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Bishop Kukah- The Uncle behind the Cassock, By Udo Jude Ilo

Fr. Dominic called my phone with a sense of panic. From his tone, you would assume that he had seen a ghost. “Bishop Kukah just called me. He said he is coming to baptize your daughter in my parish. You should have told me earlier. This is Bishop Kukah we are talking about”. Fr. Dominic, my Parish Priest in Galadima, Gwarinpa Abuja was obviously unhappy. This was not the kind of surprise any young priest wants to get early in the morning. Bishop Kukah had called the priest for permission to perform the rite of baptism for my daughter in his Parish. I too received a similar call days before from Bishop. He had called to congratulate the family on the birth of our daughter and then informed me that he would want to come personally from Sokoto to Abuja to baptize her. I was speechless. The rite of baptism is an important but yet a simple ceremony in the Catholic church often performed by priests in their parishes. For a Bishop to travel from Sokoto to Abuja to perform this ceremony was an honor beyond words. But that is Bishop Kukah for you. He treats you like you are the most important person in the world. It doesn’t matter your class or station.

My family was recovering from a life altering tragedy following the loss of our daughter. Bishop’s trip to Abuja for my newborn’s baptism was a gesture of care and support. It was an inexplicable fatherly love and compassion that had me in tears. I recall him telling me “We are with you and God is with you”. Kukah translates the biblical injunction of “love your neighbor” into the tangible examples of empathy, sacrifice, generosity of spirit and humility. His life is a living testament to the gospel of service and humanity. His interest in people is unpretentious in its sincerity and his loyalty to friendship is uniquely genuine.

Bishop Kukah has been a constant in my family in a way that surprises and humbles me at the same time. I recall when I turned 40 in 2017. I had called Bishop to let him know that my family was hosting an event for me. Bishop was traveling on that date and sent his regrets. Imagine my surprise when his assistant called me and informed me that Bishop Kukah was in front of my gate. Apparently, Bishop Kukah cut his trip short, flew into Abuja at night and managed to show up at this event. He came bearing a present- A papal blessing that has since taken up the most prestigious spot in my living room. Many ‘unimportant’ people like myself have similar tales of his Lordship going out of limb to show up at family anniversaries, to stop to check up on their kids in school or to be there in their difficult times. With his incredible schedule and global pedigree, it is not normal for Bishop Kukah to be this available to everyone but he has effortlessly normalized accessibility and availability to all people.

Kukah’s river of kindness overflows tribal, religious and filial bounds. He sees Christ in all people and makes an effort to make everyone feel that they matter. He takes his role as a priest for all to a positively outrageous level often fighting for those who fight him and speaking for those who deride him. He has effectively become a formidable force for good not because he craved the attention but more about the eloquence of his actions that deservedly merits attention.  One of his most endearing attributes is his ability to find humor in the most difficult situations. His oratorial skills are refreshingly outstanding. Bishop is one of those rare gifts that come once in a period- one of God’s best gifts to Nigeria.

Bishop’s resume is intimidating. He is the Episcopal See of Sokoto Diocese; Secretary of the Nigeria Peace Commission; Member of Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission (Oputa Panel) 1999; Member, Dicastery on Integral Human Development at the Vatican; Secretary, National Political Reform Conference 2005; and Chairman Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation 2005. The list goes on. However, for many Nigerians, the biggest role that Kukah has played is his consistent, unflinching and passionate love for Nigeria and fidelity to truth. It is a role he has played with conviction, courage and fairness. Like John the Baptist, he has been a voice in the desert asking the Nigeria state to make its ways straight. He is that constant voice of reason that is willing to stand alone as long as he is convinced of his truth. He has weathered intimidation, defied blackmails and brushed off threats to remain true to his conscience and resolute in his love for country. He drives his energy from the gospel and undiluted love for people. His passion for Nigeria comes from an abiding fidelity to justice and fairness. His impatience with bad leadership is informed by his sense of community and restlessness in the face of suffering.

We must celebrate friends while they are still alive, and Bishop’s 70th birthday presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honour this towering intellectual giant, fearless social crusader, and everyone’s favourite Uncle.Thanks your Lordship for the gift of your friendship and the kindness that you have shown me and my family. Thank you for being a gift to Nigeria and the world. Happy birthday Uncle Mathew.

Udo writes from the Hague, Netherlands

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