Nothing in his appearance that morning suggested he was given to the prose side of life. He wasn’t an austere man with puritanical looks, neither did he have those characteristic, jutting beards and faraway looks of a quaint professor whose world revolves around books. Rather, he appeared anonymous in a simple kaftan with sandals to match, as he introduced himself, amid genial smiles, “My name is Bukar Usman; I am an author,” shaking my hands. It was a fortuitous meeting in a Sokoto hotel, April, 2014, during the northern leg of Things Fall Apart @ 50 celebrations organised by the national body of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
On the table lay two sets of books –My Literary Journey and Hatching Hopes –which he autographed and handed afterwards, one each to myself and my colleague, Anote Ajeluorou of The Guardian, who was already acquainted with him.The size of the books bellowed attraction in an instant. Quickly, I flipped through the pages, as I was wont to, as a bibliophile, to ascertain whether they were throwaway stuffs or worthy of attention.
I became curious instantly that the man in front of me already had a literary odyssey, which suggested certain experience as a scribbler, yet I hadn’t heard about him as a writer. “If you find the books useful, you can review them,” he offered without persuasion, and asked for my mailing address to send more books he had written.
Back to Lagos, before I could even read through the two books he gifted me in Sokoto, the security men at The Sun Corporate headquarters in Lagos alerted me, one day, that I had a carton of books waiting for me at the reception. A carton of books? I wasn’t expecting any. I was wary of unsolicited books, and a frown mounted on my face as I went over to the security office. There it was: a carton of books addressed to me!
Searching impatiently for the sender’s name, I saw “Bukar Usman”. Tearing the carton open as I returned to my desk, I saw books ranging from folktales, oral tradition, literature, culture, security to polity: some written in English, others in Hausa Language. My colleagues in the office, who had swarmed around my desk to see what the books were all about, were excited. As Usman directed in the accompanying note, I took my review copies and shared out the rest to my colleagues in the office, who thanked me for the gesture.
For the books were overwhelming (the most I had ever gotten from one author at once), I told myself I was going to review only one or two, and forget about the rest, for I already had hundreds of unread books begging for attention. But I was wrong. After reading and reviewing the first, I went for the second, then the third, and many more. Usman’s books were unputdownable, and became, for me, a signpost to learn about exotic cultures, new traditions, languages, and what have you, written not by a professor in the department of English, literary studies or linguistics this time, but by a retired civil servant far from the academe.
Just when I thought I had read the last of Bukar Usmanoeuvre, another whooper landed our corporate office in Lagos in December 2015 with the title, A History of Biu, a book that details a vibrant, ancient civilisation dating back to the fourteenth century, as well as its people, culture, agriculture, religion, language and relics. It was a well researched book that opened my eyes deeper to a unique, formidable emirate northeast of Nigeria.
Biu, as presented in the book, is a fortress town that nestles south of Borno on a plateau replete with precipitous escarpments. Chronicled as the first city of the Babur/Bura ethnic group and the second most significant urban centre and largest local council in Borno, it is also the provincial hub of commerce and cultural renaissance, and has played a premier role since 1918 when the British colonialists created Biu Division.
What Usman has done for Biu in this magnum opus is a lifetime achievement. In it, one learns about the peace-loving nature of the people. Usman informs in A History of Biu that the previous capitals of Biu had to be relocated in ancient times, especially because of war and plague. Each time there was a new threat, the locals would look for a new location on top of a hill. At last, their forbears chose the present location situated on the plateau, 193 kilometres from the state capital Maiduguri. Majority of its inhabitants are said to be farmers, who produce, among others, guinea corn, maize, millet, rice and groundnut. It is from this town that Bukar Usman, an elder statesman with Midas touch, comes from.
No doubt, I was thrilled by what I read in A History of Biu, one of my favourite books written by the author, but I had no ambition to visit the land founded by the legendary Yamtarawala anytime soon. I was surprised, therefore, when the retired permanent secretary in the presidency, one day, in April, 2016, called me with a strange proposition: “Henry Akubuiro, I would like you to visit Biu, my hometown, to write stories about it. I bet you would find many interesting places to visit to write about. There are so many negative things and misinformation being written about Borno State in the Lagos press by people who haven’t been there. I want you to go there and write from the perspective of somebody on ground.”
Ordinarily, I was supposed to be excited –I love travelling to new places –but I wasn’t at all, reason being that Borno was a state at the mercy of Boko Haram, and I didn’t want to fall a victim. But Usman assured me Biu was a safe haven, the only emirate Boko Haram never overruns and where the Emir never fled from at the heat of the Boko Haram uprising in 2014 and 2015. I wasn’t convinced. So he sent the Galadima of Biu, Alhaji Umaru Sanda, to physically visit me in the office to convince me to visit Biu. The Galadima even promised to send his son to accompany me to Biu.
I didn’t give him an immediate response. I prayed over it for days, and got a confirmation I would go and return safely. My wife was alarmed when I decided to go. So I set out, days after, from Lagos to Gombe Airport, together with Galadima’s son, enroute to Biu. It was my first ever journey to the heart of northeast. I had been to Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Kano and neighbouring Adamawa, but not Borno, even during peace time. It, however, turned out to be one of the most memorable journeys I had ever embarked as a journalist.
About 10 kilometres to Biu, I saw a series of impregnable hills rising hundreds of feet above sea level, as described in the book (Biu itself is a 766-metre elevation above sea level). We visited the major roads linking it with other northern cities, like Maiduguri, Damaturu, Numan and Yola. I visited the Emir’s Place, the old Prison, the old District Officer’s office, the irrigated and sometimes rocky farms, the abandoned dam, the salty lake that miraculously bred fishes, the College of Education, Waka-Biu; many landmarks and, above all, the mythical village of Viukuthla known to be the cradle of Biu civilisation, for which we had to trek for miles to reach when our vehicle couldn’t navigate the rocky terrain midway into the journey.
I also discovered something about Bukar Usman. I was expecting to see a mansion of his in his hometown, having served many Nigerian presidents as a bureaucrat, including General Ibrahim Babangida, but I was disappointed. His house was just modest, just like its owner.
Just few weeks ago, Bukar Usman turned 77. At this age, many Nigerians in his shoes would love to vegetate, away from public glare, but not this septuagenarian. He has continued to provide succour to many Nigerians through his Bukar Usman Foundation. He does not shy away from his new found role as a public intellectual, presenting papers at public fora and documenting vistas for posterity. He doesn’t despair from leading the Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS) to ensure that our cultural heritage is passed on to today’s disinterested generation and those coming after.
Usman’s greatest achievement at 77 is not that he dined and wined with some of Nigeria’s greatest leaders in the course of his civil service job spanning over three decades. He will be remembered, rather, by posterity for contributing immensely to building the nation without dramas and, above all, contributing, in no small measure, to cultural renaissance in Nigeria and Africa through impactful books and advocacies.
Though a late bloomer in the literary world, Usman has made a name as an ideologue whose views are sought after, nay, revered in public domain at home. As Anne Frank rightly said, “Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness.” Let the beat continue after 77 stanzas!