Last week, as part of festivities celebrating the 80th birthday of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Bishop Matthew Kukah of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto delivered a lecture titled “Wole Soyinka: 80 Years of Genius and Prophetic Outrage”. It was a remarkable lecture in several ways, including its sweep, its blend of anecdote and analysis, and its ecumenical spirit—a Catholic cleric engaging robustly with Soyinka, an unapologetic devotee of Ogun, the Yoruba god whose catholic offices include war, metallurgy and creativity.
Bishop Kukah’s lecture was also remarkable for a more dubious reason, one that pertains to me. In a bizarre turn in his talk, the bishop singled me out for furious verbal attack. It was a most unbecoming assault, precisely because it was based on a grave (and perhaps deliberate) misreading of a column I wrote two weeks ago titled “Something Really, Really Dangerous”.
Here (culled for brevity) is what Bishop Kukah had to say about me (and, in an indirect way, about some Nigerian “brethren in the Diaspora”):
“Nigerians love to criticize their country, perhaps, far more than any nation I know of in the world. Yes, we have all earned the right to be cynical and even contemptible about the way we have been governed and about how the resources of our nation have been frittered away mindlessly. I am even more amused by the criticisms of some of our brethren in the Diaspora, especially those who think that simply being abroad has set them apart from their fellow countrymen and women, those who believe that those of us, who are here are so because we are not good enough to be abroad…
“It is about time we took off the gloves and speak [sic] honestly to ourselves about our future as a country, our mistakes, our fears, anxieties and deep hope. We are not the worst people on earth nor is our country the worst piece of God’s real estate. We have to seize this narrative and re-define ourselves…
“Since the outbreak of the tragedy that is Boko Haram, one has seen another side of our citizens that is quite tragic. Rather than trying to stand together to rise beyond this in hope together, I find some of my fellow citizens creating more confusion and using the insurgency as weapons of politics. The President and the security agencies have become the objects of attacks and vilification and yet, there is very little that is being done to point at the way forward. I know that as day follows night, we shall pull out of this tragedy that we face as a nation…
“In a recent piece, Okey Ndibe literally overreaches himself and engages in what is at best a verbal overkill in his Naija pessimism. He says he regrets writing and calling Nigerians chickens. Now, he realizes that chickens are better off than Nigerians. Rather, he says, Nigeria has become the federal republic of ants. Does Ndibe now imagine that he has ceased to be an ant because he resides in the comforts of the United States, a country that was constructed on the back of the same ants hundreds of years ago? This is most pathetic, despicable and grotesque to say the least. Can anyone, in all honesty, call a nation of 170 million people, doing their best despite the difficulties, a nation which has produced and parades some of the most brilliant and gifted people in the world, a nation with perhaps, the most vibrant and informed media outlets in the developing world a nation of ants? If Ndibe were a Ugandan, Rwandan, Zimbabwean or indeed, from most African countries, would he write this and still come back to his country? Indeed, the answer is that there is hardly any other African that can write this rubbish about their own country, even if they had no family in the country. How much further can you overstretch logic and common sense? Do ants win Nobel Prizes or has Mr. Ndibe lost his own anthood by sojourning in America?”
On first reading the quoted section, I cringed in embarrassment on the bishop’s behalf. For years, I have followed the man’s public commentaries. Even when I disagreed with his posture on public issues, I was never in doubt that he was an educated and well-informed man. Hence my dilemma: How could a person as educated as the good bishop of Sokoto so totally misread my piece?
But for the high esteem in which I held Kukah, I would have suspected him of being up to great mischief—if not more sinister purpose—in reacting to my piece the way he did. I was tempted, then, simply to ask the bishop to go back and reread my piece, and this time to bring a discerning mind to the task.
In launching his unwarranted attack, Bishop Kukah came across as desperate to find a straw man. It was the desperation of a man reluctant or afraid to take on the real foes—the militants who, in the alleged name of God, kill Nigerians as if their victims were ants, and the political authorities that are doing little or nothing about it. Instead of addressing the real issue, our revered bishop picked on a convenient, harmless target: Okey Ndibe.
The attack was a shameful distraction unworthy of Bishop Kukah. Interestingly, his full-throttle attack on me was delivered the same week Human Rights Watch released a report disclosing that Boko Haram insurgents had slaughtered 2,053 Nigerian civilians in the first six months of 2014. That grim report could stand as my ultimate rejoinder to the bishop. I happen to believe—and have always argued—that one Nigerian unjustly killed is one death too many. On the other hand, the good bishop appeared willing to quibble endlessly, content to reduce the death of more than 2000 innocent Nigerians to “difficulties.”
Anybody who reads Kukah’s attack on me without the benefit of reading my original piece could run away with the impression that I’m a haughty, condescending guy who regards fellow Nigerians as ants. Yet, any literate reader who reads my column would come to a different—in fact, opposite—conclusion. I had complained in an earlier column that Boko Haram was butchering Nigerians as if their victims were chickens. Rather than abate, the scale of the horrific killings continued to escalate, with little serious action by the political leaders who are paid (in fact overpaid) to protect Nigerians. That worsening tragedy forced me to bemoan the plight of Nigerians whose deaths went largely unnoticed, as if they were ants.
That Bishop Kukah sought to mischaracterize my piece speaks volumes, I suggest, about his politics. His line of attack was certainly curious. Faced with the specter of Boko Haram, he chose, instead, to lash out at critics of the government’s inept response. For him, there was little moral distinction to be made between Boko Haram and social critics. Indeed, given the severity of his rebuke of me (and other misguided “brethren in the Diaspora”), the bishop appeared to regard me as more dangerous than Abubakar Shekau who proudly boasted of abducting and enslaving more than two hundred schoolgirls! In fact, the bishop was so vexed that he all but called on the Nigerian state to declare me persona non grata (in line with what he presumed that Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and other African countries would do to my ilk)!
Curiously, nowhere in Bishop Kukah’s lengthy lecture did one find an expression of outrage about Boko Haram’s carnage to match the fury he marshaled against me. Which all betrayed a dodgy stance on the part of the bishop. I am amazed that this bishop expended so much breath to portray me as an enemy of the people precisely because I challenged the government to live up to its duty to protect Nigerians’ lives and property. How his attack must have shocked the bard he was invited to honor!
So here are a few questions I’d like to address to the dear bishop. The Catholic Church to which you and I belong teaches the inherent dignity of every human. What, then, accounts for your silence about the 2,053 innocents callously killed by Boko Haram? Where, in your lecture, was there that stipulation about the irreducible dignity of human lives? Are you at peace, sir, with the incessant massacre of hapless Nigerians? You were in such haste to berate me and other foreign-based critics simply because we ask more of Nigerian leaders and security agents. Are you satisfied, bishop, with what the government has done so far in response to the scourge of Boko Haram?
One is astonished that a bishop would be content to proclaim that Nigerians “are not the worst people on earth nor is our country the worst piece of God’s real estate.” Is that the extent of your dream of Nigeria? Isn’t this a lazy, even complacent, posture?
Let’s be clear: Bishop Kukah’s attempt to create a division between home-based and foreign-based Nigerians is an old trick, but it’s a tool of deception. Many Nigerians, whether they live at home or abroad, speak courageously about the shortcomings of their country. They dare to dream of a better, more humane and more just country. Enlightened Nigerians must reject Kukah’s false and dangerous dichotomy of home-based and foreign-based Nigerians.
I see two kinds of Nigerians: those who are content with the way things stand—a Nigeria bereft of healthcare, electric power, good roads, sound education, and infrastructure—and those who insist that Nigeria can and must be better. The former are often profiteers from a system that enables a few to live off of the misery of the larger populace, in fact a system that empowers a few to treat the majority of Nigerians as if they were ants!
I am proud to be counted among the latter group. It’s up to Bishop Kukah to disclose on whose side he plays/speaks.
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