Flagbearer from the North
Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule was a self-taught public speaker who loved to express his mind in sounding oratory. With the notable exception of Alhaji Shehu Shagari, there are very few Nigerians who had stayed longer in public life than Maitama Sule. But none can match his reputation for public speaking, and his occasional silence in moments of public debate, had the echo of wise interventions.
He was a radical conservative, a living-oxymoron in the convoluted politics of Kano where conservatism and radicalism are not strange bed-fellows. He once declared in answer to our unending debate about national stability: “Everyone has a gift from God. The Northerners are endowed by God with leadership qualities. The Yoruba man knows how to earn a living and has diplomatic qualities. The Igbo man is gifted in trade, commerce and technological innovation. God so created us equally with purpose and different gifts.”
I cannot remember when Maitama Sule said the above quotation or if indeed he was the one who said them. However, if he did not, it was not beyond his grand reasoning to impose simple answer to complicated matters. By Northerner, I have no doubt he would have meant the Hausa and Fulani who dominated the politics of the old North. When his death was announced on Monday, it was the above quotation that first came to mind.
Yet Sule’s life, rich with achievements, and overhung with defining metaphors, was parts of the Nigerian story. He was the man who had his roots in Kano, the ancient entreport of the famed trans-Sahara trade, and yet has seen the world. He is a conservative man of the world who embraced the glare of modernity while remaining blanketed with the toga of conservatism. In the Daily Comet of June 1, 1950, Sule, then an elementary school teacher, advocated that emirs should be elected by the people instead of their selection by the king makers. “If an emir is really elected by his people, he will be more respected by them and I believe, he will respect them more as his loyal subjects,” he wrote.
It was electoral politics that brought him to Lagos and the national and international arena. He was an elementary school teacher when the ferment of anti-colonial struggle reached the North. Kano of Sule’s youth was one dominated by social classifications. He was born in 1929, barely 15 years after the British imposed foreign rule on a new territory they called Nigeria. However, in Kano, the aristocracy still dominated and the emir was the ultimate symbol of power. It was Sule’s good fortune that he was one of the members of the underclass who were sent to school to taste from the wisdom of the new foreign masters. He did well and passed out from the famous Barewa College, Zaria, in 1946. He became a teacher and with other youths, read rapaciously the few copies of the West African Pilot which was a forbidden item in the eyes of the colonial officers. Everyone loved the Inside Stuff column of the Pilot’s Editor-in-Chief, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Sule, like most other young teachers who were his friends, had found his destiny.
Politics started in the North with the formation of the Jaml’iyyar Mutanen Arewa, the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, under the leadership of Dr. R. A. B. Dikko, a Fulani convert to Christianity and the first medical doctor from the old North. Some of the collaborators of Dikko included the likes of Abubakar Iman, the editor of Gaskiya Ta Fi Kiwabo and another teacher, Sa’ad Zungar. The NPC, which attracted mostly teachers and local government employees, called itself a cultural movement and was barely tolerated by the colonial authorities. Another group rose up, the Northern Elements Progressive Association, NEPA, under the leadership of Malam Raji Abdullah. NEPA attracted the immediate hostility of the colonial masters. Their introductory statement gave away their intention as a radical group: “He who does not fear God fears everybody, but he who fears God is to be feared by some.”
It is a tribute to Sule’s uncanny commonsense and accurate political antennae that made him to team up with the NPC in the end especially after its leadership had been taken over by the troika of Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa and Muhammadu Ribadu. Originally, he flirted with Aminu Kano and his Northern Elements Progressive Union, NEPU, but after the 1950 Jos Convention when Kano and some of his allies where squeezed out the NPC executive body, Sule never looked back. After the Jos Convention, Aminu Kano, who was then the headmaster of Maru Teachers’ Training College, Sokoto, resigned his appointed and moved to base in Kano for full time politics.
He found Maitama Sule, his old colleague in NEPU, a formidable opponent. As the Chief Information Officer of Kano Native Authority between 1958 to 59, Sule built a political and social network that was to last him a life time. It was while he was doing this job that he came into the attention of higher authorities in the NPC. He was elected into the House of Representatives in 1958. He had arrived and from then on, there was no stopping him. As a member of the Hausa commoner class, the traditional aristocracy of Kano was uncomfortable with this rising star in their midst. The emir, Mohammadu Sanusi, solved the problem when he made Sule the Dan Masani of Kano, conferring on him the status of nobility. It was a title he bore with evident pride and aplomb. He served in the Federal cabinet of Prime-Minister Balewa as the Minister of Mines and Power from 1959 to 1966 when Balewa was killed in the first coup.
As a young minister, he enjoyed himself in the old Lagos society in the midst of the city’s glitterati. He recalled: “Lagos was my second home. In fact, I used to feel more at home in Lagos than in Kano. In those days, I remember parties in Lagos and Lagos people are found of partying. Parties would be incomplete without us, that is me, T.O.S Benson, J.M. Johnson, I.S. Adewale and of course the late Ooni of Ife, who was then Prince Sijuwade. If we were not there, the party was not okay. Even the girls would insist we must be there!”
Despite the coup, Sule remained in the thick of public affairs. He served in the government of Alhaji Audu Bako, the Commissioner of Police who was Kano State first military governor, from 1967 until 1974. In succession, he manned the ministries of local government, then forestry, cooperatives and community development and later information. When General Olusegun Obasanjo lifted the ban on politics in 1978, he put himself forward that he would like to be President. He lost the nomination contest of the new National Party of Nigeria, NPN, to the suave Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a fellow teacher and old colleague from the Balewa government.
Shagari was magnanimous in victory. He sent his old rival to the United Nations to serve as Nigeria’s Permanent Representatives. There Sule was to show his skill as a born diplomat, rubbing shoulders and exchanging banters with world leaders and other diplomats. Though he was there for only four years, he was better known in his later years as Nigeria’s former representative at the UN. Despite his modest formal education and humble beginning, he showed that no one has a limit if only he can apply himself.
Till the very end, despite changed circumstances and changed environment, Maitama Sule never changed his original perception: that of politics as a mean of service to the people. Not for him the accumulation of wealth as if there is no life after death. He was more like his old rival and colleague, Alhaji Aminu Kano, the emperor of the talakawas of Kano. Not for him the pyramids of riches in the midst of poverty and the holding of foreign account. Is there any one now after serving as a Federal Minister for seven years would go back home to serve as commissioner?
Sule represented an old but vanishing breed when service was the purpose of politics. “Our country has lost a rare breed,” says Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto State, commenting on the passage of the elder statesman. “A leading light from the old generation has been extinguished. He was a complete gentleman whose honesty, commitment and dedication to the unity of Nigeria will forever be cherished.”
To the very end too, he carried with him the flag of the old North as represented by Ahmadu Bello. When he talks about the North, Sule meant that parts of Nigeria that once formed the old Northern Region from Sokoto down to Offa in the Yoruba dominated Kwara State. He knew those days were gone forever and the North is now another country, as divided as Nigeria itself. His nostalgia was painful, but it was real and it was relived with pride and satisfaction. But he knew the future is bright if only the giant of Africa can get its bearing right and set on its course of destiny. If he, from his humble beginning as a talakawa and a teacher, could achieve greatness, then his beloved country can also do so.
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