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Life and times of late Emeritus Professor Umaru Shehu

Emeritus Professor Umaru Shehu, was one of the unique icons whose lives were so impactful to generations of doctors, academics, and uncountable patients worldwide.  Despite…

Emeritus Professor Umaru Shehu, was one of the unique icons whose lives were so impactful to generations of doctors, academics, and uncountable patients worldwide. 

Despite his demise, the legend of Umar Shehu, who many described as “prompt and efficient” “honest and straightforward”, and “workaholic and not corrupt” is destined to live on.  

These testimonies came from his children, domestic workers, neighbours, students, and subordinates in his office at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital. 

A visit to his office, where he offered his last contribution to the society before his final exit at 93, on October 2, 2023, would leave one to wonder how he managed his time and all the successes. 

Inside the memorable office, our correspondent observed Shehu’s photographs with Nigerian presidents, global leaders, and academics that give visitors a rundown of who the emeritus professor was, in just a few seconds. 

The four corners of the office wall wear magnificent decor of crystal, acrylic, and wooden award plaques that he earned at different times in the course of his service to humanity. 

These, when combined, tell us the kind of life he lived as a young lecturer, three-time vice chancellor in different universities, and icon of community health in Nigeria, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the world over.

One of his students, who is currently the Chief Medical Director of the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, Professor Ahmed Ahidjo, said the emeritus was the grandfather of many in the medical profession. 

“He taught me and taught my teachers as a lecturer, the provost of the college of medicine before he was appointed as the sole administrator. 

“He was the kind of person that had no lateness in his agenda. He will come to the office before the commencement of the time of work and won’t leave the office until closing time. 

“If there was any meeting, conference, or workshop that you invite him to, be assured he’s going to be there 15 minutes before time. Whether there was somebody or not, you will find him sitting there. 

“And he minded his business; you would never hear him talking about things that didn’t relate to his work, but he would go straight to his office. That’s what we should learn as workers.  

“Also, he served as an advisor to us all. He’s a rallying point. Any challenge we had, he was the final person that would settle it. He will call the parties, talk to them and that is the end of it, especially we the administrators and unions. He will ensure there is an amicable settlement. 

“And, at the national level, we will miss him too, because if there is anything that the medical community needs from the government, he is the elder who will push forward to talk on our behalf.

“I remember vividly when I wanted to create a collegiate system faculty as provost of the college of medicine of the UNIMAID because, for over 30 years, it’s difficult for my predecessors to create. I took him to the VC. He said if it’s the last favour they will do for him, let them do it. That’s how we established five faculties in the college. 

“There are so many things we will remember him for. It’s not just about being a doctor; he was a father figure and leader that we looked up to.  

“He has been working all his life. He climbed his office to the last floor, which is about three floors, and no lifter all the time. Even the last time I saw him climbing, I said Baba, don’t be climbing, I don’t want you to fall. We got an office for him on the ground floor but he insisted that he wanted to be climbing. 

“Still, I renovated another bigger office for him on the ground floor but he visited it only once,” he said. 

His son, Mahmud Umar Shehu, said he was a father that every child would wish to have. “We are grateful to Almighty Allah who gave a father to us that stayed with us, even to the point we have given him grandchildren and great-grandchildren,  

“I’m his eldest son, then twins – a boy and a girl—he contributed most of his life if not all to humanity but he always had time for the family. 

“He never allowed his sacrifice to the nation to take him away from his family. He was always there for us 150 per cent. The way he managed his time was even a miracle, and he spent everything he earned on the family. 

“What hurt him the most when he fell ill was not that he was ill but because he couldn’t work. That was what he kept telling me. He would say, ‘I can’t go to the office, it’s really bothering me.’

“He worked with every government in Nigeria since independence, since the early 50s, he worked all over the country. He was a very busy man and travelled a lot, but the miracle is that he was always around for us – family, friends, and of course the country. 

“He was always concerned about his grandchildren, and I would say it without being ashamed that there were times he would contribute not even morally but financially. All my life, he’s the future. He was always there for us, so the big void is missing. Alhamdulillah, we thank Allah for him and his life,” he said. 

Asked whether he was privy to the emeritus’ childhood, he said: “His childhood was very humble. From what I know, he grew up here in Maiduguri. He did his middle school here but his first sojourn out of Maiduguri was to Kaduna College (famous Barewa College). 

“I remembered, one of the things that caught my attention as a kid was when he was telling me about his childhood. He said he lived in Shehu’s palace. One day, he and my uncle, Alhaji Kalli Imam, heard that a plane was landing at where the present airport is today. In those days, it was a British army base or something. 

“He told me stories like how it could be so hot and they had no shoes, so they ran from tree to tree until they got to a cool shed, because of the scorching sun.

“He was lucky to be surrounded by people who cared for him, loved him, and supported him, including the Shehu’s palace. At a very young age, he lost his mother, so basically, he grew up alone, struggling alone to succeed in life. He was surrounded by good people in every part of society but his determination, vision, and hard work, is a determining factor,” he said. 

His driver, who was sobbing while answering questions from this reporter, was seen doing his routine job of cleaning and warming the official vehicle of the late emeritus. 

“I drove Baba for over two years but he never accused me of doing anything wrong. When I understood how time-conscious he was, I mastered his routine and always made myself available at least one hour before time. If you respect time, you wouldn’t have a problem with him.

“He hardly talked, but he once told me that it was Sardauna that employed him,” he said.

One of his domestic staff, Abdulsalaam Idris, said he had been working under the emeritus since 1983 but he can’t recall a time that he raised his voice at him.

“He treated me like his own son, and since destiny brought us together, he had never pointed a finger at me. As a human, sometimes, he will ask me to do certain things but I will forget. Instead of scolding me, he will remind me and say, don’t rush, do it at your best time. 

“He was very religious because even when his condition started degenerating, he would call me and ask whether I had prayed. If I said yes, he would reply that I should fear the consequences of hiding the truth from him. 

“If you are with Baba, you must learn to mind your business, because if you said anything behind somebody’s back, he would call the person and ask you to repeat what you said. If you keep quiet, he would preach to you to stop backbiting,” he said.   

Shehu was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, from 1978 to 1980) and held visiting professorships in various universities, including the School of Medicine, University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, U.S. from 1976 to 1977.

Shehu was appointed Honorary Consultant Physician in 1991 and became Professor Emeritus in 2000.


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