Second chance for Bala Usman
It fills one with pathos that an institution of the Nigerian state should confer honour and recognition on the ultimate anti-establishment man, the late Dr Bala Yusufu Usman. Few weeks ago, Hadiza Bala-Usman, the daughter of the late Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, history teacher, received a post-humous honourary doctorate degree on behave of her late father from the Federal University of Kashere, Gombe State. Hadiza, the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, has again put her father’s name in contemporary affairs. But would Bala Usman, the ultimate intellectual rebel, ever believe that an institution of the Nigerian state would consider him worthy of recognition and honour?
Bala Usman was not my teacher but I came under his mentorship. He was one of the group of radical intellectuals crisscrossing Nigerian campuses to infuse the tenets of an egalitarian society to the youths of Nigeria. He was an historian and an incorruptible philosopher. His twin brother was the late Professor Segun Osoba of the Department of History at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Osoba, who was my teacher in Ife, posited that Nigeria was not developing because the ruling class suffers from “intellectual aridity.” Along with Usman and Osoba were the likes of Patrick Wilmot, also of ABU, Professor Ayodele Awojobi of the University of Lagos and the late Aire Iyare of Benin. In a special class has always been Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate and perpetual torn in the flesh of the establishment. But none of them surpassed the magic of Bala Usman, the rebel prince from Katsina.
I first met Usman in 1977 when he was invited to Ife by the Wantu-Wazuri Society (a Black Power Organisation). Our leader then was Bayo Adenekan, the founding Managing Director of Capital Oil Plc., who is now one of our country’s leading engineers and environmentalists. If intellectuals like Professors Jacob Ade-Ajayi, Boar Icemen, Adagio Akinjogbin, Akinjide Osuntokun and others are chroniclers of our history, Bala Usman and the likes of Segun Osoba were the interpreters of that history. They questioned the intellectual basis of African historiography and its interpretations by Western scholars like the likes of Heinrich Barth. They were Marxist-Leninists and they look at history and contemporary society through the prism of ideologies. They were advocates of class struggles and they fought for the creation of an egalitarian society. They lost most of their battles. But they were great patriots and incorruptible men and women. We believed them.
In the traditional aristocracy of the old North, Usman was a pure breed. His father was the brother of the Emir of Katsina, the late Usman Nagogo. His mother was a daughter of the Emir of Kano, the late Abdullahi Bayero. In a society where consanguinity was everything, it was significant that he came under the influence of critical thinking when he joined the staff of Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, in 1971 and became one of the brightest light of its left-leaning minority. I cannot remember now when or how he became a professor, but on at least one occasion, he rejected his promotion to professorship because he said those who were offering him the lift were not qualified to do so! He was a puritan.
It was not a surprise then that he teamed up with the ultimate anti-establishment party, the Peoples Redemption Party, PRP, under the leadership of great leader of the talakawa, the late Mallam Aminu Kano, during the Second Republic. He emerged for a brief bright moment as the Secretary to the State Government under the radical Governor Balarabe Musa. The radical Musa, seating on the seat of the revered Ahmadu Bello, challenged the old Northern establishment. He became the first and only governor to be impeached during the Second Republic. He refused to compromise. The PRP top dogs were made of steely stuff.
Balarabe Musa’s contemporary, Abubakar Rimi, the PRP governor of Kano State, survived at a heavy cost. Rimi too challenged the traditional establishment in Kano when he suspended the Emir, Ado Bayero, from office, igniting a riot that visited terror on a large scale on the city. It was during that riot that another radical scholar Dr Bala Mohammed, the Special Adviser to Rimi on Political Affairs, was killed by rioters. The PRP was never to recover from that crisis and it led to the alienation of the party funder, Mallam Aminu Kano, from his gubernatorial protégés.
My last encounter with Bala Usman was in 1986 when my editors sent me to Zaria to cover proceedings of the Abisoye Panel for our magazine, Newswatch. General Emmanuel Abisoye, a retired General Officer commanding, GOC, of the 3rd Infantry Division of the Nigerian Army, was asked by the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida to investigate the riot at ABU that year which led to the death of many students. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ango Abdullahi, a conservative intellectual, was suspended from office and eventually relieved of the job by his employers as recommended by the Abisoye Panel.
The Abisoye Panel concluded that the crisis was caused by the apparent high-handedness of the vice-chancellor who was angered when the Students Union leadership led a protest into the forbidden territory of Amina Hall, a female hostel named after the warrior queen of old Zaria. Giving evidence before the panel Usman blamed the university authorities for igniting the crisis because of their “academic corruption.” He went on: “Having themselves effectively undermined and destroyed any basis for their claiming to have any moral authority over the students, by their academic corruption and abuse of office, the Vice-Chancellor and the upper echelon of the administration resorted to threat, intimidation, rustication, expulsion, beating, shooting and other forms of suppression and repression in their relationship with the students.”
The performance was vintage Usman.
It was Bala Usman, during an interview with TELL magazine in 1991, who alerted Nigerians that General Babangida, the self-proclaimed military president, had a Hidden Agenda. He said categorically that the military dictator had no plan to hand over power despite his elaborate transition programme. It was a giddy period and it took a long and twisted journey, culminating in the annulment of the June 12 presidential election won by Chief Moshood Abiola, for Nigerians to come to terms with Usman’s rare insight. It is interesting that Usman is now being honoured during a mileu presided over by Babangida’s old rival, President Muhammadu Buhari, the now born-again military dictator who was toppled to give way to the Babangida regime in 1985.
By honouring Usman, through his daughter, the equally cerebral Hadiza, our country has done a good deed to the memory of an extraordinary patriot. Hadiza, the daughter has been an active politician since her days as one of the top people at the Bureau of Public Enterprises. She moved over to Kaduna State and became one of the strong women who brought the assertive Governor Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai to power. She had also joined Obiageli Ezekwesili in the campaign for freedom for those kidnapped Chibok girls. She is now the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA. At last, she has become an elite of the elites, a leading member of that class of people her father call the bourgeoisie.
The truth is that her father would be proud of her. It is a daring recognition of the power of ideas that made the Federal University of Kashere to think about Bala Usman in the first place. For our country and indeed the Black race, to make progress, we have to give primacy to ideas as the ultimate vehicle for development. After all, thought is the master of action. Usman lived for ideas. I wish we could say the same thing about our leaders.