How I became ABU’s VC at 40 — Ango Abdullahi | Dailytrust

How I became ABU’s VC at 40 — Ango Abdullahi

Professor Ango Abdullahi is the chairman of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF). The onetime vice chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, and...

Professor Ango Abdullahi
Professor Ango Abdullahi

Professor Ango Abdullahi is the chairman of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF). The onetime vice chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, and former special adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo on Food Security spoke to Trust TV on his early days, how he became the vice chancellor of the ABU at 40, as well as other interesting matters.


By Kabiru A Yusuf


You said that in those days you were virtually captured and taken to school; how did that happen?

In those years, our people referred to western education as boko – makarantan boko, so children were virtually conscripted by community leaders and sent to primary schools. And my father, being a village head, was required to provide a number of school children from his own area to go to a primary school in Kaya, not even in his own village of administration, Yakawada. He wanted to set an example by picking from his family members, out of where there was a cousin of mine, the son of his elder sister who was at the correct school age. So he got him into the list of others coming from other villages that he would submit to the district head and eventually will be taken to Kali Elementary School.

His children, my elder brothers, were two at the time, but they were beyond the age of going to elementary school, so he couldn’t have possibly picked anyone of them. He, therefore, picked my cousin, who was completely under his care because his elder sister had died and he had brought her children. So he took it for granted that he could do this without any insinuation coming from any quarters.

Soon after, the insinuations started coming, that he took his sister’s son to boko and refused to take his own blood children; and he heard it. Then I was only six years old.

It really offended him and he knew where the comments were coming from. All he did was to say I should go to elementary school at that age of 6. It was mid 1940s. It was strange because I was yet to even be circumcised.

Of course my mother reacted; she was very angry and asked, “Why should this child be taken away from home to an elementary school 11 miles away?” He said this was his decision and that is the way it had to be.

But fortunately, somewhere along the line, the wife of the primary school teacher was a younger sister to my mother, so they tried to persuade my mother to understand that “this child is going to your sister to be looked after, just like you are going to look after him here, so you don’t need to worry.” She still didn’t want to agree.

In any case, decisions at that time hardly challenged, so I was taken off to elementary school, together with my cousin, who was then mature enough to go to school. That’s how we got captured.

I was virtually whisked away from my mother.

So I went to my aunt who was the wife of the elementary school teacher. After spending one year, I was brought back home for the ritual of circumcision. I had my circumcision at the age of seven and went back to school.

Your education started under those circumstances, but it proceeded so well that you were one of the first set of northern secondary school students to go to Ibadan to do your first degree. I believe this was in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Is that correct?

It is true. I went to secondary school in the early 1950s. In fact, it was really coincidental or destiny. When I was six, even before coming back at the age of seven for my circumcision, I was already branded by the teacher, who happened to be the husband of my aunt, as yaro da gari. The reason was simply because when the older boys were challenged to answer some questions in the classroom and they could not, he would say, “Yaro da gari come and answer this question.”

Were you the youngest in the class?

Yes. And of course it had very difficult consequences for me. The teacher was pleased with me and would yell at the older students, and so on. The consequence of that was that during break, outside the classroom, I got a lot of beatings from those who perhaps considered themselves to have been disgraced by the teacher on account of my answering these questions.

At some point, when I found out that I was beaten constantly because I answered questions, I declined answering the questions. 

I would say, “I don’t know.” That was how I saved myself from being beaten by older students.

Incidentally, I did not complete primary education in Kaya; I did that in Giwa. The new Giwa was just finishing a primary school, so my father decided that it was nearer to Kaya, so I was transferred to Giwa Elementary School in my final year. From there I passed the exams to come to Zaria Middle School. At that time, from elementary school you would go to middle school; then from middle school, if you passed your exam you would go to secondary school.

Professor Ango Abdullahi during the Trust TV interview


This was Government College, Kaduna?

Government College, Zaria, which was later renamed Berewa College.

How were you selected to go to Ibadan? It was the only university then and I imagine it was very competitive to get space from the North.

That is true. The problem is that there were very few northerners in the secondary school system at the time. In 1950 there were only two government secondary schools in northern Nigeria; Government College, Zaria that moved from Kaduna College to its permanent site in Zaria as Government College, Zaria; and a new one was just to be started in Keffi – Government College, Keffi. These were the two government secondary schools in northern Nigeria around 1950.

About that time, the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology was created in three places; Zaria, Ibadan and Enugu. It was from secondary school results – West African School Certificate results – that students who qualified for post-secondary education were taken to either directly to the University College, Ibadan to do preliminary studies or could go to the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, in the case of those of us in Zaria.

That was how we qualified to go to the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology to do our A levels after school certificate. Those who were successful moved to degree programmes at the University College, Ibadan.

How was life for you in Ibadan as a young northerner; was it really difficult?

The point is that when some of us arrived in Ibadan, of course people were asking questions. They didn’t believe we could be qualified enough from the North to come to the University College, Ibadan. It was not even University of Ibadan yet because it was a college of the University of London, so those of us who got admission into it eventually ended up with degrees from the University of London, not University College, Ibadan.

When we got to Ibadan, the student population in 1960 was 2,400 total. And the total number of northern students was less than 400. Most of them came from northern provinces rather than Kano, Katsina, Zaria and so on. Most of the students that qualified after A-levels in Zaria were from Kabba, Plateau, you know. It was Saurdana’s North, whether one came from Sokoto or Gboko, wherever it was.

In Ibadan in 1961 we found some of our elders who were seniors; some of them were just finishing – people like Garba Ja Abdulkadir, Chief Sunday Awoniyi, Adamu Ciroma. Few of them who were ahead of us in the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology like Iya Abubakar had finished.

Was life difficult, or did you blend and make friends?

Coming from Zaria and a rural background as I did, of course we were okay in some respect. The Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology population was not substantially different from the mix I found in Ibadan because the students there were from all over Nigeria. We had the mix of all the major tribes and so on. We made friends with them. Of course we were in different departments. At the college there was a degree in engineering but it was affiliated to the University of London. There were professional courses like fine arts, architecture, and so on. There were students from all over Nigeria, so it wasn’t extremely difficult to get the correct mix. But in the course I picked to study, there were only five of us from the North – myself, a very close friend of mine, Senator Jibrin, who passed away last year; Pwajok from Plateau, Ibukunle from Offa.

Things were not as easy as that.It is difficult to describe it.

This was Agriculture, right?


Was there discrimination?

Well, the politics of the country reflected in the population of students in Ibadan because the moment you came out of your hall in the morning you would see newspapers laid out for you to buy if you wished, or you could read and go to classes. From the headlines you would know papers that were from which part of Nigeria.

I would like to emphasize that I don’t mean any disrespect, but some of my lecturers were clearly discriminatory.

I remember how one of them one day he came quietly from behind and removed my cap when I was doing my practical in his laboratory. You know our mode of dressing as northerners: kaftan with caps. He took it off from my head and threw it out of the window and said, “Look, my father is a traditional ruler, I have a dress just like your own, so you don’t come to my class with caps.”

Months or years later, we tried to find out who he really was and realised that he came from a strong traditional rulership background, which was very close to the hot politics of those days in western Nigeria – the Action Group. So you see clearly that there was a lot of politicking that reflected the larger society.

Most of us left Zaria as radical Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) boys, but when we got to Ibadan and found that our names were hardly called, we were only called Malam, we had no choice but to form the NPC club. The secretary of the NPC club is still alive, Ambassador Guzabe. We were very active in the politics of the campus and that of the country.

Fortunately for us, there was crisis between Chief S.N. Akintola and his former boss, Chief Awolowo. He was in charge of the radio, so any time we had an article for the NPC club in the university they would air it and the campus would say we were making so much noise.

We realised that whether you said you were different from the NPC or not, you were definitely Hausa-Fulani.

So the experience there made you more conservative?

Well, it was more of change of attitude in some respects because of politics and our background in the North. Many of us came from traditional homes and so on. People like Bala Usman, a friend of mine, MD. Yusuf and so on, were radical politicians, and you could see that in many homes.

We saw politics as an opportunity to exchange views and ideas; and these views and ideas were going to serve the interest of the public,. A guide to this philosophy was no other person than a young political leader, Mallam Aminu Kano. That is why there was this aggregation of young people in the young NEPU club.

But things began to look different as we saw politics played largely on the basis of where you came from – your ethnic background and so on. The comments that usually came from newspapers reflected these biases.

So there is nowhere to run to; you just have to adjust your inkling, at least for that moment so that people will understand that your adjustment is to indicate that things cannot be done without reason. There must be a good reason why somebody will just set his mind against a people.

Most people thought that many of us went to Ibadan because Saurdana forced it. This was in spite of the fact that in the classes and in the discipline where we were pursuing, we had very bright students: Iya Abubakar made first class honours, Jibril Aminu took virtually five of the six final medical exam prices.

When you finished you came back and took up a job in Zaria at the Institute of Agriculture Research. It seems you had a fair career in Zaria – you were an officer and became a director of the institute, deputy vice chancellor and vice chancellor rather quickly. It looks very fairytale.

I sometimes look at it that way because I think I became a vice chancellor at the age of 39 or 40. You see, only four of us graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1964, and when we arrived in Kaduna, there were government vehicles waiting for northerners coming from Ibadan with degrees. And of course, the government was aware of our scholarships. Each one was known to study XYZ and each one was taken to the appropriate ministry straight away.

I was taken to Ministry of Agriculture. The permanent secretary at that time was Mohammed Lawani from Maiduguri. When I got in he said, “Well you just finished from Ibadan, congratulations; we saw your result and you are going to Samaru.”

But going to Samaru, in some way, meant that I was being posted to the ABU, which was an independent institution. It hired its own staff; the government did not recruit for it. So because of the creation of the Ahmadu Bello University and the Institute for Agriculture Research, one’s professional background had been absorbed. And we didn’t want to lose that link between the products of research and the applications of products of research on the farms.

So we created a new unit based in Samaru, called Agriculture Research Liaison Section, belonging to the ministry. It didn’t belong to the university. And that was where you would go as a ministry staff posted to Samaru and housed in the Institute for Agriculture Research, but your main job was to keep an eye on research results, interpreting them for the benefit of extension workers who were working with farmers.

The unit was new and one of my seniors, Mallam Yaro Zaidu, was one of them. There was Professor Alazi from Benue, Malam Ahmed Jema, a chemist, who was from Bauchi. There was a Sierra Leonean, who was then the head of the unit, Mr Parry.

Our job was not to become research officers but to become interpreters of research for the purpose of field work to advice extension staff, agricultural officers, agriculture superintendents and so on, who were working directly for the ministry.

The then Northern Nigerian Government paid so much attention to agriculture development. In fact, the whole country was dependent on agriculture; that was why those of us who worked virtually toured every village in the North for the purpose of promoting agriculture.

That was my first posting when I arrived in 1964. I have dual bosses: one directly in my unit and the other one the head of the Institute for Agriculture Research, who eventually took care of the research responsibility of the institute. At the same time he reported to the government in terms of the benefits of the research for the purpose of agriculture development in northern Nigeria.

That was where we stayed for two years, then the 1966 coup came and we lost our parents, leaders, political leaders and so on. Things began to change everywhere, including the ABU.

When Ironsi arrived with his secretary to the government, I think he was Nwokede, they immediately sacked the vice chancellor of the university.

Professor Ango Abdullahi making a point


Which university?

Ahmadu Bello.

Was that Alexander?

Exactly, he was recruited from the University of Ibadan, Department of Physics, to become the Vice chancellor of the ABU. After the coup, Ironsi’s government decided he should leave the country.

Was he British?

No, he was a New Zealander. And there were two Igbo senior lecturers in the Department of Engineering. I told you that the Nigerian college was running an engineering programme on behalf of the University of Ibadan for the University of London, so quickly they started to lobby. One of them was to replace Alexander.

Of course, Mabede, who was the chairman of Council, together with his colleagues, Labanbaki, Ahmed Coommasie etc, said the university belonged to northern Nigeria and every employee of the university, including the vice chancellor, was the employee of the Council, and nobody consulted them when Alexander was removed, so they did not agree.

I think Gen Hassan told us that a decision had been taken since it was a military government. As a military man, he was already appointed as the governor of the northern provinces because the North was already being converted to provinces.

They said no, ‘we don’t agree, but if he has to leave, we are going to appoint a new vice chancellor ourselves, we don’t accept any appointment from anywhere else.’ These were principled people and leaders. And Hassan agreed.

At that time, to be honest to you, the most senior persons with academic qualification to teach in the university were two or three, including Ishaya Audu. I met him in Zaria and he went to University of Lagos. At some point, in fact, he was the personal physician of Saurdana.

Then Professor Iya Abubakar had just returned from Cambridge with his PhD in Physics or Mathematics. And with that basic qualification you would start from lecturer 2 .

Then there was one Mallam Balarabe; I think he was from Funtua. He was also teaching Mathematics when we were doing our A-level. I can say he was qualified to teach in the university.

That was how Ishaya Audu eventually emerged. They asked who they had and they sent for Audu to come from Lagos. They constituted a Council meeting. He was waiting outside, and after a few minutes they brought him in and said, ‘You are appointed VC of Ahmadu Bello University.’

How were you appointed as vice chancellor?

I was telling you about the transition from the ministry to the university. We have since converted into a research institute.

You had done your master’s and PhD?

I had done master’s and so on.

Was your appointment dramatic; how did it happen?

No; I became the deputy director of the institute at some point; and when Obasanjo decided to post vice chancellors to universities, it was total aberration. They did not go through the process of normal appointment of vice chancellors, which is usually stated in the law of each university.

Not through the Council?

He posted Prof Akinkunmi, who was teaching medicine in Ibadan. Of course he became the vice chancellor of the University of Ilorin through the normal procedures. He took the late Mahmud Tukur to the University of Lagos. Tukur said he was not going because Lagos did not invite him to be VC. He refused to go and he brought Ezelor to Kano.

When Prof Akinkunmi eventually settled down in Zaria, after two or three months, a telephone call came to the institute that the vice chancellor wanted to see me.

Were you a deputy director or director?

I was a director. When I went he said, “Ango I didn’t teach you in Ibadan, but I taught your friends — Prof Musa, Jubri Aminu and the rest of them.” He taught them medicine, he is a cardiologist like Jubri Aminu.

He said, “I have settled down in the university now, I know who is who and I have called you to ask whether you will agree to be the deputy vice chancellor to work with me.”

I said, “It is a great honour that out of so many of us, equals, professors, heads of departments, deans, I could be so recognised, I am particularly grateful, thank you very much sir. But sir, I want to ask for a little time to go and consult with my staff in the institute because this is the largest research institute; in fact, the largest institute in the university. I need to know the implication of sharing my time between the main campus and the institute. So I want you to permit me to go and discuss this with my colleagues, then I will come back and give you an answer.” And he said that was very good.

That was the excuse I gave. There were other reasons, but I felt I needed more time to consult. So I called colleagues, including Bala Usman and the rest of them and said, “I am invited by the VC to be his deputy, what do you think?”

It was a debate. Some said yes while some said no, but at the end of the day, the yes had it because they said if I did not accept there would be consequences for the university.

So I accepted and reported to him. He said, “You have a tradition of two deputy vice chancellors but I have a tradition of only one, so that the command structure is very clear. You will be one deputy vice chancellor.” That was how I accepted to be deputy VC, sharing my time between the institute and the main campus.

The university remained turbulent because of Obasanjo’s decision to post vice chancellors rather than allow universities to choose them.

You know the ABU is a hot spot, so things didn’t go well. The VC was not at ease with the events and the students and staff were getting organised, so riot broke out.

I was in Zaria visiting Berewa College for an assignment, then we saw smoke at Samaru and I told Babaro that it was from the main campus and we should go back. We went back and found out that the campus was virtually on fire.

As deputy vice chancellor I started looking for my VC. I phoned everywhere I knew I could get him but I couldn’t find him. Eventually, when I got him I said I was worried about his safety.

Later, there was some arrangement for security to take him to Ilorin or Ibadan. Obasanjo had already arranged for his evacuation back home.

 The chairman of Council came down and said that since the VC had actually abdicated, we should re-designate acting VC. So I was referred to as acting VC. And that was the beginning of the work for me.

Professor Ango Abdullahi


Was there opposition to your promotion?

No at all. The Council was pleased and gave me instruction for advert to be put out for recruiting a new vice chancellor, which is perfectly the procedure. We did it with the registrar and adverts were put out and people started to apply.

After about weeks, the registrar reviewed the applications that had arrived and they did not see my name because I did not apply. So the word got out that acting VC did not show interest, so some of my friends and colleagues started to worry me and said I had not applied, I said I was not interested.

When I was invited to be deputy VC I was very reluctant because I was enjoying my job as research officer and fellow. I refused to apply. So they said I had to apply, but I said I would not.

So by coincidence, at that time my own university was due, so while Ibrahim was registrar he came to me and he said he wanted me as VC and I said for what? He said the Council asked him for some people to show interest and some people suggested your name. I told him even here in ABU I have not applied. I am not interested, so I refused to apply.

Pressure mounted for me to apply, but I was not really keen in all this; I would rather do my work in the field as an agric man based on my research. Time was running out and I still refused to apply. Pressure by many of my professor friends and so on kept mounting.

About seven weeks to the end of the advert, I asked how many candidates we had gotten. He said seven or six from inside and one from outside. He was very polite and said, “We still haven’t seen your name yet.”

So within that period some of my colleagues decided that they should use a provision in the law which allows for a search party to go round and see whether there are some people who deserved to be on the list that have not applied, if they could be persuaded to apply. So they came to me and I had not applied.

What they did was to write an application letter on my behalf and dropped it in the box. When I saw them, three days later they started laughing around me and said my name was in that box and I said it could be with my handwriting. How did you get my CV?

They said we had CV for your promotion to principal research fellow, which is usual a thing for professors or principal research fellow; ”that is what we used and you are a candidate” and that was it. But even then I tried to wriggle out since I was not the one who applied and everybody knew I did not apply.

I decided that the registrar should call for an emergency meeting of the Senate. He sent me the notice and asked for the agenda and I said when they come I would tell them.

When the registrar came, I said I called for the emergency meeting to inform you that it was not out of disrespect for them in the institution that I did not apply to be vice chancellor, although I agreed to be the deputy vice chancellor. I didn’t feel I needed to continue to stay because I didn’t apply.

But I understood that I was a candidate by virtue of the procedure that allowed for people to be nominated. My contention is that universities existed because of senior academics, especially the Senate that is the apex organ of any university.

I said I wanted another Senate meeting, but the CV of all the candidates should be distributed to all of them

Aliyu did this and I gave him one week to study the CVs and so that would have another Senate meeting.

What was the outcome?

They did, everybody dropped his name and I told Aliyu, who is the chief returning officer, to get in and count with his assistance. And he counted. So he said, “Here is the vote” and I said, ‘go ahead and announce.’ – Ango Abdullahi (74), the next person to me, Prof Umoru Gumwak (18), Abdulkamino, Prof. Musa, Sule Kumo, Prof. Nuhu, and so on 5, 6, 7, 8. Then I knew this was their choice. I was the first among equals.

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