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In praise of Dr Bukar Usman

I haven’t spoken to Dr Bukar Usman since I and my family surprised him sometime in June when we showed up at his house on…

I haven’t spoken to Dr Bukar Usman since I and my family surprised him sometime in June when we showed up at his house on a very short notice.

So, I suppose this column will come to him as yet another surprise, and perhaps he would wonder what prompted it. Well, nothing really other than the thought I have been having that men like him, who have touched lives and have built incredible legacies, without pomp and spectacular hullaballoo, but a silent dedication to the task ahead, need to know what some people think of them while they are alive and well to hear it.

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Dr Usman turned 79 on his last birthday on December 10. He will continue to live a long and healthy life, I pray.

That day in June, as always, he was welcoming. He received us with his gracious kindness and good humour, talked to us at length about books and life and proffered unsolicited fatherly advice to us, young people. The irony was that the advice was perfectly in tune with some things we have been contemplating as a family. Some would say it was prophetic.

For those unaware of Dr Bukar Usman, there might be a reason for it. The man is perhaps the most self-effacing public figure and intellectual I know. He retired from the public service in 1999 as the Permanent Secretary of the State House in Abuja.

With his resources and contact, and especially with the incredible goodwill his sterling personality has garnered for him, he could have had any of the post-retirements perks Nigerian public officials have. He could have jostled for political appointments, ran for elective office, or got involved in politics.

I know, because he told, me, he had turned down invitations to get involved in this. As far as he is concerned, his watch is over, he has vacated the scene for others to contribute to nation-building and now, he has opened another frontier in nation-building. He would dedicate the rest of his life to documenting his experiences, creating and disseminating knowledge, and championing the acquisition of knowledge and the pursuit of it.

When I first met him in 2013, I think, at the prompting of my former colleague, Bashir Malumfashi, he disarmed me with his humility. I was at that time, the editor of Daily Trust’s Arts and Ideas Pages and have gone to interview him for the paper. My basic research on him showed a frighteningly impressive resume and a staggering 21 books published in seven years. Twenty-one books!

Not those questionable literature or pamphlet slapped between two covers but well-researched, sometimes voluminous pieces of literature on practically everything. In fiction, on his public service and policy, ‘Voices in A Choir: Issues in Democratisation and National Stability in Nigeria’ and his autobiography chronicling various aspects of his life like, ‘My Literary Journey’ and ‘My Public Service Journey: Issues in Public Policy Administration In Nigeria’

No, they were not ghost-written. Dr Usman waited for retirement to unleash the literary genius that has been locked within. Though self-published, these books are of the highest quality. He devoted time, energy and resources to researching his works, writing them, editing them and producing them. Often in quality hardcovers.

Does he make any money from this venture? I don’t know. The man doesn’t sell his books. He gives them away for free, to individuals, schools and institutions, to libraries. Incredible! Expensively produced hard-cover books!

On that first encounter at his Maitama residence, he received me in the courtyard, slapped my hands fondly as if we have always known each other, and there I was, shying in deference. He put me at ease instantly and our interview went rather well. It was published in Daily Trust with the headline, ‘How I wrote 21 books in seven years’ or something like that.

At that time, I only had one book to my name, ‘The Whispering Trees’ and was working on my novel, ‘Season of Crimson Blossoms,’ at the time. I knew how long it took to write a book but here was a man who had written that many in that few years. It was on the point of books that we bonded when he thanked me for writing mine and for the impact it was having. I was humbled.

Now I don’t know exactly how many books Dr Usman has written at the moment. Every other year, he brings out a batch of books.

I always receive a bag of his new publications each time, sometimes three, four or five at one go while I am here on the verge of publishing my fourth book. I don’t know where he finds the energy from or what magic he uses to make the day stretch for him but I always treasure receiving these books, always signed.

He is generous to a fault. The knowledge he has disseminated to the world through the books he has written and given away to institutions, intellectuals and readers for free is invaluable. He epitomizes the term public intellectual in every sense of the word.

Yet, his foundation, The Bukar Usman Foundation, which he funds from his private resources, has given dozens of scholarships to seekers of knowledge and supports the underprivileged and needy with charity. He is funding research in various fields of knowledge, in documenting folklore for instance, which he is passionate about, as the President of the Nigerian Folklore Society. He has funded the publication of folklore anthologies, aside from his personal publications, like ‘People, Animals, Spirits and Objects: 1000 Folk Stories of Nigeria.’

When we discussed folklores with him, he was at pains at the loss of Nigerian folklores across the country and the oral traditions that have permitted this loss in these changing times and he seems to be on a mission to document every single folklore he can. His research involves a network of resource persons and intellectuals who he funds to excavate the folklores of their tribes and anthologise them. It is remarkable work. Recently, he funded the publication of books in Yoruba and Igbo.

If Dr Usman had been alive during the Renaissance, he would perhaps have been a Medici, or a rival to that famous Renaissance family as a patron of the arts and the workers in the vineyard of the arts and intellect.

His interest however is not limited to literature both in Hausa, like ‘Dankucaka’, and English like the short story collection, ‘Bride without Scars and Other Stories’ but spans into history like the brilliant, ‘History of Biu’, his hometown of ‘Girl-child Education in Biu Emirate’. It splatters across public administration and governance as well with books like, ‘Leadership, Security and National Development,’ ‘Issues and Challenges of National Security,’ to topics like ‘Language Disappearance and Diversity’ or A ‘Nigerian Selection of Folktales’.

Dr Usman is an eclectic scholar, one who has been recognised with several awards by various institutions of learning. Yet one who has remained humble and self-effacing, without airs. At public events, he is content to shuffle in quietly and disappear amidst the audience.

In the years since our first meeting, I have been to Dr Usman’s house several times and he had visited mine a couple of times. He doesn’t seem overly enthusiastic about going out but he has been to a couple of my book events and has always been incredibly supportive and generous. Every encounter with him has been an enriching experience, one that reminds me of the virtue of stoic dedication to the task ahead, and delivering on this with humility and sincerity.

In the bleak times that our country faces and passes through, I just felt it was really important to remind us all that there are silent superheroes in our midst, heroes like Dr Bukar Usman who don’t wear capes but whose footprint already loom large and will transcend generations. Heroes we haven’t celebrated enough.

Thank you, sir, for being the kind of Nigerian and human we should all aspire to be.

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