Erudite and cerebral Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, who turns 67 today, is a consummate and distinctive symbol of intellectual prowess whose towering figure in Nigeria’s sometimes combustible national discourses occupies an eminent position. As a Catholic priest, who has worked and walked his way to his present ecclesiastical realm, he is best known for telling truth to powers that have disreputably ruled and ruined our nation.
I will not be writing about his intellectual and clerical voyage as most readers are acquainted with that part of his life. I shall only concentrate on shared moments with him since my first meeting him in January 1980 at the inauguration of Late Stephen Aje as Bishop of Sokoto Diocese. Fada, as we then called him, was and is still a revered figure amongst us who hail from the backwaters of development called Bakulu Chiefdom.
I still remember with childhood nostalgia when my late maternal granny, Agatha, first told me in the late 1970s that the Bakulu people were blessed to have someone who had surpassed the intelligence of the Blackman and was planning to head to Rome for more scholastic laurels. Even before meeting Fada, in my little world view, I had always dreamed of becoming like him. When later I got hooked up to reading his column, ‘Mustard Seed’, then published in Sunday edition of the New Nigerian Newspapers, I was filled with an unquenchable desire of becoming like him.
My dream to be a Kukah the priest suddenly crumbled when my rebellious young mind succumbed to the Pentecostal preaching of then Pastor Williams Kumuyi of the Deeper Life Church. My mother, Martha, a strong Catholic was almost thrown into despair when I rescinded my decision to attend the Seminary. No doubt, my mum had eagerly looked forward to be called ‘Maman Fada’ (Rev. Father’s Mother). She refused to let go in casting away the demon that was luring my mind away from the Catholic Church. She refused to be consoled and looked distraught for several weeks in hope I would retrace my step. I lost count of the money she gave me to change my rebellion act. I recalled one night after a drinking rendezvous with my friends, I returned home drunk and ended messing my bed with vomit. At the breaking of the day, my good-hearted and devout Catholic mother walked into my room and must have been pained at the despicable sight her son had become. She tapped me from the reveries of my drunken stupor and angrily uttered some words that made no meaning to me. But I still recollect what she told me to this day: ‘Yaro na, iskanci bai karbe ka ba.’ (Waywardness does not befit you, my boy)
Back to Fada. Through the years, I have watched and witnessed the robust cerebral contests he had engaged noted academics who could only be challenged in whispers amidst darkness. He has become a scholarly colossus whose analytical capacity and engagement in both local and international scenes have kept many Nigerians in reverence. The erudite Bishop encouraged me early in life to become a reporter. Even when I wandered into the teaching profession at the Kaduna State Polytechnic in the 1990s, he reached out to his friend, late Chief Charles Ali Madaki, to search for me.
After I left the polytechnic as a teacher (story for another day), I resolved to get a media job. Before then, I had written few articles for the New Nigerian and Vanguard newspapers, among others. The then Registrar of the Kaduna State Polytechnic, Alhaji Mohammed Umaru, had advised me that I had no business then being a teacher after reading one of my articles. My name would later become be mentioned over any petition written against the polytechnic management.
The search for job took me to Lagos in June 1999 to meet Fada who then the Secretary of the Catholic Secretariat. He gave me a note to Mr Ide Iguabor who then was working for ThisDay newspapers. Impressed by my press cuttings, Iguabor, who would later found ‘Nation Interest’ newspapers, handed me over to one Emmanuel Efeni, then acting editor of the Sunday newspaper. Being a Thursday, I was summarily ordered to visit the Bar Beach Victoria Island in the evening for a report the following day. I did exactly that and entitled my story: ‘Sunrise At Dusk’. When I reported on Monday to get the assessment of my report, Efeni smiled at me and threw a copy of the Sunday newspaper to me.
‘Young man, your report has been published. Check through and let us discuss your next assignment’, he said.
The next assignment completely killed my thirst to work for ThisDay. He asked me to visit a brothel to speak to a prostitute on ‘Life As A Prostitute’ I walked away, not because I disliked it, but it was off my beat.
I returned to inform Fada that nothing was forthcoming and persuaded him for yet another letter. Fada lectured me on why I should never rely on introductory notes from prominent people for favours, but nevertheless agreed to write another letter write, not without advising me: “There is always a vacancy for a good writer in all newspaper houses.”
In a clear message, Fada added, in the media, what takes you far is not your connections but your ability to turn in a good script. He obliged me a letter to Ima Niboro, who then was working at the TELL Magazine and would later be appointed media aide to former President Goodluck Jonathan. After going to TELL office several times without meeting him, I carefully removed the call card in the white envelope that had become brownish. On the card, the Fada had written: ‘Ima, this is my quota. Pls see what you can make of him.’
After spending almost three months in Lagos without hope of getting a job, I met Eziuche Ubani who then had been appointed Editor of the ‘Sunday Cometh’. Amidst the crowd of reporters that stormed the newspaper premises, I shouted from the crowd that I had a message from Fada Kukah. At the mention of that name, all eyes were on me and I became a peacock instantly. When I pressed my way through the crowd and told him that Kukah had requested I see him for a job, he suspected I was simply lying and responded: ‘If truly you are from Fada Kukah, please request him to phone any of the directors of the company. Kukah cannot be ignored’.
At Ubani’s response, I recalled the magic wand Fada had struck to save my people from a bridgeless stream that was drowning people. After several efforts to build the bridge failed, the Ikulu Development Association (IDA) resolved to embark on a public fund launching to raise funds. Kukah would later approach the late Chief MKO Abiola, who was then an NPN chieftain, to raise funds for the Kolosok Bridge. My people would later in June 12, 1993 reciprocate the gesture by voting en masse for the Social Democratic Party (SDP) presidential candidate.
Again, sorry for the deviation. I refused to return to Fada for yet another letter. Few days later, I stumbled on a vacancy advertisement for reporters in ‘The Examiner’ that was founded by Chief Pini Jason. At the gate, I dropped Fada’s name and within a twinkling of an eye, I was seated face-to-face with the man whose column in the Vanguard newspaper had been my delight. He referred me to Ocherome Nnanna for a test.
I stood before Nnanna like an accused awaiting anxiously what fate would be declared on him. He gazed at me and asked me to go to the newsroom and do a piece. After going through some of the newspapers, I wrote a piece entitled: ‘Why Speaker Buhari Won’t Go To Jail.’ That was the piece that earned me my second job in a media, the first being the Kaduna-based ‘ISSUES’ magazine that was soon entombed after less than a year of publishing.
From then, I commenced my herdsman’s journey into the world of the media. By my last count when I left paid employment in 2014, I had worked in no less than 12 newspapers that included The Post Express, Punch, BusinessDay, Daily Trust, Peoples Daily, LEADERSHIP and Blueprint, among many others.
Let me state here that while I did not return to inform Fada of what has happened to me in my job search after I got hired my Chief Jason, I guessed he followed me on the pages of the newspapers. In 2001, while I stumbled on him as he stepped out of the elevator with former governor of Bauchi State, Alhaji Isah Yuguda, I moved swiftly to greet him, but his response was a cold shudder on me: “Hi, you failed journalist. How are you doing?”
I felt traumatic and defeated. If Fada would refer to me as “failed journalist,” then I was one indeed. But then, the sun rose up for me and I was employed by ‘The Punch’. That marked a turning point in my career. To my shock and bewilderment, Fada would later facilitate my appointment as the pioneering editor of ‘Sunday LEADERSHIP.’
For those who know this Bishop from our village, and whose inspiring footprints in the nation’s discourses have attracted an outburst of varying and multiple voices, he remains relevant in all times. As Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Our own Kukah has continued to remain a most sought-after personality to illumine the dark paths on why ‘There was a country’. He is the boulder of intellectual honesty and champion of shared humanity based on justice.
For many years as a mobile reporter and now deskbound writer, I have come to appreciate the dialectics that have shaped his disposition. His story resonates with my childhood experience hinged on humility, respect for constituted authority and never deploying divine gifts for commercial purpose.
In his present position I find great fulfilment of my boyish dream that one day my people would get to the echelon of the Catholic Church in Nigeria, and in the towering giant of a priest, we have achieved that. Bishop Kukah @67 is an embodiment of humility founded on shared humanity. Though a fiery character before now, and impatient with characters that have frustrated our nation’s march to greatness, his voice could sometimes rise in overwhelming tirades against failings of the Nigerian system.
He is so gifted with use of words that he is capable of unleashing a flood of curses on Nigerian leaders, but yet be rewarded with applauses and standing ovation. It’s astonishing how he achieves such fit, but that is what Bishop Kukah is noted for.
As Bishop Kukah turns another page in his life today, let me note that what makes Fada thick is his refusal to compromise with officialdom for small favours. Because he stands for the truth, his place in the history of Nigeria remains secured and relevant in the past, present and future for a nation that abhors truth. As a former Catholic communicant, I cannot but plead with Bishop Kukah to call on divine powers to make the present gloom that envelopes our nation and cast upon us threatening spectre of unpredictability to fizzle away.
Happy birthday My Lord Bishop! May we remain faithful in standing up for truth and shared humanity in a country ruined by so a few that have created door of opportunities for only them and their immediate family members.