Bukar Usman was born in Biu, Borno State on 10th December, 1942. He is an administrative historian, an expert on Nigerian folktales and an author of over 30 books. In 2013, he received a Linguistic Association of Nigeria (LAN) award for his services to Hausa language and literature. In 2014, he received an international award by the Nigerian Indigenous Language Writers Association (NILWA) and its counterpart in Niger Republic, Association des Auteurs Nigeriens en Langues Nationales (ASAUNIL) for his contribution to the revival of Hausa literature. In 2016, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, honoured him with an award for ethical and value-oriented leadership. In 2017, he was honoured with an award by Ranar Mawakan Hausa Foundation for his effort towards uplifting Hausa literature. He is the current president of the Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS) and serves on the board of trustees of Cibiyar Raya Hausa da Al’adunsa (Centre for the Preservation and Promotion of Hausa Language and Culture). He granted interview to Zakiyyah Dzukogi. Here is the interview:
It is an honour to interview you. I have read two of your books, Gods and Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria and The Bride Without Scars and Other Stories. I must appreciate your efforts in uplifting Hausa language and literature. How is that a way of keeping Hausa culture alive?
It is a settled issue that language is the purveyor of culture. It is through language that culture is transmitted from one generation to another. When a language dies or goes into extinction, other aspects of culture are likely to go down with it. What may be left behind, perhaps, are the tangible elements of culture such as indigenous architecture, pottery, fashion, utensils and tools. Without the indigenous language necessary to promote and sustain their relevance and the transfer of the skills used in creating them, even these objects and ways of life of the people will disappear with time. A few of the objects buried inside the ground over time may be excavated by archeologists and kept in museums but none can continue to thrive as living and continuous evidence of the people’s culture once the indigenous language of the people is gone.
As for literature, it should be understood that since the invention of printing, mankind has benefited greatly in the sense that the mode of transmission as well as preservation and promotion of culture has graduated from sole dependence on oral tradition or word-of-mouth transmission, which Africa is noted for, to use of written literature, which is associated with printing. It can be safely said, therefore, that uplifting Hausa language and literature is vital to keeping Hausa culture alive. Information about the people’s culture or way of life, which is what literature captures, can be more reliably conveyed and preserved through written texts than through oral transmission.
A language, which is not spoken, written and studied will surely die. It is a matter of time. Nigeria boasts of about 250 ethnic groups or languages. However, officially, primacy is given to the study of only the three main languages: Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. Our census policy does not allow enumeration on basis of ethnicity and language. As such, with time, some languages may gradually go into extinction without the language speakers knowing. It is up to the language speakers to jealously guard their language through transmission from generation to generation. It is therefore necessary to encourage the young ones to speak their mother tongue. Speaking a language is what primarily keeps it alive. Literary works play supportive role; after all, it is those who speak an indigenous language who can read works written in that indigenous language.
There is a clear lesson to be learnt about language extinction from Australia where, when the colonialists went there, the country had up to two hundred languages but about two hundred years later only twenty remained, as reported in my book, Language Disappearance and Cultural Diversity in Biu Emirate (Klamidas: 2018: xiii).
It is a long time since you retired from the civil service. Were you writing while in the civil service? How did you combine writing with your busy civil-service schedule?
In general, as a civil servant, I wrote almost daily in form of minutes, memoranda, speeches and reports. But in terms of writing a book, the first major step I took was in 1992 when I commenced writing my autobiography titled Hatching Hopes (Klamidas: 2006). However, I only completed writing the book and presented it in 2006. It has 287 pages. Before then another major step I took while in the service was to put together my major speeches delivered on various occasions into a book titled Voices in a Choir: Issues in Democratization and National Stability in Nigeria (Klamidas: 1999). It was a 351-page book I presented at the International Conference Centre Abuja in April 1999 on the eve of my retirement from service at the end of the same month.
There were other minor books I wrote titled the Interface of the Muse & Government Protocol (Klamidas:1998); Press, Policy and Responsibility (Klamidas:1998), and Democracy, Human Rights and National Stability (Klamidas:1999).
That much I could say I was involved in writing while in the service. The level of my involvement did not quite interfere with my responsibilities as the speeches were written as part of my schedule while I used my spare time to write my autobiography. As I mentioned, I did not complete it until well after my retirement.
Why are you giving most of your energy and time to writing?
While in service I had prayed that I should retire when I still had energy to engage in something useful. I retired from service at the age of 56. With good health, it appears God had answered my prayers. So, I had all the time in the world to engage in whatever endeavor I wanted.
Among other pastimes, I engaged in writing for quite a number of reasons. Firstly, I picked up where I left to complete my autobiography. Secondly and most importantly, I strongly felt that I have something to share with the public from my over 30 years experience in the public service. It was enough writing and contributing ideas in files and other write-ups in the public service. I also believe strongly that any where a person works and whatever business one has been engaged in for a long time one has an obligation to share his experience for whatever benefit others may derive from his experience and guidance. It is also to guard against the disappearance of a library when one is no longer there to share his experience with future generations. Many had probably contemplated writing their memoirs but had procrastinated and died before having the opportunity of doing so or have their biography written.
I must also say that I engaged in writing to exercise my brain and to keep it productive. I felt I was lucky to have made such a decision and I do recommend this to my colleagues and anyone else. Currently, with over 30 books to my credit, I thank God my engagement in writing had proven to be productive and beneficial to others as intended.
In 1999, you retired from the Presidency as a Permanent Secretary in the Federal Civil Service. Nigerian government does not care for writers. There is general absence of institutions that exclusively promote creative writing. As a staunch writer who rose to become a Permanent Secretary, did you do anything to make Government focus on writers in terms of institutional support?
The accusation against Government is pretty strong and rather too sweeping. Printers, publishers and writers may indeed have their grouse in terms of level of Government support to their callings but that must be viewed against other competing demands on Government. Over the years, Government must have extended concessionary tariffs on imported printing materials apart from abortive effort made to establish paper mills at Badagry in Lagos State, Oku-Iboku in Cross River State and Jebba in Kwara State.
One important point of contact with Government as far as creative writing is concerned is the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). This is an organization which is long standing. If nothing else government had allocated a piece of land to the organization at Mpape, Abuja, to build a writers’ village. It came about through the good offices of Mamman Vatsa, a poet and military officer who was able to facilitate the land allocation in his capacity as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja. ANA is currently developing the land through joint venture hoping to have a sustainable base for creative writers and source of income to promote creative writing.
In its regular meetings held across the federation, ANA had always attracted modest support from various governments in the federation. The Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) Company, Bonny, in which Government has investment, also has regularly organized prize-awarding contests to encourage creative writers in various categories of creativity and authorship. Some countries probably do more but support by Nigerian Governments is not a complete write-off.
As for my personal role, I must confess that I never addressed my mind to attracting Government support to creative writing. So, it is hard for me to give an account of my stewardship in the promotion of creative writing. However, in the course of discharging my portfolio, I have had close interactions with the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Nigerian Union of Journalists and the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria. The membership of these organizations, include many creative writers. The warm relationship fostered with those organisations was an honour and privilege I continue to cherish even in my retirement. The little I wrote during my service years however was also published in the media which attracted the attention of ANA to invite me to their functions. In recognition, ANA extended to me its honorary membership in August 1998.
Do you have any private outfit that promotes writing in Nigeria or your place of residence?
I am the President of the Dr Bukar Usman Foundation. I founded the foundation along with others in 2008. The foundation based in Abuja where I reside was not specifically founded to promote creative writing. However, along the way it got involved in supporting research and publications to promote knowledge and public enlightenment. The publications so supported are largely given out free.
That aside, the foundation initiated a prize award to encourage creative writing. That was in 2010. A seed money was placed with a bank from which a ten percent annual interest was expected to be realized. It was from the interest that the prize award and other expenses were to be funded. A four-member committee was established to administer the award. They included Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, Salisu Saleh Nai’nna Dambatta, Khalid Imam and Bashir Yahuza Malumfashi. However, due to some logistical problems, the project did not fully take off as intended. As a result, the fund placed with the bank was utilized by the Foundation for other purposes in furtherance of the Foundation’s objectives.
Why are you so into cultural research, folktales and administrative history and not other forms of creative writing? What is the motivating factor?
Having written some books on public service matters and as I was about to finish my autobiography, my publisher Duve Nakolisa of Klamidas Communications Limited asked what else I would do after the publication of those books? I said to do something like what? He said don’t you have stories from your area. That reminded me of the tales my mother used to tell my siblings and I at moonlight. I also recalled some of the stories I read at elementary school in early 1950s in books written in Hausa namely Ka Koyi Karatu and Ka Kara Karatu by Abubakar Imam.
One particular story which fascinated me and registered in my mind to this day was of a man who went to his king and said he was tired of life because he was poor and wanted to die. The king obliged his wish. As he was taken to the arena to be killed one of the onlookers said if the man was killed, he wanted his loin cloth. Upon hearing that, the man said his executioners should spare his life and take him back to the king. Upon appearing before the king, he said he no longer wanted to die realizing that he was after all better off than someone else in life.
Thus, inspired by my publisher, I set about collecting tales initially from my community in Biu, Borno State of Northeastern Nigeria. When I realized that oral tradition by which the tales were told was quite extensive in Nigeria and they contained morals and other useful lessons in child-upbringing and upon realizing further how our children are preoccupied in watching television with cartoons based on tales of other countries, I delved further into research of tales across the federation. The tales so collected were published in books in the hope of providing reading materials based on familiar environment and promotion of our culture. This in a nutshell is my narrative of the motivating factor and preoccupation with research in folktales.
As to styling myself as an “administrative historian,” I must say that it came about principally from my bureaucratic background. Having worked in the Nigerian public service for over three decades, I felt obliged to share my experience with the public and so got involved in narratives of public policy formulation and management. That led to my publication of several books on various public-service matters, among which are the 351-page book Voices in a Choir and the 693 -page A History of Biu (Klamidas:2015).
You did mention of how challenging public service was, did your career in anyway contribute to your writing journey?
There is no doubt that public service is challenging, particularly in a country of great diversity as Nigeria. Meeting the aspirations of the people is a great challenge in the sense that the civil service is the vehicle by which governments deliver the demands of the people.
I started off as a third-class clerk in 1965 rising through the ranks to the position of permanent secretary which I occupied for about 11 years before retiring in 1999. From 1972 till my retirement, I was serving in the Cabinet Office, later renamed Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, in the Presidency. It is the hub of government business, if not the driving wheel. I served under eleven Secretaries to the Government of the Federation during my 27 years tenure at the Cabinet Office/Presidency. I was lucky to serve there and for that length of time as it afforded me the opportunity to have an overview of public administration and to appreciate the problems and complexity of governance. This much prompted me to compile my speeches, which reflected some of the problems and challenges, in my book Voices in a Choir.
From the immediate post-independence when I joined the service to my retirement, Nigeria had undergone several changes from civilian to military administrations, parliamentary to presidential systems of governance, the civil war and its aftermath, division of the country into many states and local governments with agitations for more states and local governments or restructuring in many forms still in the air. All these happened with the civil service as the main prop holding the country. To help clarify aspects of these challenges, I was motivated to publish, aside from Voices in a Choir, several other books on public-service matters. So, in a way, my public-service career has helped in no small way in extending the scope of my writing as it provided me the raw materials I utilized in some of my works. This is reflected in my latest 456-page book, My Public Service Journey: Issues in Public Policy Administration in Nigeria (Klamidas: 2019) and in my book, Restructuring Nigeria: An Overview (Klamidas 2019).
Aside from that, my service career afforded me the opportunity to meet some individuals with literary skills who helped in going through my manuscripts and offered useful advice. I have extensively acknowledged them in the story of my literary development which I titled My Literary Journey (Klamidas: 2013).
Your books, Gods and Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria and The Bride Without Scars and Other Stories show your intense love for folklore. How do you think documenting tales is a way of developing and reviving Nigerian tales? How can technology be deployed in keeping our folklore alive since grandmothers no longer sit children down to tell them stories?
We are in a fast-changing world. Documenting folklore, which includes reviving and developing Nigerian tales, is not only my conviction but also that of the Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS) the current President of which I am privileged to be. The Society was formed in 1980. It functioned until it received a big boost at an international conference held at Bayero University Kano, April, 2013. In recognition of the importance of preserving and promoting our culture, the conference took several decisions to strengthen the existence of the Society. It had since been holding annual conferences and its proceedings duly documented for references and research in the study of Nigerian folklore.
Indeed, as a result of growing urbanization and drastic changes in lifestyle and search for means of livelihood, parents and grandmothers generally hardly have the time to tell their children those folktales that usually serve as the first school of the child before formal education. As a result, oral tradition is fast disappearing along with folktales. It has therefore become urgent to research and collect folktales to preserve and disseminate them. The invention of printing technology and the development of Information Communication Technology (ICT) have made it easier to do so. Books are written, cartoons and other images are used to illustrate and present the tales in various forms on television and in social media for the benefit of our children and humanity in general.
In your article, Restructuring Nigeria, you made mention of the process of constitutional amendment, how can this be effective in the Nigeria of today?
This is a political question. But let me first explain that I wrote the article in November, 2017. I have since developed it into a 125-page book, Restructuring Nigeria: An Overview (Klamidas: 2019).
As to the process of amending the constitution, I argued that it should be done by the National Assembly through the process stipulated under the constitution. This is against the argument by some agitators that restructuring Nigeria requires the making of an entirely new constitution because the current constitution was handed down by the military and, as such, cannot be said to be a constitution of the people by the people. I maintained that this proposed process was equally disingenuous in the sense that the 1963 constitution, which the agitators regarded as the best out of the about ten constitutions which Nigeria has had since the creation of the country in 1914, was not tailor-made in Nigeria by Nigerians. Also, some of the great nations of the world did not come about their constitutions solely in the manner being conceived or contemplated by some of the agitators who call for a clean slate.
Besides, I further argued that a lot of the issues of concern to Nigerians are not structurally induced and so even if a new constitution is brought into being, given the current attitude to governance, there is no guarantee that the old habits will go away. What the nation badly needs is ethical reorientation and good governance and abiding by the democratic practices of the countries we seek to copy. Our practices are proving to be too costly and the nostalgia about the good old First Republic cannot be reenacted in the Nigeria of today in view of the irreversible fundamental changes that had taken place since then.
As a bilingual writer, in which languages do you write? How do you think indigenous languages of Nigeria can be developed? Hausa is growing fast while others appear to be heading to extinction. What is the story behind the growth of Hausa language?
You have asked three questions. My answer to the first question is that I write in both Hausa and English. Most of my writings are in English because this is the language of my formal education from primary to university and it was my official working language during my public service as well as the language used in board meetings of private companies I participate in. I interact with many people on a daily basis in English because that is the language Nigerian groups use to interact with each other. Although the formal teaching I received in Hausa was only from elementary one to four (1951-1954), I have learnt a lot through speaking the language with others, and through reading works written in the language. That is why we encourage people to speak and read their indigenous languages whenever they have the opportunity to do so.
As for the second leg of the question which is how to develop indigenous languages, I would say it should be by encouraging the language speakers to speak and teach their children their languages. The language speakers should guard their languages jealously and take interest in research and development of orthography for the language so that it could be taught and have books written in the language for study and entertainment.
The story behind the growth of Hausa is long but it could be summarized thus: Hausa language is akin to Swahili, a language widely spoken in East Africa. Hausa is equally widely spoken in West Africa and has grown to be the lingua franca among the minority groups in the larger part of Northern Nigeria. Early explorers, colonial administrators and foreign missionaries studied and wrote literature in Hausa which was taught in schools in a larger part of the North. It also became the language of commerce and broadcast by several media houses in and out of Nigeria.
Outside the country, Hausa is studied in several educational institutions. They include Hamburg University, Department of African Languages and Ethiopian Studies; School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Warsaw University Poland; Cairo University Department of African Languages; and School of Asian and African Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China. The BBC, VOA, RFI, Radio Moscow, Radio China, Radio Deutsche Welle, Radio Cairo, Radio Omdurman in Sudan, Radio Alternative in Niger Republic, Radio Cameroun and Radio Ghana all broadcast in Hausa. Hausa has a well-developed orthography and computer fonts. There is Hausa-English dictionary and vice versa for easy reference. The momentum is set and Hausa is now practically spreading like wild fire with little or no visible hand pushing it from any quarter. Not many languages in Nigeria enjoy that high and wide patronage.
Do you find anything satisfying in the Nigerian government after your retirement? There is increasing disenchantment by the citizens in the leadership of Nigeria from top-down. People do not believe in their leaders anymore, especially the young ones; in fact, young people like me are ready to forsake the country to live elsewhere. What is it that brought us to this point whereby citizens no longer trust Government leaders?
This is a multiple question verging on politics some of which can best be answered by you the questioner and some of the youths you referred to. This is because attitude to prevailing government is largely a matter of perception and one’s personal or close community interests at stake. A government which meets one’s self or close community interests will be liked and disliked if the contrary is the case.
Regarding the first question about my satisfaction with Government after my retirement, I guess you are referring to the federal government of Nigeria where I served. That being the case, I would say that since my retirement in 1999 there had been several governments. Each government must be judged by the challenges faced and it would require much to carry out a fair assessment of each and every one applying the same criteria. The past governments are long gone. It would be academic to engage in assessing them. The present government is certainly facing daunting economic and security challenges of a scale of concern to the citizenry. After retirement, I had served on two presidential panels on national security: Prof. Tekena Tamuno panel (1999) and Shehu Lemu panel (2011). They were set up by different governments indicating that there were security concerns in the past though not as widespread as currently. Previous governments did not face the devastation of COVID-19 either. Nearly all governments since Babangida had resisted the removal of fuel subsidy which was being pushed by IMF and the World Bank. The Buhari Government appears to have given in to the pressure to remove fuel subsidy due to drastic fall in revenue. Nigeria being a mono economy, its fate always swings with crude oil price which under Buhari had fallen to unprecedented level because of COVID-19.
As to disenchantment to a level you and other youths are ready to forsake the country, it is sometimes the case of one feeling that there is a greener pasture elsewhere. Some who could not put up with temporary hardship attempt to flee the country and in the process lost their lives in the desert or in the sea. Some managed to reach their destinations only to find that the grass is not all that green after all. It is all a matter of choice. You stay so we salvage it together or you check out like the famous Andrew. Only a few made it. Others regret fleeing. Sometimes you do not appreciate something until you lose it.
Having said all that, I must conclude by saying that generally there is public demand for more demonstrable sacrifice by the leadership and more prudent management of our God-given abundant resources for the benefit of all. An immediate check on the level of insecurity and improvement in the wellbeing of the citizenry is also required to reassure the citizenry and the youth.
In your book, Gods and Ancestors, there is a pinch of the Yoruba language. Being a Bura man from Borno State, how did you encounter Yoruba language?
It is true I am a Babur/Bura speaker from Borno State. However, those who read my autobiography, Hatching Hopes, would have noticed that I am married to Yoruba for about six decades. Aside from that, some of the tales in Gods and Ancestors were collected from Yorubaland. Out of the bulk of the tales collected from Yorubaland about one hundred have been published in a 332-page book, Ogorun-Un Itan Lati Ile Yoruba (Klamidas: 2016).
The tales in your book, did you craft them or they are long forgotten tales of the old you have collected?
The straight forward answer to this question is that the tales I published were tales of old collected through extensive pan-Nigerian field research conducted from 2013-2015. Over 4000 tales were collected from all over the federation. Resource persons, including professors from Nigerian Universities and prominent individuals, were enlisted by the Dr Bukar Usman Foundation. They engaged field staff who went about with tape recorders to interview fairly elderly persons in the communities, some of whom responded in native languages which were subsequently translated into English. Some are published in the native languages. So far, the publications are in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. Depending on the availability of orthography of any language, the tales could be translated and published in that language. Some selected tales were published in English as Treasury of Nigerian Tales (TNT) series, books 2, 3 and 4. Book 1 of the series which is the master copy of all the tales collected will be published afterwards. What has been collected so far is like the tip of the iceberg. A lot is required to be done to retrieve and preserve the tremendous number of folktales in our diverse communities.
Apart from writing, what other thing do you do as a retiree?
As I indicated in my personal profile on my website, www.bukarusman.net, I hold directorship in a few companies. I am the president of the Dr Bukar Usman Foundation. I am also the current president of the Nigerian Folklore Society. As a hobby I have interest in estate development. Reading and publishing are my other hobbies.
What is the trick you will like to share with the upcoming writers like myself on becoming successful in the writing world? Do you mentor young writers? Do you have some of your children taking after you in writing?
Really, I do not think I have any trick to share with upcoming writers. There is no magic wand in writing. There is this debate as to whether writing is an inborn or acquired skill. I tend to believe that every individual has the ability to learn how to write. It is like if one drops a seed in the desert and waters it, there is the likelihood that it will germinate, and if one continues to water it surely it will grow.
However, in 2009 when I was asked a similar question, I had advised that aspiring writers who do not know where to begin, should join writers’ fora like ANA and other associations to be more enlightened about what writing entails.
And for those who had written but have no money to publish, they shouldn’t give up. They should just keep writing. In the near future, God would provide the means for them to publish. And they should stop rushing in the writing process. They should be patient and do their work diligently so that success would be theirs. For example, it took me about ten years to finish writing my autobiography. Therefore, writing is a daily business, not a one-day activity.
I also advise that after one has finished writing, one should review what is written and also give experienced writers one’s work to evaluate. In my Hausa writings, I sought the help of Professor Dandatti Abdulkadir and others. And so, at that time, we successfully published over fourteen books in a period of just three years. Six fairy tales books were out and the other six were expected to be out in the following one or two months.
Personally, I have never considered myself to be a writer. This is in the sense that I never set out to be a writer as a profession or to make money out of writing. As my good friend, Prof Osato Frank Giwa-Osagie said, I took to writing like a duck plunging into water. I took off to write my autobiography Hatching Hopes with little or no guidance from anyone. It was after I put up the first draft that associates read and felt I had a story to tell and that my writing would make a good read. That was in 1992. From one book I published another and today, to the glory of God, I have authored over thirty books.
After about 28 years of writing and from the totality of experience gathered so far, I can only say that an upcoming writer needs to understand right away that writing in our environment is not a money-making venture. But some do make money. Chinua Achebe and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim may come up for mention.
However, in my case, I did not primarily set out to make money from writing. My desire is to share knowledge of my public service experience and to help in reviving oral tradition by collecting and publishing our folktales for the entertainment, education and moral upbringing of our children. Judging from the feedback so far, I am glad that the objectives are being achieved. The achievement has been made possible through the support of the Dr Bukar Usman Foundation which sponsors research in folktales and the publication of the books based on them and other subjects. The books are largely donated to individuals and institutions.
I have not consciously set out to mentor any one as a writer. But it is possible I do so indirectly by association. Those who access my books might admire them in one form or the other and might want to emulate something from me. Here I would like to emphasize to the upcoming writer the need to ensure quality production and attractive publication not only regarding choice of themes but also the finishing of the books. This requires good editors and publishers as well as good printers.
Perhaps I should also drop this caveat that there is piracy in the literary world which seriously undermines copyright and discourages some writers.
Regarding my children, they have taken to callings of their choice. I must emphasize “of their choice” because I never dictated to them the choice of any profession. I left them to their freewill just as my parents, who were non-literate, never dictated to me. My children became what they wanted to be: one of them is a visual artist, another is a business manager and another is an architect. The last born, who is just 8 years old, is yet to make a choice of profession. What I can say is that from childhood they see what I am doing as we live under one roof. The youngest of them all seems to show some interest in writing by observation as she has typed up to 8 chapters of her stories. The others may later make up their minds. One can never tell. Profession is not the determinant of interest in writing and, like me, one may be a late bloomer in writing. As I always point out, some notable writers, like Cypirian Ekwensi, were not arts students.
Zakiyyah Dzukogi a secondary school finalist from Himma International College, Minna, Niger State. She is a poet, an author and a member of the Hilltop Creative Arts Foundation, Minna. She has a collection of poems titled Carved which won 2nd in the maiden edition of Nigeria prize for teen authors. She won the Splendors of Dawn poetry contest, December edition. She has her works published in journals like konyashamrumi and Nigeria Review (October, 2020).