Alhaji Shehu Malami, a Sokoto prince, is a successful businessman and diplomat. In this interview, the Sarkin Sudan of Wurno, who spent a lot of his time in England, speaks on his early years of education, his memories of Sultan Abubakar, and other interesting issues.
You are from a royal family. Your father was a brother to the sultan, which means that you are part of the Sokoto elite, even from the beginning. I think it is fair to say you started life with a golden spoon. Would that be a right description?
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My father was a younger brother to the late Sultan Abubakar. It was the Sultan who brought me up. My father told me that one day he was just sitting down and one of the palace guards entered his rooms and asked for Malami, informing him that he was asked to bring me to the palace. When the palace guard marched to the palace, Sultan Abubakar directed that I should be taken to elementary school. From that day, he took over my affairs without exception.
It appeared you went to many schools, not only in Sokoto, but Kano, Katsina, Bida; why all those changes?
I started with Sokoto Middle School, but later on, it was not upgraded. It was a middle school but they called it Provincial Secondary School, Sokoto. Kano was upgraded, so the whole of my class, including Alhaji Alhaji, and so many of us, were transferred to that place.
We were in Kano for one year. Then the authorities thought there were too many distractions there, so they decided to move us to Katsina. It was in Kano that I met Emir Ado Bayero and others and we all became friends at that particular time. After one year, I was transferred to the Katsina Provincial Secondary School. That was where I met General Buhari and Yar’adua, they were my schoolmates.
Were you their senior?
From Katsina, I was moved to Bida. It is a very interesting story. When it was time for Sallah holidays, all our school belongings, including books, were collected so that we could go away. I decided to go to Kano from Katsina and Alhaji Alhaji decided to accompany me. When we got back, we were told that we had committed a very serious offence –we shouldn’t have gone out of Katsina at all as the holidays were meant to be spent there, not anywhere else.
So we were called in by the school authorities and told that we broke the rule. I asked which rule we broke as everything I brought into the school was collected from me. I felt I was just going for normal holidays. He said I shouldn’t have gone there, insisting that it was an offence, but I disagreed.
Alhaji, who accompanied me to Kano, felt threatened. He felt unsecured, so he wanted to apologise to the principal. But I refused to apologise, insisting that I had not committed any offence.
It was a case that involved me, Alhaji Alhaji and the Provincial Secondary School, Katsina. We got to the Sokoto Local Authority or Education Authority as you call them and it was a battle to remove me from Katsina to somewhere else. That was how it was decided to send me to Bida. It was an administrative decision.
I insisted that we did not commit any offence because we should have been told that the holidays should be spent in Katsina and not anywhere else. Nobody told us that in advance. So, it was decided that I should be sent to Bida Provincial Secondary School, where I met with General Babangida and many others.
Then it was time for the West African School Certificate exams and the documents were to come from Lagos to Bida for us to fill and the principal or whoever it was to sign and return them to Lagos. It was on a Friday and we were expecting the last mail. I was in school (of course on Fridays everybody was there) but we went away for the afternoon.
After we left the school, the mail arrived from Lagos and they were looking for everybody to fill the documents. Unfortunately, I was nowhere to be found. When I came back in the evening, they said I had committed an offence and should stay for another week waiting for another mail to come in from Lagos. I said I was not going to do that. I could stay one or three nights but not to wait until when the mail would come back the following week. So, I just collected everything belonging to the school, left there and made my way to Kaduna, then Sokoto. That was how I left Bida without completing the school calendar.
Many people would think that this rebellion was because you were privileged, as the next thing was that you went to England to study; is that correct?
That was very interesting. When I was sent to school on the instruction of Sultan Abubakar, the man in charge of education was Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto.
Was he the councillor for education?
Yes. Somehow, he kept an eye on me, deliberately or by accident, and saw that I was doing very well. So, not minding all the crises about staying in Bida or everywhere, Sultan Abubakar said they would take me out. That was how he decided to send me to England.
Interestingly, Sultan Abubakar gave me a cheque on his bank account, the Standard Chartered Bank, which was called Bank of British West Africa. It was in Zaria at the time.
When I went to collect the money, the European there refused, saying I was a young boy so he would not give me so much money. The cheque was for 400 pounds, which was a lot of money at the time. It would run into millions of naira now.
I went to the Iyan Zazzau, Aminu. He was not yet the Emir of Zaria, but whenever there was an opportunity, there used to be a horse racing. Sarkin Kudu Maccido was the district head of Mafara before he became sultan. He used to take me along to Zaria. That was how I got to know Iyan Zazzau. We stayed in his house at Tundun Wada.
So, I told the Iyan Zazzau that I needed to take the money to Ahmadu Bello. He accompanied me to see the manager of the bank and he released the money to me.
What was the money for?
When I took it to Ahmadu Bello, he organised my flight to the United Kingdom, school fees and other things about the school. Everything was paid for out of the 400 pounds.
Tell us about your years in England. How long did you stay and what was your experience?
I was in what they called North Devon Technical College. That was where I started. I was doing very well in the school, then it was decided that I should go to a better one. So I was sent to SouthEnd On Sea Municipal College, not far away from London. There, I registered with Middle Temple, together with my friend from Ghana, Kwasie Armah, who was the high commissioner from Ghana. We used to go for lectures together. He was a student like me.
I came to Nigeria with the intention of going back, but I got involved in local politics because I was part of the student movement in England. I came to Nigeria, and unfortunately, I was not there to complete the dinners, which were compulsory after exams.
I wanted to go into politics but they said I was too young for that. In fact, I wanted to be a member of the House of Representatives, but they said I should start with local politics. I refused and Ahmadu Bello was very annoyed. He told Gidado Idris to take me for an interview to work with Abubakar Imam, who was the chairman of the Public Service Commission. They interviewed me and said I wasn’t right, but when they came to Ahmadu Bello, I said I wasn’t interested in going to the civil service.
I went on my own and that was the end of my career in the civil service. But Ahmed Joda insisted that I must join the service. In fact, I was very good in writing, so I was interested in journalism, right from my schooldays in Katsina. Sani Kontagora made me extremely interested in writing.
Was he a teacher or fellow student?
He was in charge of Katsina at the time. He encouraged me to write; and I used to write quite often in the newspapers, especially the Nigerian Citizen. I used to write a lot. He rose to be an editor. I continued as somebody roaming around.
One day, at the last meeting of the Nigerian parliament, a Sokoto member was going to Lagos and died in a car accident near Funtua. So Ahmadu Bello said, “This is your time, so you can try and contest for election now.”
I was the chairman of what they called the Hospitality Committee of the Student Movement in the UK. The idea was that if anybody coming was important enough, we would organise lunch and meet him or some persons from Nigeria, like Sarkin Daura and others, just to keep in touch with what was happening at home.
One of the people, our member, was from PZ Industries. His uncle was the chairman of PZ. We became great friends, but later on, unfortunately, his uncle died and the young man invited me to join them in PZ. So that was how I gravitated into the private sector.
Do you think your years in England changed your life, the way you see the world? Did you become an English man from northern Nigeria in a way?
It opened me to opportunities, to meet people from all over the world. There were so many Nigerians, but not from Sokoto or Fulani. We had a big student movement and made friends from all over the world. And that helped me a lot because anywhere I telephoned I would know somebody. It eased movement from one country to another. So, that opened up so many opportunities for me.
But it didn’t change your lifestyle; you didn’t pick up European habits, so to say.
At what point did you become Sultan Abubakar’s private secretary?
During independence celebrations, the Sultan of Sokoto had so many personal assistants, but there were so many areas that needed attention. People were given assignments but there was no standing private secretary or personal assistant, so I acted for that period.
Was that in 1960?
Yes. We went to Lagos together for the independence. I was with Sultan Abubakar at the Race Course when the British flag was lowered and that of Nigeria went up.
How long did you work as his personal assistant or private secretary?
Six months or so when things went back to normalcy and a lot of the people came back.
We have heard a lot about Sultan Abubakar; can you tell us more about him? How was he different from the Sardauna, whose image is much larger?
Sultan Abubakar was a straightforward and no-nonsense man, to the extent that he dismissed his own brother from Wurno. His brother was the district head of Wurno, but he was not handling money properly, so he was removed.
Was that his younger brother?
The district head was his elder brother. The sultan removed him and put me there and said there were rules and regulations that must be abided by, no matter who you were.
We heard he was a man with a great sense of humour, is that true?
Yes. And he was full of humility. He got on very well with General Gowon, who was his friend. He was a great man. I learnt a lot from him. There are some reports about him in the British press and libraries.
Is there any incident or story you remember about him?
So many of them. He didn’t like an atmosphere of quietness. He was always giving direction to people who didn’t know where to go or what they were doing. He always insisted that things must be done properly.
Instead of politics you became a businessman through the PZ opportunity. You are associated with many industries in Sokoto, Kano, even in Asaba, where you set up a furniture company. Can you share your experience in business?
About industries, during General Gowon’s time, Ahmed Joda was the permanent secretary of education and they put me on the board of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Earlier, Ironsi, through General Katsina, put me on the board of the Nigeria Industrial Development Bank (NIDB), which was partly owned by IFC. I was there for nine years. Ahmadu Kumasi was my chairman, so I learnt a lot about how to establish industries. That was how I got involved in the NIDB, where I was with Kumasi.
Again, I learnt a lot from very important people who I wish to remember all the time – Ahmadu Kumasi, Ahmed Tali, Yahaya Gusau. They were straightforward people. They were directed to do the right thing and would not tolerate any nonsense. They were great people.
You set up Wurno Bottling Company and a tannery in Sokoto; why didn’t they succeed?
At that time, everybody wanted to establish something. Ahmed Joda, myself and Aminu Dantata went to establish in Kano, Philip Asiodu went to Asaba and established something. There was a feeling that you must identify yourself with something of pride. Unfortunately, since then, things have degenerated. We accepted that as a dogma and went ahead with it. We didn’t care; wherever the opportunity was, we followed it.
What about your bottling company in Sokoto, where you were producing soft drinks?
As the economy dwindled, I established a brick industry. My experience at the Industrial Development Bank gave me a push to establish things. I even established borehole (drilling company).
One other notable thing about your career in business is that you were chairman or director of banks, including Union Bank. You were also part of the people who set up Ecobank; is that correct?
That’s right. I was on the Board of Trustees with Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Would you say you got those appointments because you had links in the government?
Well, in the UK, when I was the chairman of that committee I mentioned earlier, we met a lot of people coming from Nigeria. We tried to entertain them and make them feel at home. That was the atmosphere. We were always in touch. It was like a clique. And each one of us established something, but unfortunately, things later collapsed.
As a businessman, did you make a lot of money?
We made money. Last week, I was showing my children a small booklet where I put the investments I made with a small amount of money and the returns were very valuable.
You also set up a furniture factory in Asaba, what encouraged you to do that?
There was this feeling of doing something and not just trying to get something out of the country.
Why do you think that spirit has been lost; what happened to the country?
I wouldn’t know. The prices of all commodities in Nigeria have gone up. In those days, there was determination, but of course, sometimes you would fail.
One of the highlights of your career was your appointment by General Abacha as the first high commissioner to South Africa; how did that happen, especially considering that you were a businessman?
I used to be a member of the World Economic Forum, which had a meeting in Davos. When Shehu Shagari was visiting India as president, I was one of those who accompanied him. When I returned, I remember that in Zurich, I saw a big list of conferences going on; they mentioned Davos. So I called Yahaya Kwande, who was the ambassador in Switzerland. That was how I became a member of the World Economic Forum.
Through that I had the opportunity to meet world leaders. Those that could not be there addressed Davos through the telephone and modern technology. As a member of the World Economic Forum your name was spread through those that attended. You would get invited to go to a country by the head of state. And you would go there and meet another conference and a head of state and you would become friends. Even now, I get a lot of letters from people I used to know in those days.
Were you surprised when Abacha called to make you a high commissioner, or you had a long standing relationship with him?
I knew him for some time. When I first met the late president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, I informed General Sani Abacha. When he was going to South Africa he would take me along with him. He saw how much I was accepted, and that was how he made me an ambassador to the Republic of South Africa.
How was your tenure as a high commissioner in South Africa as a newly independent country?
It was very challenging and tough. It was tough because there was rumour everywhere. At that time, everybody was armed. If you looked into somebody’s pocket or mosques you would see that as people were praying there were guns everywhere because there were so many warring countries around South Africa. Everybody had a gun, to the extent that the man in charge of security in that country told us not to travel unless we had to. This shows you how dangerous the situation was.
In South Africa I was only wearing Nigerian cloths, but I was warned because I could easily be identified as the Nigerian high commissioner. But there was no occasion that I did not wear my Nigerian cloths. So, once they met Mandela, Sani Abacha said “this is going to be my Nigerian high commissioner”.
But the relationship between Abacha and Mandela went sour, especially over Ken Saro-Wiwa; how did you mediate in that conflict?
There was a conference in Australia and Sani Abacha sent a note for me to go to South Africa as the high commissioner, but in the conference, news leaked that Ken Saro-Wiwa was going to be hanged. Mandela tried to reach Abacha to stop him from taking such action. He tried all he could, including talking to Alhaji Alhaji, who was the high commissioner in London and was also in Australia, but Abacha was not friendly as the telephone would ring and he would ignore it.
He was able to get through to me to tell Abacha that it was Mandela, and he said he didn’t realise that we were great friends.
How did that incident affect the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria?
Mandela never believed in capital punishment. So, for the decision to hang Saro-Wiwa, he said Nigerians were barbarians. And Abacha said those criticising us were terrible people, looking at their records.
Abacha said that since Mandela was in prison for 27 years, he was not expected to behave properly. That triggered criticisms from both sides.
How did you manage to relate with Mandela as our ambassador?
He liked me before I became the high commissioner. I first met Mandela through a conference in Davos. So we became friends even before Abacha got to know my relationship with him.
We know him as a legend, but you related closely with him; what kind of man was he?
He was a kind man; a great friend of Nigeria.
Was he a great friend of Nigeria and he called us barbarians?
He gave me about three months before he could see me to present my credentials. But on the day I presented my credentials, he said I should remember that Nigerians were leaders in Africa, but if I did anything wrong they would tell the whole world. He was always straightforward.
When they had a meeting of African heads of states in South Africa, Abacha sent me, Gambari, Kaloma Ali and others to meet them and tell them good things about Nigeria.
Both Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were committed to Nigeria, but Mbeki later told me that he always called Nigeria his country. Mandela also referred to Nigeria as his own country.
He was a great man, very patient and friendly. I found him very rewarding.
I heard you are also the chairman of the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company (AEDC), which means that you are still active in business, even in your 80s, what is the secret?
Yes, I am very much active. I have the intention to give you all the dishonest things they did to take away the company from me.
You are in conflict with them?
A lot. I have some documents. When you have time I will sit and brief you. In fact, I have the intention of calling a press conference to reveal everybody who took part in it.
What is the story? You brought them to Nigeria; are they South Africans or Zambians?
They are Zambians. We invited them, and when they came, instead of discussing the privatisation aspect of it with us, they went to Elumelu of the United Bank for Africa (UBA), and all they did was to just send me a note about the decision of the Board, stating that I had to accept it within 24 hours or the project was off.
Were you the chairman of the board?
Yes. I established the whole company. They went and discussed with their financiers and not us; and somewhere, without the knowledge of Elumelu, somebody said one must sign the agreement within 24 hours and pay a certain amount of money, otherwise the deal was off. But Elumelu said there was no such condition. It was because of that nationality that they took that letter from the UBA to the Corporate Affairs Commission and registered 75 per cent shares for themselves – the foreigners. When we discovered this, we took up the matter with the authorities and they allowed them to go, register everything and take all the documents and sold out the Nigerian company as their own. So there was no way we could raise our own money to counter the small amount they brought from outside.
So they more or less took over the company; is the matter in court?
That is right. We have gone from one court to another. I asked for a fiat to prosecute them from the very beginning. On three occasions, we went to the minister of justice but he was avoiding us. Whatever it was, we could not get him.
His department sent our documents to the Director of Public Prosecution, who we are dealing with. But they took it away from there and gave it to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
They never gave them enough time to investigate the issue so as to give a report and recommend something. Then we heard that a former military head of state, Abdulsalami Abubakar, Ibrahim Aliyu and other heads of state were coming in. The matter is still in court.
Do you still engage in other businesses, or is there something else you enjoy doing in your retirement?
I have retired; I don’t do any business.
What about other activities? As a prince of the caliphate, a couple of times you were close to being a sultan, is it still an ambition for you?
I never prayed to God to make me a Sultan of Sokoto, never at any minute.
I only prayed to Allah to give me what is best for me and he has done it. I am completely satisfied with what Allah has done for me. I am not complaining to anybody.
If you had become the sultan, would you have been happy even though you didn’t pray for it?
I don’t know. There are so many ways to be fulfilled, it depends on the opportunity. You may be the sultan but may not have the opportunity to make it long. The appointment is nothing; it depends on who is there. The person there makes it important and not the title itself.
What do you make of what is happening in Nigeria now?
It is a terrible disaster, to say the least. You may know what is wrong with a broken car and fix it, but how do you identify what is wrong with Nigeria now? How can you repair the damage? How did we come about this situation? If possible, how do we go back to those times we said things were manageable? These are the basic question.
From your experience, do you have any idea how we can fix these problems?
If I have any idea I will send them to you. Nobody knows how. How do we start, from where? Who do you blame?
You don’t think anybody is to blame?
All of us are to blame because things were going bad slowly and we ignored them, now they have gone out of hand.
You have travelled all over the world; do you have any favourite country?
Yes, one or two of them. The people of Saudi Arabia are different; they would have treated us differently but for the fact that we are Muslims. I will not live in Saudi Arabia for anything.
But do you like visiting Saudi Arabia?
No, I will never live in Saudi Arabia.
You had to go because of religion?
Yes, if not for religion I would have nothing to do with it.
Where do you enjoy travelling to?
Well, I have so many friends in Tunisia, which is a beautiful country. I also have so many friends in Cairo, Egypt. I even have properties in Egypt.
What about England where you spent your youthful days; I hear you used to have a house there?
I hardly go there. I have no more children or grandchildren in England. They are qualified and all looking after themselves. What I always hoped for was to be able to take care of them. I paid every single kobo for their education; the government did not contribute anything in educating any of my children.
Tell us more about your family; is it big?
Manageable. I have seven children. They are not popular but they all have various degrees from Egyptian universities in Cairo, Paris, England. I have so many children; thank God they are all grown up.
You are 86 and retired, how is your typical day like?
Very busy, just like you are keeping me busy now. I wake up gently by 8am or 9am, say my prayers and just take it easy. I don’t allow engagement until after 1pm. I am happy.
What else do you do?
I do a lot of reading. The newspapers keep me busy also. I would like to know what is happening.
I am sure that old age will come to you one day.