Whispers about Dr. Bala Usman
By Okello Oculi
Dr. Bala Usman and I first met at Essex University, located one-hour by train, from London. He had come to see a peace-research activist who was on the faculty. When we greeted, I quickly asked if he was from the southern Sudan or Rwanda for he was as tall, straight, and self-assured as the cattle-rearing Dinka, Shilluk of Sudan or the Tutsi of Rwanda. He almost took offence, but quickly enjoyed his Pan-African status, through the geography of physiologies. I gave him a copy of my first literary work, ORPHAN, which had just arrived and been splashed, rather lavishly, across the wide glass walls of the university library and also simultaneously reviewed, with tender gloves by Jean Franco, the professor of Latin American literature in the campus newspaper. The year was 1967.
My next contact with him was through his name being circulated among scholars of African studies in North America. I had told Professor Crawford Young that I might accept a teaching job at Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria. He was greatly alarmed. One of his protégés, Professor Paul Beckett, had been physically assaulted in 1975 following the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed. Deeply angered admirers of Murtala had apparently assumed that a dance party held by expatriates later that same day was in celebration of a plot by British and American intelligence agencies to terminate a regime which was popularly regarded by Nigerians as revolutionary and Pan-Africanist. Murtala had rebuked President Gerald Ford for writing letters to African leaders commanding them not to give diplomatic recognition to the socialist MPLA government in Angola, as well as refused to receive Professor Henry Kissinger, Ford's secretary of state. Kissinger was apparently so infuriated by this humiliation that he smashed plates on his aircraft. There was concern that the phobia against "expatriates" might also bash me on the head on arrival in Zaria.
I arrived in Zaria and met Dr. Okwudiba Nnoli who was on campus for a meeting of Nigeria's socialists. He introduced me to Dr. Bala Usman who instantly recalled our meeting in Essex. When he was severely injured in a motor accident on the Zaria-Kaduna road, I took him a copy of Dr. Augustinho Neto's collection of poetry. I had learnt about the vigorous role he had played in shaping General Murtala Mohammed's foreign policy and decision to support the MPLA government in Angola. Augustinho Neto, a medical doctor turned leader of a revolutionary armed struggle, was the founder and leader of MPLA which he led to victory and independence against a fascist colonial Portuguese military dictatorship in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. Dr. Bala travelled to Mozambique, as a correspondent of the New Nigerian newspaper, to report on the anti-colonial armed struggle in that country.
Dr. Bala Usman told me the following story. As a student in Lancaster University, he often went to London to attend parties by Nigerian, African, and Caribbean students all buzzing around together. On one such trip, he saw a book on a raft at the railway station. The author was FRANTZ FANON. The title intrigued him -BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASK. He sat on a plank and started reading it. He finished reading the book at 7 a.m, twelve hours later, without leaving his seat. The railway officials and the police were obviously so fascinated by the sight of this young African getting so engrossed in what he was reading that trains passed and arrived without him moving an earlobe. They refrained from interrupting a genius in ecstasy.
He had never read anything like it. He was convinced that the book was placed on that rack at that railway station specifically for him to see it. Its words took him back to Barewa College where he had been taught by British teachers; and to relationships he had witnessed between British colonial officials and traditional rulers in northern Nigeria, including his own father. As he read the book, a deep fury began to swell and swirl in his mind and soul. His British teachers and colonial officials had related to him and his father's class WITH A BIG LIE. They had pretended that they respected him and his social class, while they deeply despised them and treated them as tools of exploitation. The notion that they were regarded "always AS FRIENDS", as Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa had said so eloquently in a speech at a public function, now came to him as a grand-lie. He was furious. He turned his fury into an intellectual war for building the true power of northern Nigeria, Nigeria and Africa - freed from the grand-lie which had the British plot to exploit them and keep them perpetually weak.
This point is important to emphasise. Bala Usman, the African student in England, did not climb on the shoulders of Karl Marx, Engels or Lenin to see the mountain top of a liberated authentic African nationalism. He came through the clinical writings of FRANTZ FANON, a medical doctor of African ancestry, via the Caribbean. He did not need European thinkers to turn him against European colonial and post-colonial (neo-colonial) capitalism in Africa. And this went very well with his ancestral pride as a Sokoto Caliphate aristocrat turned radical nationalist. In the 1980s, his younger Marxist critics at Ahmadu Bello University would accuse him of not being a "true Marxist", a theological uniform Dr. Bala Usman saw as another form of slave mentality crawling for parental adoption by European foster parents.
The primacy he would give (as the Head, Department of History), to research by scholars from northern Nigeria on the histories of their own peoples- (Okwede on the history of the Igala; Ohiare on the history of the Igbira; Mahadi and Sule Bello on Kano; Tukur on Colonial rule in northern Nigeria; Mangvwat on the Jos-Plateau; Mohammed on the Royal Niger Company/UAC in northern Nigeria; Oyedele on the urban history of Kaduna town etc) - all came from this passion for true self-knowledge as the road to intellectual and political freedom. From Franz Fanon, he had experienced first-hand the liberating power of Pan-African intellectual production. He was convinced that northern Nigeria, Nigeria and Africa needed its own army of academic mind workers to tell their true story if they had to defend freedom and achieve genuine roads to independence. He knows that universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford were all intellectual military weapons for empires.
He was well-endowed with the tools for this mind work. Aggressive with stacco of words, which rolled out with the power of machine gun rattle, he had the intellectual brilliance to carry that energy. He read voraciously and was as utterly impatient with intellectual laziness as with official behaviour and slave mentality which injured Africa's development and freedom.
On a personal note, I named our son after him probably as revenge for his famously gentle way of urging me to marry the young lady he saw me with; and later losing his patience with my antics by taking off his cap and fixing it on my head on my wedding day under his loudly proclaimed law that 'You don't wear Kaftan without a cap; it is just not done!"
I couldn't be sure then whether it was the Dinka, Shilluk or Tutsi cattle-rearers in him that had reached out to hug me. I do hope that he will judge my efforts kindly in supporting the intellectual war he pursued at Ahmadu Bello University with so much devotion, integrity, abrasively radical commitment to African human dignity, freedom and development.
May his soul refuse to let us rest in the fight and labour for freedom all across Africa.