Barewa College: History of a School and the Nation-Book Review, By Professor Jibrin Ibrahim


BOOK REVIEW by Professor Jibrin Ibrahim

Presented at Centenary Celebration of Barewa College, Hilton Hotel, 20th March 2021

Title – Barewa College: History of a School and the Nation

Author – Udu Yakubu

National growth LS

Publisher – May University Press

Place of Publication – Lagos

Date – 2021

Pages – 335


I thank the organisers for offering me the privilege of being the reviewer for this important book, which tells part of the story of those who have exercised power in Nigeria. I say part of because I don’t agree with the sub-title’s suggestion that the story of the school is also that of the Nation.

I commend the author because there has been a long attempt to get former students to write the history of the school and it did not happen. We must therefore be grateful to Professor Udu Yakubu, not an old boy, for this monumental work. My thanks go to the Chairman of the Centenary Celebrations, Umar Mutallab, the Liman Ciroma History Committee that provided leadership for the project and the BOBA President, Dahiru Ibrahim.

We are gathered for the Centenary Celebration of Barewa College, established in 1921 as the first post primary institution in Northern Nigeria.

The book explains that the school was established to address the uneven distribution of development in terms of economy, industrialisation and most especially, education between the Southern and Northern Provinces, which had critical implications even in the colonial context. The only solution was to raise the bar in human capital development; that is, overhaul the education system in the north in a manner that would encourage the people to attend modern schools. This week, we learnt from the Ministry of Education that over 10 million children of school age are out of school. The North is suffering from massive youth rebellion fuelled by poverty, mass unemployment, lack of access to schools and breakdown of the family nexus. In response, youth agency has been translated into armed revolt, insurrection, banditry and mass kidnapping. What happened to that vision of one hundred years ago?

Should we really be celebrating this centenary? NO. We should be weeping and gnashing our teeth at the failure of the Barewa mission over the past century. The book ends with a very long list of famous old students who have held high positions in government, the professions, the diplomatic corps, security agencies and so on. This is great and we should be proud of these achievements. Or should we? Let me illustrate my concern with one of the lists – that of BOBA participants in the 2014 Constitutional Conference chaired by our distinguished Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi. We had 17 members including Professor Jibril Aminu HRH, Dr. Muhammadu Barkindo Aliyu Mustapha, Lamidon Adamawa; IGP Ibrahim Coomassie; Justice Lawal Hassan Gummi, Emir of Gummi etc. The youngest might have been Dr. Abdu Bulama (B.2381). In other words, nobody who went to the school since the mid 1970s made it into the list. In other words, the rude lesson I read in the book is that the great school that was Barewa College produced great men up to the late 1970s and then fizzled out. Why then should we be celebrating this centenary if the production of leaders ended around 1980?

I am no spoil sport and our leadership – President Eng. Dahiru Ibrahim and General Secretary Professor Ahmed Mora have briefed me that today is a celebration so let us celebrate. The college has produced and offered to Nigeria, five heads of state, one premier, twenty governors, and many top government functionaries, leading political figures, and major players in the corporate world, among others. It was able to do so because from its early years, the college placed major emphasis on good  character development and discipline, thus recognising the need  to build the mind, the brain and the body. The book points out that Barewa was northern  Nigeria’s boldest act of embracing Western education and  civilisation, and setting the pace for a guided transition from  customary socio-political traditions to a cultural adaptation of  modernity.

The book is detailed with 335 pages and 19 chapters starting from the colonial experience and movement for change to a detailed account of its growth process and an account if its founding fathers. The pedagogical ideas and guiding principles of the school are set out and key moments of political engagement, and sometimes non-engagement by former students of the school laid out. The role of the cadet force in building the character of the College is analysed and linkages to the building of political platforms and military engagement in politics built. We are then presented with a detailed expose of the role played by old students in the post-independence period. The period of turbulence encountered by the school from 1970 is analysed and the differing ideological tendencies of the conservative and radical wings emanating from the Ahmadu Bello and Aminu Kano wings of the school and their inheritors are also analysed. The assessment is made about the exemplary leadership for national development played by BOBA members. The key fields are political, military and the professions. The book, through its 19 chapters, emphasises the important role played by the old boys’ network, Barewa Old Boys Association (BOBA) as a driving force. 

The school was established as Katsina Teachers’ College in 1921. It was set up as a substructure for  plotting and pursuing educational expansion, and as a catalyst for  general development. It was to produce English-speaking  teachers for middle and secondary schools that would spring up  in the north. There was the need to raise well-educated people who could  themselves become teachers and train people who could take up  jobs in the civil service. Katsina Teachers’ College was thus first  conceived as a feeder school. Much emphasis was placed on  English and the Western way of life and less on Hausa and  Muslim culture. This was the first major bridge that  wholeheartedly and actively connected the north with Western  education and civilisation on its own soil.  

The school served the educational interests of the  entire north. It was the first teacher training  institution and the first secondary school, properly so called, in  the north. In one hundred years of its existence, it has achieved  the core mission for which it was established; that is, to  substantially raise the standard of education in the north; and it continues to do so. Beyond that, it has been one of the foremost  leadership training institutions in Nigeria by virtue of the roles  that its products have played in the country over the last century. 

The college underwent several transitions in location and also in name. It metamorphosed in the following order: established as Katsina  Teachers’ College in 1921; it became Katsina Higher College in 1929; Kaduna College in 1938; Zaria  Secondary School in 1949; Government College, Zaria in 1956; and finally assumed it symbolic name of Barewa College in 1971.

In my view, truth demands that we define the College as a leadership training institution to produce a calibre of leaders that were moulded to serve the mission of British colonialism and to pre-empt the onset of the nationalist struggle. The students were recruited mainly from traditional elite families and were not subjected to the indignities of examinations in its early years. The approach was on well-rounded development with a focus on discipline, military training and sports. One of the most important elements of the training was on diction based on the standard English accent, that turned out to be extremely useful in allowing their products to stand their grounds as nationalism and competitive politics emerged. As there were no external examinations in the early years of the  school the final school report was  based on the teachers’ and principal’s assessment of the  character of each student. Great importance was placed on values  such as honesty, punctuality, hard work, discipline, and good  behaviour. The school’s maxim was: “Character Makes a Man.”

The author argues correctly that Barewa College was conceived to reassure what was considered to be the conservative nature of the emirs and  their predominantly Muslim population. It was believed that the  Muslims in northern Nigeria were more conservative than their  counterparts in Turkey, Egypt, and other countries. The belief  was based on the fact that the aforementioned countries rejected  the notion that their religion could be beclouded by Western  education. The idea was to create a boko system that was not moulded on missionary education and was not therefore haram. The author draws attention to the argument of Professor Tibenderana that Lugard’s mode of operation and  governance to use administrative fiat to slow down the development of missionary schools and essentially limit education to what was needed to maintain the Native Authority Administration. They feared that their undisputed stay in power could be  jeopardized if the region produced ‘disgruntled intellectuals’. At  that time, educated local people had been responsible for various  anti-colonial government activities in India and Egypt.

Nonetheless, the school played an important role in the political awakening in the north due to the rise of intellectual reasoning and literary development. The exploits of the Barewa College products – Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Abubakar Imam, Shehu Shagari, Sa’adu Zungur, and Abdulkadir Makama – in intellectualism and literature were outstanding. In 1955, Tafawa Balewa published Shaihu Umar, a novella about a devout Muslim. His work was in response to the need to promote Hausa literature, a campaign that was headed by Rupert East of the Colonial Translation Bureau. Balewa explored critical issues that were on the front burner of public concern in northern Nigeria at the time. His novella engaged the themes of slave trade, familial and social relationships, and the supremacy of the will of God in the affairs of men, among others. He was a pacesetter in promoting critical literary discourse and reasoning.  Another prominent northerner who stood tall in the intellectual and literary arena in northern Nigeria was Abubakar Imam, who was a writer, journalist, and politician, was the first Hausa Editor of Gaskiya Ta Fi Kwabo, the first indigenous Hausa language newspaper in Nigeria.

The Cadet Force, first established as the Rifle Club in 1946 played an important role in moulding students. It was a joint project of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Defence to prepare a pathway to facilitate the absorption of secondary school students into commissioned officer positions in the Nigeria Army. Four of the first twenty Nigerians to be commissioned as officers in the Nigerian Army were products of Barewa College – Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, Kur Mohammed, Abogo Largema and Yakubu Gowon. Sadly, the first three were all killed in the coup of 15 January 1966. The fourth, Gowon, had just returned from a course in the UK two days earlier and was either not caught by the lenses of the conspirators, or was not properly tracked. He survived, and the role he subsequently plays is today part of Nigeria’s modern history.

The reputation for excellence, moral values, and comportment that the school gained over the years was by no means an accident. Rather, this status was gained through sheer hard work, commitment, obedience, and tolerance. All of these are encapsulated by the motto of the school: “He Who Strives Shall Succeed.” In my 2017 Katsina BOBA Lecture, I had drawn attention to the role of the College in building a civic culture for the leadership in the North. The daily readings from religious texts – Christian, Muslim and Eastern created in the students the realisation that our religions have the same values and that everyone that respects their religion must also respect other religions that draw from the same belief and value pool.

The author is very disturbed with what he calls the turbulence that started in 1970 when for the first time, students rioted in the college due to differences in opinion about the school syllabus;

“Some of the students at the time felt that European history was being imposed on them, with no regard whatsoever for Nigeria’s indigenous history and African history. They believed that it was a ploy to change their way of life. While there is nothing wrong with having differing opinions, what ensued was truly unfortunate. The issue could have been solved through dialogue and negotiation but instead, there was a descent into chaos.”

Mr. Baker was the Principal of the College at the time of the riot in 1970. The demonstrating students, he said, failed to take into consideration the fact that the syllabus of the West African Examination Council contained European history and not African history. He argued that the school certificate examination had been established long before some West African nations attained political independence. THE QUESTION WAS WHY WAS DECOLONISATION OF THE CURRICULUM NOT DONE TEN YEARS AFTER INDEPENDENCE. As a proud participant in the 1970 “riots” let me state clearly that we were doing what our elders failed to do in placing decolonisation on the table. The author said the riot was “influenced by a Nigerian teacher in the school at the time (and) some of the students involved in the riot did not even know what they were protesting against.” The Nigerian should have been named – Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman and we knew what we were doing. The author was right in pointing out that declaring the content of history syllabus as rubbish and trying to change it months before the examinations was problematic but the politics was right, down with imperialism. Political turbulence is not necessarily bad. Finally, the author was wrong in his claim that the school was shut down for a year, it was only for a few weeks.

There was another breakdown of discipline in the College in 1981 when students burnt down the library and cafeteria. So many important documents, books, and records were destroyed by rampaging students in this riot. The school library was one of the most cherished parts of the college’s heritage because it was a literal treasure house of academic research and helped to project the institution academically. Back then, the teachers helped the students to make full use of the library’s abundant resources and the results were evident in the School Certificate Examination results. Unfortunately, that same library was what some thoughtless students chose to burn, to make their grievances known.

My understanding is that the greatest challenge facing Nigeria is that of building a high-quality educational system that could build knowledge, skills, civic education, and critical thinking for our young ones. The current Nigerian crisis is defined by the steep decline in access to and quality of education of the children of the masses in public schools. The ghost of Barewa is haunting Nigeria with millions of the children of the masses, pissed off with marginalisation, poverty and precarious livelihoods hitting back at the Nation that betrayed them. Nigeria has failed in implementing the National Pledge on Education for All. We must return to the pledge and in so doing refocus education itself on the development of critical thinking skills and logical reasoning as essential ingredients of citizenship and resistance to religious radicalisation and insurgency.

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