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Okey Ndibe and the Perils of Political Activism, By Uche Igwe


The recent exchanges between Professor Okey Ndibe, an intense columnist and essayist and Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, a cerebral clergyman and loquacious intellectual of Sokoto Arch-Diocese threw up issues of concern to many of us. I do not intend to respond on behalf of the scholarly Bishop. Everyone knows that he does not need my help in this regard, yet I feel a sense of duty to air my views. I have read many writings of Professor Okey Ndibe even though I am yet to meet him in person. If you read his write-ups as often as I do you will come to respect his erudition. Interestingly I share a few things in common with this man. Though I am not yet a Professor and cannot claim to have comparable writing skills, I maintain a column in the media just like Okey. We both love our country but we live abroad. I must quickly admit that many of us who found ourselves on this side have a peculiar mind-set that makes us see issues in particular ways. First is that because we live in developed countries where things are functional and we know that the resources we have in Nigeria is capable of delivering comparable levels of infrastructural development, we are angry, I mean very angry. Our anger reflects often in our writing and many people categorise us as perpetual critics who cannot offer solutions. If possible, we want Nigeria to change overnight. We are very impatient for that change. And when we express our views, we often do not care whose feathers we ruffle in the process.


Okey Ndibe

These are some of the issues that jump you when you read the response of Professor Ndibe to the lengthy and stimulating lecture delivered by Bishop Kukah during his lecture at the 80th birthday of Prof Oluwole Soyinka. For some us who study politics, we try to put everything in context. That was why when I read the two articles by these authors (the initial one Okey and the one by the Bishop), I understood their divergent messages and forgave their excesses. Yet I must describe the response by Okey Ndibe as very parochial and self-serving. He allowed himself to embark on an unjustifiable ego trip, which painted him as a sanctimonious political activist. That outburst was very unnecessary. How in this wide world could an embedded clergyman like Kukah, with defined institutional boundaries, approach a complex religious problem with the intellectual prodigality that will satiate a Professor? Had I not been an ardent reader of Okey’s column, I could have hastily accused him of some level of intellectual pretence.

The complication that had arisen from the Boko Haram insurgency have gone beyond the blame game of activists like Okey Ndibe. It is now a transnational octopus where countries like Cameroun, Niger etc. are running helter-skelter to see if a solution can be found. One will commend a clergyman for venturing to comment on such a sensitive topic no matter how tangentially. Many prominent politicians in the North have kept their studious silence. They are too petrified to utter a word. A few Muslim Clerics who courageously spoke against the insurgents were either felled by their bullets or are currently on their wanted list.

Another fact I must highlight is that as Diaspora intellectuals we are far away from the ‘action’ and our sensibilities are slightly different. There is real and spatial distance between us and the subject we often write about. Okey and I can say many things about the political issues in Nigeria and expect to get away with them. That is not so for many people especially those who live in Nigeria. If I write about Boko Haram, I tap from my knowledge as an Igbo man, who schooled partly in the South West and partly abroad. As a researcher who does not live in North and does not aspire to do so in the future, there are things I will be prepared to say. Another researcher with similar passion and information who lives in Kaduna or Damaturu will write differently. A Kukah, a Musa, a Dalyop and an Ibrahim dare not. Because these insurgents are faceless, you may never know who is a sympathizer, informant or weapon bearer. He or she may be that person that you see every day next door.

Even as a commentator, your intellectual output is undeniably shaped and influenced by your background and the institutions you represent. Okey Ndibe knows (or should know this). Matthew Hassan Kukah is first a clergyman before any other thing. He is a representative of the Catholic Church. He may be a radical but his outlook to issues must be such that they do not contradict the institution he represents. When you carefully peruse through the work of this outstanding intellectual prodigy, you will notice that he sometimes struggles- struggling between what he knows and what he is prepared or permitted to say. He is duty-bound to balance his personal views and that of his institution. As a high ranking leader of the church you will realize that when he speaks, people will often assume and rightly that it is the position of the church. As someone who is a prolific writer and eloquent speaker, and who is called upon from time to time to speak, I reckon that most his public views are personal rather than those of the church. Okey Ndibe’s critic of the Bishop overlooked these possibilities and that is why I describe it as unfair and insular.

That the issue of Boko Haram is a sensitive religious and political issue is now known to many Nigerians. Beyond this, it has also become a very touchy security one. But for providence General Muhamadu Buhari would have been caught by the inhuman weapon of these insurgents in Kaduna a few days ago. Now if that could happen to Buhari, then it means it can happen to anyone in the North. More so a Catholic priest! I will assume that Prof Ndibe posed those questions in his article with a mischievous intention to compel Bishop Kukah to respond by publicly calling the insurgents unprintable names. Really! Does the learned Professor expect the Bishop to return to Sokoto afterwards and remain alive or resort to self-help? Would the Bishop ever visit his home state Kaduna where prominent Muslim clerics have been reportedly assassinated for daring to preach against the teachings and modus operandi of the Boko Haram sect? This is where one can rightly suggest that Diaspora intellectuals like Okey might have lost touch with the gravity of the crisis.

I noticed that Okey tried unsuccessfully to portray the Bishop as a fearful government apologist. I strongly disagree. What a display of wilful professorial ignorance! I do not always agree with Bishop Kukah. He sounded very controversially political in the speech in question, as in many of his writings. For instance, his seeming comparison of Nigeria with countries like Rwanda and Uganda is offensive to me. That he chose the 80th birthday of a literary icon – someone who Prof Ndibe obviously admires– to launch frontal attacks on the later portrayed the Bishop as someone who had a grouse beyond issues contained in an article. Bishop Kukah may have not been too quick to be dismissive of the efforts of government but he has also been somewhat critical of them. Nigerians know the members of the clergy who genuflect before the government in power and how prosperous some of them have become. The Bishop of Sokoto was at least critical enough not to have been considered for a gift of private jet like others who he sarcastically referred to as the descendants of Prophet Jeroboam!

Finally, I have a brotherly counsel for the erudite Professor. He should consider resigning his current job and taking up a job in any university in Northern Nigeria. After taking the job, he should continue his tone of writings against Boko Haram for at least six months. After then we will know that he loves Nigeria as much as he professes, crown him a patriot and probably nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Until then he should stop bothering people like Bishop Kukah who are doing so much at great risk to their lives and amidst very dangerous circumstances. We should all unite to face our common enemy – bad governance, which has produced multitudes of virulent off springs, including Boko Haram.

Uche Igwe wrote from United Kingdom. You can reach him on ucheigwe@gmail.com


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