Tahir: The Death of a Radical Conservative

The word erudite has since become a worn out cliché, but with Dr. Ibrahim Tahir, Talban Bauchi and a former head of Sociology Department of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, who died in far away Cairo penultimate Tuesday, you could apply the word and still sound, well, fresh and original. For, Dr. Tahir was truly erudite.

If erudition only meant producing a body of scholarly works, Tahir would, of course, hardly have qualified as erudite; unlike the late Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman, the leftwing radical Historian and his ideological opposite in ABU in the seventies when the university was “a true cauldron of scholarship,” to use the words of Sanusi Abubakar, the Tuesday Columnist of Daily Trust, in his tribute to the Talba yesterday, Tahir, the radical conservative Sociologist, was more prolific in speech than in writing.

He was, however, as rigorous in stating his positions as Dr. Usman. And the mark of scholarship, or erudition, if you will, lies more in rigour than in the volume of one’s works.

From the word go Tahir was a prodigy. As Malam Turi Muhammadu, former managing director of New Nigerian and his classmate in the famous Barewa College, Zaria, told it, from his first year in school in 1954 until he left in 1958, Tahir always came first not only overall but in virtually all subjects. Such was his brilliance that he got a year’s promotion in his third year. He went on to beat everyone in the class he was promoted to.

It came as no surprise therefore that Tahir proceeded to Cambridge, UK, one of the world’s best universities, to take a first degree and then a PhD.

As any student of the Nigerian press knows, the New Nigerian was easily the most literate and, arguably. the most authoritative newspaper in Nigeria, at least in its first 10 years from 1966 when it first hit the newsstand. Envious editors of rival newspapers used to peddle rumours that those well written, often anonymous, articles in the newspaper and its famous trademark one inch column editorials on its front page were written in faraway UK and faxed to its editors. The truth was far less convoluted.

 Tahir, who had a very close relationship with Malams Adamu Ciroma and Mamman Daura, the first and second indigenous editor and managing director of the newspaper respectively, was one of the secrets behind the newspaper’s readability and authority.

All three were gifted writers but  Malams Adamu and Mamman were no match to Tahir when it came to speaking. Rare is the man who is as eloquent as, well, Barack Obama and writes as well as, say, George Orwell. Tahir combined the eloquence of Obama with Orwell’s mastery of the written word.

And it was not just in English. He wrote and spoke as superbly in his native Hausa and in Arabic as he did in English.

Pity then that his gift of the gab and of the written word did not get him very far in politics. Part of the problem was the man himself. As Adamu Adamu, the Friday Columnist of the Daily Trust, said in effect in his tribute to the man last Friday, these gifts were not matched by the man’s self-discipline. As a result not enough of his contemporaries took him seriously enough to support his bid for high office.

The other half of Tahir’s problem was the politics of envy within the top echelon of the Conservative North. Tahir was a conservative, no doubt. But he was a radical conservative who preached the marriage of the region’s core value of respect for constituted authority with progressive values of open society.

In this he shared the company of the group of highly educated Northerners, many of them retired top civil servants and military officers mostly resident in Kaduna, which used to be loosely referred to as the Kaduna Mafia.

In the run-up to the first election under Second Republic in 1983 they tried to break the regional mould of Nigeria’s politics by reaching out to Chief Obafemi Awolowo as a strategy for wrestling power from what one may call the conservative Conservative North led by President Shehu Shagari. The group had felt alienated from power by those around Shagari, like the powerful Alhaji Umaru Dikko, the minister of transport, who never liked the group’s radical brand of conservatism.

One of the most glaring manifestations of this split between the two groups was Dikko’s first action on taking charge of transport soon after Shagari was sworn in as president in October 1979. The preceding regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo had appointed a committee under Tahir to draw up a blueprint for transforming the country’s narrow gauge railway network in to standard gauge.

By common consent the committee did a good job and all that was left was for the Shagari administration to implement the blueprint. One of Dikko’s first action as transport minister was to disband Tahir’s committee and throw its report into the dustbin. Since then a standard gauge railway network for the country has remained a mirage.

Tahir may not have fulfilled the huge promise his intellect which was as huge as his size held for himself and for Nigeria but he did leave a legacy of eschewing material acquisitiveness which has since become the bane of our politics in government and business alike.

As Adamu pointed out in his tribute in question, the man died without a house to call his own. I am not so sure that this is necessarily a good thing. Some may even see it as irresponsible since he did not have to steal to build a house of his own. But then one man’s negligence is another’s compassion for the less privileged. And there is no doubt that Tahir was a compassionate politician.

May Allah grant him aljanna firdaus.



In last week’s piece I said I didn’t know of any president who had resigned from office on account of ill health and went all the way back to ancient Islamic history to dredge up an example – something which some Islamic scholars have written to protest about.

Many readers have since drawn my attention to the fact that there have been quite a few contemporary examples, the most recent being Cuba’s Fidel Castro whose case was indeed a cause celebre. Closer to home we’ve had Cameroon’s Ahmadou Ahidjo.

The error is regretted.