By Matthew Hassan Kukah
When I read the news of the death of Junaidu Mohammed, I tried to see whom I could call to confirm. First, I did something that seems foolish but gives me some emotional consolation at times like these. (For example, I still have the telephone numbers of some friends who have been dead for a few years on my phone. I occassionally look at them and get some emotional connection, as if clutching on to something precious).
I immediately dialed Junaidu’s number four times. First time, it rang busy and my face lit up. I called again three times and no one answered. Following the logic of my emotional foolishness, that gave me some consolation, as if to say, the phone should have died with him. I hesitated, expecting that he would, as usual, return my call immediately.
When it comes to times like these, you switch into self- denial mode, seeking to clutch to anything to say it is not true.
Immediately, I thought I should call either Mahmud Jega or Mohammed Haruna. I called Mahmud first but he did not pick his call. I decided to wait and try again because I believed he would be a reliable source since his elephant brain stores everything. Then, less than an hour later, he returned my call with the sad news that yes, it was true.
I do not exactly recall when, where or how I first met Junaidu but it was in the 90s. I do know that he was a man after my heart even before we met. I liked his radical streak. I took full notice of him during the politics of the second republic when he won elections as House of Representatives member under the Peoples’ Redemption Party, PRP from Kano. His brilliance shun in the depth of his penetrating analysis of Nigeria’s politics. He exposed the vacuity of the clientelism of the times. When we finally met, we literally hit it off because he too said he had been looking for a chance to meet me.
I loved Aminu Kano. So, when he fell out with the late Aminu Kano, his political father, I felt very sad because, perhaps in my naivete, I had hoped he would become the Governor of Kano after Abubakar Rimi. Junaidu was a class act and you did not have to agree with him because naturally, he sailed against the wind of popular opinion. You could quarrel with his ideological leanings, but not the facts. Often, what he laid out was uncomfortable, but incontrovertible.
He was very much at home because Kano, as everyone will concede was the Mecca of the radical tradition of the Left (apologies to Jalingo of blessed memory). Kano had an allure in those days: Triumph newspaper became the touchstone of radical intellectuals. Kano rallied young idealists from across the country and sought the pathway towards an egalitarian society. Enter the legendary Haroun Adamu who held the portal as a genteel radical (I gave him a new sobriquet, radical Imam, after a dinner in New York in 2001 whose details I am under oath not to divulge!)
Junaidu offered me an open invitation to his home in Kano, but it took a long time for me to honour it. In November 1990, on a plane back home after my studies in the UK, I met the late Dan Kabo on the Nigerian Airways flight to Kano. It was our first meeting and I was shocked by his warmth. I was sleeping somewhere near the toilets in the Economy section when he woke me up and insisted I follow him to First Class. Half asleep, I protested, but he insisted on opening the overhead locker. He took out my bag and I sheepishly followed him to First Class. He took me to the cockpit and introduced me to the legendary Captain Thahal.
We developed a friendship that lasted till his death. He was a man with an incredibly large heart as I attested to when I wrote my tribute to him at his death in April 2002. He considered it a crime for me to visit Kano without seeing him, no matter how late. One day, he gave me a letter in his office and insisted I should open it. I did and it was a letter addressed to Kabo airlines, offering me a free flight to any destination in Nigeria! I thanked him but sealed up the letter and never opened it.
One day, in the course of our conversation in his office a few years later, I asked him if he knew Junaidu’s house as I wanted to visit him? He gave me a look, rolled out a loud laugh and asked, Fada Kukah, ashe kai dan NEPU ne? I nodded and then he said, I believe you because you are as troublesome as Junaidu. His house is not far from my house. I will not take you to his house, but I will give you a driver to take you to his house if you like. I opted for him to give me the address instead.
On a visit to Kano, I decided to trace Junaidu’s house. He was home that morning and still in his jellabiya and was so excited and surprised to see me. There were no mobile phones then. Long after the breakfast was over, we were still deep in talk about Nigeria and its politics till around noon. He scoffed at the fact that Dan Kabo was my friend and I told him that Dan Kabo had also not been amused when I said he was my friend. I told him I was in the business of trying to save souls so it was my duty to befriend both those who claimed to be angels so we could save the devils. We laughed and he often came back to say that my words had stuck with him for a long time.
Subsequently, I would make it a point of duty to stop in his house each time I went to Kano, no matter how short the visit was. A few blocks from his house, there lived another good friend of mine, the paper mogul, Vincent Okena. Most time, Junaidu was not home but I made it a point to leave a card or a written message.
It is difficult for Nigerians to forget Junaidu’s 1985 New Nigerian Essay titled, 50 Days of President Babangida. It was a bristling riposte at President Babangida’s moral credentials as a leader at a time when Nigerians were literally bewitched by the dashing gap toothed General. In summary, Junaidu warned Nigerians to be aware of the General and that although he praised the General for his human qualities, he warned Nigerians to be on alert.
In his views which he still shared with me, he was convinced that if you wanted a really good, loyal and reliable friend, you could not get better one than Babangida. But, he warned, as a President, Babangida would be a disaster. In response, he was bundled off and put in prison for I think some three months in Owo. He never stopped saying that this was during Ramadan! The Maradona sobriquet was not even in conception state yet.
In 1993, something dramatic happened. Babangida set up OMPADEC and wait for it, of all people, I saw that Junaidu had been appointed a member. I was shocked and wondered how and what had happened to necessitate the turn around on both sides. However, we did not meet for a long time. One day I think it was in 1998, I ran into him in London outside Marks and Spencer shop on Oxford Street. We hugged and he insisted we have lunch. I welcomed the idea and we walked back and found a restaurant somewhere on Tottenham Court Road. Midway through our lunch, despite the time that had passed, I told him I was curious to know how he and Babangida had made up and why he had taken a job under the same man he had vilified. Had he fallen on hard times then and was this an act of rehabilitation? He laughed and went on to tell me what he said was the full story.
One day in 1993, he said, he and the General had met in the mosque while he was still Head of State. He said when he and Babangida made eye contact, the General pointed at him with open hands, the type that says, Your Mama! After the prayers, he said, he went and greeted the General who then told him that he was setting up OMPADEC and wanted him on the Board because he had been told of his past records of interests in the Niger Delta. How did he know your interests in the Niger Delta?, I asked him. He told me that during his days in the National Assembly in the second republic, he had moved a motion requesting that the Federal government should consider giving the people of the Niger Delta, 1% of the income from oil as a means of assuaging their pains. From then, he said, he was nicknamed Senator 1%! Babangida had heard of this and thought he should serve on the Board.
Junaidu must be a man of many parts and I have no doubt that so many people admire him and perhaps an equal number or more despised him. Even though he and I differed about the fate of my friend, the former Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, I let him understand that I was an outsider and respected his insider knowledge of the dynamics of power politics in Kano. I wondered why they did not get along given that they seemed to be in tandem ideologically.
Junaidu had a sharp tongue that drew from a complex mind that was very well informed about the world but even more so about Nigeria. He loved his country and he brought a certain amount of freshness to every issue. He had the courage to sail effortlessly beyond the narrow boundaries of northern politics where a culture of; see something but say nothing, has held sway but also kept the region on the boil. He was hewn out of the centrist wings of the radical politics of Aminu Kano and his exposure to Soviet politics. He remained committed to the creation of an egalitarian society and believed that politics could and should be a force for good.
Our last face to face meeting was here in Sokoto some few years back as the north was pulling together the threads to reassert itself at the centre of national politics in 2014. He assured me that next time he came to Sokoto he would visit my house. Each time we spoke, he often reminded me that he had not forgotten his promise to visit me.
Junaidu was a great patriot, a scintillating debater with a prescient mind. He put aside a career in Medicine and opted for politics and life as a public intellectual. He gave a good account of himself. For a society that thrives in ambiguity and dubiety, one can understand why the nation did not call him to national public office. He shot straight and often skirted on very thin ice. He was unwavering on his commitment that a new order could be created. He was a true son of Kano where, Ko da me ka zo, mun fi ka. He will sit snugly in the pantheon of the great Kano intellectuals who have contributed to shaping the quality of northern politics in particular and Nigeria in general: Aminu Kano, Tanko Yakassai, Abubakar Rimi, Sa’ad Zungur, Maitama Sule, Mudi Sipikin, Lamido Sanusi et al. While we bid him good night, the debate and the search for a nation that works for all of us continues.
The reprieve of his traducers is merely temporary because the issues were far larger than any one man. The honour of being a public intellectual is both a burden and a vocation. You do not measure your relevance and friendship by those who agree with you. We are all searchers for a shining treasure called truth which is not easy to find. The search continues and the beat must go on. Max Ermann, the great American author of the Desiderata said it all: Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. You had a chance to tell yours and we thank you for that. Rest in peace, my good friend.