Ninety-year-old Alhaji Shehu Othman attended some of the best schools in Northern Nigeria in the towns of Katsina-Ala, Benue State; Katsina, Katsina State; Bida, Niger State; and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Kaduna State, before he worked in many establishments and served as commissioner in the defunct Benue-Plateau State, then Plateau State. He holds the traditional title, Magaji Gari Keana, in his home state of Nasarawa.
How was schooling in Keana when you started out?
There was no primary school in Keana. We were under the Lafia Emirate and the Emir then, Muhammad Agwai II, had a strong connection with Keana. We were told that because of the love he had for the people of Keana he sent a letter to the then Chief of Keana that he should send two or three of his boys to come and enroll in school in Lafia.
When the letter reached the Chief of Keana, he called his brothers and they deliberated and one of them offered to send his son.
Was it difficult to send children to school?
Nobody wanted his children to depart from him. But one of the chief’s brothers brought his son and the chief also brought his son. He asked for another volunteer for a third son, so my father offered me.
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How old were you?
I was a small boy.
What were you doing?
I was working on the farm with my elder brother when somebody came and summoned me and took me to the chief’s palace. My father presented me to the chief. The chief asked me, “Can you go to school?” I said yes and my father was happy.
So, in Lafia, what happened?
My grandfather had been deported from Keana to Lafia because he was very tough; very naughty. So, the Emir of Lafia put me in his care while I went to elementary school.
Had your grandfather any title in Lafia?
Yes. He was later turbaned the Wamban Lafia.
Where did you go after finishing elementary school?
Then, after elementary school you go to primary school, then middle school, because there was no secondary school. Five of us from Lafia were chosen to go to primary school in Katsina-Ala. I was the most brilliant. The others were from the Lafia royal family. I was also from the Keana royal family.
So, we were in Katsina-Ala for primary education. From there if you passed your exam you would go to middle school in Katsina-Ala. So I went to middle school. When we finished middle four primary school, we were supposed to go and work because there was no upgraded school in the division except in Katsina, Kano, Okene, Bida and Bauchi.
Were Katsina, Kano, Okene, Bida and Bauchi the only secondary schools in Northern Nigeria?
Yes! So, they chose four of us from Katsina-Ala to go to Katsina.
Was it strange moving to Katsina?
When I was told I was going to Katsina, I asked where it was. When I was told that it was very far and in Hausa land I was not very keen. But I was informed that I had an uncle there. He was from my tribe, Alago, but his mother was Kanuri.
So, since my uncle was there I felt at ease. He was working at Katsina Hospital. I went to his house. He was aware of me but had never seen me. He also had a son, Shehu. Shehu was a classmate to Ahmadu Kurfi, the District Head of Kurfi. He used to be the secretary of the Northern Nigerian Marketing Board in Kano.
But with your uncle in Katsina, why did you move to Bida?
We came from Benue and the only foods we met in Katsina were fura da nono and tuwo. We were not used to them so we complained.
What type of food did you prefer?
Yam. We also used to leave our hair, we didn’t shave and they said we must shave. All sorts of rules and regulations in Katsina; they did not favour us.
Information reached Sardauna that the boys from Benue were giving administrators headache. So, they moved us from Katsina to Bida.
How many of you?
Were you happy in Bida?
At what point did you start working?
When I finished from Bida I did not get work, but I had a woman in my town that I loved so much. I decided not to continue with education. I wanted to marry. My parents and everybody were not happy. “Go and finish your school first before you get married,” they charged. I said I would marry before I went back to school. So, after I got married, I said no more, I am going to look for a job.
I moved to Kaduna. My aunt was there. No job and with a wife, but since my host was my aunt, we got food and accommodation free. But I was not comfortable. So I applied for a job in the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperative.
I went for an interview. Abubakar Imam from Zaria was the Chairman of the Northern Public Service Commission. When he was interviewing me, I said I came from Keana and he asked me about my tribe and I said Alago. I was employed as a cooperative inspector and posted to Funtua.
So, you went back to Katsina?
Back to Katsina.
When did you start working in the bank?
You see, I worked briefly with Barclays Bank as a clerk.
Before the civil service?
Yes. I started working with the bank.
Why the decision to leave the bank and go to the Northern Civil Service?
I was advised that in the civil service I would mingle with people, know their problems, sympathise with them, advise and help them. I also worked with the CBN in Kano.
How did you get the CBN job?
Through somebody in Zaria, Ibrahim, who was working in the bank. I knew many people in Zaria like the late Emir Shehu Idris and Bello Aliyu. So, since Ibrahim was in the CBN I felt I had somebody I could rely on.
Ibrahim told me, “Shehu, I will take you to the bank but you’ll have to go to Lagos, the headquarters.”
When I arrived in Lagos, I knew a few army officers: Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Muhammadu Buhari and Aliyu Gusau.
Where did you know them?
I met Gusau in Kano, his sister was married to my friend, Umaru Imam.
What of Buhari and Yar’Adua?
In Katsina; I was in secondary school and they were in primary school in the same school.
From the CBN you went back to the civil service; what prompted the decision?
My problem with the CBN was that you worked from morning to night without rest. You only deal with money, no customers. The only customers are immigration and customs when they collect revenue from the ports. I was the head of accounts. I was later posted to Kano.
What was the salary like?
It was very good; better than that of the civil service.
So, why did you go back to the civil service?
I got back to the civil service because I didn’t want to waste all my time in the bank. No time to pray, no time to…, I said ha! No way.
When were you appointed commissioner in Benue-Plateau State?
After the January 15, 1966, coup in which Sardauna and Tafawa Balewa were killed. I was in Kaduna, I came from Kano to Kaduna. On that day early in the morning I saw Sardauna’s house on fire. They said Sardauna had been killed and the army had taken over the government. So, I managed to get back to Kano and hide myself.
The coup led to the breakup of Northern Nigeria as states were created, among which was Benue-Plateau. At what point were you invited to be a commissioner?
1975. I had a friend from Zaria, Shehu Mohammed, his father was Wazirin Zaria; you know him? He was a judge, his father was a judge; his father was Mohammed Lawan.
So, was it your connection to Zaria that led to you being appointed a commissioner?
I was with Shehu Mohammed, Alfa Belgore and Muhammed Uwais, they were all judges of the Supreme Court. Shehu was my friend. Then I informed Shehu that they were making some appointments. They then appointed me commissioner in Benue-Plateau.
Who was the governor?
After Gowon was overthrown, Abdullahi Mohammed from Ilorin became the governor, but he too was born and bred in Jos. When he became governor, Belgore was the chief judge in Jos, and they were all from Ilorin. So, Mohammed appointed me a commissioner.
Why were you taken to the health ministry knowing your background?
I heard they gave me the ministry of health and I said what do I know about health? These people want to kill me or what? I am not a doctor, I am not a nurse, I am nothing, I don’t know anything. But I said let me take it, after all I will ask the doctors and nurses to do the work.
Did you find it difficult to hold the commissionership?
The people liked that I was a commissioner. The whole Alago became very happy, everybody came to Jos to congratulate me.
Were you under pressure to do other things to your community as people want money and all that?
Yes; but where was the money?
Commissioners award contracts?
But we don’t give contracts, it is the governor who will finalise everything, we are just a name but the budget shows I will spend so much for the ministry but when it comes to giving contracts, the governor will give contract to any contractor he wants.
Very unusually you were commissioner four times, health, works and information, and were in government for almost 20 years?
We were in council and the governor noticed that I knew much about other ministries, so when the commissioner for works resigned, the governor said I should handle both health and works.
What of information; how were you handling the ministry and became commissioner later?
At the time Dan Suleiman took over from Abdullahi Mohammed he was advised to hold me tight. So Dan Suleiman came, his father was a Muslim, he was a Christian, so he was trying to side with Christians against Muslims. When I discovered that his father was a Muslim and district head of their village in Adamawa State, I went to him and said I wanted to talk to him. I told him, “You are siding one side oh, be careful.”
As his commissioner you told him that?
I told him, wallahi! I told him to be careful: “You come to Benue-Plateau, you don’t know the people, you don’t know them. There are more pagans than Christians. So if you are siding with Christians and pagans come to realise it, you will be in trouble, and pagans have more sympathy for Muslims than Christians because they are in the majority. So, I was advising him secretly and he developed interest in me.
So, under Dan Suleiman I headed health, information and establishment.
You have said you are not quite educated, but one of the interesting things about your career is how many university governing councils you served on…?
I think the first university governing council I served on was in Sokoto. You know Yahaya Gusau? He was a permanent secretary during Sardauna. He was the chairman of the governing council. Then I was in Ilorin.
Did you enjoy the appointments on the governing councils of the universities?
I enjoyed Sokoto; I didn’t want to leave. But the letter said they also gave me an appointment to the governing council in Ilorin. I said how can I go to Sokoto and to Ilorin? Who is doing these things to me? I didn’t know that some of the boys I went to school with in Bida, like permanent secretaries, were the ones making these appointments.
Now that you are retired, do you do any work?
I had a house in Jos, but when I discovered that most of the people I knew in Jos are no longer there I left also.
You moved to Abuja; why not to Keana?
I’m afraid of going to Keana because Keana people will say, “E don bring money plenty, e don bring money na, we go chop”, and I don’t have money to give them.
But you are the Magajin Gari of Keana, so you must have a role to play?
The Magaji, I will tell you how I got it. Magajin Gari is a title in our place, it is given to the son the chief loves most. But I said if the chief loved me, I wanted Magajin Gari not Magajin Dangari. My father was a chief, I’m only his son, so people will respect me, but if you come to the question of taking over from him. I’m not keen.
I thought every prince wants to be king?
I know that, but with the kinds of things and demands from the family, I just prayed and prayed and prayed and said let somebody else take over; I don’t want it.
In Abuja, what do you do?
Most times I sit down here. Sometimes I visit Belgore; you know he has a house here too? I will go there, crack jokes, talk past events, activities and the present economy in this country.
Do you have friends besides Belgore?
Umaru Mutallab and Belgore, these are the very serious friends I have that I have stayed with for long. Others I can’t remember.
How does it feel to be 90?
Fine! I am 90 and I can tell you the date of my birth. Would you like to know the date of my birth?
I believe it’s June 26, 1932?
Is there anything you do to keep healthy at 90?
I eat good food and I don’t like nonsense. If I get any money today, N20,000 today, I will ask my wife to go to the market, buy good food and warn her not to bring me any jaga-jaga food.
Don’t you have restrictions on what you eat?
No restrictions! In fact, there was a time the doctors checked me, they just said I shouldn’t don’t take too much sugar.
What about your family?
I have three wives and 12 children.
What do you think of the situation in our country today?
During the First Republic we had some elders who were really disciplined: Azikiwe, Sardauna and Awolowo. But of all of these, Sardauna was the best. You know Sardauna was the builder of their political party, not Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and if you people talk about democracy, Arewa has more representatives, but educationally we are backwards. And Tafawa Balewa was a sound man. You would think he went to university.
How was he educated?
That was a gift because he himself was not Hausa-Fulani. He was a gentleman. So when they formed the government, the Nigerian government, Sardauna was supposed to be prime minister but he said, “Abubakar, go.”
He made a speech when he was being sworn in as the Prime Minister of Nigeria. He said Nigeria belonged to Nigerians and that everybody could be a prime minister of this country.
So, what is the difference between those times and now?
Quality of leadership. Then, leaders were after sacrifice and to serve the people.
What about now?
Not that they are corrupt, I wouldn’t say that. Maybe God has changed to say okay, you Nigeria before I gave you Tafawa Balewa, Sardauna, Awolowo, this time I’m giving you different types of people. Who am I to fight God? I cannot fight God; so that is the position.