Nigeria’s politicians need to look at the disconnect between the Northern elite and ordinary citizens in the North, and avoid using the military as a figleaf for their own failings.
Father Matthew Kukah, Bishop of Sokoto says that many Nigerians are gradually moving beyond their religious frontiers… a delegation of Muslim leaders went to the cathedral in Kano to address the Catholics whilst they were worshipping…
The Africa Report: Does the Boko Haram insurgency pit Nigeria’s Muslims against Christians?
Father Matthew Kukah: The dichotomy that pitches Christians in the south, as you often hear, against Muslims in the north is a false dichotomy. It ignores the millions of Christians that are in different parts of northern Nigeria … That feeds into the notion that there is an inevitable conflict, one moment it is north and south and another it is Christians and Muslims.
How do Islamic leaders in the north see their situation today?
The north, the poorest part of Nigeria, it is where you have the highest concentration of non-literate citizens and households that are vulnerable in terms of economic power. There is almost a total disconnect between the elite in the north and the ordinary people. There is a feeling of frustration – even Boko Haram has articulated this point. A lot of anger from ordinary people in the north is anger against their own elite who they find are really not prepared to deal with the principles of Islam and are not addressing the social conditions around them.
Was the government right to send in the military to deal with Boko Haram?
I have a total objection to the military in the political space for any reason. One would have thought the politicians would have done more to get their heads around the problems of building social capital, improving the quality of life for ordinary citizens and strengthening the police … Unfortunately, the political class has continued to use the military to compensate for its own inadequacies. The military diminishes democracy substantially. I think it has contributed to the rise of violence. Boko Haram did not start as a violent organisation. They were causing no problems until the police and then subsequently the military began to use violence on them.
President Goodluck Jonathan has warned that Nigeria could see a repeat of the 1966 crisis and the civil war may be repeating itself. Is he right?
I don’t think anybody should become so paranoid as to begin to evoke the spirit of what happened in 1966. I think that, conservatively, 80% of Nigerians want to live in a democracy. I think the events of the past two weeks are quite significant: 20 or even 15 years ago Nigerians would have been out on the streets calling for the military. As we saw last week, a delegation of Muslim leaders went to the cathedral in Kano to address the Catholics whilst they were worshipping. We have cases of Muslims banding together and creating a wall to ensure that Christians can pray freely. We have the same scenarios in Lagos. I think that many Nigerians are gradually moving beyond their religious frontiers.
Should the government have removed the fuel subsidy?
In times of crisis the church has a critical role to play. During the fuel subsidy issue the Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement. I think there was absolutely no doubt as to where the church stood. We were not out on the streets carrying banners, but at least some of us were involved in facilitating communications behind the scenes across different members of society.
Did the five days of strikes and protests unite Nigerians of differing faiths?
Government could never imagine that Nigerians would react in the way that they did. At the end of those five days, the government knows that it cannot push citizens around. One hopes that they appreciate the fact that, no matter how noble their intentions may be, they must develop a coherent mechanism of consultation on public policy issues. The ordinary people of Nigeria have now found their voices across ethnic and religious lines. It is good for democracy. I think our country is the better for it.
Interview by Nicholas Norbrook of The Africa Report