I am sad to learn of the death, of the Makama Nupe, Alhaji Shehu Musa. I knew him as a very decent person, and a respectable public official.
In 1980, during my first year as a journalist, I wrote a commentary on some area of the government that was critical of President Shehu Shagari. I was young and full of fire and energy. I had been in the trade for less than one year, during which I sold the idea for a syndicated column to be known as “The Presidency,” to our Managing Director, Mr. Sam Amuka.
As sit worked out, the column became my second. And within two weeks, “The Presidency” attracted the attention of the presidency.
The first alarm ought to have been that Mr. Amuka was at The Punch before noon, and on a Monday. He invited me to his office and told me he wanted me to see Alhaji Musa, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), that day. And yes, it was in connection with my commentary.
I told Mr. Amuka I did not have to see anyone, but he eventually persuaded me to meet with the SGF, with the understanding that I did not have to accept anything he said.
And oh, said Mr. Amuka, what was I going to wear to the meeting? I was usually clad in jeans, a practice that was obviously not lost on the boss.
I asked him what was wrong with what I was wearing. He told me that I could not very well meet with the Secretary to the Government of Nigeria dressed in jeans.
I lost that battle too. And so, that afternoon, I showed up at the office of Alhaji Musa in a three-piece babanriga, complete with a matching cap. I looked like a member of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
When I arrived, I was shuffled past the queue into the presence of the SGF. Among the people I had past: cabinet-level officials of the federal government, including both the Political and Economic Advisers to the President. I learned, right then, that the press did have recognition in our democracy. The press was a player!
Once in the presence of Alhaji Musa, I realized I needed to take several deep breaths because I had come ready for battle. But before me was a soft-spoken man who was happy to see me. He was unassuming and comfortable with a journalist, and I was surprised he had such commendations about an article that was critical of his government. He made it clear he had asked to meet me not to compromise me, but to make it clear that should I have any questions, his and other doors into the government were open.
He offered to introduce me to President Shagari, but I refused. I left the door ajar by telling him I might be interested in interviewing the man for the column later on, a check I never cashed.
However, I maintained my contact with Alhaji Musa, who never seemed to remember he was one of our nation’s most powerful men. I did not find him to be arrogant or self-centred, and he never insulted me by dipping his hand into his pockets to give me “something for the weekend.”
One day, he asked if I would help find employment for a young man. I reminded him he was at the apex of the federal civil service, the nation’s largest employer of labour. He replied that placing him in the civil service was not difficult, but that he would be setting a bad example.
Coming from such a well-placed person, that was surprising. But when I thought about it, Alhaji Musa was an unusual Nigerian, and he was educating me too. So I told him that as long as his candidate was qualified or willing to work, I was on his side.
Luckily, I was able to help the young man. I told Alhaji Musa that I had done it out of respect for his respect for principle, and because of his interest in people in general. He enjoyed discussing ideas, and it did not matter to him that a good idea was coming from his cleaner or houseboy. On one occasion, he sought advice from me on how to help a former houseboy of his gain further education and achieve his professional dreams. And he was willing to absorb the bills.
When he left the government, I did not see much of him. Although he encouraged me to visit him at home, I preferred the occasional visit at his offices, particularly his private one at the foot of the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, where I sometimes hid from the debilitating traffic.
I will remember Alhaji Musa for being a principled, patriotic and earthy Nigerian. He never seemed to place himself above the ordinary man, nor seek all the riches of our land. He could have been richer than anyone in his era, but materialism was not his weakness. He was at once at home with the powerful and the ordinary, and he believed in the responsibility of the civil service to resist the menace of politicians, whether they were civilian or military.
I was glad to meet Alhaji Musa early in my career because the experience helped me appreciate that there were still people of character in the civil service, people who believed in our country. The irony is that he served at the head of the civil service at a time that Nigeria had been overrun by the National Party of Nigeria, which provided the blueprint for the current People’s Democratic Party on how to eat a country blind.
It is not often that I mourn a public figure publicly. But the man who became Makama Nupe, and who turned down offers of chieftaincy titles all over Nigeria, deserves to be acknowledged on every tree top.
Paraxodically, this remarkable Nigerian died in a foreign land. In my view, every time a top Nigerian dies abroad, or seems medical treatment abroad, there are at least two tragedies involved.
May Alhaji Musa’s soul rest in peace.