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Mahmud Waziri: Remembering Nigeria’s unsung democracy hero

Mahmud Waziri

“There are different types of leaders. While some are thrown up by the challenges of crisis and war, there are other leaders who lead not only in quiet times but also in quiet ways. Generally, however, biographers are often interested in the flamboyant demagogue than in the quiet and meticulous builder mainly because of man’s inherent penchant for the dramatic. But on the whole, nothing great can be achieved without great men; and it is great issues that instigate controversies and call forth great men to handle them.”

The above philosophical outpouring by a renowned author, Viktor Kalu, aptly captures the essence, life and times of one of Nigeria’s greatest statesmen and yet one of the most remarkably forgotten heroes of our democracy… A man who at the risk of his personal life and safety, fought against oppressors and spoke against tyrants, stood for Nigeria and insisted on what is right and just and what is best in the sight of God and man, not what is politically expedient…One of the re-inventers of modern Nigeria who sacrificed personal liberty for the common good and who left his aristocratic and comfortable background to advance the cause of the talakawa consistently till he breathed his last.

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Senator Mahmud Waziri however belongs to the last category (of unsung heroes). He was arguably the most vibrant, cerebral and clear-headed lawmaker in the Second Republic. A great thinker and philosopher-king in the mould of Classical Greek philosopher, Plato, he represented Adamawa district of the Old Gongola state in the Senate between 1979 and 1983.

While his peers and future generations of pretenders who call themselves leaders join politics in search of bread and butter, Waziri, after recording huge successes in public service and business came out of his comfort zone to join politics in search of a platform and opportunity to make impact, make revolutionary changes in the periscope of leaders and mentality of followers as well as advocate for better lives for the Talakawa.

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A politician with class, a business magnate with deep pocket, an educationist, journalist and management consultant; a part-time musician, poet and writer who exude the command of words and erudition of a Nobel Laureate, the multi-talented Mahmud Waziri would have been just as successful if he had chosen the arts, literature or entertainment as a major career.

Williams Shakespeare wrote in his famous Twelfth Night that, “some are born great; some achieve greatness, while some have greatness thrust upon them”. Mahmud Waziri, a man of deep conviction, sound principles and stubborn disposition towards issues of governance and politics, was born great on December 13, 1936, in Yola the present-day capital of Adamawa state. His father was Mallum Hamman, the third Waziri of Adamawa who reigned between 1923 and 1963.

He began and completed both his primary and secondary education in the old Adamawa province where he attended the Yola elementary school (1944-1948) and the Yola Middle School (1948-1953). At the age of 16, the young intellectual proceeded to the Institute of Administration, Zaria where he studied between 1953 and 1954. To advance his worldview and expand his horizon, the young Waziri competed with the best brains in the world at the Northwestern Polytechnic, London between 1958 and 1961. He also studied at the Watertool University in Ontario, Canada.

In between his studies, he had worked as a third class clerk at the Premier’s office in Kaduna between 1953 and 1956. That was where he learnt the virtues of simplicity, selflessness, religious devotion and patriotism which later influenced the kind of politics he would play in the future.

In 1968, he married former Miss Hauwa Malabu, the daughter of Bello Malabu who was Nigeria’s first Ambassador to Cameroun and Madawaki Adamawa. They had three equally successful children together.

He rose through the ranks in the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) between 1956 and 1973. He was a management cadet, administrative officer, London representative, dock superintendent, deputy chief establishment officer, chief establishment officer and controller of personnel. He was deputy general manager (1973-1974) and later first indigenous General Manager and Chief Executive Officer (1974-1976) of the Nigerian sugar company, Bacita, the premier sugar company in the country.

He was the founder, managing director (1976) and executive chairman (1985) of the Nigerbas Shipping Line Limited. He was listed as a Director, Societe Generale bank (1989), member, Institute of Transport, London (1961), Director Borini Pronto Company (1972-1979), chairman, Central Water Company,(1973-1974), member, Nigerian Institute of Management and British Institute of Management.

It was not a surprise therefore that Waziri joined the murky waters of Nigerian politics as a self-made millionaire. That was exactly why his politics was strictly people-based.

Waziri, being a man of conviction who followed his instincts and not the bandwagon, joined the Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) in the 70s instead of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) that most northern top shots were joining. With 53,586 votes, he defeated Ali Baba of the NPN (46,032 votes), Maman Dakisiri of UPN (15,687 votes) and I. Yakubu of PRP (4,960 votes) in the 1979 Adamawa district senatorial election. He had served as a member of the Constituent Assembly in 1977 where the 1979 constitution was drafted.

On the floor of the senate, he spoke with clarity, spoke truth to power, challenged the NPN-led executive and held everyone spellbound with his vision and passion for a united, better Nigeria. He declined to seek a second term in the Senate having foreseen a disastrous end of the republic which he warned the political class of.

During the military interregnum, he continued his private businesses, philanthropy, and the advocacy for good governance and return to democracy. A cross-national bridge builder who never played the typical narrow politics of identity of the conservative north, he was with MKO Abiola through and through and played a major role in his victory in the historic June 12, 1993 election. Even when some of Abiola’s tribesmen abandoned the struggle and joined Abacha on the dining table, Waziri remained with pro-democracy activists, called out the maximum dictator repeatedly and made life difficult for the murderous junta, at the risk of his life.

It was in the dying days of military rule that Waziri actually proved himself as a goal-getting political schemer, a man of strong convictions who believed in justice and the need to keep the country together. As protem chairman of the All Peoples Party (APP), he did all he could to make sure a Yoruba man from southwest emerged president to compensate the people of that zone over the Abiola matter and preserve the unity of the nation. Since the PDP was going to give its ticket to former Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, Waziri started by edging out the northern aspirants from the race. He saw that a southerner, Dr Ogbonaya Onu, emerged Presidential candidate of APP at the Kaduna convention. He also defied internal rebellion to strike a major deal with the Alliance for Democracy (AD) who had former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Olu Falae, as its Presidential candidate. He used his experience as a business deal maker to make sure the alliance adopted APP as the name while choosing Falae as the Presidential candidate. At the end of the day, the Presidency was a context between two Yoruba men and even though his candidate, Falae, did not win, justice was duly served and after all the post-June 12 agitation that shook the nation to its foundation, peace descended on Nigeria and it has endured up till today.

If Waziri had succumbed to the blackmail, name calling and attacks by some of the party bigwigs, a northerner with the APP ticket would have defeated Obasanjo at the general election and the agitation by the southwest over the June 12 injustice could have led Nigeria to another Rwandan-style genocide or another civil war… And therein lies Waziri’s heroism.

As a great dancer and a brilliant actor who knew exactly when to quit the stage at the peak of the ovation, he stepped down as chairman of the APP in June 1999. He took his passion for service to the corridors of the Executive when he helped President Olusegun Obasanjo to stabilize the polity in his capacity as Special Adviser on Inter-Party Relations.

The life story of Mahmud Waziri is a testament to the time-tested aphorism that charity begins at home. He did not start his philanthropy and advocacy for good governance from Adamawa state or from the floor of the Senate in Lagos. He started from his own very large extended family. Waziri took it upon himself to sponsor the education of several of his nieces and nephews and other extended relatives. It was after he successfully put his family on the path of education and progress that he launched himself into national reckoning and he also made a remarkable success out of it.

Waziri loved Nigeria to a fault and he never stopped urging the political class to put the country first. The fact that the country is still tottering today is because his caution to politicians conveyed in countless speeches, articles and books, has largely gone unheeded.  Below is one of his immortal admonitions which is still relevant today:

Ahmed Waziri writes from Abuja. He can be reached via ahmed_waziri@yahoo.co.uk

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