Dr. Yusuf Maitama Sule Politician, Diplomat
If he were cast in a film as the major character, a fitting title of such a film would be, The Inevitable Man. Dr. Yusuf Maitama Sule is inevitable. Since before independence, he has been a vital player in the political sphere of this country. Every era, every political dispensation finds him relevant, strategic even.
A conservative of the original version, Maitama Sule is a true Nigerian – he speaks romantically about the country and wishes that it returns to prosperity and plenty as it was advancing before it was halted by greed; before, according to him, we became entangled with and overpowered by “a negative culture, culture of extravagance.” The 80-year-old Kano indigene dreams desperately for a return of decency in the polity, godliness in relationships and consideration in social interactions.
As long as anyone would remember, he has remained consistent in these quests, which is, perhaps, one of the reasons every dispensation finds him relevant – inevitable. Every regime in this country preaches those sermons – some tried to cultivate them, some admire them but cannot afford them.
This interview has been long in coming, since June when the first contact was made. Last week, the man was in his elements and convenience was at home. He was in Abuja to attend to some personal and national matters – they don’t retire indeed, do they? Some things must come up that will keep them on the road. It was the man’s circumstance last week, but he slotted us in his programme. “You can come on Friday and when you do, call me to know where I am,” he told me.
“Thank you very much, sir,” I said. I was prompt but as it would be expected, I had to wait for another two hours. By this time, Bayo Obisesan, the group’s photojournalist in Abuja, had joined me from his State House beat. It was at the Sheraton Hotel. Eventually we were asked to come up to the man’s suite. He had just finished eating, from all we could see. He had with him four younger men of aristocratic turnout and disposition. We later learnt that some of them are his sons and grandsons. He was pleased to receive us and knowing that he had, had a busy day and was spoiling for more activities yet, I plunged into the interview.
An orator of renown, he is a delight to discuss with. Trouble though is that, he is so fecund upstairs and robust in discussion that it becomes a struggle throwing in follow-up questions. And he discusses with such oratory and homily that one is faced with the danger of being carried away and forgetting that one ought not to be emotionally involved. Our subject has a way with words and he is very conscious of it.
Once Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, he spoke passionately about the country’s glorious past and wondered why today’s Nigeria cannot be instructed by the spirit of that period. He wishes that the prudence, sense of duty, commitment and service will direct the minds and hearts of today’s drivers of the Nigerian wagon. His life is indeed like a tale one hears under the moonlight – far-fetched, if not incredible.
An instance: “When I was sending my family home after the coup (1966 coup), I had no money, I had to borrow money from my permanent secretary and a friend in Lagos. I had to hire lorry to carry my goods to Kano. I had no bank account then, no bank account anywhere in the world. And I came back to Kano to live in (my father’s) mud house.” And here was a minister in charge of oil. Sadly, they don’t come this tough, this principled and unspoilt anymore. And, as he told us, time and circumstance have not altered all that.
Here’s the life of an icon:
Sir, let’s start from the fact that you should be staying in your own house in Abuja, and here you are in a hotel. Are you running away from anything?
I have no house in Abuja, none in Lagos, none in Kaduna.
That’s unusual, for a man of your status in society. A Nigerian of your standing should have not less than three houses, at least here in Abuja, and you sit here and tell me you don’t have even one.
Well, that is what I have chosen and I am quite happy and quite contented. In any event, I believe in the division of responsibility. In the Holy Qur’an as well as the Holy Bible, Allah said you should stick to your responsibility to which you are destined and I am sticking to my responsibility. I am a politician, not a businessman. It is the wisdom of the Almighty, The All Wise that we are different. It has a purpose. Some of us are rulers, some are Talakawas – the ruled – some are patricians, some are plebeians, some are sellers, while some are buyers. Some are workers, some are politicians and so on and so forth.
Each has a role to play in the society, we all complement one another and each one of us should stick to his own responsibility. I remember the late Premier (Sir Ahmadu Bello) used to tell us, “You can’t run a race and at the same time be scratching your buttocks;” you can’t do two things at the same time. If you are a minister, he used to tell his ministers, “You should remain a minister. You must not be engaged or concerned with business. If you want to go into business, I will encourage you, but you have to resign your appointment as a minister. You can’t have both.”
I believe in that. I am a politician and I have been a politician and that is the wish of God and I thank Him for that. As a politician, I am to serve the people, not to be served. I am not to go into business. I should not use my position to go into business and try amass wealth, using my office, no, I don’t believe in that. I was Minister of Mines and Power from 1959 to 1966 when the coup took place. For almost seven years, I was there.
I was in charge of oil – the first minister of oil after independence and perhaps the longest-served minister of oil. But I tell you this: When I was in office, I was given a piece of land in South-West Ikoyi, like all other ministers. My colleagues developed theirs, how they did, I don’t know. I could not develop mine. All around me, the plots were developed.
Then a lawyer friend of mine, a West Indian, one Mr. Burke, came and introduced a company that was willing to develop the land for me. The company, without the knowledge of lawyer Burke, told me in confidence that they would develop the plot for me free if I could give them a contract in ECN, now NEPA, it used to be Electricity Corporation of Nigeria. If I could give them a contract in ECN, they would develop the plot for me free and I said I wouldn’t do that. Well, they came back and said they were willing to develop the land, but after building, they would rent it out, collect their money and after the number of years rented expired, the house would come back to me. I agreed.
They started developing the land, half way they stopped and said they had no money unless I could give them the contract, otherwise they couldn’t help it. But I said, “Well I am sorry I cannot, what do we do?” They said they had to sell the land and the building that we started, pay expenses and then “give you the balance.” I said, “Well, you can do that.” So, they sold it, took their money and gave me the balance, which was about N10,000 at that time. With that money, I went to Kano and built a school in my locality.
I, therefore, did not have a house in Lagos. I didn’t bother to get one in Kaduna and still I am not interested in getting one in Abuja, because I haven’t got the means. Even in Kano after the coup, I had no house, except the mud house, where I was born and lived with my father. That was the house I went back to after almost seven years living in a palace in Lagos. From the palace house in Lagos, I went back to my mud house in Kano and started racing with rats and mice again (general laughter).
But the interesting thing is this: when I was sending my family home after the coup, I had no money, I had to borrow money from my permanent secretary and a friend in Lagos. I had to hire lorry to carry my goods to Kano. I had no bank account then, no bank account anywhere in the world. And I came back to Kano to live in that mud house.
As a minister of the Federal Republic?
Yes, after seven years as the minister in charge of oil, electricity and minerals. Now I remember Peter Enahoro coming to see me after the coup – we were friends in Lagos and he decided to come and visit me in Kano. He was told I was somewhere…in my building site. I was building a new house, because our house that we came back to was too small. He came to the new building site and he found me putting a structure in mud and bamboo. “What?” he wondered, and I told him, “This is what I can afford?” It was a bigger house though, still of mud. I was quite happy I built my second house of mud.
The second one of mud?
Yes. But the house I am living now is not of mud; it is of concrete. It took me six years to build the house in Kano – the one I am living now, it took me six years to build. I could have built it in six months if I had the means. And, no architect drew the plan, no engineer supervised it, but it looks nice, if you see it, you will think it is something marvelous. It was a local builder that did it, but I’m quite happy. What else do I want? (Panning his hand) Look at these boys around, my sons and grandsons all sitting comfortably with me, discussing and exchanging views. Is there anything better than this at my age?
Maybe we should go back to the beginning. Your beginning, how was it? How was your growing up like?
I thank God, I was said to belong to a family of slaves. It was my father’s master that sent me to school. He loved my father so much because he and my grandfather were together as the favourites of their immediate master. You see, this question of slavery in the North is something that you don’t understand – slaves were almost as important as the rulers, because they were the power behind the scene.
I was sent to school by this my father’s master with his own children and grandchildren. He is the local ruler, the Madaki, the chief kingmaker in Kano. When I was a young man in the elementary school, now primary school, there was one thing I used to do; I took it upon myself to sweep the whole of my quarters. I would take my broom and sweep the whole quarters. I would go into the local mosque in our quarters and sweep the inside as well as the outside. I used to do that on my own–nobody told me to do it.
I was a child born with a silver spoon. My father was a favourite of his master and so was I a favourite of my own father. Suddenly, before I went to the middle school (the next was secondary, part-secondary, part-senior primary school) this man died – my father’s master – and things became hard. Sometimes I had nothing to eat and my father was such a proud man who would not allow me to go to anyone or to any house to eat. He would rather sneak out at night and then buy me some cassava and groundnut. Then, I went to the middle school.
I was lucky in the middle school that another person from my own quarters, from the same family as my father’s master, was the headmaster of the middle school. His son and I were friends, we were the same age and I was lucky he took me up and he developed interest in me, and luckily, I was brilliant. He was taking good care of me, watching me, and he sent me to Kaduna College. Two of us went from Kano that year to Kaduna College in 1943 and then in 1946 we graduated, and I came back to my alma mater, the middle school, and started teaching.
When I came back, the youths in Kano became very much interested in me and we became friends. We had in those days a division between the patricians and the plebeians, the rulers and the ruled, and there was no love lost between them. But I became friendly with the plebeians, although I was from the patrician side. As a result, I discovered that many of my friends from the other side did not go to school. So, I opened the evening class for them – the plebians, the Talakawas.
We were together, about the same age. I was teaching them and then, I said we should try to solve this problem, do away with this animosity and antagonism between the two sides. So I formed an organisation called Kano Citizens Association, which brought both sides together to promote mutual understanding, mutual love and cooperation.
It was that Kano Citizens Association, together with similar organisations in Sokoto, Bauchi, Kaduna and Zaria, that came together, amalgamated and formed the NPC, first a cultural organisation in 1949. It was in June 1949 at the Green Hotel in Kaduna that we launched the NPC, a cultural organisation with Dr. R. B. Dikko a Christian in the North, as the President-General of the organisation. He was the first president of the NPC, but it was a cultural organisation. He was a medical officer with the government. One business tycoon in Lagos, Alhaji Sandana Alhaji by name, was the deputy president. I was 20 years old, but because I represented Kano, I became vice president number one.
While Mr. Rafi, traffic inspector, became the second vice president. Umar Agayi was the secretary-general. Isa Wali was the assistant secretary general, while Mallam Haya Gusau was the financial secretary, Abubakar Imam was treasurer, Mallam Makama Kano was the publicity secretary, while Aminu Kano and one Mr. Julde were joint auditors, Mallam Saadu Zungeru was the legal adviser. That was how the NPC started as a cultural organisation.
In 1950, some of us broke away from the NPC, not broke away; some of us from the NPC formed the NEPU. I, together with one Bello Ijumu from Kabba, formed this NEPU; Bello Ijumu, he is a Yoruba from Kabba. Ijumu is a town in Kabba. That was the very first political party in the North that survived. Mallam Aminu Kano was not one of the founding members. He later joined, but he gave it life. But for Mallam Aminu Kanu, NEPU would have died.
He had the charisma and the courage that withstood all sorts of things and he made it what it was. Now, I was in both–NPC and NEPU. In the end of 1950, during the NPC Convention in Jos, the decision was taken that all those that belonged to NEPU were expelled from the NPC.
Why was that?
Because they said we had become political, although we were not political. I remember, we opened the first branch of NEPU outside Kano in Jos after we had been expelled.
Before we left Jos back to Kano, we called on the youths in Jos, most of them were from Kano. I remember I spoke to them in the house of one Alhaji Akawo Namata and they all agreed to form a branch of the NEPU and we launched that branch. This is why Jos people are very political. They were the very first branch of NEPU outside Kano. Now, later, I argued that since NPC was not a political party, one could remain in the NPC and at the same time in NEPU. I did not declare that I had resigned from NPC or NEPU but I was with the NEPU all the same. Mark you, I was an NA employee.
I was working for the Native Authority in the middle school as a teacher. The NA was almost synonymous with the NPC. They knew what I was doing, then in 1954, I was to be the first adult education officer, the decision was taken, a week later they changed it. They said I was too young to be an education officer and my headmaster was recommended and I was recommended to be his deputy. I refused to accept the offer, because I was to be the chief education officer. Why change it? Why did they recommend me at first?
The senior district officer was a good friend of mine. He called me in his office and gave me the offer, which I rejected. He was surprised and then he asked, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to go into politics.” He said incidentally, “have you been to England?” And I said, “I have never been to England”. He said, “I will recommend you.” So he recommended me to go to England for eight weeks; there was then a programme, eight-week study tour to the United Kingdom.
While I was there, arrangement was going on for the election, the first direct election to the House of Representatives. Previously, people were elected to the Regional Assemblies and from the Regional Assemblies they were elected to represent the regions in the House of Representatives in Lagos. But this time in 1954, people were to be elected direct from the constituencies to the National Assembly.
NEPU fielded Mallam Aminu Kano in the city of Kano, most NPC members were reluctant to contest against Mallam Aminu, because they knew he was very popular. I was away, in my absence, unknowing to me the NPC decided to adopt me as their candidate, to contest against my leader and the very day I returned from London, I was told about this decision and I said but I don’t belong to the NPC anymore.
They said well, you were one of founding members; you will now go back to it. It was like an instruction, I went to see Mallam Aminu Kano in the evening and told him and he said, “Well, I knew it before you came back. Go and contest, you and I are the same. Politics without bitterness: that was Mallam Aminu Kano. I contested the election, when people saw that I was on the way to winning, they started manoeuvring. First, they told the Emir that I should not be the one to represent Kano City. Then, I refused to listen to them. Later, the present Emir, Ado, was a friend and about the same age, he said he was appointed to contest as an independent and I said, “Look, if you do that, you’ll break my own votes, you will split my votes. Neither you nor me would win.”
He said, “What do I do?” I said, “Well, you should launch a campaign of blackmail. How? You go round and tell people that you are contesting as an independent, the news would get to the Emir and the Emir would report you to the Premier, the Premier would invite you. If he invites you, tell him that you are not interested in going to Lagos but you are interested in coming to Kaduna, but the Emir has not given you an assurance and he is not willing to sponsor you to contest.”
We did that and he was eventually called to Kaduna and he told the Premier what I told him and the Premier telephoned the Emir, he said, “Well, Ado is not interested in going to Lagos, he wants to come to Kaduna, but he is not sure you would sponsor him”. The emir said, “Who told him? My intention is to sponsor him.” “Should I tell him this?”
The Premier asked and the Emir said, “Yes, it is all right.” So Ado came back and told me that he had been given assurance that he would contest the regional election, so he left my seat. It was electoral college. Members of NPC had majority than the primaries and if all of them were together and voted for me, certainly, I would defeat my teacher, leader, former boss. So in the final college, I was elected, that was 1954.