At times like these when the country is racked by sectarian violence and centrifugal forces, it is reassuring that there are still individuals who have proven to be symbolic of our collective humanity and a source of hope of greater possibilities for the Nigerian project.
Very few Nigerians can claim to have been of abiding relevance to our collective search for rhyme and reason in the last two decades as Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic bishop of Sokoto Diocese, who recently marked his 60th birthday. Variously described as the "people's priest" and a "public intellectual", Kukah has gone beyond the limits of the pulpit to preach his sermon of peace, tolerance and universal brotherhood on the national and international stages.
Dogged in the pursuit of justice and sustainable development, he has gone through the mill in his chosen vocation and now his voice resonates as a voice of reason in the marketplace of contending faiths. From 1977 when he started out as associate parish priest in Kaduna, then as lecturer and dean of students at St. Augustine's Seminary, Jos, before becoming the rector of the Junior Seminary in Zaria, Kukah has always been a man of ideas.
A graduate of the universities of Ibadan, Bradford and Harvard, Kukah was to serve for a decade as the secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference (1994-2004). It was as secretary-general that he etched his name and face in the consciousness of the average Nigerian as a man of conscience and apostle of religious tolerance.
In August 2005, he accepted the chairmanship of the Ogoni-Shell Reconciliation Team in the troubled Niger Delta region. He also served in the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue in the Vatican between 1999 and 2006. His role in the historic Oputa Panel which looked into human rights abuses during the military regime is well documented.
His appointment as bishop of Sokoto and his attainment of the "ripe young age" of 60 have not dampened his pan-Nigerian vision nor muffled his trenchant call for social and economic justice.
In the midst of the tension and anger generated by the bombing of churches and killing of innocent people in the northern states, Kukah's voice of moderation rang loud and clear: "Forgiveness and good neighbourliness have always been part of our lives as Africans before evil crept into our lives, dividing us into Christians and Muslims rather than brothers and sisters.... But we religious leaders must work hard to create an environment for collaboration and avoid stoking the embers of division and hatred through what we teach our youth. The federal government must be awake to its duty because it is its negligence that has left the public space open to scoundrels."
Nigeria should pay more attention to patriots like Kukah. He is a worthy advertisement of the Nigerian spirit and a model of the kind of balance to which all men and women of goodwill should aspire.