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*How Sardauna, Ahidjo made peace
*Washington restaurant denied me lunch
*I never owned N1 million
Retired from active service in 1972, 90-year-old Ambassador Aliyu Yerima is still full of life and attends to family issues passionately in addition to his traditional title of Galadiman Makarantan Nupe of Bida Emirate. Yerima, the oldest member in the Etsu Nupe’s Council, was born on February 11, 1923 in Bida town to the family of Alhaji Usman Tanariya. As it was the tradition then, his father handed him over to his trusted friend Yerima Isa for proper upbringing. He was enrolled into elementary school in Bida in 1933 along with Yerima Isa’s children. He finished the school in 1937 and then proceeded to Bida Middle School. In 1942, Yerima was admitted into Kaduna College and he graduated with a high school certificate in 1944. He was posted to Bauchi Teachers’ College, and a year later he was reposted to Zaria for his Higher Elementary Teachers’ Course. He graduated in 1946 with a Grade II Teachers Certificate. After teaching for three years, he was sent to the Institute of Education, University London in 1949 for his one-year professional Teachers’ Certificate Course. He graduated in 1950, returned to Nigeria and was posted to Katsina Elementary Teachers Centre as Provincial Adult Education Officer, where he worked under the late Alhaji Ahmadu Coomasie. Aliyu changed line in 1957 when he responded to an advertisement in the newspapers by the then government of Northern Nigeria requesting skilful northerners to apply for appointment as Administrative Officers to take over from the departing Colonial Masters. He was employed and was admitted into the Institute of Administration, Zaria (Kongo Campus) for an Administrative Officer’s Course. After his nine months course, he was posted to Gwandu Division as Divisional Officer. He later joined the Federal Civil Service and was posted to Washington in September 1959 as Liaison Officer. He was reposted back to the Ministry of External Affairs in Lagos in 1961 and was later posted to Dakar, Senegal as the Head of Mission. He also served in Chad and Saudi Arabia. He briefly worked with the North-Western State as Principal Education Officer before he switched over to Niger State when the state was created in 1976 and worked as a Director. In appreciation of his sterling contributions to the country and gratitude to Almighty Allah for longevity, the Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar, recently celebrated the nonagenarian in an elaborate traditional ceremony. Weekly Trust trailed Yerima to his residence in Bida for an interview, and without any hesitation the nonagenarian went down memory lane, to recount his interactions with the first generation of Nigerian leaders and the revered Tijjaniyyah leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Nyass. He also recalled how he was denied lunch in a Washington restaurant because of his colour. The educationist, diplomat and father also spoke on his perception of current political events, insecurity and his love for tennis, among others. Excerpts:
Mohammed S. Shehu, just back from Bida
Trained as an educationist, how did you become an ambassador? Was it by chance or by design?
I was trained as a teacher but later an opportunity came for Northerners wishing to work with the Federal Government to apply. I applied and was successful. So, I was later trained to become a diplomat and I was first posted to Washington as a Liaison Officer.
How was your experience in Washington like as a young Nigerian from the North in the Foreign Service?
It was an exciting experience. I was in Washington when Nigeria became independent and was opportune to be one of the officials that received the Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa when he visited the USA in 1960 to deliver a speech at the United Nations in New York. He proceeded to Washington and I was one of the embassy officials who received him. When he arrived, he asked me: ‘Where is the Nigerian flag flying?’ I showed him where the flag was flying and he said, ‘Keep us flying’. We were very happy to hear that coming from the Prime Minister.
I will also never forget an embarrassing situation I faced in 1961 while I was Liaison Officer in Washington. One day in October 1961, I was on my way home from Washington to New York with my family. We decided to stop and have lunch at a restaurant in Maryland. But to my surprise the owner of the restaurant told us that they cannot serve black people. I then told him that I am a diplomat and even showed him my service identification card but he declined to serve us. He said, “If you are a diplomat, go to the White House and have lunch with the President.” At that point, I had no choice but to leave. That embarrassing encounter was widely reported by Nigerian and foreign media. The following day, the government of the United States took action against restaurants that discriminate on the basis of race.
I heard that you had an encounter with the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Jaja Wachukwu while you were heading the mission in Dakar. What really happened?
In 1962, I was posted to Dakar to head the mission up to the time the substantive ambassador--Alhaji Ado Bayero--arrived. We were there together up to 1963 when Alhaji Ado Bayero became the Emir of Kano. When he left, I took full control of the embassy. I was in charge of information and became very close to Sheikh Ibrahim Nyass. I was there up to the end of 1963 when I was re-assigned to our embassy in Fort Lamy, now known as N’Djamena, capital of Chad Republic. I was in Chad until 1966 when I was posted back to Lagos. In 1970, I was posted to the Nigerian Embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as the Head of Mission. I was later posted back to Lagos and I retired in 1972.
In Senegal, I had an encounter with the then Foreign Affairs Minister Mr Jaja Wachukwu when he came to Dakar for a conference. When the minister arrived, Ambassador Ado Bayero had travelled out of Senegal but the minister insisted on sleeping in the ambassador’s official residence despite the fact that the ambassador’s wife was around in the house. I tried to convince the minister that it was not the tradition among Muslims for a visitor to stay in a house with his host’s wife when the host is not around. But Mr Wachukwu insisted that he would not sleep in a hotel. He argued that he had visited many countries and that in any country he visited, he sleeps in the embassy and not in the hotel, and Dakar should not be an exception. So, I had to move the wife of the ambassador, Hajiya Maryam to my own house for the rest of the days the minister spent in Senegal.
Did that incident affect your relationship with Wachukwu?
Actually he was not happy but he didn’t express it until an opportunity came for him to exact revenge when, in 1966, a railway extension project was to be officially commissioned in Maiduguri. I was then heading the mission in Chad. I wrote to the Foreign Affairs minister suggesting that the Prime Minister should invite heads of state of neighbouring countries to attend the ceremony. Mr Wachukwu got the letter and found no offence in it but he created one. He queried me for writing to him directly instead of routing the letter through the permanent secretary. The query did not fly; Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa forwarded the letter to the then President Nnamdi Azikiwe, who then invited the leaders of Cameroun, Chad and Niger.
When Ambassador Bayero returned, was he told about the incident and how did he react?
Yes. He was told and he was happy that I moved his family out of the house.
What informed the decision to invite other heads of state to grace the commissioning of the Maiduguri railway project?
I purposely proposed to use the opportunity to reconcile the Sardauna of Sokoto Sir Ahmadu Bello with the then President of Cameroun Ahmadu Ahidjo after the North won portions of Cameroun [Sardauna Province] through a plebiscite. So, I thought up the idea of facilitating a meeting of the two leaders to resolve their differences. Ahidjo was actually not happy because the portion of Cameroun that was ceded to Northern Nigeria was the Northern part of Cameroun, where he came from. The ceding followed a plebiscite for the people of Northern Cameroun to decide whether they wanted to stay in Cameroun or join Northern Nigeria and they opted for Northern Nigeria. Ahidjo was very bitter to the extent that every first October, Cameroun would fly its flag at half mast.
So, after I wrote the letter, I personally met Sardauna in Kaduna and informed him of my plans. Sardauna responded by saying that he would travel to Bauchi to see the Prime Minister and would ascertain the information I brought about Cameroun. On reaching Bauchi, Tafawa Balewa confirmed to him of such preparation and Sardauna had to rush back to Kaduna for the trip to Borno.
As part of Sardauna’s preparation, he gave all three ambassadors to Niger, Chad and Cameroun boxes filled to the brim with clothes and assorted wrappers for onward delivery to our various Heads of State as his personal gifts to them. At that time, the Ambassador to Niger Republic was Sani Kontagora and Alhaji Bello Malabo was the Ambassador to Cameroun and I was serving in Chad.
When I took the invitation letter signed by President Nnamdi Azikiwe to President N’garta Tombalbaye of Chad inviting him to the railway project commissioning in Maiduguri, I was wearing my native gown. He took an interest in what I was wearing, so he requested me to make the same gown for him and I promised to get him one. So, immediately I came back to Zaria, I searched for one but couldn’t get the exact material to be sown for him. So, I decided to buy a material with a similar texture and took it to him. Interestingly, Tombalbaye wore the attire I bought for him to the ceremony in Maiduguri.
So, all the three invited leaders - President N’garta Tombalbaye of Chad, Ahmadu Ahidjo of Cameroun and Diori Hammani of Niger graced the occasion and that meeting opened the doors for a more cordial relationship between Ahidjo and Sardauna. Isa Kaita, Ali Akilu and Shehu of Borno were among the top government officials that accompanied Sardauna to the venue of the commissioning ceremony. I was also a witness when Ahidjo invited Sardauna to Cameroun. The visit took place in Ahidjo’s hometown of Garoua in the Northern region of Cameroun.
Can you recall your last meeting with Sardauna and Tafawa Balewa before they were killed in 1966?
My last meeting with him was in Maiduguri when he visited to commission the railway project. When he returned to Kaduna, I wrote him a letter thanking him for coming and he replied but I don’t have the copy of his reply now. Tafawa Balewa too was in Maiduguri. He was about to board his plane to Bauchi, then Tombalbaye came out to bid him farewell, so I whispered to Tafawa Balewa in Hausa ranka yadade ko ka yarda akai Tombalbaye gida (Sir, could you please allow the plane to convey Tombalbaye home?) and he agreed. That was how Tombalbaye was conveyed to Fort Lamy while Tafawa Balewa waited for the plane to return.
You also served in Saudi Arabia; could you recall any memorable incident while you were in Saudi Arabia?
I cannot forget the day I was instructed to talk to the Saudi Arabian authorities when I was the Head of the Nigerian Mission to get arms for Nigeria during the Civil War. I talked to them and they provided arms to assist the Federal Government. The interesting thing was that I was the only person with the pilots that transported the weapons to Nigeria. We arrived Kano airport in the night, delivered the weapons and returned to Saudi Arabia that night. I was there until 1968 when the substantive ambassador, Alhaji Abdulkadir Koguna, took over from me. He left in 1969 and I continued as the Head of Mission.
While in Saudi Arabia, I had the privilege of being nominated by the Saudi Arabian authorities to clean the inside of the Holy Ka’abah. It was a rare privilege given to diplomats or heads of pilgrims’ mission from Muslim countries.
What is your opinion on the state of education in the country?
I am not happy with the state of education in the country.
What do you think should be done to remedy the situation?
The problem is with the constitution. That is why today you have the federal and state governments running secondary and tertiary institutions. There should be a clear distinction on the running of education. Primary schools be exclusively reserved for local governments, secondary schools should be for state governments alone while tertiary education should be exclusively for the federal government. With that division, you will be able to hold all the tiers of government accountable for failure at a particular level. But today everything is mixed up. Secondly, schools should be properly equipped to support learning with qualified teachers. Thirdly, the number of students in a class should be reduced. Each class should not have more than 30 to 35 students, not 50 or 100 as it is today.
You were in Senegal, the country of the revered Tijāniyyah leader Sheikh Ibrahim Nyass. Did you ever meet him and what was the encounter like?
Yes, I met him in 1962 when he invited me to his house in the town of Kaolack to celebrate Maulud, the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). He was a very lively and unassuming personality. My second meeting with him was in Saudi Arabia. I met him together with the late Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi.
What was it like at that time to be a Nigerian from the Northern part of the country?
Nigerians were respected anywhere they visited. People respected us and admired our mode of dressing.
Do you think that respect is still there?
Because things have changed. People no longer see us the way we were.
What in your view is responsible for the violence in the country today?
So many things! Number one, many of our young ones have no jobs and it is said an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Secondly, people are cheating. Corruption is everywhere. This morning, I heard the Senate President over the radio talking about sacking Maina (Abdulrasheed Maina, Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team). He said Maina should be arrested. I wonder why today someone stacks up billions of Naira while people are suffering. Throughout my life I have never owned one million naira. So, why are people stealing money they cannot finish spending?
How do you assess government’s anti-corruption fight?
I think the government is too slack in the fight against corruption and that is making people to react violently.
How would you compare politics of today and politics of your days?
In those days, if a government said it is going to do something, within one week, the government will do it. But today’s government will promise something and it will never do it. Haba! Government is wasting a lot of time.
When Sardauna was killed, what memorable thought crossed your mind at that time?
What crossed my mind was that the North has lost an irreplaceable leader. From the way I look at things now, I don’t think the region will have somebody that would be acceptable to the entire North, talk less of the country.
Because today’s leaders are not ready to make sacrifices for their people.
Can you recall any particular incident or incidents that forced you to cry?
I will not forget the day I cried over the killing of Sardauna. I was in Chad and on the very day I got the news, I was billed to attend a dinner organised by one ambassador (I can’t recall the ambassador) which I later didn’t attend. The second time I cried openly was when we lost the late Etsu Nupe, Umaru Sanda Ndayako in 2003. Prior to his death, I had a naming ceremony in Minna on Friday and he sent his brother with an envelope containing N10,000. On Monday, we heard about the death. It pained me because I had not had the opportunity of coming back to thank him for the gift. It really touched me.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered as a person who was honest and friendly. I don’t hate you because you have something I don’t have. I don’t hate you because you are rich. I don’t want to cheat people and I don’t want people to cheat me too.
How did you meet your wife?
It was our parents that arranged for us. Our parents arranged everything. You see in those days, the future wife and husband hardly meet and stay long. They were too shy to even talk to each other. Even if your future wife sees you coming, she will take another route just to avoid contact with her future husband. So, courtship in those days didn’t take time like it does today.
When was your saddest moment?
My saddest moment was when I was refused lunch in a United States restaurant because I am a black man.
If given the opportunity to review your life what one thing would you have done in another way?
I will pay more attention to education than I did before.
Who is your best friend?
My best friend is Alhaji Yahaya Yadiba. We went to primary and middle schools together. Another one is Alhaji Baba Abubakar. He is in Kaduna; he is a businessman.
How many of your colleagues are still alive?
The only person that they said is alive is Ahmadu Jarma, Jarman Misau. I don’t think there is any of my classmates in Kaduna College that is still alive.
What are the roles of the traditional title holder of Galadiman Makarantan Nupe?
Galadiman Makarantan Nupe is in charge of schools in Bida Emirate. The challenges are that the schools and teachers are not well cared for. The government is not spending a lot of money on schools. Go to any of the schools and you’ll find out that the conditions are poor.
How do you relate with the present Etsu Nupe?
The relationship is cordial. And you see, he is very young and he comes from a house which many thought would not be nominated as Etsu. So he is a lucky person and I am happy working with him.
What about family? How many wives and children?
I have two wives now but before I had four. I have over 26 children and about 92 grand children. I also have 44 great grand children.
What is your favourite dish?
Semovita and miyan kuka.
How many countries have you visited?
I have been to Canada, USA, Switzerland, UK, Morocco, Chad, India, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Germany, Malaysia, Australia, among other countries.
How was the state of transportation in the 1960s?
Road transportation in those days was better; the roads were very good, better than today’s roads. And in those days, travelling from Lagos to Kaduna up to Maiduguri was better. In addition, anytime you are tired or you have a breakdown, you can come out of the car and sleep on top of your car. No armed robbers.
How do you observe your leisure?
I just sit down.
What about your favourite sport?
Do you still play?
Do you still read newspapers or watch television?
I don’t read newspapers but I listen to radio.
What is the major political issue in the country today?
I know that some political parties, about five of them, are joining together against the PDP and that the people are preparing for 2015 elections.