Awoniyi, The Last Sardauna
It was an early Saturday morning. We met him at Sheraton Hotel from where we drove to his home town, Mopa, to attend his 70th birthday anniversary. The entourage consisted of two former Heads of State, Generals Yakubu Gowon and Muhammadu Buhari, a friend – Adamu Adamu – and many others. That was the first time I saw Chief Sunday Awoniyi. It was a wonderful occasion. Few people are fortunate to be recognized by their people as was Chief Awoniyi that day. The Church ceremony which both Adamu and I attended for curiosity was well conducted. The speeches were well articulated. The hymns were well composed and their beautiful melodies lingered in my memory for days to come. We saw the contribution he made to his community. I could only wish we were all like him.
We returned to Kaduna the same day. I was to meet him again at the Government House in Bauchi when he was going round to meet with northern governors and explaining to them that the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) was not a threat to their ambitions for power. The guys were so power drunk and hysteric of any grouping. As usual, it’s now history. As I was introduced to him at the lodge he rose and shook my hands. “Oh, Tilde the writer,” he exclaimed. “Well done, well done.” I do not need to say that I was delighted as anyone in my position would be. My delight was not for the praise which I was accustomed to already but for the fact that someone at the top, at the very apex of northern political hierarchy was appreciative of our little effort to save the region both from itself and from Obasanjo’s machinations.
That was not the last time. During the battle for third term, in which he served as one of the grand commanders, he will often call, after reading any of my writings on the matter, shouting at the top of his voice, “Well done, well done. That was a beautiful piece. You – the younger generation – are doing a very good job. Keep it up.” I never gave him my phone number. He took the pain to collect it from my then Editor in Chief, Mr. Sam Ndah Isaiah (another “Awoniyi” in the making).
Lastly, during last Sallah, he sent me a text message which even then I believed was sent to many others whom he wanted to encourage. “Barka da Sallah,” he opened the message, then followed it with this forceful advice: “PLEASE DON’T give up on this potentially great but thoroughly misused country. It’s a luxury we cannot afford. Awoniyi.a`,”
I am not aware of another Nigerian who has shown this degree of commitment to the cause of this country. Here was someone at 75, one of the best whom the country could produce, calling on others purposely to encourage them, taking the pain of writing them text messages, without any motive other than salvaging his country. He was not eying for any office. He was not fighting anyone. His goal was simple: People should not give up. They must not. The potential of the country remains great despite the ongoing abuse. More importantly, the little effort made by individuals regardless of age cannot be dispensed with – in his opinion.
Such little things are what our leaders miss, again and again. Few would recognize the efforts of others, neither of their generation, nor ours. They are waiting for us to rush and register as their servants, a position they consider a favour to us. For the past eight years of my writing career, only three other people came close to Awoniyi in this regard: Alhaji Magaji Dambatta, Dr. Lema Jibrilu, and the present Emir of Dutse, His Royal Highness, Alhaji Nuhu Sanusi.
Of all the disciples of Sardauna, Awoniyi could be considered as the most outstanding. He has remained on the course of his mentor until the last moment. In the struggle for a united North within the context of a great Nigeria, Awoniyi never abandoned his post even when the Arewa army was divided by geography, religion and ethnicity. He did not kill the dream of Sardauna by listening to those who wanted him to assert his Yoruba and Christian identity first. To them he eloquently replied: “Who can be more Yoruba than Awoniyi, and who can be more Christian than Sunday?” They were, typically, accusing him of promoting the cause of Hausa-Fulani.
Unquestionably, he was the last Sardauna. The North must rise to salute this truly civilized Nigerian who has proved impervious to the divisive influence of both ethnicity and religion. It must immortalize him, from Sokoto to Otukpo, from Borno to Ilorin.
ACF could not have found a better leader at a time when the prophets of hate were busy tearing the region apart, breaking its heart, spilling its blood and destroying its property. Awoniyi was a rallying point who restored order in the house. Amidst the battle, he raised the flag of oneness and summoned us to his fort and, behold, the battlefield went quiet. Today, the noise about the Middlebelt is silent; the Shariah controversy is gone; and, through his resolve, the quarrel for the position of President through manipulating ACF has died a natural death. We were guided by his vision. Sardauna could not have done better.
Now that he is gone, the task of finding another all-embracing leader will be one of the greatest challenges before the ACF. The organization is not blind to this fact. Its Secretary, Col. Hamidu Ali (rtd) had this confession to make: “Certainly, it's a big gap that will be created by his absence. I hope we'll gather ourselves together, but certainly we cannot replace him, I must confess. We hope we'll get people who will work as hard. Honestly, we are in a state of shock.”As the late Haruna Uji would put it in Balaraba, if it can find a northerner, he may not be middlebeltan; if he is a middlebeltan, he may not Christian; if he is Christian, he may not be Yoruba; if he a Yoruba, he may not be the Aro of Mopa; if he is Aro of Mopa, he can never be Chief Sunday Awoniyi!
If ACF was not there to prepare a grande funeral for Sardauna of Sokoto, it now has the opportunity to prepare one for his disciple, the Sardauna of Arewa and Aro of Mopa. To the occasion, the organization must summon all its dignitaries, emirs, chiefs, governors, commoners, everyone –big and small. Let us all match to Mopa in a show of solidarity that was never exhibited to any leader before. This is the last tribute we can pay to a man who to the last moment was both Danladi, as named by the Sardauna, and Sunday as named by his parents. Let him be buried at a personal cemetery that will later be transformed into a centre that will depict his vision of a united North and a great progressive Nigeria. ACF must not wait for the Federal Government to do this, though it is a project that will gladly receive its contribution and blessing.
I owe no apology for the above northern rendering of his portrait. He was among the few that served as symbols of what the first leadership of the North represented. That leadership differed sharply from the ones we have today. It was an embodiment of transparency, hard work, honesty, purpose and service. This was the gospel preached by Awoniyi; they were the values he learnt from the Sardauna and the ideals which he stood for until his death. Through his dedication and speeches we caught a glimpse of the personality and vision of Ahmadu Bello. In 2006, he delivered a lecture on his mentor whom he described in the following words:
“He was a workaholic. He loved the country and the people. And his concentration on the North, to bring up the North quickly, was his way of working for the unity of the country, because he believed that the North must be got into a position of competitive parity with the rest of the country if there was going to be peace and unity He had no moment for himself. It was work, work, work.
“He respected human beings, no matter your origin and your religion. He trusted you as an individual not as somebody who belonged to a certain religion or to a certain place where their politics at that moment happened to differ from his own politics. I was the Secretary to the Executive Council of Northern Nigeria. I wouldn’t normally have qualified if it was on the basis of my religion, my tribe or my ethnicity. He did not care. He just demanded your quality. Your talent was what mattered to him.”
If the country had lived to the above ideals, it would have been great. However, its leaders were to work in a completely opposite direction. These were the ideals that Awoniyi intended to sell to the People’s Democratic Party after fifteen years of military dictatorship. To his disappointment, the person he helped to become the President under its auspices turned his back and romanced his ego. With the cooperation of other party members, Obasanjo transparently rigged out Awoniyi from becoming the Chairman of the party. Yet, he was to pay him a tribute after his death as a man whose place in “Nigerian politics and development as a civil servant, politician and patriot will be very difficult to fill.” Machiavelli was right. The dead poses no threat to us, nor does the past; so we can afford to speak truly about both without constraint.
I salute the sage that who was good for Nigeria, but not good enough for the PDP power regiment! What an irony! Read this tribute from the PDP federal government: “He was a man who demonstrated passion and great zeal in the political formation of modern day Nigeria. During the time he served as the Secretary to the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the late statesman was known to have worked for policies and programmes which enhanced the unity and progress of this country. The government, however, takes consolation in the fact that Chief Awoniyi did not die in vain as his works both as administrator and as a political leader would continue to serve as guide and directional map for continued unity and peace in this country.”
And now the party that failed to appoint him its chairman, in the words of its National Publicity Secretary: "Chief Sunday Awoniyi's death has created a vacuum that no one can replace. It is era that is gradually winding down. He was a politician of long standing who set examples for many politicians and he paid his dues in politics. The younger politicians are following his footsteps and it is unfortunate that he died when the party was preparing for its national convention. The party is losing its founding members and the party mourns his death." Vacuum ke! Long standing ke! Footsteps ke! Loss ke! Unfortunate ke! The PDP still has a long way to go. The journey ahead of it is as long as the difference between its first Board of Trustees Chairman – Awoniyi – and Obasanjo, the present BOT Chairman. That difference, I must be bold to mention, is like the distance between heaven and earth.
Finally, I completely agree with Atiku when he said, "I believe that there is no better tribute we can pay to this great son of Nigeria than for all patriots to rededicate themselves to the service of our country.” However, it is a call that few can answer because everybody is busy making that call at the top of his voice. If we had allowed one person to make it – and that person must have the locus standi to do so, someone like Awoniyi – while we remain attentive, we would have risen to the occasion. But as our eyes are blinded by self-aggrandizement and our ears deafened by the encompassing cloud hypocrisy, few people will hearken to it.
To the Last Sardauna I pay my tribute, to Awoniyi I give my salute, and to his family I convey my condolence. Death is inevitable, by sword or by otherwise, as al-Mutanabbi would say. “Take heart in his honour,” the poet once advised Banu Is’haq, “certainly, great (people) endure great things.” Till we meet at his burial.