BY BISHOP MATTHEW HASSAN KUKAH
Although the words of welcome have already addressed everyone, I believe I need to explain one or two things about how we got here and how the Vice President ended up with us today.
At a chance meeting, I mentioned to him that my alma mater will be celebrating its golden jubilee and I wondered if he could honour us with his presence. He nodded without any second thoughts. Now, I am not sure how many of you know the Vice President well. No matter how little you know, one of his trademarks is his self-effacing sense of humility. He comes across as a man who is comfortable in his own skin and this is understandable.
He graduated at 22 and began teaching at 23. By 33 he had already become a Professor of Law. Many Nigerians remember 1999 as the year when Nigeria returned to Democracy. However, despite being a Professor of Law, perhaps he remembers 1999 as the year that saw him driving a new car for the first time in his life. Before then, in his words, his life had been marked by tukunbo, tokunbo and more tokunbo. That is why, he has enjoined the rest of us to imbibe his philosophy of Farabale, calm down. This is a lesson for us all.
It has already been noted that the Catholic Church in Nigeria is known for its outstanding services to humanity through education and the provision of health and other social services. Our mission has never been to merely preach the word of God and to be satisfied with people accepting our message. We continue to do a lot of good work as our records can testify, but we require greater state and federal government trust and collaboration.
The Catholic Church has centuries of experience in almost every facet of human life. Its structure for administering the Church around the entire world lays the foundation for modern day diplomacy. It was the Catholic Church that laid the foundation for modern university education. Its universality and massive networks around the entire world suggest that it would be natural for any government to seek to work closely with the Church.
Today, the Catholic Church has more presence around the world through its structures than the entire Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Over 1, 500 of our priests and reverend sisters are serving in about 70 countries around the world, from Africa, North, South and Central America to Asia and the Middle East. Our people are representing Nigeria because beyond those who go to the embassies for visas and business, very little else is known about the presence of Nigeria. But through the great work that Nigerians are performing as pastors, principals in schools, matrons, nurses and so on, millions of citizens in these countries have come in contact with Nigeria. Many of these countries have accorded citizenship, awards and decorations to our priests and reverend sisters in appreciation of their contributions to their nations. Sadly, the governments and its civil servants in the public service continue to frustrate the genuine efforts of Christian religious organisations to do good for our country.
This is why we find it very difficult to understand why some overzealous civil servants in the federal and state governments continue to undermine the work of the Church. We see this through denial facilities required to perform our functions and make our contribution both locally and internationally. When the state governments in the north deny Christians access to land for building of schools and places of worship, it violates the principles of collaboration and cooperation that underpin common citizenship.
For example, being denied access to broadcasting rights violates the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. In the end, it is the government that denies itself and its people’s opportunities to achieve what the government itself very often is unable to provide for them.
Again, the bishops of Anglophone and Francophone West Africa decided to form a common body known as the Regional Episcopal Conferences of West Africa (RECOWA), so as to help in the peace and development processes of our region. The headquarters of this organisation was first in Liberia but during the war, it was relocated to Ghana. Finally, it moved to Abuja so as to be close to ECOWAS.
Whereas the governments in Liberia and Ghana, very enthusiastically welcomed the body and offered it diplomatic facilities among others, in Nigeria, it has been an exercise of mountain climbing. We have spent over three years trying to process the same application with the federal government of Nigeria, but to no avail. Everywhere we turn, there are obstacles that only the public servants can understand. Our fellow bishops in other countries remain in shock because they cannot understand how any country would fail to appreciate this diplomatic asset.
The same public servants who enthusiastically fall over themselves to process these applications for foreign businessmen and women have all the excuses in the world when it comes to the Church.
The same body for example appointed me as their representative to ECOWAS, but after over three years, the process cannot be concluded because the federal government of Nigeria cannot address these issues. These are some of the iniquities that we need to eliminate from our lungs if our country is to breathe properly and take advantage of what the Catholic Church has to offer.
Finally, we remain appalled by the persecution that the Church faces in Nigeria today. The constant destruction of our Churches, homes and loss of lives have made Christians an endangered species in some parts of our dear country. We cannot go on like this. In his address to the Catholic bishops during the Presidential campaigns, General Buhari assured them and by extension the Nigerian Christian community of their safety and protection.
He said: “Government has no business preferring one religion to the other. The role of government is to protect lives and properties of citizens and to respect and protect their constitutional rights. One critical freedom that every government must strive to protect is the liberty for citizens to exercise their respective faiths, Christians and Muslims or others, in a lawful manner without fear or hindrance and to prosecute those who use religion as an excuse to destroy homes, schools and places of worship.
“When governments fail in that duty, they must then assist in the rebuilding of structures including destroyed places of worship and giving full restitution for lost property. We, Nigerians, are a religious people, and the burning of places of worship constitutes one of the vilest forms of abomination to all those who believe in God. It is the duty of governments to protect this important sensitivity.”
Mr. Vice President, Sir, we are deeply appreciative of your presence in our midst. It is the greatest expression of good will and we believe we can build on this. To the Governor of Plateau State, His Excellency, Barrister Solomon Lalong who has gone beyond the call of duty to reach out to his other colleagues, we are deeply appreciative. We thank him and the entire government and people of Plateau State for the energy they brought to this event.
Other governors here present, from my own state governor, Alhaji Aminu Tambuwal, the Governor of Taraba, Chief Darius Ishaku, deputy governors of Benue and Nasarawa states, we thank you for your solidarity with us.
Finally, our teachers who laid the foundation and have and taught us so well, we hope we have lived up to your dreams. His Grace, Archbishop Kaigama will return to the podium to give a vote of thanks. Let me not enter into his territory. Once more thank you all very much and may God bless us all.
Being a welcome address by Bishop Matthew Hassan KUKAH at the Golden Jubilee Celebration of St. Augustine’s Major Seminary, Jos on Thursday, May 4, 2017.