BY PROF. PAT UTOMI
I knew Alhaji Ahmed Joda. I first met him in 1980. From what I know of him, it is clear they don’t seem to get as well made as he was, anymore.
He was wise, smart, compassionate and passionately committed to Nigeria. But he was more, much more, than these gifts. Much more.
Just a few recollections from more than 40 years of paths intersecting may throw a little light, just a little light, on the extra ordinary nature of the personage and why I see a problem in the leadership manufacturing process in today’s Nigeria. It sure varies markedly from that which gave us men like Joda.
To what do I owe the privilege of getting to know well this remarkable person?
The pursuit of understanding of society set me on a course, as a doctoral candidate in the United States, as the 1970s pulled to close. That led me to curiosities about how countries are built to prosper and last.
At first I was attracted to the views of a number of Latin American scholars and technocrats. Two of them were from Argentina. One was Raul Prebisch who was executive secretary for the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) in the season of the wind of change that brought Independence to much of Africa. His work gave the world what is either referred to as the Prebisch thesis or the import substitution industrialisation strategy.
The other Argentine of interest was Guillermo O’Donnell who proposed an idea known as bureaucratic authoritarian thesis. The hypothesis dared to suggest that excluding coalitions dominated by bureaucrats/technocrats and authoritarian political elites, like the military in power, could accelerate modernisation and development.
I wondered if the super permanent secretaries much talked about for good or for ill, in Nigeria, and the military brass in our country, could have formed the bureaucratic authoritarian coalition to push development in this patch of God’s real estate on the West coast of Africa.
I chose therefore to study the policy process in Nigeria from 1960 to 1980 and the consequences for the well-being of Nigerians.
That effort brought me face-to-face with the permanent secretaries and the leading soldiers in power during that season. That is how I met men like Ahmed Joda , Philip Asiodu, Allison Ayida, Edwin Ogbu, Ime Ebong and so on.
For 40 years my path and that of Alhaji Joda continued to cross.
A candle loses nothing when it lights another candle. Alhaji Ahmed Joda would prove that again and again by not only sharing deep insights on problems of nation building in Nigeria with me, but in providing perspectives on dignified humanity.
Several decades after my PhD thesis was done, he actively sought to incorporate me into some of his personal efforts to direct Nigeria right.
When Gen. Sani Abacha’s government jailed Generals Obasanjo and Shehu Yar’Adua, he spoke to me severally about the problems. At the point when prisoner Obasanjo was moved to correctional facilities in Yola, Alhaji Joda more or less relocated to his hometown of Yola to ensure the incarcerated former Head of State got visits and general support.
On one visit to Lagos the man who had worked for Sarduna when he was Premier of Northern Nigeria, served in colonial times and then the military, suggested to me the imperative of getting foreign pressure to bear down on Abacha to free his captives. He also suggested I had enough contacts and goodwill in western capitals to drive the process. I took cue and flew out to canvas that position and in some cases set up appointments for him to follow up.
When the outcomes of the 2015 elections resulted in his being asked to chair the transition committee he called to invite me to join in the work. His primary desire was for us to jointly craft an inauguration speech that will capture the sense for national transformation that would pull in the work of committee and the aspirations for a new order. He had made a similar request of me when President Obasanjo was elected in 1999 and I offered Margaret Thatcher’s service compact models in the UK as a pathway forward.
Even though things did not go as he envisaged, in 2015 implementation, he handled it all with equanimity
Last year, in the throes of despair about the Nigerian condition , he called to ask that I meet him at his Victoria Island hotel.
Most of what he shared with me will have to await the writing of my memoirs, if God gives enough living time.
But he was enormously animated about a simple idea of football competition they had started in Yola to facilitate interaction between the ethnic communities living there and with his being asked to be special guest at the New Yam festival of the Igbo community in Yola just last year.
He was also quite excited by how large the community was.
When the National Consultative Front (NCF), desired to arrest the polarisation of Nigerian society it called a zoom conference of 70 noted elders from around the country. One hundred and 30 of them showed up. I asked Alhaji Joda to do us the honor of opening remarks. What came forth was a profound speech that set the tone for reflecting Quo Vadis Nigeria.
It reminded me of the times I shared in the company of Alhaji Ahmed Joda and his friend Ajie Ukpabi Asika who, along with Dr Pius Okigbo were my primary mentors. Such scope of maturity and vision to see the forest beyond the tree.
My bouquet of gratitude for how these men shaped my worldview and rounded off my education, is so large I would need a crane to lift it.
The super troika of Ahmed Joda, Allison Ayida and Philip Asiodu who defined the forward thrust of the emerging Nigeria remains a great gift to a country that never fully valued their contributions to nation building.
I am forever grateful for the privilege of knowing them well. Several years ago, the Centre for Values in Leadership which I founded in 2004 honoured Joda and Asiodu with its Leader Without Title Tribute Colloquium to discharge only a small part of the debt we owe these extra-ordinary men that I have celebrated elsewhere in suggesting that superheroes do not always wear capes.
At that LWT colloquium in their honor, a highly regarded professor at the University of Lagos broke down in tears as he told the story of coming out of the war and was desperate for a scholarship to go to university. He went to the Ministry of Education and simply ran into the Permanent Secretary who made it happen without thinking twice. That Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Education was Ahmed Joda. It so reminded me of how Joda treats people with deep regard for their humanity. And the classic example was his main man Friday, Apollo.
For years this protocol man and fixer ran all kinds of errands for Alhaji Joda and was like family.
On one of Alhaji Joda’s last visit to Lagos, just a few months ago, I joined him and Apollo for lunch at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Victoria Island and it was clear the burden of those who are unable to see the humanity in others as they play big men was not a load Alhaji Joda had to contend with. It endeared me further to him.
We will miss the simple but truly great man who touched our lives without seeking to be noticed or rewarded. Small in physical build but a true giant of a man, this man of integrity and service exemplified our paradise lost.
To his son Abu and members of the family, the fortitude we pray for them to have will be much burnished by the humanity and dignity of their worthy forebear.
May his peaceful rest be granted by the creator for he ran a good and noble race as man on earth.
*Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Founder of the Centre for values in Leadership is a Professor of Entrepreneurship.