Mathew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto is the second most important player in Nigeria’s National Peace Committee, (NPC), the yet unconstituted but promising intervention against mass madness. While General Abdulsalami Abubakar is, by virtue of his social standing as a former military Head of State, a General and a peace activist, the referent player in that committee, Kukah is the epistemic force and the true face of civil society there. Meanwhile, the committee is one of those features which makes Nigeria simply unknowable to those who try to do that by way of rational analysis. While the British, for instance, summarise this unknowability of their own creation called Nigeria by saying it is a country where the best is impossible but where the worst never happens, the Americans simply say Nigeria is beyond comprehension. That is what former American president, Bill Clinton, said during Abacha’s reign. They must be right. Otherwise, how might one understand the emergence of the National Peace Committee at a time of the worst fragmentation of the elite since independence?
That is why the Committee has come to acquire a significance beyond what popular imagination of it might be, with particular reference to the question of that normative and informal mechanism with the moral authority to make binding pronouncements on Nigeria. At the moment, there are no Nigerian Nelson Mandelas, Mahatma Ghandi, Lee Kuan Yew or Churchill and neither are there any such institutions partly because in Nigeria, everyone else appears to be a partisan of one cause or another, leaving it a country without neutral actors. This makes Nigeria a dangerous society, one without leaders with the normative summoning power to calm everyone else down in moments of madness or remind those who cross the red lines of the norm that they have done so. At the moment, the NPC is the closest to anything of that nature. It is not yet an institution but it is more than an institution already because it is, unlike institutions, not of power but more like the child which gave birth to itself, irrespective of where and how it actually came up.
This must be why Bishop Kukah’s presence at the Obasanjo-Atiku reconciliation meeting at Ota last week was a blood pressure disrupting reality for many people. The temptation to read the presence as that of ‘a peacemaker as a partisan’ was simply too strong. To the extent that Sheikh Abubakar Gumi and Bishop Oyedepo are no members of the NPC, their own presence did not have the destabilising import of Kukah’s. So strong that the Bishop had to do a lengthy ‘rejoinder’. But that is where Kukah’s dilemma lies.
The dilemma is that reconciliation is what God wants because both the Holy Bible and the Holy Qu’aran speak of how blessed peacemakers are. As such is the case, engaging with it does not require anybody’s permission because it is inherently a meritorious act. In other words, facilitating reconciliation of the combatants in a decade plus long quarrel between Obasanjo and Atiku is allowed because it has the potentials to disturb the peace of the country. This theological side is, however, lost on an already traumatised country which cannot easily come to terms with Bishop Kukah’s presence at the reconciliation at this time.
In apparent response to this dilemma, the Bishop has written a lengthy ‘rejoinder’ bringing out the sequence of events leading to his presence at Ota that day but absence from the reconciliation proper. The propriety of the ‘rejoinder’ would be a subject of continuing interrogation for quite a long time. It is even doubtful if the ‘rejoinder’ would succeed in establishing Bishop Kukah’s neutrality since the word truth is meaningful only to the extent that a particular reader sees it as truthful or otherwise.
What might, however, be taken as crucial in that Kukahseque epistolary response is the Bishop’s awareness of the sensitivity of his membership of the NPC. That’s the part that those reading the ‘rejoinder’ strategically would find fascinating or reassuring in relation to the contextual novelty of the NPC. NPC came up in the context of the Goodluck Jonathan – Buhari electoral stand-off in 2015. If it sits down with respect to innovative interventions in the impending Buhari-Atiku electoral face off, it would surely have grown into the kind of normative force with incredible oversight authority in Nigeria. At such rate, it would be such a factor in 2023 and subsequently as to be another unique evidence of the incomprehensibility of Nigeria. This is too great a promise to be wasted.
Nigeria is certainly too diverse as not to produce the kind of adversarial inter-group dynamics observable in the country. By that is meant how unavoidable is the aggressive claims against the state and against other cultural groups by those who feel marginalised or dominated. But as voices in conflict studies such as those of Cess Hamelink would say, “the essence of living is conflict”, putting conflict at the core of a democratic society as far as the University of Amsterdam expert in media and conflict is concerned. What he, however, frowns at is failure to prevent escalation and the inflicting of ‘deep damage’ on one party by another in a society.
It is in this context that the NPC provides a case study in terms of an individual or individuals or an institution with moral authority to be in a position to calm Nigeria in moments of rage. As pioneers in this process, people like General Abdulsalami and Bishop Kukah must balance between their exertions in such a way that this initiative MUST fly. Of course, they would need the support of the civil society, the funders, certain individuals and not a few national institutions for this to happen. But their agency remains the most definitive requirements at this point when the committee is yet to transform into an institutional process with its own dynamism.