Alhaji Yahaya Kwande served as a permanent secretary in Plateau State, as well as Nigerian ambassador to Switzerland. He also played various roles in politics and public service. In this interview he speaks on his childhood, education and the place of the Hausa-Fulani on the Plateau, and other important issues.
By Kabiru A. Yusuf
I read somewhere that you were brought up in an environment of mixed religions—Islam, Christianity and traditional religion. Can you give us an explanation on these early years of your life?
It is true; that is why I called it ‘religious maze’ in my book. I was born a Muslim because my father was converted into Islam. He was in Awei in what is known as Nasarawa State today. We had a good relationship with another family in Awei—Yahaya Sabo—which dates back to the era of slave trade. They came from Kano. That is why I have the name, Yahaya.
When I grew up, my father put me in a Roman Catholic school. The missionaries arrived in my village along River Benue, Igbi. The village was one of the very few, or even just two, Shendam and Kwande—the spots the missionaries settled. They started with a kindergarten school. I might have been six or seven years old. Having been brought up among the Muslim community, my father gave me the name, Yahaya.
He put me in the only missionary school at my area. I think there were two or three schools in Shendam, Damshi and Kwande. That’s why I had a problem because when I came home from school, my parents took it for granted and as a Muslim they asked me to go and pray. In the morning they got me ready to go to school. And it was taken for granted that if you were in the Roman Catholic school you were a Christian.
In the Catholic school, people were teaching me catechism. Even now, I can recite Latin at age 93. I think I left the place at the age of 12, but I still remember what I was learning there.
So I was a Muslim in my home and a Christian in school. Also, I was born among the royal family of my village and at that particular time; and 90 per cent of the inhabitants were idol worshipers, I believed. The chief of my area, being the high priest and the head of my family, there was a tradition that annually they would gather all the members of the family present and anoint them at the shrine. Being one of them, I used to go. The priest and idol worshipers were anointing the elders who were members of the royal family, as well as the grandchildren, and I was one of them. You would go forward and a small smooth stone was put into a concoction and put on your chest to give you a healthy year.
Can you tell us more about your education? You started as an auxiliary teacher, how did you manage to find yourself in some of the best universities, even in England?
I must have been a very lucky human being. I just found myself educated; I don’t know whether I actually went through formal education. In Riyom as an assistant teacher, I had no primary certificate, but when I went to Wase I was selected among some young men and sent to Toro for a teachers’ training course in Bauchi.
With primary four education I was admitted into the vernacular teachers’ training. It was a place for non-Hausa Muslims. All the students in Toro were coming from non-Muslim areas like Plateau and southern Zaria. The Sarkin Kagoro was number one, then, the Gbong Gwom Jos. There were people from the Tiv area being trained. Bauchi was training some set of teachers but mostly from Hausa-speaking areas and the Muslim areas.
Again, there I had difficulties practising Islam because most of the students with me were Christians. I spent barely one and a half years because I was supposed to have been an intelligent one among the boys in the school. I did a four-year course in two years.
When I was in Toro Teachers Training College, a young man known as Idris did his middle school but was dropped because he was not doing well. They sent him to Toro from Wukari. He could speak a bit of English, so he was proud and didn’t want to be left in class one. I was put in class one. He ironed it out and they conducted an examination to see whether he was actually above the level.
By chance, I got first and he found me in the class. Although he did middle school, they could not promote him without promoting me since I was above him. So they promoted two of us into class two. While in class two he was still making noise, so at the end of our second year, they told us that an examination was going to be given to the whole class and there was vacancy in class three, therefore, whoever passed with first and second positions would be promoted. By chance, I got number one and he got number two, so they promoted two of us again to class three, all within a year. I came late in the school, but that is another story. We were tested at the end of the year and I got number one, so I was given my teaching certificate.
What advantage did that give you in your career; did it take you to the classroom?
Yes. I went to Shendam and I found my pupils the year they introduced teaching English in elementary three. I was the headmaster of the school and the only English teacher. I used to learn a night before teaching the following morning. I used the Oxford English, Book One.
Funny enough, we had a drama with a visiting teacher, a young woman who saw me teaching. I got confused about the meaning of saucer—a cup or soccer for football? Then I started teaching my children with a cup in my hand, that it was a football. The young woman, I have forgotten her name, invited me to the office, went into her car and took a saucer and said, “This is a cup and this is a saucer, not football. Then I went back to retrieve what I wrongly taught.”
It was through learning that I taught people like Joe Garba, who became a general. I used to be so happy that he was the president of the United Nations General Assembly. Teaching him gave me pride in my teaching career.
When did you go to Plateau? Was all your career time at Shendam?
From Shendam, 16 of us were selected. They thought we were intelligent and bright and should go beyond teaching only vernacular subjects. We called it a bridge course. I was one of them. Then they brought in two teachers, Mr Linfield and his wife, to teach English in Bauchi throughout the year, with the intention of taking examination at the end of the year, but we took examination with those who were trained to be Grade 3 teachers because we were Grade 4 vernacular teachers; first, assistant teacher, second, vernacular teacher, then vernacular teacher class 4. Then we went to Bauchi to have the whole year.
They were teaching us everything, including English, Geography and Arithmetic, and they gave us examinations. Out of the 16, only 8 of us crossed. That was why they called it a bridge. If you did not succeed, no kobo was added to your salary of Grade 3; you would go back because the bridge was broken, but if you passed your examination with the Grade 3 teachers you would become a Grade 3 teacher. I passed.
Again, coincidentally, my Grade 3 certificate was sent back to Lagos, permitting me to teach in Kuru Secondary School. That was where I taught people like Domkat Bali in elementary 5, with Abbas, Yakubu Husseini, who became chairman of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and so many of them. I did my education along this line of movement.
While I was teaching prominent Nigerians, something happened. I had 36 students in my class – Standard Five. Usually you couldn’t cross to the middle school or full secondary school unless you passed an examination to Class 6, but I was only teaching Class 5, so I asked Mr Roy, who was the principal of the school if he could allow me to test those in my class so that they would have the experience to get into examination for promotion into secondary school. He allowed me. Thirty-five students in my class, except one, failed. People like Domkat Bali didn’t have a Standard 6 certificate because they were all promoted to secondary school from Standard 5, where I was a teacher.
Mr T. Roberts was the provincial education officer in Plateau. He was occasionally teaching in the science school as they call it now. In my time, it wasn’t a science school. When he saw my performance, he recommended that I should go to Katsina Higher Teachers’ College. You see, I kept on going to places I didn’t choose.
We took the entrance examination with my friend, Maijama’a from Bauchi and I went to Katsina, where I attended the Grade 2 teachers college. That time, I hadn’t gotten a formal background in secondary school, so I found it very difficult. English was very difficult for me at that level. I had an idea that it was the place I could be a proper practising Muslim.
I moved from a developed area of Katsina to Kankara village because I wanted to be a practicing Muslim and learn the Quran.
After a year I failed my examination because I was concentrating more on learning to be a good Muslim, forgetting what brought me to Katsina. But I moved back and was able to finish.
While I was there with my friend, Mohammed Maikasuwa, Dan Iyan Keffi, we stumbled over some girls. One of them was from the same mother and father with Isa Kaita, who was the minister of education.
She said she wanted to marry me, but I had only a bicycle. Of course, I went with my wife, also a princess from Shendam. If you read my book you would find that it was the beginning of the change in my status because from this time I never taught again.
I married her and never taught again. When I came back to Shendam, they made me an administrative secretary. They later appointed me a private secretary to a minister.
So, at a point you moved from Plateau to Kaduna?
Yes, from Kaduna. Unfortunately, I was in a council where I was queried for publishing a story in Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo, which was offensive to the Native Authority. They told me that I was going to be sacked, but a letter arrived from Kaduna, inviting me for an interview to be an administrative officer. I remember that Mr P.J. Wallace, a very funny man, was the district officer. When he opened the letter, he said the issue had been resolved. So he took me to his office and I had to travel to Kaduna for the interview. Abubakar Kagara was the chairman. That was how I got into the civil service of Northern Nigeria.
We hear a lot about the days of Sardauna—how the North was united and civil servants were dedicated. What did you learn from working with people like Sardauna? What was your experience?
Sardauna was among some dedicated elders and leaders. We were in school and they tolerated us. I remember he asked me to write a small memo for him (I still have a copy). When I read it, I discovered that all the tenses were wrong, but he tolerated it. He took it and acted on it. So, I must tell you that we were actually working and learning; and they were really tolerant of all the mistakes.
I went to swear an official oath in front of Sir Gawain Bell, who was the regional governor, saying, “I swear by the name of her majesty, the Queen of England and her heirs as hairs.” I couldn’t differentiate, but nobody did anything. I couldn’t see something wrong until that evening when I came to greet Sardauna and he said, “Yahaya the swearer with the hair of a queen.” They were teaching us.
Some Lebanese in Kano were coming to see Sardauna and I was with him. I went out to see who they were and who they wanted. I kept on going back and forth asking questions until he said I could have done all that in one go. I never forgot that; it was a wonderful teaching.
When did you become a permanent secretary? At what point were you moved back to Plateau?
During my days with Sardauna, we were again selected with Abubakar Umar and Hayatudeen, Gidado Idris and Madakin Gwandu, Idris Koko and Jidda Yola (we were many) to be trained as proper administrative officers.
Was that in England?
No, in Nigeria. Isa Kaita, Wazirin Katsina, asked me to go and think about it—whether I would like to be trained in England or Nigeria. Friends told me that it was better to learn in Nigeria because you were going to work and later go to England. So I went back and told him that I would prefer to be trained in Nigeria because our teachers were colonial days district and resident officers. They were put in Zaria on an administrative service training course. That was how they termed it in the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria.
He went and told Sardauna that he would like Yahaya Kwande to join. They rang Abubakar Kagara Imam, the chairman of the Public Service Commission and asked if he could put me on the list. Imam told him that they had closed the admission, so it was late. Then Sardauna said, “Well, you are late but I am not, can you get your pen and include Yahaya Kwande, Muhammadu Yeldu, Muhammadu Carpenter and Idris Koko.”
Instead of only me he included four. By the time I reached my house in Kaduna, I got a telegram allocating a house and room to me in Zaria within such a short time. That was how I went to Zaria and trained as an administrative officer. But I was posted to Kano; that’s another opening.
I and Abdulkarim Lafani, a Nupe man, were posted as administrative officers in Kano. I think there wouldn’t have been more than four African senior service officers in Kano. We were very few administrative officers. It was there that I was given 18 districts, including Dutse, which is now a state, to supervise. I used to tour on horseback, seeing the district heads to collect taxes. Sarkin Dawaki Maituta was a district head in Gwarzo; at the same time he was a minister at the federal stage. But we were told that we were representing the Queen of England, so we should not prostrate in front of anybody. Representing the Government of Northern Nigeria meant that we were representing the Queen, which also meant that we were superior to all the Native Authority workers, including the emirs. We were also warned not to pull our shoes.
I found myself in a dilemma one day and I put on my gown as a northerner. Alhaji Ilyasu, the Sarkin Dawan Katsina, was the first archivist, so he opened archives in Kaduna and they were going round and lobbying for old books, Quranic books all over to start. When he came to Kano, my senior district officer said I should take him to see the emir. So we went, with the instruction given to me in Kaduna that I was superior. So I went in with my shoes.
Was that Emir Sanusi?
Muhammadu Sanusi. As I was going, everybody was looking at me and wondering why a northerner who must be a Muslim would be in the emir’s palace with his shoes on. After some time, somebody called Isa, a clown in the house, took a dusk and husk of grain for the horse and poured it on me and I started shouting, “Do you know who I am? I am representing the Queen of England.”
Then Magaji Kano, Ahmed, came out of the council pacifying me. There was no chair, so I couldn’t sit; and I was told not to sit down on the floor. So I stood there with my shoes on. Then they let me into the palace and to where the emir was sitting. I saw him sitting like Hitler, alone on the chair and everybody was down, including Maitama Sule and the Makama Kano.
All of them who were our ministers were sitting on the floor, only their documentations and council papers were placed on the carpet, and there I was, a very junior officer, coming in. There was no chair in the hall and I couldn’t have gone down. By the time I knew what was happening, Ilyasu the archivist was on his chest, prostrating. In fact, I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there.
The emir loosened the issue and he said, “DO, how are you doing? I responded and he instructed somebody to take a chair outside and give me. So they placed a chair by me. I was on the edge of the chair because I was so nervous that I was doing something wrong. I told him my mission and he asked for an old Quran to give the archivist.
When I was anxious to go and report that the representative of the Queen of England had been looked down upon, I found my senior district officer shouting at me and asking if it was true that I went to see the emir, and I said yes. He said it was not right. He started revolting and I had to go back. That was how I stayed in Kano. From Kano they sent me to Oxford University, with few other administrative officers. Some went to Cambridge but we went to Oxford and were trained in the act of administration. We came back very happily and I was appointed secretary to the Electoral Commission of Northern Nigeria. A deputy chief electoral officer was posted to Sardauna’s office.
Were you a senior civil servant in Kaduna during the 1966 coup?
No, from Borno, I came to the premier’s office. One day in the evening, myself, Gidado and Abubakar Umar were sitting and playing at 5 o’clock in a small pond when Akintola, the premier of Western Nigeria, came and we heard the rumour going on.
He came to see the premier?
Yes. People said Yoruba people were cowards, but the man was right. To look down on him, they asked a junior minister to take him to the airport as he was going back. It was that night that they struck.
So he came to warn the premier that something was wrong?
Yes, but they didn’t trust him, I believe. While we were there with him that evening, I saw Brigadier Ademulegun. I was lucky because coincidentally, I was there when he first visited Sardauna. I was in the house when the whole place was changing, when everybody was trying to put things right. Sardauna met him at the gate and took him in, but that day, they were killed together.
Had the northern government collapsed at that point? Also, I believe you came back to Plateau, was it as permanent secretary; how was the experience?
I was still a senior assistant secretary under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Information. I was also the secretary of a committee on prerogative of mercy. But when they were sending us to our homes, the very top civil servants, people like Abubakar from Gombe and Bauchi were not feeling happy to come back to Jos because they thought they won’t be received well, being Hausa-Fulani. So only few of us came back. In the category of those that came, I was one of the senior people that had to tarry in the military governor’s office.
Unfortunately, Mr Gomwalk was not a friend yet because he was nursing some grudges. He was in Kano when they posted them to the federal civil service with Adamu Ciroma and the rest of them, but when promotion to a higher grade came, he didn’t make it, so he thought they did that because he was not Hausa-Fulani. But he found himself as governor of his state.
They sent me to be a senior assistant secretary in the Ministry of Finance. I think I spent only a week; I was pushed here and there.
How did you cope? Did you quit the Plateau service?
I didn’t. We learnt patience and perseverance when we were in the Northern Nigerian civil service. I told you how we were tolerated.
I used to laugh at them because as soon as they came, they used to call us illiterate permanent secretaries because they were university graduates. But we were permanent secretaries and they were assistant secretaries.
Did your patience pay?
It did because I became a best to Gomwalk, who was persecuting me before he died. It is in my book. He wrote, “Hard working man, best person, I wish people would copy you.”
You also became his neighbour, is that correct?
I became his neighbour but I was eventually arrested and chained because of that. My family and tribe have a tradition that when a guest comes you will feed him for three days before he gets ready with his pot and fire. Because I was doing all the things from here, they thought I knew what was happening, so they arrested me. I stayed 14 days in prison and was released with an apology.
You were also an ambassador to Switzerland but this was after your participation in politics; how did that happen?
Gomwalk appointed me the permanent secretary of commerce and cooperatives. I was in office only for two or three months when the coup came, then all my colleagues wanted to show how honest they were by accusing others. You had to point at your colleague as being dishonest so that you would be the honest man. So they were accusing and giving me names of those that were not good. It was during that time that I suddenly saw my name as number one on the list of those that were to be probed. They eventually probed me. I have a letter of apology at the end. That was how I left the service after two years.
Did you join politics at that point?
When I left service, Adamu Abdullahi, the present chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), was the secretary to building company on the Plateau, Beko. He invited us to his house. That was my first time of partisan politics. I wouldn’t say I was not a politician during Sardauna because we were used as partisan politician. It was Adamu that dragged me into it when we were establishing the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). That was how I got involved.
When they are talking about rotation, I laugh because it started with Akinloye, Ekwueme and the rest.
We are in a situation where our brothers in the South are asking for rotation, what would you say to that?
But we did it already. Since it is not an item of our constitution, you don’t plan to please somebody. Every political party is planning to win. It was that situation that we reciprocated through Obasanjo after the Abiola crisis. I was there when we sat down and said the people had been wounded and we didn’t want Nigeria to break. They didn’t ask for it, but we said let’s go to the West and take somebody after Abiola.
I know you are very keen about an Atiku presidency, what would you say about his running mate?
An Igbo is a Nigerian who has every right, but the rest of Nigerians are studying to see how far he gets. Number two can never be number one. The only person I am afraid of is Wike as vice president because I believe that one day he will start slapping the president. I liked him when he was commissioning projects, I was very happy and I said we had somebody, then suddenly, when he started abusing the deputy governor of Edo State, I said a person like that could not hold Nigeria. He is too erratic.
But the argument is that the vice president is a heartbeat away from the presidency, such that if the president collapses, the vice automatically becomes the president. We saw it happen with Goodluck Jonathan. What’s your take?
That is another fear, but what can we do? We will only pray that it does not happen.
Do you still expect to see Atiku become president?
I have always thought he was the president. He won the election but it was taken away from him, I believe so. Atiku’s problem is not the masses, the upper class of Nigeria, particularly northerners, are so jealous of that man’s success that they usually block him at the eve of success; I have seen it.
At this time, if he doesn’t make it, that will be the end, but I believe he will make it. Who do we have? All the questions about zoning are because southerners are afraid that Atiku would be a candidate of the North. That is why they are fighting. It has always been so.
Are you still active in politics? Do politicians consult you?
Yes, the governors do come in to say hello to me and look after me. Atiku is coming on Saturday. I am interested in politics, but the body will not allow me anymore, no energy. You may not believe that I have been up there for three days, it is only today that I came down, not that I am sick, I have been blessed. By God’s grace I am 93 and I still walk without a stick, and I still have my memory still working. I sit down and watch television.
You have always been in Jos and there have been crises between Muslims and Christians, leading to killings and destruction of property, but it has never affected you; how do you manage to navigate the conflicts?
It is not deep in the heart of Hausa man to hate, all they want is to be recognised. And I have been fencing for them. Why should Lafia have a Kanuri man as emir? How far is Lafia to Maiduguri? They were there and they conquered them; and some places accepted them. They are fair with other people. Now you cannot even know who is a Kanuri man because every Gwandara can put marks on his child.
In Jos, it was Sardauna that gave the title, Gbong Gwong. He asked what they called a chief and they said Gwong. He also asked how they called a big thing and they said Gbong, so he created Gbong Gwong as a title of a big chief. He loved them.
But there are people that were part of establishing native towns in Jos years back. They have every right to be citizens, but the problem is that the natives do not accept these few 20 families, so they strengthened themselves by calling everybody, provided he is Hausa man, to be part of their instrument to fight the other people, otherwise it is easy.
My son, Suleiman, has won election into the House of Representatives for two terms in Jos. They know I am not Hausa and not from Shendam. These people are not actually discriminating against the Hausa natives of Jos. My son is even contesting for a third term.
The people refused to accept those that should have been natives and part of them, so anybody coming from Katsina, Kano can get incorporated into the family for the purpose of strengthening the fight.
Are you blaming the Hausa community as part of the problem?
No, it is the natives that are intolerant. That is why they are always fighting me. I always tell them that these people have no problem with them, so they should leave them.
When Jang came to see me three days ago, I asked him how many buses he would take to take the Hausa away. The best thing is to accommodate them. The Gbong Gwong appointed a Hausa man, Inuwa Ali, as Turakin Jos and Jarawa as Galadima. He went to Kano when the emir’s wife died.
You accepted the fact that your daughter is a Christian and married to a Christian, is that supposed to be an example of tolerance?
My wife of 52 years you saw here is also a Christian. She is an Anglican. I usually take her to church, after one hour I go to bring her back. I told you that I was brought up as a Catholic. I can still recite Latin.
So you don’t feel threatened?
No. I took my daughter to the altar to marry a Christian. Her mother died one hour after she was born, so I sent her to my cousin in the Netherlands, Mr Dalon, who brought her up. So she was indoctrinated. When she came back, I sent her to Katsina – Bakori Secondary School, thinking that she would be converted back to Islam, but unfortunately for me, the general in Katsina also has a Christian wife and a girl that was also a Christian and they put them together in the same room.
When she came back, I was a member of the Governing Council of the University of Abuja, so I put her in the school, but she met the same girl she left in BakorI and they were in the same room. One day I heard my daughter evangelising. Eventually, she married and I said “good luck to you.”
What has happened to your chieftaincy title? It is 33 years, are you still expecting or you have given up?
My cousin is now there. I am 93, but if they gave me I would have still gone, even if I was 100. You know this thing is like poison. I went there, not fighting but to be reinstated because we were in court. However, when they gave my cousin, the following day I congratulated him and sent him all the regalia of a chief; that’s the end of it. We are still together.