By Adagbo ONOJA
Alhaji Aliyu Akwe Doma, governor of Nasarawa State from 2007 to 2011 is dead and has been quietly buried in his place, Doma in Nasarawa State of Nigeria. At stake in this piece is the contention that the late governor is a case study in the paradox of power in the sense that he could die and be buried quietly without being celebrated as one of the greatest Nigerians of the 20th century. This happened only because his great achievements in culture and the management of cultural pluralism were submerged by circumstances that would not have arisen if he did not become a governor. In other words, politics or his being in government subtracted so much, so quickly from his greatness as to rob him of being celebrated as one of the most authentic and unsurpassable bridge builders Nigeria ever produced, an iconic vicar of Emancipation politics and a fine cultural hero. Before I provide evidence of my claim about Akwe Doma, let me provide an insight to what connection I ever had with him.
It remains one of the most surprising telephone calls. A classmate of mine at Emmanuel Secondary School, Ugbokolo was on the line, saying Akwe Doma wanted to see me. How could that be? I had never met the man, unlike most other political players in and around Abuja whom one had come across either as a journalist or as a ministerial aide between 1999 and 2003. But Ignatius Rogers Ochela, my classmate, was categorical. The rest is now history, part of the history being the subject of this piece. It is about the biography of the former governor I was called to write, the bonding that developed very quickly between him and I in that process but only to be followed by the collapse of the project. However, this happened after I had learnt quite a few things about the dynamics of the politics of power.
The late Madauchin Doma caught me off guard on September 8th, 2012 when we first met. On entering his sitting room, he called me by a name only my mother used to call me whenever I did whatever she considered heroic. The question was, how did the former governor know? My probing led to knowing that the Doma stock in Nasarawa and the Idoma people have the same cultural roots. The idea of Idoma Nokwu came back more powerfully into the picture in my head, a concept I was not ignorant of but attached no such significance previously. The second switch on was his idea that, from what he read of my writings, I wasn’t someone who could be cowed by money or material inducement to depart from propriety. We all laughed over that when I said I had changed and was now ready to be induced. By the time we came to discussing the substantive issue of researching and writing his biography, he had sufficiently prepared me to accept to do it.
But I told him I did not think I had the skills to come to grips with the task of writing his biography. On that, he said we would do it together. Cornered, I tried to think of any other alibi to decline the task. None was forthcoming immediately. I needed to. For, it was not so much lack of the capacity to do the job. I wasn’t actually new to doing such works. The problem was that, ideologically, he and I never had anything to do together before. With Sule Lamido, his Jigawa State counterpart whom I had also worked with, every tension could be absorbed by the fact that he had PRP anchorage, PRP being the closest to a Left party in Nigeria. With Doma, it was different. Culturally, we were one but generationally and religion wise, we are not. Above all, I contemplated the question of how I could be writing the biography of a PDP governor who could not get re-elected.
I left him that first day without any clear commitment to anything. The first shocker when I asked a few persons subsequently was discovering that I was actually erecting false binaries in my ideological scaling of him. The first comrade I consulted tore that to pieces. Sule Lamido as having tendency identity because he started as a PRP politician was acceptable to him but even more so the radical classification of Akwe Doma who could actually be considered an earliest practical critic of Marx’s for homogenizing everyone into one huge universe of the working class or the bourgeoisie, becoming implicated in oppression as a result of that because as capitalism developed, so did clusters of identities develop within it.
It is the recognition that cultural, gender, religious and locational dimensions of diversity matter that makes the theory and practice of Emancipation thick across the world today. Akwe Doma who was the superintendent of the Emancipation framework of the late Solomon Lar administration in Plateau State in the Second Republic could not, therefore, be classified as a right winger without a qualifier. He was superintendent because Chief Solomon Lar was busy with his determination to install governors of the Nigerian People’s Party, (NPP) in Benue, Niger and Kano States, leaving routine governance to his deputy who was Akwe Doma. So, as the argument went, unless I am a victim of the propaganda that Lar’s Emancipation framework was directed at Hausa-Fulani, rather than what the Frankfurt School critics of Marx were saying, then I needed to rethink.
Still, I took my reservation to an academic supervisor of mine. His response went like this: there is nothing wrong with it at all. He picked you, you didn’t go after him. It is recognition because he must have consulted. It doesn’t compromise you in any way. As you get higher in scholarship, these kinds of things will continue to come your way. But you have the intellectual outlook to shield you by being professional and being objective”. Consulted for being a top rate Nigerian academic and for not coming from Northern Nigeria, I took his argument hook, line and sinker. The die was cast after he spoke. The rest, as they say, is now history.
With a fellow journalist as the Research Assistant before he dropped off to pick another job, we hit the ground running on October 2nd, 2012, interviewing a number of persons, from Aliyu Akwe Doma’s birthplace, Wukari, the headquarters of the ancient Kwararafa Empire, to his former school teachers, old school mates, superiors and colleagues in the Northern and, later, old Plateau State civil service, traditional rulers, his family members, politicians, intellectuals, contractors, actors from the field of arts and culture and, lastly, commissioners/bureaucrats who served him as governor of Nasarawa State. No less than three were interviewed from each group but it was not possible to observe a statistical rigidity in terms of the maximum number of people that must be interviewed, especially on aspects which were complicated and contentious, such as why Doma did not get elected for a second term.
The concentration of interviewees was in the old Northern Nigeria but the list covered every class, region, gender and other identities he came across over the years and which we thought had one or two concrete information on the subject of the biography. We particularly touched the entire Nasarawa, a lot of Plateau and Benue State, Taraba, Gombe, Kano, Ilorin, Ibadan where he schooled and Abuja where most of the elite live. We were to interview himself and to look at government documents during his time.
It was turning out an exciting thing. The sort of information we were coming across was making it very inviting. One was being educated. But tension was building up too. As usual, the principle was to do the job first. If the man recognised one for doing a great job and considered rewarding in material terms, that would be fine. If he did not think that one deserved any rewards, that should not bring enmity. But even then, why was it impossible to take certain things for granted? For instance, why could we not get a very good car that gave us certain protection on the roads like the one from Makurdi to Wukari that we were plying? Why would we not be able to stay in better hotels but take risks sleeping in hotels where no one could account for us properly should anything happen? What did we think we were doing?
There just had to be a session with him on our return from the painful but rich trip across Makurdi, Gboko, Wukari, Keffi, Lafia and Abuja. Travelling to Wukari had turned out more expensive than projected in the heat of the petrol scarcity of late 2012. The first tranche His Excellency released for the project had been exhausted by the trip. A detailed breakdown was provided. And a request followed.
It was not a request for upward review of the total budget. That had been over-ruled. It was a request for a review of the ratio in which the remaining budget would be remitted. It had become clear that His Excellency’s ratio would mean that the job would take longer time to complete aside from the suffering it would mean for those of us that would be on the road. The ratio must be changed if only to finish the interviewing component which involved travelling and, by implication, fuelling, accommodation, feeding and associated expenses. Scripting in Abuja could be done without money but not the interviewing component. This request was not disapproved but neither was it approved, even in principle. It was tied to better farm fortune of the late governor. For someone used to moving at a galloping speed and having already dedicated one’s October 2012 – June 2013 to this project and having, therefore, dismissed all other items from my agenda, this was a determination undermining response. It was important that the momentum was maintained.
Something more worrisome was also happening. Officials who worked closely with him were compounding things. An impression that we were on a mission of disrobing him had formed among this officials. In fact, my second spoke of over-hearing one of them telling another one on phone that the real editing would begin after we turned in the book. A biographical work could benefit from critical analysis but it does not become a probe panel as such. Even if we were intent on probing, it would still not have been possible to ignore the thick consensus in testimonies across such a diverse set of respondents from Makurdi to Lafia to Jos, Taraba, Kaduna and Kano, touching on history, culture and his ability to bring diverse identities together smoothly. I have heard about emancipatory ethnicity and I would stand by a claim that Akwe Doma must have been one of the best respondents for any doctoral project on what constitutes it, how it works and what its limitations might be.
The objective of a biography is not to destroy the person being written about but to tell his or her story, situating him or her in the wider existential context. Telling automatically implies selectivity which is fundamentally subjective except that in so far as man is a social being, no selectivity can ignore that sociality. It was not going to be a glamorous white washing of a name or a person, religion or place but neither was it going to be a hatchet job. Rather, it was going to be a critical evaluation of man-in-society in such a manner that revealed both the sweet/sour, pleasurable/painful, beautiful/ugly, and how they combined in the life story of an individual. Where the impression might have come from, none of us could say. Could it have come from the probing questions, insistence on details, etc? It could not because probing questions and insistence on details were necessary at that point so that when it came to writing, there would be no gaps in the flow. In any case, those officials must be conversant with interviewing in research, most of them being graduates. It just showed to us how aides could be liabilities in Nigeria.
The third emergent difficulty was the kind of stories being circulated in parts of Nasarawa State about myself, how I was the one who thought I could reconstruct Akwe Doma’s image. It was frightening but not anything that could deter us at this point. It was just noted as a risk factor. If we had the resources, we were set to continue. But we were not going to set out only to be operating under the psychological canopy of cash related anxiety in the course of doing the research. Experience had shown that it is better to carry more cash than be constrained while I am already out there on the field. If I got to any place and a respondent says he would only be able to grant us an interview in two or three days time, fear of limited budget shouldn’t constrain me. Generally, the most important thing at the stage of data gathering was for the process to be unconstrained by financial squeeze, especially regarding routine expenses imposed by the fluidity or unpredictability of schedules of those we are interviewing.
The lull lasted through November, December and January and in my February 3, 2013 Memo on the project, I had to communicate how the project had collapsed by saying that I was not sure I would recover the enthusiasm about the project by the time his moratorium on remittance was over. And that whoever he chose to put on the job might find the preliminary draft I was submitting. I also promised compiling my field notes which I would make available to him as soon as I was through although that was not going to be part of the book. I thanked him you immensely for the recognition and invitation to research and write his biography, mentioning how culturally healing experience it had been for me. I referred to how subsequent developments must have made him develop doubts, assuring of my availability to continue to contribute to the work as it progresses but not as the author again.
Some other personal preferences came up rapidly and as soon as I got financial assistance from one or two sources in Jigawa State, I found myself set for a year stay in the UK. It graduated to a tense but fulfilling two year stay. When I returned in mid 2015, I had no idea he knew I had come back. I got a call from him but I cannot remember when now. It must be around May 2016. He charged me with abandoning his work, a charged I rejected. Then he said he was travelling out of Nigeria and would call again as soon as he was back. Each time I passed around his house, I would consider going in to see him. But for someone like him who took his time and seemed to know much about me, would it be the proper thing to do that? I always ended up not going. It was, therefore, very surprising to read about his death on March 7th, 2018 at age 75, (some papers put it at 78). He wasn’t that old at all. May God grant him eternal rest!
The second part would be an outline of why any serious student of politics and society must pay attention to the former governor, irrespective of whatever personal or partisan creases existed between one and him when he was alive.