Nigeria's 'rabble rouser for peace' looks at a future after Boko Haram

Bishop Matthew Kukah convened the national peace committee before Nigeria’s presidential election last year, which brokered an agreement that allowed for a peaceful government turnover.
Bishop Matthew Kukah heads the Sokoto diocese in northern Nigeria's Muslim heartland. The Nigerian press has called him a "rabble rouser" for peace.

When Bishop Matthew Kukah first arrived as the new head of the Sokoto diocese in northern Nigeria’s Muslim heartland, he received an oddly warm welcome for a Christian leader.

Comprising four states and a population of 20 million people, Bishop Kukah’s roughly 41 square-mile diocese is home to around 400,000 Catholics. According to Kukah, Christians aren’t normally warmly welcomed in many parts of the north – cultural and religious discrimination in practice can go all the way to the state-governor level and which grew in large part from British colonialism. But on the day of Kukah's installation in 2011, the local sultan paid some of his guests’ hotel bills.

Bishop Kukah’s high profile might have helped. A former senior Rhodes fellow at Oxford University in Great Britain and Mason Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., Kukah has served in a number of high-level inter-religious and governmental roles.

Once called a "rabble rouser for peace" by Nigeria's press, Kukah has been a key voice of for national unity as the country strives to overcome the religious and ethnic divisions that have hindered its development. Last year, he convened the national peace committee before Nigeria’s presidential election. It brokered an agreement between former president Goodluck Jonathan and new President Muhammadu Buhari ensuring the former accepted the result and handed over the reins of government peacefully.

Nigeria’s population of more than 180 million people is roughly 50 percent Muslim, 40 percent Christian, and 10 percent other indigenous beliefs. The Muslim population is focused in the north and the Christian population in the south.

On a visit to the United States, Kukah spoke with the Monitor about the progress Nigeria has made in its fight against the terrorist group Boko Haram, some of the nation’s challenges, and what needs to be done to solve them. Some answers have been edited for brevity.

A majority of the news the West receives on Nigeria is about Boko Haram. How important is the insurgency in the broader context of what Nigeria is facing?

Answer: Everywhere you turn everybody’s talking about Boko Haram, which is important, but I think it's only important in relation to a long history of activities. The unfortunate thing is that people are not asking the question, where did Boko Haram come from? What really created the conditions for it? I think it's important to understand that in relation to the larger issues that have brought us to where we are today.

Boko Haram is often translated as ‘Western education is forbidden.’ What are some of the factors that have contributed to its rise?

A: You have the suspicion within the Muslim community that has always tried to equate Western education with Christianity, which is what Boko Haram has capitalized on. So you have some of that subtext. But if you look at Boko Haram, it is also based on the fact that the way the state has treated Christianity predisposed Boko Haram to exploit that narrative. If you are refusing to give Christians land to build churches; if you are refusing to give Christians land to build schools; if you are refusing to allow Christian religious education to be taught in schools; if you are denying Christians access to the media commensurate to what you are giving Muslims, what you’re really saying is that these people are second-class citizens and that their religion is merely being tolerated.

While Boko Haram is not yet defeated, the Nigerian military has taken back a lot of territory in the last year. Do you see this as progress and what comes next?

A: Their ability to control Nigerian territory has been severely constrained, but as you know the end of the war is the easy part. It is what happens the day after that becomes very difficult to deal with. The next thing now is the millions of people who have been displaced in the last four years or so. Now it requires more than just goodwill to take people back. These guys are spread across the length and breadth of northern Nigeria. They need to bring these bring people back to their homes, to bring them back to their farms, because 95 percent of these people are farmers. It’s most likely that Boko Haram has planted landmines and all kinds of things so getting people back to work and so on [is difficult].

You’ve emphasized education as an important means of preventing the kind of conditions that harbor extremism and for unifying the nation. Can you expand on that?

A: I’m explaining to the governors that we have about 10 to 15 million young kids who are out of school or on the streets across the 11 or 12 states in northern Nigeria. This is a time bomb. The government doesn’t have the quality of schools that guarantee these children become functional citizens.

The truth of the matter is that the Christians have a great advantage because you can say that 60 to 70 percent of the literate people in Nigeria are Christian. Now the percentage of Muslims in northern Nigeria who are educated: You are probably looking at 10 percent or less. In a country that is developing, such a huge number of uneducated and unskilled people will mean a combustible environment from where Boko Haram and all these agents of violence will continue to feed. So the real challenge for me is how the Muslim community will have to come to terms with the reality that there’s no substitute to education.

Sokoto diocese [includes the states of] Katzena, Kebi, Zamfara, and Sokoto. We have 22 nursery, primary and secondary schools ... Part of the problem is that they’re all on church premises because the government has almost blatantly refused to allocate land to Christians....

They’re Christian schools to the extent that they are built by Christians, but if you go to any of my schools ...  that has 100 children, it’s likely that 60 percent of those are going to be Muslims.... Even if we have five Muslim children, in our school we try to provide to have someone teach them Islamic education.

The problem with the Koranic education in northern Nigeria is that is was never designed to manage pluralism … It is the responsibility of the state government to design a curriculum that takes cognizance of these realities and almost deliberately works out how do you manage those differences.

One year ago, the peaceful handover to the new Buhari government was considered a milestone, but Nigeria still faces challenges on many fronts. What does his government most need to focus on to move the country forward?

A: I think the greatest problem the government has is in its inability to effectively communicate with citizens … For me, it would be to say, “Look, first of all we are happy we’re in a democracy, we will make mistakes. We are not going to work miracles. This is how we hope to get to where we want to get to." My view is that … the next thing would have been to have a correct narrative to summon Nigerians to say look, “Now Boko Haram is behind us, ... can we now rebuild our country?” There were those who were very skeptical about [Buhari’s] ability to develop an integral program that would hold Christians and Muslims together. The problem with Nigeria is we desire that, but we have not thought through how that could happen.

The beauty of Nigeria is that in 1990 there was a coup attempt, and the only reason the coup did not succeed was because those who organized the coup said they were going to cut off the 12 states of the north and suspend them from Nigeria … The Nigerian people said “no, we don’t want to be separated.” This was 20 years after we had fought a civil war to keep our country one. So there is absolutely no doubt that everyone in Nigeria wants a united Nigeria.

You have to pull down certain laws and cultural practices.... Shouldn’t every Nigerian citizen be free to marry whom they want? Marriage is one of the fundamental institutions for welding nations together…. If it is against your religion, we have a constitution that is supreme and it is more important than any religious constitution.

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