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By NBF News

Mamman Nasir
You retired from being the President of the Court of Appeal a few years ago and now you are back in Malumfashi, how has life been?

I retired comparatively long ago in 1992 and I was in the Court of Appeal since its inception when the idea of getting the court materialised, it's the beginning of the Murtala regime, we were appointed, a few of us, to the Supreme Court.

At the time, Justice Daniel Ibekwe from Onitsha was the Attorney General, but he was a justice of the Supreme Court, when the decree was made, establishing the Court of Appeal. Two of us decided to leave the Supreme Court and go down to the Court of Appeal.

You and who?
Me and Justice Ibekwe, we were both then in the Supreme Court, Igbokwe from Onitsha and the two of us were sworn in, in December 1976 and the other justices were sworn in January 1977. That was the beginning of the Court of Appeal. Now, Ibekwe my good friend, we were in politics together, he was always with the President, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, and I was always with the Premier North, or the Prime Minister. So, on many occasions, we continued to fight politically and then later in the evening three of us would be together. The third one was Bola Ige who was with Chief Obafemi Awolowo. We were all of different political parties, but we were friends; we could discuss politics, take decisions according to what our leaders had decided, but socially we had always been friends.

So, Ibekwe and I went to the Court of Appeal together. Unfortunately, in 1978 he died but I was so close to him. When he opened the Kaduna branch, I was sent to Kaduna. That was his confidence in me. So, we enjoyed our stay together. Then after service in the Court of Appeal, this office came, of being the Galadiman Kaduna, which is one of the big chiefs under Kaduna Emirate and I was mentioned to be appointed. People like General Babangida, General Sani Abacha were all in support of my candidature. God willing, I was appointed Galadiman since 1992. Then I decided to retire before my retiring age.

You retired before you were statutorily appointed to retire. Why?

Because I thought I had done about 15 years there (Appeal Court). You don't have to stay in service until the last minute or wait to be pushed out.

You just retired, you just decided it was time for you to go?

On my own, after getting the title in the office, I thought I should go home; I should come back and live here. So, I had to retire because I couldn't combine being a serving justice and being under the Emir of Kaduna. Since then, I have been here.

And this house, one would have expected you to be living in a well-appointed, modern house. And here you are, once a top public official for many decades and a Nigerian - if you know what I mean - living in such ancient, mud house. Why did you choose to punish yourself this way?

That is part of the trouble of we Nigerians; we believe unless you live in a sky-scraper with air-conditioners all over, you are not a big man; you are not an honourable man, you are not anything. But, if you believe your culture is new, then go to a new house. If you want to live with your people with your culture, please, try to live with them - their own level, their own status, if possible below them in your accommodation, in what you are and so on. If you want to succeed, even in politics - which unfortunately is not happening nowadays - if you want to succeed, belong to the people; you know what they say about 'the man of the people.' If you actualise it, it works.

Before going to court, I was in the civil service in Kaduna in the beginning of 1956. At one time, I was what was then called Senior Crown Counsel in charge of Jos office. Jos office was then in charge of all the eastern part of the Northern Region and in that office, I was in charge of Plateau itself, Benue, Borno, Bauchi and then Adamawa. You know Taraba was not there then, Yobe was not there then. After that, it was decided by the government of the Northern Region that I should jump into their office. So the Premier one day came to Jos and said to me, 'Well, I have come for you.' I said: 'Yes, sir.' So I got parceled.

You got parceled?
Yes, the whole Premier and others came for me. He told me: 'You remember sometime back I told you I would give you a job?' I said: 'Yes, sir.' He said: 'This is the job, you are now the Minister of Justice and it has been approved by the Northern Region Executive Council and some of the ministers agreed to pay your one month salary in lieu of notice, but the Attorney General said not necessarily, that you must resign, leave the civil service and take on the new job.'

What do you think gave them the confidence to give you that job, to appoint you Minister of Justice at that time?

We had a good relationship with the leaders; individuals; good relationships with all the northern political leaders. And on many occasions, they would ask for opinions on particular issues; you know the other people there were Europeans, only three of us were Nigerians…

Who were the rest two?
Justice Muhammed Bello, Justice Buba Ardo and myself, Mamman Nasir. We were the first northern lawyers in government. We went to the UK together. Two of us came back before the others, but we had always been working as a team and we enjoyed the confidence of the leaders in the North; whether the confidence they had in me was greater or not, but no division in their politics. In those days, any civil servant could be called upon to offer his political opinion; politicians did not agree to segregate themselves in one corner, civil servants in another corner, nor did they agree to say ministers were the superior, even to permanent secretaries, no.

They were the same people, you got the same car loan, you got government house, you got your salary, you got your allowance; when you went on tour, you claimed mileage. Nowadays, a minister or a commissioner is going on tour, money will follow him. It is no longer a question of mileage, the cars are there; in our days the cars were not there.

In your time, you said your tours were paid for in mileage?

Per mileage, yes. When you went on tour, you claimed like any other civil servant; you claimed, and when you claimed, you got paid. I was going on tour…from Jos to Maiduguri, from Jos to Yola, from Jos to Makurdi, from Jos to Lokoja. They did not allow us to feel completely different from other members of the public service, which built unity, and leaders never stayed in Kaduna for one month without going on tour, not a single month.

Because Kaduna was the headquarters of the North then?

The whole of political North then. So, when I joined them, I was always on these tours and if we went on tour and we came to Malumfashi, we didn't start looking for hotel or government house. No, we went to other people's houses, the indigenes of the area, the citizens, the local people; we stayed with them and if friends or political admirers gave you something, it might be ram, it might be food, whatever, in the morning, we didn't load it in our vehicles, you left it with the person who gave you accommodation.

So, when we were going to the next station, we had to look for lunch because we did not carry anything from the last place. But we expected the same hospitality in the next place. In particular, the Premier might get whatever and he would not allow you to carry anything on his behalf for him. No, if there was plenty, he would say, 'Are there police here? Give them something. Are there drivers here? Give them something; other people there, give them something, whatever is left, you the administrative officer, share with all other civil servants.'

And that was it. So, through that, the leadership got very much closer to the people. If we were eating lunch or dinner, everybody would be around; it would be on a big note. And the local party leader would sit near the Premier, not us who came with him as ministers. The local party leader would sit on one side, the local chief would sit on the other side. If the chief did not want, maybe the party secretary, but not us the ministers, not anyone who came with him from Kaduna.

Gradually, everybody agreed he belonged to this particular group and through that group, everybody agreed he belonged to this entity, political entity called the North. And then we bought the new concept of unity, a new race, a new tribe, whatever you wish to call it - northerner. Northerner means anybody who is a part of a little north of the Eastern Region, who is a little north of the Western Region, to the desert Nigerian border. And up to this minute, if you call 'Northerner,' anybody in the old North would think you are calling him.

That was political leadership.
What I was telling people even under the military; 'you people, if you want acceptance by the people, please, go to them, speak to them, play with them, talk to them, tell them what you want, tell them your ambition; have confidence in the people. Then the people will accept you.' Some others tried to, but gradually, we became sort of internally cowardly. If you are on tour as the big man, you get your security pushing everyone away from you.

If they can be pushed away like that, then the people will not have confidence in you. 'I come to say hello, sir… to greet you, but your boys said 'push him away'' - in the name of security. It ended up in our having no security, because we lost the confidence in security. The best security is from the people. If the people have confidence in you and you have confidence in them, it's very likely nobody could harm you. But if you thought for whatever reason, you should not be so close to the people, then you are creating insecurity for yourself.

Let's go back to your very beginning, your childhood, your schooling days, your parents.

When I was a very small boy, my first teacher was my father and he was a student of Kaduna College.

Your father was your teacher?
See the picture (pointing to an old faded picture on the wall) when the governor opened the college, that small picture with the Europeans, you could hardly see any Nigerian there, but he was there. They were all trained as teachers: himself, Maitama, Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Sir Kashim Ibrahim, all of them were in the same school and everybody was trained to be a teacher and that's how they all started. In my own case, I was brought up by my own father, that is in the sense of my first lessons. At that time, we had a Quranic teacher in town to whom we went every evening and every morning; there was no elementary school in the place we were.

You grew up here in Malumfashi?
No, in Kaskari, on your way to Gusau, now off the main road. And he selected about 10 of us and he started his own lesson and his secretary, his own secretary who was Teacher No 2…

Oh! The Quranic teacher was Teacher No 1 and his secretary was Teacher No 2?

Yes (general laughter), Teacher No 2 was teaching us. They were the only people educated enough to be able to teach anybody.

Now, what year are we talking about here?
This was around 1937-38. Then there was an elementary school opened later. We all went there. Then I came here to Malumfashi, in the elementary school, which is now called the primary school. But we were not taught English. I finished primary education here in Malumfashi. From here we went to what was then called the Katsina Middle School, which is junior primary school. In each province, you had such a school and that of Kaduna was reasonably good with good teachers. Some ex-students of Kaduna College were usually the senior teachers.

Then there was a change of policy. Instead of going to Kaduna College, that was when Kaduna College was moved to Kaduna. Instead of going from Middle Four, you would finish Middle Two in the Middle School, then you go to the college to do three, four, five, six.

Interestingly, in the elementary school, only Hausa was used to teach us. But before you finished your stay in the elementary school, you learnt every aspect of arithmetic; you knew it so well you could even work in the Central Bank…and no English at all.

When you got to Middle School, you started to learn English. We started English in the Middle School and you sat for the exam at the end of Middle Two. After about a period of about four years, then you go to the college in Kaduna, where you do 3 to 6. It was the only complete full secondary school in the North then, whether government or voluntary or religious or whatever.

There was no full secondary school, everybody was coming there, and that's where we were all brought up, including our teachers. That built unity. When politics started, you moved from Sokoto, you met Ahmadu Rabah, when you went to Bauchi, you met Tafawa Balewa, when you went to Borno, we met Sir Kashim Ibrahim, when you go to Ilorin, you meet Yahaya Madaki, when you go to Benue you met Tarkar…you met so many people and that gave them unity.

Let's come back to your schooling. From Kaduna College you went where?

From Kaduna College, I went to Kaduna VOM on January 1, 1947. I went to Kaduna VOM to read veterinary medicine.

Kaduna VOM?
That is centre of veterinary. So, I went there, did a little more study in the hope that next year, I would go to University College, Ibadan to read veterinary medicine. But something happened in Lagos. In the Yaba College of Medicine, many of the students either left or got expelled. So many of them came to VOM, and they came with beautiful politics (laughs). We joined them. That was the colonial period. VOM school also was closed. So that's how my medicine ended. Later, I was given a job as engineering assistant civil. In those days, you got to office, you learnt civil engineering, structural, architecture and everything, the only part of engineering we were not doing was mechanical.

Which year was that?
We went to Kaduna? The engineering studies started from 1947. You go there and do six months…

Which school was that?
No, not a school. It was in the Works Department - not ministry then - in Kaduna. Then, it was recommended to the colonial office that there ought to be lawyers of Northern origin in Nigeria and the three of us were selected, not by ourselves, not by another exam, but by school records. So, three of us were selected. Maitama (Sule) didn't go, he should have gone.

The same Alhaji Maitama Sule?
But was he nominated?
Yes, but he said he would not do law, it was not his field. But we were selected from our school record and we were from different classes.

Who were the others?
Justice Bello, Justice Buba Ardo and myself. Of course, when we got to the UK, there was one person of Northern origin, Abdul Razak of Ilorin. He was there on his own, so when he qualified he was about six to nine months senior to us, but he went there on his own and the northern government had no idea of his going.

So, he was never on anybody's scholarship. We went on initially on federal scholarship, because the decision was a national one; Nigeria's decision, not regional. But as soon as the region started getting on their own feet, they took over, by the time we came back, nobody would mention federal, we belonged to the Northern Region. The North had no lawyers, they took all of us and we were writing all the Europeans, that's how we started, how we got into law.

When we started, the following year nobody was sent overseas, another year nobody was sent. We, therefore, advised our leaders, telling them that 'three of us do this work, you better start training other people.' So young men were sent and in those days when the Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello was trying to get things done, he would go all out for it. So, instead of sending very small people, he would get somebody, not old but mature enough to be able to be serious in his studies, like they ordered them married. Even if we were married, after one year, government would send your wife to you.

You made copious references to Sir Ahmadu Bello. No doubt you and a few others were his protégés, which means you were close to him.

Yes. Very, very close.
So what are the things you learnt from him that today stand you in good stead?

(Laughs) I cannot completely list what I learnt from him within this few period we have, but I can tell you a few. One, he taught me to respect honesty more. Two, he taught me not to respect material wealth. Three, he taught me to respect the followers. That was our politics. With that, when you come to apply influence of government on the people, apply it in such a way that you are helping them. We respected education; our favourite economy was agriculture, so we respected agriculture.

I told you earlier, if you go to the village, we sit with the people, any problem from the headquarters, we sit with the people, but Sardauna will not stop at the provincial headquarters, he would go to the divisional headquarters. In one division he may stay in two or three towns. So I learnt, basically, if you want to be happy, if you want to succeed, state that you are serving God; that you have accepted a trust; you have accepted a trust between yourself and your creator, I am going to be in charge of these people, I am going to protect their property on their behalf, I am going to apply their property on their behalf, God you are watching me.

And we tried to convince ourselves, which was the most important, that we had to do that, practicalise it; don't think of getting things like: 'If I say that I am going to do it and if I don't do it, no problem.' No. You should have conscience that will be moved if you deviate from this honesty. So because of that honesty, we the followers never amassed wealth - federal or regional ministers; not many of us with modern or little house in his town. If you have another one in the headquarters, we should start asking how you made it.

And comparatively, all the leaders in the First Republic or before it, were honest people. They all had ambition and they were competing with each other to succeed in serving the people. If you check, not many of them anywhere… I was told that a man like (Dr. Michael) Okpara had nothing after the coup and he had to go and bring out his medical certificate to start practice. Now, that was honesty. Dr. (Nnamdi) Azikiwe treated us like his children.

If we go to Onitsha, we go to the present Owelle (of Onitsha) and say I am from Mulamfashi from Galadima, the whole family will give you the respect like of the old. He will tell you my relationships with that particular family and similar families, that one time when I used to go to Onitsha, I would not stay in government house, one of the chiefs would put me up in his house. That brought unity.

So those are the main things I learnt from Sir Ahmadu Bello. And more importantly, these were things drilled in our brain even from school age; you could never forget them and hardly change.

If not because of the few people who are over-ambitious who became leaders, there probably would never have been any coup and there would never have been any problem which we would not solve by those leaders.

Let's go back to your relationship with Sir Ahmadu Bello. Where were you the day he was killed?

I was in Kaduna.
How did you feel?
We were with him up till almost 11 p.m. in his house…maybe up till any time until after 11 to 12. You see, every day there would be people in his house. Many people. You won't need any appointment to go and see him; you go and join others, greet him and sit down. So we went home. One of my colleagues rang me; there was shooting in the premier's house. We already had suspicion that there would be coup. People tried to get Sardauna out of Kaduna, but he refused; he would not run away because of death. He said: 'No, if this is my end, then I thank God, I have good end.'

He didn't go anywhere. So when we were told this was happening I got ready to come out, I got to my car, then at the step, the phone rang again. When we get to the premier's house, what were we to do? There was nothing we could do. After, we wanted to come to the funeral but Hassan Usman, a soldier - he was major Hassan then - told us, if you come out many people would be killed. So we had to stay; at that time we were in Mallam Ahmadu's house. After that, people said all ministers must go to see Chukwuma, the coup leaders. So we went. When we got there Chukwuma was not there, we were told by other officers he was asleep. So I never met him, but I knew him. He was a Kaduna boy.

Something happened, after the coup, there were ministers who could not pay for the transport to take their family back to their towns because they did not have the money. Now that was the standard of honesty and one of them, for example, Alhaji Ibrahim Biu, from Borno. After going back home, he was being employed by whichever government it was until his death, they used his services to his last breath, now that showed you can safely and ably exist without stealing public money. I hope you yourself will agree, if you go to the east or west or north, the First Republic is still the best government. Any region you go to, for example in the West, no government will surpass all what Awolowo or Akintola did; in the East, what Dr. Azikiwe or what Dr. Okpara did, in the North, what Sir Ahmadu Bello did.

When you heard of his death, how did you feel?
Honestly, I felt it was the end of everything, because you could hardly think. But after some time, we built up confidence that we were being taught in religion that everybody must taste death.

Let me ask you this personal question. From all accounts, from what I've even seen here personally, you are not a man given to ostentation and frivolity. Do your children take a piece of you in that regard and how well do they represent you there?

I tried to inculcate these things in them. The eldest one is in the civil service in Abuja; one is in the House of Representatives. At least they would say: 'Oh my father taught us.' Or 'My father would have done this,' because the best teaching is practice. The best teaching to your children is how you live your own life; what you do; how you affect other people. Now, if you live your life well and you see your children are repeating it, it means you have a hope - they will do well. So my children, I hope, are following my footsteps.

And you are proud of them, definitely?
I am. Even yesterday I was with many of them until about 11 in the night, until I said: 'Look, get out, I want to sleep.' But, to me, there are more out there to help than my own, because up till this minute, I still pay local scholarship for other people still learning. Even my family would give a child school fees which his father has refused to give to him.

We are coming back to this house, this compound. It's amazing that a man of your standing would delight in this old, dilapidated mud house - please, pardon my language.

Look through that window (directing attention), you will see a grave there (barricaded with iron railings); that was the first man who built the house, that was my father's grandfather.

Your father's grandfather? This is his house?
This is his house.
And you are here?
This is where you were brought up and this is where you are living?

No. I was not brought up here. But my father's grandfather lived here and died here, his son succeeded him. You see, people don't respect this place, if I may say, we are losing part of our culture, part of the heritage, part of the values. When I came in, I built so many other rooms depicting my own way of life, big enough for my family with big fans, nobody has any air-condition up till today.

This house was built in the 19th century?
Maybe 1917…comparatively very early.
He died around 1975…
So why are you still staying here?
The influence of your own culture, your own environment and the convictions built over the years that you can come to this office (Galadima) and you can still serve even when a lot of the power has been taken away by politicians. Now, if you live with good people in their own home, their own environment, you find that it's almost impossible for you to say 'I have a better life somewhere else.'

How do you feel now as a Nigerian, knowing from where we are coming since 1960?

You can't jump from the First Republic to today, you have to consider the interregnum of the military era; the damage to Nigeria is within that particular period. We lost discipline; we actually lost bearing. After the first and the second coups, there ought to be no more coups. If you want to say that you are angry because your fathers and mothers were killed but you too have gone to kill other people. Fair enough. We should have stopped there. I can't justify any coup for whatever reason. But if you have to justify, those who organised the first coup will have to give their reasons, those who organised the second coup, give their reasons, but all the other coup, I can't give their reasons.

So that is completely different from the respect you should give to individual soldiers who participated in government in the civil war and the aftermath. There is no country, as far as I know, which has 'no victor, no vanquish' as Nigerians had after the civil war; no country as far as I know. So you see, if you have such a situation and such a country which can do that even with the soldiers and you look at what happened in the First Republic and what happened before the First Republic when we were being pushed around by the colonial powers and you come to today, I think the simple answer is we pray for better standard.

As an elder statesman seeing how far Nigeria has come, are you happy at the way things have gone?

If you take Nigeria as whole and you take events in Nigeria as a whole, every Nigerian must regret we have gone down to this level. But then, there are individual cases where every Nigerian should take interest to help to see that we improve the things that we do and that improvement must come from the leadership; must come from the ordinary man, must come from the Nigerian press; it must come from the Bishops, must come from the Chief Imams and Emirs.