Ambassador Yusuf Maitama Sule (1929–2017)


So Danmasanin Kano Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule is no more. So the quintessential bridge-builder and ultimate peacemaker is gone to the great beyond. So the great orator, the great diplomat, the great teacher and the great public servant has died. There is no better proof of the Kenyan adage that says “when an old man dies it is like a whole library has been burnt” than the demise of Danmasanin Kano Maitama Sule penultimate week.

He was born in 1929 on the day that eventually turned out to be Nigeria’s Independence Day: October 1. He was committed to mother earth on America’s Independence Day, July 4. One was his beloved country and the other was where he played on the world stage as Nigeria’s permanent representative to the UN, 1979-83.

The first time I personally saw Alhaji Maitama Sule was in 1983. I was then in secondary school and he came to town. He put up in the house of his friend who happened to be the father of my classmate and friend. As it happened, we went out from boarding house for weekend and we went to that house. His host told us that the Danmasanin Kano was in town, in the guest wing. We went to pay our respects and greet him. We found him getting ready to come out. He requested that we should give him a comb so that he could comb his hair. We told him that we left ours in school. He teased us that maybe we didn’t want him to take our girlfriends. We laughed, ran into the house and got him one. “God bless you,” he prayed for us as we bade him goodbye.

When I grew up, and in subsequent years, I came close to him. Whenever I could, I visited him in Kano and whenever he came to Abuja or any occasion he honoured and I happened to attend I met him. He was a living encyclopaedia. He was the real “Danmasani”, the knowledgeable one, as his title means.

He trained as a teacher and was teaching young and old, all his life. Danmasanin Kano Maitama loved children, and he raised so many during his lifetime. He was very humorous. There was never a dull moment with him. In many ways his death marked the end of an era. But even in that era, there was none like him.

He joined politics at a very tender age, less than 20 years. At about 29 years in 1959 he was not only elected member of the House of Representatives but was eventually sworn into the federal cabinet as minister of mines and power. In that position, he supervised the oil industry which was under his portfolio, Nigeria having just struck oil. In that position, he was a favourite of the prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Despite being in charge of the strategic petroleum sector, Alhaji Maitama Sule died without a bank account, whether here in Nigeria or anywhere else! And, until he died, he was the only Balewa minister who continued to take care of the Balewa family. Indeed integrity was his credential and loyalty was his badge.

In 1978 when the ban on politics was lifted by the military, he joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The NPN zoned the presidency to the north. Alhaji Maitama Sule along with five others – Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Mallam Adamu Ciroma, Chief J.S. Tarka, Dr Olusola Saraki, and Prof. Iya Abubakar – contested for the presidential primaries. Danmasanin Kano came second and, when they were about to go for a second round, he conceded to Shagari — he along with Ciroma who came third. They all united behind the party which came out victorious during the 1979 presidential election.

President Shagari appointed and posted Alhaji Maitama Sule as Nigeria’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations. In that capacity, he was also chairman of the special committee against Apartheid. He used his power of oratory, diplomacy and persuasive discussions to initiate the process of isolating the white minority regime in South Africa and the ultimate dismantling of the racist apartheid system.

When Shagari won a second term in 1983, he nominated Alhaji Maitama Sule as minister. At that time, ministerial screening was done by a select committee which did a thorough job, not the current “bow and go” style. I was glued to the TV to watch the screening of Danmasanin Kano. One of the senators asked him whether it was true that he was going to contest for the presidency in 1987 regardless of his party’s zoning principle. “Ambition is neither a sin nor crime. To have ambition is one thing and to realize it is another. Let us wait for 1987” was his answer. Vintage Danmasanin Kano!

President Shagari subsequently appointed him minister of national guidance, the first and only one to occupy such position in Nigeria’s history so far. He was to be in charge of the ethical revolution of the government in that position.

Alhaji Sule was a great patriot and a proud African. In the UN and throughout his adult life he was always wearing traditional dresses. He was very proud of our culture. In fact, he said: “Culture is the totality of the way of life of a people; the character and characteristics of a people; the customs and costumes of a people; the manner and mannerisms of a people; the force of civilization, mobilization and motivation of a people.”

Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule was a very peaceful person. He preached peace and peaceful co-existence. That was why he espoused the Mahatma Gandhi philosophy of Satyagraha — peaceful resistance to injustice. For over 30 years before his death on July 2, his main theme in every public speech he delivered was to admonish about the unity of Nigeria and the need for peace to prevail among all the various components of the country. He not only saw Nigeria as one, but indeed saw the whole Africa and indeed the black race as one.

He was never tired of telling everyone about the sterling qualities of Nigeria’s founding fathers. He spoke glowingly about Dr Azikiwe, Chief Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He said the ideal combination for any good cabinet was to combine the young and the old like it happened in the First Republic. He said it was to strike a balance between the radicalism, enthusiasm and energy of the young and the wisdom, experience and exposure of the old for the good of the society.

The late Danmasanin Kano was a teacher, a historian, a philosopher and literary genius combined. His oratory was unique to him — his eloquent delivery style was unequalled. He could be serious when it was necessary and he could be humorous when the occasion demanded. He was always advising, admonishing and blessing those of us the younger ones. He was accessible to the high and low and had access to every leader in Nigeria and beyond.

The last time we met was in Sheraton Hotel, Abuja, when he came visiting. He held my hand and said “Allah yayi make albarka!” It was the last time I saw him and the last words he spoke to me.

Adieu the great Danmasani. May the Almighty Allah forgive him his mistakes and grant him Aljannah Firdausi. Amin.


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