Rufai (April 2, 1950-April 2, 2016): a debt owed
Looking back, I felt like someone who just missed a vital penalty kick. Imagine. I was in Lafia on Monday, April 4, for a meeting of the Governing Council of Nasarawa State University with the Governor. The meeting ended well after 2pm. I was famished but still wanted to head back to Abuja before it got late. Alhaji Khalil, a member of the Council is a gentleman and he speaks with a rather low voice. As we walked out after the meeting, he held my hand and I was not sure whether it was to say goodbye, but in between, I recall him saying to me, I wonder if you heard of the death of your friend, Rufai Mustapha.
I did not think we had many mutual friends with Alhaji Khalil, whom I had only met in the course of our work in the Governing Council of the University. Secondly, I had never heard of anyone by the name of Rufai Mustapha. Perhaps, the rumbling in my stomach had affected my hearing and concentration. Since I could not recall anyone by that name, all I did was to utter some guttural and perfunctory sympathies, asking God to grant him peace. Unfortunately, Alhaji Khalil is not the kind of person to press on and I think we just parted.
I got to Abuja and the next day, I saw the news report in the Daily Trust about the death of Rufai Ibrahim. I was jolted and simply dropped the paper. After about five minutes, I picked it up again, as if I expected some explanation from the pages that stared at me. Still, I wondered, was it the same person that Alhaji Khalil referred to? Would Rufai have been so generous as to refer to a friendship between us, especially given how minimal our contact had been? It was after I read the tribute by Professor Mvendaga Jibo and Shehu Othman (Sarkin Daji), that I realised that perhaps, Alhaji Khalil might have been referring to Rufai Ibrahim.
I called Alhaji Khalil to seek further clarification and it was in the process that he told me about his relationship with Rufai and how he came by the surname, Mustapha. I apologised to him and extended my condolences. I admired many journalists across northern Nigeria in the 70s and 80s. Haroun Adamu, Dan Agbese, (the radical Imam!), Mvendaga Jibo, George Ohemu, Clem Baiye, Richard Umaru, Yakubu Mohammed, Mohammed Haruna, Rufai Ibrahim, Adamu Adamu and later on, some of my much younger brethren such as Mahmud Jega, Nick Dazang, Sylvanus Namang, and many others that came of age in the 90s. However, for me, Rufai Ibrahim stood aside from the pack.
First, for some reason, I just liked the sound of his name. I read his columns in Triumph and wherever I could find him. There was something about his style. It was not so much the elegant turn of prose. He had depth without boredom. He was convincing without being argumentative. He was simple and accessible, but not casuistic. When I read him, I felt as if I knew him intimately. He wrote with restrained passion, a deep sense of humanity. You could tell from his style that he had a sense of dignity about him. He wrote with polished eloquence, walking a tight rope of truth with measured confidence and candescence.
When he became first Editor of the Sunday Guardian, I was quite thrilled. A northern Muslim editing a southern newspaper as prestigious as The Guardian was worth the candle. Yet, in all this, I had still not met Rufai Ibrahim in real life. Nothing in his writing betrayed his identity, either as a northerner or as a Muslim. His sense of human dignity filtered through his style. He nailed the colours of his passion on the mast of his ideological convictions. He stayed out of the shallow trenches and befuddling shadows of ethno-religious or regional chauvinism and focused on how to create a good society free from injustice.
Then, the hammer of militarism descended and the radicals all headed in different directions. I was pained by his incarceration along with others. Looking back now, Nigeria has become a silent graveyard of ideas and robust debate.
The radicals of yesterday, armed with tickets to the gravy train are today incorporated into the bourgeoisie classes that they despised yesterday. They now wear new suits or polished agbada and carry brief cases as Media Consultants and Strategists, but in reality, enforcers of the will of the powerful elite. Finding a seat at the table they are now on the conveyor belt of power. Yesterday’s passion for justice, which stung the system has turned journalism into a scarecrow. The death of Rufai Ibrahim evokes the memories of what Ngugi Wa Thiongo meant when he said that: Every writer is a writer in politics. It (only) depends on whose side he is on!
My chance to meet Rufai Ibrahim came at the Oputa Panel. I convinced Justice Oputa and other members that we needed a Media expert to manage the work of the Panel. I had only Rufai Ibrahim in mind, but sadly, I had no idea where to find him. Finally, I tracked him down. When we met, he claimed that the sentiments were mutual, but I knew the scale tilted in my favour. He was almost as I had visualised him: handsome, calm, an unobtrusive presence and a halo of innocent candour revolved around him. I offered him the job, even though we had no money to pay him. He willingly accepted and stayed with us for a few months. Finally, I had to let him go because we did not have the resources to pay his bills. We parted with the understanding that if things improved he would come back. But things happened and life moved on. We never met again. This tribute is as much a labour of love as a debt that I did not pay. We need not mourn Rufai because God has favoured him. Or how else would God call him on the same day he came into this world? Rest in the presence of God.
Rt. Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah is Catholic Bishop of Sokoto.
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