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Professor Umaru Shehu: Adieu to my hero and man of many firsts

As inhabitants of the world, we individually have the people we see as heroes or the people we take as mentors to whom we want…

As inhabitants of the world, we individually have the people we see as heroes or the people we take as mentors to whom we want to fashion our lives.

Growing up in Bauchi, our elders or our age mates who were more studios always enchanted us with the exploits and achievements of Professor Emeritus Umaru Shehu who passed on at the age of 93 on Monday, October 2, 2023.

After Bauchi and in my university days at Unimaid, people wouldn’t stop making references to his life as a legendary yet exceptional medical doctor who was always championing people’s healthy living; as an academic and scientist who was also adding to the pool of knowledge and breaking scientific frontiers. As a community leader, he was concerned with the welfare of the people. As a mentor, his counsels were extraordinary and he floated templates, platforms, and pivots to ensure that his thousands of mentees excel in life and in their respective careers.

After my university days and I started living in Abuja, the stories were the same. Even more. What was most baffling was the way people from the Southern and Eastern parts of the country were always praise-singing his name. At a time, I overheard someone describing him as the most detribalised Nigerian ever.

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He was also a Professor Emeritus. Before him, nobody had attained such a prestigious rank in Nigeria, which made him a pacesetter in the academic world.  He was a pacesetter in almost every aspect of his life. These inspired me to seek his consent to allow me a wholesome personal exploration of his life by writing his biography, which he did promptly.  I entitled the book “Life of Sacrifice” because from my findings, “sacrifice” to people was the recurring motif of his life.

Other things also defined Professor Umaru Shehu but to me, his biographer, ‘sacrifice’ trumps other sterling factors. The book was published in 2010. It was forwarded by General Olusegun Obasanjo.

As I stated earlier, people from all strata of Nigeria, his students included, always have many good things to say about Professor Umaru Shehu, it was in the course of my research for the biography that I gleaned that just the way he befriended the people at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder, the same way he befriended the high and mighty. They respected not only his sterling academic, administrative, and leadership profiles, but also his person; and the way he conducted his life.

For the book, I interviewed General Yakubu Gowon, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, General Muhammadu Buhari, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, Chief Ernest Shonekan, Dr Dora Akunyili, Professor John Alechenu and Jan-Peter Stolken, the then Managing Director of Apeiron Group. I also interviewed Dr Dere Awosika, Professor Olajide Ajayi, Alhaji Maitama Sule and Ahmad Mu’azu. Only an ex-president would have gotten the respective comments of this class people for a book, but Professor Umaru Shehu did when I was writing his biography.

Even though it is believed that no knowledge is a waste, from my interactions with him, Professor Umaru Shehu wanted humanity to derive maximum benefits from whatever knowledge he acquired, hence he went into medicine and scholarship where he would save lives and impart knowledge.

In the course of his life, Professor Umaru Shehu was known professor of medicine and former vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was a professor emeritus, of community health at the University of Maiduguri and former president of the Nigerian Academy of Science. Professor Umaru Shehu bagged his first degree in Medicine (MBBS), from the University of London and capped the feat with a fellowship of the Institute of Cancer Research while serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the British Medical Journal.

Professor Umaru Shehu was born on December 8, 1930 in Maiduguri. He attended Elementary School in Maiduguri, from 1935-1940; Middle School in Maiduguri, from 1941-1943; Kaduna College, from 1944-1947; University College Ibadan, from 1948-1953; and was at the University of Liverpool between 1953-1956, and 1966-1967. Professor Umar Shehu had MBBS (London), IRCF (London), MRCS (England), DPH (Liverpool), FMCPH, MFCM, FFCM (UK), FFCM (Nigeria), FAS, FWACP, DFMC (Nigeria).

He started work as a Pre-registration House Surgeon, at Southport Infirmary, United Kingdom in 1957. He came back to Nigeria and served the government of Northern Nigeria as Pre-registration House Physician, the same year, and was promoted to the rank of Medical Officer, from 1957-1963; Senior Medical Officer, from 1963-1965; Principal Medical Officer, from 1965-1966; assistant Chief Medical Officer, from 1966-1967 and Chief Medical Officer (Preventive Services Division), from 1967-1968. He was then redeployed to North-Eastern State as Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Health and Chief Medical Officer, an offer he declined and moved to Ahmadu Bello University to take up appointment as Reader and Acting Head of the Department of Community Medicine, from 1968-1970; Deputy Dean, Faculty of Medicine, from 1968-1970; Acting Director, Institute of Health, from 1969-1970; Professor of Community Medicine, in 1970; Head of Department of Community Medicine, from 1970-1978; Director, Institute of Health, from 1970-1977; Deputy Vice Chancellor, from 1975-1976; Pro Vice Chancellor (Academic), from 1977-1978. The professor held visiting professorships in various universities, including the School of Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, from 1976-1977. He was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, from 1978 to 1980. He also worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) as a short-term consultant (working group on health services and manpower development mechanism) in Geneva, in September 1970; appointed temporary adviser, in October 1970; short-term consultant, from 1971-1973; consultant (Technical Discussions), 24th WHO regional committee for Africa, in 1974; national WHO program coordinator/representative in Nigeria, from 1980-1985; director, WHO sub-regional health development office 111, from 1985-1989 and WHO representative to Ethiopia, in 1990. At the University of Maiduguri, Professor Shehu was appointed as honorary consultant physician, from 1991 until he became professor Emeritus in 2000. He was also the provost of the College of Medical Sciences, from 1991-1993, and became the sole administrator of the University of Maiduguri, from 1993 to 1994. At the University College Hospital Ibadan, he was appointed the chairman of the board of management, from 1991-1994. At Bayero University Kano, he was appointed Pro-chancellor and chairman governing council, from 1993-1996, and also doubled as Pro-chancellor and chairman governing council of the University of Lagos, from 1996-1999. He served as a member of several committees, councils, panels, and commissions at both national and international levels. He was president of medical schools in Africa, from 1973-1975; and external examiner in public health, University of Ghana medical school. He was a chairman Board of Governors of the STOPAIDS Organisation; chairman governing board of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS, (NACA); patron of, guild of medical directors; patron of, nationwide Network for Health; patron, of the Nigerian Medical forum of Great Britain and Ireland; patron, Nigerian Institute of Stress; Trustee, national foundation on VVF; member, board of trustees, Nigerian tuberculosis and leprosy association; member Editorial Board, West African medical journal; consulting editor, the Nigerian medical practitioners; editorial adviser, of the Nigerian postgraduate medical journal; joint editor-in-chief, British Medical Journal, (West Africa) edition.

Apart from holding active membership in Professional bodies such as the Nigerian Medical Association, the Society of Health (Nigeria), the Science Association of Nigeria, the Association of Community Physicians of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Academy of Science, Professor Shehu is also a foundation fellow of the National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria; foundation fellow of the West African College of Physicians; foundation fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science; and foundation fellow of the Faculty of Community Medicine (Nigeria).

Professor Umaru Shehu is mentioned in ‘Who is Who in the World; Men of Achievement; Dictionary of International Biography; Africa Year Book 1977—Who is Who in Africa; Who is Who in Nigeria; and a Dictionary of African Biography. He holds Honorary Doctor of Science Degrees from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 1979, the Government of Nigeria awarded him the Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON) and in 2000, he was awarded the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR).

Only a hero could have garnered this plethora of achievements in a lifetime, therefore General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida’s description when reacting to the news of his death was apt.

Just the way the president said in his tribute, Professor Umaru Shehu’s death is a big blow to Nigeria. His passage is also a big blow to me as a person, to the people of Maiduguri, the North-East, West Africa, the United Kingdom, and the world in its entirety. But we will all find solace in the model of a life that he lived and in his impactful and indelible records.

May his soul rest in the most blissful part of Jannah.


Sade is the author of Professor Shehu’s biography “A life of sacrifice”, and sent this piece from Abuja

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