Ismaila Mohammed Mabo – An Elegy

The day was  Monday March  13th ( yes 13th) 2023 and the call came at exactly 6.56am. I had gone back to sleep, as I am wont to do these days, after my early morning devotion, but the call woke me up from my reverie and as I grudgingly picked up my phone the name Mabo appeared.  Surprised, I answered the call and immediately realised that the voice was not Mabo’s.

The caller identified himself as Mabo’s son  and almost immediately broke the news of his father’s demise a few hours earlier and hung up. Now fully awake and trying to process what I had heard when another call came in from Kabiru (Mabo’s cousin in Kano) with a confirmation of the distasteful message I had earlier received from Jos. The interval between the two calls was exactly four minutes– Isma’ila Mohammed Mabo had succumbed to the ultimate leveller – death.

Born in Jos in 1944 into the Salihu Nakande clan Mabo was to grow up in the midst of numerous cousins in a family that was to become a footballers factory of sorts. Originally from Kano the patriarch of the family Alhaji Salihu Nakande was a well known Islamic scholar in Jos and his house was a kind of rendezvous for Islamic scholars and students from in and around Jos. 

Alhaji Nakande’s scholarly background meant that he understood the value of, and need for, education.  As a result he made it a policy to ensure that all his children and nephews like Mabo acquired Western education in addition to the Islamic tutelage they received at home. Saint Theresa’s Catholic Primary school Jos was Mabo’s first destination in his quest for Western education. 

It was also the destination of the footballing Atuegbu brothers and a certain Mathematical Segun Odegbami  who was later to dazzle football fans in Nigeria and Africa with his speed and skills on the right wing of Nigeria’s Super Eagles. Isma’ila Mabo later attended Academy Institute of Commerce Jos (another footballers factory) along with Tony Igwe, Peter Anieke and the Late Sam Garba Okoye. The four of them later played a masterful role when the Nigerian Academicals broke the jinx of their Ghanaian counterparts  by defeating them for the first time on their home turf.

The feat was repeated a week later in Lagos. This was in August 1966. By then Jos had carved an enviable niche for itself as the Mecca of football in Nigeria as Plateau X1, the team representing the Tin City, had reached the Final of the Nigerian Challenge Cup( then the nation’s biggest and only football competition) more than ten times without lifting the trophy. After one or two more failed attempts it appeared that someone had surmised that maybe the failures had to do with the name Plateau X1. Mighty Jets was therefore contemplated, conceived and eventually became a reality in 1970. Mabo was among the founding members of the team that holds the dual distinction of being the first Nigerian CLUBSIDE to embark on a foreign playing tour (USSR) and the winners of the inaugural edition of the Nigerian national league in 1972.

As co-founder and player Mabo became  an integral and influential member of the Mighty Jets set up and was therefore an automatic choice as captain. Soon after its founding the club was taken over by Alhaji Isyaku Ibrahim, a business mogul and sports philanthropist from Wamba in present day Nasarawa state. This development led to the formation by the then Benue-Plateau State sports council of Plateau Highlanders as the state’s representative team. I was among the players in the squad. However it was in Mighty Jets that Mabo acquired a larger than life persona as a footballer.

A central defender in the mould of Rio Ferdinand, the iconic player of England and Manchester United, Mabo was the fulcrum of the Mighty Jets defence  and was a delight to watch. Pace and ability to read the game are essential for every central defender. Mabo had them. He could carry the ball out of defence and start moves with incisive passes. His gangly and towering presence in opponent’s penalty box for corner kicks was always a source of trepidation for any team defending the set piece.

After a glittering career playing for Plateau X1, Mighty Jets ( his only club), the Northern Lions against Santos of Brazil complete with Pele and Nigeria’s senior national team Mabo veered into coaching. He tutored the Super Falcons (Female senior national team) to many glorious outings like the 1998 Women’s AFCON, 1999 Women’s World Cup, the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and the 2003 All Africa Games COJA. It is interesting to note that while playing for Mighty Jets Mabo was in the company of four of his cousins from the Nakande clan namely Uba Junior, Batande, Umaru and Tijjani who was my secondary school and university team mate. 

The death of Mabo has further depleted the very lean circle of surviving members of a veritable soccer generation in Nigeri eliciting many heart-rending condolences from different individuals and groups including President Muhammadu Buhari. NFF president Ibrahim Gusau in his message said “we have lost a great man and an accomplished trainer of trainers”. Governor Lalong of Plateau State eulogised the deceased by crediting him with the discovery and  mentoring of talents. Florence Omagbemi, a former Super Falcons captain  said Mabo would be “remembered for the evolution of female football in Nigeri”.

Contrary to some reports Mabo’s death was not preceded by any debilitating and protracted indisposition. He slipped sometime in August last year and dislocated his hip bone. Before then he worked out every morning and was fit and very alert. I infact had a telephone conversation with him about a week before he died. He has departed to join his contemporaries in Plateau X1 and Mighty Jets who had earlier gone the way of all mortals. These include  Chris Udemezue, Hudson Agunobi, Ali Lime, Nda Liman, Layiwola Olagbemiro, Sam Garba Okoye,Sule Kekere and Jinadu Sani. Adieu Skipper ( the name we all fondly called him) and rest blissfully in Aljanna Firdausi,  amin thumma Amin. 

Yakubu Ibn Mohammed OON sent this piece from Jos