Adieu, The Lion

On December 27, 2023, former Speaker, House of Representatives (2000−2003), Rt. Honourable Ghali Umar Na’Abba, died at the National Hospital, Abuja around 3.00 a.m. I had been associated with him since our childhood, beginning from 1968, when I was admitted into Goron Dutse Primary School, at the age of 12, and he was at Mayanka Senior Primary School section within the same premises. He was 10 years old. We maintained a cordial relationship until his death.

In 1990, when I was getting married, Ghali made financial contribution to support me. Interestingly, we differed in the choice of political parties during the Second Republic (1978−1983). Ghali’s father, Alhaji Umar Na’Abba, and some of his brothers were strong supporters of the NEPU in the First Republic (1960−1966). However, Ghali was influenced by his maternal uncle, Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa, to join the NPN instead of the PRP and, much later, the NRC instead of the SDP during General IBB’s transition programme. PRP and SDP were the preferred political platforms in Kano.

It was, somewhat, surprising that in 1999 Ghali did not follow his uncle, Bashir, to the APP, which later became the ANPP, but contested for the House of Representatives, from Kano Municipal constituency, on the platform of the PDP. In fact, up to the time of his emergence as Speaker, Ghali’s mother, Hajiya Rabi, was an active and proud member of the APP in solidarity with her brother.

When campaign for the position of speaker started among members-elect, in 1999, Ghali was leading Ibrahim Salisu Buhari’s team while I was in charge of Farouk Lawan’s team. He had requested that I should join hands with them and campaign for Buhari, who, he rightly predicted, had brighter chances of winning the contest.

In response, I informed him that if he were the one contesting, I might make an effort to reconcile the two teams, because I had relationship with him and with Farouk Lawan. Buhari was, at that time, not well known to me. Regardless of my rejection of his request, he promised that if his candidate won, he would make sure I was appointed special adviser (political) to the speaker. He further indicated that they were after success not politics.

When he emerged as speaker, I went to Abuja to congratulate him and also offer some pieces of advice on certain things I considered fundamental for his success as a leader in a political context, but also as an individual, and a friend. When I visited his residence, there was heavy traffic and he was about to go out at the time. He asked of where I was staying and later came to see me that night. We had a fruitful discussion.

I reminded him that he was a businessman before he went into politics. As such, he should neither regard politics as an occupation nor close his business, completely. Of course, it would be unethical for him to handle both, simultaneously, but he could delegate his business activities to an individual, a team, or a relevant institution that he considered safe enough to hold the trust without any violation.

He listened to me attentively, and later asked whether I could remember his promise to get me appointed as their adviser on political affairs. Having responded positively, he informed me to await his invitation, now that he had the authority to appoint, directly.

About a month after my visit, three of our mutual friends, namely, Dauda Raula, Ubaliye Lancaster, and Baba Adoke, came to my house in Kano to tell me that Speaker Na’Abba wanted to see me, urgently. They hinted that he wanted to appoint me as an adviser. They were very enthusiastic and wanted me to follow them to Abuja the following day. I explained why I could not go to Abuja, immediately, and requested them to tell the Honourable Speaker that I would meet him after a week. I went at the time I promised.

The work of a political adviser was neither easy nor understood by most people, but especially the partisan elements masquerading as grassroots politicians. This will be explained in detail in my memoirs. The Ghali-Obasanjo uneasy relationship was more complex than most people perceived its ingredients, when it lasted. The two personalities represented distinct objective categories of a single reality: Project Nigeria.

By 1979, OBJ was a retired General of the Nigerian Army, a Civil War Hero, and a former Head of State. He was an exemplary African leader who relinquished power to fulfil a promise made by his predecessor. He was celebrated across the world. Thus, earning him a position in the prestigious Eminent Persons Group of the Commonwealth. OBJ was indeed considered by many as a symbol of military success in politics and governance in Africa.

Unlike OBJ, Na’Abba graduated in Political Science from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, in 1979. He was a product of the radical ideological tradition established by world-class scholars such as Patrick Wilmot, Yusufu Bala Usman, and Ibrahim Tahir in ABU. Na’Abba was, by his training and orientation, a direct opposite of OBJ on the definition and substance of a successful political system and what constituted the concept of ‘legitimacy’ in governance.

The fundamental differences in perspectives between Na’Abba and OBJ on what should be the content of politics, including the notion of directive principles of state policy were what, largely, accounted for their endless conflict when fate brought them to work together, in complementary positions, for the progress of Nigeria. None of them might have been deliberately mischievous to sabotage the other. Each was convinced in the superiority of his position in the conflict. OBJ saw loyalty as complete submission to superior authority and Na’Abba questioned the propriety of such a militaristic interpretation.  

The Na’Abba-OBJ conflict had been disastrous for both Kano and northern Nigeria in the sense that both the Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, and the Governor of Kano State, Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso, were not, in any way, collaborating with the Speaker to ensure a better deal for these two jurisdictions in the administration. This made me to seek permission from the Speaker to meet and discuss the issue of possible areas for understanding with both Atiku and Kwankwaso.

He permitted me and two of my friends working with the other leaders facilitated the meeting. I was granted permission to see the Vice President through his Special Assistant on Local Government Affairs, Dr. Umar Ardo, and the Special Adviser (Political) to Kwankwaso, Dr. Hafiz Abubakar, secured an appointment for me to meet with the governor of Kano state. After my meeting with the two leaders and my subsequent discussions with Na’Abba, it appeared to me that communication gap and mutual ego considerations were at the centre of their misunderstanding. This was not to discount the fact that both Atiku and Kwankwaso were playing it safe with President Obasabjo, their leader.  

Although many people, both supporters and detractors, did not understand Na’Abba’s motivation in his conflict with the Executive at that time, the reality was, the Speaker, single-handedly, was the only real check on the Executive. He became the only potent opposition that made dictatorial tendencies to collapse and evaporate. At a point, all members of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the PDP, with a few exceptions, were coming to support and thank him for speaking truth to power. He was named “Lion” by his colleagues in recognition of this fact.

A few months to the end of his tenure as Speaker, a group of northern elders sent a message, they wanted him to contest for the presidency of Nigeria in 2003. He summoned his Special Adviser (Special Duties), Mr. Sebastian Agbinda, and my humble self for a meeting at which he informed us of the development and sought for our opinion. He gave us two days to reflect on the matter and report our findings to him. He seemed truly excited about the offer.

Our understanding was that, the offer was a hoax and a booby-trap. The so-called elders, in our opinion, wanted to simply mess up our Principal and clear the way for their friend, OBJ, to have his way in what he wanted to do with Nigeria. However, we did not know how to convince Na’Abba to reject the offer.

In the end, we informed him that the risk was worth taking especially coming from our ‘elders.’ However, we calculated what was needed for logistics before the project could succeed. We advised him to request the leaders to raise half of the amount for him to put the process in motion. He should also confirm to them that if they raised the amount, he would resign from his position as Speaker and join another party to contest for the presidency. This was how we killed the plot to embarrass Na’Abba!

Na’Abba’s failure to return to the House of Representatives in 2003 was as a result of high-level conspiracy involving internal and external forces, representing domestic, local and national interests. The actual roles played by individuals and groups to sabotage Ghali during the general elections are better left unmentioned. Otherwise, there could be an in-fighting galore even within the extended family of the Na’Abba clan. I am saying this on good authority as his Special Adviser on Political Matters. I am aware of what actually happened, which many others didn’t know.

Na’Abba’s last two decades had been characterized by unfulfilled dreams and health-related challenges. He was among those who left the PDP with Atiku Abubakar and joined the AC in 2007. He attempted to contest for the gubernatorial seat in Kano, but was not supported by other leaders in the party. He later returned to the PDP. In 2011, his house was among those destroyed by Buhari-inspired arsonists in some major cities in northern Nigeria, when their candidate lost the presidential election.

Surprisingly, Na’Abba joined Buhari’s APC in 2014 and when the party won the election in 2015, he was among the multitude that were thrown away by the unrepentant dictator, Muhammadu Buhari. He returned to the PDP before the 2023 general election but could not work harmoniously with the party and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar.

Since he left office in 2003, Na’Abba had been struggling to survive with multiple shortages. He literally had no house of his own since his Villa in Kano was demolished by Buhari’s thugs. He survived on the goodwill of some of his friends, former colleagues, and his successors in the National Assembly. He was threatened with Court Order and eviction in two of the houses he rented in Abuja, due to continuous deficit in the payment of rent.  

He lived to witness the total capitulation of the parliament and its disgraceful submission to an irresponsible, inept, corrupt and treacherous Buhari-led gang of thieves, robbers, and treasury looters. To make matters worse, the presidency of the National Assembly was in the hands of someone, who was in the vibrant House of Representatives presided by Ghali Umar Na’Abba. He always lamented the calamity that had befallen the Nigerian parliament whenever I visited him in his last days.

Religion was, surely, the only area in which Na’Abba got some solace before his death. He became devotedly committed to the activities of the Tijjaniyya Brotherhood. He sometimes organized the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet (Maulidi) and, at one time, invited people believed to be descendants of the Prophet (Sharifai) to have a feast. He developed great admiration and respect for the intellectual prowess of the Shi’a School of Thought

He associated with and obliged to the requests of many clerics: the genuine, the undefined, and the charlatans. May Allah forgive his sins and grant him paradise. Amin.       

Anwar writes from Abuja