In the late 1980’s, I was appointed Special Adviser to Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, then Nigeria’s Minister of External Affairs. At the time, I was a Research Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). The Director-General of the Institute, Professor Gabriel Olusanya, advised me not to take the job. When I decided to take it, he gave me a bad security report. He claimed I was married to a foreigner and was too devoted to her. Therefore, I would be inclined to divulge national secrets to non-Nigerians.
Professor Olusanya conveniently forgot that he too was married to a foreigner. Moreover, the wife of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi himself was also a foreigner. By Professor Olusanya’s jaundiced logic, that would make the Foreign Minister the greatest security threat of all. In spite of the spurious nature of Professor Olusanya’s objections, the SSS failed to give me security clearance and my appointment was stalled.
This point is important. The appointment of a Yoruba man to a national office was impeded by another Yoruba man. Who broke the logjam: a Northerner! The matter was brought to the attention of President Babangida. In military fashion, the president gave the SSS 48 hours to give me a security clearance. That was the end of Professor Olusanya’s shenanigans on that occasion. President Babangida then asked Professor Akinyemi to bring me to see him at Dodan Barracks. In the presence of Professor Akinyemi and General Domkat Bali, he made me to understand that although I would be Akinyemi’s “adviser,” my loyalty must be to him.
Return to NIIA
Within two years of that appointment, Professor Akinyemi lost his job as Foreign Minister, and I made the impolitic mistake of returning to the NIIA. On my return, Professor Olusanya served me with a query to the effect that I had betrayed the NIIA while I was at External Affairs and insisted that my appointment at NIIA should be terminated. I managed to survive that inquisition, but that was hardly the end of my problems.
Without consulting me beforehand, Professor Akinyemi convinced President Babangida that I should be appointed the next Director-General of the NIIA. He then invited me to lunch with my best-friend, Crispin Ogunseye, to deliver the news that the president had agreed to offer me the post. The next line of action was for me to go to Dodan Barracks and fix an appointment to see Mr. President with his ADC, Colonel U.K. Bello. The news traveled fast. By the next day, a colleague of mine, Saleh, had brought the news back to the Institute from the Dodan Barracks praying grounds that I was going to be the new D.G.
However, after thinking about the matter over a few days, I decided I did not want to be the Director-General of the NIIA. There was emptiness in my life. From my stint with Professor Akinyemi when I had the privilege of traveling all over the world in a government jet, including several junkets with the president and vice-president (Chief of General Staff); I knew the emptiness in my life could only be solved spiritually. Therefore, I decided to reject the offer of political appointment.
However, in rejecting it, I made another blunder. I decided to remain at the NIIA as a nonentity. I call this a blunder because I was too naïve to realise that, politically, my continued stay in the Institute would be unacceptable to Professor Olusanya, the sitting Director-General. Thenceforth, he saw me as a threat. I was hounded at every opportunity. Every possible measure was taken to frustrate me. Therefore, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to appeal in writing to the same President Babangida, whose generous offer of appointment I had rejected, for protection from the Director-General of the NIIA.
This is where the matter took a rather interesting turn. President Babangida directed Chief Olu Falae, then Secretary to the Government, to second me to his office, so that I would be out of Professor Olusanya’s reach. However, Falae had no interest whatsoever in helping me. But, of course, he could not say no to the president. So he played a fast game. He called me to his office and informed me that, at the president’s instruction, he was appointing me as his “Special Assistant, Political Matters.” However, he pointed out that, in the meantime, he was short of office-space. He claimed he would soon be moving into a bigger office. As soon as he did this, I would then be able to take up my new appointment. Having said this, Falae dropped the matter.
When I realised this, I took the matter to Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji (alias Triple A), a prince of the Sokoto caliphate who was later turbaned as the Sardauna of Sokoto. I met Alhaji Alhaji under somewhat unusual circumstances at one of the OAU Summits in Addis Ababa. In spite of the fact that I had written a newspaper article against him when he lost a large sum of money in a taxi in London, he took immediate liking to me. Alhaji Alhaji had been Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Finance for the longest time. On top of that, he was then newly-appointed as Special Assistant to President Babangida.
When I told him my troubles, he laughed. Then he asked me a telling question: “Why is it that you Yorubas don’t help your own people?” When I asked what he meant, I discovered that he knew more about my predicament than I had presumed.
Alhaji Alhaji said to me: “You are a Yoruba man and yet, you are being harassed by another Yoruba man. The president referred your matter to the highest Yoruba man in the government, the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Patrick Koshoni, but he did nothing. Then he told another Yoruba man, the Secretary to the Government, Chief Olu Falae, to move you into his office. But instead, the man is playing games with you. Now you are constrained to come and see me. Dr. Aribisala, I am not a Yoruba man; I am from the North. Nevertheless, I will help you. Go and think of any job, any job you want, then come to see me and I will see to it that you get it.”
I went away confused because that was actually how I got into my logjam. I did not want any job. I just wanted to be left alone. So I went back to Alhaji Alhaji to tell him that I really could not think of any job I was interested in. But Alhaji Alhaji would not be denied. He said to me: “Dr. Aribisala, Chief Olu Falae refused to fulfil his promise to offer you the appointment of Special Assistant, Political Matters. I am hereby offering you the appointment of Special Assistant, Economic Matters.”
I could not take up Alhaji Alhaji’s offer of appointment. So he embarked on another strategy. He said to me: “I am going with Mr. President to the next OAU Summit in Addis Ababa. He is going to invite your boss, Professor Olusanya, to accompany him. Then he will tell him directly to leave you alone.” Professor Olusanya was subsequently invited to be part of the president’s delegation, and Alhaji Alhaji informed me afterwards that the president spoke to him about my case. Apparently, Professor Olusanya was very irritated about this. Nevertheless, that was the end of his harassment.
I have gone to great lengths to recall this incident because it is one of many examples of the kindness I have received personally on different occasions at the instance of “Northerners.” Forgive me for talking as if Northerners are one people; but those of us in the South have this tendency to lump them all together. In spite of being a “Southerner,” I have received so much kindness from Northerners, even when Southerners and even Yorubas have refused to help me. Therefore, I can say this without fear of being contradicted: Northern Nigerians; from the North-West, the North-Central and the North-East are simply fantastic human-beings.
The Northern stock
I have found Northerners in general to be the kindest Nigerians. They are certainly the most honest. They are far more giving and open-handed than Southerners. They are also unbelievably simple and humble. I recall the late General Joseph Garba, a Langtang man, sitting down to eat from the same plate with junior members of his staff in his New York office as Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations.
These points need to be underlined today, in the midst of all the Boko Haram atrocities in the North, especially since the terrorists often target Christians and non-Northerners. These marauders are the antithesis of everything noble; everything decent; and everything godly about Northerners. We also need to keep stating it emphatically. The Boko Haram are not Muslims: they are just using the Muslim faith as a crutch. Abubakar Shekau claimed his god told him to sell the Chibok girls into slavery. Whichever god told him this; it cannot be the Muslim God.
I have many Muslim buddies and they don’t go round killing or selling anybody. One of my grandmothers was Muslim. I was her favourite grandson and I don’t remember her hankering to kill anybody. There is not a single command in the Qur’an for Muslims to go out and kill Christians or Jews. As a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. We need to differentiate true Muslims from these Boko Haram marauders. We need to differentiate core Northerners from them.
Most important of all, Northerners need to rise up with one voice to decry all those who go round maiming and killing under whatever pretext. These people are a blemish on the Northern image and heritage. They should be ostracised politically and emotionally. They, and not people like my wife, are the real foreigners in Nigeria. These people are not even human-beings. True Northerners are the most upright, most accommodating and most humane of Nigerians. Without Northerners, Nigeria would be a very poor country indeed.
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