Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Matthew Kukah in this interview speaks on the performance of former President Goodluck Jonathan, President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti corruption campaign among other issues.
How would you rate former President Goodluck Jonathan’s performance in office?
This should be the subject of many books. I think too many of us have gotten carried away by the political propaganda and wars by both the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party, in which both Jonathan and (President Muhammadu) Buhari were subjected to different characterisations. But we must get past all that. Jonathan’s presidency was not perfect and there will never be one. We all believe that he could have done a lot of things differently, but I believe he did his best. It was, in our eyes, far from what we expected. But we must move away from the narratives of propaganda to the realities now. History will judge Jonathan and I worry that we are allowing talks about probes and so on to becloud our judgment of what he did right. If we cannot identity the good things, how can we identify the bad things?
Former President Jonathan did not have the rough muscles you need to govern a country like Nigeria. His work to give us a credible electoral machine, his ability to tame his ambition; all these are things we cannot ignore. The mismanagement of our resources is a real challenge, which we must face and the government must take up very seriously. People have the mistaken notion that some of us are against the probe or that we are shielding Jonathan. What have I got to gain by shielding Jonathan, now that he is not in power? President Buhari’s concern should be with the choir of hypocrites and cheer leaders who are clamouring around him now. If Jonathan is guilty of theft of state funds, that should be dealt with but it should not distract us from whatever else he may have done well. He was a good man and, sadly, if bad (or good) things happened under his watch, we must let everyone take his or her own share of the blame or praise.
In specific terms, what do you think Jonathan’s administration will be remembered for?
God alone knows, but he will be remembered as a great Nigerian statesman who put God and nation first. And that is indelible mark of honour which money cannot buy. It is a mark of character and honour.
If you think those around President Buhari are hypocrites, are you saying they are also corrupt and should be probed too?
I did not imply that those around him are hypocrites, but I imply that there are hypocrites all over and they would have been with Jonathan if he had remained (in office). They would have been castigating him as a religious bigot and so on. The hypocrite knows what is right but just pretends. All the talk about transparency and fighting corruption, President Buhari knows that he has not raised an army of the righteous yet and this is why he must be careful. Age, experience, certificates, old networks, etc. have nothing to do with it. Honour is a scarce commodity in Nigeria.
My main worry is that this probe thing is a distraction because it has not been spelt out yet. In any case, the nation cannot stop till probes have been concluded. In my view, the President showed his hand too early. Everyone knows what the General (Buhari) stands for and that is precisely why he was elected. It is much like the Pope saying now that I have been elected, I will preach the gospel. That is precisely why he is there. So, my worry is that the probe talk will soon become the theme song of those like the Roman lynch mobs on the streets who just want blood. And (it is) the blood of other people, not those of their fathers, uncles, aunties or townsmen and women. I think the President could have developed a template for doing this and simply roll it out when he is ready. Now, my worry is that it will become a distraction and sooner than later, ethnic, religious and regional chauvinists will get in the way. After all, he tried and jailed many people for 50, 80, 90 and 100 years. Some of them have finished their jail terms and they are with him in the APC or in the PDP now. So, this is the conundrum we are in.
What then is your candid advice for President Buhari on probing corrupt activities by the last administration?
He already has the experience but as he has admitted, he is wearing a new garb of a democrat. He knows that these probes will not be easy, especially given that from our experience, the more you steal the more you can find enough national and international lawyers to frustrate things. Have we not been waiting for almost 20 years now for the late (Gen. Sani) Abacha’s loot? It is a long road to travel and I believe that the President must never allow the bad to become the enemy of the good. We all must defeat the ogre of corruption which has consumed our past, destroyed our present and threatens our future. But this dragon will not be slain with just one arrow. President Buhari can lay the foundation, but winning the war requires more than him. Fighting corruption requires scientific skills; an understanding of the causative factors, that is all I am saying. We all will be the beneficiaries but it will take time to wean those who have been brought up in the milk of corruption such as we all are now. I do not like the words ‘fighting corruption’ myself. I think the corruption is a symptom of our semi-primitive state of existence. Only development can defeat corruption, not threats, moral exhortations or lachrymal denunciations.
Should President Buhari just forget about the stolen monies kept in places and move on?
How can he or anyone forget? But first, where are the places where the monies are? Identifying the location is the first step. The problem is, these monies are stolen and they are not necessarily lost. The challenge is to find those who will help us find them. But finding them is just the beginning of the problem. The real problem is getting the loot back because it — the loot — is sustaining banks, corporations, businesses, industries and careers abroad or in the safe havens and these people (countries) will fight back with everything. You think these banks will just wire this loots to you just like that? They have more lawyers, better lawyers than our entire country. It is almost 20 years now and we still have not seen the Abacha loot. All we hear are stories, since (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo’s time. I am just pointing out difficulties and not discouraging anyone; but there are choices to make. The President has only four years; he has to decide on how he will conserve his energies and which battles to fight, when and how. Our people love drama, but theatre has only a passing use for us now. He does not have a Supreme Military Council of Generals to throw people into jail. He has a National Assembly to deal with and there are still lingering problems with that august body. The President needs help in clearing the debris and banana peels ahead.
Should monies only be recovered and the looters be left unpunished?
I was with the Oputa Panel and I have also studied some part of the justice system as it concerns issues of human rights, reconciliation and justice. We can put all the people we want in jails but what will that do? We can even kill them, but then, what next? The African mind is not so much tuned to punitive justice but we tend to focus more on integrative and restorative justice. The theft has denied us development. So, Buhari can and should learn from ex-President Obasanjo who got back so much of the loots after he came in without any noise. I recall him saying that even pastors helped to bring back loots from repentant parishioners. I believe the President, using the intelligence resources available, should consider surprise as the most vital tool in this fight. My worry has not been about not probing as some of my critics falsely think. I have been saying ‘think, plan and execute.’ If you make so much noise, vital evidence, data and files will be destroyed by collaborators in the civil service or the relevant offices. The President has not named his team in this battle yet and he needs to court whistleblowers and wean them from the looters who may still have control over them. We must all know that loyalties have not changed yet.
Many Nigerians have expressed their displeasure with your statement on a live breakfast television programme recently, where you said, if the incumbent president probes the former president, it could be the incumbent’s turn tomorrow.
I consider myself a public intellectual. My job is to stir the hornet’s nest, generating new ideas and pointing the way forward. I am quite lucky that I have the chance to air my views. You sound as if I was against the former President being probed. My point is that no one knows what will happen tomorrow and a routine procedure like a probe should not be made to sound like a mission of vengeance. What is more, can you honestly tell me what will happen tomorrow? Did Obasanjo know he would end up in prison? Was Gen. Buhari not detained himself? Some of us are concerned with the future and we do some reflections. I do not just talk, I try to think and I make mistakes; my views are not gospel and people are free and welcome to nourish me with new ideas. But it is sad when people turn ignorance and prejudice into marketable commodities.
I believe the Office of the President is a ‘semi-sacred’ office and we must respect it, even if we mistakenly put a scoundrel there. We can respect the office and still punish the occupant if he misbehaves. And Americans did some of this with, say, President (Richard) Nixon and even the way they handled (Bill) Clinton. There is the tendency to divide us into those who support presidents and those who do not. I was labelled a PDP and APC supporter; some of those looking for food said I was against Jonathan and so on. I actually feel vindicated when I hear people accuse me of one thing today and another tomorrow.
Nigerians must have heroes and heroines; people whose names will inspire some awe, not because they are saints but because of what they have done. Even if Jonathan goes to prison, the world will not forget that he saved our country from doom. I am saddened that some food-is-ready, fly-by-night supporters of Buhari, who are not interested in Nigeria but angling for positions, want to place the exigencies of the moment ahead of the nation. Their fanaticism endangers and blurs the path for both the President and country.
Nigeria has received overwhelming international acceptance under President Buhari. Why do you think this is so?
God knows. But again, this is the reason why I sound so impatient. I am not stampeding the President as some people think. What I am saying is that this goodwill is like snow; like ice, it could melt. The international community has a short attention span and we Nigerians have far more enemies than we understand. It is a pity if we think that everyone is happy with how the elections went. If the enemies sense that Nigerians are unsure, are still quibbling, are still incoherent, before you know what is happening, the drumbeat will change. Buhari will be accused of running an Islamic and northern agenda; he will be accused of persecuting Christians, ignoring this or that zone, and so on. This is what happens when you allow a vacuum, which nature abhors. I am genuinely concerned that we do not fritter this goodwill because all it takes is a small problem; earthquake or a major disaster somewhere, and attention will turn away from us.
Do you then think Nigeria’s recent closeness to the United States should be reconsidered, as some analysts have said?
I do not think that the closeness to the United States, if you call it so, is newly found. Remember that we were the first to receive the American Peace Corps in the 1960s. We should worry that Nigeria did not build on the tremendous goodwill of that great country. Go back to the visit of Sir Tafawa Balewa; Google it and see the reception. TIME Magazine made him ‘Man of the Year,’ the first African to achieve that feat. America had very high hopes for Nigeria but we blew it. Nigerian presidents have been welcomed in the White House far more than any other country in Africa or the developing world. Remember they had offices in Lagos, Kano, Kaduna, and so on. We could obtain our visas in Kaduna. What happened? Only a foolish country will refuse the hand of friendship of the most powerful and most friendly nation in the world.
How would you rate Buhari’s first three months in office?
I do not know what to say because there isn’t much on the table. It is gratifying that the President has moved decisively to take on the challenges of Boko Haram, for example. But I wished that by now, we (would have) had some skeletal portfolios such as the Chief of Staff, Secretary to Government of the Federation and so on. But, he knows best and we await the childbirth.
Don’t you think he needs to take his time to appoint the right people to work with in order to have round pegs in round holes?
The President can take all the time in the world; it will never be a guarantee of the quality of his choice. Jesus prayed before choosing his disciples; he knew every man’s character, but Judas was in the crowd. I hear Nigerians harping on choosing the right people. How do you measure the right people? Is my ability to write a good article, the fact that I went to Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale, all evidence that I am a good material? I think all the President should do is appoint people, read the riot act, lay down the minimum of what is tolerable and sack people when they fall short. But there will always be traitors. After all, from what one hears, the transactional costs of access are already beginning to manifest. The opportunity that access offers will be abused by aides and so on. President Buhari, for all these years, has not mixed with people. So, he has to rely on pieces of paper and whispers, most of which will be based on personal interests.
The President will not change the entire bureaucracy, the security and other agencies. It is action that will recruit us into this battle, not some mere look in the face or pieces of paper or pedigree. Today’s saint can become the worst crook. It is what happens when we sit on that seat and the pressures to do good, to help in the name of in-laws, schoolmates, traditional or religious rulers, and so on take their toll; when they offer you their daughters because you are now a minister, these are the pressures. The President should be concerned with raising a hard-core, concrete architecture that will guide public office holders and set the bar high, rather than all the talk about quality of persons. Labels do not tell us how a drink tastes. I heard him say that when he was Minister for Petroleum, the Federal Executive Council had to approve his estacode. All those policies are what matter most. People will fall in line when they see laws and punishment.
You have expressed your concerns about Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign?. In specific terms, what are your grievances?
President Buhari has not told anyone how his anti-corruption war will be fought. The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission are Obasanjo’s vehicles. The last vehicle Gen. Buhari used was the Military Tribunals, whose consequences we know. For now, the President has said he will fight corruption but the strategies are not clear yet. So, I do not know how and why people have already started speaking of (an) anti-corruption campaign.
Personally, I have not expressed concerns beyond the fact that due process is important and must define how we go. I am still convinced that we do not need to hear so much lamentation because the case has already been made. It is quite sad that the media has deliberately continued to distort this issue of probe. I do not know where the media got and started spreading this baseless rumour about our committee, for example, pleading on behalf of former President Jonathan not to be probed. Since he left government, I have neither spoken with nor seen ex-President Jonathan until we met him on Tuesday (penultimate week). In our discussion with him, he stated clearly that he was not against any probe but he was pained by what seemed to be like acts of victimisation and persecution. Jonathan is a former President and if he needs shelter, his brother former presidents are there and alive. And they are in a better position to protect the office of a former president with the architecture of respect and integrity. We must be careful not to play into the hands of those dictators who, for fear of persecution and humiliation, have decided to cling on to power at all cost and at the risk of destroying their people.
Who are these dictators you are referring to?
African dictators, of course! They are all over the place, bringing shame to Africa and diminishing their people, breeding hatred and war by their greed. If you do not treat an ex-president well, those ones who want to go to their grave from the throne will say, ‘You see, we told you, if you leave here, you will go to jail.’ I am against any perceived injustice to anyone at any level and we will speak out when it occurs.
Do you think the league of ex-presidents is there to shield any one of them found by the government to have committed a crime against the state?
No, you can see from what President Bush Jr. did when the disaster of Katrina took place. He pulled out his father and President Clinton to go out and work for America. I have said it over and over; we are blessed to have six living and strong former Heads of State in Nigeria. No country has anything like this. We must learn to treasure what we have, but the sad thing is that for us in Nigeria, no one deserves respect except those who have money and influence or are in office.
What then is your take on the belief by some Nigerians that most of these former military Heads of State were coup plotters and ineligible to be regarded as true leaders?
Did President Buhari not come to power through a coup? In 2007, when I wrote an article to clarify what Gen. Buhari was alleged to have said about Muslims voting for Muslims, I had reactions. Some Muslims abused me and accused me of having deceived and misled Gen. Buhari; some Christians accused me of breaking ranks and making a case for a man who ought to have been tried and jailed. Those who have changed their jerseys and are not Buhari apparatchiks, were they not the same people who abused Gen. Buhari and harassed us at the Oputa Panel for not ordering them to be imprisoned? I laugh when I think of these things. But, as I said, I try to think carefully before I talk. It often takes many years but my critics often find a way of coming around to my arguments. I do not speak out of malice and, sometimes, we may not make our point clearly or even correctly. I am happy that even people like (Prof.) Wole Soyinka have come round now to join the Jonathan train. It is progress. (Punch)