Let’s Talk About Reuben Ziri, Please By Adagbo Onoja



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On June 22nd, I was tense almost throughout the day. In the absence of any concrete basis for that, I put it to the normal mood whenever I have a flight within Nigeria. But by 7. 30 pm that day, I was fully back to normal because, by then, my flight from Kano to Abuja had safely landed and I was on my way home to settling back in Abuja again after 5 years of being away in Jigawa State.  Then came Comrade Y. Z Yau’s text on switching on again my handset. That was 7.47 pm and he was asking if I had heard that Reuben Ziri died earlier today. The rest is now a matter of details.

It has taken me all of the time since then for me to write a tribute to the departed comrade because it is very difficult to talk of Reuben Ziri in the past tense even as he is dead and gone to where dead persons go. The difficulty is in the very nature of Comrade Ziri. He was not someone who wanted to share his pains with anybody. From December 23 – 30th, 2011, he was my guest at the Government House, Dutse and we did discuss a lot on alternative futures. I love Journalism because it is a very powerful instrument for social justice and perhaps because most great political actors like Marx, Lenin, Anwar Sadat, Zik, Awo and even Robespierre started as journalists but academia is the ultimate home of ideas, especially for those approaching mid life. We, therefore, needed to discuss since he was already an academic and also a doctoral student at Ibadan. In spite of his great reservations against academia in this country, (he said repeatedly that, as far as he was concerned, he had only one and a half students in his programme), we did discuss a lot and planned together in that regard for life after 50.  It was a pure festival of ideas. We could not even visit Kano as planned because one week was not enough. But we were doing this even as he knew very well by then that he was on the last bend of his life. Yet, there was no gesture or hint of that from him. Or could it be that there were gestures or hints but I didn’t notice?

Six months or so earlier, I had circulated a text within a limited circle to the effect that Ziri was dying from drinking. It was based on information from the ground and I did that because after Cosmas Elaigu died literally on my hands, I did not want any other comrade to die from lack of collectivist action when s/he could still be saved. It turned out that I was misinformed because when the two of us discussed the text later, he said he did not have the money to drink even if he wanted to. My informant was correct to say that Ziri wasn’t looking totally healthy but wrong to attribute it to drinking. He was not drinking at all. Something else was wrong and it was with one part of his system. As at December 2011, it had reached serious point even as it was still not self-evident to non-medical eyes and especially as he himself wasn’t forth coming with any hints. He was, indeed, a very courageous soul.

There is a sense in which Reuben Ziri was a study in contradictions. For one, he had always wanted to teach History in a university. But it was only in April 2006 that the Niger State owned Ibrahim Babangida University, Lapai offered him that opportunity as a History lecturer, almost a decade after a highly regarded masters’ thesis.

When he entered the Department of History at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in the late 1980s to pursue a Masters Degree, the equally late National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, Dr. Mahmud Moddibo Tukur instantly took note of him, saying that the title of his proposed research was like attempting to breakaway from the traditional ABU, Zaria School of History’s approach to the study of the emirates of Northern Nigeria. Tukur’s comment was significant in the context of the disputations in that highly politicized Department regarding the real character of the ruling elite in pre-colonial Nigeria, particularly within the Sokoto Caliphate. With the title of “History of Bida Emirate in the 20th Century: A Study in Colonialism and Transformation of Social Classes, 1900-1960”, Ziri instantly cut the image of an icon if he proved that the ruling elements in the emirate of Bida could not be denied a class status independent of British Colonialists.

The first contradiction was that he could not get the thesis upgraded to that of a PhD nor get a job in the Department when he completed the programme after six years of research, which was a record time by ABU, Zaria standards, very much like Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife but very much unlike the University of Ibadan. By this time, his mentor, Tukur had died in mysterious circumstances. In a Department filled with razor-sharp tendency politics, the death of Tukur left him unprotected from tendency acrimony. It was not surprising he could not get employed even if only on the basis of the innovativeness of his thesis.

This first contradiction produced the second – a soundly educated Nigerian becoming a hunter in his local area which he confirmed in an interview I had with him in Jos in June 2006. “Yes, I am a hunter. I even have the license for it”, he told me then. He became a hunter when he could not get academic job while he was not thinking of any other thing. He tried teaching in a secondary school in his home state but as he himself put it, he ran the risk of being dismissed, because he just didn’t fit. So, he had to ‘retire’.

Before his transition from a hunter to a don in 2006, his circle which had been agonizing that such a well trained Historian was wasting away organized for him to work at the grassroots NGO, Community Action for Popular Participation, (CAPP). But his arrival in CAPP coincided with the internal upheaval which made working there a non-option for him. Then he went back to hunting, from where he got the university teaching job. His appearance at the Civil Society Session on the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Bill in Jos in 2006 was, therefore, a sensational one. Everyone wondered how the Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, managed to execute the coup as it were.

His hunting ‘career’ was the original prompter for seeking an interview with him in the early hours of July 26, 2006 at the session in Jos. I was then the Managing Editor of The Nation but at the interview, Nigeria ended being the main discussion in the over two hours encounter with this educated hunter, leaving the story of his hunting a matter for another day then. In the interview, he saw difficult days ahead for Nigeria because 1999 and the moment after is, in his view, the morning of the night of dictatorship and fascism. And dictatorship and fascism cannot magically germinate into democracy just like that, he said. He vehemently challenged the idea that 1914 Amalgamation was a mistake, saying that ethnicity and regionalism are pervasive only because the society had stopped developing and the sharing process had become unusually contentious.

It is true that most who attended Nigerian universities before the onset of SAP had very good education. But it is truer that Ziri was so grounded that when he reviews a book, for example, he leaves some of us wondering if we also went to school like him. He was damn brilliant in an effortless way. Above all, he was very original.

Our last telephone conversation was June 2nd, 2012. I was to revert to him later in the month. When I looked at his number on my handset on the day he was buried, June 26th, 2012, I now came to terms with that wisdom that adorned the lorries that plied the highway beside our primary school in those days, “No telephone to Heaven? It was a tear inspiring proof of Soyinka’s theology of ‘Being and Nothingness’. May his soul remain as subtly restless as ever, wherever he may be.

…Kudos for Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi

It was him I was waiting to hear in respect of the entertaining declaration of autonomy by the Ogoni movement. That is Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, the governor of Rivers State. And he didn’t disappoint. Hear him, On Ogoni autonomy, I wish them well. Ogoni autonomy is not achievable. The man (Diigbo) who declared Ogoni autonomy will run into the bush tomorrow morning.  What Diigbo is doing is treasonable felony. You do not declare autonomy on the pages of newspapers and magazines or on radio and television

There are some occasions when we don’t need finesse in our language in responding to silly jokes. And this is one of it. It is precisely because we have been treating militias with kid gloves in this country since 1999 that the lumpens have discovered their strength across the country.

Nigeria may not appreciate Amaechi’s desire for state police only because we do not know the next governor of Rivers State. Many people in power in Nigeria have simply turned out to be Master Sergeant Does, thugs and psychopaths when we were expecting them to lead as Philosopher-kings.

So, we should not hesitate to publicly take note of the few who are fulfilling the Philosopher-king requirement for political power in Nigeria, particularly those like Amaechi who have demonstrated this clarity and courage of conviction no matter the danger in doing so. Nobody can accuse me of circumstantial determinism in what I am saying because I have said it before when I had cause to do a piece in the wake of Amaechi’s visit to Jigawa last May. And I would say it again that genuine progressives as opposed to ethnic revolutionaries should start compiling a register of those who stand for Nigeria and those who are, consciously or unconsciously playing games with Nigeria, using Nigeria as a bargaining chip.


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