The late Lamido and my father

With the death on March 13 of Aliyu Musdafa, the 11th Lamido of Adamawa, Nigeria strikes me as a slightly dimmer space. The death of this extraordinary Nigerian touched me – and my mother as well as four siblings – in a deeply personal way. We – on behalf of my late father – owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this unusual traditional and religious leader. For us, his memory will remain a richly treasured and profoundly admirable one.

It was in Yola that my parents, Christopher Chidebe and Elizabeth Ofuchinyelu Ndibe, began their lives as a young couple. Father worked as a postal clerk in Jimeta, Yola, whilst Mother taught at Saint Theresa’s, a Catholic elementary school in the same town. Three of my four siblings as well as I were born in Yola.

My earliest memories are rooted in that quiescent town. We lived in a small brown-brick building called “Clerical Quarters,” a whispering distance from the post office where Father toiled. Looking back, I remember an oddly charmed life. There’s the tree in front of our flat under whose shade we played childhood games. I recall a bearded Hausa friend of my father’s. He was a lanky man who, in my recollection, always sported long flowing robes. Fascinated by his grey beard, I would perch on his lap whenever he came to visit and occupy myself by tugging at those lush, spongy tufts.

< Ndibe interviewing the Lamido

I remember, too, days when our father fetched his double-barrel gun and went out to the banks of River Benue to hunt. He would return, his hunting bag sagged with the weight of several guinea fowls. I recall days when our parents walked us to the courts where Father played tennis, his spare athlete’s body accentuated by his white sports outfit. Then there were sightseeing excursions to the banks of the river, or to clearings in the savanna where, with the sun irradiating the sky in the distance, bare-bodied young beat each other’s chests with sturdy sticks in a test of fitness for initiation into manhood.

It was for me – speaking from the perspective of a child – a beautiful, even magical time. Doubtless, my parents must have encountered some hard and harsh facts of daily life, but I was, like many children, oblivious to them. Life, for me, was idyllic.

Then things changed quickly. Snarls replaced the portraits of smiling faces. Anger usurped the bonhomie we were accustomed to. There were violent rumblings in streets where we once played with innocent abandon. Suddenly, our parents became wary when we wanted to play out in front of our flat. Gaiety disappeared from our lives. I was too young to put a name to my parents’ awkward silences and strange whispers, or the inexplicable absences of the adults and children who used to frequent our home – and who once welcomed us warmly to theirs. Unbeknown to me, the fetus of war was being nurtured in the womb of Nigeria’s history.

As the rumbles grew, my father decided that Mother and we, the children, should return to the safety of Amawbia – my paternal hometown which was then, in many ways, a strange address to me. I was then more a Yola boy; I had a richer grasp of Hausa than Igbo.

Despite our mother’s pleas, Father couldn’t flee Yola with the rest of his family. He was a conscientious employee, and the Federal Government had warned that civil servants who absconded would forfeit their posts. He stayed back in a Yola that convulsed with hate, a town where violence simmered, waiting for a trigger to explode and spew its murderous lava.

One day, Father and other postal workers – most of them Christians – were hard at work when a mob besieged them. Fear-stricken, he and his embattled colleagues barricaded themselves in. but their hiding place was far from an impregnable fortress. The mob, armed with cudgels, machetes, hammers and other tools, began to hack at the locked doors of the post office. It was a matter of time before the mob had the better of their quarry.

At the nick, when things looked gloomiest for my father and his cornered fellow workers, providence intervened on their side. Or, to be more accurate, the Lamido happened to be passing by. Spying the mob, he ordered his convoy to stop. After ascertaining the mob’s mission, the Lamido chastised and ordered them to disperse. He then conveyed my father and other postal clerks – men, mind you, who were mere moments away from certain death – to his palace. There, he gave them shelter and food for several weeks until the wave of orgiastic violence abated. He then arranged for Father and others to be boarded on the last ships to leave Yola for the south east.

When my father finally arrived in Amawbia, a scrawny shadow of his former vibrant self, it was as if he’d risen from the dead. Our mother had for months been in an inconsolable state, a woman paralyzed with the fear (verging on certainty) that some mindless merchants of death had killed her husband. Gunshots boomed and reverberated all over Amawbia as the town celebrated Father’s improbable return.

As I matured and learned this history, it struck me that – but for the Lamido’s vote for sanity and his insistence on the sanctity of life – my father would have been dead that distant afternoon in 1967. Instead, the Lamido – himself a relatively young man at the time – stepped into a grim situation and made a choice that was courageous and deeply heroic.

What moved the Lamido to be an agent of life and decency in a season ruled by death and unreason?

In July of 2008, I traveled to Yola to meet Mr. Musdafa in order to, one, express my family’s abiding gratitude for his uncommon act of kindness and, two, to satisfy my curiosity. It was my first visit to Yola since our flight in 1966 when I was hardly six. The town had changed significantly, but not so fundamentally as to nullify all my childhood memories. I found the flat where we lived – and that tree in front of it, now twisted with age and much smaller than I remembered. Visiting the banks of the Benue where Father used to hunt, I saw kids diving in and out of the river and fishermen lounging in makeshift sheds, their boats abandoned in the languorous blaze of the noon heat. I visited Saint Theresa’s Church where our parents used to take us to mass. Inside, the old church was dim and derelict, a small forgotten structure now dominated by an imposing cathedral built nearby. I then went to see the now dilapidated school where Mother once taught.

The highlight was, of course, that meeting with the late Lamido. He ushered me into his sparse, clean reception room moments after my arrival was announced. He was a very tall, lean man with cropped white beards and lively eyes. There was not about him that fussy insistence on grandeur cultivated by many who occupy traditional offices. He seemed to project a moral gravitas much more than he exuded royal pomp. He was a man of quiet dignity whose carriage proclaimed the effortlessness of his deep humanity.

He insisted that he did nothing special in saving my father and other Christians. “As a true Muslim, I could not let allow the spilling of innocent blood.” He remembered that my parents had written a letter to thank him – but he was adamant that his action was a simple one.

A Nigeria beset by rising sectarian violence stands in need of citizens, Christians and Muslims, possessed of the late Lamido’s moral clarity, commitment to humanistic values, and deep nobility and conscience. My mother, siblings and I will ever treasure the colossus that was Alhaji Aliyu Musdafa who died a month shy of his 88th birthday.

His legacy is rare, and will endure.

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