Late Abubakar Imam

Being text of a lecture on The Life and Times of Abubakar Imam: Lessons for Today by Mohammed Haruna under the auspices of Gamji Members’ Association (GAMA), Niger State Chapter, on Saturday March 5, 2004 at General A. A. Abubakar Youth Centre Theatre, Minna, Niger State.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, permit me to begin this lecture by thanking its organisers, the Gamji Members’ Association (GAMA), for the honour of inviting me to speak on one of the greatest sons, not only of the North, but of Nigeria. For, the late Malam Abubakar Imam is one of the most brilliant and the most influential newspaper editors Nigeria has ever produced. We have, of course produced great editors in colonial times and after, such editors like Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ismaila Babatunde Jose. However in this big league only Abubakar Imam started and finished his journalism career as editor. The rest became publishers later in the course of their career. This may have made them more powerful than Imam but as moulders of public opinion on a day to day basis, few publishers could match his influence as editor. In this respect, it is perhaps instructive that Malam Abubakar Imam stands out today as the only Nigerian journalist and the first Nigerian novelist to have won the Nigerian National Merit Award.

It is this great editor and author that GAMA has given me an opportunity to talk about this morning. The title the association gave me was “Abubakar Imam: A Prodigious Talent for Today’s Reference.” Without doubt Imam was a great talent, a prodigy if you like. No doubt he is also an excellent example for today’s journalists and public officials alike. However I thought GAMA’s title was rather mouthful so I took the liberty of rephrasing it while retaining its meaning. Hence the new title, “The Life and Times of Abubakar Imam: Lessons for Today.”

Talking to a few of the people who know him well and also reading the excellent Abubakar Imam Memoirs edited by one of his in-laws, the late Alhaji Abdurrahman Mora, one cannot avoid the conclusion that Imam was a symbol of all the qualities of good leadership, including honesty, self-sacrifice, modesty, hardwork and wisdom. Imam displayed these qualities in abundance not only as author and pioneer editor of Gaskiya ta fi kwabo, the longest running newspaper in Nigeria, bar the Daily Times, he also displayed all these qualities in his other roles in the service of the North and Nigeria.

If Nigeria has suffered retrogression since independence in almost all aspects of life – economics, politics and social – it is mainly because our leaders have behaved less and less like the Abubakar Imams of this world. This is the main lesson of the life and times of Imam.

Before we go into some details about what we can learn from his life and times, it is important, even necessary, to delve into his ancestry because there is also a lesson to be learnt from that aspect of his life.

Malam Abubakar Imam was born in 1911 in Kagara, in the then Kontagora Province which was subsequently merged with Bida Province and became Niger Province. Imam’s great-grandfather, Malam Muhammadu Gajibo, was originally from Gajibo town in Dikwa Emirate of former Borno Empire. He emigrated from Gajibo as a partisan of Maina Ibrahim who had lost the contest for the Maiship of Dikwa to his younger brother upon the death of their father. Maina Ibrahim and his followers, including Imam’s great-grandfather, finally settled in the vicinity of Bida, the headquarters of the then powerful Nupe Kingdom. The Etsu Nupe at the time chose Kutigi as a home for Maina Ibrahim and his people. Kutigi rapidly grew and is today one of the Niger State’s most important towns.

R. M. East. The title of his book was called Ruwan Bagaja. Among the other winners was his elder brother Muhammadu Bello who wrote Gandoki, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who wrote Shehu Umar, Balewa was to become Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister.

Apparently Imam’s writing skills won Mr. East’s admiration so much so that in 1936 he requested for Imam’s temporary transfer to the Literature Bureau in Zaria. This was granted and Imam spent six months working day and night to produce the three volumes of Magana Jari Ce which became classics in Hausa Literature. The first volume was published in 1937 and the remaining two in 1938.

During the same year the British decided to establish a strong regional Hausa newspaper to replace the many provincial newspaper already in circulation. Mr. East, who was in charge, once again decided that Imam was the best person for the job. Imam was at first reluctant to accept the job but eventually was, for all intents and purposes, ordered by the Emir of Katsina, Alhaji Mohammed Dikko, to do so.

Imam’s refusal to sign the memorandum became a source of a huge national controversy about the relationship between the North and the South. This controversy was fueled by an editorial in Zik’s West African Pilot which portrayed Imam as anti-progressive and anti-people because of his refusal to sign.

This negative portrayal of Imam came as a big shock to him because throughout their passage to England as well as throughout their stay, Zik and Imam struck a very cordial relationship. Even when Imam refused to sign Zik’s memorandum giving his reasons, Zik, who Imam looked up to as a professional elder, gave the impression that he understood and was satisfied with Imam’s explanations.

“Dr. Azikiwe and myself,” said Imam in his memoir, “were always together. He taught me a lot of things. The only thing he could not teach me was how to dance. I accompanied him to dances and held his coat for him. When he was tired we drove back home.”

You can therefore imagine Imam’s shock at his treatment by Zik’s paper based, of course, on the dispatch Zik sent to the paper about how his fellow-voyagers’ reacted to his memoranda.

Upon his return, Imam wrote his own defence in his newspaper, a defence which received overwhelming support from the newspapers’ readers. Out of all the reactions to his explanation only one stood out in total disagreement. This was the reaction from Malam Aminu Kano who had already established a reputation as a very unrelenting critic of Indirect Rule which, for all practical purposes, gave emirs the power of life and death over their subjects. It is a mark of Imam’s broadmindedness that he became one of Malam Aminu Kano’s best friends.

When Imam declined Zik’s invitation to sign his charter, he (Imam) made it clear that is was not because he did not share Zik’s objective of local autonomy and eventual independence from British rule. He refused to sign, he said, because he did not have his peoples’ mandate to sign any memorandum. Besides many of Zik’s demands, like free education and free health services, were already being provided by his region. He also felt that his region had not produced enough personnel to man its administration. More importantly he was also worried that the North and South had not built enough mutual that was necessary for the unity and harmony of the country. For these reasons alone, he said, it would have been presumptuous of him to pretend that he was speaking for the people of the region whose primary source of news and forum for expressing their views was Gaskiya.

“If the matter is viewed dispassionately,” he said in the course of a interactive session with members of West African Students Union in UK during the course of their visit, “it is clear that it is the Northerners and Southerners themselves who create differences among themselves and not, as some maintain, the Europeans.” It was Nigerians themselves, he said, who created negative stereo-types about each other and not the Europeans.

However, he pinned the greater blame for mutual distrust on Southerners who he said regarded Northerners as backward and a drag. If, he said, for example a Northerner did something irregular, the Southern press always blew it out of proportion to portray the Northern as a backward. The newspapers, he said would carry such sensational headlines like “HAUSAMAN STABS COUNTRYMAN WITH KNIFE”… “TWO HAUSAMEN LOCKED IN FIGH AND EACH LOSES A HAND”… “HAUSAMAN EATS TWO MUCH RAW CASSAVA AND DIES.”

“Such things,” said Imam, “do not promote friendly feeling. They show the Hausa up as a backward sort of person. Then when the Southerners have finished humiliating us in this way, they turn round and say we are their brothers, and that it is the Europeans that are trying to separate us from them.” In subsequent correspondences with senior colonial officials including Lord Lugard, Imam said the Northerners’ share of the blame for the mutual hostility between the regions, was in the reluctance of its emirs to reform the Native Authority system and that way allow commoners to have a say in governance.

“The way Indirect Rule is practiced in Northern Nigeria,” he said in one of his correspondences with Lord Lugard, “breeds evil in the Region and it is one of the factors that hinder the progress of that part of the country”. The colonial officers should therefore not regard the demands for its reform as a root and branch attack on the system or as an indirect challenge of their authority. Rather they should view it as a demand for justice and for broadening the power base so as to make governance more democratic.

servant, Malam Abubakar served with honesty, with dedication, with selflessness and with hardwork. And as he served he counted his reward not in material terms, but in the difference he made to the quality of the lives of his people.

By now Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed I have focused my speech on the career of Imam as a journalist and author. This, however, is not because it was the only role where he served with distinction. As I have said, he discharged every responsibility he was given with the same distinction with which he served as editor and author. If I have focused on his career as journalist and author, this is only because these were the roles he was more famous for.

This speech has by no means exhausted the numerous examples of how well he served the public. Given the time available to me it is simply not possible to do justice to the character of Malam Abubakar Imam as a leader worthy of emulation. Anyone wishing to know how great a leader he was would have no choice but to read his memoirs which was edited by the late Alhaji Abdurrahman Mora and which was published in 1989 by the Northern Nigeria Publishing Company, Zaria.

Indeed I would like to suggest that the book be made compulsory reading for all our journalism schools not only in the North but in Nigeria, because, for me at least, the book reads like a classic manual of how journalism should be practiced.

Malam Abubakar Imam died in 1981 leaving behind 14 children and a legacy of authorship in the North matched only by the trio of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio, his brother Sheikh Abdullahi and his son, Sultan Muhammadu Bello. By the time he died he had also served with distinction as the first indigenous chairman of the North Regional Public Service Commission, as a pioneer chairman of the then North Central State Public Complaints Commission, and as a director of New Nigerian Newspapers, among many other public offices he held.

Here then is a legacy whose preservation and promotion we owe Imam and ourselves.

Fortunately the Zaria Academy under Dr. Haroun Adamu one of Imam’s disciplines, and in his time one of the most incisive and prolific columnists working for Daily Times and writing in the Sunday Times, has set up the Abubakar Imam Foundation to preserve and promote his legacy. As a first step the initiators of the foundation have set up a website which can be visited at This initiative deserves the support of all men and women of goodwill.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for listening.

Mohammed Haruna

March 5, 2005.



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