Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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For about three decades, between the 1970 and 2005, he was a remarkable figure at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. Yusufu Bala Usman was the left leaning history teacher who caught Nigeria’s attention with his Marxist – Leninist interpretation of history.
Within a short time of arrival at ABU, he was able to gather a followership in the University that was almost cult like, giving breed to a set of students and former students that were nicknamed “Bala Brought Up’s” at ABU. But his influence went far beyond the confines of the university. Soon, the government took interest in the ideas he made available in the public domain.
The first government that engaged his services was that of General Murtala Mohammed which took over power from General Gowon in 1975. The new government came out with a transition to civil rule program which involved the making of a new constitution. A Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was appointed in 1975 under the chairmanship of a leading lawyer, Chief Rotimi Williams. Yusuf Bala Usman was made a member of that Committee. Again when the government appointed a secret committee to review Nigeria’s foreign policy, Bala Usman was made a member.
These were two golden opportunities for the radical lecturer to put his socialist agenda on the table for national discourse. A review of Nigeria’s foreign policy saw the country taking a more radical stand in support of liberating the parts of Africa, particularly in Southern Africa that were still under colonial domination. The liberation movements there relied heavily on assistance from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. One could see Bala Usman’s radical inputs there.
But what came as a rude shock to those who gave him the opportunity to serve in government was his work at the Constitution Drafting Committee, the CDC. In his inaugural address to the committee, General Murtala made it clear what type of constitution the government wanted. Majority of the members, 47 out of the 49 members conformed and in September 1976 produced a draft in line with the inaugural speech. But two members, Olusegun Osoba and Yusufu Bala Usman decided to differ; they did not only reject the majority report, they drafted their own minority report. This minority report, recommended a socialist constitution and manifesto for Nigeria.
Whereas the majority draft was published by the Federal Government of Nigeria and was widely debated by the public in 1976-77 before it was put before the Constituent Assembly for further consideration and subsequent enactment in 1979, the minority report was declared “non-existent” by the then military Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, who subsequently enacted the majority report as the 1979 Constitution after inserting into it the Land Use Decree of 1978 in spite of the Constituent Assembly’s objection to it as inappropriate in a constitution. An attempt by radical students who sympathized with the minority report to launch and publicize it at the University of Ife was aborted by General Obasanjo who sent armed troops to chase them away.
Not one to be deterred, Bala Usman sought to participate in operating the 1979 constitution which was a product of the majority opinion at the CDC. In the 1979 elections, the most radical of the five registered political parties, the Peoples Redemption Party, the PRP had won two strategic states in Northern Nigeria: Kano the commercial hub of the north and Kaduna the political capital of the defunct giant northern region. Soon, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, the governor of Kaduna State appointed him to the strategic office of Secretary to the state government.
But the government of Balarabe Musa was headed for the rocks. The simple fact was that he did not have the needed votes in the Kaduna State of Assembly to carry his initiatives through. The NPN dominated House wanted some NPN members nominated as Cabinet commissioners. Balarabe Musa would have none of that. The House then refused to appoint his nominees as commissioners. After running his government without a cabinet for some time, the House proceeded to impeach him.
Balarabe Musa’s successor, Abba Musa Rimi did not have his predecessors radical disposition and it was clear from the beginning that he would not last long with a hot head as Yusufu Bala Usman as his Secretary to the State Government. Expectedly, Bala resigned and went back to ABU.
But his activism continued unabated. He continued to read and write as an academic, participating in public debates in the media on national and international issues. He was one of the founding brains behind the Analyst Magazine which lived briefly but was clearly an irritant to the military government and establishment people.
But by far, the most relevant work of Yusuf Bala Usman after he left government is a book he published titled the ‘The manipulation of religion in Nigeria, 1977-1987’. The book narrates in very precise terms how religion was manipulated in Nigeria, beginning from the efforts to kick start the second republic and it’s final collapse. It gives a good analysis of how such manipulations by major state actors led to such violent social upheavals like the Maitatsine.
Shortly before he died in 2005, I sent one of my reporters to interview him on a particular issue. He bluntly refused to give the interview, arguing that he had spoken and lectured enough students on the issue we wanted to speak to him about. It was time he allowed such students also to speak.
By the time he died, we were yet to experience the Boko Haram scourge. What would have been Bala Usman’s interpretation of Boko Haram and what would he have advocated as a solution to this scourge that is destroying the north and wrecking Nigeria? Maybe one of the ‘Bala Brought Up’s’ will help us out. But where have they all gone?