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Maitama Sule had the opportunity to be rich but chose modesty – Wilmot

Dr Patrick Wilmot is a graduate of Yale and Vanderbilt Universities, USA. He taught Sociology at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria for many years…

Dr Patrick Wilmot is a graduate of Yale and Vanderbilt Universities, USA. He taught Sociology at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria for many years before he was deported from Nigeria in 1988. He is an author and now lives in Britain. In this tribute interview, he talks about the late Yusuf Maitama Sule’s contribution in dismantling the obnoxious apartheid system in Southern Africa, his integrity and austere life, among others.

How did you receive the news of the death of Yusuf Maitama Sule, Danmasanin Kano? 

Maitama Sule’s death is a great loss to Africa, Nigeria, Kano and his family. He made a tremendous contribution to the (African) continent, to his country, to his state; he died a poor man even though he had the opportunity to become one of the richest men in Nigeria. He’s a great loss. He was my friend but I had not seen him for a long time. Now he’s gone I want to condole with the people of Africa, the people of Nigeria, the people of Kano and his own personal family for this great loss.


What’s the background of your friendship with Yusuf Maitama Sule?

We knew each other for some time. When he became the chairman of the United Nation’s Anti-Apartheid Committee because of what role Nigeria played in the liberation of Angola and the rest of Southern Africa – that position was almost reserved for Nigeria – when he became chairman, we got in touch; we worked out things to be done. The students of ABU and BUK set up the youth solidarity on Southern African – The Students Anti-Apartheid Organisation – and he was one of the patrons and Nelson Mandela was the other. We consulted all the time he was there and whenever we asked him to come to Nigeria and give a speech he always came. And he did a tremendous work for the anti-apartheid struggle.

There were ant-apartheid movements in Britain and South Africa but there were none in any other African country until this one was setup in Nigeria and Maitama and Mandela were patrons of the organisation.


What were his contributions and what role(s) did he play in dismantling apartheid in Southern Africa?

Well, you know there was a lot of hypocrisy involved in the anti-apartheid struggle because the western powers, on the surface, they kept saying that apartheid was wrong, Nelson Mandela should be released, but at the same time they had multi-national corporations which operated in South Africa. There was a time that the Nigerian government said that no multinational corporation which did business in South Africa would be allowed to do business in Nigeria. I happened to know that this was not the case. I published a list of 1,500 multinational corporations which did business in South Africa and also did business in Nigeria in my book ‘Apartheid And African Liberation’. I also put that in the index. The Nigerian government at the time was a bit embarrassed but Maitama helped to publicise the facts of this hypocrisy and the response of the western powers because they were arming apartheid. Apartheid South Africa had the strongest military power in Africa at the time, just as Israel is the most powerful military power in the Middle East. All these arms came from the western powers and Israel. The African countries were not in a position to fight against South Africa in purely military terms, but as (Carl von) Clausewitz would say, war is a continuation of politics. The idea was that by making the political situation impossible for South Africa, they were incapable of using their arms to dominate the rest of Africa.

What happened in Angola was very useful for African liberation because South Africa over-extended itself.  When Nigeria recognised the MPLA as the sole and legitimate government of Angola, other African countries followed. Angola was in a position to invite the Cubans to come into Angola to protect its territory against South Africa, which intended to overtake all of Angola. They would find no resistance in Zaire, which at the time was under Mobutu, which was beholden to South Africa. The then South African defence minister boasted that there would be nothing to stop South Africa moving into Nigeria, and, if they wanted to do it, they could go on to Cairo. So Maitama faced this political situation and he worked with many of us to make sure that South Africa could not dominate Africa, and eventually Southern Africa was liberated, Mandela was freed, Angola was a free country, Mozambique, Namibia, etc. were liberated and Maitama Sule played a very, very significant role in these liberation struggles.


Has Africa appreciated the role he played in the liberation struggle, or do you think the continent would appreciate him now that he is gone?

Africa should recognise what he had contributed to the struggle because it was tremendous. But unfortunately, so many (African) leaders have a short memory. Look at Angola, there was a time when the foreign minister of Angola, I remember we took a trip to Angola and we met (President) Dos Santos. He was an unknown person at the time but now he is one of the richest men in Africa and he is the paramount leader of Angola and it’s now almost impossible to get him out.

In South Africa, the role that was played by Mandela, Mbeki and other stalwarts of the liberation struggles is almost being completely negated by the role of Jacob Zuma, who as president, is almost more corrupt that any Nigerian leader. I don’t think (president) Jacob Zuma is going to remember that Maitama Sule was responsible for the liberation of his country. Look at how South Africans treat Nigerians in their country.


How can one explain these things in view of Nigeria’s contribution to the liberation of South Africa and Nigerians are now becoming endangered species in South Africa, so to speak?

People like Maitama Sule, Murtala Muhammed, MD Yusuf, all of them contributed tremendously in the liberation of Southern Africa but now when Nigerians go to those countries, they are treated like they are enemy aliens, they are deported, they are imprisoned, they are discriminated against, whereas these people should feel grateful because Southern Africa could still be under apartheid even if they had (black) puppet leaders in power. But it is because of Nigeria and people like Maitama Sule that they were liberated and now they have forgotten about all the people who were responsible for this. This is very unfortunate of the politicians. They also have very little memory of what was responsible for their situation.


Do you see this amnesia, which unfortunately, is also prevalent amongst the generality of the people, as a problem for Africa’s development?

Yes. If people want to survive and prosper, they have got to have a memory, but unfortunately, in the case of Africa, people who get into power, very often forget about the people responsible for throwing out the colonialists, throwing out the apartheid South Africa, throwing out various enemies of Africa. And instead of settling down to try to develop the continent, you find Africans stealing money to buy expensive houses in Britain, in the United States and in France. They buy expensive private jets, expensive cars, they have super yachts. For God’s sake, what on earth do you want to have a super yacht for?  And then you find that 95 per cent of people are suffering from lack of schooling, lack of electricity, lack of housing, lack of employment. It’s terrible. It’s criminal. I was in Africa for many years, now I’m in Britain but many don’t remember that I left my country to go to Africa and I did what I could. And unfortunately the same thing is true of Maitama Sule. He was virtually forgotten by people who benefitted from the work he did – liberating the African continent.


Now that he’s gone, what should be done to immortalise him and try to make people to emulate him?

Well, a lot of ex-students of ABU, BUK , Sokoto, Ife, Ibadan – he went around all over the country to spread the anti-apartheid message, and students who were at the university at the time, many of them are now in influential positions. They should write books, they should give television interviews, they should get interviewed in the newspapers, and say that this man had been a minister in Nigeria in the 1960s and he did not steal, he did not buy a house in Britain, he didn’t have a private jet, he didn’t buy a Mercedes Benz or a Roll Royce and he died basically a poor man.

The last time I saw him was when I went to ABU as a visiting lecturer. I was invited to talk about Aminu Kano in his old house – Mambayya House – I looked at that house and saw that at one time Aminu Kano was one of the most powerful men in Nigeria and he lived in a very, very simple house. Now you find somebody becoming a member of the National Assembly or a minister and the first day he is in office somebody is coming around to tell him where he can buy a house in St. John’s Wood or Mayfair in Britain, or where he can buy the most recent Mercedes Benz, and in a week’s time he is richer than Maitama Sule or Aminu Kano were in their entire life. So that’s his monumental achievement. He had the opportunity to become rich and he died poor.


And finally …

I would like to wish Maitama’s family and his colleagues, his friends, all the people of Kano, Nigeria and Africa, I would like to condole them and say that may the soul of this great hero live in perfect peace. I hope that those who survived him have the courage to bear the loss. He was my friend and I wish him the best, I wish his memory could live on long after he’s gone.

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