Text of a Sermon preached at the Burial of His Lordship Bishop Joseph Danlami Bagobiri, Bishop of the Catholic Bishop of Kafanchan on Thursday, 15th March, 2018 by Most Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese.
I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war (Ps.120:7)
When my metropolitan Archbishop, Matthew Ndagoso called to tell me that roles had been assigned ahead of the funeral of our brother Bishop Joseph Danlami Bagobiri and that I had been assigned the role of preacher for this Mass, I knew I did not have an opinion in the matter. In a way, I could probably fall back on the fact that apart from members of his immediate family and close friends, I have known the late Bishop Bagobiri the longest compared to almost everyone here.
As a Deacon in 1975, I was assigned to St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, Kakuri to do undertake the last phase of my pastoral work ahead of my ordination. I made friends but three or four stood out and one of them was Mr. David Bagobiri. We had struck a good relationship because he was a very active member of the parish. (Today, thanks be to God, his son, John, is a priest of the Diocese of Kafanchan and is likely to be one of the Masters of Ceremonies here). After my ordination, I was sent back to Kaduna to work as an Assistant to an old Irish man, the late Fr John Lee. Mr. Bagobiri remained a central figure in the parish.
One day, after Mass, Mr. Bagobiri approached me and introduced a young man to me. This is my junior brother, and his name is Joseph. He has just finished Secondary school and he says he wants to be a priest like you. I shook hands with the young man and asked him to come and see me the next day, Monday. He came early in the morning and told me he wanted to become a priest but did not know how to go about. He said he had finished from a Secondary school and not a Minor Seminary. I asked him the usual questions and more or less satisfied myself that he should be encouraged to apply to the Archdiocese of Kaduna as a Seminarian. Incidentally, I was the Vocations Director. The rest, as they say, is history. We had mutual respect for one another. That I should be standing here to preach at his funeral is an honour I cannot take lightly.
For most of you here in the audience, you may recall that the last time I stood before a huge gathering of this nature to undertake the same assignment was at the funeral of the late Sir, Patrick Yakowa, and Governor of Kaduna State on December 21st, 2012. I am told that till date, members of the Kaduna mafia have not been able to live down the contents of the sermon. Yet, then as now, they did not dispute the evidence I presented. Today, that Kaduna has become an open sore of injury and pain that it is the most divided and volatile state in Nigeria is the result of the seeds of disunity sowed in the corrosive legacy of the policies of exclusion that the mafia sowed. We are sadly still not out of the woods yet.
Today is a special day for Southern Kaduna people and the people of the state as a whole. It is a day of reckoning. It is as much a day of sowing as a day of reaping. It is a day of promise and a day of hope. The mixed nature of our gathering suggests very clearly that this is not an ordinary funeral ceremony.
Certain burials make certain demands. They set the records of history straight. They create an urgency of now. No one should expect that the burial of someone like Bishop Joseph Bagobiri should be a simple ceremony of burying a Bishop. If it were so, the Bishops could have buried their brother and returned to their Dioceses. But, these are no ordinary times in Nigeria and my sermon will draw from both Scripture and the streets.
Our gathering here is beyond the ritual of a burial. We are gathered for a memorial, a celebration, and a festival, even a carnival. We are gathered here not as mourners with tears of sorrow in our eyes. We are gathered as men and women joyous in hope and praise. We are not gathered in tribulation, but in confident optimism. We do not feel a sense of loss and defeat, but no, rather a sense of exultant triumph of the risen Lord. There are no mourners and sympathisers here. All of us, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Men, Women, young and old, are gathered united as family. We are gathered here as a company of witnesses to celebrate a great man, a warrior, a statesman, and a brave and fearless man. St. Paul says: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Heb. 12:1).
At no time is the beauty and essence of Christianity better manifested than at a funeral. During it, we Christians celebrate the assurance of our faith, we re-enact the essence of our faith. We celebrate the assurance that for the Christian, the future after death is not the subject of speculation, fear or uncertainty. No other faith in the entire world speaks with the certainty of Christianity about life after death. Our hope is anchored on testable, verifiable evidence of Scripture that after His crucifixion and death, Jesus rose from the dead. The event so confused the authorities of the time that they had to resort to bribing the guards they had placed on the tomb to deny that he had risen (Mt. 28: 12).
What we are celebrating today is the promise the promise of Scripture that for us, as with Christ, the tomb is not a final resting place. It is a departure lounge for a journey to eternity. Jesus said: I have gone to prepare a place for you so that where I am, you too may be (Jn. 14:3). We are celebrating the hope that Bishop Bagobiri is a beneficiary of this promise. Therefore, as St. Paul said, with such thoughts as these, let us console one another with the same consolation that we ourselves have received from God ( 2 Cor. 1:4).
As it is with the history of our faith, these are no easy times to be a Christian anywhere in the world especially here in Nigeria. There is staggering but also verifiable evidence that Christians are today the most persecuted set of people anywhere in the world. Today, Christians are still faced with the challenges of proclaiming their Gospel in an environment that remains quite hostile to this Message. Yet, as St. Paul said to Timothy: We must preach the Gospel, welcome or unwelcome (2 Tim. 4:2).
Jesus lived and taught His followers a message that broke barriers and changed the course of human history. It was intolerable language then and it is still so today (Jn. 6:56). He message stood against everything that the world thought rational and reasonable. Imagine these texts: Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are you when men abuse and persecute you (Mt. 5:3). If you are slapped on one cheek, turn the other (Lk. 6:29). Love and pray for your enemies (Mt. 5:44). Give everyone that asks, if they steal your tunic, give them your coat (Mt. 5:40). Do not keep a record of offences, and forgive one another seventy times seven times (Mt. 18:22).
Bishop Bagobiri’s life was an effort at managing these conflicting demands in a society that had become violently opposed to both the principles of Christianity and those of natural justice. It is impossible to speak about Bishop Bagobiri without paying attention to the circumstances that provided a context for his rage, frustration and sense of moral revulsion and indignation. Like the rest of us, he had his tempers, but like Jesus, the injustice and corruption in the society exacerbated his sorrow. His frustration occurred in an environment of death, destruction and vulnerability of ordinary people. His anger had context.
Things in Southern Kaduna came to a head in the Southern Kaduna after the crisis of Zangon Kataf. Sadly, through what an author has called, the act of judicial terrorism that was the trial of General Lekwot and his kinsmen, the drift became more palpable. That trial will go down in history as one of the most gruesome abuses of judicial processes in history. In the end, true leadership failed to find lasting ways of healing our people and so our people in Kaduna became more divided both physically and psychologically. The people of Southern Kaduna took stock of their verifiable sacrifices and contribution to the development of the north and Kaduna state, their massive contribution in the civil war. They had reaped very little by way of benefits and inclusion.
Their perceived alienation and exclusion from the levers of power was palpable and clearly deliberately crafted. By the late 70s and to the 90s an array of very well educated elite had emerged across Southern Kaduna. There were thousands of eminently qualified graduates covering all fields of education. Naturally, with this quality of education, people were bound to think differently about their rights and their place in the society in which they lived.
After nearly thirty years of the creation of their state, none of them had occupied the seat of a Governor. None had qualified to represent the State as a Minister. They looked around and found a land barren of both federal and state government presence. There were no state television signals as we had to rely on Plateau State television for media coverage. There were no roads, not a single industry sited anywhere in the state. A highly educated work force became impatient with this perceived injustice to exclude them from power.
It would take a combination of President Obasanjo and Alhaji Makarfi to change the course of the history of the people of Southern Kaduna. It was in 1999 that Senator Isaiah Balat was appointed a Minister to represent Kaduna State. Even then, the key northern Muslims protested saying that Senator Balat was a Christian not a northerner. Then came the historic appointments of both Lt. Generals Martin Luther Agwai and Yusuf Luka to the positions of Chief of Army Staff and for Agwai, Chief of General Staff. When I met President Obasanjo and thanked him for this, he said to me: There is nothing to thank me for. These two gentlemen were the best, they had the best career records and so we did not do them a favour. I felt sorry for General Obasanjo because he did not seem to understand that in the eyes of the mafia, merit, excellence, competence, were tied to religion and region and that in our case, being a Christian excluded you from certain positions.
Alhaji Makarfi did for the people of Southern Kaduna what no one had had time to do for them. He created a massive infrastructure of rural roads and opened up Southern Kaduna. For that period, most of our quarrels and violence literally disappeared, thus, showing very clearly that it was government policies of exclusion that were the problem, not ordinary people. Indeed, our people have lived together and continue to do so. What we call crisis is reaction to skewed government policies and the records are very clear.
My point is that these circumstances of perceived and clear exclusion raised the volume of Bishop Bagobiri’s voice. This should not be seen as a sign of weakness. Rather, it comes with the calling. Moral revulsion leads a leader to rebellion. All you need to do is look at the prophets of old right up to John the Baptist. It was moral revulsion that led Jesus to whip the traders in the temple. It was what led Prophet Mohammed and Dan Fodio to revolt. History has not changed and nearer home we have evidence. It is the politicians who panic in the face of the uncomfortable message of a prophet. That is why John the Baptist had to die.
Politicians are often fond of praising Church leaders especially when they are in opposition, in exile or are victims of state repression. Church leaders are praised for being voices of the voiceless, standing for justice, courageous etc.
When things change and the opposition politician of yesterday gets to power, they expect you in their pocket. You raise the same issues and they accuse you of supporting the opposition, hating our government, standing in our way, being a danger to the nation etc. People like us know this only too well. I recalled one incident when I criticized Obasanjo in a lecture and two weeks later, I was in the Villa for a meeting. One of the Ministers saw me and said to me: You have access to Baba, so why do you have to criticize him in public? I looked at him and said: I had access to Abacha but we still had to fight for his freedom. The late Cardinal Archbishop of Recife, Helder Camara said it all: When I feed the poor, the politicians say I am doing God’s work. When I ask why the people are poor, the politicians say I am a Communist. It was the excesses of the government against the poor that drove Oscar Romero from being a rather Conservative Bishop to a radical. It is the corrosive impact of Communism and its dehumanizing influence that drove Pope John Paul to take up the cause of overthrowing Communism as the Pope. The excesses of the Marcos regime against the people of the Philippines led Cardinal Sin to take to the streets of Manila rather than remain in comfort of his Cathedral. The degrading influence of Racism on black people was what led the Rev. Martin Luther King to the streets of Alabama, New York, Washington and the entire country. In his famous, I have a Dream Speech, he said that America had failed to deliver to the black people the promises contained in their own Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He said injustice was synonymous with a bounced cheque and concluded that African Americans would never accept the idea that the bank of opportunity had insufficient funds!
What took Archbishop Tutu to the streets of South Africa and around the world? Was it not the ravages of apartheid clearly shown in the killings and destructions in Guguletu, Soweto and other South African cities? Why did Nigerians clap each time the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Communiques were read in the Churches during the Abacha era? Clearly, any religious leader that stands aside in the face of tyranny, oppression, and injustice is traitor.
For the better part of the last three years, Southern Kaduna was at best an inferno of pain, suffering and death. Death and destruction by mysterious killers became the daily menu of Southern Kaduna. In village after village, innocent men, women, children, the lame and the invalids were put to the sword. Farm after farm was destroyed with a vengeance that was unprecedented and with no clear provocations. Community life of harmony collapsed with accusations and counter accusations. Entire villages became ruins over night and the landscape of graves dotted everywhere.
Amidst this, life was gradually becoming nasty, brutish and short.
These are the circumstances that provoked a change of tone in Bishop Bagobiri. With Southern Kaduna having become one huge Bantustan of government neglect, with no media signals from the Centre, how was the world to know what was happening to his people?
Every crisis is an opportunity for the qualities of leaders for fairness and equity to be tested. It is a pity that the government of Kaduna rather than dialogue with both the traditional and religious leaders, resorted to accusations, threats and in some cases, outright blackmail. No matter the challenge, in moments of crisis, a good leader will find some backroom channels across the divide. But rather, Southern Kaduna was left to fester with the crisis cheaply presented as a conflict between Christians and Muslims. Yet, the truth is that whether you are a Muslim or Christian in Southern Kaduna, the fact remains that there are no good roads, no running water, no electricity, no factories, nothing. Yet, it was easy to divide and distract our people by creating the impression that somehow, we had a conflict between Christians and Muslims.
Perhaps, let me use this opportunity to place my own experience in context. Many people, including Bishop Bagobiri wondered why I had stayed quiet over the killings in Southern Kaduna and we spoke about these things. I told him that I had opted for a different approach to the crisis for two reasons. First, it was his territory and I believed he was the man on the spot and secondly, I thought the times called for some level of diplomacy which I believe is key to resolving conflict based on my own theoretical and practical experiences.
After Christmas last year, I decided to spend about a week in my village to get a sense of the crisis. In the course of my break, I told the Agwom Akulu that I wanted to visit the Fulani settlement in Laduga because I wanted some first hand idea of what was going on because I had never been to the place. We were very well received by the Ardo. Strange enough, while we were talking in his palace, my phone rang and it was the Sultan of Sokoto calling from Saudi Arabia. I told him where I was and he was shocked. What took you there, he asked. I put the phone on speaker and allowed him to speak to his Fulani brothers as I told him. They were all very excited to hear him. I Next, I decided to briefly visit the Chiefs of Kamantan, Bajju, Kagoro, Atyap and the Emir of Jema’a just to get a sense of the temperature. I was struck by what I heard from these traditional rulers independently. Each one of them said that they were all living in peace before the killings started and that they are working hard to ensure that the Fulanis remain because this is home for them. Not one single traditional ruler in Southern Kaduna told me that he had a problem with any Fulani man. I sat with the Emir of Jema’a, asked him if he felt vulnerable, being surrounded by others different from him but he told me clearly that he was happy and had no problems with anyone.
I returned to Sokoto and armed with this information, I decided to approach General Abdusalam, the Chairman of the National Peace Committee of which I am the Convener. I tried to convince him about the urgency of the Peace Committee stepping into Southern Kaduna. We spoke to the Sultan, Cardinal and other members and everyone believed that a visit to Southern Kaduna would be important. General Abdusalam undertook to seek an appointment with the Governor and finally led a delegation of the Peace Committee to a meeting with the Governor. We wanted to hear from the Governor. Essentially, the thrust of his comment was the fact that he was determined to end impunity and that for years, people had got away with so much. I was taken aback by his combative mood and worried if he really and truly understood the issues.
I had already got the General Abdusalam to agree that after seeing the Governor, we would go into Southern Kaduna and he agreed. So, I followed up with meetings with a cross section of traditional rulers from Southern Kaduna to prepare the ground for the visit by the Committee. They were quite enthusiastic and the State Government gave us the necessary co-operation. Before the meeting, I went to the Emir of Jema’a again and asked him where he felt he would want the meeting to take place. He told me it really did not matter to him but that their meetings as traditional rulers were often held in the palace of the Chief of Kagoro who is their Senior. I asked him if he would be comfortable with the meeting holding there and he said yes. We did hold the meeting and he attended. It was a great meeting. Next, we went on to Kafanchan same day and met with a cross section of leaders from Civil Society groups, CAN, JNI, etc. Everyone was quite delighted and offered very useful suggestions.
The NPC returned to Abuja, appraised its experiences and submitted a written report to the Governor. After over one year, later, the NPC received no official response from the State Government. It would not have been necessary to make this case but for the fact that there is need to set the records straight and respond to the allegations made by the Governor against religious and traditional leaders to the effect that they were somehow part of the problem. He may be right but the evidence before me leads to a different conclusion.
In his television programme on Channels Television during the crisis, the Governor of Kaduna State leveled two accusations against religious leaders whom he accused of selling a narrative what he called, a policy of exclusion.
According to him, in his own words, these religious leaders wanted only people of a particular indigenous or religious group to live in parts of Southern Kaduna. Secondly, he said that some Church leaders had collected money from missionaries abroad to bury their dead and to rebuild thousands of Churches that had been destroyed. I am not sure which religious leaders he was speaking of, but at least the two most prominent religious leaders in Southern Kaduna would be Bishop Bagobiri and the Emir of Jema’a. It is interesting that when the interviewer pressed the Governor for evidence on the grave and damaging allegations he had made against these leaders, he seemed rattled and simply said the security agencies were gathering the information and that people will soon be prosecuted. Elections are coming and still we have not commenced prosecution.
As I have said encounter and experience with both the Emir of Jema’a and Bishop Bagobiri led me to a totally different conclusion. The Emir of Jema’a called me a day after Bishop Bagobiri died. I was struck by the fact that rather than condole with me, he spoke of the loss of our dear brother, a good man, a friend and so on. It was a common loss for us. Southern Kaduna had been tensed and volatile, but I do know that both men had worked closely and were pained by the unnecessary losses of lives, violence and destruction. They deserved commendation not condemnation.
By his own admission, the Governor says that a thousand churches had been destroyed in Southern Kaduna and that people had lost their lives. His one grouse was that these leaders were collecting money from good wishers abroad to bury their people. This was a clear case of self-indictment by the Governor. First, did he expect that the people of Southern Kaduna would wait for him to come and supervise the mass burials of their people after burying the Shiites in mass graves? By casting aspersion on missionary assistance, the Governor betrays a troubling ignorance of the causes of the crises we have faced. The work of missionaries may be a problem for him today, but for the people of Southern Kaduna, the message of Christ is steeped in their blood. Without the missionaries, they would be no better than slaves, mere beasts of burden. Without the missionaries, the history of northern Nigeria would pathetic and the region would still be in the dark ages. We in Southern Kaduna are proud of our Christian heritage. We will live by it, die for it if need be, but we are going nowhere. We are free citizens and not in bondage to anyone or institution.
We are proud of the freedom they gave us. They gave us a message of liberation, voice and the promise of a new life. The people of Southern Kaduna have embraced this gospel with its promise of a full life. There is neither retreat nor surrender because this is the faith of our fathers. It is given us the tools, the courage and the confidence we require to take our rightful place in our society.
Apart from the Barewa College, which other prominent institution in Kaduna state does not owe its origin to the missionaries? All the so-called Government schools in Kaduna State are products of the criminal and unjust take over of missionary schools by government. Sample the list of these schools: St. John’s College Kaduna, St. Paul’s, Wusasa, St. Enda’s Teachers’ College, Zaria, Mary’s College Fadan Kaje, St. Louis, Zonkwa, Sacred Heart Women Teachers’ College, Kaduna, St. Anne’s Primary School, Queen of Apostles College, Kaduna, College of Mary Immaculate, Kafanchan, the ECWA Girls School in Kwoi, among many others. That you have repainted a stolen car does not make it your own.
Let me return to the issues of the day and try to end. Our country is in very serious crisis, the type of which we have never seen before. Death, destruction and destitution have become our lot and nowhere is this more expressed than in northern Nigeria. Today, Boko Haram and the herdsmen and farmers clashes are phenomena that are peculiar to the north and Islam. We cannot run away from this. It is sad that the northern Muslim elite has used religion to hold on to power to the detriment of even their own people and the larger society. For despite holding power for all these years, the north is still the poorest part of the country, nearly 15m Muslim children are on the streets with no future in sight, we are, as the Governor of Borno would say, the poster child of poverty.
The world is changing and we have a country to build. Even Usman Dan Fodio said that a society can live with unbelief, but no nation can survive with injustice.
Bishop Bagobiri lived at a time when clearly, the foundation of unity and justice in Kaduna in particular and Nigeria in general seemed threatened. At Christmas last year, he appealed to his people to remain firm. He said in a message on December 24th, 2017: Despite the many constraints in the area of security; the growing debilitating poverty; un-precedent corruption and the piles of lies being bombarded on us daily, the word of the Lord exhorts to be consoled and remain steadfast for the Lord’s visitation has come. As it is said, luxury and lies have huge maintenance cost, but truth and simplicity are self maintained without any cost. We should be consoled for Christ has visited his people. God in Christ is born to us in Nigeria today. Nigeria would be renewed from its current decay and recapture its lost glory again.
No religious leader worth his salt can stand by in the face of visible injustice. It will be a mortal sin. In 1878, Abraham Lincoln delivered what has come to be known as the house divided speech. America was on the verge of breaking up and he insisted that this must not happen. He said: I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
The people of Southern Kaduna have suffered the injustice of deliberate exclusion from all the rungs of local and national politics. They have got to where they are now by the sweat of their brow. We do not ask for pity or sympathy from anyone. We have come so far, not through the state but in spite of the state in northern Nigeria. That is why, as you leave this stadium, whether you are going to Abuja, Jos, or Kaduna, please look left and right and note if you will see one single federal or major State government structure on the high way. All the structures you see as you drive along are the result of the sweat from the brow of our people. The federal and state governments are absent.
Bishop Bagobiri was in the middle of all this. He was a great pastor, a builder of human capital. He took over a very rural Diocese with 19 Parishes drawn from Jos and Kaduna Archdioceses. Today, he has 53 Parishes and about 120 Priests. Today, he has some of the best-trained priests in Nigeria and abroad. It is time for them to step up to make the required sacrifice to sustain his legacy. He made his contribution in the development of Southern Kaduna by trying to close the gap left by the neglect of the state and federal governments. He founded a Female Religious Congregation, a Monastery and a Tertiary institution, the St. Albert Institute. He deserves our appreciation and commendation. In real life, he had difficulties with many people including his colleagues. He was a man of strong convictions and very often, his convictions tended to blind him to other opinions, but he was deep down an honest man. But, at heart, he was perhaps a victim of his own convictions and honesty. Thankfully, he had the chance to make peace with most of the constituencies he felt he had wronged. We sat beside one another when he suddenly turned up at the last Bishops’ Conference.
We thank God that it all ended so well for him.
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, PhD, is the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria.