Tribute to Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman
Dr. Alkasum Abba
Where, and how, do you begin a tribute to this colossus of an intellectual, this illustrious teachers’ teacher; this frontline warrior for the unity, independence and progress of the peoples of Nigeria, Africa and the Third World; this formidable enemy of oppressors, local and foreign; this untiring fighter for social justice and against corruption in all its forms, this fountain of inspiration to all Nigerian patriots?
Do you start from his pan-African, student, days in the United Kingdom, or should the take-off point be 1968, the year from which, till his death, he became completely and irrevocably committed to a humble life of teaching, research and the advancement of learning? Perhaps, the approach should rather be thematic, beginning with his early writings and activism against apartheid and for African liberation, and then proceeding to consider his preoccupation with corruption and the manipulation of ethnicity and religion, before taking up his active engagement in national politics, and landing on his seminal contributions on Nigerian history and contemporary political economy?
Mine of Knowledge
But even such an approach would be a severely limited one. The issues, themes and perspectives which engaged Dr Yusufu Bala Usman’s rich, hyper-active, mind were many and varied, just as the breadth of his knowledge was truly encyclopaedic and his search for new information restless and unending. From economics to anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, Archaeology and their mother discipline, history; from computer and genetics engineering to agriculture, space research, hydrology, geology, evolution biology, geography, architecture and the stock market, Dr Yusufu Bala Usman always had something to contribute, or learn from, in a discussion. And his humility in learning was quite remarkable. He would listen attentively to, literally, anyone with some fresh perspective, from peasant farmers and spare parts sellers to first year undergraduates and Heads of State.
Dr. Bala Usman was simply an unfathomable mine of information. The meticulous researcher that he was, Dr Bala Usman had files on all sorts of subjects and all kinds of people. If you had ever given him a copy of a seminar paper or something you had written, he had a file on it. If you were looking for information on any subject, ask him. If he didn’t have it, he would tell you the precise source for it. For the same reason, if you were going to meet with Dr. Bala Usman to discuss a subject or an issue that had arisen, make sure you did your homework, because he would have done his. Thus, if you came to a scheduled meeting unprepared, be ready to discuss his own perspective, because he would have researched, read or otherwise thought one out. This was, perhaps, why some people unfairly thought of him as someone with strong and forceful views, who often wanted to dominate discussions.
It took him a long time to convert from the old, reliable, longhand to the computer. But once he had made the transition, he became almost obsessed with his computers. This engagement with computers became more intense when he mastered the Internet. As he often said, once on, he found it difficult to get away from the Web. Literally, he would work all through the night, night after night, surfing, reading and downloading information. And we, his colleagues, as well as others, benefited from this. For whenever we got to the Centre for Democratic Development Research and Training, CEDDERT, the next day, we would find in our pigeonholes copies of material he had downloaded, often with notes written on them, such as, “Let’s discuss this!” or, “This may be useful for the course you teach”.
This is, however, not to say that he had any monopoly of wisdom. On the contrary, he was sometimes misled by inadequate or deficient knowledge on a particular issue and would easily and thankfully accept informed correction. In the same vein, he also had an immense capacity to listen to, and tolerate differing, even offensive, point of view. But once he was convinced he was on sure ground, no one could intimidate him out of a position, whatever the insinuations that might be made.
Perhaps a simple incident might suffice to illustrate his tolerance of opposing views. A few months before his death, he was told that a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, had complained to a colleague that he could not see the value of one of his books which had become very popular with students, The Misrepresentation of Nigeria. A true scholar, what Dr. Bala Usman did was to send him a copy of the book with a request that he should please review it and point out its weaknesses, or even worthlessness. To date, the review had not been done.
Encouraging the Younger Generation
One of the outstanding virtues of Dr. Bala Usman was his encouragement of members of the younger generation to develop capacity, skills and self-confidence in their various professional fields. In the academic world, for example, he was one of the few who actively promoted the advancement of younger colleagues. It was for this reason that he kept on passing invitations given him, including to conferences outside the country, to younger academics. No wonder, therefore, that quite a number of people made their first foreign trips on invitations passed on to them by Dr. Bala Usman. Indeed, in the past few years, he had virtually stopped accepting invitations for public functions like lectures because he felt that it was time for him to leave the stage for younger people. However, whenever he declined an invitation, he would suggest an alternative name to the organisers. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission function, which he attended, on 6th – 9th August 2005, was one of the few exceptions. But even in this case, he accepted the invitation only to use it to make that same point that it was high time the older generation allowed the new, to prove itself. He cited the examples of the EFCC Chairman, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu and the Minister in charge of the Federal Capital Development Authority, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, to buttress his point that the under 50 years generation was showing greater leadership capacity.
Founding the A.B.U. School of History
For historians, the death of Dr Yusufu Bala Usman marked the end of an era because he belonged to the generation of intellectuals, which rose to challenge colonial historiography and establish the foundations for the development and nurturing of African historiography at the Ahmadu Bello University, and through it to other Universities and organisations in the rest of Nigeria, Africa and even the wider world.
Dr Bala, as he was popularly known, established his name and reputation in the academic world as an intellectual who based his teaching, research and writings on factual historical evidence. He, along with his late teacher, Professor Abdullahi Smith, laid the foundation for what has come to be known, in and outside Nigeria, as the Ahmadu Bello University School of History. This school lays emphasis on the writing of history devoid of jargon and based on factual evidence and a rigorous evaluation and assessment of all types of sources for historical reconstruction. In doing so, the school exposes the serious shortcomings of overdependence on written, against oral and other, sources for historical reconstruction. This perspective was very refreshing to African students of history because colonial historiography had attempted to relegate the significance of other sources, especially the oral, as part of the effort to ridicule, distort and downgrade African history before the British conquest. Even when they made use of oral sources, they subjected them to rigorous evaluation but left the written, and often biased, sources virtually unquestioned.
Since most of our communities in Nigeria and, indeed, the rest of Africa did not have well preserved written sources, the idea of laying emphasis on oral and other sources such as linguistics, ethnography and archaeology, liberated the writing of African history from colonial oppression. This is the reason why both Professor Smith and Dr Bala Usman emphasized in their teaching, research and writings that oral sources were not in any way inferior to written sources in historical reconstruction, so long as, along with all other sources, they were subjected to a thorough assessment and evaluation not only to establish their authenticity, reliability and accuracy but also the perspectives as well as the basic ideas which informed the world views of their authors.
This approach was well demonstrated by Dr Bala Usman in a seminal contribution titled, The Critical Evaluation of Primary Sources: Henrich Barth in Katsina, 1851-1854, which he presented at a seminar in the Department of History, ABU, in 1977. In this paper, Dr Bala Usman called for the extension of the rigour employed in the assessment of oral sources to written sources. He argued that this was absolutely necessary because European written records obtained from travellers, traders, missionaries, companies, governments and their agents, which were the most widely used sources for the reconstruction of African history in the past five hundred years, were only assessed on the basis of their reliability and accuracy, not the world views ingrained in them. He pointed out that these written sources influenced students and researchers, who started their research work by first of all reading them at the Archives, or in published books and journals, before embarking on field trips to collect oral and other data. Consequently, the world views of the authors of these European written sources influenced the researchers even in terms of the questions they asked during field work. This was why Dr Bala Usman argued that written sources, such as the account of Henrich Barth, the famous German Traveller of the 19th Century, must be subjected to thorough evaluation and critical assessment.
Dr. Bala Usman then drew attention to the fact that Barth was held in high esteem by some of the leading European historians of Africa like Professor Robert Rotberg, Professor Philip Curtin, Mr. A. M. Kirk-Greene and Professor Thomas Hodgkin. These historians regarded Barth as the “meticulously accurate explorer” of Africa, thus helping to make what he said about the continent almost sacrosanct. But Dr. Bala Usman used Barth’s three visits to Katsina in 1851, 1853 and 1854 to demonstrate that his information was limited, biased and built on ethnic categorisation. He argued that these limitations were confounded by the fact that, of the sixty-two days Barth spent during his three visits to the Katsina emirate, up to fifty seven were spent in Birnin Katsina alone. Thus, he had only limited knowledge of the emirate and, obviously, had to rely on other people for information. Dr Bala Usman also emphasised that Barth’s views and opinions about the society and people of Katsina could not be understood outside the context of the early 19th century world outlook and the cultural and intellectual environment of the German bourgeois intelligentsia, a section of which was racist. He demonstrated this by quoting Barth extensively, showing how his framework of analysis was marred by his preoccupation with ethnic categorisation of the people and the society of Katsina emirate.
Dr. Bala Usman extended this critical evaluation of colonial historiography in yet another seminal presentation titled, The Problem of Categories in the Study of the History of Central Sudan: A Critique of M. G. Smith and Others. This paper further exposed the fallacy of ethnic categorisation of African history by racist and colonialist intellectuals. He cited the specific case of M. G. Smith who popularised this framework through his book, Government in Zazzau. Typical of Dr. Bala Usman, he accepted M. G. Smith to serve as the discussant to his paper at the Department of Local Government Studies, Institute of Administration, A.B.U., in 1978. The discussion was so hot that M. G. Smith broke down.
However, Dr. Bala Usman did not confine himself to a mere critique of colonial historiography. He set out to establish a new perspective in the study of African history. This came out clearly in his PhD thesis, supervised by Professor Abdullahi Smith, which he later developed into the book titled, The Transformation of Katsina, 1400-1883, The Emergence and Overthrow of the Sarauta System and the Establishment of the Emirate, published by ABU Press in 1981. In this book, he challenged directly the view prevalent in conventional colonial historiography that African history was made up of movements and conflicts of racial, tribal and ethnic units or groups and their armies. In the course of gathering data for the book, he had visited 150 villages, towns and cities in Nigeria and Niger Republic, conducted over 200 interviews, recovered dozens of manuscripts and made extensive use of Archival materials. With all this massive data, he established that the history of Katsina in the five hundred years that he examined was propelled by changes in the nature and configuration of productive occupations, composition of settlements, structure of lineages, beliefs and associated political ideology. He showed that movements and conflicts of races, tribes and their armies had no role in the transformation of Katsina in the period that he examined.
Teaching, Research and Supervision
Perhaps, Dr. Bala Usman’s most decisive contribution to the development and consolidation of a new perspective in African History was made in his teaching, research and postgraduate supervision. For one thing, right from the start, he was a teacher by choice. That is to say, teaching was not a profession that he took up because he had no other choices. No, he wanted to live the humble life of teachers. Thus, when in 1968 he returned from the UK with an honours degree in History from the University of Lancaster, he shocked some of the leading officials of the then North Central State Public Service Commission when he told them that he preferred teaching to administration. This was at a time when administrative work was the vogue among young Northern graduates, because it was the fast lane to power and prestige. The chairman of the Commission even reported Dr Bala Usman to his father, the late Durbin Katsina, in order to try and get him to change his mind. It did not work. He was employed as a teacher and posted to Barewa College, Zaria where he taught history and became head of section by the time he left to join ABU in 1971.
It is on record that since he joined the Department of History, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, first as a part-time lecturer and then as a full-time lecturer from 1972, he remained at his post, teaching, researching and supervising undergraduate and postgraduate students, without taking annual, or sabbatical leave, except for the brief period he served as Secretary to the Government in the old Kaduna State, between November 1980 and June 1982. It is, thus, not surprising that he taught almost every single student, who either offered as an elective, or graduated, in History at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in the past thirty-four years. He was such an effective teacher that he instantly attracted a hoard of students, in the University and beyond. His popularity was to such an extent that whenever he was going to deliver a public lecture, students from across the university would abandon their normal lectures to attend his own. In the real sense of the word, he became an institution in Ahmadu Bello University and contributed, perhaps more than any other individual during his time, in making the University popular in Nigeria and his faculty, the former Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, FASS, famous world-wide.
However, Dr. Bala Usman was most outstanding at the Postgraduate level, where he supervised, alone, or with others, thirteen PhDs out of the thirty seven produced by the Department of History in the period, 1970-2005. His first PhD student, Garba Nadama, one- time Governor of the defunct Sokoto State, graduated in 1977 while his last student, Mailafiya Filaba, finished just a few months to his death. The other PhD students he supervised, either alone or as the major supervisor, were: the late Mahmud Modibbo Tukur, George Kwanashie, Saleh Abubakar, Sule Bello, Yaro Gella, late Abdullahi Augi, Joseph Ukwedeh, Ojong Echun Tangban, Alkasum Abba, Jimada Shaba Idris and Usman Ladan. He left behind three PhD students at the point of completing their work. He had also supervised numerous Masters Degrees.
But Dr. Bala Usman’s contribution in the area of Postgraduate supervision extended far beyond the students officially assigned him. For, in reality, he had supervised almost every single postgraduate student in the Department of History, because everyone was keen to give Dr. Bala Usman his/her thesis to comment on. It is on record that he did not reject this request from a single student. This is why every thesis in the Department of History has an acknowledgement for him.
As a matter of fact, he did read, and give extensive comments on, many other theses written in the Faculties of Arts, Social Sciences, Administration, Agriculture and Sciences, A.B.U., or even from other universities in the rest of Nigeria and West Africa, whether they were in literature, political science, administration, law, sociology, economics, geography, or languages. Indeed, even researchers from overseas, such as W.M. Freund, the author of, Capital and Labour in the Nigerian Tin Mines, and Michael Watts, who wrote the influential study, Silent Violence: Food, Famine & Peasantry in Northern Nigeria, had cause to acknowledge Dr. Bala Usman’s contribution to their studies. In the case of Michael Watts, this is what he wrote in October 1982 in the “acknowledgements” to his book, about his intellectual debt to Dr. Bala:
“I arrived in Nigeria -in many respects embarrassingly unprepared…In Northern Nigeria, and in Zaria in particular, I was forced to confront the shallowness of my own agenda. This took the form of reading the extraordinary historical and political writings of Yusufu Bala Usman…”
For the Liberation of Nigeria
But Dr. Bala Usman did not limit himself to just teaching and research in the confines of the Ahmadu Bello University. He was concerned about generating ideas, which could directly contribute to the emancipation of the people from oppression and exploitation. This was the context in which he moved around the country between 1969-1979, giving lectures and writing articles in newspapers on various topics, with the aim to educate and mobilise Nigerians to understand the nature of the economic and political system entrenched in the country and in the rest of Africa, which undermined the unity of the oppressed and their struggle for the achievement of social justice, freedom and democracy, under the rule of law. A collection of these lectures was published in 1979 by New Beacon Books, London, with the apt title, For the Liberation of Nigeria. The book was intended to help liberate the minds and the mentality of Nigerians and to make them understand the problems of the country, as a first step towards their complete emancipation. This book has sold in the thousands and is still being sought out by students and the public.
Dr Bala Usman was, however, convinced that the task of liberating Nigeria must also involve the emancipation of its history from colonial and neo-colonial misrepresentation. To this end, he was one of those who convinced the Federal Government early in 1979, through his friend Mallam Yahya Abubakar, Permanent Secretary, (Political) in the Cabinet Office, to provide funds for the setting up of the Panel on Nigeria Since Independence History Project, which was tasked with the responsibility of writing a new History of Nigeria since 1st October 1960. This study was unique because it involved the participation of one hundred and twenty leading Nigerian scholars and other experts drawn from all parts of the country. Working with facts and figures and operating from contending standpoints, these experts reconstructed, interpreted and analysed Nigerian post colonial history in a direct and frank manner and also presented the result of their effort in eleven volumes. Dr Bala Usman not only edited the first volume, on the Society, alone, he co-edited with Professor M. O. Kayode, the second volume, on the Economy.
Perhaps, however, the most significant outcome of the Panel’s work was the publication in 1995 of Inside Nigerian History, 1950-1970: Events, Issues and Sources, edited by Yusufu Bala Usman and George Amale Kwanashie. This book was the outcome of a National Workshop on the Events, Issues and Sources of Nigerian History, 1960-1970, held at State House, Kawo, Kaduna, in June 1993. Dr. Bala Usman not only organised and coordinated this workshop; he also sourced for funds independently of the Panel, for both the workshop and the publication of its proceedings.
What makes this publication most interesting is its documentation, for the first time, of the oral testimonies, recollections and reflections of some of the most prominent actors in the events leading up to, and immediately after, our independence in 1960. These were men such as the late General Hassan Usman Katsina, former Military Governor Northern Nigeria and Deputy Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters; the late Alhaji Isa Kaita, former Minister of Education, Northern Nigeria; Alhaji M. D. Yusufu, former Inspector General of Police, the late Mazi S. G. Ikoku, former General Secretary of Action Group and Leader of Opposition, Eastern Nigeria; Mr. J. O. Olawoyin, Leader of Opposition, Northern Nigeria; Mr. Patrick Dokotri, Parliamentary Secretary, Northern Nigeria and the late Mallam Liman Ciroma, Permanent Secretary, Northern Nigeria.
Amongst the insightful and penetrating contributions made at this workshop was the admission by S. G. Ikoku, for the first in written record, that while he was General Secretary of the Chief Awolowo - led Action Group, a caucus of the party actually organised a civilian coup against the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC)-led Tafawa Balewa Government in 1962.
Facing the Nigerian Economic Crisis
When the Nigerian economic crisis was biting hard and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, had called a conference at the University of Benin in 1984 to examine the state of the nation, Dr. Bala Usman mobilised some of his colleagues at ABU to prepare an in-depth presentation. To this end, he coordinated a series of meetings at the residence of one of the authors, Dr Okello Oculi, which resulted in the production not only of a conference paper but a fairly comprehensive book published in 1985 with the title, The Nigerian Economic Crisis: Causes and Solutions. This book is still a major text book in the departments of History, Political Science and Economics in many universities in Nigeria and abroad. It was an instant best seller, which in its first print sold ten thousand copies in Nigeria, Europe, USA and Japan. In the process of writing this book, Dr. Bala Usman demonstrated humility, which is not common among senior academics. For while each of the co-authors wrote a chapter, Dr. Bala wrote two chapters, edited the entire manuscript extensively and prepared it for publication but insisted that the authorship should be alphabetical, knowing fully well that it would turn the most junior member of the team into the senior author and the most senior, who was himself, into the junior author. This was unprecedented in an environment where insistence on hierarchy and the usurpation of the research efforts of junior academics was very common.
Fighting the Manipulation of Religion
When the Nigerian economy got into deeper crisis, the elite engineered a new game of survival, which involved the manipulation of religion, to divert public attention away from the problem and gain some political respite. But Dr. Bala Usman rose again to the occasion with a book he published in 1987 titled, The Manipulation of Religion in Nigeria, 1977-1987. This book specifically addressed the violent attempts being made to divide the people of Nigeria along religious lines. In the book, he showed how religion was being manipulated to confuse the ordinary people and prevent them from understanding the reasons behind their terrible living conditions in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. He argued that this attempt at hoodwinking the people was bound to fail, because it was increasingly becoming clear that the economic and social system imposed on Africa by imperialism, which the manipulation was meant to serve, was being challenged.
The Manipulation of Religion also cited specific examples of how the members of the Nigerian ruling class would meet and agree at their boardrooms but later turn around to propagate religious conflict, as a means of preventing the ordinary people from uniting to challenge their oppression. For example, he was a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1976-77 and saw how the members of the ruling class at first appeared to be divided over Sharia, with both sides using it for their different political interests, but soon after united on the platforms of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the Nigeria Peoples’ Party (NPP), the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), and the Great Nigeria Peoples’ Party (GNPP), as well as in the governments that they set up together.
Nigeria Against the IMF
Dr. Bala Usman made another crucial intervention when in 1985 the Babangida regime, faced with a critical economic situation and a volatile political environment in the country, initiated a national debate on the IMF. He took the challenge and came up with a book titled, Nigeria Against the IMF:The Home Market Strategy. In this book, he demonstrated with facts and figures the reasons why Nigeria should not take the IMF loan and went a step further to argue for a new perspective in economic planning, according to which our economy would be refocused towards production for domestic consumption rather than for export. It was this latter strategy that had shackled us into the IMF net, he argued.
The Dike Memorial Lecture
Similarly, when there were renewed attempts to deny the historicity of Nigeria, he accepted the invitation of the Historical Society of Nigeria to give the Dike Memorial Lecture at the University of Abuja, on Monday 22nd November, 1999. He selected the topic: History and the Challenges to the Peoples and Polities of Africa in the 21st Century. In this, perhaps one of his most memorable lectures, he first of all pointed out the pioneering and immense contributions of Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike in challenging the racist categorisation of African history in his research and publications. More significantly, however, he showed how Professor Dike had demonstrated that the formation of nations and nationalities in the Niger Delta and among the Igbos was a direct consequence of the mingling of peoples of different ethnic groups.
This meant that ethnic identities were not fixed, but actually kept on changing, just like the Igbo nationality had emerged over the last one hundred years or so from previously disparate groups. He showed further that this process of the formation, transformation and reformation of nationalities had continued, unabated, across Nigeria and the rest of Africa. For example, he showed how, in Lagos State, you would find Nigerians who were Lagosians by identity and who spoke Yoruba, but who may not be Yoruba by origin. Similarly, you would find in Kano State Nigerian citizens who were ‘Kanawa’ (people of Kano) and spoke Hausa, but who may actually be of Igbo, Yoruba, or, some other ethnic origin. He argued that Nigerians in this category were increasing substantially and becoming a very significant part of both the politically active as well as economically productive sectors of the population.
This lecture was a devastating blow at those clamouring for a so-called sovereign national conference, where self-appointed tribal champions would restructure Nigeria into a federation of nationalities and ethnic groups. He showed that the advocates of such a conference, such as Professor Wole Soyinka, were not only deeply ignorant of the nature of the historical processes which had produced, and continued to shape, both the Nigerian polity as well as the ethnic groups which constituted it, they were also unaware of the simple fact that these ethnic groups had, in reality, no boundaries that could be demarcated because they intermeshed into one another at the levels of culture, language, territory and identity.
Therefore, argued Dr. Bala Usman, the challenge for us in Nigeria and the rest of Africa in the 21st century was to move forward, not backwards. He showed that the path to progress lay in building virile and democratic societies, which transcended ethnic chauvinism, through the establishment of national political parties and the giving of trade unions, professional associations and the organisations of businessmen, farmers, fishermen, herders, tenants, women and the youth, leading roles in our political, economic and social life. This lecture was so powerfully argued, it was like a hurricane unleashed on all those advocates of a federation of tribal groups in Nigeria. To date, Dr. Bala Usman’s thesis has remained unchallenged.
Misrepresentation of Nigeria
But this indefatigable warrior for Nigeria would not rest. Along with his student, Alkasum Abba, he published in 2000 a book, titled, The Misrepresentation of Nigeria: The Facts and the Figures, and revised it extensively in 2005 when the debate about the political future of Nigeria was taking place at the National Political Reform Conference. Drawing on factual evidence from geology, the climate, hydrology, vegetation, ethnic and linguistic geography, politics and the mass media, the book showed that certain widely accepted views on Nigeria-such as the belief in the existence of a fundamental dichotomy between the North and the South; the belief in the inevitability of competition and conflicts between monolithic and distinctive ethnic nationalities, and the assumption that antagonism was inherent in the relationship between the country’s Christians and Muslims, etc- were all false and without any foundations, whatsoever.
The Misrepresentation of Nigeria also extended further the argument that the ethnic nationalities existing today in Nigeria were actually created in the process of the formation of the Nigerian nation. For example, the book pointed out that before the coming into being of Nigeria, there was no ethnic nationality called “Hausa,” as was the case, today. Instead, what we had were Kanawa, people of Kano; Katsinawa, people of Katsina; Zage-Zagi, people of Zazzau, Sakkwatawa, people of Sokoto, etc. The same reality applied to the Yoruba, who were identified as Egba, Oyo, Ekiti, Ijebu, etc. Indeed, the book established that from all available records, the word “Yoruba” (originally, “Yarriba”) was a Hausa language name for the people of the Alafinate of Oyo, first used by a 17th century Katsina scholar, Dan Masani.
When the 2003 elections were approaching, there were serious concerns about the political future of Nigeria because all our previous civilian-to-civilian transitions had failed. Dr Bala Usman pointed out that one of the reasons for this failure was election violence. As President Obasanjo was preparing for a Retreat on 7th - 10th February 2002, Dr. Bala Usman felt that the Abdullahi Smith Centre for Historical Research should contribute to the effort to stamp out the scourge of election violence by delving into history to remind us all that such violence was always sparked off by attempts to rig election results. He assembled forty relevant documents, within one week, and edited them into a new book titled, Election Violence in Nigeria: The Terrible Experience, 1952-2002, with the cover illustrated by the drawing of a tornado, serving as a warning signal to the Nigerian political elite.
In the introduction to the book, he warned Nigerian politicians to learn from history so as to avoid repeating it. He reminded them that the consequences of a failed transition, as had happened in 1964 and 1983 had been very bad both for Nigeria and the politicians, because, while the attempt to build democracy in the country had been truncated, many of the politicians had gotten arrested, probed and jailed, some on flimsy grounds. He pointed out that this ill-treatment of politicians by the Military whenever they seized power from civilians was in contrast with the treatment meted out to military officers who lost power through another military coup. He, therefore, warned the politicians to realise that a successful transition devoid of violence was for them, a matter of life and death.
When, in the 1980s, Dr. Bala Usman realised that, as a consequence of internal mismanagement and government under funding, the university system was in serious crisis and research was being stifled, he led some of his colleagues to establish two independent research centres. The first of these, the Abdullahi Smith Centre for Historical Research, was established in 1985. This Centre was named after his late teacher and the founding Head of the Department of History, ABU, Zaria and the pioneer Director of Arewa House. Then in 1992, he again led in the establishment of a more broad based research centre called the Centre for Democratic Development, Research and Training, CEDDERT. Under his leadership and guidance, the two Centres undertook research and seminars for the UNESCO, the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission as well as for some other government and non- governmental agencies. The Centres also conducted research on the 2003 elections and are currently undertaking two major researches on the Future of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Impressions and Facts in the Reconstruction of Contemporary Nigerian History: A Study of Evidence and Sources on Policy Making, Policy Implementation and Policy Impact, 1945-2005.
Under Dr. Bala Usman’s general guidance and editorship, the two research Centres also put out the following eleven major publications:
1. A Giant of A Man: Tributes to Professor Abdullahi Smith (1920-1984) Scholar and Teacher, 1986, edited by Modibbo Ahmed Mohammed
2. A Little New Light: Selected Historical Writings of Abdullahi Smith, 1987, edited by Yusufu Bala Usman
3. The Politics of Principles in Nigeria: The Example of the NEPU, Select Documents 1950- 1966, 1993, edited by Alkasum Abba.
4. The June 12 Presidential Election was Not Free and Fair, by Abubakar Siddique Mohammed
5. Chief Bola Ige and the Destabilisation of Nigeria, 1999, by Abubakar Siddique Mohammed.
6. The Living Conditions of the Talakawa and the Shari’ah in Contemporary Nigeria, 2000, by Abubakar Siddique Mohammed, Saidu Hassan Adamu and Alkasum Abba.
7. The Misrepresentation of Nigeria: The Facts and the Figures, 2000; 2nd edition, 2005, by Yusufu Bala Usman and Alkasum Abba.
8. Election Violence in Nigeria: The Terrible Experience, 1952-2002, edited by Yusufu Bala Usman.
9. Mr. President, Are You Serious About NEEDS? Open Letter to President Obasanjo on the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy, 2004, by Yusufu Bala Usman.
10 The Distortion and Suppression of Evidence by the Court of Appeal on the Adamawa State Governorship Election Case: The Facts and the Figures, 2004, by Alkasum Abba.
11. The Nupe and the Origins and Evolution of the Yoruba c.1275- 1897, 2005, by Idris Sha’aba Jimada.
However, many people may wonder why, in spite of the fact that Dr. Bala Usman had written hundreds of articles, monographs, reports, lectures, and speeches, the titles published under his name are relatively few. This is not surprising. Although he has left many unpublished papers, our experience with Dr. Bala Usman as a scholar was that he was more concerned about getting ideas out to the people than authorship, which he gave very little importance. This was why he was always glad to give you all his views and ideas about anything you sought from him. And, whenever you gave him a draft of your paper, chapter, thesis, book or research proposal to comment on, he would make corrections and give comments, often times longer than the length of the original material you had given him; indeed, he may even rewrite what you had written without complaining.
Setting up Magazines
Another area in which Dr. Bala Usman provided leadership in the mobilisation of people through public education was in the setting up of the monthlies, the Analyst, Fitila and the Analysis in the years, 1986-1989 and 2002-2004. Although in all cases, he was neither the editor nor editor-in-chief, he read and edited a large proportion of the articles carried, in addition to writing his own articles, many of which were left without a by line. What distinguished Dr. Bala Usman from other senior academics was that he would write his articles and submit them to us for discussion and correction, even though all of us were, at one time or the other, his students in the University. And, if we had any corrections, he would gladly accept them.
It is, perhaps stating the obvious to say that the three monthlies have played an important role in public education and mobilisation not only in Nigeria but in the West African sub-region. The magazines became popular with the readers because they addressed topical issues and the articles were well researched, written in simple but courageous language and based on solid facts. Each time the Analyst was about to come out there was great excitement and a sense of expectation among the public, on one hand, and a lot of anxiety and fear in government circles and inside the Board Rooms of multinational companies, on the other.
Indeed, the very first issue of the Analyst in June 1986 was so hot that some people called for its ban while others threatened a court action against its publisher and authors. This was because, in one of its lead stories titled, Big Fish Swallow Small Fish in UAC, it exposed how the structure of shareholding in the company made it possible for a tiny minority of big shareholders to continue to swallow the smaller ones, leaving only tiny crumbs for those who managed to survive. This piece was written by Dr. Bala Usman with assistance from two other members of the Collective. The UAC, through its Legal Adviser, Mr. S. G Laoye, wrote demanding an “unreserved apology”, retraction of the story and an undertaking that the magazine would not publish further “defamatory statement or any injurious falsehood against” the company. However, armed with further and more damaging information provided by Dr. Bala Usman, the Editorial Board decided that the magazine would stand by its story and even promised to publish more revealing information in subsequent editions on the role of multinationals such as the UAC in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. It was not surprising that the UAC failed to meet its words with action.
There were, however, moments when Dr. Bala had to pay the price for helping to lead the Analyst Collective in the struggle for justice, public accountability and a democratic society in Nigeria. For example, this was what happened on Thursday, 9th July, 1987 when, along with Alhaji Balarabe Musa, the magazine’s publisher, he was charged and put on trial for an alleged contempt of the Kaduna Special Military Tribunal on the Recovery of Public Property, chaired by V. J. O. Chigbue. In its Volume 2, Number 3 issue of June, 1987, the Analyst had carried a cover story on “Nigeria’s Growing List of Sacred Cows”, written by Dr. Bala Usman. Armed with facts and figures, most of which were not even in the public domain, this story had exposed the multiple standards which the Federal Military Government was using in its investigation and trial of the politicians and other public office holders of the Second Republic.
In this article, Dr Bala Usman showed, for instance, that, while many Governors of opposition parties, such as Abubakar Barde of Gongola State; Sam Mbakwe of Imo State; Solomon Lar of Plateau State, and Bisi Onabanjo of Ogun State were thoroughly investigated, tried and jailed over security votes and related matters, the military government had turned a blind eye on some high ranking officials of President Shehu Shagari’s Government, who were being treated like sacred cows. The Tribunal had decided that the article was contemptuous of it, when it expressed the belief that another former governor, Mohammed Goni of Borno State, who was standing trial in Kaduna, was on his way to jail. Interestingly, the contempt charge was dismissed and Goni regained his freedom shortly afterwards.
In the case of the Analysis magazine, it became the first news media to publish, on regular basis and without payment by the Federal Ministry of Finance, the monthly Federation Account Allocations to States and Local Governments. And this created political storms in the country, particularly in the Northern and South Eastern States. The magazine became the beacon of the anti-corruption struggle in Nigeria, exposing some of the rackets of the State Governors. As a result, it was dragged to court by the Governor of Bauchi State, who lost one case and withdrew the second one from court. The media outfit of the Adamawa State Government also launched virulent attacks on the editor-in-chief over articles he wrote on the affairs of the State.
It was difficult for anyone who worked closely with Dr. Bala Usman on these magazines and other similar projects to fail to respect him, both as a human being and as an intellectual. For one, he was, in the real sense of the word, a working machine who always worked harder, and oftentimes sacrificed more, than those working with him. And, even though, when it came to work discipline, he was a hard task master and a sticker to timelines, he at the same time, also had very genuine concern for both the feelings as well as the well-being of those he worked with. This is why even those who may be put off by his strong and rather abrasive personality would still respect him.
Taking Personal Risks
One of the most important factors that distinguished Dr. Bala Usman from many radical academics is the fact that he believed in what he was saying and was not an armchair critic who sat down in his study, shielded from personal risks and preaching what he would not do, or struggle to achieve. This was why he became actively involved in politics, first on the platform of the People’s Redemption Party, PRP, in 1978-1989; then the People’s Liberation Party, PLP, in 1989-90; the Social Democratic Party, SDP, in 1990-93; the Grassroots Democratic Movement, GDM, in 1997-98 and the Movement for Democracy and Justice, MDJ, since 1998. He was the intellectual strategist of the PRP and also served as the party’s Director of Research. He was a founding member of both PLP and MDJ and, except for the GDM, for which he was not really a member but an active supporter of the challenge to the Abacha self-succession agenda by Alhaji M. D. Yusufu, he almost single handily wrote the manifestoes, programmes and constitutions of all the parties he was involved in.
But Dr. Bala Usman was more than just an active member of these political parties. He participated in the PRP government led by Alhaji Balarabe Musa in the old Kaduna State, in the Second Republic, 1979-1983, where he served as Secretary to Government for a little over a year and a half and assisted in the formulation and implementation of radical policies on agriculture, taxation, education, health, rural development, industrialisation and land reform, among others. Indeed, he was so actively involved in the propaganda machinery of the government that the Kaduna State Police Commissioner, on one occasion, arrested and locked him up at the Police Headquarters in Kaduna for designing, printing and circulating a political propaganda poster titled, Ka Biya Haraji? (Have you paid your poll tax?).This was an anti- poll tax poster produced by the Ministry of Information, which showed a dogari dressed in his colourful attire, threatening to whip a peasant. This poster of the PRP government, which became instantly popular with the people, was seen as a threat by the ruling conservative NPN governments at the Federal and State levels, particularly in the Northern States. Its worthy of note that Dr. Bala Usman’s detention by the Police Commissioner was the first time in Nigerian history that a serving Secretary to the Government was arrested.
But this would not be the only experience of political victimisation for Dr. Bala Usman. In 1989, he was unceremoniously sacked from his teaching job by the Federal Government because he took part in the formation of the PLP. This was after the arrest and detention of his political associate, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, over the same matter. Dr. Bala Usman had to take the Federal Government to court to get reinstated to his post in 1990.
A Man of Honour
Dr Bala Usman was not only courageous; he was an honourable man. This aspect of his character may be illustrated by what happened in January 1984 when the military seized power from the civilians and went about arresting people who had held political positions at all levels of Government. When Dr. Bala heard that Alhaji Balarabe Musa, the Governor under whom he had served as Secretary to Government, had been arrested, he drove from Zaria straight to Police Headquarters in Kaduna to report himself to the Commissioner of Police. He told the Commissioner that whatever could lead to the arrest of Alhaji Balarabe Musa would not spare him. But the Commissioner told him that he was not wanted yet, and should therefore go back to his work at the university. He waited. After about one year, on the 8th of January 1985, he again mobilised four of his colleagues, who had also served under Governor Balarabe Musa – Richard Umaru, Yahaya Abdullahi, Aduwak Kaje, Magaji Yusufu Ingawa and Bala Kwari –with whom he wrote a letter to the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, demanding for the former Governor’s release. This letter was, however, ignored by the Federal Military Government and Alhaji Balarabe Musa was not released from detention until later in 1985.
The death on Saturday 24th September 2005, at about 2 pm of Yusufu Bala Usman, an Associate Professor of History at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, since 1978; Chairman, Centre for Democratic Development, Research and Training (CEDDERT) and Director, Abdullahi Smith Centre for Historical Research (ASCHC), truly marked the end of an era. He had lived an intense, but simple, transparent and honest life. He has left behind a legacy of hard work, academic excellence and commitment to the liberation of all oppressed peoples, especially those in the Third World. He had shown by example that the noblest, wealthiest and most influential among us are really not the pretenders to these attributes, but those who selflessly and completely invest all their mental, physical, moral and material resources in the people and their future. For, even in death he continues to be a shining star, a beacon of hope and a fountain of inspiration to all Nigerian and African patriots. May Allah in his infinite mercy, grant him eternal rest.