Saturday, 7 July 2007

Late Abubakar Imam

Mohammed Haruna

Being text of a lecture on The Life and Times of Abubakar Imam: Lessons for Today by Mohammed Haruna under the auspices of Gamji Members’ Association (GAMA), Niger State Chapter, on Saturday March 5, 2004 at General A. A. Abubakar Youth Centre Theatre, Minna, Niger State.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, permit me to begin this lecture by thanking its organisers, the Gamji Members’ Association (GAMA), for the honour of inviting me to speak on one of the greatest sons, not only of the North, but of Nigeria. For, the late Malam Abubakar Imam is one of the most brilliant and the most influential newspaper editors Nigeria has ever produced. We have, of course produced great editors in colonial times and after, such editors like Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ismaila Babatunde Jose. However in this big league only Abubakar Imam started and finished his journalism career as editor. The rest became publishers later in the course of their career. This may have made them more powerful than Imam but as moulders of public opinion on a day to day basis, few publishers could match his influence as editor. In this respect, it is perhaps instructive that Malam Abubakar Imam stands out today as the only Nigerian journalist and the first Nigerian novelist to have won the Nigerian National Merit Award.

It is this great editor and author that GAMA has given me an opportunity to talk about this morning. The title the association gave me was “Abubakar Imam: A Prodigious Talent for Today’s Reference.” Without doubt Imam was a great talent, a prodigy if you like. No doubt he is also an excellent example for today’s journalists and public officials alike. However I thought GAMA’s title was rather mouthful so I took the liberty of rephrasing it while retaining its meaning. Hence the new title, “The Life and Times of Abubakar Imam: Lessons for Today.”
Talking to a few of the people who know him well and also reading the excellent Abubakar Imam Memoirs edited by one of his in-laws, the late Alhaji Abdurrahman Mora, one cannot avoid the conclusion that Imam was a symbol of all the qualities of good leadership, including honesty, self-sacrifice, modesty, hardwork and wisdom. Imam displayed these qualities in abundance not only as author and pioneer editor of Gaskiya ta fi kwabo, the longest running newspaper in Nigeria, bar the Daily Times, he also displayed all these qualities in his other roles in the service of the North and Nigeria.

If Nigeria has suffered retrogression since independence in almost all aspects of life – economics, politics and social – it is mainly because our leaders have behaved less and less like the Abubakar Imams of this world. This is the main lesson of the life and times of Imam.
Before we go into some details about what we can learn from his life and times, it is important, even necessary, to delve into his ancestry because there is also a lesson to be learnt from that aspect of his life.

Malam Abubakar Imam was born in 1911 in Kagara, in the then Kontagora Province which was subsequently merged with Bida Province and became Niger Province. Imam’s great-grandfather, Malam Muhammadu Gajibo, was originally from Gajibo town in Dikwa Emirate of former Borno Empire. He emigrated from Gajibo as a partisan of Maina Ibrahim who had lost the contest for the Maiship of Dikwa to his younger brother upon the death of their father. Maina Ibrahim and his followers, including Imam’s great-grandfather, finally settled in the vicinity of Bida, the headquarters of the then powerful Nupe Kingdom. The Etsu Nupe at the time chose Kutigi as a home for Maina Ibrahim and his people. Kutigi rapidly grew and is today one of the Niger State’s most important towns.

During the Jihad of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio, Malam Muhammadu led a group of malams to pay homage to the Shehu. Subsequently he was appointed the Wakilin Nufawa, i.e. the Head of the Nupe Community, in Sokoto. This development should interest any student of history, for, here is a man who was originally Kanuri but who had no problem changing his linguistic affiliation from a Babarbare to a Banufe and moving on to even become the community head of his newly adopted tribe in another land. Two generations later various members of the same family would become Katsinawa and Zazzagawa. This was possible only because the people and leaders of both the host and the guest communities were broadminded and mutually accommodating, the kind of broadmindedness and accommodation that seems lacking today as politicians in their selfishness and greed seek to divide communities hitherto living happily and harmoniously with each other into so-called indigenes and settlers.

In Sokoto, Malam Muhammadu bore a son who was named Muhammadu Badamasi, who eventually succeeded his father as Wakilin Nufawa. Badamasi in turn bore Malam Shehu Usman. It was Shehu Usman who became Imam’s father.

After the death of Badamasi, Shehu Usman became itinerant. He lived first in Katsina, then Kankia, then Gwarzo before he finally settled in Kano. Even here his stay was only temporary as he later moved on to Kontagora to meet with the famous slave-raider, Umaru Nagwamatse, its Emir.

Shehu Usman met Nagwamatse at Tegina. After a while Nagwamatse directed the Madaki of Kontagora to move from Tegina and settle at a point along a route used by traders which was frequently harassed by armed bandits. Usman was among those who moved to the settlement with the Madaki. This settlement became Kagara and it was here that Usman met his future father-in-law Malam Muhammadu Maisaje, the Imam of Bobi, a town in Kontagora Emirate. Apparently impressed by the conduct of Usman, Maisaje gave his daughter, Aishatu, in marriage to him. Abubakar Imam was the second child of that marriage, the first being Muahammadu Bello Kagara, who eventually settled in Katsina and became its Wali. Muhammadu Bello Wali also became the author of the popular and thrilling Hausa novel, Gandoki.

In 1900 when the British started their invasion of Hausaland, Kontagora was one of their first targets ostensibly to check Nagwamatse’s slave raids. A defeated Nagwamatse fled to Kaya in Giwa District of Zazzau Emirate. The British pursued him and captured him there and subsequently exiled him to Lokoja. Some of followers then returned to Kontagora but Shehu Usman proceeded to Katsina and subsequently to Malumfashi.

After a while in exile, the victorious British, on the advice of the new Sultan of Sokoto, reintated Nagwamatse as the Emir of Kontagora. Following Nagwamatse’s return, Shehu Usman also returned to Kagara and was subsequently appointed the Chief Judge and Treasurer of Kagara, in addition to his original job as Chief Imam.

Abubakar Imam was 11 years old when he was first sent to school. This was in March 1922. His father had a choice to send him to school in Bida which was not too far from Kagara. Instead he sent him to far-away Katsina where his elder brother Muhammadu Bello was already a teacher in the newly established Katsina Training College, KTC. Six years later he gained admission into KTC after working as a clerk for a year upon graduation from primary school. He graduated from the college in March 1932 near the top of his class.

Upon graduation he was employed by the Katsina Native Authority to teach English in the Katsina Middle School. He would probably have remained a teacher for the rest of his life, but his linguistic talent pushed him into public limelight in 1935. At that time the Resident of Katsina Province, Mr. R. E. Pyne, wanted a polyglot to harmonise the court records that were written in English, Arabic and Hausa. Imam easily fit the bill. Later when the Katsina Provincial Advisory Board was appointed, Imam was again chosen as its Secretary.

It was through these part time jobs as translator and secretary that Imam started his long journey of life in the public eye. Before then, however, Imam was among the top five winners in a book writing competition in Hausa organised by the Education Department of Northern Nigeria. The competition had been sponsored by the Translation Bureau under Mr. R. M. East. The title of his book was called Ruwan Bagaja. Among the other winners was his elder brother Muhammadu Bello who wrote Gandoki, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who wrote Shehu Umar, Balewa was to become Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister.

Apparently Imam’s writing skills won Mr. East’s admiration so much so that in 1936 he requested for Imam’s temporary transfer to the Literature Bureau in Zaria. This was granted and Imam spent six months working day and night to produce the three volumes of Magana Jari Ce which became classics in Hausa Literature. The first volume was published in 1937 and the remaining two in 1938.

During the same year the British decided to establish a strong regional Hausa newspaper to replace the many provincial newspaper already in circulation. Mr. East, who was in charge, once again decided that Imam was the best person for the job. Imam was at first reluctant to accept the job but eventually was, for all intents and purposes, ordered by the Emir of Katsina, Alhaji Mohammed Dikko, to do so.

Thus began his career as one of the most brilliant and influential editors Nigeria has ever produced. For the next sixteen years Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo under his editorship, became government’s sounding board not only in the North but in Nigeria. Imam’s opinion as editor was widely sought by the colonial officers in the North and in Lagos. At the same time that Gaskiya became government’s sounding board on policy making, it also provided the avenue for public opinion on issues great and small. In his hands Gaskiya became the veritable weapon for fighting what he saw as the three evils that plagued the North, namely, Jahilci, Zalunci da Lalacii (Illiteracy, Injustice and Indolence). The greatest weapon to fight these evils, he said, was education, especially moral education. “Nothing” he said in one of his letters to Lord Lugard, “changes individuals better in the world than education. Once you have given people education you have changed them entirely.”

In giving people education, however, Imam said, it had to be built on a sound foundation. The emphasis should be on quality education not merely churning out barely literate people. This lesson has apparently been lost on many governors of Northern States who have not given education the right priority at the same time that they have been competing to build universities when the products of their primary and secondary schools are barely literate and when the states are unable to fill their quotas in existing universities.

In acquiring education, however, Malam Abubakar Imam emphasized the imperative of putting it to use. “A good leader”, he said, “is not necessary the one who has the highest book knowledge but the one who can use his knowledge, however little, to the best interest of his people, not to the best interest of himself. The Hausa say ‘Anfanin ilmi aiki da shi’.

This, he said, is not to say people should not aspire to higher education. “No. Knowledge is the attribute of a good leader. A leader with only elementary knowledge is a good leader, but a leader with a higher knowledge and the ability to use the knowledge is a God-send to the community and is therefore to be desired.” Today how many of our leaders with all their degrees can pass this simple test of Malam Abubakar’s attribute of leadership?

His wisdom in editing Gaskiya came under test almost from day one. At the time of the establishment of the paper, only the Sudan Interior Mission in Jos had the kind of press for printing a quality newspaper. One of the first crises he faced was about references to Jesus. Imam as a Muslim could not refer to him as the son of God, since Islam says God neither begets not was He begotten. On the other hand, the printers objected to Jesus being referred to simply as Annabi Isa. A Solomonic compromise was eventually struck and both parties agreed to refer to Jesus and the Son of Mary.

Imam’s sixteen years as editor was, of course, not all smooth sailing. He did not find it easy balancing the demands of his readers, some of whom were highly critical of the authorities, with the sometimes conflicting demands of his employers. Again there were occasional strains in his relationships with his European bosses at Gaskiya on the one hand, and his African colleagues, on the other hand. Whereas the Europeans atimes regarded him as disloyal, his African colleagues atimes saw him as a sell-out to the European staff.

It was a tough and difficult balancing act for Imam but among his many qualities, his integrity, hardwork, wisdom and commitment saw him through. Presumably it was these and other qualities that recommended his choice in 1943 among eight editors from Anglophone West Africa to go on a fact-find tour of the Britain. The others were Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe for West African Pilot and Mr. Isaac B. Thomas, editor of Akede Eko, a Yoruba newspaper, two editors each from Ghana and Sierra Leone and one from Gambia.

During their passage, Zik drew up a memorandum which he called The Atlantic Charter and British West Africa. The memorandum was a list of demands Zik drew up on behalf of Anglophone West African which demanded for reforms in education, health, agricultural, labour, etc. The charter also demanded for the end of colonial rule in 15 years. Zik circulated the memo to his colleagues for their comments and signature. Two of the editors, include Imam, declined while one signed with 19 reservations.

Imam’s refusal to sign the memorandum became a source of a huge national controversy about the relationship between the North and the South. This controversy was fueled by an editorial in Zik’s West African Pilot which portrayed Imam as anti-progressive and anti-people because of his refusal to sign.

This negative portrayal of Imam came as a big shock to him because throughout their passage to England as well as throughout their stay, Zik and Imam struck a very cordial relationship. Even when Imam refused to sign Zik’s memorandum giving his reasons, Zik, who Imam looked up to as a professional elder, gave the impression that he understood and was satisfied with Imam’s explanations.

“Dr. Azikiwe and myself,” said Imam in his memoir, “were always together. He taught me a lot of things. The only thing he could not teach me was how to dance. I accompanied him to dances and held his coat for him. When he was tired we drove back home.”

You can therefore imagine Imam’s shock at his treatment by Zik’s paper based, of course, on the dispatch Zik sent to the paper about how his fellow-voyagers’ reacted to his memoranda.
Upon his return, Imam wrote his own defence in his newspaper, a defence which received overwhelming support from the newspapers’ readers. Out of all the reactions to his explanation only one stood out in total disagreement. This was the reaction from Malam Aminu Kano who had already established a reputation as a very unrelenting critic of Indirect Rule which, for all practical purposes, gave emirs the power of life and death over their subjects. It is a mark of Imam’s broadmindedness that he became one of Malam Aminu Kano’s best friends.

When Imam declined Zik’s invitation to sign his charter, he (Imam) made it clear that is was not because he did not share Zik’s objective of local autonomy and eventual independence from British rule. He refused to sign, he said, because he did not have his peoples’ mandate to sign any memorandum. Besides many of Zik’s demands, like free education and free health services, were already being provided by his region. He also felt that his region had not produced enough personnel to man its administration. More importantly he was also worried that the North and South had not built enough mutual that was necessary for the unity and harmony of the country. For these reasons alone, he said, it would have been presumptuous of him to pretend that he was speaking for the people of the region whose primary source of news and forum for expressing their views was Gaskiya.

“If the matter is viewed dispassionately,” he said in the course of a interactive session with members of West African Students Union in UK during the course of their visit, “it is clear that it is the Northerners and Southerners themselves who create differences among themselves and not, as some maintain, the Europeans.” It was Nigerians themselves, he said, who created negative stereo-types about each other and not the Europeans.

However, he pinned the greater blame for mutual distrust on Southerners who he said regarded Northerners as backward and a drag. If, he said, for example a Northerner did something irregular, the Southern press always blew it out of proportion to portray the Northern as a backward. The newspapers, he said would carry such sensational headlines like “HAUSAMAN STABS COUNTRYMAN WITH KNIFE”… “TWO HAUSAMEN LOCKED IN FIGH AND EACH LOSES A HAND”… “HAUSAMAN EATS TWO MUCH RAW CASSAVA AND DIES.”

“Such things,” said Imam, “do not promote friendly feeling. They show the Hausa up as a backward sort of person. Then when the Southerners have finished humiliating us in this way, they turn round and say we are their brothers, and that it is the Europeans that are trying to separate us from them.” In subsequent correspondences with senior colonial officials including Lord Lugard, Imam said the Northerners’ share of the blame for the mutual hostility between the regions, was in the reluctance of its emirs to reform the Native Authority system and that way allow commoners to have a say in governance.

“The way Indirect Rule is practiced in Northern Nigeria,” he said in one of his correspondences with Lord Lugard, “breeds evil in the Region and it is one of the factors that hinder the progress of that part of the country”. The colonial officers should therefore not regard the demands for its reform as a root and branch attack on the system or as an indirect challenge of their authority. Rather they should view it as a demand for justice and for broadening the power base so as to make governance more democratic.

Over sixty years after Imam made these observations, little or even nothing seems to have changed about the mutual suspicions with which we regard each other. If anything the suspicions seem to have increased. This probably explains why within fourty five years of our independence we have had more than five constitutions…and still counting.

Mr. Chairman, as I said at the beginning of this speech, one f Imam’s exemplary leadership qualities was his frugality. He displayed this quality clearly during the visit to UK. When he was chosen among the eight editors that went on the visit, he was at first reluctant to go, partly he said, because he was not as well paid as his colleagues and the visit was likely to stretch his resources inspite of the stipends from the British Council, the sponsors of the trip. In the end he received several financial gifts and his boss, Mr. East, persuaded him to take a loan of £20.
At the end of the trip Imam did not spend a penny out of the loan, because he said to himself he did not know how he could repay the loan from his modest income once he returned from the trip. This, clearly, is a far cry from the financial profligacy of our leaders of today.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as I have already said, Imam’s journalistic career was not without its difficult moments. One of such moments came ten years into his editorship of Gaskiya. By 1948 following a number of disagreements with his European bosses, he felt he no longer enjoyed the loyalty of his subordinates nor the confidence of his bosses. As a result he decided to resign his job. That resignation created a huge uproar throughout the North. Eventually some emirs intervened and Imam was forced to withdraw his resignation.
He continued with his editorial leadership of the paper until 1950 when he was nominated by Zazzau Emirate to stand for election as a dual member of both the regional and federal legislative houses. At the time of his nomination by Zazzau Emirate, Katsina Emirate also sent for him to represent it but by then he had accepted the Zazzau nomination. He subsequently won the indirect election into the two houses.

As a legislator, Imam spent a lot of time away from his editorial desk. Being a man of conscience, he felt it was not right that he should continue to collect his full pay as editor so he asked to be put on half pay.

This was the state of affairs until he left Gaskiya finally in 1954. Soon after that he resigned his membership of both houses. This followed criticisms of his legislative stewardship by a vocal section of his Zazzau constituency, i.e. the members of the Zaria branch of the Federated Union of Native Administration Staff, FUNAS. Imam had written to them to hear their views about how he could best represent Zaria. The union’s response was to accuse him, in a rather caustic language, of becoming a sell-out.

“It was,” he said in his memoir, “abundantly clear to me without reasonable doubt that a vocal section of the electorate in my constituency had passed a vote of no constituency confidence in me. They did not know how much I had sacrificed in the interest of the people of Zaria who voted me in. I therefore decided to resign my membership of the two houses and revert to my professional authorship. So, I decided to go when the going was good.”

Mr. Chairman, these days how many of our leaders will see the handwriting on the wall even more clearly than Imam did and have the courage to act as he did?

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, you can see from my sketch of the life and times of Malam Abubakar Imam that there is a lot that the youths of today and even the leaders of today can learn from him. In whatever capacity he found himself, whether as teacher, author, editor, politician, or public servant, Malam Abubakar served with honesty, with dedication, with selflessness and with hardwork. And as he served he counted his reward not in material terms, but in the difference he made to the quality of the lives of his people.

By now Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed I have focused my speech on the career of Imam as a journalist and author. This, however, is not because it was the only role where he served with distinction. As I have said, he discharged every responsibility he was given with the same distinction with which he served as editor and author. If I have focused on his career as journalist and author, this is only because these were the roles he was more famous for.

This speech has by no means exhausted the numerous examples of how well he served the public. Given the time available to me it is simply not possible to do justice to the character of Malam Abubakar Imam as a leader worthy of emulation. Anyone wishing to know how great a leader he was would have no choice but to read his memoirs which was edited by the late Alhaji Abdurrahman Mora and which was published in 1989 by the Northern Nigeria Publishing Company, Zaria.

Indeed I would like to suggest that the book be made compulsory reading for all our journalism schools not only in the North but in Nigeria, because, for me at least, the book reads like a classic manual of how journalism should be practiced.

Malam Abubakar Imam died in 1981 leaving behind 14 children and a legacy of authorship in the North matched only by the trio of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio, his brother Sheikh Abdullahi and his son, Sultan Muhammadu Bello. By the time he died he had also served with distinction as the first indigenous chairman of the North Regional Public Service Commission, as a pioneer chairman of the then North Central State Public Complaints Commission, and as a director of New Nigerian Newspapers, among many other public offices he held.

Here then is a legacy whose preservation and promotion we owe Imam and ourselves.

Fortunately the Zaria Academy under Dr. Haroun Adamu one of Imam’s disciplines, and in his time one of the most incisive and prolific columnists working for Daily Times and writing in the Sunday Times, has set up the Abubakar Imam Foundation to preserve and promote his legacy. As a first step the initiators of the foundation have set up a website which can be visited at This initiative deserves the support of all men and women of goodwill.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for listening.

Mohammed Haruna
March 5, 2005.

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