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Jelani Aliyu: Celebrating an unsung Nigerian hero in America

I first read about this amazingly inspirational and gifted man in an article titled “The Nigerian Who Designed an American Car” by one Michael Oluwagbemi…

I first read about this amazingly inspirational and gifted man in an article titled “The Nigerian Who Designed an American Car” by one Michael Oluwagbemi in the Nigeriaillagesquare.com, perhaps the most popular discursive arena for Nigerians in cyberspace. What I read inspired me enough to compel me to suspend the continuation of the article I started last week and to pay a well-deserved tribute to this dazzlingly brilliant man whose admirable exploits in General Motors undoubtedly constitute one of the few luxuriantly blooming oases of hope in our current desert of national despair.  

Aliyu was born in Kaduna in 1966 to parents who were originally from Sokoto city. According to a biographical profile of him posted on amanaonline.com, a Web portal on northern Nigeria, Aliyu was educated at Capital School, Sokoto, for his elementary education between 1971 and 1978. He later went to Federal Government College, Sokoto, for his high school education where he earned honors as the best student in Technical Drawing, the inchoate disciplinary foundation for his current genius for automotive design.

And that is part of the beauty of Aliyu’s story: his prodigious creative wizardry was first gestated and nurtured in Nigeria before it matured in America. Upon completing high school, he enrolled at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to study for a degree in architecture. However, he was frustrated by the gratuitously pedantic, Ivory Towerian intellection of the program at ABU and dropped out. He then enrolled at the Birni Kebbi Polytechnic from where he earned an Ordinary National Diploma in architecture in 1988. He was the overall best graduating student in the school.

With a scholarship from the Sokoto State Government, he proceeded to Detroit in the midwestern U.S. state of Michigan and enrolled for a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Transportation Design at the prestigious College for Creative Studies, one of the world’s 60 best design schools, according to the Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine. He graduated in 1994 and got hired by General Motors, the world’s second biggest car manufacturer and America’s biggest.

In a documentary posted on YouTube, Dr. Carl Olsen, the professor who supervised Aliyu’s honors thesis (what we call “project” in Nigerian universities), described him as an “exceptionally gifted… designer.” He said he was particularly surprised by Aliyu’s extraordinary and unrivaled verbal dexterity in English. “And indeed I gave him the title of ‘Poet Laureate of Transportation Design’ because not only were his designs of very high standards but his verbal presentations of his designs were exceptional, the best I ever had from any student,” he added.

Another of Aliyu’s professors, Dr. William Porter, a professor of automotive design, said “[Aliyu] always asked the question that was the most searching and that had the most profound consequences. It elevated the class.”

Dr. Olsen said of the over 200 ideas submitted worldwide for the design of the Chevy Volt, Aliyu’s design was adjudged the best. This feat may not be a big deal for people who come from technologically advanced societies. But for a country like Nigeria where our esurient hunger for heroes has cozened us into celebrating egotistical imposters like Dr. Gabriel Oyibo and Mr. Philip Emeagwali, Aliyu’s achievements are worthy of all the encouragement they can get.

There are three major lessons we can learn from Aliyu’s phenomenal success. The first is that, as I’ve pointed out in previous articles here, polytechnics, in spite of the underserved disrepute in which they are held in Nigeria, can be breeding grounds for the cultivation of remarkably sharp minds. Aliyu was discouraged by the meaningless theoretical abstractions of ABU’s architecture department, then sought and found intellectual sanctuary in a “lowly” polytechnic in Birnin Kebbi, which prepared him for what he is today.  He resisted the seduction of big name and glory and went for content and practicality.

The second lesson is related to the first. And it is that natural endowment is insensitive to the fault-lines of race, ethnicity, or geography. There has been a carefully packaged, time-honored but odious stereotype that people from Nigeria’s north are somehow intellectually inferior to their compatriots from the south.

As an illustration of this stereotype, a few days ago, I received an email from some guy who identified himself as Oyewale Oyetunji and graduate of the Obafemi Awolowo University. It went thus:

“I came across your articles in Daily Trust few months ago, and after joining NVS [Nigerian Village Square] and meeting you there again, I become familiar with your writings.

 “I greatly admire your writings, and you are one of the people that have demystified my erroneous belief that northerners are laggards intellectually (I’m embarrassed I ever held such a parochial belief). You, late Dr. Tajudeen Abdul Raheem, Mr Yushau Shuaib and a few other alumni of BUK have really proved beyond doubt that BUK is a great school. To think you guys were products of this university I always dismiss.”

I don’t know whether to be flattered or offended by this email. But I leave it to the reader to make his judgment.

The third lesson from Aliyu’s story is that it has dramatized the utterly compromised nature of our national media. I’ve heard it on good authority that many of the diasporan Nigerians that our national media extravagantly celebrate for nonexistent accomplishments are those that literally buy their way to media visibility.

Aliyu obviously hasn’t done that, and that is why some of us are only just now getting to know about him even though he has been a high-flying achiever in GM since at least 2007. Plus, he is from an “unlikely” region of the country for the kind of talent associated with him.

How sad.

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