I think it was 1981; I’m not very sure now. But the occasion was African Liberation Day, May 25th. Professor Ibrahim Gambari, was still at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; already well-known, as a leading intellectual in Political Science and International Relations. He had been invited by students of the University of Ilorin, organized in the anti-apartheid/anti-imperialist body; and we had gathered to celebrate African Liberation Day..
The problem was that, no one knew that Professor Gambari was going to show up for the event. In those years, there were few telephone connections. The students posted a letter, invited him to be Guest Speaker, and there was a banner by the front of the hall, that he was being expected by 6pm. But the event commenced an hour earlier. There were alternate speakers who sunk teeth into the topic, and we thought the event was going very well. Except that at exactly six o’clock, Professor Gambari entered the hall! Shock did not explain what we all felt.
But what followed, was one of the most embarrassing scenes anyone could witness. One of the lecturers at the event, rudely accused Professor Gambari of late arrival; and he went further, that it was the typical attitude of “reactionary hegemonists”! And he added that the best way to treat “hegemonists”, was to walk out on them! He alone walked out, to the chagrin of everyone at the occasion. Please pardon me, that I won’t mention the name of this lecturer, who rose to become a Professor, and was a leading light of ASUU at the University of Ilorin, when another son of Ilorin, Professor S.O. Abdulraheem, became Vice Chancellor.
Professor Ibrahim Gambari was a study in composure, calmness, dignity and utmost decency, on that occasion. After the man had staged his one-man, walk-out, Gambari brought out the letter of invitation written to him; and it read that the event was for 6pm. He never knew anyone amongst the students, but had come all the way from Zaria, because he always believed that when the younger people called, it was always an opportunity, to assist their acquisition of knowledge. And on a final note, he wondered what he had done to the man that walked out (expressing rudeness; full of bitterness and betraying a very lowly background); because he was sure, that they had never met before.
After explaining the circumstance, Professor Gambari went on to give a most educative lecture, on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and Nigeria’s role in assisting the liberation movements. He didn’t surprise those of us who knew his intellect pedigree; and we were also sure, that the Zaria school of intellectual rigour, which made the ABU Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), together with that of the University of Dar Es Salam (of the 1970s/80s(, arguably the best in Africa at that time, had wrought so much on his intellect, as much as he had also assisted, in its evolution.
The eventual trajectory of his intellectual and diplomatic life is well-known to the world, and I won’t bore anyone with a recall of his strides on the world stage. But for me, that event at the University of Ilorin, on African Liberation Day, a few decades ago, gave me an inkling into the incredible calmness that only well-honed diplomats possessed. And it was indicative of the various strands of his persona, that provided the platform for the success that he has made of his life. I am not even sure that he remembers that event at the University of Ilorin. But for me, it has been etched into my subconscious; I have never discussed it with him, over these years, but everytime that I have seen him make a success of national and international assignments, my mind went back to that gathering, that fateful evening, at the University of Ilorin.
Professor Ibrahim Gambari belongs to a very unique generation in Ilorin’s history. That was the generation that straddles the older generation of the elders, most of whom have unfortunately passed. That generation was steeped in tradition; but they were also chosen by fate to be the harbingers of modernity, in terms of the academic achievements that they all made, and the professional successes they also recorded. It was also quite indicative, that it was a very brilliant generation, and they were very exemplary. They provided the shoulders upon which younger people could climb, to be able to see farther into the future.
We are very lucky, that quite a number of that generation remains very much with us. And Professor Ibrahim Gambari, is one of the most distinguished of that generation! What I admire most about him, is how his years in international diplomacy (some in the international diplomatic circles called him the ‘Dictator Whisperer’, as he went trouble-shooting, from Burma through Darfur), never diminished his love for our community, and his concern for the progress of our state and country. His passion at the community level is very real; and very strong! And if we had been discerning enough, we actually won’t have been surprised, that he was recalled to national service, by President Muhammadu Buhari. That called weighed strongly for the pedigree of birth; intellect and experience; a loyalty to nation and a personal wealth of integrity! Couldn’t have been otherwise!
On your 76th Birthday Professor Ibrahim Gambari, please accept my very best wishes for good health, happiness and more useful labour to community and country!