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Golden voice falls silent

Dazzling oratory died in Nigeria last week with the passing to eternity of Danmasanin Kano Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule, the last great Nigerian orator still…

Dazzling oratory died in Nigeria last week with the passing to eternity of Danmasanin Kano Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule, the last great Nigerian orator still standing since the death of Dr. Kenneth Ozumba [K.O.] Mbadiwe in 1990. The ranks of true believers in Nigerian unity also depleted with the death of Maitama Sule. At more than 1,000 public lectures that he delivered in the last 30 years, his essential message was the unity of Nigeria, the greatness of its founding fathers and their wisdom in holding us together. The ranks of eminent Nigerian elder statesmen also depleted with the death of Yusuf Maitama Sule who was a teacher, a politician, a public servant at different levels and a dedicated community leader rolled into one for six decades. 

I was not old enough to know Maitama Sule during the First Republic, the youngest minister of that era who joined the federal cabinet at 29.  When I first began reading newspapers as a primary school kid in 1970, Maitama Sule was a commissioner under the military governor of Kano State, Police Commissioner Audu Bako. In those days commissioners were very prominent in the newspapers, maybe because the North as a whole had only six military governors, no special advisers and each state had far fewer commissioners than we have these days. In 1971-75 I compiled a photo album of each state with its military governor and its commissioners. As I searched the newspapers everyday for pictures of commissioners, Maitama Sule was one of the most prominent of them, his trademark gurus cap, slanted to one side of his head, was recognisable from afar. 

In 1975 Head of State General Murtala Mohammed created the Public Complaints Commission and appointed Maitama Sule as its first Federal Commissioner. In 1976 he undertook a nationwide tour to popularise its mandate. When he arrived in Sokoto, my uncle Alhaji Garba Jega, who was a senior driver in the Cabinet Office, was assigned to drive him from the airport into the town. Now, Maitama Sule was my father’s classmate at Kaduna College in the 1940s. My uncle’s name as well as his facial resemblance to my father alerted Danmasani, but he was not the kind of person who would go to the point directly. Instead, he began complaining loudly that “There are bad people in this Sokoto! Look at Muhammadu Jega. I am here in Sokoto and he will not even bring fura to me!” My uncle, who is very reserved, did not say anything so Maitama Sule poked him and said, “Are you not Muhammadu Jega’s brother?” Alhaji Garba said, “I am,” and Danmasani said, “Why did you keep quiet when I was saying all those things? I was saying them to provoke you!”

In September 1978 when Second Republic politics kicked off in earnest, Maitama Sule resigned from Public Complaints Commission and joined the National Party of Nigeria, NPN. He soon came to Sokoto for NPN’s launching in Gwadabawa. As children we heard a lot of stories about politics and politicians but that event at Gwadabawa was the first time I ever saw a political rally, albeit on television. I was more than dumbstruck when I saw Maitama Sule’s performance on television that night. He was extremely eloquent, saying the same thing in a dozen different ways [Handama, a handame, ayi babakere…”]. He wore his trademark gown with the falmaret tucked inside but when drummers arrived at the rally, Danmasani broke into an elegant dance that electrified the scene. I could see why the Sokoto NPN brought him for its first rally. Being his mates in the NPC, they knew the stuff he was made of.

In November 1978 NPN held its “nominating convention” in Lagos. Its presidential ticket was zoned to the North and six aspirants contested. At the end of the first round of voting Alhaji Shehu Shagari came first; Maitama Sule came second; Adamu Ciroma was third. The three other contestants were Chief Joseph Tarka, Dr. Olusola Saraki and Prof Iya Abubakar. The first three were to go for a runoff election but on NTA News that night we saw Maitama Sule and Ciroma conceding to Shagari. When Shagari took over as president in October 1979 he made Maitama Sule Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN. In that capacity he also chaired the UN’s Special Committee Against Apartheid. Danmasani deployed all his charisma and eloquence to the two assignments over the next four years. 

In 1983 Maitama Sule was among Shagari’s ministerial nominees. Before they were sworn-in all media speculation was that he would go to External Affairs, as the Foreign Ministry was called at the time. According to a Guardian newspaper story at the time, just before the ministers were sworn in, a Presidency official circulated a paper containing their portfolios. Indeed Danmasani was slotted for External Affairs, according to the report, but it was cancelled with a biro and “National Guidance” was written above it. When we read that account, my brothers asked me if I had ever heard of a Ministry of National Guidance. Indeed I had; in an old copy of Egypt Yearbook 1968, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser had a Minister of National Guidance in his cabinet. Perhaps Shagari deployed Maitama Sule there because one of his pet themes was to carry out an “ethical revolution” in Nigeria. There was no time to make an impact; the military overthrew the Second Republic three months later.

In 1991 we interviewed Maitama Sule for a Citizen magazine story on 25 years since the death of Sardauna in the 1966 coup. He told us one unforgettable story. After the 1964 federal elections ended in a stalemate, NPC’s top leaders renegotiated the NPC/NCNC alliance in order to form the federal government. Maitama Sule and other younger NPN elements were angry because NCNC fought the 1964 election together with Action Group under the UPGA alliance, so they mobilised to vote down the deal when it is tabled at a party conference. He said they were surprised that Sardauna made no move to stop them even though he knew about the plot. At the party meeting, Maitama Sule sat in the back row from where he was coordinating the rebellion. Sardauna called on Defence Minister Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu to brief the meeting on the deal. As soon as Ribadu finished, Sardauna said a prayer and closed the meeting. As the giant Premier was walking out, he stopped by Maitama Sule’s seat and wished him luck in the voting! 

In the 1990s and the first half of last decade when I lived in Kaduna, Maitama Sule was extremely regular on the public lecture circuit. Almost every major seminar, public lecture, major state occasion, book launch, project commissioning or school convocation was not complete without Yusuf Maitama Sule. He dazzled audiences with his oratory. He had powerful command of English and Hausa and he threw in Arabic as well. He held audiences spell bound with his intimate personal knowledge of Nigeria’s history and politics derived from his front row seat in the First and Second Republics as well as during the long military era.

Now the golden voice has fallen silent. Nigeria’s seminar and public lecture circuit is suddenly empty. One of the most reliable, most earnest and most knowledgeable voices for national unity and peaceful coexistence has fallen silent. This most accessible statesman who blazed across the national scene for many decades like a shooting star has gone. The vacuum created by the death of Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule may be impossible to fill. May Allah grant his soul eternal rest in Aljannat. 

This tribute to Maitama Sule was first published in Daily Trust of July 2, 2017.


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