Foremost politician, Alhaji Isyaku Ibrahim, is unarguably one of the most respected leaders in northern Nigeria today. A man who relishes the stronghold of what he calls the “invisible government”, Ibrahim knows the value of political power and the nature of its various applications. This is a fact that has made him a household name in the country as well as other far flung places of the globe. In this encounter with Emmanuel Bello, he took a trip down memory lane to recall and shed light on his role in the abduction saga of Umaru Dikko and how Shagari was made President, among other issues.
With friends in high and low places Isyaku Ibrahim is clearly a godfather of sorts. But as you drive into his humble abode in the upscale area of Asokoro, Abuja, you cannot but be touched by Ibrahim’s humility. The famous man who singlehandedly bankrolled the election of President Shehu Shagari, likes to welcome his guests by receiving them at the door. And his guests are always around – from students, to industry leaders and powerful men of the northern intelligentsia. As you step into his sparsely furnished room, you get the feel of history with some fading but elegant pictures telling stories of times gone by. An imposing picture on the table depicts a smiling Ibrahim as himself and members of President Shehu Shagari delegation bask in the euphoria of the posh White House during a state visit. “That wasn’t my first visit to the White House,” he once told me. “I have been there three times on my own as a guest,” he would say with a contented smile. But on this day after Umaru Dikko’s demise in London, the colossus was not smiling. A dark cloud settled on his visage. And I kept my pleasantries short too.
“Sir, I came to condole you over the demise of Umaru Dikko,” I said. Looking into space, he wringed his hands and said, “well, Emmanuel that is life. We have all been somewhat computerized by the Almighty to die someday. We all shall certainly die. What you and I don’t know is the day. But as sure as what has been computerized, we shall be gone someday when the time comes. “He looks outside the window and squinted through his reading glass. Turning to me he said, “You came through that gate. Did you see soldiers and police guarding me? I don’t have any fear. I just sit here. When God says it is time, you must go. No matter how fortified your house is”.
Dikko’s death has obviously taken its toll on him, but when I asked how his path crossed with that of the controversial second republic minister of transport, a certain wry smile showed on his face. “One thing most people don’t know is that Dikko was not exactly my friend. He was close to my elder brother. So I would say Dikko was also my senior brother. But having known him since I was five just got us really close”.
According to him Dikko’s father was the first Native Authority treasurer (Maaji) in Wamba – Alhaji Isyaku’s home town in present day Nasarawa state. Dikko’s ancestry goes back to Sokoto from where part of the family eventually settled in Zaria sometimes in 1903, following the confrontation between Lord Lugard’s forces and Sultan Attahiru. But the man who was to become minister was born in Wamba where his father, the treasurer, was working. Isyaku Ibrahim and Dikko’s path therefore first crossed in Wamba. After that, fate was to join both of them again when Ibrahim returned from France. At this time, Umaru Dikko was the war-time commissioner of finance. At the wedding of Ibrahim to his Liberian wife, Dikko’s house was used for the wedding fathia (ceremony) and the late Sheikh Gumi officiated. But the highlight of their relationship was during the build-up to the 1979 general election when Ibrahim was the principal financier of the election of President Shagari. Later on, the coup happened and Dikko went into exile in London. The military government then planned to kidnap Dikko. Again, Ibrahim came to the rescue.
Recalling the now well known abduction saga, Ibrahim said, “I couldn’t understand how the government of that time came up with an idea to kidnap a man and put him in a crate. That was a barbaric act. There are ways to get someone extradited without recource to that jungle behavior. So on the day when Betty called me to tell me Dikko had been picked, I asked if she has called the British Police. She said she has not. I said fine. And I got to work. I was in New York and I didn’t want her to tell the police because I wanted to handle it politically. And in fifteen minutes, the Queen of England knew about it. In twenty minutes, the Prime Minister knew what happened through my contacts. And you know the irony of it all was that when they picked Umaru, they took him to the Nigerian House in London. I said irony because it was Umaru, as the NPC student Union leader, who advised the visiting Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa to support the building of a Nigerian center where Nigerian students can visit and stay when in England at a cheap rate. The Prime Minister agreed. And it was here they brought Umaru years later as a captive. In any case, the plot failed”.
Reflecting on that day’s event further, he said contacts were very important in human being’s life, noting that it was his contact that got the Queen and the prime minister informed for their prompt intervention.
“You know we have been the guest of the Queen before now. And I got acquainted with the man in charge of the Queen’s security. When the incident happened, I contacted him. I didn’t want Betty to call the British police because time was of essence. If she had done that, she would have been made to do a statement and all of that and time was going. But through my contacts, I got things done speedily. Umaru was found and was taken to the hospital and throughout, my contact and I were discussing the issue. Whatever I knew about Umaru, I would relate to Betty”.
Continuing, he said, “Umaru was a true patriot and he loved this country. During the 1977/78 Constituent Assembly, I asked him who he thinks should become president since civilian rule was going to be in place. He said Anthony Enahoro. He said we should give the South an opportunity. I told him this won’t work because of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Enahoro was Esan – a minority tribe-and Awolowo wanted to also run for president. He then said who should we support. I told him Alhaji Shehu Shagari but I told him to keep it to himself and not tell anyone. I went to work. It so happened that our southern brothers in the NPN wanted our input on who should be our flag bearer for the party.
“Back in the North we went into meetings. There were ten states then in the North and we had five delegates each from the states. Umaru Dikko kept it a secret that our choice was Shagari. I did this because if Shagari knew about what we were planning and he didn’t like it, he would have articulately refused the plan and I would have no choice than to back away. But to my joy, Dikko kept it a secret and that is another thing about Umaru. Once you tell him something, he kept it a secret if that was how you wanted it. So, even when Dikko met Shagari, he didn’t tell him and so Shagari didn’t know.
“So at the meeting which held at Murtala Suare, there were the presidential contenders. From Kano were Inuwa Wada, Maitama Sule and Dr. Datti Ahmed. From Borno, Adamu Ciroma and Kam Salem. Gongola, you have Professor Iya Abubakar. From Bauchi, Dr. Ibrahim Tahir. JS Tarka from Benue. We had Dr. Sola Saraki in Kwara. The North central were not interested-that is Kaduna, Katsina and Niger states at the time. So when it came to the Plateau delegates, we said Shagari because I had already spoken with them. Though Abdullahi Adamu told me that, if it were not because I had presented Shagari, he would have personally gone for Adamu Ciroma. Everyone was shocked that someone from Plateau would nominate a Hausa Fulani from Sokoto caliphate. At a later day, Shagari would tell me himself that he was shocked. And it was from that moment he believed there would be Nigeria.
“And of course Umaru worked real hard for the project. But I had an early political exposure having worked with Zik in 1959. He took me round and we went to Yenogoa, Buguma and all the other parts of Port Harcourt division. But I worked very well with Umaru”.
Defending Dikko’s record further, Ibrahim recalled a certain dramatic exchange he had with Dikko. “These was a day I said to Umaru how come you are so smart that you have four billion? Umaru just looked at me and said ‘if you asked some people how many zeros are behind a billion, they won’t know because they don’t know what a billion is in the first place. That is why they can speak of me having billions so gullibly without them knowing what it means”.
On the controversy surrounding Dikko’s ‘eating from dustbin’ commitment, Ibrahim dismissed it as the mischief of a Southern press who saw Dikko as a huge problem. He said the UPN was in control of the press and they were using it to rubbish NPN politicians.
On the misinformation that Umaru wanted to take Dr. Shehu Musa’s job as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Ibrahim clarified. “There was a day I went to see Shagari and he was looking downcast. So I asked him what the problem was. He told me that Umaru Dikko just left and that he said he wanted to be the SGF. I told Shagari to tell Umaru that he won’t be made the SGF and that he should come and ask me. Later, Dikko came for tea in my place. In the course of chatting, he said that Shagari told him what I said. I said yes, I told him that I know his temperament well that he was not suited for that kind of position. I told him that I wanted Dr. Shehu Musa who was also a mathematician like Umaru. Musa and Umaru were both my friend but I knew their temperament too. You see, Umari is too rigid and straightforward. He once told me how, after he returned from England, he told the Sarduana he needed a job. The Sarduana sent him to see Ali Akilu. When he went to see Akilu, Akilu asked him why he wanted to work in the civil service. He told a bemused Akilu that he does not want to be controlled but that he wanted power. Akilu promptly dismissed him. Later, Sarduana saw Umaru looking sad and said what happened. He told the Sarduana exactly what happened. Sarduana goodheartedly then moved him to another sector to work. So I told Umaru that if we allow him to be SGF, Shagari would spend time settling quarrels between him and civil servants, and him and politicians. So he agreed and Shagari graciously asked him to choose any ministry of his choice. He picked Transport because, knowing Umaru, I knew he was trying to follow in the footsteps of Tafawa Balewa, who was Transport minister before becoming Prime Minister. That was the portfolio before the coupists struck”.
(PUBLISHED BY THISDAY, SUNDAY, JULY 13, 2014)