Alhaji Ibrahim Yerima Abdullahi, the Sarki Bai Gombe, was a banker, administrator and onetime minister of education. In this interview, the elder statesman, who has traversed many areas of life, shared his experiences. He also said the problem with the President Muhammadu Buhari government were those close to him.
I believe you started your early education here in Gombe, can you give us an insight into that?
It was really an early one. In those days there weren’t too many schools to choose. You would go to school because they drafted you into a situation. We had an elementary school here in Gombe and I was drafted into it. But initially, I pushed myself into it. So there was no question of drafting because I was pushed there by some forces.
But eventually, when I went, our great headmaster, Mallam Hassan, said I was too small. So, I was forced to come back home and spent a melancholy year, waiting for the next turn; I had been following them and making efforts to go to school. Whenever he took pupils for the year he would bring them to the emir; and I know which way he followed.
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Later on, I went and he didn’t see me, but I had the impression that he would repeat the same thing. So I decided to go near the palace where I knew they would bring other pupils. I went and sneaked myself into the group.
When the emir came out and invited the headmaster with the new intakes, I found myself right in front of him (the emir). At one side was the elementary school and the other side, the headmaster. I was also lucky to be noticed by the emir, who asked if I had joined them; he knew what happened. I said yes in front of the headmaster. That was how I got enrolled in the only elementary school at that time.
We went on until 1951 when I passed to the middle school. It was amazing that up to that time, there was nowhere in Gombe where you could have a full primary school, so we were taken to the Bauchi Middle School in January 1952. It was the year that Elizabeth was made the queen.
We didn’t know they were trying to open a senior primary school in Gombe. They did that by posting some of the teachers in Bauchi Middle School. They employed Wazirin Gombe of blessed memory to open the school. Even the native authority was not ready.
The hostel was the house of a senior visiting teacher, Mallam Jaru Gombe of blessed memory. Mallam led a very proper life. In those days he gave his house, where we initially stayed. Some of us were always going to Bauchi. I didn’t pass the examination in my second year, so I went for what they called Middle Two, and from there, I passed to the then Government Secondary School, Zaria. It was among the six secondary schools in the whole of the North, including four missionary schools.
You didn’t have a lot to choose from, so you didn’t have to pay, it was the government that was pushing that. The missionaries were operating these schools, at least four of them. Of course the community school was among the six.
So, we went to Zaria, and when I came back, the native authority drafted me to engineering instead of the Gombe Native Works Department. I didn’t even know that they drafted me and two others in the technical college in Kaduna: the three of us, two are now late –Emir of Gombe, the late Shehu Abubakar, and Salihu, the son of the Galadima at that time.
So three of you went to Kaduna College?
No, we went to Kaduna Technical College. By the way, it was not our choice; as I said, we were drafted. Salihu had the courage to go away, he said he preferred to go to Nigerian College, so two of us remained and did part of the calling and came back and got some time doing practical works.
Gombe Division, now Gombe State, was divided into two. Shehu was in charge of the southern part while I was in charge of the northern part, in terms of road maintenance and construction, culverts, school construction, dispensaries, any engineering work, which was part of our technical experience.
Our job was very interesting; and I did my practical work here for 15 months and went back to complete the course in September 1962.
When I went, I found a situation: the Sardauna and his government had selected 30 students all over northern states to go for an assistant district officers’ course. I didn’t know, but it happened that there was nobody from Bauchi Province, where Gombe fell under. Somehow, I just dropped in Kaduna and said that somebody had to be brought from Bauchi because the people petitioned, asking how 30 people could be selected and nobody was from Bauchi. I think he directed that somebody must be from Bauchi.
I found out that somebody from the Civil Service Commission was inviting people from Bauchi, at least those who had secondary education. And I was asked to come over. I had my school certificate everywhere I went.
It happened that among those from Bauchi, about 10 of us, I was the only one with five credits. That was what qualified me to be taken for the course.
This part of your career is not well known; did you serve as an assistant administrative officer?
I was a staff of the Native Authority, Gombe. It was like the local government of today. The Northern Nigerian Government was the highest, so they did what they wanted. They wanted 30 assistant administration officers of this background and got them. Later on, they sort it out, but not until over 20 years. I was forced to retire from the northern Nigerian civil service. From that course, I joined the Northern Nigerian Government. I was posted to Sokoto Province, Birnin Kebbi, Yawuri, Argungu, Gusau, mainly as an assistant administrative officer.
By 1964, I was deployed from Sokoto Province to Borno. And when you were posted, no questions were asked. I went to Maiduguri first; from there, I was posted to Biu. Incidentally, the roads were not good but you could find your way.
From Biu, I was moved to Potiskum; I ran the two – Potiskum and Biu. Eventually, around October 1965, I was posted to Bama, where they called Dikwa, which was the headquarters. Interestingly, on the day the military intervened in January 1966, I was in a farm house writing my annual report for the previous year and didn’t know what was happening.
I spent the whole night sleeping. And of course, in those days, I had no kids. As young people, we drove ourselves. We travelled with a small pocket-size transistor radio. When I went back to Bama I found that there had been a coup and the Sardauna, Tafawa Balewa, Akintola and many of our military men were killed in the night.
Did you lose your job?
No, I did not. Ironsi was appointed as head of state while Hassan Usman Katsina was made the governor of Northern Nigeria; we continued as civil servants.
Were you married at that time? You moved from one place to another, at what point did you get a family?
Well, I don’t know whether I got married or they got me married, but I had gotten married here traditionally. They took a wife for me. Before I even finished my secondary school I had got a girl I was going to marry. And within our cycle, the son of this would marry the daughter of this, so they reserved a wife for me. Fortunately for her, we married, and we have seven children. Maybe you are the same age with some of my older children. She died many years ago.
At what point in your career did you leave the civil service and become a banker, which is what a lot of people know you for?
In the civil service they encouraged you to train. You would go to school and get professional training. I was posted to the Nigerian Native Authority to serve as secretary in Kaduna. They never consulted me, they just posted me, so I moved to Kaduna.
In Kaduna, one of the benefits was that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sent in offers and I was sent to do a master’s degree in the Institute of Management Education in Boston. That was where I went to.
When I came back, I went to the North East, where I worked as senior secretary, principal liaison secretary, deputy permanent secretary. I became a permanent secretary in 1975 when Muhammadu Buhari was the military governor.
I enjoyed being a permanent secretary because in those days you had a lot of freedom of thought and freedom of association.
Were you in Maiduguri?
When I finished my assignment in the North East I went back to my base in the northeastern state. When they appointed Buhari, I think he was a lieutenant colonel.
When I met him I was in charge of the department that included protocol. It was not exclusively protocol but I was in charge of the department. I was not yet made a permanent secretary but I was supervising the permanent secretary’s office, as well as Buhari’s organising secretary when he came in.
We brought him over to the Government House. He didn’t know us, and the instruction from Lagos was that when Buhari was brought in, I should arrange the same plane to take back the former governor, Musa Usman. And I did that.
I sent a car and an escort to take our former governor to the airport. When he was to leave, he requested to say goodbye to the new governor; and of course, nobody could say yes or no. It was the Government House and they came to me.
As I sat there, the next was my boss, the secretary to the government, then the new governor. It was whispered into my ear that the outgoing governor wanted to say goodbye; and of course, I could not just push my boss aside and go to the governor directly. I told my boss that Musa wanted to say goodbye but he said no. Somehow, I got lost and I didn’t know when I shrieked, which drew the attention of the new governor and he asked what it was and I told him that the former governor wanted to say goodbye but the situation did not accommodate it. He asked who said so and I said nobody. How could I accuse my boss; he knew when we spoke.
The comment Buhari made was what endeared him to me. He said the man going away had spent nine years in the Government House. He said it was Allah who took him out and brought him (Buhari) in, so how could he stop him. He asked where he was and I said he was outside, so he said I should let him come over.
So, I went outside and brought in Musa Usman to see the new governor. I was amazed that Buhari could do that kind of thing despite that the secretary to the government said no. It was very remarkable.
Many people know about your friendship with Buhari, and the assumption is that it started in Jos when you were a banker and associating with him; is that true?
No, it started here. We knew each other in Jos but that episode started building up the friendship because I was disarmed. I was impressed by somebody who appreciated that it was Allah who brought him here and took the other one out.
You found yourself in Jos as an area manager of a bank and he was there as a General Officer Commanding (GOC), did you reconnect from the days of old?
More states were eventually created and I had to come back to Bauchi as a permanent secretary. I was appointed into that position in the North East in July 1975. But based on human nature, I thought I needed change. I enjoyed being a permanent secretary, and I think that in all modesty, I achieved a lot.
I was the first permanent secretary in the Ministry of Works in Bauchi State. I was also a permanent secretary in the Ministry for Local Governments during the reforms. I think I did quite a lot to establish the state.
But after that, I felt I should have a change as I was still young. I was barely 40, but I didn’t have the courage to write for resignation because there were so many things coming through my mind.
After the elections, Alhaji Abubakar Tatari was elected and he found me as a permanent secretary. He was a civil servant who I met in the lower ranks of administration. They were permanent secretaries in Lagos and when he came here I was a permanent secretary, but he appointed me among his commissioners and I didn’t like that.
You didn’t like to be a commissioner?
No, I didn’t.
I felt I could achieve quite a lot as a permanent secretary. And I think I did that in getting Bauchi State to take off. I can still see my handiwork in Bauchi, not just in Bauchi town but all over the state. I can see the kind of improvements we did within a short time.
Did you quit because you were asked to be a commissioner?
I wanted to go away, so I told him I could not be a commissioner, but he insisted. He was my elder brother’s personal friend, so he sent for him and they used the domestic stick and I stayed. Eventually, I said I thought I had done enough and should look for greener pastures.
And that was the bank?
Yes. I applied to the United Bank for Africa (UBA). I told you that I attended the Institute of Management and Administration in Boston. The UBA took me straight away as a principal manager, which was better than a commissioner in terms of remuneration. But that was not the only attraction. The attraction was the opportunity for another career. I felt satisfied. I think I achieved quite a lot in the civil service of Northern Nigeria, North East and Bauchi State.
Tell us about the Jos days and the story with Buhari because it seemed to have eventually launched you to the national scene as a minister. A lot of people associate that with your friendship from Jos, don’t you think so?
I don’t see it that way, but I know there was acquaintance.
Didn’t he treat you as his former staff from Maiduguri?
I don’t know, but at least he knew me. He never avoided accepting that we knew each other. But I could not see him influencing me in my job as an area manager; and of course, there was no way I could influence him as a military man. Eventually, there was a coup and he heard that he was appointed the head of state.
Were you surprised?
I was not surprised because at that time Buhari actually gave me the impression that he was a kind of perfect human being, if there was any. He had the intuition and effort to work hard. In those days, his analytical capacity was excellent. So I had always thought Buhari could be a leader of this country.
Were you nominated as a minister from the state or he made the decision because he knew you?
Wallahi, I didn’t know how it happened. I was invited.
Were you surprised that suddenly, as a manager in Jos you were asked to become a minister?
I was not surprised because in the civil service we had developed much self confidence in ourselves, such that we felt we could carry on any responsibility given to us. You see, youthful exuberance is a lot of things, but with the kind of background training we had in the civil service under the Sardauna and beyond, we felt that even if you appointed me a head of state I could carry on.
As a minister of education there would have been some challenges; how was it?
I encountered many. In fact, I never imagined myself as a minister but they found me suitable. As I said, I wouldn’t run away from it or any assignment given to me; that was how we were trained in northern Nigeria. Of course we are human beings that cannot be perfect, but certainly, there was no way we could run away from responsibilities.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when you were in that job, the ones you can remember?
Oh, many. First of all, being a minister in Nigeria is overwhelming, and of all places, the Ministry of Education. But we went on trying. However, I found some very good supporting members of staff in the ministry.
I remember one Mallam Yahaya (Hamza), whom we called Yahaya Kaduna, who gave me absolute support. I will never forget him. I tried to read and learn a lot about the Ministry of Education with various structures.
By the time I came, we had 14 directorates in the ministry and I wondered how one could run a place dealing with 14 different people. So, my first idea was to restructure the ministry. We restructured it into four different directorates. We appointed coordinating directors and grouped the directorates. We selected those we considered the best to run them.
Mallam Yahaya of blessed memory was the first to be appointed a coordinating director. We also found three others. Because of the Nigerian situation we were not to appoint all of them from one part of the country, but we did; and I think that during my time, it worked very well.
In the Ministry of Education I saw my constituency as the whole country. In many cases, I remembered the brilliant heads we had in the university system and utilised their brains. Jibril Aminu worked for me very well because he became a vice chancellor in Maiduguri. He knew quite well. I think I succeeded during my time.
Although you are not a military man, do you have an insight into why the Buhari military government didn’t last long?
It was military politics.
Don’t you have any special insight into the reasons that government did not last long?
Well, you can pick one and two here, but the main thing is that Buhari was not open-handed, so people couldn’t make extra naira from him. I believe that was the main reason. A lot of his colleagues wanted to grab a lot of things and he didn’t have that inclination.
Do you think some things have changed in the Buhari you saw as a perfect Nigerian?
Do you want us to talk about Buhari now?
It is a logical question that arises in our conversation.
Babatunde Idiagbon was the chief of staff who worked perfectly with Buhari. The nice thing is that people believed they were not corrupt, so when they were removed, people were not surprised. Those who inherited from them were certainly their opposite.
As one of Buhari’s well known friends, what do you make of what is happening now and what you saw in those days of the North East, as well as when you served as minister? What do you think are the challenges?
I think every government will do well with very hardworking and deep thinking support staff, not merely a kitchen cabinet. It is good for every head of government to have a strong kitchen cabinet, but I think that today, Buhari has a problem with his kitchen cabinet. That does not include his ministers but those who are closest to him. I think the problem started with them and remains with them.
Buhari and Idiagbon never tolerated any element of corruption. Although they were not perfect as human beings, they never stole, and they never deliberately ignored corruption.
Do you think that is happening now because of the kind of people in government?
I don’t know, but I am surprised at some of the things that come out of the government. Early last week, some people were convicted after investigation and trial, which the country accepted as something good. But suddenly, it was announced that former governors, at least two of them, had been forgiven. That is a great surprise because it will wipe out all the impressions and efforts of a corruption-free society because those investigations were done by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). People have become very worried. It is surprising that after investigating, sending some ex-governors to court and convicting one of them for about 12 years and the other to so many years, suddenly, they have been forgiven. I think this is a shocker.
Are you in a position to advise the government on what is going on?
I used to, but suddenly, I have seen that getting access to those in government is not that easy.
Even for someone like you?
I was Buhari’s friend for many years but not this time around when he came back as head of state. The group in charge is different.
You fought very hard for Gombe State to be created; are you satisfied with what is going on here?
I will loudly say yes. All those sectors we complained about forced us to ask for our own state.
But there are complaints about white elephant projects, such as the airport, which is hardly used; is it truly commercially viable?
Whoever said the airport is hardly used is not correct. We live here and know that from Gombe we fly directly to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia; and it is being done once or twice.
What about in terms of priority in the state?
Well, government funds are being used to build projects, which have been useful. They are giving us service and some of our people are being employed there, so what better use do we have for it? I mean, there are other states that are not better endowed.
But some people say there is a nearby viable airport in Bauchi that could serve the state, so why build another one?
Interestingly, things have changed. I know there are daily flights in and out of Gombe. And in many cases, the plane will be about 80 per cent full, so what better use do we have? Not only that, those who own private jets like you use the airport.
You retired and went into politics a little bit but quickly retreated, is there something under the table we don’t know?
There is nothing under the table; everything is on top of it. I contested and lost; and there’s no problem. That is life.
Were you hurt that you lost an election?
I wouldn’t say yes or no, but certainly, being human, if you want something and you don’t get it, you would feel bad. But as far as I am concerned, it is not final as you would become a better person. Whenever you try something, there are chances that you either win or lose. It is not something you would run away from.
I am just a better person and that is why I am not into politics now. I have refused to take anybody’s card. Once upon a time I took the All Progressives Congress (APC) card. I also took that of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) because I brought the party here. So no hard feelings at all.
But I am glad that we have a Gombe State; and with all modesty, I think we are contributing our very best to the development of our country, Nigeria. This is what I am happy about in Gombe.
You are 84 but looking young, what do you do to occupy your time?
I don’t know about anything young, but I don’t think my age has stopped me from thinking of ideas.
I am certainly not young as I cannot take my car and drive to Sokoto or Lagos as I would do in those days. But I am certainly creative and very active in mind and brainstorming on ideas all the time.
Do you belong to associations like the Northern Elders Forum?
I am afraid, no. But fortunately for me, I am not only well known in this country, I also know a lot of people.
Do you engage in farming?
I do farming mainly for what I eat and give to my relatives. I grow guinea corn, millet, beans and vegetables.
Are you saying it is just as a hobby?
It is not commercial, although in many cases I end up doing so. I give out to some friends and the needy. Some of my children have taken over some of my big farms.
But I have kept this farm here and turning it into some kind of religious centre. I built a mosque on it.
Do you still travel around the country or outside?
I have finished my travelling, except going to Mecca and Medina, which I like. I have no intention or desire to go to Europe or America, or anywhere else. I think I can claim to have seen quite a lot.
How is family life for you?
It is beautiful because God has blessed me with 19 children –10 girls and 9 boys. Of all of these, my youngest daughter is in her final year in the university. Some of the others are your colleagues. The youngest, Yakubu, is also married and he has a job.
I have three wives, and they make me very happy because we include a lot of comic situations. You will be surprised if you come to our cycle because the house is very peaceful.
Don’t they gang up against you?
No, not any more. In fact, it has reached a stage where I can set one of them to “fight” against the other two. I thank Allah for giving me this kind of background, but there is still a lot to be done because as long as you continue breathing, that is not the end of life.