Ambassador Ahmed Shehu Yusufari, a veteran civil servant, was the assistant private secretary to the Premier of Northern Nigeria, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello (Sardaunan Sokoto). He later served as Nigeria’s ambassador, and ultimately as state chief protocol officer to General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida between 1988 and 1994 before he finally retired in Maiduguri. In this interview he shared his experiences working with Sir Ahmadu Bello, Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. He also spoke on other interesting issues.
Can you tell us about your early days in Maiduguri?
When I was at school age, particularly between ages seven and eight as it used to be, there was no school in my village.
I moved to Yusufari to be with a friend of my father who did not have any child at the time. His wife wanted to have somebody around her, so she suggested that he should bring his friend’s son who was named after him to stay with them
Did you grow up in his house?
Yes. The woman died while I was still very young, so I don’t remember what she looked like. People said the right thing was for him to marry a younger woman who would bear him children. He accepted.
Among his three wives, two were Fulani-speaking while the father of one was from Sokoto. She was born in Baga here. Somehow, they wanted to go for hajj but they could not make it.
I grew up in that house but my village was not far away – about 6kms from Yusufari.
When time came to establish a school, the people from Native Authority wanted to get a list. As expected, children were there and I was called to help.
Was your name not included in the list?
I didn’t include my name. He said I was not his son and others kept quiet. He didn’t tell them what he was going to do.
The following morning he took me to the village and my father was worried. He asked if I were sick and he said no. He said, “They wanted to take him to boko school and I told them he was not my son.” He was told that he shouldn’t have said that.
At what point did you move to Maiduguri?
I moved to Maiduguri after five years in the school because they had only two classes. Then, during my second year I was sick. All I can remember is that I was crawling. I could not walk and he took me on a horseback to the village. I was with my mother; then they started complaining, thinking it was a trick to run away.
Maybe you didn’t like school
They said I should be brought back. Fortunately, the very day my namesake came to take me back to Yusufari, I got up and everybody was happy.
They took me to the Lawan’s house and the district head. And because I was away, I lost a year.
I wrote exam to middle school in 1953 and passed, then travelled to Maiduguri with about seven others from the area. I started the middle school in January 1954.
And eventually, government college?
Was that the only college then?
It was a secondary school, but in 1956 they separated it to middle school, primary school and secondary school.
In 1956 I was one of those selected to go for Queen Elizabeth’s royal visit in Kaduna.
To represent the government college?
No. That was my last year in primary school. Between 1956 and 1957 I joined the secondary school until 1962. So in 1962, after the exams, we were free to go.
I applied for scholarship but it didn’t come because it would be difficult for my father to understand that after all the sacrifice and everything he did, I would still go farther away from Maiduguri or Yusufari. So I didn’t let him know and didn’t suggest that he should pay.
I applied but it took a long time; they didn’t even acknowledge. So someone suggested the late Waziri Ibrahim, a minister, whose younger brother was in the Ministry of Establishment in charge of staff recruitment.
Here in Maiduguri?
He was in Kaduna. He asked for names, so I went. When we went, they said they would appoint us into the executive grade and taken to the Institute of Administration for training. I said okay.
When I went for the interview, Abubakar Imam (maybe I had a file there), observed that I wanted to go to the Institute of Administration. At that time they were recruiting people into district offices and even degree courses. I said I wanted.
But he said they had already given me an offer for this job and asked if I would accept it. I said yes and explained that I didn’t hear from them. He said I would not have it both ways.
I suggested that if I got the scholarship I would resign the job, but he said no. So I said that a bird in hand was worth more than two in the bush. I took the one that was sure.
So, you started the job?
Was it clerical?
The clerical staff were below us.
Did you eventually go to the Institute of Administration?
I did, but it was for executive officers training. When I came back from the training I was posted to the Ministry of Animal and Forest Resources.
Yes. Then, soon afterwards, a vacancy opened in Sardauna’s private office and they needed a replacement.
Ahmed Talib, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance was acting because Ali Akilu was away.
Was Akilu the secretary to the government?
Yes. There was a recommendation including my name. I think that because he found that I spoke a little Fulfude, Kanuri, Hausa and Arabic, I was the obvious choice.
Was it a big kind of adjustment for you to move from the Ministry of Natural Resources to the premier’s office?
Well, it was an executive position between clerical and administration, so it was on the middle level.
So for me, going to work in the office of the premier was something many people were looking forward to. I didn’t know, but I had seen the Sardauna twice or three times whenever he came to Maiduguri. He visited the school where I was. And usually, he would address us and give us some money. He could give the whole school 5,000pounds. And we were very happy because our pocket money used to be about 6pence, so you would end up with 2 or 3 shillings. He was very generous.
You eventually became his assistant private secretary. How was it working for him?
He wanted the people working for him to be around, so he would quickly take note that somebody was missing; then he would bring some money and give to those there.
One day, I was absent because I was sent on a mission but he thought I didn’t want to sit with him in the office, so he gave out gowns and money. He didn’t know there was something in the mail he received and he would select the ones he wanted first, the ones that came from the prime minister’s office or any federal ministry or minister.
Also, some politicians used to write nasty things about him and send to him and he would not want other people to see it. He would select those ones and destroy. And the rest would go to Hassan Lemu, the principal secretary at the time I was there.
So Hassan Lemu was your boss?
Yes. Then Muhammadu Jega, the father of former chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, was the private secretary.
Incidentally, he and others also from Jega, told me that they were Kanuri.
What kind of man was Sir Ahmadu Bello?
He was a great man. He was a teacher for many years and he came from a royal family. He was very generous and considerate.
Anytime there was a problem and somebody was reported by a minister, commissioner or whatever, he would not take sides. One day, a minister who used to be an Immigration officer, went away without getting approval and stepped on the toes of Sardauna’s friend, a very important politician. The man called Sardauna on phone and was very furious. He called for his file and asked who gave him the permission to go. There was no permission and he ordered his sack. But Hassan Lemu and others handled it as a civil service matter and gave him a query.
Muhammadu Jega was succeeded by Kangiwa, who never cared about the job. I did most of the things myself and he would leave.
Where was the Sardauna getting all the money he was distributing?
I don’t know.
Even as his assistant private secretary?
I don’t know because we never interfered with these things. He was just generous, but I don’t think he was a rich person. At least I worked there until the coup.
He was a very fantastic man. He got to know that I was coming to office always on time, even if it was during the rainy season.
Sometimes he would call on phone by 7am, which was the time, and I would pick. I could tell from his voice that he was trying to check whether it was true that I normally didn’t go to the office late. He did that from time to time.
I believe that after the coup you stayed on, what happened? States were later created and you played a part in trying to organise the new 12-state structure. In what capacity did you do that?
I was in charge of administration because the man there had been selected for an assistant district officers’ course. He was from Plateau in today’s Nasarawa.
They said they were looking for someone, and Liman Ciroma, who was from Borno, said that this man had been doing the job. Maccido Dalhat said the administrative position there was run by an executive officer, so we should get someone else.
But Ciroma said the man had been doing the job satisfactorily and nobody ever complained, so why look for someone else? So I stayed there until they eventually got Ahmadu Modibbo from Adamawa, who used to be in the cooperatives. He was transferred on grade level 14, or whatever it was.
The man complained because there were about four permanent secretaries who were Kanuri, including Gujibawo, Ahmed Tallen, Mohammed Monguno. So we were under pressure because people complained a lot.
There were too many Kanuri people in that place, so they were posting administrative officers to go to their places of origin. But there were people who did not want to go back to their state origin.
Did you feel tempted to go back to your state in the North East?
No, I didn’t want.
Were you trained before your first posting to Chad as a diplomat?
I was still an executive officer when I went. My training was on the spot; nobody trained me. By the time I went, there was someone from Borno, Bukar Kolo, the charge d’affaires, who later became ambassador.
Yes. When he went, Mohammed Bulkachuwa, Adamu Bulkachuwa’s father, who is a senator, was an accounting officer. I was actually the consular officer in Chad because they reduced staff as a result of the civil war. I was also asked to do the accounting thing.
It required a lot of efforts, so I had to read circulars, financial instructions and everything to get familiar with it, to the extent that whenever there was a dispute with Adamu Bulkachuwa, the accountant would say I was right, although I was not a trained accountant.
Were you in Chad until 1970?
Yes. I think it was in 1971 or 1972 that I went to London. I was lucky. Many people, like Musa Usman and Ibrahim Dancida, were coming to give us guidance. It was a good posting; but I never rejected any posting and never lobbied for anyone. Wherever I went, I felt very happy. I was very happy in London. After a few months, they asked me to go to France for a language course, so I left. There was no formal training; we learn on the job.
Before you became an ambassador in Cameroon, among other postings, you were in the United States and Dakar, which of the postings would you describe as the best?
It will be very difficult. The one in London was short, but in Dakar, I had the opportunity of being the man in charge because one of the ambassadors died there and the one senior to me left before the ambassador came.
When the ambassador came, he also died, but that was at the time I was supposed to leave. So, I was in charge of the mission for two years or so.
I left Dakar for Washington in April 1997 and remained there until January 1982.
There was a problem in Ndjamena (Chad), so they wanted someone who had served there. So I went back to that place, but fortunately, the war ended the same year and our soldiers were gradually withdrawn because other African countries did not contribute much fighting forces.
All the bills were paid by Nigeria. They spent about $80 million on Nigerian soldiers.
Would you say it was an important mission for you because of your experience there?
Yes. The difficulty was that many of the people thought it was a war they had won and they would take everything. They used to ask people to leave their homes. They would also stop somebody on a motorcycle and seize it.
The day Hissen Habre took over, I had to go and see him to tell him that I had informed President Shehu Shagari that he gave me an oral message. But in the diplomatic circle it was often not so.
I told the ministry everything, but I concocted all those things. I went to see him but I had difficulty because I had nobody who spoke French, English or Arabic. All the people around him were his tribesmen who spoke only their language.
Fortunately, one Kanuri-speaking person overheard me when I was complaining that there was nobody I could speak to. He asked what the problem was and I told him. He said he was the charge d’affaires in Khartoum but joined the rebels to fight. He went and told him and we had a very excellent conversation. He appreciated what President Shagari said I should tell him. He said they knew they would not survive without Nigeria.
Were you happy becoming an ambassador in Cameroon?
Would you consider that the highlight of your diplomatic career?
No; it was just an ambassadorial thing. People were lobbying for certain places, but there were those who, by nature, would not lobby for or against anything.
Were you in Lagos before you were nominated?
I was in Lagos, and I never complained to anybody.
Was Cameroon a good posting?
There was no problem. I wasn’t there at the time of Ahmadou Ahidjo. One of the best people I related with was a Kanuri-speaking man, who was born in Cameroon, where his mother hailed from.
At the time I went as an ambassador, he was a mobile policeman. He died a few years ago. He was a very influential Kanuri man.
The people had suspicions about Nigeria, which were not true. But sometimes we got certain things wrong.
When I was an ambassador there, I visited the Nigerian community in Bakassi and they quoted that as an example. They accused me of claiming that part as Nigeria. They said that as an ambassador in Cameroon I shouldn’t have visited the Nigerian community.
Another problem was when they said I should talk to the people exploiting fuel in an area that belonged to Nigeria and I went to them.
Were you happy with the way Bakassi issue was settled?
Well, the move was not right but they had to find a solution. It doesn’t mean that because 80 per cent of the people in Cameroon are Nigerians that place should belong to Nigeria. It is not like that.
One of the things you are known for is that you served as state chief protocol officer during the regimes of General Babangida and General Abacha; having worked with Ahmadu Bello, another very dominant personality, can you tell us the difference among the leaders?
My experience working with those people helped me a great because of the way they governed. They were very considerate about people working with them.
I also learnt to keep my mouth shut and not get involved in matters that didn’t concern me. And I was willing to learn anything people wanted to tell me. Also, I did any assignment given to me.
Are there similarities between Ahmadu Bello and General Babangida?
They always wanted to seek advice. Sometimes it could be from people like us and sometimes from outsiders. They never rushed to do things.
People often refer to Babangida as Maradona because of how he manipulated processes when he was in power. As his chief protocol officer, what would you say about that?
There is military politics, and I never concerned myself with that; I never got involved.
How was your relationship with Babangida?
It was excellent. I learnt a great deal from him.
You retired almost 30 years ago; do you find retirement boring?
It is not boring. After retirement, since I didn’t want to become a politician, I just bought a few mango orchards so that I would be going there twice a week to see how the people worked and how the thing was doing.
Also, it is a tradition in our family that one member would recite the Quran 1,000 times, so I engaged in reading the Quran until I completed it.
Would you say you have been forgotten by the establishment in Nigeria?
I was an ambassador with a special grade. I never did anything other than filling the forms and giving information, but somebody in the office there diverted my pension. When I complained, they were trying to see if I would do something, but I refused.
I wrote a petition and they said I was overpaid for years. They said I was supposed to be paid about N40,000 and not N95,000.
They also said they would deduct what they called overpayment and my pension would become N14,000.
I never went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see or beg somebody to do this since I left.
How is family life for you?
I don’t have any problem with family life.
How many times have you been married?
About four times. It is important that you don’t do what you did not learn to do. What do you want me to do? Do you expect me to stay there without being taken care of?
Sometimes the children will all go out and you won’t find a single vehicle here.
Do you water your garden yourself?
Oh yes, I do. Sometimes I have to go and shout. I do other things but I will never sweep for you.
Do you have other hobbies beside gardening and looking after your mango orchards?
Well, I read newspapers.
Has gardening helped you to stay healthy?
Yes; my eating habit also. I eat the traditional Kanuri food.
Do you avoid meat?
The doctor said I should avoid meat, so I buy fish, which is costly. But what do we do? I also take tea and coffee.
I have never knowingly taken alcohol, neither have I smoked cigarette.