Christmas is here. Let us all rejoice and be glad. Christmas is not just a date on our calendar. Christmas defies a calendar or dates. Christmas is our life. Christmas is ever present with us. After all, the one whom we celebrate is called, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Christmas is a celebration. In our daily lives, despite the hardships and disappointments, the threats and the insecurity, the failure of our government and the ongoing corruption, we celebrate in faith and joy because we know that God is with us.
We pause and think about Mary, our blessed Mother. We consider the circumstances around her at that time. With no notification, an Angel appeared before her, and gave her the kind of news that really did not make sense. She was understandably deeply troubled by this message and in response, when she recovers her composure, she said: How can this be since I have known no man? The Angel tells her that the Holy spirit will descend upon her but she does not know how. Yet, she makes a total submission, places her fears, doubt, uncertainty, before the feet of the Angel and said: I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done as you have said. Like Mary, we in Nigeria today are reminded to remain steadfast in our faith, despite our fears, and like her we sing those timeless words of the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord. God has done great things for us. God’s mercy rests with those who fear Him. God hates pride so he scatters all those who are proud of heart. God casts down the mighty from their thrones while raising up those who are lowly. God is merciful and hates pride.
In Nigeria today we bear scars, we bear trauma, we bear deep sorrow today. Our children are still in the forests, in the hands of evil men. But most of them have no names. They are only numbers. Still, let us not give up. Let us not be afraid. Let us, like our mother, meditate over all these things and await the Lord’s doing. Be vigilant. This is the last Christmas for this present government’s administration. Let us all do our duty as we have a chance to choose new leaders. Do not be cynical. God is not done with us. Choose leaders who, in your view will love us, will care for us, will cry with us, will laugh with us. Look ahead and do not look back.
Mary magnified God in many exemplary ways. By saying Yes, she placed an absolute irrevocable trust in God to perfect what she did not understand. She treasured all of this in her heart (Lk. 2: 19). What are the lessons that we take away from here, and what lessons might our leaders and all Nigerians take? The first lesson is that everything God gives us is a free gift. Receiving freely means we cannot turn it into an object of self-glorification. We are empty vessels for without God, we can do nothing (Jn. 15: 5). Christmas gives us an opportunity to magnify the Lord because it marks the beginning of the mission of Jesus into the world. The mission begins with the message of peace to all men and women of good will (Lk. 2:14).
The world, including our country, is under God’s gaze. Yes, it is difficult to be calm in a tumultuous environment like ours. We are in a society where the roads are so crooked no one knows the road to the market of honesty. We are in a world of falsehood where everyone is looking for a godfather. But we do not fear because the Lord is with us (Ps. 41:10). Our names are written on the palm of God’s hand (Is 49:16). Let us never forget that our God is a provider. Like our Mother Mary, God wants us to surrender our hearts so that we can effectively magnify His greatness to the world through our weak lungs and through our free and democratic actions and commitment.
Although the responses to my Messages suggest that, generally, Nigerians listen to our voices in the wilderness. However, the deliberate culture of pauperization and destitution of our people continues. So, we need a change of strategy so that we can turn a new page. We need a new strategy to confront those who sit on the throne of power in arrogance and are determined to reduce our country to a jungle. We need a new strategy that separates men and women of honour from those who have chosen dishonour. We need a new strategy that provides a clearer moral guide for ordinary citizens who, based on the moral strength of culture and religion, are seeking to build a good society, even if with straws. We need to stand up and stand firm. We need new mechanisms for saying no to the violence of governance.
A caste system has emerged in our country. It has consolidated its hold and blunted the cutting edge of all institutions. A majority of its children are swimming against the tide for survival with no support while the other caste smiles in the comfort of their life jackets. How did caste emerge in our country? In her ground breaking book, the American writer, Isabel Wilkerson, puts it so succinctly when she said: The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power, which groups have it and which groups do not. Black Americans responded to caste by founding, Black Lives Matter movement. We need to rally together to destroy those who have institutionalised a caste system in our societies because every life matters.
Unable to diagnose the causes of the dimunisation and the ruination of their identities, Nigerians have come to a conclusion: something must be wrong with us as a people. It is as if Dante Alighieri had Nigeria in mind when he warned in his timeless Poem, The Inferno, Abandon hope all who enter here! We keep asking questions in Seminars, Conferences and Committees as to why we are unable to progress, but nothing ever happens. Why has progress eluded us? Who would have imagined, after listening to the Campaign speeches ahead of the 2015 elections, the new President’s inaugural speech, that we will be so worse off than we were? Yet, it could get even worse if we do not pause and pause very seriously.
In my Easter Message last year (April 4, 2021), titled, Before Our Glory Departs, I drew attention to the urgent need for us to reclaim our glory because it was slipping away from our hands. Before our eyes, the notion of patriotism was becoming alien in the minds of our young people. Before our eyes, the capital letters that spelt Nigeria are falling to the pressures and irruptive forces of primal ethno-religious nationalisms. Before our eyes, a dubious jihadist culture has held our nation to ransom with the government simply looking away.
I have listened as the President’s Friday men, wearing their laurels won from chasing shadows, have accused me of attacking the President, or not being a patriot. Some even went to the length of accusing me of being against Islam or the north. The important thing is that none of my critics has quarreled with my facts. If they accuse me of stating inconvenient facts/truths, then, they can at least give the facts their interpretations. For example, who will quarrel with the fact that our glory has departed as a country? Where is our voice respected today even within the African continent which looks up to us for leadership? Unless we count lining up behind others for handshakes across Europe and America as achievements, we will be remiss not to worry about our declining global influence. Is being the poverty capital of the world and one of the most violent states in the world an achievement? And our suffocating internal and international debts? And you do not think our glory has departed?
Clearly, in almost every department and with all indicators, our nation has become a tale of two cities. We have wars between the rich and the poor, men and women, across generations, along party lines, social classes, religion, ethnicity and so on. The centre has given up in almost every department. Fixing our country and getting it back requires courage, honesty, truth, humility, trust and firm commitment. Lies and blackmail are no substitute.
In the light of this, I wish to appeal to all Nigerians who have been given custody of our public trust and commonwealth to rise up to the duties for which they have been so handsomely rewarded. Those holding elective office must appreciate that they have not been entrusted with the keys of our commonwealth just so they can turn it into their private money machines. History will record them and their roles, how they used the great opportunity God gave them among millions of other citizens to witness to Him and to do good. I therefore, on behalf of myself and millions of my fellow country men, women, children, those enslaved by bandits, victims of forced marriages, forced conversions, make the following appeal:
To President Muhammadu Buhari, President and Commander in Chief.
Mr. President Sir, a merry Christmas to you and your entire family. I speak for myself and Nigerians when I say, We thank God that He mercifully restored you to good health. We know that you are healthier now than you were before. We can see it in the spring in your steps, the thousands of miles you have continued to cover as you travel abroad. May God give you more years of good health. However, I also wish that millions of our citizens had a chance to enjoy just a fraction of your own health by a measurable improvement in the quality of health care in our country. It is sad that despite your lofty promises, you are leaving us far more vulnerable than when you came, that the corruption we thought would be fought has become a leviathan and sadly, a consequence of a government marked by nepotism. In my Christmas Message last year, I pointed out the fact that you had breached the Constitution by your failure to honour and adhere to the federal character provisions of our Constitution. The evidence is all before us all.
I want to commend you however, for the efforts you have made in the area of infrastructure. There has been a measurable improvement in the landscape especially in the area of roads. I commend you for the efforts and honesty of seeking to end malfeasance in the electoral processes and your courageous support for the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. Am I to believe that you knew and could do nothing about the Muslim-Muslim ticket within your Party? Still, we pray for a free, fair and credible election. Since this is your last dance, I do wish you a merry Christmas. Next year, as your Bishop, I will endeavour to visit you in Daura to catch up on outstanding Tithes and other duties you owe your Diocese.
To all the Members of the political class, a happy Christmas. You are seeking power at a time that the nation is in severe distress. You must demonstrate that you grasp the length and breathe of the problems that our country faces. We have heard your promises, but we do know that promises before elections are sweet, but actions after elections are often bitter. I plead with you to co-operate and collaborate with institutions which are tasked with the responsibilities for these elections, INEC, the Security agencies, thee National Peace Committee, civil society organisations and the entire people of Nigeria. We are already overwhelmed by violence and our future hangs in a balance. Do not further fan the embers of hatred and divisions. Seek to create a vision that can unite our country. Learn the mistakes of the past especially in the areas of managing our diversity and designing and effective mechanism for power sharing. Nepotism is a cancer which has consumed us in the last few years. We have paid the price of nepotism entrusting power into the hands of mediocres who operate as a cult and see power purely as an extension of the family heirloom.
To those who have returned from captivity and those still in bondage.
For you, dear brothers and sisters, we thank God that you are alive having suffered for being in Nigeria. May God the restorer heal you wholly and grant you the spirit of forgiveness. He kept you alive for a purpose. Know that his plans can never be frustrated. May he save you from further danger and harm. Some of you escaped to freedom, others after heavy ransoms had been paid by families. May God rebuild your lives and grant rest to those who did not return. They did not die in vain. I wish you and your families a merry Christmas.
To all who are still in captivity especially for their faith in Christ, whether you are reading this or not, you have been the standard bearers of our faith. Those who conceived the evil of your captivity and forced marriages and conversions will answer to the just judge. Even if you do not hear us, our prayers are with you always. In the end, the righteous will triumph. I wish you who are held against your will a merry Christmas. Please stay strong.
Finally, to us religious leaders in Nigeria. In the last few years, we have seen a lot of effort in the area of interreligious dialogue. However, for dialogue to be meaningful, we need some firm and honest commitment. We need to see visible fruits of respect and we must also try to show this in practical terms. Amidst the growing concerns about the relationship between Christians and Muslims, the situation in Nigeria remains tied to political manipulation of the levers of power and favours by the political elite. We leaders need to demonstrate our honesty openly to our people by finding common lines of joint action among ourselves. Common projects such as exchange visits to our places of worship can inspire confidence.
Over the years, Pope Francis has built on the tremendous work undertaken by his predecessors to increase the tempo of dialogue with Islam in concrete terms. For example, the Pope Francis has travelled to Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco and Palestine. He has carried with him the message of peace, love, security, urgency of dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths. In his visits, we have seen the fruits of sincere dialogue and leadership. These visits are deepening trust and pushing back the extremists in our midst. Let us take a few examples.
Today, Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has made unprecedented progress in creating religious harmony with Christians. In 2019, he built a massive Cathedral in Cairo known as the Cathedral of the Nativity for the Christian community. He has attended Masses with Pope Tawadros in Cairo. He has opened up Parliament to Christians and Women. On December 9, last year, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia was opened in the United Arab Emirate. This has opened the way for the friendship and collaboration between Pope Francis and the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar University, Shaikh Ahmed Al Tayeb. As a result of their work on human fraternity, the United Nations has now declared February 4, the World Friendship Day.
In 2005, I was part of a Vatican delegation to Qatar when that country opened up relations with the Vatican. We were presented with a plan for the building of a Catholic Church by the government. Genuine progress among religions is determined by the honesty of the religious and political leaders. When a religious or political leader openly stands with the Other in moment of violence or open discrimination, he sends out a signal of solidarity. Our festivals offer us opportunities to go beyond the perfunctory greetings to open personal visitations and worshipping together. But, when a leader prevaricates in the area of solidarity for fear of his people, he appeases and feeds the extremists and fanatics.
Finally, we have a chance to renew our faith and hope in Nigeria. Let us seize it in the upcoming elections so that our nation can breathe again. Examine the leaders and assess their honesty. Do not be carried away by promises or even claims of past records. Even the best leader has to be engaged. We have not engaged this government out of malice. We have done so out of a sense of duty, to ensure that our glory does not depart. Let us all sign on to participating fully and delivering free and peaceful elections as a foundation for a new dawn for our country. The world is waiting for Nigeria. The unborn are waiting for a new country. Go, brothers and sisters, go, magnify the Lord. Be happy because God is with us. Merry Christmas to you all.
By Bishop Kukah, Bishop of Sokoto Diocese.