders need to demonstrate our honesty openly to our people by finding common lines of joint action among ourselves. Common projects such as exchange visits to our places of worship can inspire confidence.”
But he offered a warning to Nigerian political and religious leaders: “Genuine progress among religions is determined by the honesty of the religious and political leaders.”
“When a religious or political leader openly stands with the Other in moments of violence or open discrimination, he sends out a signal of solidarity,” he offered.
“Our festivals offer us opportunities to go beyond the perfunctory greetings to open personal visitations and worshipping together. But, when a leader prevaricates in the area of solidarity for fear of his people, he appeases and feeds the extremists and fanatics.”
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‘Humanity is at stake’
The bishop’s Christmas message has circulated among Nigerian Christians in recent weeks, with Kukah celebrated by many as among the most outspoken bishops addressing the country’s violence.
Reactions across the country have affirmed his message.
Elizabeth Ameh, a journalist based in Maiduguri, Nigeria affirmed especially that Christians are marginalized in Nigeria.
“There have been reports of marginalization in mostly Muslim dominated states, especially in areas of political positions, job allocations, land and housing issues,” she said.
Ameh provided evidence by stating that “I am aware that Muslims dominated positions in this present dispensation than ever before nonetheless, there are reports of governments denial of Certificate of Occupancy to Church owners and allocations of land to build churches in the North...these problems have heightened lately.”
The journalist also observed that “apart from being divided along religious lines, Nigeria has a poor human rights' rating. Humanity is at stake. We experience growing rates of brutality, killings, abductions and kidnapping more than ever.”
As the Bishop of Sokoto noted, the radio presenter agrees that “most of the problems of the north come from the elite. They lack political will to rule; their insensitivity and poor governance is manifest in the collapse of institutions and services, widespread poverty and inequality, mutual suspicion, lack of trust, insecurity and disunity.”
On the Muslim-Muslim ticket, Ameh underlines that “The fact remains, the people's choice is important in every true democracy; the fear of Christians in this choice boils down to further intimidation and marginalization of the Christian faith.”
On the way forward, Ameh maintains that “religious leaders should call for continuous dialogue, hammering on what should be done and call for strengthening of structures, especially security architecture of the country and weak government policies.”
“Leaders must continue to condemn decisions that are religiously motivated. Religious leaders should focus on changing the narratives of disunity and insecurity in our land.”
“Our leaders must also be seen to promote true religion, humanity and love of God” she added.
While recommending that“Christian churches should focus on preaching unity and unite" she disclosed that sometimes, "They are also part of the problem when they speak against each other and engage in unholy activities that downplay the true essence of the Christian faith and concentrate on proliferation of mushroom churches that engage in fraudulent activities in the name of Christ.”
For her part, Dr. Marie C. Obasi, a communication and media studies’ scholar in Nigeria, emphasized criticisms of the Buhari administration, and a failure to share power in Nigeria.
“I think it is one of their Fulanalization agenda and there is little Christians can do until the top security and other political positions are equally shared between Christians and Muslims. For instance, these abnormalities would be reversed if a candidate from another section of the country wins the 2023 elections.”
The Caleb University professor believes that the political leaders in the north “are the ones instigating violence.”
But some Nigerians have expressed skepticism that religious renewal can help to reform the west African nation.
Kurutsi Ishaku Bitrus, a TV journalist in Maiduguri, said religion in Nigeria has become a tool of partisan factionalism among governing elites, rather than unity or peace.
“While growing up, religion played a key role in our lives. An ideology was formed in us. Anywhere you go, people ask whether you are a Christian or not. A Ghanaian who stayed in Nigeria said in this country, if you want to get a job, you have to be either a Muslim or Christian or you have to belong to a certain ethnic group. The political class do not care about anything. We have sandwiched politics and religion. We are already divided, hence the religious crisis.”
“We are religiously divided. We should not look at religion and ethnicity but competence [in government leaders]. I am a victim of marginalization. I was not given a job because I am a Christian not Muslim.”
At the same time, he said, “I have also worked in a Church where Christians were praying against Muslims, and we come up and claim that we are worshiping God?”
For Bitrus, “There should be fairness, equality and justice. People should not be killed or cheated because of their beliefs. Nobody is above anybody.”
The TV journalist said that in his view: “We have a nation full of people who are religious but not spiritual or holy…People in countries like Europe, US and Canada which are not too religious are doing much better.”
‘The standard bearers’
Kukah, who has been described by many Nigerians as a ‘voice of the voiceless,’ offered words of consolation, healing and encouragement to the hundreds of Christians who have been kidnapped for ransom in Nigerian recent years, many of whom remain in captivity.
“For you, dear brothers and sisters, we thank God that you are alive having suffered for being in Nigeria. May God the restorer heal you wholly and grant you the spirit of forgiveness. He kept you alive for a purpose. Know that his plans can never be frustrated. May he save you from further danger and harm. Some of you escaped to freedom, others after heavy ransoms had been paid by families. May God rebuild your lives and grant rest to those who did not return. They did not die in vain. I wish you and your families a merry Christmas” he said.
He singled out ”all who are still in captivity especially for their faith in Christ, whether you are reading this or not, you have been the standard bearers of our faith. Those who conceived the evil of your captivity and forced marriages and conversions will answer to the just judge. Even if you do not hear us, our prayers are with you always.”
“In the end, the righteous will triumph. I wish you who are held against your will a merry Christmas. Please stay strong,” Kukah said.
Insisting that hope “never goes on recession,” he said, “we have a chance to renew our faith and hope in Nigeria. Let us seize it in the upcoming elections so that our nation can breathe again. Examine the leaders and assess their honesty. Do not be carried away by promises or even claims of past records. Even the best leader has to be engaged. We have not engaged this government out of malice. We have done so out of a sense of duty, to ensure that our glory does not depart.”
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‘God is with us’
Meanwhile, in his homily, the prelate reminded the world that, “In Nigeria today we bear scars, we bear trauma, we bear deep sorrow today. Our children are still in the forests, in the hands of evil men. But most of them have no names. They are only numbers.”
But he urged Catholics to keep alive a uniquely Nigerian spirit of resilience:
“Still, let us not give up. Let us not be afraid. Let us, like our mother, meditate over all these things and await the Lord’s doing. Be vigilant. This is the last Christmas for this present government’s administration.”
“Let us all do our duty as we have a chance to choose new leaders. Do not be cynical. God is not done with us. Choose leaders who, in your view will love us, will care for us, will cry with us, will laugh with us. Look ahead and do not look back.”
Noting the season, Kukah concluded with a reflection on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ:
"Christmas is here,” the bishop said.
“Let us all rejoice and be glad. Christmas is not just a date on our calendar. Christmas defies a calendar or dates. Christmas is our life. Christmas is ever present with us. After all, the one whom we celebrate is called, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Christmas is a celebration.”
“In our daily lives, despite the hardships and disappointments, the threats and the insecurity, the failure of our government and the ongoing corruption, we celebrate in faith and joy because we know that God is with us.”
On lessons for the season, he said, “Let us pause and think about Mary, our blessed Mother...Let us never forget that our God is a provider. Like our Mother Mary, God wants us to surrender our hearts so that we can effectively magnify His greatness to the world through our weak lungs and through our free and democratic actions and commitment.”