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"Subject to the overriding need to preserve law and order, it is our determination that everyone should have absolute liberty to practice his belief according to the dictates of his conscience…”  - Sir Ahmadu Bello


For Sardauna, governance was service to the common man

By Chief Sunday B. Awoniyi   / 2006-01-14


Chief Sunday B. Awoniyi, the current chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), was a District Officer (DO), Senior Assistant Secretary (Security) in the office of the Premier and Secretary to the Executive Council in the Northern Regional Government of the late Premier, Alhaji (Sir) Ahmadu Bello, among other administrative duties and responsibilities he discharged then. As Arewa mourns the murder of the Premier in the first military coup-de-tat in the nation’s history on 15th January, 1966, Chief Awoniyi reminisced with nostalgia on the personality of the colossus, his days with him as one of the top civil servants who worked most closely with him, governance in those days, and assessed the country’s presence in the light of the past in an interview with Uthman Abubakar recently.


Its exactly 40 years since the Premier of the Northern Region, Alhaji (Sir) Ahmadu Bello, was murdered. For the benefit of those who were either not born before his death or not grown up enough to know him, who was Ahmadu Bello?
He was a giant personality. He was imposing in figure and size, and he dressed like a prince. His personality was such that you could not but notice him. He was intimidating for people who did not know him and fear him. But the man was very simple. He loved his fellow men and he was exceedingly generous in material gift as well as in praise of somebody who does a good work. He was very accommodating of the fault of others, but he would pull them up to his level. He was intolerant of indolence, because he believed that the intolerant man was a liability to everybody around him. He was a workaholic. He loved the country and the people. And his concentration on the North, to bring up the North quickly, was his way of working for the unity of the country, because he believed that the North must be got into a position of competitive parity with the rest of the country if there was going to be peace and unity. He had no moment for himself. It was work, work, work.

The late Ahmadu Bello was among the founding fathers of the Nigerian nation. Each of these triumvirs and founding fathers had a philosophy he stood for, which contributed immensely to the moulding of the country’s nationhood. What was the philosophy of Ahmadu Bello?


He didn’t write many books, but what was so outstanding about him, was that the most important element of governance, for him, was concern for the common man. There was a day when he said that while he would use his position and the power of government to enable businessmen to make money legitimately, whenever the interest of the businessmen and the common man clashed, he would be found on the side of the common man. His philosophy, I think, was that God put him in that position to use his time, his position and his influence for the good of his fellowmen, because he believed that he would be answerable to his Creator who gave him the fantastic opportunity for whatever he did or failed to do. That I think was his philosophy. If somebody did something which was against the interest of the common man, you would hear the Premier say: “Basu jin tsoron Allah?” (Don’t they fear God?). He respected human beings, no matter your origin and your religion. He trusted you as an individual not as somebody who belonged to a certain religion or to a certain place where their politics at that moment happened to differ from his own politics. I was the Secretary to the Executive Council of Northern Nigeria. I wouldn’t normally have qualified if it was on the basis of my religion, my tribe or my ethnicity. He did not care. He just demanded your quality. Your talent was what mattered to him. And your promotion, your advancement was not related to who you were. It was related to what you did and your commitment to Northern Nigeria and the government, not to Sardauna. Loyalty to the people and what the government is trying to do for the people was what mattered to him.

The late Premier erected a lot of legacies during his time. What were those legacies and how were they maintained and their operations directed toward the development of not only the region but the entire nation?


He believed that education was the most important single item that he must pursue, and pursue very ruthlessly to bring up the North to a competitive status vis a vis the rest of the federation. There was a policy whereby irrespective of the community, if you wanted to build a secondary school and you built one classroom at the village or community, you got grant to build a second one. That was how he pushed education very very rapidly. You see him visiting schools, encouraging people, talking to students, looking through microscopes. And the extension service to show farmers how to plant and develop particular crops and better yield, he was always at it. For him governance was service. That was one thing he drummed into everybody. It was service. It was not a thing with which you make Nyanga. It was service, service, service. Everybody around him knew that he was a servant. So you must also be a servant. He also left a legacy of probity, so much so that the idea of misuse of government funds or government property was unheard of. If it was discovered, you were dealt with immediately. We had three aeroplanes in Northern Communication Flight. I was Secretary to the Executive Council and, therefore, in charge of NORFLIGHT. If it was a private journey, I would give him a bill and he paid. It isn’t like now when public aircraft are used like Kabu-kabu for children of the Head of State. Everything was paid for; everything was accounted for, and there was proper budgeting. Everything was budgeted for and approved by Parliament. It was impossible for you to spend one Kobo without accointing for it. It was tight, and we had an auditing system whereby at the end of the year, there was an audit report, and if there was anything, you were queried, and you had to go before the audit committee to answer. You would sweat before the audit committee. How come this thing was over-spent by fifteen pounds? You had to explain, although there was a provision whereby within the entire budget in your ministry, if you wanted to spend fifteen pounds extra and there was no way you could do it, you could take from another head, but you would have to apply to the Ministry of Finance for permission to do so. If it said no, you had to explain and explain and explain. If it said yes, then you could do it. Then the audit would not query you because you got the approval from the appropriate ministry. And we did not overshoot into the budget. So the probity and the accountability that they are now singing about, all the song they are making now about probity and accountability, all these existed then. But they have now destroyed the system. The governors and the head of state take the whole money as if it is their own.

So, look at those legacies now in contrast to what obtained then. How would you assess them?

Most of the legacies Sardauna left behind have not been kept. They have not been kept at all. I drive by the roadside today. I see children and I see flies getting into their eyes and large tummies due to malnutrition. Such things couldn’t have happened during his life time. There was a vigorous campaign for health. Health was improving day in, day out. It was the responsibility of the government to provide good health for the people. Drugs were free. We were having dispensaries all over the place, and auxiliary health centres were being established. Everybody was involved in the health programme. Every civil servant contributed to health and agriculture in his own way. On the other hand after destroying the civil service when he was Head of State in the 70s this man (Obasanjo) is now back, saying he has no regrets for the destruction of the civil service, and is threatening some 40,000 thousand more now to be retrenched. Therefore, the confidence which you had in support of government action in those days is no more there now because you don’t know when you will be sacked. And he (Obasanjo) is now talking of 100 percent military loyalty. The loyalty of the civil servant is not to the individual. It is to the state, the constitution and all the laws emanating from the constitution. What he is asking for is not loyalty, but grovelling servitude. He is looking for slaves to serve him. The nation can’t get the best unless the civil service is bold, courageous and fearless. The civil servant is a moron now. Loyalty is a two-way affair. You must be deserving of loyalty before you can earn it. Loyalty is not decreed. It isn’t imposed by presidential speeches. It is earned. It is encouraged.
How do you see the nation now politically, economically and socially in contrast to what the late Premier stood for and executed in its foundation years and for its future prosperity?

Well the Premier wanted Nigeria to be a great nation. And his relationship with the other parts of the country was basically cordial because he believed that the common man was friendly, and that if the leadership of the country could work together, unity was assured. So he bent backwards to accommodate others, because there were those who tried to tear him down all the time within the region and outside the region. But he was so forgiving. He was very very forgiving. He had good relationship with Aminu Kano. He had good relationship with Joseph Tarka. He had good relationship with Sunday Olawoyin. For him, the man on the other side of the political spectrum was not an enemy. He looked at him as somebody within the same Northern system. He would call them to a meeting, ‘please, these are the problems we have’, and they would discuss, irrespective of their political leanings. So, bringing the people together was paramount to him. The system developed in such a way that we were the beneficiaries of what was available for the whole North. It wasn’t the preserve of any one part of it. That was why it was possible for everybody to consider himself a northerner. Just before he died he started a programme. We were discussing it. He said ‘why don’t we send six administrative officers to the West, and six to the East, and we take six from the East and six from the West to come and work in the North for one year. This was going to be the integration of the bureaucracy in the country. The six that went to the West would know the West, the six that went to the East would know the East, and those coming from the other places would know the North. He wanted to do that. The unity of Nigeria was very paramount to him, so much so that one problem in any part of the country concerned him. Long before environmental pollution became a problem, he said “those who may feel that the problems of the oil producing areas are not in their backyard, and feel safe distance from oil communities should be reminded that Nigeria is an entity within an environment. Decay in one part will ultimately affect the rest of the nation.” He was very farsighted. He was a man with a very clear vision.
What is wrong now with the North he built politically and economically in contrast to how he left it?

It is almost impossible to answer your question. You can say every thing is wrong with the North. With the creation of states, the institutions which bound us together lost their cohesive influence. Six states were created out of the region, and then later 10, then 13 and now 19. We don’t even know ourselves as much as we did before, and we have not been lucky with the leadership of the 19 states. A governor said sometimes ago that those who inherited the legacy of the Sardauna are not living up to it, and I had to tell him: “who are those who inherited the legacy of Sardauna? You the 19 governors are the inheritors of this heritage, and particularly those of you who benefited from the education in your primary schools and in ABU. You are the beneficiaries of what he created. You have the executive power which he had; you have the authority which he had. Are you using it the way he used it? It is you who are delinquent as the inheritors of his legacy. Nigeria itself can not be a nation that will fulfil the destiny which God preserved for it unless it follows the same principles of the Sardauna and the way he governed the North. One great thing with the Premier was that it was impossible for him to be aware of any form of injustice and not get up to rectify it. The most busy schedule in the Premier’s office was the AS (Assistant Secretary) complaints.

Would you suggest ways to redress this situation for the North and the entire country to positively progress and prosper?
Until you have a leadership that is even prepared to listen. There are those who think that I am a noise maker, I am a nuisance. But you never know. One day somebody may listen. Out of 19, if it is only two, it is a fantastic progress. Most of the governors are inaccessible. The Premier was reachable. Eight o’clock (in the evening) you just walk into his house. You probably find food and you join them and eat. And if you are standing and talking, and you would not eat, he would ask what was wrong with you. If you said you had eaten, he wouldn’t like it. He would prefer you eat something no matter how little. That was so much so that if there was an officer in the ministry with whom I wanted to talk over some official issues, and it didn’t work out, I would go to the Premier’s house. The chances were that we might meet there, and we would discuss. If the Premier gave you time, he keeps to it. Things were predictable. You wouldn’t wait for your promotion, you just heard it. You were always surprised when you were promoted, because everybody was working hard. There was expedience, there was a system, but it wasn’t a rigid system, so rigid that it was not movable.

  “Here in the Northern Nigeria we have People of Many different races, tribes and religious who are knit together to common history, common interest and common ideas, the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. I always remind people of our firmly rooted policy of religious tolerance. We have no intention of favouring one religion at the expense of another. Subject to the overriding need to preserve law and order, it is our determination that everyone should have absolute liberty to practice his belief according to the dictates of his conscience…”  - Sir Ahmadu Bello 

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