Bala Usman: Remembering a great mind, 14 years after


It is 14 years since the legendary historian, astute academic, critic and social justice crusader, Dr. Bala Yusuf Usman departed this sinful word. Precisely on September 24, 2005. I never met him; but heard glowing stories about him. I have also being privileged to read his books, articles and lectures, which have left an indelible impact on my psyche. My late father, who was also an alumnus of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, where Usman carved a niche for himself gave me the necessary introduction to the person of this great soul. Usman’s writings in the defunct Analyst Magazine with the likes of Dr. Patrick Wilmot, Dr. Iyorchia Ayu and Ahmed Rufai shaped my teenage years and endeared me to the journalism profession.

His austere and simple life style, radical disposition and penchant for speaking true to power will continue to be a reference point for leaders who genuinely intend to improve the lot of humankind. Bala Usman did not live for himself but for others. Though, he was of a royal descent, he humbled himself and fought relentlessly for the oppressed and downtrodden; he defended the talakawas. He transformed the pen into a revolutionary weapon against repressive governments.

One of his most potent works, “The manipulation of religion in Nigeria 1977- 1987″, is a must read for every patriotic Nigerian. In fact, it is as if, it was written today because what he espoused in it is what we are witnessing today in the nation. Incidentally, the prologue to the book is written by the irrepressible, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, who Usman served under his government as Secretary to the State Government in the Second Republic. Balarabe Musa, is still one of the few men of integrity still active in the nations political space. I strongly recommend this book to our contemporary leaders. And of course, I would like to recommend ” For the Liberation of Nigeria “, another incisive book from Bala Usman.

In the academic circles, he was a thorn in the flesh of lazy and corrupt lecturers who detest research but instead feasted on hapless students. He was the face of socialist ideology in ABU, Zaria. In politics, he was a shinning light that rejected the attractiveness of cheap lucre. He was firm, upright and outspoken.

Former late President, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had once described Bala Usman in the following words: “In his life time he fought injustice, whether it is the injustice of one nation imposing itself and exploiting a weaker nation, whether it is the injustice of one class imposing itself on another class and exploiting it, whether it is an individual, who circumstances make to perceive himself to be strong enough to perpetrate injustice against an individual who is perceived as a weaker individual at every level and in every day of his arduous life, whether at home, in his place of work, in theatres of national discourse, he has always used his ideas and the convictions he believed in to fight injustice. There will always be men like him in every generation and these are the men who ultimately shape the world, shape society”.

In his classic book, “The misrepresentation of Nigeria: The facts and the figures” Usman touched on accountability in a democracy. In his submission,the history legend maintained that people should not vote for candidates because they are of their ethnic origin. But they should vote for the best -qualified candidates and demand accountability from them.

He equally observed in that piece that there is no difference between the Northern and Southern parts of Nigeria in terms of its peoples, climate, geography and geology.

Some historians and analysts have attempted to dispute these two assertions from Usman. But an in depth look at these postulations would vindicate the great historian. It is axiomatic that since the return of democracy to the country 20 years ago, except in exceptional cases, the Nigerian electorates almost always sacrifice quality at the altar of either zoning, ‘son of the soil’ consideration and outright mediocrity. Qualified, competent and tested candidates who could advance the cause of our society are often rejected for less qualified people simply because they belong to a certain group or ethnicity.

There is no doubt that Nigeria has more than enough competent and dynamic individuals with the wherewithal to transform our nation and societies, but the peculiar democratic practices would not allow them to test power. Perhaps, Nigerian would have been a better place of we had adopted the Bala Usman’s approach of going for the best and eschewing mediocrity.

On the argument that there is no difference between the north and south, the old national anthem has clearly demonstrated this where it states that “our own their mother land, though tribe and tongue may differ in brotherhood we stand”. If we reflect on this stanza of that anthem and strive to practise and live it, most of the internecine crisis and unhealthy divisions being preached by those who believe that Nigeria cannot survive as it is presently constituted would have been a thing of the past.

Nigeria needs more Bala Usman’s more than ever before. He may have died 14 years ago, but the legacy he left behind must not be allowed to waste away. Our governments must preserve the writings of this great man for generations yet unborn to benefit from it. The teaching of history must not be excised fr our educational curriculum. Usman was a historians historian and an unsung professor of history. In fact, it will not be too much to request that the Kaduna state government consider renaming the state university after him. I am happy the current governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, is also an intellectual and a leader that knows his onions.

I know that if Bala Usman were to be alive today, he would have preferred some far reaching solutions through his writings to some of the intractable problems the nation is facing today. We will continue to remember him for his good deeds and I believe posterity will be kind to him. May God rest his soul in peace, for he came, played his part and left his footprints in the sands of history.

Nyam, a journalist, writes from Abuja


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