The threat issued to Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese Mathew Hassan Kukah by Muslim Solidarity Forum (MSF) is unconstitutional, the Presidency said Wednesday night.
On Tuesday, the group asked Bishop Kukah to apologise to the Muslim Ummah for alleged “malicious comments” against Islam or quietly leave the state.
The outspoken cleric came under attacks from various groups, mostly Islamic, after his Christmas Day message, in which he criticised the Buhari administration for what he described as its “nepotism”.
He restated his position in a sermon he gave on January 6 at the funeral of the late Archbishop Peter Jatau in Kaduna
In it, Kukah described Nigeria as “a wasteland” and “a nation at war against itself” and vowed to continue speaking out his mind.
The Presidency faulted the call by the group for Bishop Kukah to vacate Sokoto as contrary to the constitution and cautioned the cleric to always take the feelings of other people into consideration while making his comments.
The statement, signed by Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity Mallam Garba Shehu, said: “The reported ultimatum by a group based in Sokoto, ‘Muslim Solidarity Forum’, calling on Bishop Kukah to tender an unreserved apology to the entire Muslim Ummah over his recent ‘malicious comments’ against Islam, or quietly and quickly leave the state, is wrong because it is not in line with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“Under our Constitution, every citizen has the right to, among others, freedom of speech and expression, the right to own property and reside in any part of the country, and the right to move freely without any inhibitions.
“Nigeria’s strength lies in its diversity. The right for all religions to co-exist is enshrined in this country’s Constitution.
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“The duty of the government, more so, this democratic government, is to ensure that the Constitution is respected. But all must respect the rights and sensitivities of their fellow Nigerians.”
The Presidency said “Father Kukah has greatly offended many with his controversial remarks against the government and the person of the President, with some even accusing him of voicing anti-Islamic rhetoric.
“On matters such as these, responsible leadership in any society must exercise restraint.
“Knee-jerk reactions will not only cause the fraying of enduring relationships, but also the evisceration of peaceful communities such as Sokoto, the headquarters of the Muslim community, as a beacon of pluralism and tolerance.
“The Sultanate has historically had good relations with followers of all faiths. That is why Father Kukah was received on his arrival in Sokoto with friendship and tolerance.
“Under our laws, groups or factions must not give quit notices, neither should they unilaterally sanction any perceived breaches. Where they occur, it is the courts of law that should adjudicate. Unilateral action is not the way to go.
“Groups such as the Muslim Solidarity Forum must be seen to share and uphold the country’s multi-religious principles. And individuals like Father Kukah must respect the feelings of his fellow Nigerians in their private and public utterances.”
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) described the call as ‘no issue’.
A former frontline labour leader and pro-democracy activist, Chief Frank Kokori also took exception to an earlier attack on Kukah by Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar-led Jama’atul Nasril Islam (JNI), the umbrella body of Muslim groups, over his Christmas Day homily.
He called on President Buhari and Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal to ensure the safety and security of Kukah, who is the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese.
Kukah had in his Christmas message accused the Buhari administration of not living up to expectations of Nigerians due to the various economic and security challenges affecting the nation.
The cleric said Buhari was “institutionalising northern hegemony against national interests,”
He added: “This government owes the nation an explanation as to where it is headed as we seem to journey into darkness.
“The spilling of this blood must be related to a more sinister plot that is beyond our comprehension…
“Every honest Nigerian knows that there is no way any non-Northern Muslim President could have done a fraction of what President Buhari has done by his nepotism and gotten away with it.
“There would have been a military coup a long time ago or we would have been at war.”
Kukah later said he was misquoted in the portion of the message he talked about coup but insisted that he is “more interested in how religion can be used to foster unity.”
The JNI accused him of “being an enemy” of Islam.
On Tuesday, the MSF took the gauntlet from the Sultan-led JNI, by insisting that Kukah’s message was capable of triggering religious violence in the country.
However, CAN defended the Bishop, saying he spoke the truth.
The association‘s General Secretary, Joseph Daramola, added that the MSF was not only “myopic” but had deliberately introduced “religious-politics” into the Bishop’s message.
“There is no issue there (demand on Kukah to apologise of leave the Sokoto Caliphate). Why are they personalising the matter?” Daramola asked while speaking yesterday.
He added: “The man (Kukah) is saying the truth and they are trying to deliberately put religious-politics into it. These people are myopic in everything they are doing. Let them go and read his message. What do they want to do to him? Why would he apologise,?”
In Warri, Kokori, an All Progressives Congress(APC) chief, accused the JNI Secretary-General of trying to trigger a religious war.
He said he had read Kukah’s message and found no portion where the cleric ridiculed Islam or Muslims.
He called on the President and Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal to rein in the JNI secretary-general.
He said “Buhari and Tambuwal should call Dr Aliyu to order as he’s trying to cause a religious war in the country which is very dangerous.
“There was no portion where Bishop Kukah abused Islam or Muslims in his Christmas homily. Aliyu is an Islamic fundamentalist and should be treated as such.
“Aliyu should not drag Nigeria into his parochial ideology and if he’s worth his PhD degree, he should know that Bishop Kukah never attacked Islam or Muslims.
“It’s treacherous for JNI to misinterpret Bishop Kuku’s obvious message. There’s nothing anti-Islam or anti-Muslim in what Kukah said. Aliyu should desist from religious bigotry.”
He said Aliyu should be held responsible should Nigerians take up arms against themselves over religion.
Also Wednesday, Senator Shehu Sani urged the MSF to engage Bishop Kukah in a debate rather than threatening him.
In a tweet via his verified Twitter handle @ShehuSani, the former senator writes: “My Dear Muslim Forum Sokoto, go in peace and meet Kukah in his parish.
“Engage him in a debate and defeat or win him over with your superior argument. Be a tolerant host.
“No need to threaten or ‘expel him’. Don’t set a precedent for ‘Quit noticing the messenger’ (sic).”