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Africa Confidential, August 2010

Interview with Father Matthew Hassan Kukah

Father Matthew Hassan Kukah is a remarkable Nigerian. A Catholic priest born in Kaduna State in northern Nigeria and fluent in several Nigerian languages, he has worked hard to promote understanding across ethnic and religious fault lines. An idealist in the sense that he wants Nigeria to be a far better country than it is and that he believes its peoples have the capacity to take it there, he is also a brutal realist in his assessments of the country's current political and developmental state.

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Father Matthew Hassan Kukah is a remarkable Nigerian. A Catholic priest born in Kaduna State in northern Nigeria and fluent in several Nigerian languages, he has worked hard to promote understanding across ethnic and religious fault lines. An idealist in the sense that he wants Nigeria to be a far better country than it is and that he believes its peoples have the capacity to take it there, he is also a brutal realist in his assessments of the country's current political and developmental state.

In demand by governments and civil society as both a mediator and an analyst, Father Kukah has worked with a wide range of Nigerians and foreigners who are trying to address the country's chronic underdevelopment.

His disinterest in taking up partisan positions in Nigeria and his drive to bring the country together gives Kukah an important role as both actor in Nigeria's political dramas and spokesman for those Nigerian nationalists who have been trying to push the country forward.

Africa Confidential's Oladipo Salimonu interviewed Father Kukah in London recently about the prospects for political change and economic reform in the run-up to next year's elections:

AFRICA CONFIDENTIAL: Professor Attahiru Jega was recently appointed chairman of the Independent National Election Commission. You were a member of the National Electoral Reform Commission. What do you think the appointment means for the work of that commission?

FATHER MATTHEW HASSAN KUKAH: With Jegga you can only run out of superlatives. He is a fantastic gentleman, a fine scholar, he has paid his dues and served on quite a few committees: President of ASUU, etc. His appointment is a departure from what is expected and evidence of the fact that the president is determined to depart from the bad ways of the past.

Do you think that appointment is going to be enough to change elections in Nigeria?

No, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. He comes from the north and is a Muslim but has great appeal beyond his immediate constituency. His appointment should inspire confidence. The knock-on effect of that is that people will appreciate that the government is serious and that, given Jegga’s antecedents, he will not brook nonsense and will be clear in what he needs to do. He cannot be considered a captive to any constituency, religion, region, ideological or otherwise. You know where he stands when it comes to issues relating to public behaviour, morality and the minimum standards that the international community has set for Nigerians.

Out of the work of your commission, what are some of the things that he needs to do the best job as chairman? Is he likely to get the support that he needs?

The most important thing is for him to get his hands around the important issues. He is not a bureaucrat. The biggest challenge I think will be overcoming the frustrations of bureaucracy but this has also been taken care of by the fact that our committee recommended that INEC should be free from the encumbrances of bureaucracy. An independently funded INEC that is not held hostage by government forces will be the first victory. The second will be how to navigate an institution that has great appeal to politicians wishing to compromise it. It depends on his commissioners and on the technocrats that he has on the ground and the willingness to move in a different direction. It is impossible for him to accomplish everything in a short period of time. He should acknowledge that the resources are too few and the time too short to organise an election that will really leave an imprint of what his aspirations might be. He must condition Nigerians to expect the best that can be achieved in 2011 but look forward to the 2015 elections.

So you think that the 2011 elections are going to be more of the same rather than a clear departure from the past.

Yes, because the average elected representative in Nigeria simply doesn’t take prisoners. No governor expects to be governor for only one term, the same with presidents. The system is such that state executives and office holders don’t even hide their conviction that state resources and the apparatus of power can be deployed to achieve that end. It stretches the imagination if you expect the appointment of Jegga to have too much of an effect. Perhaps, even more than INEC, the body that needs repositioning will have to be the forum of governors. Beyond the presidential elections, every other election hangs on the governors. The state independent electoral commissions (SIECs), when we traveled around the country, people expressed dissatisfaction with SIECs, saying they were just appointed by governors and only did their bidding. Unless they loosen their hold it will be difficult to have what you would call free and fair elections, even in the best of circumstances.

How much of the report that came out of your commission will be implemented into law?

Even if the president took the entire report and accepted it, the report is not sacred text. Its legitimacy will have to be tested when people vote. There will be aspects of human behaviour that that report will not have been able to predict. But over and above that, it is for the political class to create an environment in which ordinary Nigerians can feel enthusiastic. Part of the problem is that there is a situation in which agents, the politicians themselves, ordinary Nigerians are complicit. Ordinary citizens are not free. The man who is prepared to cheat and not pay his bus fare, cheat in an exam, compromise standards in exchange for money or benefit. None of these characters can have the moral wherewithal to challenge the outcome of INEC. What we are doing in our own various areas of engagement, in the market, the bank, or the church, there is a lot that needs to be done as individuals in the area of personal discipline. We don’t imagine that tainted characters who are so in their place of work can arrive at the polling booth and do something different. This is why I've always argued that rather than focusing on the failures of electoral processes, we must see this as a symptom of the greater rot in society. Every day this corruption is manifesting itself but when we talk of corruption our attention has tended to focus on money. We expect INEC to do its job but we must also try to set better standards of conduct and behaviour for ourselves. In the World Cup it isn’t a question of what the referee does but how the players choose to conduct themselves. I believe that we ourselves as citizens need to reposition ourselves and think seriously of the role each of us has to play in achieving free and fair elections in Nigeria.

Do you think President Goodluck Jonathan will run in the 2011 elections?

I don’t know. And I don’t think that the speculation is healthy. I think it’s unnecessary distraction and it could end up heating up the system. What you are going to have in the future is that people will start positioning themselves and if you live in Nigeria long enough you will learn to be humble in terms of one’s expectation because you don’t know who’s going to be alive in 2011. I suggest that let’s focus on the some of the main issues about delivering on some of the fundamentals that have held our country back and when we get to that bridge we shall be able to cross it.

Do you think he should run?

Jonathan cannot run without severe implications for Nigeria. There are a lot of issues that I think we need to address were he to decide to run. They include the agreement, the zoning provision, which is purely a political issue. He will have to find a way of pacifying other segments of Nigeria within the PDP who are taking that policy as a given with all these structural deficiencies. I also think that we haven’t gotten to a point where we can pretend that region, religion, ethnicity and community don’t matter; tragically they do matter. We cannot create a vibrant democracy without creating an environment where everybody feels that their voices matter and everybody feels that they are part and parcel of that process. Now, it seems to me to be a lot of work done in that regard and if Jonathan wants to run I don’t see why not, as a free citizen of Nigeria. But as president he hasn’t really had to face any challenge yet, so the system has not tested him. We don’t know what he is made of. Maybe no challenge will come, but, in my view, I think that it depends on what happens in the next few months. If ordinary citizens can see results and if he has the right conversations with the right people and the right segments of this country then I think that the decision to run will be based on what the environment dictates.

What are some of the advantages or disadvantages to his running?

First of all, Jonathan is a member of the PDP. It has its own arrangement. I believe that in the end what we think will not matter. What will matter is who the PDP decides it is going to field. If Jonathan is able to convince sceptics within the PDP that it would be in their interests for him to run. I think that simply because he is there now doesn’t necessarily warrant his claim that if he wanted to run he would win elections. The party has to field him first and if it doesn’t and he decides he wants to jump to another party, these are very complicated issues. Nigerians will have to choose between Jonathan and a range of other people, if the PDP presents him. If they want to present him that will be their business. But until that happens, ordinary citizens have very little to choose from. You can only choose from the presidential candidates that the parties throw at you.

You mentioned earlier that some other ethnic groups within the PDP might have a say in whether Jonathan runs or not. Which groups are these and what do you think their concerns might be?

For example, if you listen to the Igbo, they believe that if you follow the zoning arrangement, it should be their turn in 2015. As a Nigerian, I think that these sentiments are legitimate. Secondly, there are those on the opposite side, the northern political elite who believe that if you follow through the zoning arrangement you are just completing the late Yar A’dua’s tenure, and when that tenure is completed, you (Jonathan) step aside, we will find somebody from among ourselves who is going to complete that tenure. Now, as I said, it depends on how the big boys in the PDP negotiate that. I believe that some of those discussions may be outside the control of Dr Jonathan. So it depends on how the system plays out. Thirdly you have many Nigerians like you and me who really couldn’t be bothered where our next president comes from as long as he is competent. Dr Jonathan has not had the opportunity to prove that he is competent. We have nothing to show yet. The honeymoon is still here, policies have not been so clearly articulated. He has a team, whether that team delivers on some of the promises is another matter. I am sure that the promises are not different to those made by Obasanjo or any others made. So in many respects it’s not just about good declarations but whether you can mobilise the bureaucracy and other arms of government to support his initiatives. I believe that, if at the end of all this, Nigerians feel convinced that Jonathan is doing a good job they cannot make him president unless the PDP presents him as a candidate. So that’s why I’m saying most of the conversation will depend on how the party wants to deal with the issue.

Within the leadership of the party, who do you think are the key decision makers on whether or not it’s going to be Jonathan who is fielded in 2011?

There is a board of trustees and many people argue that General Obasanjo who is not very popular among a lot of people from the north. But also the interesting thing with Obasanjo is that a lot of people feel strongly about him, a lot of people feel strongly against him. But either way, the truth is that he is definitely strategically placed since Goodluck is a product of his own decision. I believe that unless something happens to that relationship we will have to rely on Obasanjo to convince the board of trustees. Key will be people like Dr Alex Ekwueme, an important voice and an Igbo man; Dr Solomon Lar, the first chairman of the PDP; people like Adamu Ciroma, who is also a very strong voice in the North. From the point of view of the Governor Lamido of Jigawa State, Governor Babangida Aliyu of Niger state and Governor Murtala Nyako of Adamawa State, there are a number of governors that you really need to have in your camp and some very key political allies outside the PDP, whose voices matter. They include traditional rulers, they include retired military officers...There are many very important stakeholders in the process.

Obasanjo has denied that there is an unwritten agreement to rotate power within the PDP.

I think the important thing is that it is not about reneging when things seem to be convenient. We need to have the sincerity and in my view, the way the country stands now, almost everything has been based on zoning. That is why the PDP insist that the Igbos will lose chairman of the party. It’s on the basis of that understanding that ministers and their portfolios, a lot has been  done to reflect those realities. It is within the context of that spirit...after all Dr. Goodluck Jonathan could have chosen an Igbo man to be his vice-President or a Yoruba man to be Vice- President...let’s not get carried away by the sentiment and the expediencies of the moment. I think this is not a conversation that we should be having so early in the day. I think that we must allow the political forces, the cultural forces within the system to play themselves out. But clearly, a lot of people need to be convinced, including many Nigerians. What is popular in the media does not necessarily equal political expediency, so definitely we cannot run Nigeria without serious considerations about a sense of fairness and justice. It may be convenient to say that zoning was only a temporary arrangement but let’s not forget that if Goodluck ran for the elections, he won’t be president forever, this thing could turn any way. What if it comes back to the north and the north decides it doesn't want to share power with anybody? So I think we need to think through the issues more dispassionately rather than just throwing stones. I fear that we could end up polarising the country, and we don’t need any of that.

Do you think that zoning and rotational arrangements are the best way forward for Nigeria? You have referred to the community you come from as a minor minority, when would you say the PDP chairmanship be zoned to them?

There’s a difference between being in office and being in power. Some of these offices are fairly symbolic. If they meant so much northern Nigeria would not be the poorest part of Nigeria; because northerners have been in power for over 30 years, literally nonstop. But the north is still the poorest part of Nigeria. I do not believe that because Dr. Jonathan is president therefore every Ijaw man necessarily will become a rich Nigerian. There will still be poor Ijaw people, jobless Ijaw people, even if Dr. Jonathan were president for 10 years. Beyond the symbolic gestures, the important thing is the sense of calming frayed nerves. When you look at a country like Germany in the World Cup and you see a black man playing for Germany, it does something to you. So, for me, a lot of these things have symbolic value. And, let’s be clear, we are still negotiating, we are still moving on that road. We haven't gotten there yet and it is going to take us a while before we can say that these things don’t matter. But we see, even in certain democracies, like America, where we always pretended that these things don’t matter, without Obama being president there wouldn’t have been the Tea Party. There are quite a few white people that still cannot live with the fact that a black man is president. But this is a country that has for the last 200 years been experimenting with what we are just trying to experiment with. But let us be fair to ourselves, not every country has over 400 ethnic groups. The reason why identity matters in African politics is because schools, hospitals, roads need to be built, people need to make state money, employment needs to be provided. Sadly, because we are still unable to design the architecture that can create a sense of belonging and a sense of wholeness, is why every public official is like a big village chief; his responsibility is to his community. Although this is slowing down our march towards modernization, you must appreciate the fact that there are limitations from neutralizing identity. This can only happen when some quantum of modernization has taken place. I mean, here, there is no way that you can try to run for office by telling anyone in the UK that you are going to build schools and improve the health service, you might talk about improvements but you are not going to say that because you are from Bradford, you are going to become Prime Minister by saying what you are going to do for the people of Bradford, it doesn’t work like that. Based on where we are we need to inch our way and you must appreciate the fact that true leadership will have to emerge before people can look at themselves in the mirror and appreciate the fact that there goes my leader. For now, the unfortunate thing is that that is a reality we have to live with. In a complex society such as ours we need something that creates a sense of belonging for people. In flashes of frustration Nigerians got so fed up with the military that when Abiola ran along with Kingibe—two Muslims—Nigerians couldn’t be bothered. It didn’t mean that the problems of religion had ended, it just meant that Nigerians had become so fed up with the military that they could have put out anybody. Which is why Abacha was clever, when he came to power, he didn’t allow even a dog or a goat to run along with him because he knew that the way Nigerians were feeling, even a dog running against someone in a military uniform might win the election. Take the two together, you cannot say that these things don’t matter, we must also be realistic, that we have a complex mosaic and it is important because this test, its resiliency will depend on a feeling by everybody that they are adequately reflected.

Moving away from politics to issues of citizenship, what do you think are some of the issues of minority groups in Nigeria. Nigeria is often described as a country of three major tribes. What are some of the grievances of some of the minority groups in Nigeria that are not being addressed?

There are issues related to a sense of belonging. If you look at the so-called minorities, you are looking at an imprecise concept, because the thing about ethnicity is that it doesn’t make much sense. There are a lot of Igbos who don’t speak Igbo, a lot of Yorubas who don’t speak Yoruba, a lot of Yorubas who speak better Igbo than Igbos themselves. A lot of people who make a claim to a particular ethnic identity, but they don’t speak the language. So there’s a sense in which most of the conversation is an exercise in hostage-taking. But in reality if you look at under the military, at an individual level, some of the richest Nigerians today, especially among retired military officers actually are from minority groups. Sadly, their wealth has not spread around because it is all individualistic and sometimes not obtained in the proper way. But to the extent that a lot of communities feel...because under the military there was a lot of abuse...local governments were created...those who were members of the provisional ruling council took local government headquarters to their villages and projects of government were diverted to those communities. And so, psychologically, people began to feel, we don’t have a voice because we don’t have somebody in power, and we don’t have somebody in power because we are a minority. So gradually people began to get low self-esteem, but, my argument is that if you massively create infrastructure and increase movement and make electricity work, this is how you can blunt the cutting edge of ethnicity and minorities. The word has become an explanation for a feeling of what Nigerians call marginalisation and the sad thing is that once you use ethnicity as a means of defining that concept you will never escape it. I think it is just another part of the vocabulary of bad governance which has been seen throughout Africa.

In one sense that would mean that we need to lessen the conversation about ethnicity. How do you align that with the previous point, when politics is based on an architecture of ethnicity and rotation along ethnic lines?

I consider where we are now as a state of evolution. We have denied ourselves the energies of our people. Nobody believed six months ago, that anybody from the Niger Delta or from the Ijaw ethnic group would produce a president, it was inconceivable. Vice-president is, as they say in Nigeria, a spare tire. It was assumed that Goodluck Jonathan would warm the seat until things change. When we spoke about the Ijaw you spoke about militants and kidnapping, bunkering, the destruction of the environment. This was it. It was the part of Nigeria that exemplified all that was wrong with Nigeria. Suddenly we now have a president who is from the Niger Delta. The point is, the way these things go, that somebody can come from that background to be president could also serve as a signal to other people that you know what, perhaps we are in this game too. You take a state like Kaduna which has benefited in a collateral sense from this. Our governor moves from Kaduna to become vice-president and Kaduna state has a governor who is a Christian, something that never really happened. The northern ruling class had always treated Kaduna as some sort of sacred Jerusalem that could not be desecrated. Suddenly, this has come without anybody raising a hand or casting a vote, in a sense that God designed his own ballot box and paper and there we are! So for me, and I don't want to sound too esoteric, but a lot of things are happening in Nigeria, and the more these things happen, the more everybody begins to feel that there is a hopeful future for us. The idea of rotation and zoning may have served its purposes, but it is is still very useful. But while we are on that road, let us know that the greatest antidote to this concept is development. People clutch ethnicity because they have nothing else.

At the swearing-in of President Jonathan you said that something had happened in Nigeria that might not happen again for 200 years. What did you mean by this?

I just meant that it was unprecedented. An individual becoming deputy governor, becoming governor, becoming vice-president, becoming acting president and now president all within a period of less than six years, paying no penny and nobody casting a vote for him, this has never happened anywhere. It was not a statement about Goodluck himself but more an expression that God is saying something to us in Nigeria; namely that those who have often thought that you cannot be governor or president unless you have a godfather or tons of money or have stolen money, which has driven Nigerian politicians to accumulation. Corruption is not a necessity for power. If we became more humble and more circumspect and appreciated that power is not something you can pray for or capture at all costs. Being such a religious people we should appreciate that power comes from God and God speaks to us through ordinary people. Then we can become a bit more relaxed and if I go out there to contest an election and lose, it is not the end of the world and we can stop seeing politics as a zero-sum game.

President Jonathan is a member of the Ijaw community, the fourth biggest in Nigeria, and from a state that produces about 40% of Nigeria’s revenues. After 50 years of being excluded, a person of that community is now at the helm of affairs and he is being asked to step aside after months because of an an unwritten agreement...

To create the impression that Nigeria owes the Ijaw people is to misrepresent issues. I don’t think that the presidency is an award to anybody for good behaviour. The oil is not just being fetched with a bucket, a lot of people have paid their dues in different way. Without Nigeria there is no Ijaw oil. The issues are more complicated than that. To suggest that somebody will become president simply because his people have suffered is wrong. There is no community that has not suffered. Dr Jonathan should expect no sympathy if he doesn’t perform. The steering is in his hands, if he allows himself to go into overdrive as a result of those kinds of sentiments. The Ijaw people should support him, as every Nigerian should. He is President of Nigeria and he just happens to be an Ijaw man. I don't think that every Ijaw person will necessarily vote for him. The challenge is for him to rise beyond those limitations and assert himself as president. Symbolically, he is trying to do that by trying out his agbada, and trying on one Yoruba cap today and one Hausa cap tomorrow. Those are symbolic gestures; the important thing is to realize that, like they say of Washington, Abuja is where boys from the small town come to be big people. He has a chance and a date with history so we can only expect that he will rise to the occasion.

What realistically can he do in the months before the elections that can be of significance?

We are answering questions that nobody is asking. Everyone is focusing on NEPA and infrastructure and so on. Given the fact that that institution has become a den of thieves and is now like a mafia, you are not going to break through that system easily. So he needs to pick very carefully the battles that he can win and not follow the mistakes that Obasanjo fell into. People like Bola Ige put their lives on the line to deal with the problems of NEPA and failed woefully. If you promise people power in Nigeria and you know the negative forces that can build against you and you are unable to deliver then you know that that is what people are going to judge you by. Even if Jonathan were just to develop the capacity to frame the issues of where and how to position Nigeria in the next 20 years and framed the questions correctly and got Nigerians to come to a proper understanding of what needs to be done. Just a dry skeleton of what this country might look like. This template would help Nigerians to realise that this is what we are looking for. We are not going to have some classroom teacher who wants to be president, or someone without a university degree, this is what we are looking for. If Nigerians ask the proper questions then these questions will help them to select the people that they should entrust their country to. This would not be a small achievement.

Do you see any signs that he is on the way to doing this?

I don’t know anything about the composition of his team. Maybe he is running away from the provincial arrangement that undid Yar’Adua, the so-called cabal that held him hostage. You can’t take away one of the most exciting things in Obasanjo’s time...Nigerians have a way of not remembering things. When you knew that El Rufai, Ribadu, Ezekwesili, Charles Soludo were literally in charge and that we had an economic blueprint, for good or for bad. The important thing will be for him to pull together those kind of people, with non-partisan backgrounds that can help frame the larger issues that he needs to address. There is too much politicking and too many people holding public office concerned with running for re-election and with the other things that come with public office in Nigeria, stealing and appropriation. He has limited time and he is also a comparative newcomer in government and he needs to avail himself of all the help that is available. International conferences, all the hand-shaking with big men may be important things but they are not going to fix Nigeria. Understanding the nitty-gritty of where the fault lines are in Nigeria is the most important thing. Even if Jonathan wants to run in 2011, it will not be a complicated thing. There are certain fault lines, there are also negatives and positives about Nigeria, several constituencies that you need to get a handle of before you can aspire to the presidency. The problem of his being a newcomer, not having functioned beyond his immediate environment come into play and undid someone like Yar'Adua. When you become president you must make new friends and judge them. You award portfolios and you discover who has the competence. And he doesn’t have the time to deal with some of those issues. He needs people who are non-partisan and are not thinking about contracts or about elections.

You have said Nigeria is under civilian dictatorship, what did you mean and what prospects do you hold of it changing?

What we've had in Nigeria for the last ten years is more of the same. The same cowboys who were contractors under the military, people with military connections, many of these have navigated their way into power. We ended military rule but we still had a military head of state. General Buhari still wants to be president, General Babangida wants to be president, there are many soldiers who want to be governors, our Senate president is a retired general, etc. These things have a way of recurring. It is not easy for people who have lived all their lives in a non-democratic culture to suddenly become democratic. These are some of the demons Obasanjo had to wrestle with; in many respects he couldn’t handle opposition as the president in a democracy should. This was not about being a bad man, but could a leopard just change his skins, just like that? I made the point that when a country has gone through a dictatorship what tends to happen is that if you don't handle the thing well, you get more of the same results. The big boys of yesterday change their uniform but there is little other change. This is why in Nigeria you still have people who have been governors under the military and they are still hanging around power. Not to take anything away from them, there is a political environment where money matters and to have been in office is how people accumulated resources. It is an asymmetrical process in terms of the process of competition if people feel they can't compete without resources.

Another commission you were a member of, the Oputa Panel, was commissioned to investigate human rights abuses in Nigeria between the first coup in 1966 up until May 1999, the day before the civilians took over. Why hasn’t the report been released?

The report is out there, not released officially by government, but it is in the public domain. I am planning to publish it myself at some point. My book on the Oputa Panel is coming out this year and it throws up some of the issues and hopefully we can have more conversation around the fall-out of the commission itself.

What do you think are some of the more salient issues?

Nigeria must be very grateful. Beyond the noise, let me put that way, that is made, we really didn’t do so badly in comparison to others. I don’t want to be insensitive but when you compare what happened to other countries, our system never really spilled out of control. Even when people came with all the bad things that were said about Abacha, it’s a bit of a pity that he died because if he had been alive to deal with these things himself, there would have been a totally different outcome. Even when people came before us on the Oputa panel a lot of the things that have been in the popular imagination about the things that Abacha did, when those people were subjected to interrogation, Al Mustapha became the bad boy, a lot of the people who had cases against him (Abacha) just couldn’t prove the cases. There was a lot of exaggeration and people were not as innocent as they proclaimed to be. The two coups were denied but they were not fantasies. And in fairness to Abacha, unpopular as it may sound, but these are verifiable facts, he was the only military head of state to have tried coup plotters and not to have killed them. Not once, but twice. It’s a pity and it may be an inconvenient truth but if we were to subject a lot of things about Abacha to public scrutiny then you would be surprised about what the outcome would be.

Another commission you have been a part of is the Shell-Ogoni Reconciliation Commission. What are some of your lessons from that experience?

It’s been a very humbling experience for me. Just the fact that I have lasted for five years now and am still there. But I also learned a lot. Firstly about the possibilities in our country and the human capacity to be magnanimous. One of the challenges was how to deal with effectively getting some reconciliation. People have been gracious but perhaps the biggest achievement has been moving beyond that to the clean-up in Ogoniland. We are just concluding the technical base lines study that will enable the cleanup to commence at some point next year. To that extent it has been a successful exercise. President Yar A’dua set up an inter-ministerial committee to try and see what we are doing. The Ministers of Environment and of the Niger Delta and of Petroleum sit on our committee so our hope is that we can create a template that can be replicated elsewhere in the Niger Delta. Without sounding immodest I think we have been quite successful in the assignment.

In 2007, after you were attacked by a group. You named Ledum Mitee as being behind the attack. What is your relationship with him today?

We are together in Abuja, I have nothing personal and I don’t think he has anything personal against me. He has done a lot for his people, though we have areas of disagreement. The good thing about what happened was that coming as far as we have come, I am grateful to God that I feel 100% vindicated. The things that Ledum and others were saying, I didn’t have a problem with their objections but I said if you don’t agree or don’t understand then come to the table. We had disagreements in terms of procedures. I was not appointed by the Ogoni people but by the President and I didn’t think in conscience I had done anything untoward. Their accusations against me, spawned by Ledum and his people, were that I was probably walking on the side of Shell but as I said I feel vindicated because a lot of the things that were said were not things that were verifiable. By in large we have no personal problems. When I write my memoirs about his initiative there are a few things that I believe that will come up but for now I remain eternally grateful to God. I have stayed so long on the assignment, my predecessors were not so lucky.

Do you think Shell has done what could be expected of it in this commission?

In fairness, Shell has been 100% behind me. I think they also realised that perhaps I was the last bus leaving town. It was wise for them to try to find a seat on the bus. The technical baseline study being undertaken is being paid for by them, though perhaps not out of their pocket. Like we say in Nigeria, you catch fish out of water and then cook it with water so it is not a favor they are doing. Shell is involved in a joint venture, not a charitable organisation. Under international law they know that they have to pay for the damage that they have done to the environment. But we have had a good understanding, I was lucky that I came in at a time when Shell was in the hands of Nigerians.

Soon after the BP spill in New Mexico, Shell released documents that said that the spillage that occurred in the Delta from its operations last year was 100,000 barrels. Does that accord with your understanding?

I have no idea.

The amnesty that was one of the hallmarks of President Yar A’dua’s time in office seems to be coming apart at the seams. What do you think are the prospects for peace in the region?

The media has a way of hyping things up. To put this in context, you cannot have a bad peace or a good war. Securing peace as Yar A’dua did was unprecedented and a measure of the man. To literally go down on his knees and accommodate these people let them come into the villa, and had conversations with them, even under circumstances a lot of his lieutenants considered literally unacceptable—let us give him the appropriate commendation. Next is to appreciate that an environment of violence or injustice and it spans a long period, when it becomes a meal ticket and a basis for self enrichment, it is like fighting drugs. The crisis in the Niger Delta had become a criminal enterprise. You are dealing with people who a lot of politicians knew but no one had the courage to approach the subject head-on. You must consider, if you take this away, what will you offer in return? Yar A’dua didn’t live long enough to see through the amnesty. Even his ailment served as a drawback and those kinds of situations don’t want a vacuum. But I think it overstates the issue when people talk about the amnesty collapsing. Not everybody involved is occupying the kind of seat they would like so there will naturally be posturing. These things happen when you have a protracted war situation and it comes to an end. The assumption of office by Goodluck Jonathan should, at least symbolically, let the people of the Niger Delta know that they are in the public sphere. How they drum and how they dance is up to them. I don’t believe that anyone can improve this issue better than President Jonathan considering he is from the area. I think that people should be patient and take politics away and remember that we are dealing with issues of the survival of ordinary people.

Earlier you referred to fault lines that President Jonathan must understand. One of those fault lines in Nigeria historically has been the issue of religion, most recently in Jos. Where do you place the Jos violence in your long study of the interplay of religion, power and politics in Nigeria, particularly in the north of the country?

The conversation about religion everywhere you turn is quite complicated. You mustn’t forget that our situation in Nigeria is peculiar because so many factors are conflated. That religion developed such a sharp edge is not unconnected to the long period of military rule, in the same way that, under apartheid, religion achieved that kind of significance in the lives of people. The way the British dealt with issues of identity, ethnic, religious and so on, is still being played out in national politics. Now, if you take Islam, a lot of people mistakenly consider when you think of Islam it is the same thing but even in the days of the Jihad, when you read some of the literature you see the Borno conversation was different from the Katsina or Sokoto conversations. A lot of that has not changed. You then have the introduction of other brotherhoods, the Tijanniya, the Izala movement, and so on. Over and above that is the larger impact of international Islam with what is going on in Nigeria. There are substantial numbers of Nigerians who are in sympathy with Saudi Arabia and Iran or Libya. All these things have implications for domestic politics and for domestic Islam. People are collecting money from different parts of the world. Where they build their mosques and who worships in those mosques has an impact. There is a sense by which Nigeria continues to suffer what I would call collateral damage from conversation going on elsewhere. If you fast-forward to Jos, the picture has been slightly different. Jos became the major outpost for Christianity. Coming from Southern Nigeria it took 100 years for the missionaries to come to what is now Plateau state. Catholic missionaries activities are about 100 years in some of the major parts of the Plateau. Subsequently, the Protestants came. Consequently, Jos became like a buffer zone between the Caliphate and the rest of central Nigeria. For ordinary Christians Jos has had the sense of almost being a Mecca. In fairness to the Plateau, it is one of the most accommodating areas of Nigeria. Ibos, Yorubas, all kinds of people rose to economic and political prominence. I think what has happened in Jos, tragic as it is, must be placed in context. In my view it is a question of the failure of the architecture of governance and the lack of capacity of those in power to manage plurality. That is the only way I can put it. Part of this was triggered by Obasanjo’s misguided declaration of a state of emergency, once that happened the healing became difficult. If you take Kaduna, which was more volatile that Plateau, a much more resilient governor, with greater sensitivity and craftiness in managing differences was able to get a handle on that issue. Kaduna hasn’t had a crisis of this nature for more than seven years. It is easy to forget that the religious leaders themselves have very little to do with this crisis. What you are dealing with is the failure of law and order and with no thanks to the media and the inability of Nigerians to understand what is going on. We are dealing with issues of episodic violence that can happen anywhere and have very little to do with religion. The situation in Jos is complex but 90% of it, in my view is due to the inability of the political class to manage diversity.

What about the issue of settler and land certificates? How do you see that playing out in that mix?

In an environment that is as dysfunctional as Nigeria, naturally, a lot of this comes down to the economics. People in Plateau, as in the rest of Nigeria, have made wrong choices. Some indigenous people made some wrong choices and they may not have had their own sons and daughters rise to prominence. So 30 years ago, a piece of land sold for 100 naira has taken a completely different turn altogether. You have the same situation Lagos and in all the major cities in Nigeria. In my view it all comes down to economics. Why do we say that violence is about religion? Why is it that the violence never takes place in Victoria Island or the places where the big boys live? If it is about Muslims not liking Christians or vice versa but have you ever heard of the violence taking place in the posh parts of our cities?  If you have the resources you get the land. In my view, the issues we are dealing with are not about indigenous or settler politics, but rather about poor people venting their spleen and the politics of relative privation. The realities are slightly different, for the first time in the history of Plateau, a man who is a Birom is the governor. There will be a lot of exuberance, how will this be managed? The same is true in the Niger Delta when Goodluck Jonathan became President. It depends how they conduct themselves. People will be excited but it depends on how you manage that excitement. In my opinion, the situation in Jos hasn’t been managed properly.

In the rest of the country, what are some of the things that are going on in religion that you think are worthy of keeping an eye on?

I think there is great potential. A significant event took place on the 20th of April when the leadership of the Christian association of Nigeria organised a seminar called ‘Know your Muslim neighbour’. The Sultan of Sokoto delivered a fascinating speech that attacked the distortions that are characteristics of the relationship between politicians and the religious classes. He said clearly that he condemned the idea of people spending money on cremation, whether Muslim or Christian. This is the first time that such a serious statement had ever been made and he made his point eloquently, that religion needed to distance itself from the state in order to speak to power. Through that initiative Muslims were able to listen to what Christians thought about them. Two weeks ago I met the Sultan and after we spoke I had a call from the secretary general of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs inviting me to a meeting in Kaduna. The first meeting in the history of this Council that invited Christian leaders. These developments were unprecedented. I spoke for a few minutes and so were other Christian leaders. The realisation by religious leaders that they need to stand away from politics now means that, hopefully, we can begin to deal with some of the issues on our own before they become very complicated. Part of the difficulty we have had is that many politicians of dubious character have used religion to elongate their personal ambitions. These developments are very positive and I think that it will be a good way to insulate religion from politics.

One of the peculiar aspects of Nigeria is that it is almost evenly split between Islam and Christianity. What are some of the particular challenges that this split brings?

I was a consultant to the Vatican for 5 years and I tried to make them understand why problems arise in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims and not in Gambia or Senegal. In each of those places Muslims are either majority or an insignificant minority. Nigeria is the only country in the whole world where you have an almost equal percentage. This is why I think that we have a very special responsibility to prove that these religions can live together. Our major drawback has been the closing of the political space. The opening of this space brings its own challenges but this is the only part of the world where we have this interesting challenge. If you consider that Islam predated Christianity in some parts of Nigeria by 700 years or so, Christianity has grown enormously and has consequently generated some nervousness for many Muslims. It has become ubiquitous.

In the South West, which is one of the regions in Nigeria that is absolutely equally split, there is a quiet resurgence of Muslim politicians, for instance, with Bola Tinubu and Raji Fashola prominent politicians. What do you think of this?

The thing about Yoruba religion is that it is peculiar. The fact that the Yoruba privilege their culture over and above anything else and there are nuances in their culture that predispose them to a certain level of tolerance. They have a belief that the God you are going to worship is assigned to you at birth. It means that to quarrel with what religion I practise is to quarrel with the creator. The Yoruba feel that their culture is pre-eminent to others and they consequently feel that they are Yoruba first and religion comes second and I think that this has created the necessary space for people to relax. Why will anyone worry if Tinubu is governor, or Fashola? I wish we could replicate that template in other parts of northern Nigeria. I hope that this resurgence will bring along with it a certain accommodating spirit that can be learned from by other Muslims and demonstrating that religion ought not to be an obstacle to closer collaboration.

The resurgence should at least help to demonstrate how policies can be played. Namely that these differences ought not to be the sources of conflict. And one of the sad things that is not happening in northern Islam, which I think they can borrow from the Yorubas, is the lack of accommodation and toleration that can enable people to marry across religious divides. When I consider the fact that many Northern Muslims have married women who were not Muslims and they are living, some people who have managed to do that, those who are from around the middle belt but from the point of view of the North, the belief is that if you marry a woman who is not a Muslim then she should automatically become one. So I am hopeful that that kind of freshness about what educated people can do with religion, hopefully can have an impact on what happens in Northern Nigeria.

How much of that do you think is a feudal expression as opposed to a religious one?

I think it is actually not religion, you know, I was reading a book by Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan professor of sociology. She’s done an excellent little book on Islam and democracy and she actually makes the case, which I thought was quite fascinating, which was that it is lack of information, rather than anything else, which has made the Arab world become what it has become. Similarly, consider the level of literacy in Northern Nigeria. You can appreciate why people have not opened up to what their religion really teaches. A lot of culture is being presented as religion. I don’t think you will find that many Uruba, educated Muslims who are married to two or three wives. Polygamy is only prominent part of northern Islam and all that goes with the level of people’s literacy and their predisposition to culture. So I think that unless the North opens up and people get a bit of education and stops fearing education as a corrupting influence, we will not see the end of violence. The reason why violence remains such as major feature of religion in Nigeria is that it is not perpetrated by anybody other than this hoi polloi so to say. There is no history in the whole story of violence and which, to use a word, Christian, there is not a single conflict that has been started by what you might call the members of the Christian community. It is always, and the people who start these conflicts are not the people I like to call Muslims. I just call them miscreants, they are layabouts with no education and because of the closedness of their minds, they just don’t understand that there is another religion other than Islam.
So for me this is one of the major challenges. Right now we have more than 50m almajiris who are walking the streets in different cities in Northern Nigeria. That is a huge number of uneducated people to cope with. So for me these are some of the major challenges and it is not something that anybody else other than those who hold power in northern Nigeria can deal with.

Two questions: First, if you were a betting man, outside of everything else, who would you say is going to be the President of Nigeria come 2011?

I don’t know, and I don’t think that anybody should know.

You’ve summed up Nigeria as being like a Catholic marriage. It may not be happy but it doesn’t break up. What holds Nigeria together in your view?

Well, that saying is not original to me, it was first said by a man who is actually a Muslim. I think what holds Nigeria together, and which unfortunately, is not difficult to find when you are not looking, is the sheer resilience of it and the fact that whatever else the British may have done, I think the positives of the Nigerian project outweigh the minuses. I don’t want to sound esoteric again by talking about God’s plan and project for Nigeria. But I think that the country in terms of the sheer amount of energy and the sheer amount of human material and resources that it has must be a very special project. It is a pity that we have not had the men and women with enough vision to rise beyond the dung heap and do something more visionary. But I believe that the end of military dictatorship and the beginning of democracy, with all its foibles and so on, should set us on that road. Internet, a vision, it should hopefully replace all the semi-feudal structures that have held Nigeria down. When I talk about semi-feudal I’m not even talking about Northern Nigeria but that virus has now pervaded the entire political and economic structure. The result then is that we have imbibed an unbelievable culture of envious celebration, outright laziness, a culture of waste, which you find manifested in the endless, dubious, traditional titles that people are taking, endless awards that are given out to people in an economy and society that is not working in many respects. For me these are some of the excesses that hopefully men and women with vision and who appreciate talent can find a way of eliminating and we can move forward.