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Reminiscences with Malam Yahaya Abdulkarim

What was it like growing up in your family? My father was a district alkali (judge) and we grew up being highly disciplined because he…

What was it like growing up in your family?

My father was a district alkali (judge) and we grew up being highly disciplined because he wanted us to be like him, in the sense that he was learned in Islamic education .The then Sokoto Native Authority established a school to train the learned scholars to make them judicial officers. He was the only one that was appointed directly. He was given the position of alkali straight away from the school and was posted to look after Zurmi.

He very much believed in the Western education and always said that there was a future in it and that we should pursue it contrary to the belief of others who were around him. So with all the difficulties of learning in those days, we were able to learn. In those days, not everywhere had schools. When he was posted to Bakura, there was no school so my elder brother and I had to be taken to Talata Mafara because there was a primary school there. But there were lots of difficulties because we walked on foot from Bakura to Talata Mafara. It was a day’s walk along the footpath because there was no transportation. We stayed in Talata Mafara until when there was a holiday or over the weekends we go home. That time was a very difficult time.

I experienced difficulty because that year, there was famine. There was no food; not that there was no money to buy food but the food was not available. I was in Primary Three or Four that time. At one time, we had to run away from the school but my father said, we must to go back. We were lucky that we continued because in my class in Talata Mafara , I was the only one who passed to senior primary  school, all the others dropped out. So, only I was able to go to Senior Primary School Kwatarkwashi which was a boarding school. It was difficult but we were able to endure it.

What career did you intend to pursue?

We started thinking about career pursuit when we entered secondary school because at that time there were so many opportunities, unlike now. In those days, we were even paid to read. When you were in school, you got t whatever you wanted, either through the Native Authority or the Regional Government. We started thinking of careers when we were in Form Six and most of our teachers were white – majority of the teachers were British. There were various opportunities but what they wanted us to do was training before work.

From secondary school, I went to the Federal Training Center (FTC) Kaduna.  Honestly speaking, when I was there, I didn’t know what I was there for. Somebody came from Lagos to lecture us and said, we can apply to the Federal Ministry of Establishment and I applied. I got a telegraph to report at the FTC in Kaduna, immediately. I met Malam Adamu Fika who was then the principal, he said, ‘you are going for stenography.’ I didn’t know what the course was all about  but I started and for about one year I was learning secretariat duties – shorthand, typing and so on – but I realized it was not my career, so  left because I had my WAEC and I passed.  I applied to Advanced Teachers School, Zaria and was given admission, so I left FTC. 

People were surprised that I left the secretariat field to become a teacher. But from what I understand, secretariat duty is mainly for women. I was lucky to pass my NCE and teach Biology/ Chemistry. After passing the exam, the Northern government posted me to WTC, Birnin Kebbi. As I was going to Birnin Kebbi, the Sokoto Education Development Fund opened a secondary school called Ahmadu Bello Academy. I was intercepted because they were looking for teachers and they said they would not allow me to go to Kebbi. So I was held at Ahmadu Bello Academy as a teacher. 

While I was teaching, another opportunity came in the North-West state – the present Sokoto, Kebbi, Niger, Zamfara and part of the FCT. At that time, they were looking for admin officers so I was one of those that went to Ahmadu Bello University to be trained as administrative officers. I stayed there for about two years and when I came back, I became an admin officer. So from there, I rose to various positions, I was an Assistant District Officer. I worked in Bida, Lapai, Minna, Kontagora and various other places. I was fully involved in the 1973 census, after which I came to the ministry and was posted to Argungu as field officer.

I also acted as a Chief Electoral Officer during the 1979 election, after which I was appointed a permanent secretary. From there, I worked in various places, the last was budget and it was punitive. I was permanent secretary Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Works, Ministry of Agriculture and from Agriculture, I was taken to a department, budget, which is part of the Ministry of Finance. I felt it was a punishment so I retired voluntarily. I don’t know maybe for some reasons they wanted to find a fault in me but they couldn’t get. I said, “Since I was no longer needed – I was only about 43 or 44 years at the time – I would leave.” I left and went into politics. It was later on that the idea of vying for governorship seat came. I retired in 1989 and sincerely speaking, the reason why I said I would retire was that I was reading a paper, the Reporter, and saw a report that any civil servant who wants to join politics can resign within a week, then I said okay, let me do it from today.

After resigning, I returned my official car because that was the only government property in my possession. I didn’t borrow money. This is the house that I have been living in.

How was your experience as governor?

I can relive some of the experience. First of all, I will say political office is very exciting. You see people with different colours .Governance did not come to me as something new, the only thing that was new was because people came in different forms. Some people would come with complaints, some people would come looking for jobs, some people would come looking for contracts and from the way they talk, you will realize what people are.

When I started campaigning, I had some difficulties because of the area I come from.  I am from the Zamfara side, (I am from Talata Mafara ). That was where my father was born but this side felt that they should have it because the last civilian governor was also from Zamfara. So coming from Zamfara again was something unacceptable to some. I was not deterred, I continued, that was the only opposition I received. My biggest saviour was the creation of Kebbi, because when I started campaigning, Kebbi State was not created. I had traversed all the areas in Kebbi, it was the last month before the election that Kebbi state was created. That gave me some relief because some of my competitors in Kebbi were strong. So I was lucky to scale through even with the opposition.

What would you say was the highest point during the almost two years of your administration?

We were taken unawares because we were not expecting to be overthrown within two years. When I was there, my priority was education. It was my biggest priority and I spent a lot on education, up till now I am proud to say that I am yet to see anybody who has surpassed my record. I told the current governor (Aminu Waziri Tambuwal), because he is doing what I was doing, to continue. He distributed 45 buses, I distributed 60 buses and the buses I distributed were quite bigger than his own. But I praise him because there is no better thing to give to people here than education. We are so behind and we have to compete with the rest of Nigeria. If Sokoto is to compete with the rest of Nigeria, the biggest thing that we can give to the people is education so that our youths can go anywhere. If you are selling kola nut and you are educated, you can do it better than when you are not educated.

I established the Talata Mafara Polytechnic and the School of Health Technology Gwadabawa and upgraded the School of Nursing to make it a college. When I came, the Sokoto Polytechnic project had been abandoned, I completed and commissioned it and put it to use. At that time, I was getting only 50 million naira and we were able to do a lot of things and we had 30,000 workers.

 We were just trying to make sure that we perform. We did the right thing to make sure that our people got what they were supposed to get.

May we know how it was when your administration was terminated abruptly by the military regime of General Sani Abacha?

I felt very sad, of course. It was just shortly after we came out of June 12 elections. I spent a lot of money during that election. That election didn’t materialize. That wasn’t what we wanted, we wanted the election to be a perfect election and a civilian president installed. When I was overthrown, I was not even here. I was supposed to go to Pakistan. I was invited by the governor there because they wanted us to see the things that they make locally and see if we could put them to use here. So, I was in London and wanted to go to Pakistan but the ambassador told me that the authorities in Pakistan said I should wait for few days in London because they were having an election. So I was there when somebody called and told me:  ‘your government has been overthrown.’  I just said, ‘you know God is great, there is nothing one can do.’

I was very sad. I didn’t come back immediately. Just few days before I was overthrown, a friend of mine told me that I may be overthrown. I called my family to pack out of government house, so by the time the announcement came, my family was not at the government house. It was a very funny thing to me. When I came back two days after, I went to the government house and handed over.

You were a force to reckon with in the Zamfara PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) but you were not able to get the governorship ticket in the April 2007 election. What happened?

It was not only in Zamfara but even in Sokoto. I established the PDP in Sokoto and Zamfara. In Sokoto, the party was in my house for about 6 years. We made the party; I was in the middle of everything including the name, emblem and so on. The moment I was not able to get the ticket in Zamfara that was why the PDP lost in the state because there was a conspiracy against me. Up till now, that is what is making the party poor in Zamfara. I continued with the party until last year when I left it.

 You see what is happening with the party in Nigeria. All the people, the founding fathers who formed the party have been sidelined. Somebody came from nowhere, from another party and became its leader. He did not know what was in the party, he just came overnight and was made to lead the party.

 That is what spoiled the PDP. Obasanjo was fair with the party when he was there; he knew what was happening in the party and those who founded it. He listened to people and sympathized with the people in the state where the PDP was in opposition. 

 After Obasanjo, I met with Yar’adua three times when he was the president. Quite alright when you go he listens. But after Yar Adua, it was very rough. 

As Minister of State for Works, you had a programme for accelerated road recovery. How did it go?

When I was in the Ministry of Works, the areas Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara were controlled by the opposition and all the members in the National Assembly were in opposition. I found out that during the budget, when it came to allocation, these states. Katsina, Kano, Jigawa and Kaduna states were not in opposition so what they do was most of the projects on roads were there.

So I had to make serious complaints to make sure that that kind of thing was addressed. Even though I was a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I think I have a constituency and my constituency is the area where I come from. So I had to make sure that these areas are covered, in terms of road. The one year and some months that I spent there, I did a lot to make sure that our roads were rehabilitated and in the other zones where similar kind of injustice was being experienced.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I walk either in the morning or in the evening. Everybody in this area knows that I walk.

You don’t like to be addressed as Alhaji, why?

It is my belief is that if you call me Alhaji, it’s as if you are abusing me because it has no meaning.

I am a Malam. I was a teacher so I prefer   Malam.

Do you enjoy travelling?

Not outside the country. I love travelling within the country. I go out quite alright but not as often as I am supposed to because I don’t want people to look down upon me. I am happy with what I have and what I do here in Nigeria.

How about family life?

My family life is very interesting. I am a polygamist. I am happy I have a good number of children and three wives. Every evening, I make it obligatory to sit with my children and my wives. No quarrels, we chat, we discuss


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