Reminiscences with Malam Ahmed Joda | Dailytrust

Reminiscences with Malam Ahmed Joda

At 87, Malam Ahmed Joda is still full of energy and effortlessly does things that many people his age will consider a luxury they cannot afford or a risk they cannot indulge in. First, he eats everything he likes and often rides a train to and from Abuja. Daily Trust on Sunday recently cornered him for an interview in his house in Kaduna, where in between sips from a hot mug of coffee and nono (fresh milk) he spoke about aspects of his life that many did not know.

Sir, you’re always passionate when speaking about Nigeria’s history, can you recall where you were on 1st October, 1960 and what the experience was like?

I was already an old man. On 1st October, 1960, I was a senior editor in the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). So, it was in that position that I attended the celebration for independence, but before then, I had worked in various capacities, including as a newspaper reporter and subeditor. I did start a job in the University of Ibadan, then I studied journalism in England. Now, in these capacities, I travelled extensively in northern Nigeria and other parts of the country. My earlier training was as an agricultural worker in Ibadan. I was a student in one plantation in Ibadan when the debate for self government and how to get independence was on. I was the northern regional editor of the NBC and I was involved in all the activities that led to self government. 

Immediately after the celebration of independence, I got a transfer to the northern Nigerian civil service and was posted to the Ministry of Information and subsequently became chief information officer, a permanent secretary of information until the coup that changed the system of government broke the country into 12 states instead of the four existing regions and which led to my being transferred to the Federal Public Service as the permanent secretary, information, which I served throughout the civil war. Later, I served as a permanent secretary, education and then industries. I retired on March 31, 1978. 

Can you capture the mood of the northern leaders at that time as it was said that they were opposed to the idea of self government for some time?  

I think on the part of northern Nigeria and its leadership, it was a period of deep reflection. Nigeria had been made one country and governed as such from 1st January, 1914 under the act of amalgamation by the British. In fact, Nigeria had never been ruled as one country except for certain coordinating roles that happened in Lagos from the Governor General’s office. Around 1949, that is, a few years after World War II and because of various developments, retiring ex-servicemen (because Nigeria supplied a lot of troops to join the British in fighting the Germans, the Japanese in East Africa and the Far East and so on) a lot of our soldiers became aware of political development and political agitations for independence.

Also, a lot of Nigerian students were studying in America and Great Britain particularly, and some in West Africa; the demand for independence became loud and irresistible. As at that time, there were two secondary schools to serve the entire northern region, including what is now called Barewa College in Zaria and Government College, Keffi. At the time, there was also only about one or two university graduates in the entire population. We had no lawyers, doctors or engineers. We had absolutely nothing then and they went to the Legislative Council and passed the motion by the Action Group, a motion moved by Chief Anthony Enahoro for self government by 1956. The leadership of the North, as far as I know, had been taken unawares, and realising that they were in no position to manage the affairs – we had nobody in the professions, nobody in the civil service – it was tantamount to sending away the colonial British officials and replacing them with people from the South because the northern public service as it was, was largely European, people from Ghana, Sierra Leone and the rest from Southern Nigeria. They said they had to take account of this reality, and they moved an amendment to that motion. Instead of self government or independence in 1956, the motion should read independence as soon as possible. There was commotion and the House broke up. There was demonstration already arranged, and as they were dispersing, the northern leadership in their gowns and turbans were being called ole ole and stones were thrown at them. They all went straight to the train station and returned to the North; and there was crisis. The British organised conferences to discuss the constitution and so on. As you know, self government and independence mean the same thing, the withdrawal of the British and the takeover by Nigerians.

So, by this time, there were still three regions, the East, West and the North, and the option was proposed that the three regions could opt for self government at any time they wanted, from 1956 pending the determination for independence in Nigeria that was agreed to be by October 1, 1960. They were granted that option as the West and the East decided to be independent and they were self governing by 1956 with the governor being a British appointed officer. The North said, ‘No, we are not ready’ but agreed to have self government in March, 1959 and independence by 1960. At the time, so I was a student and probably a radical, I did want the North to have independence, self governance status at the same time, but as an old man now, I realised we were in no condition to manage our affairs. And the period was very short in my opinion now. We had no educated people, it was at that period that the clerical schools were established and the school for administrators was developed and matured people who were working within the age range of 30 to over 40 were sent to all parts of the world to study and be trained to handle the affairs of public and so on. I think they achieved quite a lot in that period of time. So, self government came to the West and to the East in 1956 and to the North in 1959, and I think it is incredible that the North was able to compete favourably with the two other regions of Nigeria. They established a university in Ife, they established university in Nsukka and we established the ABU, Zaria. They established television in the West and the East, we established one in Kaduna and Kano. Whatever they did, we were doing. We built roads and developed secondary schools from the initial two to more than 20. We established tertiary institutions, training institutions for rapid training of nurses, engineers, surveyors etc. and people who were working as nurses who had school certificates were sent to universities abroad to complete their medical training. 

During these negotiations we are talking about, sometimes the discussions were very heated; sometimes it looked as if Nigeria would break up. I think it was maturity of the people, the leaders that Nigeria survived and got the independence. I think perhaps you are aware of the subsequent changes, the coups, the counter-coups and so on.

 How did you react then as a radical student and what was the reaction among other students in your class?

As at that time, there were very few students. What is now the ABU was the Nigeria College of Arts and Science in Zaria, which had less than 100 students. There was a medical school which trained mainly doctors in Kano; I don’t think they numbered more than 100. There was also a farmers’ school in Zaria with the same number, and I think it will be fair to say that the North at that time and its leadership did not feel comfortable to become independent. But of course, there was still, at that time, the fear of Igbo domination even among the illiterates, market people and so on. Looking at the competition – and these issues were being manifested in universities, such as Ibadan where the northerners felt discriminated – I think they could imagine what their chances could be if at independence, the most prominent and influential positions were held by people other than themselves. I don’t know of anybody who was in opposition. Aminu Kano was the leader of NEPU, therefore, as the leader of the opposition, he did not vote for independence in 1956. J.S Tarka was the leader of the United Middle Belt Congress, he did not support it; I don’t know of anyone in the North or even among the radicals because I think the situation was clear and obvious.

 Why the fear of Igbo domination, are they not Nigerians?

So why did we want the British to go? Were they not human beings with two legs and two arms? When they came, there was no Nigeria; there was neither Eastern, Western Nigeria nor Mid-western Nigeria. In the East, they did not have a central authority, not a single one, they lived in clans and so on. It was the British who put them together and made them into districts, villages, towns and made them a region. There was no Eastern Nigeria with capital in Enugu, there were clans, but in the other parts of the region, that is, what is now Cross-River, Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, they had their chiefs and empires and there was never one country called Cross-River or River State. And you know during the agitation for independence, the loudest demand for the creation of state was coming from Eastern Nigeria. There was something they used to call COR, which means Calabar, Ogoja and Rivers to be carved out of Eastern Nigeria; there was the demand for the Mid-west which is now Edo State, among other demands. In Western Nigeria, there was the Ife Empire, the Oyo and Egba, among others. They were very often at war. It was the British who amalgamated them and made them Yorubaland, Western Nigeria. Places like Ikorodu, Lagos, all have their chiefs and they still have them, but still, some of them don’t recognise one another.

 In northern Nigeria, there was the semblance of a country, but it was not a country. There were several emirates, independent of each other but most of the Muslim emirs negotiated and signed agreements and recognised the Sultan of Sokoto as the leader. They paid no tax and went to no court outside their territory. They were independent, had their courts, prisons, police and everything. The British made them Northern Nigeria and it was the same British who, after all, brought all of us together and said we are Nigerians, but clearly, there were varieties of Nigerians.

What happened to the modern abattoir you once established that was being managed by your daughter?

I look at the whole of Nigeria and think that we are not observing the basic rules of hygiene. Go to Lagos, which is at the centre of all our activities. Go to Malo and see the conditions of cattle slaughtered and eaten by people. Go to Ikeja abattoir in Lagos and any of our markets. From about 2km, you can smell what is going on, and since I am interested in cattle and also own cattle, I decided to establish an abattoir and was trying to sell my meat at the time the market only existed in Lagos. So I had to put the meat in refrigerated trucks all the way to Lagos. That was fine, but then I discovered that every 20 or 30 kilometres, there is a police or immigration or customs officer and they insist on seeing the content of the truck. My people say, ‘This is meat and if you keep opening it, it will spoil.’ They insist by saying, ‘open’ and then you open and close, you pay bribe and they allow you to go. By the time you reach Lagos, you must have passed about 50 checkpoints. Imagine how much money you must have given to the police, sometimes immigration and sometimes customs. Sometimes, they hold your van for two days if you refuse to pay. Eventually, when you get to Lagos – I used to sell to Sheraton, Kingsway shop and other places – there also, unless you paid bribe to the cold store manager in the UTC store, they would tell you that the cold store was full, so you had to wait for three days. So if I had three vans, running on the road, if one was held for four or five days doing nothing, my factory in Yola would have to shut down and I would have bought cattle that I had to feed, so I would be running at a loss. When it came to payment, it was delayed. They paid one month after delivery and they spent three months because they could not find the second signatory or the cashier. This is the problem. I am talking about myself now.

I heard of someone who established a cocoa plantation and was growing cocoa to export to the United States. He brought expatriates and seeds and established this vast thing. On my way back from Lagos, I decided to visit him. As I approached, I saw a large plantation of cocoa, all of them ripe and I started wondering why they were allowing the cocoa to ripe like that. When I got closer, I observed that the cocoa were falling down and getting rotten and nobody was looking over them. When I arrived the farm, I saw the owner of the farm and he received me. When I asked him why he left the cocoa unattended to, he said, ‘My brother, these cocoa were supposed to be harvested just at the point when they began to ripe, packaged and taken to the port and put in the ship to be shipped to America. So, my ship is waiting, I load my cocoa and on the road, the policemen and the NDLEA, they say, ‘open, open.’ By the time they reach the port, they are getting rotten and rejected and that is why the place is like this.’ You heard of Murtala Nyako and his mango experiment which is now dead. Why? Because he was flying his mangoes to Amsterdam in aircraft from Kano airport, he had to ship it from Yola to Kano airport, a journey of about nine hours but because of police and harassment on the road, it began to take two days and the mangoes were getting rotten. I have told you of only two, but this is happening to thousands of people all around Nigeria. 

What gives you so much energy at 87 because when we called you for this interview you were in Yola, the next day you had travelled to Kaduna and you may soon be on your way to Abuja? 

I didn’t walk from Yola to Kaduna. All I do is to go into the plane 

Is there a secret to your good health? 

There is no secret. There are people who never came out alive from their mother’s womb; there are people who came out and died within a few minutes; there are very old ones who pass the age expectancy of their environment. There can be no secret, when your time comes, you can be knocked down by a bicycle just outside your house. My mother died that way. You can die in a plane crash; you can get any disease and never recover, and; some people miraculously come out when they are expected to die. So, how can there be a secret?  If you say you diet, you don’t drink alcohol and so on, I know of a chief who became obese and who had to be flown out many years ago. He was very obese, he recovered and they brought down his weight. When he was discharged, the doctor said, ‘Chief, we have done the best we can do for you. You can go home’ but he wrote on a piece of paper the list of foods he should eat: ‘In the morning, take a slice of bread and a cup of tea; in the afternoon take salad, leg of chicken and; in the evening, something equally light.’ This man used to have a full chicken with potato for breakfast. His lunch was fura da nono, tuwo and leg of lamb and so on in the evening. The chief said, ‘Thank you very much. If I had not come to the hospital, I wouldn’t have known that without dying and going to paradise, we will meet people like this. Thank you.’

When he came back, he called his counsellors and said, ‘Thank you very much for your loyalty and for keeping the area safe. You know I don’t take any decisions without consulting you people but I have taken one decision.’ He said, ‘This is what the white people told me when I was coming but I rejected the idea. I will eat what I like and I used to like. It is better for Nigerians to hear that your chief died a well fed person rather than die of want.’ So if you want my advice, go and eat anything you like and drink anything you like. I eat everything I like. 

We learnt you take train ride to Abuja… 

Yes, I travel to and from Abuja by rail. The main reason is that my children prefer it. Secondly, it is cheaper than taking my car to Abuja airport from where I take a flight to Yola. If I take my car from Kaduna, in two and half hours, I am in Abuja airport, but I would have spent about N20,000 in fuelling and maintaining the car. But if I buy the railway ticket, its N1,500 and in addition to the cost of going to the railway station from my house, I would not have spent N5,000. 

Can you recall your days at Barewa College? What was the situation like? How many were you in a class and who were your mates then?

Our class size was 25 and we came from the 12 provinces of Nigeria. I have classmates from Kwara, Joseph Awoniyi, Ayinla and Michael Daniel; from Kabba. I had Zubairu Abbas; from Idoma, I had Jerom Idochi and so on. Barewa was strictly a quota system school and provided opportunity for everybody from different parts of the North and I think that might have influenced my thinking as a permanent secretary of education in getting the Federal Government involved in Unity Colleges and it helped that Gowon was also of the same school of thought.

So, my days in Barewa were like the days of everybody who goes to secondary school. The difference is that the majority of our teachers were English people. Though there were Nigerians and, of course, there were the Yoruba, Igbo, Istekiri and one or two northerners.

The routine was very simple. We call some of our teachers gentlemen, and if you committed any offence, it was reported to the principal in his office, that so, so, and so had breached the school rule and you were given a chair to sit. If you deserved punishment, it was awarded. But because I was bad in sports, I could not participate well, so I went into scouting; I was a very good scout. For my last two years in office, I became the organiser of scouting activity every weekend, which meant that we went out for weekend camps. We would go into the bush, cook our food, make our shelter. I used to like it and I think it helped me a lot in my later life.

Surprisingly, you became a very good sports reporter even when you could not do sports. How did it happen?

Well, I knew how to identify things, how to get out of situations and how to be independent because when I left Barewa and went to the College of Agriculture in Ibadan, we were supposed to have been grownups and independent, but because of scouting, I knew how to mobilise and buy my food items. I knew how to cook and do everything I needed to do and I was quite comfortable and was even able to help many of my mates.

When you clocked 80 years about seven years ago, you described, in an interview, your admission to Barewa College as the happiest moment in your life. Were your parents equally excited about it?

My parents were not the kind of people that could easily be excited; they took things as they came. They had no idea I had taken the examination until after I had been given admission and allowed to go home for a few days holidays to prepare to come back. When I arrived, my father was surprised. He was also a teacher in a primary school. I told him I was given a break to prepare to go to Kaduna College. He said, ‘Oh! You are going there? Good.’ But when my mother learnt, she didn’t make any comment. I was not particularly close to my parents because I was the favourite of my grandmother, the mother of my father. She looked after me, took care of me and protected me from everything. So it was to her I related much. My mother was very far and I thought we did not care for each other until the morning I was about to leave for school. I was leaving without saying goodbye to her, but I found her waiting in a dark spot, and as I was passing, she grabbed me, gave me some money and disappeared. Then I realised that she loved me, so I changed my attitude towards her. So, there was no excitement, no celebration by then, except, of course, my father. When I went to the school where he was teaching to say goodbye to him, he told me to do my best, that perhaps I might be the one to take care of the family. So I left. That was his last words because I never saw him alive again.

Has any of your children taken after you by going into journalism or the civil service?

None of them. I never sought to influence their choice of career. I have two girls and two boys. The girls came first. One is running an NGO, one is in America. My two sons are based in Kaduna but spend most of their time in Abuja; I don’t know what they do.

Seeing that after all these years you use a smart phone to make calls and send SMS, one maybe tempted to ask how you fit into the new technology after getting used to the old system of landline. How did you get to adapt?

Did I have to? Things come in the cause of life. I didn’t know telephone existed until I was 12 years of age and when I first saw the telephone, it wasn’t dialling, it was the one you rolled the handle. But I never got to use the telephone until I was about 20 to 21 years old. After that, when I got the newspaper work, it became the tool I had to use to do my work. At some point, when I was editor here, there were 12 provinces in Northern Nigeria; every day I had a fixed time call. I would book to speak to everyone in the 12 provinces at least once per day and several times to Lagos, which means I was living on the telephone 24 hours per day. But this changed to what they called automatic since there was no dialling, and much later, this. It was a privilege to have at least a phone in your office, not to talk of having it in your home. I was having one because of my job.

Now, when they introduced the dialled telephone system, I had problem understanding how to operate it and it worried me, but later in life, when my youngest child was growing up, the telephone system in most places had changed to the touch button. We arrived in a guest house in Bauchi and there was a telephone box with the cranking device. He ran to me and asked me to come and see a box that looked like a telephone but it was not. I told him it was a telephone and showed him how to get the number.

Later, I found myself being the chairman of the National Communication Commission (NCC) when these things (GSM) were coming. So you take it as it comes. It’s like growing up.

agreed to have self government in March, 1959 and independence by 1960. At the time, so I was a student and probably a radical, I did want the North to have independence, self governance status at the same time, but as an old man now, I realised we were in no condition to manage our affairs. And the period was very short in my opinion now. We had no educated people, it was at that period that the clerical schools were established and the school for administrators was developed and matured people who were working within the age range of 30 to over 40 were sent to all parts of the world to study and be trained to handle the affairs of public and so on. I think they achieved quite a lot in that period of time. So, self government came to the West and to the East in 1956 and to the North in 1959, and I think it is incredible that the North was able to compete favourably with the two other regions of Nigeria. They established a university in Ife, they established university in Nsukka and we established the ABU, Zaria. They established television in the West and the East, we established one in Kaduna and Kano. Whatever they did, we were doing. We built roads and developed secondary schools from the initial two to more than 20. We established tertiary institutions, training institutions for rapid training of nurses, engineers, surveyors etc. and people who were working as nurses who had school certificates were sent to universities abroad to complete their medical training. 

During these negotiations we are talking about, sometimes the discussions were very heated; sometimes it looked as if Nigeria would break up. I think it was maturity of the people, the leaders that Nigeria survived and got the independence. I think perhaps you are aware of the subsequent changes, the coups, the counter-coups and so on.

 How did you react then as a radical student and what was the reaction among other students in your class?

As at that time, there were very few students. What is now the ABU was the Nigeria College of Arts and Science in Zaria, which had less than 100 students. There was a medical school which trained mainly doctors in Kano; I don’t think they numbered more than 100. There was also a farmers’ school in Zaria with the same number, and I think it will be fair to say that the North at that time and its leadership did not feel comfortable to become independent. But of course, there was still, at that time, the fear of Igbo domination even among the illiterates, market people and so on. Looking at the competition – and these issues were being manifested in universities, such as Ibadan where the northerners felt discriminated – I think they could imagine what their chances could be if at independence, the most prominent and influential positions were held by people other than themselves. I don’t know of anybody who was in opposition. Aminu Kano was the leader of NEPU, therefore, as the leader of the opposition, he did not vote for independence in 1956. J.S Tarka was the leader of the United Middle Belt Congress, he did not support it; I don’t know of anyone in the North or even among the radicals because I think the situation was clear and obvious.

 Why the fear of Igbo domination, are they not Nigerians?

So why did we want the British to go? Were they not human beings with two legs and two arms? When they came, there was no Nigeria; there was neither Eastern, Western Nigeria nor Mid-western Nigeria. In the East, they did not have a central authority, not a single one, they lived in clans and so on. It was the British who put them together and made them into districts, villages, towns and made them a region. There was no Eastern Nigeria with capital in Enugu, there were clans, but in the other parts of the region, that is, what is now Cross-River, Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, they had their chiefs and empires and there was never one country called Cross-River or River State. And you know during the agitation for independence, the loudest demand for the creation of state was coming from Eastern Nigeria. There was something they used to call COR, which means Calabar, Ogoja and Rivers to be carved out of Eastern Nigeria; there was the demand for the Mid-west which is now Edo State, among other demands. In Western Nigeria, there was the Ife Empire, the Oyo and Egba, among others. They were very often at war. It was the British who amalgamated them and made them Yorubaland, Western Nigeria. Places like Ikorodu, Lagos, all have their chiefs and they still have them, but still, some of them don’t recognise one another.

 In northern Nigeria, there was the semblance of a country, but it was not a country. There were several emirates, independent of each other but most of the Muslim emirs negotiated and signed agreements and recognised the Sultan of Sokoto as the leader. They paid no tax and went to no court outside their territory. They were independent, had their courts, prisons, police and everything. The British made them Northern Nigeria and it was the same British who, after all, brought all of us together and said we are Nigerians, but clearly, there were varieties of Nigerians.

What happened to the modern abattoir you once established that was being managed by your daughter?

I look at the whole of Nigeria and think that we are not observing the basic rules of hygiene. Go to Lagos, which is at the centre of all our activities. Go to Malo and see the conditions of cattle slaughtered and eaten by people. Go to Ikeja abattoir in Lagos and any of our markets. From about 2km, you can smell what is going on, and since I am interested in cattle and also own cattle, I decided to establish an abattoir and was trying to sell my meat at the time the market only existed in Lagos. So I had to put the meat in refrigerated trucks all the way to Lagos. That was fine, but then I discovered that every 20 or 30 kilometres, there is a police or immigration or customs officer and they insist on seeing the content of the truck. My people say, ‘This is meat and if you keep opening it, it will spoil.’ They insist by saying, ‘open’ and then you open and close, you pay bribe and they allow you to go. By the time you reach Lagos, you must have passed about 50 checkpoints. Imagine how much money you must have given to the police, sometimes immigration and sometimes customs. Sometimes, they hold your van for two days if you refuse to pay. Eventually, when you get to Lagos – I used to sell to Sheraton, Kingsway shop and other places – there also, unless you paid bribe to the cold store manager in the UTC store, they would tell you that the cold store was full, so you had to wait for three days. So if I had three vans, running on the road, if one was held for four or five days doing nothing, my factory in Yola would have to shut down and I would have bought cattle that I had to feed, so I would be running at a loss. When it came to payment, it was delayed. They paid one month after delivery and they spent three months because they could not find the second signatory or the cashier. This is the problem. I am talking about myself now.

I heard of someone who established a cocoa plantation and was growing cocoa to export to the United States. He brought expatriates and seeds and established this vast thing. On my way back from Lagos, I decided to visit him. As I approached, I saw a large plantation of cocoa, all of them ripe and I started wondering why they were allowing the cocoa to ripe like that. When I got closer, I observed that the cocoa were falling down and getting rotten and nobody was looking over them. When I arrived the farm, I saw the owner of the farm and he received me. When I asked him why he left the cocoa unattended to, he said, ‘My brother, these cocoa were supposed to be harvested just at the point when they began to ripe, packaged and taken to the port and put in the ship to be shipped to America. So, my ship is waiting, I load my cocoa and on the road, the policemen and the NDLEA, they say, ‘open, open.’ By the time they reach the port, they are getting rotten and rejected and that is why the place is like this.’ You heard of Murtala Nyako and his mango experiment which is now dead. Why? Because he was flying his mangoes to Amsterdam in aircraft from Kano airport, he had to ship it from Yola to Kano airport, a journey of about nine hours but because of police and harassment on the road, it began to take two days and the mangoes were getting rotten. I have told you of only two, but this is happening to thousands of people all around Nigeria. 

What gives you so much energy at 87 because when we called you for this interview you were in Yola, the next day you had travelled to Kaduna and you may soon be on your way to Abuja? 

I didn’t walk from Yola to Kaduna. All I do is to go into the plane 

Is there a secret to your good health? 

There is no secret. There are people who never came out alive from their mother’s womb; there are people who came out and died within a few minutes; there are very old ones who pass the age expectancy of their environment. There can be no secret, when your time comes, you can be knocked down by a bicycle just outside your house. My mother died that way. You can die in a plane crash; you can get any disease and never recover, and; some people miraculously come out when they are expected to die. 

So, how can there be a secret?  If you say you diet, you don’t drink alcohol and so on, I know of a chief who became obese and who had to be flown out many years ago. He was very obese, he recovered and they brought down his weight. When he was discharged, the doctor said, ‘Chief, we have done the best we can do for you. You can go home’ but he wrote on a piece of paper the list of foods he should eat: ‘In the morning, take a slice of bread and a cup of tea; in the afternoon take salad, leg of chicken and; in the evening, something equally light.’ This man used to have a full chicken with potato for breakfast. His lunch was fura da nono, tuwo and leg of lamb and so on in the evening. The chief said, ‘Thank you very much. If I had not come to the hospital, I wouldn’t have known that without dying and going to paradise, we will meet people like this. Thank you.’

When he came back, he called his counsellors and said, ‘Thank you very much for your loyalty and for keeping the area safe. You know I don’t take any decisions without consulting you people but I have taken one decision.’ He said, ‘This is what the white people told me when I was coming but I rejected the idea. I will eat what I like and I used to like. It is better for Nigerians to hear that your chief died a well fed person rather than die of want.’ So if you want my advice, go and eat anything you like and drink anything you like. I eat everything I like. 

We learnt you take train ride to Abuja… 

Yes, I travel to and from Abuja by rail. The main reason is that my children prefer it. Secondly, it is cheaper than taking my car to Abuja airport from where I take a flight to Yola. If I take my car from Kaduna, in two and half hours, I am in Abuja airport, but I would have spent about N20,000 in fuelling and maintaining the car. But if I buy the railway ticket, its N1,500 and in addition to the cost of going to the railway station from my house, I would not have spent N5,000. 

Can you recall your days at Barewa College? What was the situation like? How many were you in a class and who were your mates then?

Our class size was 25 and we came from the 12 provinces of Nigeria. I have classmates from Kwara, Joseph Awoniyi, Ayinla and Michael Daniel; from Kabba. I had Zubairu Abbas; from Idoma, I had Jerom Idochi and so on. Barewa was strictly a quota system school and provided opportunity for everybody from different parts of the North and I think that might have influenced my thinking as a permanent secretary of education in getting the Federal Government involved in Unity Colleges and it helped that Gowon was also of the same school of thought.

So, my days in Barewa were like the days of everybody who goes to secondary school. The difference is that the majority of our teachers were English people. Though there were Nigerians and, of course, there were the Yoruba, Igbo, Istekiri and one or two northerners.

The routine was very simple. We call some of our teachers gentlemen, and if you committed any offence, it was reported to the principal in his office, that so, so, and so had breached the school rule and you were given a chair to sit. If you deserved punishment, it was awarded. But because I was bad in sports, I could not participate well, so I went into scouting; I was a very good scout. For my last two years in office, I became the organiser of scouting activity every weekend, which meant that we went out for weekend camps. We would go into the bush, cook our food, make our shelter. I used to like it and I think it helped me a lot in my later life.

Surprisingly, you became a very good sports reporter even when you could not do sports. How did it happen?

Well, I knew how to identify things, how to get out of situations and how to be independent because when I left Barewa and went to the College of Agriculture in Ibadan, we were supposed to have been grownups and independent, but because of scouting, I knew how to mobilise and buy my food items. I knew how to cook and do everything I needed to do and I was quite comfortable and was even able to help many of my mates.

When you clocked 80 years about seven years ago, you described, in an interview, your admission to Barewa College as the happiest moment in your life. Were your parents equally excited about it?

My parents were not the kind of people that could easily be excited; they took things as they came. They had no idea I had taken the examination until after I had been given admission and allowed to go home for a few days holidays to prepare to come back. When I arrived, my father was surprised. He was also a teacher in a primary school. I told him I was given a break to prepare to go to Kaduna College. He said, ‘Oh! You are going there? Good.’ But when my mother learnt, she didn’t make any comment. I was not particularly close to my parents because I was the favourite of my grandmother, the mother of my father. She looked after me, took care of me and protected me from everything. So it was to her I related much. My mother was very far and I thought we did not care for each other until the morning I was about to leave for school. I was leaving without saying goodbye to her, but I found her waiting in a dark spot, and as I was passing, she grabbed me, gave me some money and disappeared. Then I realised that she loved me, so I changed my attitude towards her. So, there was no excitement, no celebration by then, except, of course, my father. When I went to the school where he was teaching to say goodbye to him, he told me to do my best, that perhaps I might be the one to take care of the family. So I left. That was his last words because I never saw him alive again.

Has any of your children taken after you by going into journalism or the civil service?

None of them. I never sought to influence their choice of career. I have two girls and two boys. The girls came first. One is running an NGO, one is in America. My two sons are based in Kaduna but spend most of their time in Abuja; I don’t know what they do.

Seeing that after all these years you use a smart phone to make calls and send SMS, one maybe tempted to ask how you fit into the new technology after getting used to the old system of landline. How did you get to adapt?

Did I have to? Things come in the cause of life. I didn’t know telephone existed until I was 12 years of age and when I first saw the telephone, it wasn’t dialling, it was the one you rolled the handle. But I never got to use the telephone until I was about 20 to 21 years old. After that, when I got the newspaper work, it became the tool I had to use to do my work. At some point, when I was editor here, there were 12 provinces in Northern Nigeria; every day I had a fixed time call. I would book to speak to everyone in the 12 provinces at least once per day and several times to Lagos, which means I was living on the telephone 24 hours per day. But this changed to what they called automatic since there was no dialling, and much later, this. It was a privilege to have at least a phone in your office, not to talk of having it in your home. I was having one because of my job.

Now, when they introduced the dialled telephone system, I had problem understanding how to operate it and it worried me, but later in life, when my youngest child was growing up, the telephone system in most places had changed to the touch button. We arrived in a guest house in Bauchi and there was a telephone box with the cranking device. He ran to me and asked me to come and see a box that looked like a telephone but it was not. I told him it was a telephone and showed him how to get the number.

Later, I found myself being the chairman of the National Communication Commission (NCC) when these things (GSM) were coming. So you take it as it comes. It’s like growing up.

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