Matthew Hassan Kukah is Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sokoto. He is a foremost Nigerian public intellectual and commentator on socio-political matters. He holds a master’s degree in Peace Studies from Bradford University, Ph.D. in Religion and Politics from SOAS, London, and another Masters in Public Policy, MPP, from Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. In this interview with Thinkers’ Corner, he bares his mind on issues arising from the ongoing #EndSARS protests led by young Nigerians across various cities in the country and around the world.
Question: Your Lordship, we are in the third week of protests organised by young people in Nigeria to call for an end to police brutality, compensation for families of victims of police brutality and extrajudicial killings, and reform in the Nigerian police force. The protest started with and has been driven by the hashtag #EndSARS. Although SARS has been disbanded, a new subunit called SWAT has been formed, and the youth are saying no to this cosmetic way of addressing the deep and systemic rot in the police force. What is your take on this?
Answer: I believe that like millions of Nigerians, I was caught off balance by this development. I do not imagine that anyone saw it coming. When I woke up to it and saw the images which are changing by the day, I nodded in shocking approval. I have been concerned about the failure of the Nigerian people to stand up to the wickedness and brutality that has been visited on them over the years in the name of governance. I have been deeply saddened by how those who govern us have come to hold us in absolute contempt after they ascend to power. Years and years of our collective hypocrisy and decision to imbibe the culture of hopelessness and the feeling that we cannot do anything have come to haunt us. Now, bang, while we were all asleep the youth this on us. I felt and still feel a sense of fulfillment, that some people have been listening and thinking about how to end this nightmare. SARS is a metaphor, a trigger. The rot and stench are deeper. It is a wake-up call.
Question: The youth protests taking place in different cities across the nation are gaining significant international media attention. Many youths are saying that this is the beginning of the Nigerian spring, something comparable to the Arab Spring which took place some years ago. Do you envisage that the protests might snowball into something unexpected?
Answer: Are we really seeing the beginning of real positive change in governance in Nigeria? It is difficult to say, but how all this ends, will depend on how the government reacts. I hope that two things do not happen: first, that government does not panic and see this as a threat to it and secondly, that it does not place regime survival before our country and our people. I think the momentum suggests very clearly that if well handled, this could be a turning point for everyone including those in power. It is tempting to say that the movement is seemingly rudderless and leaderless, that what we are witnessing is youthful exuberance. To attempt to underrate this young generation is to be gravely mistaken. The leaderlessness is actually their greatest advantage given that leaders are often subject to compromises to protect their personal interests. How the government mediates this will be critical because the young people are well motivated and their spread makes it difficult for the government to contemplate any action because they do not have the means to reaching out to all the states. The youth must be careful though, these are not victory parades and they must also be circumspect so that they do not fall into the hands of politicians whose ambitions could sabotage the entire effort. How the government negotiates with the youth is the real test. This is a test for the President’s sagacity.
Question: The #EndSARS hashtag seems to be a galvanising social media tool for aggregating the deep frustrations and anger of Nigerian youths with poor leadership and bad governance, corruption, lawlessness, impunity, and nepotism in the country. Some are turning their attention to the bogus salaries and allowances of Nigerian lawmakers, a number of who just doze off through the sessions in parliament, as we have seen in photos and videos on social media. How should the young protesters harness their demographic power to positively disrupt the system and turn the tide of things in the country?
Answer: Frankly, this could be the turning point, but it is not easy at all. You know the song by the reggae group, Third World, Now that we have found love, what are we gonna do with it? Galvanising the youth, appropriating anger, and frustration for all these years can pump up the testosterone of the youth. However, I hope that they can also be aware that they have no platform, and the streets are not a political platform. Secondly, with Covid19 pandemic with us, the youth must think of the larger issues. So far, Covid-19 protocols have been thrown to the wind and this could have implications for us. More importantly are the socio-economic implications of all this on a citizenry that is also pulverised by hunger and poverty.
These protests are literally the belly of an elephant holding also every iota of frustration that has been inflicted on us. Clearly, this government and its nepotism and divisive policies, its refusal to listen to wise counsel has brought us to where we are. The issue of the humungous and criminal misuse of resources to service the greed of the political elite is totally repulsive. There are people who have found their way to the National Assembly with severely limited intellectual capacity and certification and many who hardly attend sessions or make any contributions are still going home with millions of naira before the eyes of their own people. Sadly, the challenge now is how to tease out all this, how the protesters must realistically ensure that the government at least has a chance to make a response. It is not a zero-sum game and the President cannot resolve the issues immediately. That is why I am saying how the government reacts determines where we go.
Question: The Church! There are already criticisms in the public space that church leaders have largely been silent about the demonstrations. Many young people believe that their religious leaders should be the beacons of hope for them and the prophetic moral voices articulating the meaning of their struggles for justice and equality. They are wondering why there is such a loud silence from those who claim to speak for a God who hates oppression and injustice?
Answer: I think blaming religious leaders or any leaders for that matter is not the right way to go. I can speak for the Catholic Bishops. We have, then as now been relentlessly making the statements that things are not going well. Successive governments, rather than listening to us have often tended to find cheaper prophets who can sing songs of praise to them. However, I think the youth should hold on to their dreams and vision. This is their song, and we are proud that they composed it. They should not be looking for the Church leaders or any leaders to legitimise what they have achieved. As you know, with most social changes, it is citizens who create momentum not the leaders, religious or otherwise. The President of our Catholic Bishops Conference has issued a Statement on our behalf. The Catholic Bishops were on the streets earlier this year and it set tongues wagging. So, we should feel vindicated that we showed the light and the way, namely, that human dignity was being assaulted and we needed something better. Had the government listened to us and sought collaboration, perhaps things would have been different. Rather, they were keen on seeking out false bread and butter prophets.
Question: On October 14, 2020 the Nigerian Army through its Acting Director of Army Public Relations released a statement warning “subversive elements and troublemakers, ” stating that it would “deal with any situation decisively” that destabilises law and order. Is this not precisely one of the points of the protest – that the youth are fed up with the language of threats, warning, and repression from the military in a democracy where power belongs to the people? Many are even beginning to say that the military is also complicit in cases of brutality and gross human rights violation. You devoted two chapters to this sort of issues in your Oputa Panel book, Witness to Justice?
Answer: Indeed, the very fact that we have a military president up till now and that the military are in almost every state in Nigeria is a sad commentary and a total disservice to the military and it also speaks to the lack of any legitimate claim that we are in a democracy. Yes, why should the military not threaten civilians? Where else can they take out the frustrations with Boko Haram if not on ordinary citizens whom they cannot protect? I think any threat, military or otherwise is a show of cowardice both for the military and the politicians. The guns they hold belong to us and they are for our protection. The seats all these politicians occupy, they do so because of us. So, it will be suicidal for them to threaten the people. Consider them at best, empty. No one is afraid again and I think we have already conquered fear.
Question: We are dealing with a government in Nigeria that seems impervious to the lessons of our troubled history as a nation. How can the youth get the government to give a listening ear to their demands and be willing to dialogue? What must the protesting youths do to not waste this golden opportunity, as some see it, to right the wrongs with Nigeria?
Answer: What are your suggestions for how the demonstrations could become a turning point for the sort of Nigeria we all desire? No matter what happens, the youth know that they cannot be on the street forever. The most important thing is that they have made their point. The rest is strategy. They have no plans to take over government. They have no plans to shut the country down. They know that life has to go on and normalcy must return. However, the challenge of them to hold on to a vision that requires fine tuning. Now they themselves know the power they have, and the government knows that they are largely powerless because abuse of power delegitimises every leader. The Youth must know that they must live to fight another day and now they know how they can mobilise. If we can develop this culture and use it as a bargaining tool, what some of us have been shouting about will have been achieved. Secular consecration of the streets is what gives government support. After all, even the coup plotters including the President sought legitimacy from the streets whenever they staged their illegitimate seizure of power. You know the saying: If the people fear their government, then they areliving in tyranny. If the government fears the people, then they are in a democracy. We should know what time it is now. Once we get the government to fear the streets, then we have gained some major victory on the path to democracy.
– Oct. 20 2020 @ 14:55 GMT |