Ibrahim Datti Ahmed (1936 to 2021). By Olusegun Adeniyi

Date: 2021-12-31

I experienced a sincere sense of loss early this morning when I received a terse message from my friend, Mohammed Jamu. ‘You lost your friend last night. He will be buried today at 10am’, he wrote. The message was accompanied by photographs I took with the late Dr Ibrahim Datti Ahmed at his residence almost a decade ago. Although I had resolved not to write this week (Christmas in Kwara State is a season of indulgence for me), I feel compelled to pay tribute to the deceased Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria (SCSN) president. Incidentally, my last personal encounter with him was on 20th May 2012. I recall that as he escorted me to the car to bid me bye after a very enlightening session, he turned to my friend and asked, “Please what is the name again?”

“Mohammed Yusuf” came the reply from Jamu who deliberately omitted his middle name by which most of us know him. “Ah, you share the same name with the late Boko Haram founder”, said late Ahmed. While it was amid laughter that we left his austere Kano home, the convivial mood belied our serious discussion on the security challenge facing our nation and how his patriotic efforts at mediation had been mismanaged by the relevant authorities.

My relationship with Datti Ahmed dates to early 1991 when I was a fresh reporter with The Guardian newspaper. At that period, he was contesting the presidency on the platform of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP). I was introduced by his late friend and Second Republic Kwara State Deputy Governor, Alhaji Abatemi Usman. Datti Ahmed had also by then become close to my guardian, Chief Cornelius Adebayo (former Kwara State Governor with whom I was living) and he (Ahmed) took an immediate liking to me and a genuine interest in my career.

Born in 1936 in Daigari, Kano, Datti Ahmed attended Barewa College before reading medicine at the University of Ibadan. He began his working career as a House/Medical Officer in the Northern Nigerian Civil Service. At age 30 in 1966, he resigned to go into private medical practice with the establishment of Kano Clinics. And he has at various times served in public capacities. For instance, between 1976 and 1979, he was the pro chancellor and chairman of the governing council of the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife).

A simple man who lived a complicated political life, Datti Ahmed was a disciple of the late Aminu Kano. However, during the Second Republic, he led the Concerned Citizens Committee, a group of prominent Northern politicians and professionals who threw their support behind the presidential aspiration of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo during the 1983 general election. When he was contesting the presidency in the ill-fated Fourth Republic, Datti Ahmed shocked many northerners when he publicly criticized Nigeria’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) which had by then generated controversy. He said if elected, he would reexamine its relevance to the nation’s economic and political need. Remarkably, even then, he was renowned as a strong adherent of Islam which he would fully later embrace in the last decades of his life.

Although we spoke on phone a couple of times in recent years, my last conversation with Datti Ahmed was the May 2012 visit to his Kano residence. We spent almost two hours together though we had not seen or spoken for almost 15 years before then.  Prior to the visit, nobody alerted him that I was coming. I simply asked Jamu to drive me to his residence where surprisingly the man at the gate did not even ask who we were before ushering us in. Datti Ahmed, he said, had gone to the Mosque but would soon be back so he brought out chairs for us to sit and wait outside the small bungalow. Not long after, the medical doctor turned Islamic cleric drove himself in and it was evident he had not lost his sense of humour. As he moved closer and recognised me in flowing white babariga and a red cap (the signature costume for Kwankwaso’s supporters supplied by Jamu), he said “Segun, I didn’t know you have also become a ‘Kwankwasiyya’”.

I recall that encounter with nostalgia. We spoke about the state of the nation and several issues that hamper our development. He was particularly concerned about education in the North. Datti Ahmed told me interesting stories about Awolowo’s free education programme and its impact on the development of the Southwest which still reverberates today. With several anecdotes of prominent Yoruba academics he encountered while he was pro Chancellor at Ife, I leant more from him about Awolowo’s free education and its impact than I ever knew before then. After discussing a wide range of issues, we ended up with his abortive attempt to intermediate with Boko Haram on behalf of the federal government which was then a national issue. Without hedging, he gave me details of what happened and how the opportunity was mismanaged.

According to Datti Ahmed, based on their concerns about the spate of violence in the North, he and a few others had been looking for a way to intervene but didn’t know anybody who could put them in contact with Boko Haram. And then someone introduced to them a man, (a Christian who had just converted to Islam and was close to the Boko Haram leadership). It was this man who linked Datti Ahmed and the SCSN Secretary, Mr Nafiu Baba-Ahmed with the Boko Haram leadership. On that basis, the duo of Datti Ahmed and Baba-Ahmed approached President Goodluck Jonathan regarding their efforts and expressed the need for confidentiality. While President Jonathan warmed to the idea and detailed a senior official (name withheld) with whom they met twice, everything they discussed was reported in the media. So, invariably, it was the attention-seeking presidency official who thwarted their efforts.

Because he prefaced our conversation with a proviso that it was not for publication, I didn’t write about my encounter with Datti Ahmed at the time and I will preserve his memory by not revealing what he told me about those delicate negotiations. But it is important to state that unlike some clerics who go into forests with camera crews, Datti Ahmed believed that negotiations with criminal elements (whether insurgents or bandits) are not something you conduct with media exposure. It is the result that should speak for such efforts, and he made that clear to authorities. The moment that agreement was breached, Datti Ahmed pulled out of the negotiation with Boko Haram. And on 18th March 2012, he issued the following statement: “As a concerned elder and President of the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria (SCSN), I felt very disturbed with the turn of events and the increasing cycle of massive violence in our country, and especially, in the Northern and Muslim part of Nigeria. We in the SCSN, therefore, made enquiries as to how to reach the current leadership of the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnati Lidda Awati wal Jihad, otherwise known as Boko Haram.

“Our enquiries led us to a reporter who we realized maintained close and valuable professional contact with leadership of the Sect. Through this gentleman, we contacted the leadership of the Sect and established from them that as Muslims they were prepared to consider ‘Sulhu’ which means ‘broad reconciliation’ regarding the dispute between them and the Government.

“It was, at this juncture, that I and the Secretary General of the SCSN, on behalf of the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria contacted the Federal Government at the highest level and intimated them of this great possibility of reconciliation and peaceful resolution of the crisis. This was on Monday, 5th March, 2012. My delegation was well received, and a high-ranking civilian officer was appointed immediately to liaise with us towards a successful resolution of the crisis. To our shock and dismay, no sooner had we started this dialogue; Nigerian newspapers came out with a lot of the details of the meeting held.

“This development has embarrassed us very much and has created strong doubts in our minds about the sincerity of the Government’s side in our discussion as the discussion is supposed to be very confidential to achieve any success. In view of this unfortunate and unhelpful development, we have no option but to withdraw from these early discussions. We sincerely regret that an opportunity to negotiate and terminate this cycle of violence is being missed.”

The late Ibrahim Datti Ahmed was known for the promotion of his religion in his later life. He left the world of medicine and politics to become a cleric but never made merchandise of his faith. Whatever one’s view about that may be, Datti Ahmed was a man of strong conviction, a genuine patriot who lived an austere and disciplined life. May God grant him Aljanah Firdaus and comfort the family he left behind.

Meanwhile, since we are in that time of the season when we reflect as we come to the end of one year and look forward to the next, let me leave readers with a story I once shared on this page of a little boy who visited the village store with his father. On their way out after shopping, they encountered the owner of the store who offered the little boy some free candy. “Get a hand full of candy” the store’s proprietor said to the boy. Rather than act as directed and scoop the candy, the boy just stood there looking up to his father. Apparently thinking the boy didn’t get his message, the owner repeated himself, “Son, get a hand full of candy, it’s free.” Again, the boy did not move as he continued to look up to his father.

Apparently embarrassed by what he considered his son’s timidity, the father reached into the jar and got a hand full of candy. He then handed it to his son who beamed with smiles. But as they walked back home, the father stopped and asked his son why he had to rely on him rather than scoop a handful of the free candy by himself. With another big smile on his face, the boy looked up to his father and said: “Because I know that your hand is bigger than mine.”

Whatever may be the challenges of 2021 that is sure to end in a matter of hours, for those of us who believe in Higher Power, we must learn to place them in His hand. Because the hand of God is bigger than ours.

I wish all my readers a prosperous 2022!

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