A month ago, I was with my first two children at the National Mosque, Abuja. They were defeated by its grandeur. They admired it and the girl asked: “Baba, who built it?” I did not hesitate to reply: “Shehu Yar’adua.”
I wish I were able to describe him to them. But I will never be for I have never met him personally nor sighted him even from a distance. I will be able only to discuss achievements, the few that I know anyway.
Thus Shehu is remembered by many like me through his accomplishments. He was not a man of publicity. That is not the end. Many people come to this world and pass away. But very few are remembered after their death. Fewer still are commemorated by their achievements. Of the last category, just a small fraction is remembered positively. Shehu was lucky to be among that enviable fraction.
Making the world a better place for the generality requires the finest blend of talent and opportunity. God has imbued many with talents, but the world is not so generous in offering them the opportunities. And to the few that had it, most preferred to misuse it. At their death, people will be jubilating in towns and villages, as the Arabs would say.
Once a while, a good genius will be blessed with the determination to use the opportunity differently. He sees his mission in terms of his ability to positively influence the lives of others by whatever means possible. After his mission is complete, he is called back, leaving us behind in tears and sorrow. It takes a long time to find his replacement.
I am obsessed with people of vision and achievement. All the underdevelopment the North is now lamenting about would have been overcome were there just ten people of Shehu’s foresight and commitment. Shehu was able to overcome the various shortcomings that prevent others from attaining excellence. Such shortcomings could be the laziness that weakens the strong, the shortsightedness that contracts the vision or the parochialism that narrows the scope and choice of perspectives. It could also be the selfishness that repels others, the envy that burns the heart and destroys it, or the hate that denies love and hinders interaction. It could be the intransigence that denies the ideologue the art of compromise, the egoism that secludes the idealist and pervades the perfectionist, or the indulgence that berates the degenerate in the eyes of the public. To make an overall achiever, these shortcomings must be transcended. And few people do so successfully.
From the little that I have gathered about Shehu and from the facts I can see on the ground, he did attempt to transcend the above shortcomings marvelously. For example, back in 1978, when a dangerous sect to embarked on a mission that will divide the Muslims in Nigeria, he was among the first to call their attention to the implications of their engagement. But to know an evil is one thing and to fight it is completely something else. He tirelessly worked for reconciliation in collaboration with the late Sultan Abubakar until when it was clear that the sect was not ready to listen. If it were, much of the problems of Muslims today might not have arisen. Mosques were divided and marriages were dissolved. For the first time in our history some people, fallible to the core, have arrogated to themselves the authority to define who is a Muslim and who is not. Shehu is today vindicated. It is a shame that the problem of religion in this country lies with some of its leaders that claims knowledge, not with the followers they adjudge as ignorant.
We have just realized that we have to stand up and conquer education ourselves. Over twenty years ago, Shehu had that vision and has established a center that attempts to serve as a model by integrating western and traditional education. If he were as parochial and selfish as Tilde, he would have chosen Katsina as its site. But he chose Zaria. You can mention Islam in Africa conference and its secretariat together with many other religious engagements.
The National Mosque is another project that comes ready to our mind. He knew the weakness of Nigerians. Wherever money is involved, principles are suddenly dissolved, faith is abandoned and aggrandizement takes over. Amidst the bulging eyes and the trembling fingers, the money will be squandered and shame will clothe the few that have the rectitude of feeling ashamed. Others do not care. So Shehu went forward, not caring whose ox was gored, to undertake the construction of the edifice almost single-handedly. He saved us the shame of inaptitude and brought us pride. We remain grateful and may God reward him abundantly as many times and years as the sand particles used in constructing the building, and more. Those who criticized him then for bulldozing his way had the opportunity to rebuild the JNI complex in Kaduna, that is comparatively tiny, since the Zangon Kataf crisis in 1992. Their success is yet to be seen. The same thing could have happened to the National mosque if it was not for the intervention of Shehu. It would have been Haza wa salam.
Let us move to politics, an area that preoccupied him particularly in the last decade of his life. I think he was the first to realize that the engine of the conservative political leaders of the North in the former NPN has knocked, the steering has locked and the vehicle was heading towards the river. He took a safe and timely jump. He was definitely tired of the pomposity and fat-headedness of most of its leaders. The future of politics, he imagined, should be built on a different premise of allegiance, membership and alliance that would unite the nation. I can recall listening to a radio program in 1983 that tried to blackmail him for dividing the political ranks of the North. He did not bother.
So when the ban on partisan politics was lifted during the Babangida era, it was clear that the nation had no better candidate for the presidency than Shehu. The power of the old conservative class has gone with the winds. From then, his influence on our politics will be the most decisive. He crossed ethnic and cultural encumbrances to extend the hand of partnership to the middle belt, the west and the east. The success he recorded was unprecedented and would be hard to repeat. You may cite Obasanjo. But know that his ticket to the presidency was printed and stamped by Shehu. A rashin uwa ake uwar daki.
It was unfortunate that the law had to be twisted on several occasions to deny him the presidency. First, Soyinka and others (whom I mentioned in The Return of the Dictator) then supported Babangida to block any ‘ex-general’ from contesting for the presidency. Hmm. People can be grossly inconsistent. Then the rule was later relaxed and under the SDP he contested and won the primaries. It was annulled. No one, even among the politicians, knew that the referee was interested in scoring the goal and taking the cup himself. But that was what June 12 helped to prove.
Abacha took over. Shehu believed that he must give a date for his departure. The constitutional conference was convened and Shehu had to be removed for the second referee to plan out how he will play the trick of his predecessor. But as we plan and God too plans. This time neither him nor Shehu could see the end of the game. May God forgive both of them. God has apportioned death between us. As our late father, Aliyu Namangi put it in his famous Infiraji, “if (death) could be deflected, Nemrod would not have died.”
There is not enough space to touch on his obvious economic achievements, the employment he provided for thousands in banking, transport, industry and farming. I believe that only a book can do such fairness. But I believe, after the Sardauna, few northerners, if any, can easily succeed in proving to be better than Shehu in terms of vision and commitment to the North and the nation in general.
His death in incarceration was definitely unfortunate. But we must appreciate that heroes are destined to be different both in life and at death. Their arrival, their stay and their departure are all meant to be subjects of debate and inquisition. Behind the façade of their modesty is a river of intrigues that flow without break.
It is natural to feel the loss of such a person. But as Muslims, we have to be satisfied with the fact that life belongs to God. Shehu would not have lived forever. While government owes his family and the public the responsibility to investigate the matter, the family in particular has to take heart and find consolation only in forgiveness. I believe they would like God to forgive him too, not for anything other than his possible shortcomings as a mortal.
Preserving achievement and propagating his ideals is what we owe Shehu, particularly in a North that is not used to honoring its heroes. I am glad that a center is being built in his memory. Its managers must use his fame, goodwill and wealth in crediting his hereafter account in line with his vision. We hope to see them provide scholarships to schoolchildren, clothing the naked and feeding the poor. They should also create avenues for national outreach in politics and exploring effective ways of improving the living conditions of our people. If such things were done for people like Zungur, Sardauna, Balewa, Aminu Kano and others in the North, younger generations like mine would not have lost touch with the vision of their true elders.
I must complete this article with a confession. In 1995, I missed the opportunity of meeting Shehu. That was in an office of one of his friends, if I am not mistaken. For whatever reason the late general was fascinated by the garden I planted for his friend and had earlier expressed his desire to have something similar in his Shehu Close residence in Kaduna. One day I was spraying a colony of bees in the office of the friend when the two of them stood by and called me for a couple of times. Unfortunately, the noise of the sprayer has deafened my ears then. The late general said: “Muje, muu sadu nan gaba.” So he left. Not long after he was whisked away and the meeting he intended with me was never to take place, at least not in the here and now.
While in detention, he has on several occasions inquired whether I have planted his garden. His insistence surprised both his wife Binta and myself. But despite our attempts to serve his desire, taking measurements of the area and producing the bills, the planting could not be done. Those days were difficult for not only the gardener but also for the architect and the friend. Tilde the gardener was surviving on a revenue from some few plants in his courtyard. He narrowly escaped ejection by his landlord if it were not for the timely intervention of Malam Adamu Bello, the then MD of Habib Bank, who provided a bank facility. I will never forget him. Mi yetti.
I recall that Binta called one day to buy some plants from us during those difficult days before my episode with her husband. A customer was always what we prayed for in my house when I had to sell the necklace of my little daughter in order to reach the next week. Binta picked, I think, two golden palms and a few other exotic indoor plants. I could imagine my family jubilating inside. Then she looked up to me and said: “To, sai bill din ko?” I did not hesitate to say, “Haba, are you not the elder sister of Dije, the wife of my friend and my matron in Kaduna? It is enough an honor that you have found my plants worth picking. Forget the bill.” She left after expressing her thanks that were almost embarrassing. I turned home recalling the famous couplet of Abul Firas in which he described himself saying:
“I see you disobeying tears, your quality is patience. Does not desire deter you or command you?”
Nor was the time better for Shehu’s friend or for the go-between architect. If Shehu had come out of detention alive, I know, the garden must have been in place, and done by me to his taste, or even better. But his death has left all the three of us with a feeling of guilt, if our constraints then could be construed as a failure. I missed the opportunity of interacting with him and learning from his ocean of ideas and experience. Who knows, he would have launched me into politics. There he would have discovered that there is more in me than the gardener he earlier admired.
I still do not rule out doing the garden, one-day. But it would then be in his absence, unfortunately. It does not matter anyway, because in the best of my imagination, in sha Allah, he is now in a better garden in Heaven. It is not a garden carpeted with the tuft of Bahama or carpet grass, of few Citrus or palm trees. It is a garden that possesses every fruit the human mind would desire or imagine. The trees would approach him and bend down low enough for Shehu to pluck their fruits with pleasure. Clean water and pure wine are gushing out of its fountains, and rivers flowing beneath its buildings.
I wish I would meet him there even in my dream, not alone, but with Zainab and Akkad. They might ask me the owner of this incredible garden just as they asked me who built the National Mosque with its imposing structure. My reply would not be different from the answer I gave them earlier: Shehu Yar’adua.