Shehu Malami @ 80

Alhaji Shehu Malami, Sarkin Sudan recently celebrated his 80th birthday. In this interview, he recalls his very close relationship with Sir Ahmadu Bello and Sultan Abubakar III, his quarrels with Sultan Ibrahim Dasuki and Military Governor Usman Faruk and his forays into business and politics.

How are do you feel at 80?

I am extremely happy, grateful to God for only Him could have organised my life from one year, two years, 20 years to 80 years. No medicine or doctor can do that. I have been opportune to do many things in my life. I regard myself as being successful; not materially but fulfilled.

Do you feel fulfilled at 80?

There are many things I would have been happier to have done in my life. My mother came from the Mustafa family of Alkanchi, who were Khadis. If I had opportunity, I would have liked to go through the judiciary like my friend and father, Justice Mamman Nasir. I would also have loved to pay more attention to academic work. I would have liked to be a professor, teaching and doing research.

But you were always a top contender to be the Sultan of Sokoto.

People will be surprised to hear this but I have never prayed to God to be the Sultan of Sokoto, never ever. Some years back at the King’s Guest House in Makka, late Sultan Maccido and then Sarkin Gwandu Jokolo were all there and we were talking about it and I told them I never ever prayed to Allah to be Sultan. They were surprised. But I became sultan without the throne, the way I was brought up by Sultan Abubakar, the elder brother of my father, from the age of seven when he took me away and sent me to elementary school. I was very lucky that Sultan Abubakar remembered at the right time that I had reached school age. One morning, Dogarai [palace guards] arrived from the Sultan’s palace and said where is Malami? They took me to the Sultan and he sent me to school. From then on I concentrated on my studies and I was doing very well. Ahmadu Bello was the Councillor in charge of Education, Police and Prison. I was also doing well in school and that was what endeared me to him. I learnt a lot and I benefited a lot from Sultan Abubakar and Sir Ahmadu Bello, both of whom were no nonsense people, highly disciplined.

It was me that Sir Abubakar told to take the current Sultan [Muhammadu Sa’ad] to military school. I drove him in my car from Sokoto to Kaduna and handed him over to General Gibson Jallo. I grew up with Sultan Abubakar and was always travelling together with him and I absorbed a lot. I often felt that I had become a sultan without the throne, apart from the throne of Wurno which I enjoyed very much as I succeeded my father there. When I was appointed the Sarkin Sudan [district head] of Wurno, politics was banned in the country.  I was one of those that established NPN. I was the first Chairman of its Finance Committee. But when it became a political party Wazirin Gwandu and I left.

What was it like being the Sarkin Sudan of Wurno?

I enjoyed it very much and I learnt a lot. I never thought it would be attractive and be able to do what I did. I never knew that a district head had so many responsibilities.

You said it was never your ambition to become Sultan but when Sultan Abubakar died in 1988, there was a big crisis and you were even arrested and taken to Uyo in a black maria. What really happened?


I took part in the disturbances that greeted Dasuki’s appointment. Long story; it is contained in my book. There had always been princely competition between Dasuki and me. We never get on well especially when I joined the Marketing Board. Dasuki was the chairman of the marketing board and each Northern state was represented by the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Agriculture, but the military governors decided to dissolve the board and appointed us as additional independent people. It was decided that each state should bring an independent person whom the government had confidence in. They appointed  me to represent North Western State and such could not have been pleasant to whoever was there before, including the chairman himself. I think that was where the whole thing ignited and propelled afterwards.

People were trying all the time to reconcile me and him but it was difficult, up till when he was announced as the Sultan. There was no way I could abandon Sultan Maccido because his father brought me up and made me what I became. To abandon Maccido and support Dasuki would have been unbelievable. When they announced his appointment, there were disturbances in Sokoto and they called me to assist in quelling the disturbances but in the process they roped me in. They put me in a Black Maria and we drove the whole night from Sokoto, through Abuja, through Onitsha and when we arrived outside the prison in Akwa Ibom, a policeman was waiting and said he had orders to take me back to Sokoto. I told him that I was arrested and brought here, but he showed me a document directing him to return me to Sokoto.

All I could do was to donate the little money I had to those we met there, then we started driving back all the way to Sokoto and when we arrived at Kaduna, I  slept for two hours before we moved to Sokoto. Although I was asked to be brought back to Sokoto, I had to wait for another instruction for me to be released. When we arrived the Police said they were sorry the Governor of the state was not around as he travelled to Lagos. They accommodated me overnight in a government guest house and by the following morning the instruction came for me to be released. I said I cannot be released as I was taken with some people to Akwa Ibom and I should be taken back to those people or they should be released also as we were alleged to have committed the same offence. So they decided later to release me.

I was never in good terms with Ibrahim Dasuki but we forgave each other before he died. I went to his house in Kaduna; his children were there. There was no ill feeling. May God forgive me of whatever trespasses I might have committed.

Sultan Dasuki promptly removed you as Sarkin Sudan of Wurno and moved you to Dange. What happened?

They said I committed many offences, that I was not staying in Wurno and that I was supposed to be staying there 24 hours a day. Before Dasuki’s time I was engaged in many things like in the Marketing Board. I represented the Federal Government in University of Nigeria, Nsukka and I was involved in many organisations either in my personal capacity or representing the government. So I said that was why I could not stay in Wurno. I had permission from Sultan Abubakar and I also appointed a Wakili with full authority. So Dasuki said he was not happy and that I should be removed to Dange, which was a demotion because for every member of Sultan Bello’s house which I come from, Wurno is number one. Sultan Abubakar once removed his elder brother as Sarkin Sudan of Wurno for embezzlement and he demoted him to Dange, so I said no, I would not accept the posting but Dasuki said the government made the decision and I said I would rather resign.

Thirty years after, why are you still called Sarkin Sudan?

People still call me Sarkin Sudan but they no longer add of Wurno.

You established many industries in Wurno when you were there but they don’t exist now.

Yes, such as Zaki Bottling Company and red bricks factory. Because of the downtown in the economy, one by one they died off. I gravitated into commerce because when I was a student in the UK, I made many friends from PZ. I met somebody from the PZ family and we became great friends. My friend’s uncle was the one in charge of PZ operations worldwide. I told him I was going back to Nigeria to participate in politics, before the first coup. Unfortunately my friend’s uncle died and he took over the operations of PZ, so he said no more politics for me and that I should join him. That was how I joined the PZ Board. I was also on the board of Costain together with Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu [Emeka’s father]. That was how I gravitated into commerce, and no more politics.

You wanted to be a politician?

I was very active in the student movement [in UK]. Myself, Umaru Dikko and late Kaloma Ali, we established NPC [in UK]. When I came back to Nigeria, I wanted to be a member of parliament in Lagos. I was offered to be a member of the House in Kaduna but I was not interested. After the last meeting of parliament in Lagos before the 1966 coup, some members were travelling home from Lagos and someone died in a car accident in Funtua. The night Ahmadu Bello was killed, I was with him earlier in the afternoon. I, Umaru Shinkafi were there when they said Akintola had arrived from Lagos to see him and he warned him that there may be an attempted coup. Later that night, Ahmadu Bello told me that there was an opportunity for me to contest the bye-election but he died that night. I was set to go into politics but my friend diverted me into commerce. I have no regrets over that because I made many friends all over the world.

In the 1970s you were best known as a businessman in addition to Sarkin Sudan.

The business community was a small community, we knew each other and one’s name goes round that this man can do so and so. Some people would come to you and say, we want to establish a company and we would like you to be our chairman. I often declined, citing other engagements. With Philip Asiodu we established a furniture factory in Asaba; with Aminu Dantata we established a company in Kano, producing water pipes and other things, and with Ahmed Joda we established The Democrat. Nigeria was very peaceful then and there was a lot of cooperation, before corruption took over.

Let me tell you a story about the old leaders. There was a day that Sultan Abubakar arrived Kaduna from Sokoto. Ahmadu Bello sent Mu’azu Lamido, who was the Minister of Animal and Forestry, that “please go and tell the Sultan that we are very happy to see him arrive safely from Sokoto but tell him that I, Ahmadu Bello woke up this morning without a single kobo. So go and get something from the Sultan for me.” So Mu’azu went and told the Sultan that Ahmadu Bello said he was broke. Mu’azu Lamido told me that the Sultan was very unhappy. In the evening, Sultan Abubakar called Mu’azu Lamido and told him that he did not have money either but that later in the evening someone came to greet him and gave him some money, which he then passed on to Ahmadu Bello. This was the type of leaders we had in those days. Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa too often woke up without a single kobo.

There is another story about UTC Motors in Kaduna. It became big because that was where the House of Assembly members were given loans and car maintenance. Many years earlier, Ahmadu Bello was going from Sokoto to Kano and his car broke down near Funtua. He was trying to repair it when one white man drove by, saw him and drove back. He said he was also going to Kano. This young man drove Ahmadu Bello in his car and said he would send some men from his office, UTC to go back and repair the car.

Many years later Ahmadu Bello remembered the young man and he sent for him. When Sinnemann was found, Ahmadu Bello requested him to open a branch of his company in Kaduna. The man said he would have to get permission from Europe. When he secured the permission he established UTC in Kaduna and it was soon rivalled that of Lagos. The man was so grateful due to the success of the office that he took a brand new car to the Speaker of the Northern House Umaru Gwandu, as a gift. The Speaker said, “You can see two cars in my compound, one personal, one official. I don’t need any other car.”

You were very close to late Sultan Abubakar. What kind of man was he?

He was a family man who looked after everybody. He alone with the driver would drive to a village near Wurno where one of his sisters got married. My family just saw him driving to the house. He looked after everybody’s interest till his end and they were always broke as he and Ahmadu Bello gave away whatever they had. They had big, big alkyabba but no money.

In 1964 when we went for hajj, the Sultan left his entire household to Dike, an Ibo man [who came to Sokoto in 1915]. Dike was a strict disciplinarian and any boy misbehaving, he disciplined him. The Sultan was very happy with him, unlike today that when a teacher beats a child for misbehaving, his parents would go and beat the teacher.

Was it true that before 1964 Sultans were not going to hajj?

It was because there was no opportunity. It was not true that they were prohibited or that they disliked going to hajj. It is not true.

What was your relationship like with the former Military Governor of North Western State Alhaji Usman Farouk? He once said he did not want to approve your appointment as Sarkin Sudan.

Initially, our relationship was very good because when he came he wanted everybody’s cooperation, that we should help him, that if there is anything wrong we should go straight and tell him the truth. Now, there was this mechanic, he was a policeman looking after police equipment in Sokoto and he turned himself into somebody in charge of transport. He was blocking the road and collecting money from transporters and he was destroying transport business in the area. So when I heard

I went to the Private Secretary, Isa Wasagu and I said I wanted to see the Governor. I got an appointment and I said “Sir, you told us to assist you by giving you information, this is what I get.” He asked me, ‘What have you got to do with the police?’ I said it was you that said we should give you information if we have it. He said, “Don’t ever get involved with police work!”

He was a complex and difficult person. When [Inspector General of Police] Kam Salem came to Sokoto, Usman Faruk refused to receive him at the airport, and this was the person that made him governor.

There was one particular district head that was to be appointed. Government made the announcement on radio that so and so would be appointed. So I went to the Sultan and told him that there was this announcement that so, so would be appointed a district head and that this seems to be a mistake and the Sultan should go and see the governor for correction. So we called the private secretary and the Sultan asked him to tell the governor that he would like to see him. When they told Usman Faruk, he said the Sultan must tell him why he wanted to see him. I soon flew from Sokoto to Lagos and in Kaduna we picked up M. D. Yusuf and I told him what was happening between the Sultan and the governor. M. D. Yusuf was not happy so when he arrived in Lagos, he told General Gowon about it. Around that time [early 1975] Moukhtar Ould Dadah of Mauritania visited Sokoto and when they were going back, Gowon took the governor with him. When they got to Lagos, General Gowon told Usman Faruk what he heard.  Usman Faruk said it was not true, that it was people like Hamzat Ahmadu [Walin Sokoto and Gowon’s PPS] that were telling lies against him. Innocently Gowon said no, it was not Hamzat but Sarkin Sudan who told me. So when Usman Faruk returned to Sokoto he said I must be dismissed as Sarkin Sudan. Despite intervention by Shehu Shagari and others, he was adamant until one day they went to Uganda and there was a coup [in July 1975].

When you became Nigeria’s first Ambassador to South Africa, what was Nelson Mandela’s attitude to?

Mandela was forever for Nigeria and he regarded Nigeria as his home. Nothing could be said against Mandela. The only time that he was angry with Nigeria was after the hanging of the Ogoni people. I was in Nigeria then; he withdrew his Ambassador from here when the Ogoni men were hanged and that delayed my going there as Nigeria’s Ambassador to South Africa. My credentials were already received and accepted. Mandela was in New Zealand when the Ogoni were hanged. He tried to get General Abacha on phone. Abacha was never friendly with the telephone. Mandela tried and could not get him. He got Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji who was our High Commissioner in UK to get Abacha but he could not get him. Our Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi was there in New Zealand; Mandela sent for him but he didn’t arrive for many hours. That was when he lost his temper and called Nigerians barbarians. Otherwise he was all the time for Nigeria.

What is your message to Nigerians at this time?

I was Chairman of Barclays Bank when Nigeria and others demanded that the bank pulls out of South Africa [because of apartheid]. When Barclays Bank’s Chairman in London said they would not move out of South Africa, Obasanjo said they must reduce their holdings so that Nigerians could have more shares, and Barclays said we could not continue to use their name, so we changed to Union Bank.

Because of that problem I took my board round the country, taking to various governments and the people. When we went to Port Harcourt, a member of our board took me to visit the creeks. The way I saw those creeks, in God’s wisdom he brought all the people of Nigeria together. There is a reason why God brought us together. As long as we are together we can disagree but I cannot see Nigeria breaking up. We have lots to learn from each other. God made us different people so that we can learn to know each other. We thank God for what we have got and we should do whatever we can to ensure that the country remains one.

This interview was first published by DailyTrust

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