The past week has not been a good one for the endangered specie of committed progressive people in Nigeria. Middle of the week there was the tragic death, by yet another road accident of Comrade Chima Ubani,42, Director of the country's premier human Rights NGO, Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, and a foremost defender of the poor, and a shining star for consistency and total commitment to the struggle for the liberation of the ordinary people in the face of successive autocratic military regimes of the 80s and 90s in Nigeria and the creeping elective dictatorship of a civilianized General Obasanjo since 1999.
He died in an accident between Maiduguri and Kano in the north East part of the country where he had been part of the Key leaders of Civil Society and the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, mobilizing support for a successful series of national strikes across the country against yet another increase (the Eight since Obasanjo return to office in 1999) in the price of petroleum products.
His body and that of the deputy photography Editor of The Vanguard Newspaper, himself an active Trade Unionist, Oyeleru, who also died in the accident were returned to Lagos on Saturday.
They are yet to be buried but that same day (Saturday 24, 2005) yet another tragedy struck at the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Samaru-Zaria, the death a Senior comrade, veteran strugglist, radical historian and organic intellectual in the tradition of Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral: Dr Yusuf Bala Usman. Many people outside of Nigeria may not have known him personally but more would have become aware of him by reputation and remember and mourn the sad loss of the firebrand Pan Africanist Intellectual guerilla.
It was an inconsolable weekend. For my generation of Student activists Bala Usman was the icon of our times whose radical scholarship and political activism thought us to ask very uncomfortable questions about the kind of knowledge we were being taught and the society we were living in.
The 70s and 80s were full of epic battles and the cold war was at its peak. In Africa, the liberation of Southern Africa including former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau on the West coast, Zimbabwe and South Africa from settler regime and apartheid were prominent on the agenda. The struggle against neo-colonialism was also intense and anti imperialist struggles were being waged across the underdeveloped world from Africa through Asia to the Middle East and Latin America. These were days before Donor-driven formalized struggles that have today turned many revolutionaries into RESOLUTIONARIES.
They were periods when imperialism was called by its proper name not disguised under euphemisms like globalisation, Friends or partners!
Bala and his peers of equally committed scholar-activists from across the continent who were teaching in various universities in Nigeria in those Oil boom days opened our eyes and ears to the world around us and inspired us to believe that we can change it for better. There were many radical scholars, some of them exiles and refugees from Idi Amin and Obote 2 regimes in Uganda including Prof Yolamu Barongo, the indomitable Okot a P'itek and the confirmed Nigerian-Uganda one of the veteran Pan Africanists of that period who have stuck it out in Nigeria, Ocello Oculi.
There were others like Yusuf Bangura, AB Zack Williams and others. There were radical scholars from the Diaspora too like Dr Patrick Wilmot who was later deported from Nigeria by the Babangida regime. People Like Ali Mazrui were regular Guest Lecturers on Nigeria's campuses trailing one controversy or the other. By no means were all the radical lecturers only Africans or people from the diaspora. There were internationalists like Bjorn Beckman Ahmadu Bello university became the haven for progressive scholarship and a big thorn on the sides of the ruling cliques of Nigeria. There was progressive hegemony on the campuses that shaped student ambitions and inspire them to read critically.
The high point of this was the centenary of Marx conference held at Ahmadu Bello University in 1983. Some of the sectarian political and intellectual battles that was to decimate the Left forces not only in Abu but across the country could be traced to this period.
Bala was very prominent in these debates and enjoyed for many years the status of first among equals. He was born into the royal house of Katsina in emirate northern Nigeria, he did not have to do anything to survive. He could just have demanded and be given anything he wanted by way of personal pleasures and riches by virtue of being a royal and growing up at a time when the Emirs held sway. In the colonial settlement the British had ensured the inbuilt hegemony of the Hausa-Fulani aristocracy over the affairs of Nigeria, a legacy that is still shaping Nigeria's power struggles today.
Bala could have combined his royal long spoon with his academic erudition and choose to be part of any government or ruling cliques across the country and feed fat on the sweat and blood of the people of Nigeria. But Bala chose to side with the masses. He became a traitor to his class. He committed a class suicide and remained a revolutionary throughout his life. He could have checked out of the country like many of us (some voluntarily, some of us became stranded abroad, and others left through coercion or for tactical/strategic reasons) but he did not. He believed that he was best able to contribute directly from the home front.
Whatever political or intellectual disagreements anyone may have developed with YB Usman in a life steeped in struggles on many fronts even his worst critics will pay him the tribute of saying he remained true to his convictions against every odd, trial and tribulations.
At a time when too many former Leftists have left the struggle and found light on the other side. In periods when some of our erstwhile comrades will ban their own books or articles if they could there is something to be said for a Man who stayed the course till the end of his relatively short life. He was only 60 though because many have known his name for a long time they always thought he was much older.
Nigeria is indeed made more impoverished both intellectually and politically now that the loud and very clear thunderous Voice of Bala will no longer be there to speak unpleasant truths to power in that potentially great country damned by successive little minded leaders impervious to any knowledge that could go beyond their noses so as to deliver on the great promise of the country.
It is perhaps befitting to a life of struggle that Bala's last public duty that many will remember for its high drama was at a conference last month called by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on corruption. Bala was one of the participants.
President Obasanjo was the Chief guest and he addressed the audience with his usual monologue and holier-than-thou pomposity. At intervention time Bala was on the floor and he, as was characteristic of his fearless and fierce intellect took on Baba Iyabo (Father of Iyabo, as Obasanjo is also known in Nigeria) and tore into then empty shrines of his timid anti-corruption crusade and leader-centric governance.
As we all know, Obasanjo is such a big 'democrat' who cannot understand or continence anyone disagreeing with him and doing so, so openly! He ordered his Security goons to seize the microphone from Bala otherwise he was going to walk out. Somehow the Security heavies could not find the over 6 feet tall Bala who was standing with a microphone in a hall full of all the high and mighty in Nigeria. The conclusion of many was that even the security guys were sympathetic to Bala's lampooning of President-Know-all. That was Bala Usman: Bold, full of guts and fearless before those who think of themselves as our lords and Masters.
Of course the hypocrisy of conspicuous grief after death of a public figure is already suffocating the country. The President was one of the first to send condolences on the two departed comrades declaring one 'a brilliant young activist' and the other 'a statesman' and how the country will sorely miss them!
It is customary to pray for the departed the departed but I want to make a slight change to the convention by saying: May the spirit of Bala and Chima remain restless and Continue to haunt us to continue the struggle for which they lived and died actively serving.