MD Yusufu: The courage to be
MD Yusufu is no more. A man of the shadows, who towered over men and events, always silent and unobtrusive, has finally retreated into that shadow from which no man, woman or child returns.
A star, who shone brightly, regardless of his hatred of the light, has been extinguished. Like all mortals, who emerged like a flower and are cut down, he passed like a shadow and is no more.
So, it is for us who survive, however fleetingly, to give him the honour he eschewed in life. It is for us who have the words to speak, to give immortality to man whose mortality defines his glories and failures, and raises up to the heavens a being condemned to die from the first breath, however haltingly, he drew. Now that he’s no more, we must remember him, to deny death the triumph.
MD was born into the aristocracy of Katsina, and considered blessed by those who thought the Almighty plucked from slime those who had the right to lord it over others forever and ever.
But he believed that all men and women were equal, that as creatures of God, we all had equal capacity for achievement and equal rights to reward. No man or woman should look down on another.
When the NPC elevated itself to the party of perpetual government and usurped the right to divine favour, many of the privileged thought that a man of MD’s origin should be in the vanguard of its ranks, to sit at the high table of political entitlement and apply the rod to the backs of those born to obey their ordained Lords and Masters, and bend their knees to the Great and Good.
But MD listened to the words of Malam Aminu Kano who said that the ordinary man and woman had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that the vocation of the under-privileged was to guarantee a future for their children, that the definition of citizenship derived from the suffering of the poor, not from the predations and exploitation of the Masters.
In NEPU, Malam Aminu had the number one on his identity card. MD had the number two. It was the sacrifices of these privileged men and women, which ensured that the ordinary man and woman were spared some horrors of those who wished to rule them forever.
This was the phenomenon defined by Marx, Engels, Fanon and Cabral as class suicide, the courage to assure the future of man.
In the civil war, men like Yakubu Gowon, Aminu Kano, TY Danjuma, Murtala Muhammed and MD, among others, decided that a united Nigeria was more important than the horrific suffering war imposed in the attempt to crush the secession. Although the hatred of those who suffered was justified, those who pursued the struggle were aware that many who experienced pain were friends.
In a civil war, men and women of both sides must recognise that war spares no one, that the only blessing of conflict is to end it as soon as possible. Or not start at all. Civil war, in which relatives slaughtered one other, was worst of all. As Clausewitz, a master of the theory of war remarked: In such dangerous things as war, the worst errors are those which arise from a spirit of benevolence.
In this war, the secessionists employed a Swiss PR company to spread the propaganda that would soften Western public opinion so that countries like France would give the rebels the arms to ensure victory for their oil and armament companies. As a student in Paris at the time, with a keen interest in Pan-African ideas, I got in touch with people around MD and Aminu Kano to assist in the struggle.
With a small group, we helped mobilise intellectuals, people in the media and politicians to ensure the Gaullists were never able to grant recognition to Biafra. After the war, MD and his friends evolved a policy of no winners, no vanquished, which ensured that the secessionists were re-integrated in the country, without the long post-civil war blues which persist in the U.S. and Spain.
I was invited to teach in Nigeria by MD and Aminu Kano even though as a graduate of Yale and Vanderbilt, I had many job offers in America. While teaching Sociology at ABU, I still kept in touch with MD and Malam Aminu, and maintained my interests in Pan-African ideas and what the continent was suffering in conflicts in Southern Africa and the Portuguese colonies.
When Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau were liberated and the South Africans and America intervened to reverse the liberation process in Angola and Zimbabwe, MD and his comrades in government were aware of the dangers presented to the anti-apartheid struggle and the liberation of the continent from neo-colonialism and racism.
In books, newspaper articles, radio and television programsmes, I helped articulate for the Nigerian public the issues involved for the sovereignty of all countries of the continent. (Gen.) Murtala Mohammed’s speech at the OAU Summit on 4th February 1976 showed his awareness of the racist, imperial threat to Africa’s future, and Nigeria’s recognition of the MPLA as the ruler of Angola shocked the West.
After these ground-breaking events, the Angolans invited a Nigerian delegation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the MPLA and I was selected. A grateful Angolan leader wanted MD to address the crowd in appreciation of what he had done for their country but MD reacted with panic, refusing to emerge from the shadows and into the sparkle of acclaim.
After the killing of Murtala in 1976, MD was instrumental in mobilising public opinion against the attempted coup. When the military decided to leave the scene three years later, MD and TY Danjuma were among those unwilling to prolong their stay, and retired from the scene. They left, hoping that the civilians would have learnt the lesson of the events leading to the civil war.
MD did not cease to be a friend when elements among the regime began harassing me, accusing me of being a ‘radical’ and of ‘teaching what I was not paid to teach’. When I was abducted and thrown out in 1988, he refused to act like some of my ‘friends’ that ran for cover, so they would continue to feed. He sent one of his sons to see me in London and came himself not long after.
Since then, he was a regular visitor to London, staying in the Tara Hotel in Kensington, on the eleventh or twelfth floor. He had no house in St John’s Wood or flat in George St. On his visits, we checked bookshops, sometimes rare ones, not Harrods for designer gear. I always saved him copies of Africa Confidential and Private Eye, and bought him fresh dates when these were in season.
I always had a supply of Fura for him, because I knew it reminded of when his grandfather handed him a cup of the liquid, poured from his calabash when he was a boy. His sole treat in London was a visit to the Sol e Pepe Italian Restaurant in Knightsbridge, where the waiters knew us so well that we were always welcome, even when the place was fully booked.
His disagreement with (Gen. Sani) Abacha and his setting up of a party in opposition to the designs of the military dictator to perpetuate himself was typical of the courage he displayed when he joined Aminu Kano in opposition to the NPC. While recognising the futility of his endeavor, I still helped, recognising equally the rights of men and women to oppose tyranny, to set an example in courage.
In his last years, MD had an accident and damaged his hip. Despite treatments in the UK, U.S., Germany and the Lebanon, he never regained his mobility. For a man so used to travel, it was frustrating to be so confined but he never complained, never blamed anyone for his troubles. On his last trip to London, I accompanied him to Heathrow, got him a wheelchair, and helped him board.
And now he’s gone, because no matter how good or courageous we are, no one can escape the icy hands of death. Thomas Grey has written lyrically about the fate the proud and ostentatious will suffer in the end, the emptiness and obscurity the most majestic is condemned to suffer:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth ere gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
But even good men, men of honour and integrity, men and women who shun baubles and the futile trinkets of glory and illusion, cannot escape the shadowland from which none of us escapes.
•Professor Wilmot was a teacher at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.