Dr. Bukar Usman is a retired permanent secretary in the Presidency; prolific writer, accomplished administrator, passionate folklorist, and informed public affairs analyst. He has authored dozens of books covering a wide range of topics, including oral literature, history, governance, public policy, media, security, politics and international affairs. Dr. Usman, who will clocks 78 next month talks to Khalid Imam, on many topical issues, including the secret of his graceful looks and mental alertness
What were your formative years like?
I was born at Biu, Borno State, on 10 December 1942. It was there I spent my formative years; that was pre-primary school. I started primary school at Biu in 1951. Before then, I was enrolled into Sangaya (qur’an school) run by my uncle. It was a stone-throw from our house. We read qur’an on a wooden slate in the morning and at night around a bonfire. We fetched guinea corn stocks and shrubs in the day time to make the bonfire for the night lesson. We also fetched water and did other chores for the qur’an teacher, my uncle. The night lesson usually lasted about one to one and half hours. We also went about with small calabashes to beg for food in the neighborhood as almajiri.
It was while playing in the street one afternoon that I was grabbed by a Dogari (palace guard) who took me to our Emir, the Emir of Biu. The Emir ordered that I should be taken to the primary school which was just about one hundred metres away from the palace. That was the beginning of my formal education and I unceremoniously bid goodbye to Sangaya. The qur’an school inculcated in me self-reliance and self-discipline in that even though my family house was nearby and the Sangaya was in front of my uncle’s house where I slept, I still went about to beg for food.
Tell us a bit about your parents?
My parents never went to school. My father was a petty trader selling clothes and needles. I helped him sell the needles in the market which was a weekly market held on Mondays in Biu town. My mother was also a petty trader. She sold dry pepper and dry tomatoes. She bought the fresh ones cheaply during the rainy season and sold them dry in dry season when the ingredients were scarce. She also had several farmlands in and around Biu town. I followed her to the farms to help her. Through petty trading, she saved enough to buy me a bicycle when I was in secondary school. That was in 1962. Her gift was quite an encouragement in my education career. My mother also gave me garden eggs, cucumber and pan-fried ground nuts whenever I was returning to boarding school after the holidays. My father was a strict disciplinarian. He made sure I did not stay out late in the night as we went out to play in the street at moonlight. He administers concoctions to cure my minor ailments such as cold, cough and fever. Garlic was one of the concoctions. The flesh of a red-neck lizard too served as medicine against whooping cough. The test of the efficacy of those native treatments was that somehow I got cured.
When did you leave Maiduguri for further education?
From 1955 when I went to Maiduguri to continue my primary and secondary education, I was largely out of my parents care except when I went home briefly on holidays. That was so as I was in boarding school for my senior primary and secondary school at Maiduguri (1955- 1963). From there I proceeded to King’s College Lagos for my higher school (1964- 1965) and then to Ahmadu Bello University Zaria (1966-1969). After that I worked in the federal civil service starting as a Third Class Clerk in 1969 rising to the post of a permanent secretary in the presidency where I retired in 1999. My parents were not responsible for my school fees. Biu Native Authority, Northern Nigeria Regional Government and the Federal Government of Nigeria sponsored my education at various levels from primary to the university. If anything, boarding life guided much of my childhood and adult life.
By December you would be 78 but you still look 60; what is the secret of your youthful looks – should one attribute it to good diet, exercise or what? And what do you think people should generally do to make them age gracefully?
Exercise, by which I mean physical exercise, certainly helps to keep the body and mind fit, according to medical advice. However, in my case, much of the physical exercise I did was during my school days (1951-1969). As a secondary school student in Maiduguri (1958-1963) I was an all-rounder in sports: I participated in track and field events in athletics and also played football, basketball, hockey, rugby and table tennis. I represented my school, Borno Provincial Secondary School, now Borno College at annual inter-provincial sports competition.
I also represented the Northern Region as an athlete at the annual inter-regional sports competition in Lagos. I represented King’s College Lagos at annual inter-collegiate football competition (1964-1965). I represented Ahmadu Bello University as a footballer at the annual Nigeria University Games (NUGA) (1966-1969). The last NUGA games I participated was hosted by the University of Ife in 1966. That was when the university was still at Ibadan and before it was renamed Obafemi Awolowo University. Perhaps these sporting activities in my youthful days carried me through to this day as currently my physical exercise is minimal.
Regarding dieting secrets, I think my spouse is in a better position to comment on that. I can’t enumerate what secrets she puts in my meals but I notice that I’m frequently served freshly-cooked wholesome meals and few fried or baked items. I eat only one main meal in a day, take fruits, and drink lots of water.
Personally, I had prayed in my civil-service days to retire when I was still strong enough to do certain things I could not do while in the service. I had also resolved after retirement not to be engaged in any full-time post-retirement job. I had enough of it in my over 30-year active working career. I had kept faith with that resolution since my retirement, at the age of 56, from the federal public service in 1999.
My advice to people would be that they should engage in sporting activities, work for a living as much as they can in their youthful days, and plan and save for their retirement so that they can have what they need to take care of themselves and their families in their old age.
One of your readers, Dr. Wale Okediran, the General Secretary of Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA), once described you as a ‘book industry’, and I think he was expressing the opinion of many readers of your books who are surprised that you keep churning out one new book after another. What do you set out to achieve with these books, and what is motivating you to keep publishing?
I must thank Dr. Wale Okediran and other well-wishers for their compliments. The inexhaustible nature of my subject matters, which are culture, public service and public affairs, is part of what motivates me to keep publishing. Having worked in the Nigerian public service for decades, I felt I had certain things to share with the public. I write because I want to contribute whatever I can to public enlightenment and value re-orientation; and I want to leave a legacy future generations would find useful.
I see folklore as a tool we can use to re-shape the values of our people. I discovered that verbal aspects of folklore, such as folktales, legends and myths, and the physical aspects as well, feed the oral tradition of nearly every community in Africa, and the oral traditions of many communities in other parts of the world. Verbal folklore is, therefore, a rich and important area for literary engagement. Folktales contain values which can be inculcated in children for character molding. The first informal school of many children in Africa is the evening folktale-telling sessions conducted for children by their parents or some other older relations. Due to the pressure of modern life, many families have now abandoned this vital practice.
I sincerely hope that my folktales publications will reawaken interest in this important area of our culture. As we dig the ground in search of gold and other precious minerals, so also we should research into our traditions. From the feedback so far, it appears that my efforts are not misdirected. My folktales books are cherished for their educational and entertainment values. A female tutor in one of the schools that received books of folktales donated by my foundation wrote back to say that my books rekindled her interest as well as the interest of her children and her students in our dying ‘Tales by Moonlight’ tradition. I remember her thanking me for ‘taking away my children’s addiction to TV’. Appreciative responses like hers encourage me to keep writing and publishing.
Your earlier short-story books such as Girls in Search of Husbands, The Stick of Fortune and Taskar Tatsuniyoyi were all set in Northern Nigeria. Now you have a series of huge volumes of pan-Nigerian folktales tagged ‘Treasury of Nigerian Tales (TNT)’. How many books have you published under this new series? And can you comment on some of the themes of the many stories of these books?
The TNT (Treasury of Nigerian Tales) series was initiated after a pan-Nigerian tales-collection exercise sponsored by the Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation from 2013 to 2015. Over 4000 tales were collected. From the collections, four books were conceived. Book 1 is the master copy of all the tales collected. Books 2, 3 and 4 contain analyses of some aspects of the tales based, among others, on their themes and settings. Books 2, 3 and 4 have been published under the following titles: A Selection of Nigerian Folktales: Themes and Settings (Klamidas: 2018); People, Animals, Spirits and Objects: 1000 Folk Stories of Nigeria (Klamidas: 2018) and Gods and Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria (Klamidas: 2018). Book 1, which contains thousands of stories, is so bulky that it is split into two (Volumes 1 and 2) and is yet to be published.
From your research in Nigerian folktales, what would you say are the strongest ties uniting Nigerians across the six geopolitical zones? Would you say that if Nigeria accords the study of tales a special place in its education curricula, the country’s march towards national integration would be achieved with greater ease?
Everyone who has the opportunity to access the folktales books I have published so far will certainly realise a common thread which runs through the oral traditions of our communities. The common objectives are to ensure a sound child upbringing through rendition, mostly under moonlight, of tales depicting good and bad deeds, using mainly animals, spirits and objects as symbols. The animals used are dictated by the environment of the folktale narrators but the lessons learnt from the stories remain the same in every community.
Certainly, the integrative value of folktales and folklore in general cannot be underestimated as appreciating other people’s culture would erase some misconceptions and improve inter-cultural understanding.
The #EndSARS protest that hit Nigeria in October 2020 reminds one of some of the issues you examined in Restructuring Nigeria: An Overview, which was published earlier in the year. What is the book all about? In your view, what is the way forward for Nigeria; do we need constitutional restructuring or ethical restructuring or both?
It is true the release of my book on restructuring Nigeria preceded the #EndSARS protests by a couple of months. However, some of the issues of governance raised by the protesters have been lingering for quite some time. Restructuring is one of such issues and it has been a subject of discourse in the media and in private discussions. My book on restructuring Nigeria was preceded by my article on the subject written in 2017. To fully clarify some of the issues raised, I developed the article into a 125-page book titled Restructuring Nigeria: An Overview (Klamidas: 2019).
In a nutshell, the point I tried to make in the article and in the book is that though there was merit in the constitution of 1963, which emphasised the autonomy of the regions, as highlighted by proponents of restructuring, a lot of irreversible changes had taken place since that constitution was abandoned. As such, it is not possible to revert to the same constitution as wished by some of the agitators. And even if we are to review the constitution, much is still required in terms of change of our attitude to governance. I argued that this is necessary and equally important as some of the ills of concern to the people are not structurally-induced. Why, for instance, should someone who by all standards is well off and comfortable steal public funds in billions? And why should some cases linger in our courts while similar cases in other countries are disposed expeditiously?
Is your My Public Service Journey, which dwells on your public-service experiences and insights, an update on your two earlier autobiographical works, Hatching Hopes and My Literary Journey? What links these three books together and what sets them apart?
Of the three books, Hatching Hopes (Klamidas: 2006) was written first. It is my autobiography. It tells my story and covers my childhood, education and working career. There is now a second, updated, edition (Klamidas: 2018). Next comes My Literary Journey (Klamidas: 2013) in which I tried to answer the question I was repeatedly asked: how did you get involved in writing books during and after your public service career? My Public Service Journey (Klamidas: 2019) takes the reader back to the issues that preoccupied my over 30-year tenure in the Nigerian public service; a major difference is that in this book I placed little emphasis on purely personal matters.
Of the over 30 years I served, about 27 were at the Cabinet Office which was later renamed the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation in the Presidency, the hub of Government business. I rose from a third-class clerk to the post of a Permanent Secretary and was privileged to work under 11 Secretaries to the Government of the Federation some of whom combined the post with that of Head of Service. That privilege gave me an overview of governance of the country from immediate post-independence period, through parliamentary and presidential systems, and through military and civilian administrations. So, I felt I have a story to share with the public. These considerations aside, I believe that regardless of whatever business one has been engaged in for a reasonable length of time, it is advisable that one should commit his or her experiences to writing for the benefit of others and for the development of that field of endeavour.
The style you adopted in narrating the story of your over 30-year experience in the public service in My Public Service Journey could be described as simple. Why did you opt to start each chapter with an ‘Introductory Note’?
The style adopted in writing My Public Service Journey was deliberate. The ‘Introductory Notes’ are essentially meant to put the reader in a proper frame of mind to fully comprehend and appreciate the policy or matter under discussion in each chapter. For instance, not everyone understands that there is a difference between a ‘public officer’ and a ‘civil servant’ or why an official letter begins with ‘I am directed…’ and ends with ‘Your obedient servant’.
As the year 2020 winds up, is the reader to expect new titles from you? If yes, what are they?
It is a pleasure and privilege for me to seize this opportunity to announce that three books under the sponsorship of the Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation have gone to press and are expected to be published before the end of the year 2020 or early 2021. One of the books titled A Foundation of Hope tells the 10-year history of the Foundation and its activities during the period. A second book is titled Songs for Bukar Usman, a 24-chapter compilation of renditions, by six Nigerian artistes, in public commendation of my modest contributions as a writer and former public servant and in praise of my involvements in charity and cultural promotion.
The book reflects upon the activities of the Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation and related matters. The third book is titled Nchikota Akuko-Ifo Ndi Igbo. This is one of the two books of Nigerian folktales sponsored by the Foundation for publication in the indigenous languages of their narrators. It is one of the products of the pan-Nigerian folktales research project referred to earlier in answer to one of your questions. Comprising 317 tales, it is a counterpart to Ôgörùn-ún Ìtàn láti Ilê Yorùbá (Klamidas: 2019) published earlier under the same sponsorship.
Depending on the availability of orthography and printing fonts of any of our indigenous languages, a selection from the over 4000 tales collected during the pan-Nigerian folktales research project could be published in the future. Aside from the aforementioned indigenous-language publications, Eirene Sahel, a German NGO in Niger Republic, had published a selection of the tales in Ajami (Hausa written in Arabic alphabet) for the education of children in that country.
Now, let us talk about the activities of the Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation as it clocks 12 this year. Would you say you are satisfied with what the Foundation has achieved so far? What else would you hope to see the Foundation achieve?
With a motto of ‘Service to Humanity’ and a mission statement that says ‘Make Life More Meaningful to Others’, the Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation was established as a charity organisation on July 21, 2008. Based in Abuja, it was primarily intended to provide a platform for my family members, our associates, well-wishers, and other individuals and organisations with similar objectives and aspirations to extend gestures of goodwill to needy members of the society as far as the resources at our disposal allow.
Among the stated aims and objectives of the foundation was to assist the needy, in all manner of circumstances, financially and in kind, more especially with respect to welfare and empowerment of widows, orphans, orphanages, the sick, physically challenged persons, victims of disasters, and educational pursuits of the less privileged in the society. The foundation also aims to support disease-eradication schemes and other charitable organisations. That has been the focus of the foundation’s activities.
It is most gratifying that the foundation has been in existence for about 12 years. In commemoration of the first decade of its existence, its activities have been documented in a book titled A Foundation of Hope which will be published later this year or early next year.
While dispensing financial support to individuals and organisations in need, the foundation realised that there is a serious dearth of reading materials, especially for our children and young adults. This made them to turn to foreign publications and television programmes. The foundation, therefore, began to support research and books production, especially when the book is relevant to our local environment.
There are foundations in the West still touching lives long after their founders have passed on, would you like your foundation to outlive you? Aside from the dozens of publications the Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation is sponsoring, which would naturally outlive you, do you think you have put in place the right structure for your foundation to last into the distant future?
The foundation was established with a 10-member trustees filed with the Corporate Affairs Commission. The structure as filed is in compliance with the Commission’s stipulated requirements for the establishment of such organisations. Continued survival of the foundation, like any other organisation, depends on cash flow to support its activities. Every effort is therefore being made to sustain the foundation as an ongoing organisation in our lifetime and beyond as far as possible. However, bear in mind always that nothing is permanent.
Is your foundation open for collaboration? So far, has your foundation collaborated with other organisations whose objectives are aimed at improving or touching lives?
As stated above, it is one of the outlined objectives of the foundation to collaborate with organisations with similar objectives. A few organisations have approached us for collaboration with respect to specific projects or programmes they are interested in and the foundation has collaborated by contributing cash and/or materials. For instance, the foundation was approached by the administrators of the Ebedi International Writers Residency Programme and it contributed some funds in support of their work. The foundation also supported financially the hosting of conferences by the Nigerian Folklore Society and the Association of Nigerian Authors. The foundation also donated books to the African Humanities Programme (AHP), primary/secondary schools, colleges of education, universities and to book clubs and similar organisations that have shown interest in reading and distributing our publishing outputs. The foundation remains open to any collaboration that would further strengthen and enhance the attainment of its set objectives for the benefit of humanity.
As a northerner and as someone who has seen it right from the pre-independence days of the Sardauna up to this trying period, would you say lack of purposeful leadership is the reason the North seems to be losing its bearing? What is the way out of this mess and do northern elites like you have any leading role to play in salvaging the future of the battered North?
Much of the North under Sardauna, I witnessed as a primary and secondary school student (1951-1965). As a secondary school student at Maiduguri, I proudly represented the North East at an annual sports competition at the regional headquarter Kaduna and subsequently represented the Northern Region at annual inter-regional sports competition to compete with Eastern and Western Regions at Lagos. These events enabled students to interact within and across the regions.
With the creation of a 12-state structure for the country by the General Yakubu Gowon administration in 1967 and further state creations by subsequent administrations, the concept of the North as a monolithic political and administrative entity no longer exists. And to make sure it never resurrects in the former form under any guise, its common assets were shared out among the successor states in the former Northern Region. Some commercial establishments were left to survive on their own or die. The Northern sentiment is constantly undermined by ethno-religious and other cleavages. There is hardly a common platform. The North only remains as a geographical reference point. This sorrowful and pitiful state obtains in spite of the occasional meetings of Governors of the successor states of the former region.
If you are to advise the present crops of northern political leaders, what advice would you offer to them? What would you encourage the leaders to focus on in order to save the region from its developmental and security challenges?
The way forward is that those who find themselves in positions of leadership in the successor states have a responsibility to attend to common problems of the sub-region not withstanding their political and other differences. Some of the issues which have been with us for quite a long time are first and foremost insecurity, abandonment of agriculture as an occupation engaged in by a great number of people, the collapse of the few industries in the sub-region, inadequate formal education for the youths and eradication of poverty arising from lack of employment opportunities. There is urgent need to create opportunities for gainful employment outside public service. That requires intensified effort to train skillful artisans in well-equipped craft schools and technical colleges.
The current statistics of out-of-school children in the North is staggering. What advice would you give this category of youths?
It is those charged with the responsibility of empowering them with formal education that should be advised to give more attention to child education. So far, what we have appears to be lip service with no apparent sustained programme and determination to empower the children over a reasonable period of time. Hence, many children are still on the streets.
How do you hope to be remembered?
I had been asked similar questions several times in the past. My reply had been and still is: It is immodest of me to prescribe how I should be remembered. I have an obligation to do good as much as I can while I am alive. It is up to those I interacted with or on whose lives I impacted in my lifetime, positively or negatively, to choose how they might want to remember me. It is my earnest hope that my good deeds would outweigh the bad and that many would remember me more for the good deeds.