The news of Dr Abubakar Othman’s death in the evening of Sunday 29th October 2023 will remain one of the most devastating shocks of my life. It will also endure as one of the most singular tragedies of my entire existence. A towering literary figure, the incident of Dr Othman’s tragic death equally sent shock waves throughout Nigeria’s literary community.
I have no doubt whatsoever that he was the most prominent, academic, poet, critic and public analyst to have emerged from the entire Northern Nigeria. As far as the literature of Northern Nigeria is concerned, nothing could be more tragic than the death of this genius on Sunday evening of 29th October, 2023 in an automobile crash close to Yola, in North East of Nigeria. Where does one begin to tell the story of this man of exceptional character? Where does one begin to tell this tragic tale?
I first met Dr Othman in 1995. At that time, he was teaching African Literature and Creative Writing in the Department of English and Literary Studies at the University of Maiduguri. At the same period, he was the National Public Relations Officer (North) of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
The National Youth Service Corps was what brought me to Maiduguri. It was my first trip to that part of the country. As a budding writer, it was a pleasant surprise when I realized that the university was a great beehive of literary activities. It was there that I met Othman’s colleagues and friends, then Dr Idris O. Amali, Mr Balami, and Idris Musa Okpanachi. Dr Amali was the Director of the Division of General Studies at the University. I equally reunited with my friend and poet, Idris Musa Okpanachi (now a professor). He had introduced me to the Palestine’s National poet, Mahmoud Darwish (now of blessed memory), while he taught me at the Federal Polytechnic Idah, from where I had graduated. It was therefore a pleasure to reunite with him at Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, famous for its peace, bountiful beans and fish then.
I quickly joined the UNIMAID Chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors. This provided me with regular interactions with Dr Othman through reading sessions and other informal literary gathering. I simply swam and savoured the rich beauty of Nigerian literature in the heart of the Sahel. The trio – Othman, Idris and Amali assisted me in staging my play ‘Nemesis’, at the UNIMAID Arts theatre. Othman in particularly assisted me in polishing the script. It was therefore not surprising that the play was also staged at the Maiduguri Open Air theatre as part of the events to welcome the visiting then DG of NYSC, Col. Ayodele Sofoluwe. At the Federal College of Education Yola, where it was staged for the Zonal Competition, it won. At the then Mariam Babangida Centre for Women Development in 1996, it emerged one of the winners and I went home with a cash prize and automatic employment. I will never thank Dr Othman, Amali and Okpanachi enough for that mentorship in those days at Maiduguri.
By late 1996, I had left the Federal Training Centre Maiduguri for Damaturu, the Yobe State capital, which was just then carved out of Borno – a 160km journey from Maiduguri. In 1999, I published my first book, Voices from the Desert (Ed.). Dr Abubakar Othman and his friend Dr Idris Amali travelled all the way to Damaturu for the book presentation and launch. Othman was very impressed with my book and he rendered an outstanding review. His review of the book, which was carried by many media houses, simply turned me into a local celebrity at the Federal Polytechnic where I worked at that time. The Yobe State governor (represented by his commissioner for education, Alhaji Ibrahim Ali Gadaka), was impressed by the review. He consequently ordered for numerous copies to be distributed to schools in the state. I never stopped wondering what would have been my fate had Othman failed to show up for the event and reviewed the book. Till this day, I never forget that gesture.
Thereafter, Othman became my literary mentor and editor. He gave me free editorial services and used my books to teach Nigerian literature, thereby pushing me to limelight as a writer. He was the most selfless man I have ever met in my life. During the Christopher Okigbo Conference at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Othman came all the way from Maiduguri to Awka in Anambra State at his own expense to present a keynote paper. This was because the Christopher Okigbo Foundation (COF) hadn’t enough funds for some of the expenses associated with the conference.
He was an ‘Okigboist’ to the core. For more than three decades, he taught the poetry of that iconic and legendary Nigerian poet who died fighting at the Nsukka battlefront during the Nigerian-Biafran war. It was his passion for Okigbo and his works that forced me to recommend him to the COF to write the introduction to Moonglow, the special collection of Okigbo’s poems to mark his 50th death anniversary. At the University of Ibadan where the event was held in 2017, he was there and ensured that the conference went well.
Born in 1958 of Fulani parentage in Madagali village of Adamawa State, North East Nigeria, Dr Abubakar Othman holds a PhD in literary psychoanalysis and a Master’s Degree in African Poetry. Until his recent retirement, he taught African Literature and Creative Writing in the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Maiduguri, Nigeria. He was also a man with passion for the people of Nigeria and never stopped dreaming of an egalitarian society. And this was what inspired his adventure into politics. This made him to embark on leave of absence at different times to serve as Special Adviser to the then governor of Adamawa State (Boni Haruna), Honourable Commissioner for Information, Adamawa State, and Spokesperson of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission under the then Chairperson, Mrs Farida Waziri.
A prolific author, Dr Othman was the author of classical books which include: The Palm of Time (poetry, 2000), The Passion of Cupid (poetry collection, 2010), Blood Stream in the Desert (poetry, 2013), Dance of Naked Gods (drama, 2021), Dearlogue (poetry, 2020), Seductive Detective (drama, 2020), Parables of the Pandemic (2021). Sadly, his first and only full-length novel, “Looking Back into the Present” was still under ‘construction’ at the time he passed on.
Othman was an extraordinary man of letters. He was not only a celebrated poet, he taught poetry with a passion. He was a guiding light to several upcoming poets who devoured his works with same passion he used in mentoring them. Meeting Othman was always a turning point in the life of any individual that has accosted his path. A kindred spirit, he was a man of his time. He was versatile, a fantastic communicator with a mastery of the English language which he infused with poetic anecdotes of failed leaderships in Nigeria. He was highly loved and admired by his students to the extent that one of them, Idris Akamu, published a collection of his ‘Quotes.’
Othman was a first class genius. I have never met anything or anybody like him in Nigeria’s literary firmament. A literary colossus he was. He left a remarkable legacy on stage before the unexpected light out. Although Abubakar Othman has indeed exited this earth, I have no doubt that his works will keep him alive for as long as the English language lives. Moreover, he will continue to live in the lives of his students, his readers and all those whom he touched their lives in diverse ways, particularly through his courage, humility, and above all, his extraordinary, creative energy.
Adieu, Dr Abubakar Othman, poet, novelist, literary oracle, wordsmith, polemist, friend, mentor, brother, gentleman, and above all, kindred spirit. Rest in peace. The world of African literature is heavily diminished by your exit. May the heavens welcome you with open hands.
Patrick Tagbo Oguejiofor is a former Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Yobe State Chapter (2000-2004)