These were the words of the late Malam Aminu Kano, frontline politician, renowned sage and a true advocate and fighter for the rights of the common man. He died at the age of 63, on April 17th 1983. Yesterday was the 37th anniversary of his death.
I didn’t get to hear the above quote from Malam Aminu Kano himself. In fact, I never had the privilege of meeting him while he lived. But as readers of this column might recall, I’ve referred, a few times in the past, to an encounter I had with the author of his first authoritative biography, Mr Alan Feinstein and his wife, in South Africa.
It was the year 1994 and people from all walks of life were trooping to the new South Africa, to catch a glimpse of life after apartheid; under majority rule. One of these people was the aging American author, who was actually stooping, due to backache or old age or both. His more energetic and outgoing wife was the one who talked about their association with many prominent Nigerians.
Earlier that day, we had received a call from our Consul-General’s wife Hajiya Laraba Abbas, who invited my husband and I to dinner with the author of Aminu Kano’s biography. The American couple had been to her husband’s office to introduce themselves as friends of Nigeria, and had succeeded in getting themselves invited to dinner by Malam Adamu Abbas, the head of the consulate.
While we ate and talked, Mrs Feinstein, who seemed to be on first name-basis with lots of top-ranking Nigerians, finally came to a topic very close to their hearts, Malam Aminu Kano. She asked whether there was any Nigerian politician who was trying to emulate the lifestyle of late Aminu Kano. After a few moments, my husband responded. ‘Yes, I think Balarabe Musa is the closest thing we have to Malam Aminu Kano.’
She seemed impressed, and turning over to the other white couple at the dinner, their South African hosts I believe, she explained what Malam was like. Mrs Feinstein talked about a particular visit to Aminu Kano’s residence, during which she asked why he didn’t have a fan in his house (she was probably bothered by Kano’s legendary heat) and Malam’s simple response to her was “But the people don’t have it’. In other words, he would not own what the people around him didn’t have. He would not live above the ordinary man, he would not stand out, through his lifestyle, just because he was privileged to be their leader.
I was quite struck by Mrs Feinstein’s testimony because I was never aware of the extent of Aminu Kano’s asceticism. But I wasn’t entirely surprised that he cared that much for the masses (whom he chose to call ‘the people’ because he found the word ‘masses’ offensive). Her words made me remember a story I heard about him before. While working at a bank in Lagos, three years earlier, my immediate boss, who was wheelchair-bound, told me about his personal encounter with the legendary Malam.
Apparently Yemi, my former boss, was trying to get a scholarship to the university, after successfully finishing his secondary education. He had been confined to the wheelchair since the age of 11. He approached a prominent Yoruba man in Lagos, who advised him that only another more prominent man, who lives in his farmhouse outside Lagos would be able to help him. He wrote a letter of introduction to this Bigger Man, who was a Federal Minister then and a prominent politician in the First Republic, and gave it to Yemi.
Yemi took a taxi to the man’s house and told his security men about the letter from the Lagos Big Man. The guards immediately opened the gate for the man on the wheelchair to enter. Unfortunately for him Bigger Man was somewhere near the gate and the first thing he shouted was why a beggar was being allowed into his home.
The guard quickly explained that the man had a letter from Lagos Big Man and
Bigger Man demanded that the letter be brought to him. He read the letter, said he’ll look into the problem and dismissed my former boss from there.
Discouraged, he went back to Lagos and discussed his experience with some acquaintances. They advised him to go and meet the Federal commissioner for education then. And he happened to be Malam Aminu Kano. Yemi had an audience with Malam Aminu Kano, who immediately accepted his application for scholarship and made sure he got it. In fact, he said to me while narrating this story, he owed his university education to the kindness of Aminu Kano.
When he went for a condolence visit to the family, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was shown Malam Aminu Kano’s bedroom. At the sight of the slim matress and the austere furnishing in the room where one of his important and influential colleagues lived, Chief Awolowo was reported to have said ‘This country has cheated this man’.
He did understand that Malam lived that way by choice, because he gave little value to the goods of worldly life. He had enough exposure to luxury and the good life but he didn’t allow it to conquer his heart. His favourite hotel, whenever he travelled to England on official assignment was said to be ‘The Churchill Hotel’, an exclusive place from what I heard. But to Malam, knowing such luxury did not mean he had to have it at all costs, and definitely not at the cost of the common man.
I know there are people out there, especially our youths, who will doubt if tales like these are true, because all they see and hear are leaders living grandiose lives, high above the common man and looting at every little opportunity. To them I say, we once had leaders of good quality, who led with the fear of Almighty God and concern for the common man and who were selfless in their service to humanity. Malam Aminu Kano epitomises this rare breed of leaders.
And while I know that it’s too much to ask our current leaders to be as austere and selfless as Aminu Kano was, I don’t think it’s too much to ask them to, at least, do what they were elected to do. Let them serve us well and fear a day in which neither the position nor the influence they acquired will benefit them in any way.
It’s been 37 long years without Aminu Kano’s saintly tutelage. May Almighty Allah grant him Aljannah Firdausi, amin.