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MD Yusufu: The spy who loved me

By Matthew Hassan Kukah
17 April 2015   |   5:32 am
OK, you guessed right, this reads like a tribute to James Bond. Perhaps, I also exaggerate in my claims, but given the status and age differentials between us, I don’t know how else to explain my association with this great man.

james bondOK, you guessed right, this reads like a tribute to James Bond. Perhaps, I also exaggerate in my claims, but given the status and age differentials between us, I don’t know how else to explain my association with this great man.

Like all Nigerians, I knew him by reputation and I had seen him from a distance. My face-to-face meeting with him was through Professor Patrick Wilmot who had finally settled in London after his deportation from Nigeria.

I was struck by Alhaji Yusufu’s simplicity, humility and deference towards me. At that meeting, he had told me how much he had admired my work and looked forward to meeting me. I reminded him that I always somehow had some fear of close association with people in uniform. He quickly reminded me that he was no more in uniform and was a bloody civilian like me. In any case, he reminded me, my clerical garb was also a uniform!

After our meeting, we exchanged telephone numbers and he told me he would get in touch if he came to London. I thought I would normally rely on Professor Wilmot to let me know, but almost immediately, the great man somehow weaned me from Patrick and began to treat me independently. He would come to London and then call me.

My initial response was, have you spoken to Patrick? Occasionally, he would say he had just arrived London and had not spoken to Patrick. I began to cherish this independence of access to him.

In the 1970s and 80s, when Dr. Bala Usman and other children of Marx were at the height of their ideological fame, Alhaji Yusufu truly brought his professional skills as a top cop to bear. He rallied people like his cousin, the late Usman, and Wilmot to provide the intellectual backbone that defined Nigeria’s foreign policy.

In those days, foreign policy was really and truly exciting even for those of us who were mere bystanders. The late Murtala’s brief era was really their era because through MD, they literally had the inside track in Nigeria’s foreign policy and attitude towards the liberation struggle.

Many men and women in their late 50s and 60s now who were in Ahmadu Bello University will get what I am talking about. I was in the Seminary and later, just cutting my ideological teeth as a young priest. But, the liberation struggle was part of my coming of age. So, yes, physically, I was not in the Aluta tribe, but I was emotionally right in there.

This was partly why I loved Alhaji Yusufu even without having met him personally. He contrasts sharply with public officers now who spend most of their time protecting their privileges, rather than seeking to expand the frontiers of Nigeria’s impact when the opportunity presents itself.

One day, at lunch in a London restaurant, I asked him how he got into the Police Force. I think, I said to him, you should have been an Engineer or a super Permanent Secretary. He laughed and said that his entry into the Police was purely an accident. He said joining the Police Force had never occurred to him and that it was an encounter with the revered Sardauna that changed his life.

According to him, on one of Sardauna’s visits to London, he and other starry-eyed northern youths had gone to see their idol and hero. After receiving them well, the Sardauna asked each of them about their parents, what subjects they were studying and when they were finishing their courses.

He said when it came to his turn, the Sardauna took particular interest in him obviously because of his royal background. He said after he introduced himself, the Sardauna listened to him and simply told him to return home so he could join the Police Force.

According to him, “I tried to see how I could explain to him that I really did not want to join the Police Force, but I could not find the courage, especially given his stature and what we thought of him. Sardauna’s words were naturally final and what is more, it did not seem as if he was giving me an option.

So, I returned to Nigeria after my studies and went straight into the Police Force!”

His time as the nation’s super cop is probably the most professional, most ideologically-driven. This super cop devised a hard and sharp nose for information on national security. He sought for those who could hurt the nation from the highest places to such seedy places as Fela’s African shrine.

His mission was not the same as that of the revelers, but largely to sniff around, to case the joints. I raised this issue with him and asked if he was not afraid his cover could be blown in such a place. He laughed and said rather gently: But that was what my job demanded.

I remembered this story when on a visit to Abeokuta to speak at Professor (Wole) Soyinka’s birthday, I decided to go and visit my good friend, General (Olusegun) Obasanjo. I had asked him to take me round his famous Presidential Library. He, very willingly, gave me a most memorable tour, starting with the hotel.

Then, we got to a very important part of the library where his most important memorabilia are, from his first school bag, his late wife, Stella’s wardrobe to the vehicle he rode to his inauguration in 1999. The library itself is an incredible edifice with material that will shock the ordinary observer, evidence of General Obasanjo’s incredible obsession with documentation.

As he was showing me around, he came to an old Volkswagen Beetle and stopped. “This car,” he said, “is very dear to me because I have fond memories of it. It was the one I used when I wanted to get away. One day, I drove the vehicle for a private visit. Mr. MD Yusufu came and saw my car there and did something very mischievous.

He recognized the car and then left a note on the windscreen, which read: What are you doing here at this time of the night?” It seemed that General Obasanjo still had that famous note somewhere. It was also a measure of the man’s professionalism that he knew his principal’s nocturnal hideouts.

When I came to Lagos, we caught up and he directed me to his house. I paid him a few visits. One day, he called to say he wanted to discuss something with me. I drove to his house. Between coffee, he told me about his plans to enter politics. He reminded me that he had been following my public engagements and that he appreciated what he called my courage and forthrightness. But, he said to me, now some of us have to step into the ring of politics.

I looked back in shock and said to him, “What? You in politics?” He nodded and said something like: Do I not look like a politician? Absolutely not, I said to him. You neither walk nor talk like one. You are too gentle, too polite for the rumble and tumble of Nigerian politics. I did not dissuade him from political life, but I just did not see how he would fit into the fray. I was struck that he was prepared to take on General Abacha, a man from whom he would have benefited if he were a greedy man.

I was not the only Nigerian who was visibly shocked by this decision. He was the presidential candidate of the Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJ), I think. He joined politics at a time when members of the political class had lost their marbles.

In fear and trepidation, the founders of the leading political parties then woke up one day, in show of despicable immorality even by Nigerian standards to say that they had bargained away their ambitions. They said they had offered their parties as part of the condiments to flavour the soup of General Abacha’s ambitions. They were the ones the great Bola Ige had called the five fingers of the leprous hand.

The great MD stood ramrod, alone with his integrity intact, defied the dubious notion of northern or Muslim solidarity and looked at the late General, eyeball-to-eyeball. What no one can forget was the sheer quality of his campaign advertisements and slogans. Then as now, no one, I repeat, no one has produced campaign messages of the quality and incisiveness that Alhaji Yusufu produced.

My favourite was when General Abacha’s ambitions became public and his supporters were shamelessly justifying it by appealing to the need for continuity. I cannot reproduce it accurately, but it went something like this: They say they want continuity. But continuity of what? Continuity of no fuel, no roads, no food, no electricity, no water and no insecurity? It has a special ring to it.

I recall one very memorable anecdote that MD told me. I asked Alhaji Yusufu over lunch in a London restaurant what had really happened between General (Ibrahim) Babangida and Alhaji M.K. O Abiola and the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections. His views were incredibly diplomatic, insightful and pungent. I think I narrated this incident in a footnote in my book, Witness to Justice. He told me that when the Air Force people descended on Abiola, beat him up and detained him, he went to greet the Chief. To his surprise, Chief Abiola sounded very naïve in his view of the incident.

According to him, Chief Abiola told him that he was sure that the Air Force chaps who had staged what became known in the Lagos media as the mad dog incident had been the result of officers acting on their own. Had President Babangida been aware, he said, they would have paid the price.

Alhaji MD said he shook his head, but told Chief Abiola that even if President Babangida did not order the assault, he was definitely not unaware of it. He said he told Abiola that perhaps during one of his visits to President Babangida, the General may have caught him staring at his presidential seat in a way and manner that suggested he, Abiola, was eyeing the seat. So, the mad dog attack was just one way of saying ‘keep off’, this seat is not available. He said he advised Chief Abiola to go back to General Babangida and assure him that he had no interest in the seat. As they say, the rest is history.

I somehow lost contact with MD. One day, I was taken aback when a gentleman called me and said that Alhaji Yusuf had given him a gift to bring to me. When he came to me, he brought a lovely book autographed by him. When I called to thank him, I remember him simply saying like: When I read this book, I thought of you. I knew you would love it. Please enjoy it. Death has robbed us of a great man. He lived a full life and served his country well. God grant him eternal rest and console his family and the Nigeria he left behind. He must be smiling at how well we did in the elections.
•Bishop Kukah contributed this tribute from Sokoto.