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M.D. Yusufu and Uche Chukwumerije: A surprising partnership

By Lindsay Barrett

In the annals of Nigeria’s left wing radical intellectual discourse, there could hardly have been any more surprising collaboration than that which once existed between my two recently deceased mentors, Alhaji M.D. Yusufu and Comrade Uche Chukwumerije, at a particularly volatile period in Nigerian history. I sincerely regret having to write about this now because I had actually thought that both of these incredibly committed and principled gentlemen would have survived late into their eighties or even nineties.

They were both dedicated African nationalists and each, in his own way, contributed to my decision to live and work in West Africa rather than return to the Caribbean where I was born after I completed my service to the cause of Nigerian unity in the employ of the Yakubu Gowon-led Federal Government and the East Central State Government led by the late Ajie Ukpabi Asika. I was not aware when I became involved with this matter that I was setting out on a journey that would change my life profoundly and render me more involved with Nigerian issues than with my Jamaican roots for the rest of my life.

In fact,t was  Asika who was responsible for my close links with both MD and Uche. In the case of MD, although I had met him through the late Aminu Abdullahi, a broadcaster with whom I had worked at the Transcription Centre and the BBC Overseas Service in London in the early sixties, it was before and during the Nigerian Civil War that I really got to know him as a very supportive advocate of the American Civil Rights movement and Nkrumahism, two causes to which I paid particular attention in my journalism at that time.

The fact that Alhaji Yusufu was then Head of the police Special Branch (the forerunner of the present day State Security Services/SSS) placed our early meetings under a cloud of suspicion on my part. Then I met  Asika in Ibadan where I was working at the Mbari Artists Centre as a publicist and events director. We developed a close brotherly relationship because he was also devoted to the idea of building links between African governance and the populist impulses of the civil rights movement in the African Diaspora of the Americas. It was in his company that I got to know  MD as a humorous and very sympathetic supporter of left of centre nationalist causes throughout Africa and one who was very tolerant of critical viewpoints on Nigerian government policy as long as they did not promote or encourage violent insurgency.

Retention of Nigeria unity

This was in mid-1966 and Nigeria’s pre-Civil War breakdown of order was at its height. As a consequence, many of the late night discussions among a tight-knit group of Black Nationalist supporters on the University of Ibadan campus discussed the possibility of Nigeria breaking into hostile enclaves. We argued that this would lead to a reversal of African progress and swore to work against it.

This group included the Head of the Political Science Department Prof. Essien Udom, the Afro-American librarian Alhaji Khalil Mahmud, and  Asika, then a lecturer in political science. When the Civil War broke out in the following year, it was this group that appealed to me to use my already reasonably respected access to international journals and radio channels devoted to African issues to advocate the retention of Nigerian unity. This was the basis on which I became the Director of Information and Public Enlightenment in the East Central State Government when it was formed in 1967. In that capacity I became the direct opponent to Uche Chukwumerije when he headed the secessionist Biafra’s Propaganda Directorate.

There can be no doubt that Biafran propaganda was superbly motivated and implemented. Because we had neither the resources nor the talents to equal the vehement sense of outrage that drove the process on their side, I decided that we would express a deep sense of remorse and appeal to sentiments of unity and fraternal harmony in our responses. I also decided to build a rational argument in favour of Nigerian unity in our interactions with the foreign media while acknowledging that mistakes had been made by both sides. This was not at first a very popular stance with the Federal Government’s information managers with whom I collaborated but, as the conflict worsened, I discovered that I could depend on  MD  to support me in pushing this line. That was also when I met Nigeria’s most prominent Nkrumahist, the late S.G. Ikoku in MD’s home.

The trouble with Special Branch

Muhammadu Dikko Yusuf
Muhammadu Dikko Yusuf

These encounters made me regard MD as the most remarkably innovative police officer that I could imagine. Instead of hounding people who challenged the status quo, he seemed to cultivate them. I was later to experience an incredible occurrence that reinforced this view when, as a columnist in a popular Lagos paper after the war, I wrote a trenchant criticism of the Gowon regime’s decision to reverse its plan to return the country to civil rule. I was living in Ibadan but spent at least three days a week in Lagos and I discovered that the Special Branch was looking for me in connection with my article.

My friend Aminu Abdullahi was at that time living with MD as a house guest and so I went to see him to find out why I was being looked for. He told me to relax and just stay in MD’s house with him. That evening as we sat on the verandah by the lagoon enjoying the hospitality of MD and his family, an officer from the Ibadan office of the Special Branch came to report that they were unable to find “the fugitive journalist Lindsay Barrett”. MD asked him why and the officer opined that the fugitive might have skipped the country. It was only then that MD suggested that he look around at his visitors and, when he did, asked him if he would recognise Barrett if he saw him. The poor officer was mightily embarrassed when he realised that the fugitive was being entertained by his boss. We also became close friends.

Chukwumerije and fallen Biafran government

However before this period of our interactive friendship, it was the traumatic period immediately following the end of the Civil War that sealed a remarkable collaboration amongst us. Asika had ordered me to find certain members of the fallen Biafran government and ensure that they were given safe passage to his home in Enugu. First priority among those he directed me to find was to be given to Uche Chukwumerije. Up to that time, I had only heard vaguely about the comrade’s role as the director and initiator of the imaginative repertoire of the superb Biafran propaganda machine.

Asika told me that if Uche was taken to Lagos directly he might be treated in an inappropriate manner as one of the key collaborators in the secessionist movement and held in detention for deep intelligence de-briefing before being released. He did not want this to happen because he regarded Uche not only as a brother but also as a hero of the cause of African unity and renewal, and he wanted to ensure that he was recognised as such as a part of the restoration of peace and the establishment of the principle of “No Victor No Vanquished”. It is pertinent to note that although this phrase later became famous as being the principle promoted by General Gowon, it was Asika who coined it in his own speech to mark the end of the conflict.

In response to this order, accompanied by my deputy, Jimi Johnson (later famous as Okoro in the television hit Village Headmaster), I scoured the devastated Biafran enclave and eventually found Uche in a village near Orlu. From our very first meeting, we got on like a house on fire. It was a remarkable period in both our lives. I was not certain what to expect since at certain periods during the war, the Biafran propaganda machine had described me as a “mercenary vandal”, and we, for our part, had constantly characterised their own operations as being the “product of fantasy and outright falsehood”. Uche was living in a kind of encampment along with several other key figures of the Biafran information and intelligence network.

There were Bernard Odogwu Military Intelligence Chief, key propagandists like Mike Ikenze, Barrister Mike Amobi, Chief Jim Nwobodo, and Igwe Alex Nwokedi. These were among those who I now undertook to conduct safely through innumerable checkpoints to Owerri where we obtained further support from then Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, GOC of the Third Marine Commandos Division, after he confirmed from Asika by SITRAP that he had sent me to bring the group to Enugu. We arrived in Enugu in the late evening and went straight to Government House.

I will never forget the first re-union of the two old friends. We did not need to be told that these were men who had a deep respect for each other and enjoyed a friendship that would be revived after a brutal divide. Uche’s famous belly laugh rang out probably for the first time in days as it became clear that the expected trauma of detention and interrogation would not be his lot at least for the immediate future. Together we enjoyed a leisurely chat over a few beers in a manner that was to become a habit for us in the future. Uche’s sincere expression of appreciation for my reports which he had read in foreign media endeared him to me. He liked them, he said, because I tried to be fair. The next thing he did was ask how he could contact his friend, Sam Amuka.

The AFRISCOPE chapter

I can only speculate on whether the link between Uche and MD  was also initiated by Asika. I do know that when I eventually moved to Lagos and gave up my government job voluntarily and sought permission to stay in Nigeria for a while, MD told me that I could stay as long as I wanted and that whenever I chose to leave, I simply had to inform him. He also told me that if I wished to become a citizen, it would be made easy for me as a reward for my work on the Federal side during the civil war. Shortly after that I met Uche in M.D‘s house and he asked me if I would be interested in contributing regularly to a new magazine that he was establishing.

This was AFRISCOPE, which was to be regarded for years to come as the best and most innovative political journal in West Africa. I became a pioneer Associate Editor of this remarkable journal and, through my association with it, I got to know Uche very well. He had an incredible passion for the principles of self- determination and liberation that had been articulated by the founding fathers of African decolonisation.

He also believed profoundly that pan-African unity was an irreversible prerequisite for the development of human capacity for all the nations of the continent. At the same time, he was a rigorous and ever questioning advocate of clean government and strategic planning in all matters, whether economic, sociological, political or historic, that concerned the peoples of Africa. In this wise, the strident anti-apartheid stance of the paper reflected Nigeria’s increasingly radical viewpoint on some issues and this in turn was a strong reflection of M.D. Yusufu’s quiet, but relentlessly rising, influence.

I did not take up the offer of official assistance and freedom of choice immediately however. Instead, I decided to take a break in Europe to replenish my old contacts and review my new awareness of African realities. I was away for two years. In this period, I strengthened and regularised my correspondent reporting for West Africa magazine, but also kept up my monthly contributions to AFRISCOPE. When I returned to Nigeria in 1973, I came back to face a personal crisis in which I found my marriage in tatters.

Senate President David Mark signing Late Sen. Uche Chukwumerije's  Condolence Register, at the National Assembly in Abuja on Tuesday (21/4/15). Left  is the Senate Leader, Sen. Victor Ndoma-Egba.
FILE PHOTO: Senate President David Mark signing Late Sen. Uche Chukwumerije’s Condolence Register, at the National Assembly in Abuja on Tuesday (21/4/15). Left is the Senate Leader, Sen. Victor Ndoma-Egba.

This is not the appropriate place to describe the personal despair that confronted me but it is sufficient for me to say that when M.D. was informed of my problems through a call from London (to which I had returned after being blocked from re-entering Nigeria at the airport), he immediately put the entire apparatus of state security on alert and had me returned to Nigeria in style after I had stayed as a guest of Ambassador Leslie Harriman in the Nigerian Embassy in Paris for two days. On my arrival back in Lagos, Aminu Abdullahi told me that MD was ready to support any decision that I took on renewing my residency and so when I decided that I wanted to live in Benin City for a time to be near to my two sons who were there with their mother, he immediately facilitated this.

However even as I was setting out to Benin City, I remember having an important and serious discussion with MD in his office in which he advised me to keep up my contributions to AFRISCOPE as he knew they were taken very seriously by leading figures around Africa. He also suggested that I study the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and make advocacy of that movement an important aspect of my reportage. At the time, the afore-mentioned S.G. Ikoku was Chairman of Nigeria’s Anti-Apartheid Committee. Ambassador Leslie Harriman who had been my host at MD’s request in Paris was later to become Nigeria’s U.N. Representative and a long serving Chairman of the U.N. Committees on Apartheid and Liberation in Africa.

Friends in high places

To a large extent under Uche’s direction, AFRISCOPE became the voice of a critical minority in Nigeria’s polity until the advent of the Murtala Muhammed Government in 1976. From that time, it became clear that Uche really had friends in high places. One of AFRISCOPE’s major contributors Dr. Patrick Wilmot (my fellow-Jamaican expat) who was teaching at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria became an unofficial but highly visible adviser to the government on issues of African liberation.

Nigeria’s increased support in both moral and material terms for the liberation of Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia became the hallmark of its foreign policy. In that period from 1976 onward until the transition to civil rule in 1979, Uche made AFRISCOPE the advocate of a government of the popular will for all of Africa. Those of us who worked closely with him then believed we were on a crusade. His style of hands-on advocacy and laissez faire editing, which allowed most of his contributors to vent their most deeply held convictions with hardly any restraint, made for exciting reading as well as influential reach.

Whenever I travelled in Africa then I was surprised at the respect and deference accorded me in government circles, especially around West Africa where I discovered that the magazine had developed a loyal following among the middle class. At the same time I soon discovered, especially in places like Ghana, Guinea, Mauretania, Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Niger Republic, and even as far afield as Somalia and Ethiopia, that M.D. Yusufu was actually well known to key figures in government and just a mention of his name often opened up sources for reports on the issues that interested me for my AFRISCOPE pieces.

In trying to build my career with truth and relevance without being blinded by bureaucratic hypocrisy, it was refreshing and stimulating to find that there were officials who were prepared to speak frankly with you in confidence even though they were aware that your political slant was likely to be against the preservation of privilege. M.D’s friends usually respected that as long as you indicated that you would respect their privacy and confidentiality. In that way, the collaboration that existed between Uche and M.D. in a kind of unspoken conspiracy was exciting for those of us who were able to utilise it professionally as well as in personal terms.

Surprisingly tolerant friend

MD was a surprisingly tolerant friend who seemed more amused than annoyed by some of the most outlandish actions of some of his friends and I could regale readers with a long catalogue of evidence of this. There was the former Black Panther exiled from the USA in the sixties and declared wanted by the FBI who, after living in Nigeria for nearly three decades, set up home on MD’s doorstep for several weeks before deciding to eventually give himself up and return to the States.

There was the former Minister in Lumumba’s Government who regularly drank himself silly and then visited MD in the late hours to hold interminable debates about the state of affairs in Zaire (then) now the Republic of the Congo. There is also the really hilarious incident when MD’s only personal car was an old SAAB that looked like a beetle and we drove together one night in Ikoyi up to a check point at Falomo. A police constable on duty insisted that he should get down and “open ya bottom”. By this time MD had actually become the Inspector General of the Nigeria Police.

He smilingly complied with the peremptory order and suddenly an agonised shout came from the dark. “Abi you deh craze…sorry sah”. That was the commander of the checkpoint probably just waking from slumber who recognised both the car (which was well known to most police officers in Lagos) and the gentleman just going to open the boot of the car. But instead of returning to the driver’s seat, MD summoned the commander and asked him why he was stopping the constable from doing his job. He threatened to discipline him there and then and proceeded to open the boot of the car and insist that the trembling constable and his commanding officer search it thoroughly before we proceeded on our way.

Less tolerant

Uche’s personal style was much less tolerant. He could be downright cranky and sometimes even dismissive of just about anyone. But there were times too when he could be surprisingly compassionate and generous to those less privileged than himself, and those of us who were intimated of his   decision to marry Princess Nwoibo Iweka of Obosi shortly after the war ended saw a softer side of him than we expected. He proved to be a wonderful father and at least for some years a very solicitous spouse.

We were able to observe this because for many years he lived upstairs from the offices of AFRISCOPE in Pedro village in Lagos and the division between his family life and his professional business was a very thin one. This might very well be part of the reason for the demise of AFRISCOPE. As the years sped past, Uche became increasingly preoccupied with family issues and especially with nurturing his highly talented children. However the exigencies of editing a controversial political journal, especially after the downfall of the civilian government that he had clearly looked forward to seemed to disturb him. He and S.G. Ikoku were founding members of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) led by Alhaji Aminu Kano.

Doomed Second Republic

I can reveal here now that the original manifesto and constitution of that party was actually authored by a committee of friends in which I also took part at the instance of none other than MD.  This committee was chaired by Ikoku, and the technical director was Uche. The design of the party logo was produced by our late great graphic guru Mr. Jackie Payne (also a Jamaican) who was the production manager of AFRISCOPE. The major issues and clauses contained in the manifesto and constitution were put forward by, among others, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, Alhaji Haroun Adamu, and the late Prof. Bala Usman, but the final production of the first pamphlets was done in Lagos and contained substantial changes made by us under Uche’s and S.G’s direction.

Throughout the existence of the doomed Second Republic, it became increasingly clear that Uche was becoming more interested in the efficacy of political service and losing patience with publishing. Then he set up a major printing establishment and became more of a businessman than a publisher once the political transition collapsed. It is entirely possible that my recollection is not totally accurate but it seemed to me that it was in that period (1983-1985) that AFRISCOPE died and with it my close links with Uche seemed to wither away.

In any case, I lost touch with him because I moved away from Lagos after the fall of the Second Republic and was actually concentrating on writing new columns for Daily Times, and then the Vanguard over the next few years. I kept in close touch however with Alhaji M.D. Yusufu, travelling often to Katsina or Kaduna to see him as he had become somewhat of a father figure to me. He never ceased lamenting, the halting of the publication of AFRISCOPE.

MD and Abacha

In the early 1990’s with the breakdown of law and order in Liberia I found myself drafted once again to help an African nation explain its struggle to avoid disintegration to an international audience. While I was battling the forces of insurgent disorder in Monrovia, I heard that Uche had become Minister of Information in military President Babangida’s Government. We did not meet then but spoke on the phone several times.

He was always helpful with advice and support when we needed outreach in the official Nigerian media especially the electronic media. It was only after that period was over for me that I returned to Nigeria with M.D. Yusufu in 1997 to assist in publicising his decision to challenge General Abacha’s purported desire to stay in power as a civilian President. Many interpretations have been given to that campaign but one thing that should not be overlooked is that it was one of the most innovative attempts to challenge a sitting tyranny with the power of argument rather than through violence or the use of tactics of insurgent uprising.

Alhaji M.D. tried to forge a national consensus of disenchantment by the use of cleverly worded newspaper ads and distribution of leaflets and posters. I am convinced that his campaign fell foul of regional fatigue as many of those who may have responded positively to his sentiments were simply convinced that northern domination of the leadership of the nation was the major problem of the time and were not prepared to subscribe to his appeal. The eventual outcome of the transition that followed General Abacha’s sudden demise seems to reinforce this assumption as General Obasanjo became the next president on a patently manipulated vote to produce a non-northern candidate. It was also noticeable that while S.G. Ikoku was present in the meetings of supporters of M.D.’s announced aspiration, Uche was conspicuously absent.

Surprising partners

That Uche eventually was elected a Senator from Abia State and served three memorably unique terms as a representative of his people suggests that my earlier assertion that when he grew tired of publishing he became enamoured with political participation could be right. I cannot say much about his role as senator in relation to his advocacy of people’s power as the source of good governance in his younger years.

What I do know is that his contributions to debate and discourse in the Senate indicated that he remained a highly principled individual to the end and that he was never a forgettable or an irrelevant human being. Like his friend MD everything that he did was touched with a desire to serve the interests of many especially the downtrodden and the disenfranchised. That barely a fortnight separated their deaths is sad. The emptiness they have left in my life will never be filled but their memory will remain as the indelible legacy of two surprising partners.


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