Who will tell me juicy historical anecdotes again? That was my rather unkind thought when I first heard of the death on Monday evening of Alhaji Shehu Malami, Sarkin Sudan, at the ripe age of 85. In the past ten years, Sarkin Sudan called me on the phone whenever something important happened, such as the passing of an elder statesman or some important policy change. He always began by saying, “I know you love history. That is why I want to tell you these stories.”
And, what juicy stories they were! From the occasion in 1965 when he brought DRUM magazine editor Nelson Ottah to Kaduna to see the Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello, in order to stem the magazine’s virulent attacks on the Premier and the North. It backfired, because Ottah returned to Lagos and wrote a negative account of his visit, which embarrassed Malami no end. He told me many stories about the late Emir of Kano Alhaji Ado Bayero, beginning from the day in 1963 when Shehu Malami and Walin Bauchi Abubakar Umar were given an hour’s notice to quit the Premier’s private guest house in Kaduna because the new Emir of Kano was coming [it turned out to be Ado Bayero, the Ambassador to Senegal]. He also told me many stories about how, as he sat with him at the Federal Government Special Guest House on Victoria Island in September 1979, President-elect Shehu Shagari offered his campaign Director General Alhaji Umaru Dikko a ministerial post, but Dikko bluntly told Shagari that he didn’t want to be a minister, he wanted to be Secretary to the Federal Government [SFG, as the post was called then].
It was a lifetime’s Great Leap Forward for me when, in the past decade, Sarkin Sudan began to regard me as a confidant and call me on phone to listen to stories. I grew up and went to school mostly in Sokoto and at least from the early 1970s, I knew Shehu Malami, from a distance, as one of the town’s most prominent public figures. In the 1970s and 1980s he was the chairman of many powerful public and private corporations including Costain, PZ and Union Bank and his house was a one-stop shop for juicy favours. In 1973 when he succeeded his father as Sarkin Sudan and District Head of Wurno, it was a most memorable event and Sokoto town spilled over with national and foreign VIPs.
In 1989 when Alhaji Shehu Malami was to launch the book he wrote at Oxford University on the late Sultan Abubakar III, a quarrel exploded between him and former Military Governor of North Western State Alhaji Usman Faruk, now late. We learnt from their hot exchange that Faruk tried to veto Malami’s appointment as Sarkin Sudan when Sir Abubakar nominated him in 1973. Among other charges, Usman Faruk said Shehu Malami used a backdoor channel to Head of State General Yakubu Gowon, through Gowon’s Principal Private Secretary, Walin Sokoto Ambassador Hamzat Ahmadu, to run him down during the Gowon regime. Ahmadu, Faruk and Malami are now deceased; may Allah forgive them all.
In 1980, when I was President of the University of Sokoto Students Union, Sarkin Sudan sent for me. He asked me if I invited Dr. K.O Mbadiwe, Special Adviser to President Shagari on National Assembly Liaison, to Sokoto. I said yes, he was to speak at the closing ceremony of the students’ union week. “Do you have accommodation for him? You know he is a big man!” I said the Vice Chancellor had promised to accommodate any VIP that we invited. Sarkin Sudan then said, “Don’t worry. He is my friend. I will accommodate him.” He then threw a crisp N20 note at me and turned away. As a Communist in those days, I stood up to go and pretended not to see the money. But Malami’s younger brother Dr. Omar Bello, who was my lecturer at the university, was present and he ordered me to bend down and pick the money.
In his memoirs, Sarkin Sudan told the story of how, he was in Abuja’s Hilton Hotel with his family in November 1988 when he heard of Sultan Abubakar III’s death. He gathered the family and they drove through the night to Sokoto. Seven days later he was on the road again. Following the riots that erupted in Sokoto when Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki was appointed the Sultan, State Security Service [SSS] arrested Malami, accused him of inciting the riots, put him in a Black Maria truck and drove throughout the night from Sokoto to Akwa Ibom. They arrived Uyo in the afternoon the following day and immediately started back for Sokoto again.
Soon afterwards, Dasuki’s palace announced Shehu Malami’s “transfer” from Sarkin Sudan of Wurno to Dange as Sarkin Baura. He refused to go and resigned from the district headship, but for the remaining 33 years of his life, everyone still called him Sarkin Sudan. We have lost a statesman who best knew the personal and official lives of Sardauna, Sultan Abubakar, President Shagari and all the great men in-between. It is an irreparable loss. May Allah grant him eternal rest in Aljannat.