It is a fact that even though John Mamman Garba was the second graduate from the North, he was barely known in the region, and his accomplishments were hardly acknowledged. I can advance the argument that this could be because, for most of his career, he was a diplomat and lived out of the country.
He was among the first external affairs officers appointed in August 1957 to form the nucleus of the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There were only 12 of them appointed after a competitive interview including Phillip Asiodu, Leslie Harriman, and Aminu Sanusi, among others, who all went on to have distinguished careers in both the home and foreign service.
During his tutelage years in the Foreign Service, Mamman Garba served in the Nigerian High Commission in London and Ottawa. At the end of 1959, he was sent to Khartoum, Sudan, along with Mohammed Ngileruma, a former federal minister and Waziri of Borno, as his boss, to man the Nigerian Pilgrim Office there.
In 1963, Mamman Garba was appointed a director at the World Bank and lived in Washington. He was appointed an ambassador by the Ironsi regime in 1966 and went on to serve in Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and finally the USA. He retired in 1975 and for the remainder of his life, lived quietly in Kano.
It is a pity that his memoir, The Time Has Come – – Reminiscences and Reflections of a Pioneer Diplomat, is no more in print, but is only available in some private libraries. The book is the detailed story of his life, a lad from Geidam, whose father and grandfather took him along to Maiduguri in search of greener pastures and then to Kano where he was taken to the CMS Bookshop School.
He had a vivid recall of life in Maiduguri and Kano in the 1920s. Much of what he wrote about ordinary life, in those times, in those two cities can hardly be found elsewhere.
When the Mamman Garba family arrived in Maiduguri, they lived in the Maisandari ward. His grandfather was a hunter and he found the surrounding bushes lucrative for his trade. His father became a contractor of sorts to the soldiers in the army barracks located in Mafoni, near them. He had a whole chapter on his childhood days in Maisandari.
He recalled that it was a large village of some 300 compounds, cosmopolitan in outlook, and inhabited by all the major ethnic groups of the region; the Kanuri, Shuwa Arabs, Bagirmis, Tuburi, Hausa, Zabarma, Kabams, and Madagalis. He described in detail growing up there and engaging in all the pranks boys of his age would play. He gave illuminating descriptions of daily happenings in Maiduguri, including Sallah days with all the horse racing around the Shehu’s palace, Maiduguri Monday Market, otherwise Kasu’u Litininbe, where he took bundles of freshly cut green grass to sell to horse owners, and hunting expeditions in the bushes nearby. Sadly, long after Mamman Garba and his father left, Maisandari was demolished in 1942 to make way for the expansion of Pompomari Airport.
In 1926, the army stationed in Mafoni was moved to Kano. Mamman Garba’s father tagged along in the expectations of greater opportunities in Kano. In a few months, Mamman Garba also went after his father. From Maiduguri to Kano was then a 21-day trek, which Mamman Garba, barely 10 years old, endured. In Kano, Mamman Garba lived with his father in the bustling business area of Niger Road/Murtala Mohammed Way. His foster mother decided to engage him in street trading as most kids of his age did. He hawked cigarettes which he collected from their fellow townsman, Abacha Maiduguri, who had a small table at the east end of Sabon Gari market selling cigarettes, matches, soap, etc. Abacha Maiduguri, as the reader might guess, was the father of the general, who would be Nigeria’s head of state (1993-98).
The closing chapters of the book were devoted to the dilemma he faced as part of a very small minority Christian group in an overwhelmingly Muslim society. Mamman Garba’s background is both Kanuri and Hausa and he spoke the two languages like any other. And he retired to Kano where his father, Alhaji Garba Muhammadu, had lived for most of his life as a staff member of the Kano Native Authority. That’s where he also lived the rest of his life.
Mamman Garba wrote on the subject matter from the standpoint of knowledge, with compassion and without undue combativeness. He understood that religion is total, governing all aspects of life, from birth through marriage to death. So long as one could not meaningfully partake in these activities, one then becomes an outcast. That’s the tragedy of religious minorities, wherever, not being able to play the role they perceive, in the societies they belong to. Throughout the conversation, I could detect a tinge of sadness and regret that he could not belong to his society.