Rev. AgbaIi provides his reflection on the Nigerian National Conference, the Catholic Church Representation, and Popular Imagination.
The political reform conference proposed by Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo is scheduled to begin in a matter of days. The list of participants has emerged. Professors Wole Soyinka, Nobel winner in literature, and Bala Usman, critical historian at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, two prominent Nigerian intellectuals have declined their participation, though selected. Recently too, it has come to light that the Professor Chinua Achebe, renowned novelist and distinguished scholar, resident in the United States is fomenting another channel through the foundation under his name, in articulating the issues facing the Nigerian state. These three represent essential elements in the intellectual mapping of Nigerian scholarship. Their posture toward this conference, therefore, is a credible distaste for the mode and processes of its birth and framing.
Within this environment, however, the Catholic Church is making some impact. Two of its priests would be at this conference. This is not entirely a new phenomenon, during the 1989 Constituent Assembly, at least two Nigerian priests, one from Makurdi diocese and another from Onitsha archdiocese were members. One of these Rev. Fr. Moses Orshio Adasu, went on to a political career, becoming the elected governor of Benue State. The involvement of Catholic clergy in political conferences or participation is not new. While, the Catholic Code of Canon Law, decry priests in participating in partisan politics, there have been instances of Catholic priest active participation in partisan politics. In the United States, a Jesuit Priest, Rev. Fr. Robert F. Drinan was elected to the American congress, representing Massachusetts from 1971-1981 in the House of Representatives. He resigned from running for another term, following pressures from the Vatican. Prior to this, Rev. Fr. Gabriel Richard was elected in 1823 as the first priest in American history to congress. In Haiti, the Salesian priest, Jean-Betrand Aristide was elected as President in 1990. In Africa, the late Archbishop Isidore D'Souza in the late 1980s, headed the National Conference in Benin Republic, and also Monsignor Monsengwo in 1991-1992 did likewise in Zaire.
In proposing the conference, President Obasanjo remarkably reached out to different sectors of the Nigerian civil society, including the Nigerian Catholic Church. In fervent appreciation of this opportunity the Nigerian Catholic Bishops have nominated the reputable, humane, and erudite, Rev. Monsignor John Aniagwu, former Rector of the Saints Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Bodija, Ibadan, and current Pastor of St. Leo Catholic Church, Ikeja, Lagos, to the conference. The second Catholic priest to this conference is included in the lists of presidential nominees. He is the populist and civil activist, Rev. Fr. Matthew Kukah, a priest and current Vicar General of the Kaduna Archdiocese. Both of these priests have enormous qualifications and experiences in the ecclesial and public spheres. Fr. Kukah is very much a creation of the Nigerian media since his syndicated column the "Mustard Seed" gained popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s in the Nigerian print media. "The New Nigerian" and the Plateau State owned newspaper, "The Nigerian Standard", especially syndicated this column, and became the significant outlet for projecting Kukah's popularity and his ascension into the scene of popular imagination.
Fr. Kukah is a very gregarious and jovial personality, stout in stature, his intensity of operation and reasoning is amazing. His soulful impulse produces at a short notice his passion that focuses on the Nigerian state and its post-colonial portrait. Often this passion, reveal themselves in the form of almost unsolicited discourses that focally dominates on themes related to modern Nigeria. Such insightful passionate discourses reflect his love of Nigeria, as nation, regardless of the injustices done against his own native Southern Kaduna by the Hausa-Fulani hegemony. Though his intensity, can at time be frightening his discursive opulence and down-to-earth interaction derail fermenting such noxious imagination. Following his studies at the School of African and Oriented Studies, London, he earned a doctorate writing his dissertation on the theme of religion and politics in Northern Nigeria. The texture of his work was regarded as veritably original and in depth. The publication of this book made waves, though more descriptive than analytical, and adeptly journalistic in style than intellectual. As a result, Fr. Kukah was in popular demand within the Nigerian lecture circuit.
This new imagery and his already familiar popularity from his "Mustard Seed" column days projected him further into becoming a rare Nigerian celebrity. In fact, he became an "essential commodity" and a priestly model in Nigerian society. This popularity welcomed by his Catholic community for its public relations potentials, and celebrated by his repressed kin in Southern Kaduna (used to be known as Southern Zaria, a name they so much detested), his glamour radiated around the sphere of Nigeria. Karl Meier, the American author of the book, This House has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria, notes that he is a "home-boy made good." He is something of an iconoclast within his native community. He has recently been able to marshal enormous resources using his powerful network of friends, in different high places, toward the development of his community, through building a model and modern secondary school and a healthcare facility in his community of origin.
Rev. Fr. Kukah has not only played up to the glamour and social expectation of the media, but he has effacingly worked hard. A committed activist, often in love with talking about Nigeria and its political landscape, he has contributed enormously to the development of the structures and image of the Catholic Church, as well as Nigerian society. He was until about a few years ago, the Secretary-General of the Catholic Secretariat of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria (CBCN). He equally was nominated and served as the Secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (a.k.a Oputa Panel). He ensured that the commission work was efficiently performed. However, his commitment has not yielded much result as the panel's work is still veiled in secrecy, since the government that instituted it as watered down its impact, by refusing to make public its report. Recently, however, this report has made an incursion into the internet. The quality of the report attests to the hard work and great commitment of Rev. Kukah and his cohorts.
Monsignor John Aniagwu is an indefatigable and erudite scholar, and has been distinguished as an efficient administrator. A very humble person, he represents a distinct and rare genius fervently directed toward the pursuit of excellence. As rector at the Bodija Seminary, he cultivated excellence among the seminarians, thus elevating Bodija seminary onto a pedestal. In sports, during the annual "All Major Seminary games" his "Bodija boys" from their "African Rome" (Ibadan is surrounded by seven hills) tormented other sport players from other seminaries in carting away medals. Even in defeat, his seminarians always fight gallantly to the end. He gave the seminary and seminarians a legacy of self-confidence. Unfortunately, others have misjudged this ingrained trait, thus accusing his seminarians as often boisterous, and arrogantly proud. However, critics apart, Msgr. Aniagwu taught these young men on their route toward becoming priests the virtue of humility and excellence in their pursuit of successful attainment. Monsignor Aniagwu's instrumentally imputed the core values integral toward the service of the Church and nation to his seminarians. To his enormous credit, through the quality of training many of these seminarians, as ordained Catholic priests are contributing toward the development of the Nigerian space and global community, in ecclesial and secular structures today. Many of these young men are resident in rural and urban areas progressively helping their transformations, as social agents of hope in Nigeria, and hope for these communities. These are markers of achievement, which attest to his fervent efforts, especially the remarkable premium he placed on hardwork, all-round cultivation of excellence, and personal maturity. Having noted all of these facts, these two priests personally and symbolically represent the very best in the Catholic priestly tradition of excellence. They also mimetically model the capability of the Catholic Church diachronic contribution to the growth of Nigerian society.
In Nigerian society, the Catholic Church remains a formidable institution that ensured the human, social, medical, educational, moral, and spiritual development of the Nigerian polity. The Catholic Church, through its social teachings emphasizes that good Christianity entails being good citizenship, and good Catholics must necessarily be productive stewards in their commitment to the task of nation building. The fact that President Obasanjo had noted this and given the chances for two priests to emerge in serving Nigeria is noteworthy. However, the important question remain, is the Catholic Church asking pertinent questions relative to this conference? Is the Nigerian Catholic Church learning from History? How many of the conferences headed by Catholic priests and bishops- Benin, Zaire, and others led to critical changes in their national fortune?
These are not redundant but essential questions. The Nigerian Catholic Church need not be coerced into action simply because any political hegemonic order is involved. In the past, they have proven to be good stewards through their pastoral letters, declarations, statements, and communiqués from their meetings. However, while piles of these textual materials are evident of good intentions, hardly has the Church marched with the people. Evidentially, the only exception so far is the noted instance of Archbishop Peter Jatau joining the people in their protest march in Kaduna in denouncing Nigeria's enrolment into the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in 1989. Rather, at times of critical significance the Church recoils into its cocoon, leaving little guideline for action. This ambivalence dements the image of the Church at critical times. However, on a spiritual path the Church during the 1993 political crises composed a "prayer for Nigeria" that is still being recited in Catholic Churches.
The abysmal failure of the Nigerian Catholic Church in commenting on the skewed arrangements leading to this conference suggests to some people as amounting to being "collaborator" in a charade. I was ashamed recently when confronted by a Nigerian Catholic, who noted that many Nigerian Christian leaders, Nigerian Catholic Bishops inclusive, during the erstwhile Abacha era actively collaborated in his aspiration toward perpetuating his rule. He noted that money loads of "Ghana-must-go" were sent directly from Aso Rock to certain Bishops. While, not doubting this person's credibility, or in the position to verify the veracity of this claim, I felt ashamed nonetheless. I must add quickly that person noted some Bishops who refused to be bought, and averred that others noting that it was the tax payers' money, simply collaborated. Sadly, enough he noted that this scheme was directed by certain notable Catholics (Knights) then in Aso Rock. Assuming this was the truth, this constitutes a betrayal of the entire Catholic Church in Nigeria, and those who fervently fought against the decimation of the evil values that mercilessly tormented Nigerians at the time. It would be a slap on my face, an insult to the many fervent Bishops and priests who opposed oppression and challenged injustice during that era. I know many.
This claim coming from a Catholic troubled me, and I wondered greatly, as these were bold assertions. I wondered what the reactions of numerous Catholics who suffered immensely at the time, would be to this abhorrent claim; that their Church collaborated in their denigration. I felt sad, because should this to be the case, I imagined that the same people we are serving today, may tomorrow raise sticks and hurl stones at us, somewhat like in the 1789 French Revolution. I felt sad because in 1993, the Malawian Catholic Bishops through their pastoral letter, and the Kamuza Banda reaction toward them, in sanctioning their killing, helped to bring about certain democratic changes there, no matter how cosmetic.
At the moment the Catholic Church has seized upon the opportunity of sending someone to the conference but it has rather decided to be silent regarding the irregularities and illogicalities of the processes leading to the conference. Does such silence point to the fact, that even the government assume that ecclesial institutions are opportunistic idioms? Does that point to the fact that in spite of the piles of communiqués churn out by the Catholic Bishop no one listen nor care they exist? Does it say a lot as to why civil society cannot be trusted enough in ensuring the progressive transformation of stunted Nigerian polity devoid of meaningful development of a genuine democratic culture?
Fundamentally, the Catholic Church is presently euphoric basking in the ephemeral joy regarding their recognition by very corrupt state. In fact, at deeply personal level, I am bothered about the fact that Fr. Kukah accepted to serve again in this conference. His Oputa Panel recommendations remain deeply buried in government closets, without meaningful change to the polity. I wonder, if after such demanding and meaningful efforts in the past, nothing was achieved and the political and social terrain had become more dangerously despotic, what hopes he has that this conference decision, no matter how critical they are would be put into action. Well, it calls to question on many levels the ethics of participation. Is this a cooption into a scheme toward silencing and minimizing their volcanic eruptions against the existing scenario of the Nigerian "politics of the belly?" Though, I am neither Kukah nor the Catholic Bishops, care must be taken that certain responsible personalities and the Church as an institution is not used for political machinations in a Machiavellian manner. Kukah, must be remembered that while the administration almost did not finance the Oputa Panel, and he had to be instrumental in scouting for fund from such foundations as the American Ford Foundations, to carry out the work of the panel, is it not suspect that there is N930 million available for this conference? Is the government hypocrisy not lucid enough? Perhaps, my respectable friend, Fr. Kukah knows more than I do, or I might be having "hypervision" though not wearing any lens. I am of the opinion that while Fr. Kukah relish serving the Nigerian nation on principles he should have thought otherwise. The Nigerian people were spat upon by the retired generals- Babangida, Buhari, and Abdulsalam, and even Obasanjo himself, and slapped Kukah and his Oputa cohort in the face, it is a time for rethink whether all national service is worth it. Would this decision be elevating Kukah or aid to destroy his hard earned meritorious reputation? Time will tell.
There is a growing mentality among the young that the Catholic Church and megaevangelistic Churches are becoming "apron churches" in consciously or unconsciously ensuring the dominating interests of the oppressive social class. Such preponderant ideas, which might be based on sentimental and false analysis is gaining ascendancy in the Nigeria popular consciousness. Such sentiments mask dangerous potentials for heuristic crises. Mobs do not understand logic and they hardly have time for critical analysis, they know what they know, they read meaning into what they hear, what they hear give vent to anger, and anger give rein to destructive actions. Therefore, the popular rhythm and reading of coziness that affirms Church and oppressive class and Church and state relations must not be taken for granted. In this vein, Rev. Fr. George Ehusani, the present Secretary-General of the Catholic Secretariat, and then assistant to Fr. Kukah, in a book published some years back advocacy for the emergence of a Nigerian prophetic Catholic Church is cogent and urgent call.
The Nigerian Catholic Church, together with other religious entities, need to seriously define the contours of their relationship with society, and articulate the parameter of their engagement with the ruling [most times oppressive] class. Engaging in critical assessment and cybernetic self-regulations they must continually negotiate the level and elements of such relationships. It is dangerous and unhealthy, that in the mind of many Nigerians, the Catholic Church, its structures and personnel are signified and equated with the dominant class. Others think that the ecclesial structure is gradually and enormously being absorbed into the bourgeois structure of society as a petit-bourgeois entity. Such reasoning is fraught with crass problems for the image and spiritual mission of the Catholic Church. The Nigerian Church, while not having to be antithetical always and assuming the role of a political opposition, must define itself as a Church of all people, and more as the supporter of the poor and marginalized, and a voice of reasoning in times of social chaos. This much the Catholic Church is presently doing, yet many are not perceiving them being so engaged. Here is the heart of a major problem.