OBITUARY: Maitama Sule, the Kano-born, Lagos-bred ‘rascal’ who became senior prefect against his principal’s will


Cyril Stober, the revered NTA journalist, once asked Yusuf Maitama Sule what had happened to the Arewa envisaged by the likes of Ahmadu Bello, the late Sardauna of Sokoto. Sule’s response was as stimulating as it was thought-provoking; it was heartbreaking in that it painted a grim picture of the society, but it was also refreshing in that no listener could resist marvelling at his intellectual prowess.

‘We are no longer what we were,” he began.

“What is happening today is not in our character. The norms and values left by Sardauna and our founding fathers are no longer with us. Today… the institution of family has broken down. Respect for elders and constituted authority, which used to be a cardinal principle in our society, is now at its lowest ebb.

“Honesty, where it does not pay, has become meaningless. Symptoms of revolt loom large in the horizon. In short, there is meaninglessness in philosophy, insecurity in polity, chaos in politics, immorality in society, corruption in economy, frustration in art, and lack of creativity in literature.”

Clearly, there’s a reason why he is an acclaimed orator, but that is not all there is to him.


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Sule (middle) at an anti-apartheid Un press conference

Sule was Nigeria’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations during the Second Republic. Before then, from 1959 to 1966, he was Minister of Mines and Power, with the oil portfolio under his ministry. While at the UN, he chaired the committee that sought to end apartheid in South Africa.

In 1976, he became the Federal Commissioner of Public Complaints — a position that made him the nation’s pioneer ombudsman. In early 1979, he was presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) but lost to Shehu Shagari. After the re-election of President Shagari in 1983, he was named Minister for National Guidance, a portfolio designed to assist the president in tackling corruption.

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Sule once talked about how he was liked by everyone around him because of his humility and simple attitude to life.

“As I told you, I like making friends,” he told Daily Trust’s Temitayo Odunlami and Yushau Ibrahim in May 2016.

“In life, if you are humble, if you are simple, if you are friendly, if you respect people, if you love people, they, too, will love you, respect you and like you. One good turn deserves another. Nigerians all over like me and I have no reason not to like Nigeria and Nigerians. I must like them. I am not a Kano man alone; I am Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Itsekiri, Kanuri, Fulani, Ibibio, Tiv. I am all. I respect everybody.

“When I was a boy, either before I went to the elementary school or when I was in the elementary school, in my quarters in the city, I would take a broom and sweep the quarters. Nobody told me to do it; I would do it on my own. I would sweep the whole quarters. I would also go into the mosque and sweep everywhere there, inside and outside. Why won’t people like me?

“It was also my habit as a boy to kneel down when greeting elders, even servants in my father’s house. My father taught me to respect them, to kneel down and greet them, though they were servants in our house. People, not only senior people, but even my contemporaries, would send me on errands and I would go gladly. That was how I grew up. In school, I was the errand boy of my seniors. Some people took me for a rascal, but I was a pleasant rascal, a kind of comedian just to please people.”


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Sule was so playful in school that he was nearly expelled in his final year. By his own narration, the principal once noted in a report about him: “Too superficial and too much of an exhibitionist.”

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This, though, didn’t deter his colleagues from ensuring he was named senior prefect, much against the will of the principal. Narrating the events, Sule said: “On the last day of the term, the final-year class was exiting and we were set to take over from them and to know who the new prefects would be. We were at the assembly ground and the principal was announcing the names of the new prefects.

“Oh! Before I go on, I want to say our compound (boarding house) was a new one called Montgomery House and one of rascals. They selected rascals from other houses and brought them to make this new one called Montgomery House.

“So when, at the assembly, the principal was announcing names of the selected new prefects from each house and he got to Montgomery House, my mates in the House didn’t even allow him mention any name before they started shouting, ‘Senior Prefect, Montgomery House, Mallam Yusufu, Mallam Yusufu, Mallam Yusufu’. The principal became furious; he had no intention of making me a prefect let alone the Senior Prefect.

“The second time, the principal began saying, ‘Senior Prefect, Montgomery House… But the boys didn’t allow him any freedom; they were just shouting, ‘Mallam Yusufu, Mallam Yusufu, Mallam Yusufu. Hold on, don’t give up!’ The principal noticed he would get into trouble if he announced any other name than mine. So he simply announced, ‘Maitama Sule’. Immediately, the boys started singing and drumming, Namu ya samu, namu ya samu (meaning ‘this is our own’). The principal stood wondering, then began laughing. It was actually the boys who made me a Senior Prefect.”


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Maitama Sule wanted to be President. In 1978, he contested for the presidential ticket of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) against Adamu Ciroma, who placed third, and Shehu Shagari, who won the ticket and, eventually, the 1979 polls.

Despite his loss, Sule was widely viewed as the most popular of the three candidates; therefore, to whittle down his power, it was agreed that he would be sent on ‘exile’ — as a diplomat to the United Nations. He welcomed the idea.

“Some said taking such a role would amount to sending me on exile but I was later telling them that it was a pleasant exile, because, of all the political appointments I took, that appointment to the United Nations, to me, was the best,” he said several years after.

“I went to the United Nations to serve the international community, to serve the world and humanity; it was a place where what made us prominent was our struggle against apartheid. Nigeria, being in the fore front of the struggle, was made the Chairman of the committee against apartheid. So, I found myself in the special committee against apartheid as its Chairman, which gave me the opportunity to tour the world, to talk about apartheid, to preach and pray for the release of the late Nelson Mandela and end of apartheid.”


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Someone else in his shoes might have looked back at his life and picked the failed intra-party presidential bid as one the sadder moments. Not Sule. The ever-grateful soul that he is, he understands he can have no complaints. After all, he was barely 20 when he formed the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU); he was widely respected at home and abroad; and for years, he occupied strategic positions in government.

“I thank God for everything. I am the luckiest at my age,” he said in 2015 when he was 85.

“Nobody of my age is looking as healthy, as young as I am. I am 85 now. You think I am 57? I became member of parliament when I was 24, I became a minister at the age of 29. So, I thank my God.

“Even at that, one way or the other, my names keep coming up and I think maybe because I have finished paying my debt. I am still relevant by the grace of God. If I wanted to contest election, I still would, because politics is a thing of the mind. And even if it a thing of the body, God has given me good health.”


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Humility… Sule, an octogenarian, bows to VP Yemi Osinbajo, who was 59 at the time of the meeting in 2015

Due largely to his cosmopolitan upbringing in Kano and Lagos, where he grew up among the Yoruba, Igbo, Syrians and Lebanese, Sule was one of the truly nationalistic leaders around. He picked Nigeria over any ethnic group any time, and when he had to pick an ethnic group at all costs, he picked all of them!

“Nigerians all over like me and I have no reason not to like Nigeria and Nigerians; I must like them,” he once said. “I am not a Kano man alone; I am Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Itsekiri, Kanuri, Fulani, Ibibio, Tiv. I am all. I respect everybody.”


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Sule (middle) with Goodluck Jonathan, former President (left)

For all his years in public office, including seven that effectively made him Petroleum Minister, Dan Masani Kano didn’t die a rich man. His son once told Punch that he did not have a single personal bank account anywhere in this world.

“I stand to be corrected,” Ahmed, the son, said. “He does not own houses, apart from the house he has in Kano. You can ask anybody who is close to him.”



    Does he own companies, then? “He does not have any,” Ahmed replied.

    “The people who know my father very well will testify to that. That is why we are respected wherever we go. No matter the wealth someone accumulates through corrupt means, eventually, people would not have respect for that person. Dan Masani is not rich. How can he be rich when he does not have an oil well and does not have a single investment? But he is comfortable, courtesy of the good people he has around him.”

    Sule’s values are the type that are rare to find among present-day Nigerian politicians. Were that interviewer to sit down with a son of one of the country’s current leaders, the question wouldn’t be if the dad has an account. Instead, it would be how many are in Nigeria and how many are abroad. It would be about wondering how many are being investigated by the EFCC, and how many have been disguised away in Swiss or allied accounts.

    To compare Sule’s life with that of the average politician of the day is to admit that, “in short, there is meaninglessness in philosophy, insecurity in polity, chaos in politics, immorality in society, corruption in economy, frustration in art, and lack of creativity in literature”.

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