Officially, he died of Hepatitis B infection. That is what our stethoscope wielding friends would say. They could be right but such a verdict doesn’t tell us the context in which an infection of the category of Hepatitis B could be fatal. Millions are carrying on in spite of Hepatitis B infection. Something has thus remained missing in terms of how Hepatitis B overwhelmed a one-man intellectual fortress such as the late Reuben Ziri.
He never had a drinking problem. If he drank at all, it must have been as casually as it could be. He was neither married nor did anybody who knew him very well see any women with him on any consistent basis. In fact, he has been heard saying he was afraid of women.
What the foregone draws attention to is that social stresses associated with entanglement with the green bottles, women and excessive quest for material wealth were not part of his problems. If Hepatitis B is not such a killer but an absolutely treatable stuff and if stresses relating to money, women and power were not his portions, then what could have been the crease?
Tit bits pulled together suggest that exclusion related frustration and disappointment with society created the context in which Hepatitis B led to his death nine years ago on June 12, 2012. This claim compels us to go back to the beginning of the story. Intervention captured that beginning in a previous interview with Ziri by posing it as follows: When he entered the Department of History at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in the late 1980s to pursue a Masters Degree, Dr. Mahmud Modibbo Tukur, the late National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU), instantly took note of him, saying that the title of his proposed research was like attempting to break away from the ABU, Zaria School of History in its approach to the study of the emirates of northern Nigeria. Mahmud’s comment was significant in the context of the disputations in that highly politicized Department regarding the real character of the ruling elite in pre-colonial Nigeria, particularly in the Sokoto Caliphate. With the title “History of Bida Emirate in the 20th Century: A Study in Colonialism and Transformation of Social Classes, 1900-1960”, Reuben instantly cut the image of an icon if he proved that the ruling elements in the emirate of Bida could not be denied a class status independent of British colonialists”.
The intellectual bonding that developed between student and supervisor was such that it could be further claimed that if Dr. Mahmud Modibbo Tukur never died abruptly in the late 1980s, Reuben Ziri would most likely be a big name Historian today, luxuriating with a powerful voice on matters History. But then Dr. Mahmud Modibbo Tukur died. In the razor sharp camp cum tendency politics of the Department, to lose a supportive supervisor was an unmitigated tragedy. Immediately thereafter, Ziri started having problems. His admiration for academia and his self-imagination as an academic of that very Department of History in Zaria died with Tukur. Even Tukur’s recommendation that his Master’s Degree thesis be upgraded to doctoral candidacy was blocked. The gates of academic career were closed against him as far as ABU, Zaria was concerned. It was too much of a shocker that a Ziri acknowledged by his teachers, (particularly Tukur who had himself produced a highly regarded PhD thesis) and mates as something of a genius could confront such fate.
But he hadn’t seen anything yet. The World Council of Churches took note of his plea for scholarship so that he could go to Netherland. But they conditioned the scholarship on a recommendation from a priest of the Anglican Church. That was not expected to be a problem, the Anglican Church being the church his father had served. Unfortunately, the official who was to write the recommendation played his own script. He lost it.
According to information available to Intervention, it was at this point he went back into hunting. A theorist of his hunting career argues now that Ziri felt strongly about a return to nature at this point once he formed the impression that neither academics nor religion (the Church) wanted him. That is, it was his incomprehension of the paradox of a brilliant mind who was being rejected that led him to begin to distrust society.
But the behaviour of the Anglican Bishop is not where the story ended. He was reconciling himself very slowly with the idea of teaching any other place other than the Department of History in Zaria. The Department of History at the much younger IBB University, Lapai in his Niger State in central Nigeria provided the opening. But it flopped at the first attempt and would have most likely gone that way if the Pro-Chancellor at the time did not get to hear about it. He was Abubakar Gimba, the literary artist. He said Ziri was the sort of person the university needed and should be given a job. It was then he was hired at last.
When Ziri got into the system at last, his frustration was building up instead of climbing down. Intervention has been told that he found IBB University job frustrating. He wanted an environment where he could really engage knowledge. Obviously, he didn’t appear to have found one there. Or, to put it better, that place was not a replica of the ABU environment of History that got him stirring. He has also once warned this reporter against leaving for academia. He would say that in many of the courses he taught, he never had more than two and half students irrespective of the number of students in the class. That was his own way of decrying the quality of students nowadays.
Only the University of Ibadan could have saved the situation but Ibadan acted one minute too late. With the upgrade of his MA thesis having been blocked, Netherland scholarship gone with the wind but with the idea of a PhD still strong in his mental make-up, the University of Ibadan and her School of History was the only place available. He berthed there and presented a proposal that must have excited the Department, especially coming from the Zaria School of History. Ibadan must have looked forward to intellectual combat with a product of its rival school of History. That was not to be because Ziri dropped out subsequently.
But Ibadan did not take it lying low. They sent a two-man search team which eventually traced their prized student to Niger State. And they went with an offer letter. It would have been the moment he had been living for. But they got there one minute too late. He was already in a kind of advanced stage of sickness, with swollen stomach, enlarged liver and so on. It was not long before he died.
Those who say he died of Hepatitis B would, therefore, not be completely off the mark but so also those who would say there was a context to the fatal outcome of Hepatitis B. For instance, why did he avoid the hospital? He simply could not come to terms with a society he was seeing as having no respect for merit, disrespectful of scholarship or anything serious, a conspiracy involving academia, religion and bureaucracy.
The puzzle though is why his discreetness extended to his friends. As his week-long host in the Government House, Dutse in December 2011, he only needed to mention any medical challenge and the best medical attention in Jigawa State at that moment could have been his even if it meant inviting the personal attention of the then governor. It was very clear he was sick even then but he always successfully argued it away and effortlessly continued with the two-some seminar we were holding. It is now understood the few signs he manifested during that visit were the onset of the infection.
Reuben Ziri is dead and gone to meet his God. There is nothing anyone can do about that again but he embodies a question for the possibility of a secure future. Is Nigeria being organised in such a manner that the social order will detect the kind of exclusionary practices that greeted him to his incomprehension of it. Are there politicians, think tanks, political parties and researchers thinking of how alienation flowing from such individual and collective encounters can endanger the system?
It is great to hear that his MA thesis has since been donated to the Nupe Emirate Council. It would not be that surprising to hear someday that the thesis is being published into a book. At a time of twisted understanding of identity, his thesis would certainly throw more helpful lights on who we all think we are or are not.
Adieu, Reuben Ziri!