Some Thoughts on Catholic Youth Participation in Nigerian Politics

Text of a Lecture delivered by Most Rev. Dr Matthew Hassan KUKAH, Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto on August 8, 2019, at the National Youth Seminar, Awka, Anambra State.

I do not want to waste time on the theoretical arguments as to whether it is desirable for the Youth or anyone for that matter to take part in politics. Since we tend to focus only on the very narrow definitions and perceptions of politics, it is easy to fall into the fallacy of philosophizing or wondering whether there is a perfect time for the Youth to enter politics or whether there are particular political parties to which Catholic Youth should belong. It will be akin to asking whether there are particular roads, markets, airports or vehicles that Catholic Youth should make use of. These are public goods and their utility is tied to our needs not the religious colouration especially because there are no such things as Catholic roads or markets. How Catholics use them can be debated.

I will therefore not present these reflections in a Lecture format, but make the case that we are in politics whether we like it or not. Like being in the rain or travelling in the hot sun, there are options that we can determine for ourselves, namely, that we can carry an umbrella, stand in the shade or buy an air conditioner to contain the rain or hot sun. There are certain human elements about which we cannot isolate or pigeon hole our options. The best we can do is to understand the circumstances and decide on how we shall act or not act.
We have often fallen back on the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees who demanded to know whether they are to pay taxes to Caesar or not as a reference for the involvement of Christians in politics. According to the story, the Pharisees confronted Jesus with questions of loyalty and allegiance to civil authority by the Pharisees. Was it right, they said, to pay tax to Caesar or not? In response, Jesus said to His listeners: Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Mt.22: 21).

The meaning of this text has preoccupied many scholars of Christian involvement in politics. However, years and years of misapplication have led many Christians or even non-Christians to assert that Jesus was telling Christians to stay off politics that belonged to Caesar and focus on spiritual matters that are of God. Yet on closer examination, nothing could be further from the truth.

As I already stated, Jesus knew that the Pharisees were not looking for an answer, nor were they genuinely interested in the truth. So Jesus took them through a line of questioning. In the end, Jesus said to them, since the coin has the image of Caesar on it, it should be given to Caesar since it is the symbol of his authority. However, Caesar on the other hand has the image of God in him and is under the authority of God the creator of heaven and earth. Therefore, since both Caesar and the coin are subordinated to God, it is logical that both he and his coin belong to God! Consequently, for the Christian, politics should be seen as an offering to God who owns Caesar, his kingdom which we ourselves are part of.

As I said, I do not wish to dwell on the theory of politics, yet, whether we like it or not, politics is like water, we cannot do without it, it is everywhere we turn, it depends on whether we will use it or drown in it. If we do not participate in the management of our own resources, others will decide on our behalf. It is only natural that we participate otherwise, others will borrow our voices and come to decisions on our behalf. Whether any member of the community turns up in the village square or not, their absence will not stop the community from arriving at decisions he or she has to live with. As Chinua Achebe said, People do not go to the village square because they cannot see the moon in their own homes, they assemble as a show of community solidarity. In the same way, we do not go to the Church just pray. Each of us can and we do pray in our homes. However, we go to Church as a sign of communion and community solidarity. Ditto politics.

Going forward, what I want to do now is to lay out what I can call rules of the thumb, some guidelines, to encourage our Catholic youth who wish to take up full and active participation in politics. Of course as I have said, there may be no Catholic markets or roads, these are all public utilities, but how a Catholic acts in those spaces should be guided by the norms of their Catholic faith. For example, there may be no Catholic market or road, but how a Catholic transacts business, drives or behaves on the highway should stand him or her out. The story of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 25-37) is a story of a good Christian making the right decision on the high way. We know that things have changed very much. I believe you have seen the various social media posts of the man in Onitsha market who is negotiating with customers, counting money, and praying the Angelus at the same time!

What I will do next is to lay down a few guidelines or rules that I believe can help any young Catholic who wishes to pursue a life in politics. The rules I lay down here are not exhaustive. There are many others that can be added based on your own experience or reflections. However, I believe that broadly, if you go with the few rules I have here, you as a Catholic can participate in politics in a way and manner that will help you manage the negotiation between the temporal powers and wealth of Caesar’s kingdom and the divine kingdom to which we are citizens (Phil. 3: 20). You are free to call these KUKAH’S LAWS FOR YOUTH IN POLITICS.

I hope you can reflect on these guiding Codes either in the course of this Conference and interactions or later among your Youth groups back in your Dioceses or communities. The List or Laws is elastic but here they are.

1: Politics is a Vocation: Therefore, Listen God and His Church:
For any young person, we must make Samuel our model. Samuel as you may recall, lived in the presence of the Priest, Eli as a pupil in formation in the Temple. When he heard a strange voice over and over, he decided to seek counsel from his Master, Eli (I Sam 3: 7-11). In the affairs of politics, it is best to listen and understand the purity of the voice that is calling you or purported to be calling you. Perhaps the voice you claim to be hearing is the voice of the devil feeding on your personal greed for power. So, here, should you feel a call to politics, pray over and over for God to help you know if this is really what He wants you to do. Often, He will lead you to an Eli, with a small e. Your Eli could be a priest, a friend, your parents, or a key politician or public office holder whom you respect. These should be your first steps.

2: Trust His will and accept Grace
In seeking to know what God wants you to do, always take your time and do not hurry God. As a child, one evening, my cousin and I wanted to go and play football. All of a sudden, our uncle decided to send us to go and buy, I think Panadol or some drug like that. There was no store in our village and we had to trek over thirty minutes to get to the small Chemist. We were in such a hurry to come back and play because it was getting dark and we didn’t want to miss our ball game so we literally ran to the shop. In our haste, we didn’t get the name of the drug properly and when we got there, none of us could remember the name of the drug our uncle asked us to buy.

My cousin and I exchanged looks, each accusing and blaming the other over our predicament. In the end, we just took one drug and ran back to our uncle only to discover it was the wrong drug. We had to go back to get the right drug, but by the time we finally got back, it was too dark to play our football.

If you believe you have a call, do not hurry God. He has told us that His grace is sufficient for us (2 Cor. 2:9). Do not take the advice of only those who feed your ego. Somehow, you will know in the end if this is what God really wants you to do or if you are pursuing politics just to join the ATM queue.

3: Know yourself:
You recall what good an old Socrates said: Man, know thyself. You must examine yourself carefully and ask yourself many questions in the deep recesses of your mind in prayer. Do I have the temperament for politics? Can I manage other human beings? Am I tolerant of contrary views? How do I manage money? What makes me happy and contented? Am I manipulative? How have I handed responsibilities given to me in the course of my community or church services? Do I honestly know my strength and weaknesses? How do I treat others? These are the contents of the packed bag that you will take to politics. If you understand these, then you can start working on which areas of your life you need to fine tune. The political space will challenge or even shatter some of your innocent assumptions about people. Heed the words of St. Paul and; Have the belt of truth fastened around your waist (Eph. 6:14)

4: Keep a close Family
You belong to a biological family and by association, other families, Village Club or Age Grade, a Society in the Church, or you are an Arsenal or Manchester United Supporters’ Club etc. In each of these, you will make friends. Learn to keep and trust some of them. Be a team player in your family. Co-operate and listen to your parents, collaborate with your siblings and cousins. The important thing is to build a formidable network.

I tell Youth Corps Members who come to Sokoto or anywhere to accept their posting as the will of God. It is best for you to build up a network of friends well beyond your immediate environment. You never know, but I can assure you, in politics, all of these friendships will come into play because it is from family and these networks that you will draw strength and resources that are freely given to you out of love. They will stand by you whether you win or lose. Trust that wherever you find yourself is where God really and truly wants you to be and He has a purpose for keeping you there. Use the time and opportunity well.

5: Learn to Serve or Volunteer
You often hear the famous expression that politics is about service which is true. Politicians also pretend that they are being almost forcefully called to come and serve. Some Governors have had as their motto such expressions as, Rescue or Restoration Missions, claiming that their mission is to restore what their predecessors had destroyed or to rescue the state and people from the dangerous precipice to which they had been brought. Often, the honeymoon dies and by the time the people wake up, they discover that Ali Baba only changed is clothes not his essence.

Genuine politicians who want to serve would already have shown signs of their capacity and ability to serve. For the young people, the best way to do this is to develop and imbibe the culture of volunteerism and service. Learn to volunteer, offer yourself for community service, from organising the Youth to clean your street, clean up sewage, Hospital visitation, helping the aged and the needy, all these are some of the little steps on the ladder of leadership. As a Catholic, the Corporal Works of Mercy are a Summary of these values.

If you are a medical Doctor or Lawyer, or good at anything, assist others. There is a saying by the Muslim beggars in the north: If Friday will be good (that is, from almsgiving), we will know by Wednesday. We can already tell a good politician from a good Legionary, a good CYON leader and so on. When you serve people, they will serve you when you need them and you will not need to have money. As a young Lawyer in Chicago, Barrack Obama was famous for helping the poor by offering free services as a Lawyer. When he needed them, they all rallied around him, volunteered, contributed and campaigned for him!

6: Know your community, speak their language, and eat their food:
One of the biggest challenges now is how much politicians are foreign to their communities. In one of our Universities, a Senior Lecturer told me that he was invited to address the Students of his ethnic group. He expected to deliver the lecture in vernacular, but when he got there, he discovered that beginning with the President of the Union, most of the students did not know their own languages. So, they had to speak in English. How sad!

There is a looming crisis around language and culture with our youth today, but for the purpose of what we are talking of, if you want to be a good politician, study the history, culture or moors of your people, know where you come from and so on. Know the Rivers, the Mountains and Forests, know the heroes and heroines of your community. In this way, when you speak, you will speak with authority, you will appeal to their emotions. Eat their food because if you cannot eat with them, sing their songs, drink their water, then you are not one of them.

Our people are not fools and they will not be carried away with your imported and fanciful American twang. By extension, know the history and culture of your country, other ethnic groups and the struggles of our founding fathers. If you don’t, you will have no message to convey, no template for resolving problems. You will wait till you become Senator or Governor and think that the only job you have is to give out contracts.

7: Learn about the Catholic Church and its Teachings:
You will need to be very familiar with the doctrine and teachings of the Catholic Church if you want to be an effective Catholic politician, not a politician who is a Catholic. Read the Holy Scriptures, the Catholic Catechism, the Social Teachings of the Church. No institution in the world, no country has shaped the thinking of the world like the Catholic Church. We started University education, we taught the world Astronomy, Diplomacy, Geology, etc. Get to know your Parish Priests, Rev. Sisters, your Bishops and other leaders of the Church. Do not be shy to approach these people. Speak to them, learn from them, and share your views and vision with them. In this way, you will be better known. Invest in making your impact felt in the Church. Show up at ordinations, consecration of Bishops, ceremonies concerning the Church.

8: See, Judge and Act:
You all know the meaning of the above expression the motto for the Youth. Most of us are guilty bystanders in our country. As young people, we can protest about food, mode of dressing, allowances, school fees and others in secular life. However, due to poor formation, our Youth are channeling their energies in the wrong direction. We look on as violence engulfs our communities and are blaming government for not providing security. In fear, we simply find whom to blame or we say the Bishops and Priests are not speaking out. Yet, some of the most spectacular changes that have happened and are happening around the world are the result of the energies of young people. Do not simply think defending your community is about being a Member of the Vigilante group armed by some politician. Become a peacemaker not a fighter, anticipate the problems before they become complicated, engage in dialogue.
The Arab Spring was the sacrifice of the Youth. Bouzouzi was a young man. Young men drove the change in South Africa. Learn to look, and when you have looked well, judge, decide and then choose your Action, no matter how small. Act locally as best as you can. Politics in the end is not about giving our contracts for construction. The military or any evil dictator can do that. If you learn to make valued moral judgments and refuse to be an onlooker, you will be fit for a leader because you will have learnt how to solve problems. Our nation is in chaos because those in power are merely office occupants and spend their time on patronage. They have no vision, no imagination of how to dream. Too many people have come to power intellectually ill equipped.

9: Read, Study and Learn:
You must be a constant learner of new things, new ideas and skills. There is war or tragedy that is new. So, read about great men and women such, Churchill, St. Pope Paul 11, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mandela, the whole lot. Read what you can and see how people overcame economic and other forms of deprivations and rose to greatness. Have mentors to help you develop or model your life. Learn how people like Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe taught themselves, what they sacrificed in their youth to achieve greatness. Learn about deferred pleasure and dream big dreams. There are no short cuts in life. If you follow short cuts, they will often cut your life short.

10: Have a Job, a Career or a Business:
Please, remember that politics is not a form of employment. It is a gamble, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. What do you fall back on? You will fall back on what you were doing before politics. Do not be like those who have have no Party, no ideology, believe in nothing, except the easy way to money. The corridors of power are their offices and places of worship. If you bring your career and areas of specialisation to politics, governing will be a workshop for you to design and implement the dreams you already have.

I stumbled on two things on social media and I will leave you with them. First, I saw something attributed to Uhuru Kenyatta which says: If you really love your children, get a business, not a job, because when you die, your children cannot inherit your job, they can definitely inherit your business. In fact, if you die on the job, your boss will replace you before your burial.

In another post credited to one Eric Wireko, an educationist, the author, speaking on Salary says: A salary is a bribe for one to forget their ambition. Salary earners live in a vicious circle of poverty, managed on a 30-day duration while their freedom and opinions are totally gone…Salary is a medicine for managing poverty not curing it. Only business and investment cures poverty.

Finally, I hope that you will reflect on the how of the few suggestions I have made and see what is possible and do-able. Should you end up as a politician, I believe you will find these suggestions useful. But remember, there are occupational politicians who join political parties and contest elections or those who are just members. Know also that there are others who do not even belong to parties nor are they in full time politicians, but they are making their contributions day in and day out. They do so not only by voting but also by ensuring that their voices are heard.

You do not have to contest election to be in politics. After all, in soccer, only 22 players are on the field. Think about the millions who are just supporters and the businessmen who also make money by other means in the same Club. Whichever or whatever choice you make, use it to bring glory to God. Believe in yourself that you can and must make a difference.

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