On Friday 13th August, a renowned public servant, a quiet statesman, a genial and benign gentleman, Alhaji Ahmed Joda, passed away at the handsome age of 91.
If he had been from a different part of the country or belonged to a different faith, his funeral would have been a carnival of sorts that would have been called a “celebration of life.”
For someone who retired from public service as far back as 1978, his name reverberated amongst the generations that followed. So influential and powerful was he that the media knighted him and a few others “Super Perm Secs.” By the age of 35, in 1965, he was conferred with the national merit award of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). In the course of his luminous life, he would bag two more—Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON) and Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR).
His integrity, humility and honesty would have been wasted had various administrations not tapped into these in his post-retirement period, first to lead the transition to civil rule in 1979, the 1988 Constituent Assembly, and, in 1999, as a member of the committee to advise on poverty alleviation and most recently, to lead the Buhari Transition Committee in 2015.
I met Ahmed Joda on a couch at the Yar’adua Centre in 2017. Prior to that, I never had any interaction with him. But when Jackie Farris, the then director of the Yar’Adua Centre in Abuja called and mentioned that Ahmed Joda wanted to see me, I was surprised.
“He has read your book and wants to meet and just talk,” she said.
This was a year after my novel Season of Crimson Blossoms won the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature.
I was at first surprised that he had even read my book, that at his age, in his late 80s at that time, he still engaged with contemporary fiction. And considering the themes of the book—the often complex familial and sexual relations in the North, politics, civic violence and trauma, I wondered if he intended to scold me for daring to write such a book.
A few days later, Jackie called to inform me that Ahmed Joda was coming to Abuja for an event at the Yar’Adua Centre. We met in the lobby after the event. Other than being warm and pleasant, his face betrayed nothing of why he wanted to see me. Staring deeply into my eyes, he gathered the sleeves of his white (or was it cream-coloured) babban riga, shook my hands and said, “I have read your book.”
I told him that Jackie had informed me of that already.
Jackie kindly ushered us to a private room, made some small talk and excused herself. “So, you two can talk.”
That did nothing to relieve my unease.
Joda sat on the sofa and parted a space beside him. Politely, I demurred. We were not brought up to share the same seat with our elders. I sat on the rug and rested my elbow on the edge of the seat.
We exchanged greetings, enquired about each other’s wellbeing. Quickly, the small talk between two persons unfamiliar with each other petered out.
“I am on the board of the NLNG,” he began. “Every year they send me a copy of the winning book of the prize. I was curious about yours and read it.”
Again the dramatic pause. Considering how old he was, how familiar he was with the North of which I wrote and has had a tremendous experience of life, I admit I worried he would berate me for my portrayal. It wouldn’t be the first time. Some conservatives have accused me, not of falsehood, but of “exposing” too much in the novel, that certain things, even though they reluctantly confess are very prevalent in this part of the world, are best left unsaid. I wondered if he was of this inclination as well.
“I was so impressed,” he said. “And I felt I needed to see you, just to commend you for having the courage to write such a book,” he said. “I know it could not have been easy and I am sure our people would have a lot to say about it. But I want you to know your book made me reflect on our society.”
Of course, those words meant a lot to a writer writing about a place and a people that prominent and knowledgeable persons from that place recognise that portrayal and welcome it for its “sincerity.”
In retrospect, I suppose his commendation was something I desired but didn’t realise at the time. My father was not as old as Joda was at the time when he passed early in 2016 before he had the chance to get a copy of my novel. There was something avuncular, even fatherly, to Joda’s approach that gave his words a deeper resonance in my mind.
My unease melted. I smiled and thanked him.
We talked, amongst other things, about the values of the North, what they mean and what we interpret them as and how often these subjective interpretations hold back the region and its people.
We talked about the duplicity of zealots, cultural warriors and politicians, which he thought my book captured very well.
At the time of our meeting, I was invested in researching issues around the Civil War, whose commencement would clock fifty years later that year. Joda was in government during the unfortunate events of 1966 that led to the war in 1967 as a senior public servant.
After the war, as the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education, he was charged with rebuilding the education architecture of the old Eastern Region devastated by the war. I seized that opportunity to ask him something I have been contemplating for a while.
The narrative of the war defied the logic of the victors’ dictating the tale as a fair deal of the account of that war was either from the ‘neutrals’ or from the Biafran side.
“Why did witnesses like you, who were in government at the time, decided not to document your experiences?”
He paused, head inclined. “In retrospect, I think our silence was a mistake because we thought that when you quarrel with your brother, there is no need to rub it in by talking about it because you are going to live together. You make peace and move on, not gloat about it, which we thought talking about it would amount to,” he said.
Customarily, that would have been a commendable gesture. But his generation’s silence led to a transference of that trauma and a burden of rationalising their decisions to our generation that neither fought the war nor witnessed it. When I mentioned this, he concurred and, in recognising that times are different, said they would have handled things differently.
He conceded that much when the conversation swung to the conflict in Jos, which formed the background to the novel. The practice of sweeping these things under the carpet, rather than resolving them, hoping they would go away of their own accord as has happened over the years in Jos and the persistent farmer/herders clashes, has proved unsuccessful. Perhaps, if successive administrations have paid attention to Joda’s recommendations on addressing the herders/farmers conflict, things could have been different.
It was, I suppose, ironic that his death would occur on the same day as the Jos crises flared up again, 20 years after it first ticked off. That, and other national issues of greater urgency, meant I could not write about my encounter with Joda until now.
Over the years, we spoke several times on the phone, making polite enquiries about each other’s wellbeing.
The biggest takeaway from my encounter with this fine gentleman is that it takes nothing to reach out to others. You just don’t know how much your words would mean to them.
May Allah accept his beautiful soul with compassion.