This is a very important week in my life. You’re reading these lines on Thursday; but in three days time, on Sunday September 5th, I will be fifty years old! I have asked myself whether I should really write about this. The main reason for my doubt, is that I really think it is a personal landmark; but then, there is no Chinese Wall dividing the personal from the social, and in fact, we are who we are, because our social experience has burnt an imprimatur on us and like clay in the hands of a pot maker, moulded us within variables that we did not choose. I agree with Marx that humans make their history but not in conditions of their choosing. In a country where life expectancy for the male Nigerian stands at 47 years, I can then claim to be very lucky, to have also avoided the trap which the social experience of underdevelopment has set for all of us in our beautiful, if tragically, badly-governed country.
I was born in the last month of colonialism in our country and my coming into some form of consciousness was within the early years of Nigerian independence. If I have remained a very passionate Northern Nigerian, it is because it was the reality which gave me my earliest sense of being; in fact, my birth certificate reads that I was born to parents from Ilorin, in the Ilorin Province of the Northern Region of the Federation of Nigeria! And as I have written somewhere else, my earliest consciousness of a national event, was the killing of the Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello, in January, 1966. I still recollect the sadness which overtook our compound as the elderly members of my family huddled together to share the news of the killing of a man who resided in far away Kaduna, but who somehow was our shield in Ilorin. Whoever he was, he must have been really important to disrupt the rhythm of life as a near-six year old knew it!
I went to school very early from the age of four, but definitively started school at six. It was not a pleasant experience at first, because our teacher had a huge beard and was an Ojukwu look-alike (in the context of the crisis of the 1960s!) and was some kind of bully. He scared me so much that I was only promoted “on trial” at the end of the school year. My mother used to cry a lot, wondering if she had given birth to a dull kid; and her effort to help me get better grades, led her to arranging extra lessons with the same teacher that was the source of my intellectual and emotional paralysis: double jeopardy. I was only marginally better in primary two, because we were taught by a lady who enjoyed flogging kids on their bare legs and she was thin and rather ugly looking! But in primary three, I met the man, who became, arguably, the best teacher I ever had: Mister Gomez (God Bless him!). He made teaching fun and consequently liberated my initiative! I then faced a new “problem”, because I got a hundred over a hundred in most subjects and so delighted was Mister Gomez, that he would take me around like a “specimen” from class to class, showing me off proudly to encourage others, but I was terribly uncomfortable about it, and secretly longed not to be such a good student anymore!
The Nigeria of my childhood had public schools where we were given a glass of milk in the morning and we went home with wheat meals that parents were encouraged to cook for kids. We had lessons taught using the radio and the teachers were dedicated and would be extra careful when inspectors visited. Up to the age of twenty-one, I had travelled more by rail than by road, and I remember the experience of being put in a train at eight alone, to travel to Kaduna, and I was in the care of a total stranger till I got to my destination. It is the same country, but the conditions changed. I also recall that there was a high mortality rate when I was growing up and used to dread the return from school, because there was the co-incidence that somehow, somebody was almost always dead as we got back home! There was poverty and my father used to stay within Islam to teach lessons about philanthropy which he lived all through his lifetime.
I appreciated the lessons that I learnt from my upbringing, and I have never stopped to wonder how I learnt so early in life, about our ancestry and the proud history of scholarship that our Fulbe forefathers were known for. That was a tremendous source of inspiration for me, and the stories I heard from very early largely allowed me to situate myself in a continuum of social experience located within the history of the old Western Sudan. Books became a part of my life from very early, and the discovery of the Marxist classics opened up a completely new horizon for me. The more I studied, the stronger was the urge to know about everything! I spent a very significant part of my coming into adulthood working within the Nigerian socialist movement and that has remained a vital part of who I am today. Very early in teenage, I went to work in broadcasting and journalism and that is the professional life that I have known for the last thirty-three years.
Nigeria has given me a lot as a citizen and a professional; my commitment to its liberation from underdevelopment and its thieving ruling class became the driving force of my life from about the age of sixteen. This commitment has not waivered even in the context of the changes that we are undergoing in a world of rampaging neo-liberalism and globalized capitalism and the deepening hegemony of the most powerful imperialist system in world history. Today, identity has become all-pervading (religious and ethnic, especially) and some of its manifestations can be very confusing, but I am basically an incurable optimist; I still believe that our country has tremendous capacity for change and the crimes the ruling class continues to commit against Nigeria cannot continue forever. In fifty years, I have learnt a lot and also taken so much from Nigeria; it is the reason that I believe, as patriots, we must continue to work for the liberation of our country. This is my vow in the years ahead. Allah has been kind to allow me to live to be fifty; Alhamdulillah.