A Tribute to Professor Nur Alkali,By Adagbo Onoja

An intimidating thesis deadline hanging over one’s head has made it impossible to spare the time to write a tribute to Professor Muhammad Nur Alkali who passed away on August 1, 2014 until it is almost too late. But it is a task that must be done, no matter how late. Not to do so would be a grievous violation of moral responsibility to such a worthy senior. He was one of the several intellectuals who put his conceptual expertise in the service of the Jigawa State Government between 2007 and 2012 and in the course of which we came to work closely, becoming personal friends, in spite of the age gap. In fact, his death is a personal loss in the sense that he saw me as a good fit academic and had decided that, upon my return to Nigeria, I should go and teach in a particular university of which he was so fond of. As far as he was concerned, I should report there the next day after my arrival back in Nigeria. There was no time he called that he would not remind me of this. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that I did not manifest a scholarly processing, at least then, since I am still grappling with making that transition.
The closeness with the late professor developed after a close ring of us around Sule Lamido began exploring the prospects of a hub city in Jigawa State. The whole idea came from Ken Jowitt’s journal article titled, “After Leninism: The New World Disorder”, (Journal of Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1991) where he lamented the incompetence of the ‘Third World’, including a failure to produce any new London, Moscow, Mecca or Rome, (P.17). It was idealism at its best but then, without idealism, the world goes nowhere. It was not to build a Rome or a London but a city which would become a signifier for Jigawa in the national and even the ECOWAS context. Like joke, the very few of us involved started exploring where and how a ‘city of cities’ could be built in the state by starting with the conceptual framework. Of all the geopolitical possibilities on our initial list, Maigatari presented the most prospects in terms of the locational and cultural diversity to develop more quickly into a hub in every sense of it.
At that time, Lamido did not appear clear whether he was going to take an industrialisation strategy or the infrastructural strategy he eventually adopted. Not even the much advertised Lamido rule book (the May 29th, 2007 Inaugural Address) contained an explicit commitment in this regard. But an assembly plant was already on ground within the first year in Maigatari. The incoherent Saminu Turaki regime that preceded Lamido had also designated Maigatari an export processing zone and there were certain things they had put there before it was abandoned. Above all, Maigatari is a border town, with seeds of the kind of cultural mix that could generate the diversity requirement for a hub.
So, I mentioned this puzzle to Nur Alkali on the phone one evening. That fetched me an instant free lecture on the phone on the history of Rome, Vienna, London and many other great European cities off the cuff. It reminded me of what Sunday New Nigerian‘s Maigani once wrote, “whoever asks a Historian for evidence and never got that’. But the telephone conversation showed that we had got an expert who could handle the issue rather reflectively even though he was not a geographer which was what we had in mind. But how does the research get off the ground? Unless the professor visited Jigawa and looked around, there was no way he could properly move the idea into anything concrete. So, he was invited and he accepted the invitation. The governor was informed of the development and he gave his approval in principle. And he came.
He had extensive discussions with the then SSG, Dr. Aminu Taura, several commissioners and the Special Adviser under whose portfolio Maigatari fell. He was then taken to Maigatari and, afterwards, had a session with the governor. Of course, they were not new to each other. At the end of the exploratory visit, he drafted a contextual paper which was to become a source of some friction later but it was an enchanting visit, both for him and all of us. He expressed shock that the SSG and the commissioners who spoke to him were knowledgeable about goings-on in their domains and that they spoke so freely. This, he said, was not the story in other places and state governments he has worked with. It was a statement that gave me pride.
Of course, subsequently, I left Jigawa and there was a lull in our contact until he called one day to say he had just learnt that I was no longer in Jigawa, wondering why I did not give him notice of my departure. The long silence that greeted my explanation suggested he was contemplating the veracity of my claim that I myself had no inkling that I was leaving Jigawa before it happened. The next time he would call was also to complain about how I must have mishandled the contextual draft he submitted on the urban hub project. I later learnt he ran into the governor at NICON Hotel, Abuja and he might have been told it was with me or something like that. I could understand the predicament of both the professor and the governor. The background paper did not ask for anything specific for the governor to approve or disapprove. So, he read it and gave it back to me which was like, ‘you are dealing’, in the language of bureaucracy. So, he was right to say it was with me although it could also convey the message that Onoja killed it. I explained that it was not in my place to contradict the governor but that a way could be found to get it going again since the governor was very keen to do so if he could send it again since none of us had the electronic copy of the paper.
The fact that he then asked what I was doing in UK suggested to me that he was satisfied with that. I said I was on a Postgraduate research programme. Then he wondered why I wouldn’t incorporate a PhD attempt in my sojourn in the UK. That simply showed that he was so distant to appreciate the foolhardiness in even contemplating leaving Nigeria for the one year programme, financially speaking. The fact that I didn’t end up seeing what Nigerians would call ‘nwee’ in UK doesn’t make it any less so since it was only the generosity of certain individuals, particularly from Jigawa, that turned such foolhardiness into a most fulfilling epistemic pilgrimage.
In all cases, he was a very interesting personality. There was no officialdom about him. You could just go ahead and ask or say what made you put a call to him. Two, he was very, very forthcoming, with strong thinking typical of most but not all professors, especially of History, a very ‘dangerous’ subject anyway. Three, he never demanded any payments for his expertise. And he never gave any conditions. During his first visit to Jigawa, for example, the governor gave instructions for him to be accommodated in the more exclusive Government House chalets. In his second visit, however, the chalets were all occupied by other set of VIPs and we could only get the badly managed Jigawa Hotels, (I don’t know if they have improved now or still revelling in antiquarianism). I felt so bad that he wasn’t better accommodated but he didn’t mind because it didn’t stop us from having lengthy and chatty sessions, deep into the nights, both about the object of his visit and about Nigeria. Given the many research and political positions he occupied, he came to know Nigeria in great analytical depth as to be in a position to sustain his positions on issues.
It was on this basis that I gave his number to an editor who was looking for someone to interview on the then emerging Boko Haram phenomenon. But the editor must have, innocently, hinted him that I insisted it had to be him because when he called subsequently, his question was why I insisted he was the only one who could give such an interview. And it is true I argued so because I wanted a scholar-policy analyst to set the parameters for the analysis of Boko Haram and, therefore, take the shine out of the charlatanism that subsequently took over the subject. There was no better person to do so in my estimation because, from our interaction, he had both the theoretical, empirical and policy insights to handle it. I was so fulfilled when he eventually came round to granting the interview although, by then, Boko Haram had become complicated and all-consuming.
Nigeria occupied Alkali’s time a lot because there was no time one interacted with him that he never brought out a perspective. In one instance, he mentioned how he took a particular journal article to the appropriate authority on a particular problem that was emerging. In order words, he was not the type engrossed in lamentation. Rather, he would always egg one on to worry less about Nigeria and concentrate on the mandate of knowledge. Nigeria, he would say, will survive. Up to last April after the inauguration of the just ended National Conference, that was his refrain. I don’t know if he would still guarantee Nigeria’s survival after events since his death. If he were still alive, he might now have accepted that Nigeria would survive but at a price too costly. For instance, the unbelievable type of price the Chibok girls and all those like them are paying. And the price of watching Nigeria reduced to an open space for democratic lunacy.
As Professor Yakubu Ochefu, Vice-Chancellor of Kwararafa University, Wukari availed us in a recent email, two of Nigeria’s foremost Historians died in the past two months. That is Nur Alkali and the legend himself, Ade Ajayi. The moral, political and security sunset at noon that Nigeria is experiencing now is such that it cannot even properly mourn the interpreters of the society beyond rituals.
May God grant them eternal rest!