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Professor Abdullahi Mahdi: Tribute to a passionate academic

When the sad news of the passing away of Professor Abdullahi Mahdi went about the media penultimate Saturday, my mind immediately went back to the…

When the sad news of the passing away of Professor Abdullahi Mahdi went about the media penultimate Saturday, my mind immediately went back to the first day I encountered him as a young lecturer many years ago, in the course of my duties as a public officer. Sometime in 1988, then Borno State Military Governor, Col. Abdulmumini Aminu, had dissolved his cabinet and was on the verge of re-constituting it, intending to retain some of the commissioners and bring in new faces to ginger up his administration. I was then a permanent secretary in the military governor’s office, and in addition, I was a close aide to the governor. One day I accompanied the governor to Lagos, then the seat of the federal government, for routine consultations at the DHQ.  

While in Lagos, the governor summoned me and gave me Abdullahi Mahadi’s name whom he had penciled down to join the cabinet. I was asked to proceed to Zaria the next day to sound Mahdi and collect his CV. I took the first flight to Kaduna, the next day, en route to Zaria. Fortunately, a close associate, Mohammed Hayatudeen, then Managing Director of Northern Nigerian Development Corporation (NNDC), Kaduna, had arranged a vehicle to meet me at the airport. I was picked up at the Kaduna airport and driven straight to Zaria. On enquiry at the History Department, ABU Samaru campus, where Abdullahi Mahadi worked, I learnt that he had gone home.  

I traced his house outside the campus somewhere along Funtua road and found him at home. He welcomed me but when I sat down to explain my mission, he just grimaced and shook his head from side to side. I was taken aback, but he explained. He said he was just taking over as head of the history department and was overwhelmed with both administrative duties and lecture schedules. But that’s not even the problem. He intimated to me that his main worry was that he was amidst supervising several master’s degree students and there was no way he would abandon them. Not being part of the university system, I could not quite fathom the thread of his reasoning.  

We argued back and forth with me putting it to him that by coming over to Maiduguri as a member of the executive council he would be representing his Gwoza community and effectively become their spokesman and would look after their interest in the government, including the other responsibilities of administering a whole ministry, which would be assigned to him, and its parastatals. He would not budge, so we agreed he would come to Maiduguri to have an audience with the governor to explain himself.  

We parted on that note. Abdullahi Mahadi duly came to Maiduguri and had an audience with the governor. Despite the disappointment, I could see that the governor would continue to hold him in high esteem. This encounter left a lasting impression on me. For the first time, I met someone who would reject the offer of a high-profile public office principally for the altruistic reason that his absence would imperil the progress of his students. The bureaucrat I was then, I could only marvel at the singular dedication to scholarship Mahadi had demonstrated. 

Thereafter, I was never surprised by the upward movement of Mahadi along the trajectory he had set out for himself.  In a short while, he started earning feathers in his cap. He became the Director of Arewa House, Kaduna, stepping into the shoes of his teacher and mentor, Professor Abdullahi Smith, whom we all regarded as the doyen of historians in the country at that time. Whenever I visited Kaduna, I always took time to check on Arewa House and was astounded at the rate Mahadi was transforming it, particularly the archives section for which Abdullahi Smith gave his life building and amassing material.  

The icing on the cake was Mahadi’s appointment as vice-chancellor of ABU, the institution that nurtured him since his student days and where he gave an unsparingly selfless service from 1976 when he joined the teaching staff as a graduate assistant. In 1999 when he assumed office as vice-chancellor, the universities in Nigeria were all going through some of their toughest times with a declining quality of education showing all around. To his credit, his tenure was credited with rapid progress in redeeming the image of ABU as a leading institution of learning and research.  

His performance as vice-chancellor was so outstanding that as soon as his tenure concluded in 2004, Gombe State government appointed him as the foundation vice-chancellor of Gombe State University. He led the university for 10 years during which he built it to the enviable stature it now commands among its peers. As soon as his tenure expired, he was, once more, asked to start another university in Kumo, also in Gombe State. He was still on that assignment when he was called away by the Almighty. 

Abdullahi Mahadi was born in 1945 in Kiva-Warrabe in Gwoza LGA. He had his elementary education there and thereafter obtained teaching qualifications from colleges in Maiduguri and Mubi. He was also in the Advance Teachers College, Zaria, for NCE before landing in ABU in 1972 as an undergraduate. 

 May the Almighty Allah forgive his shortcomings and reward his good deeds with Aljannah Firdaus.