Vanguard News Nigeria

Bala Takaya, the Middle Belt, and the meaning of history

By  Obadiah Mailafia
JOHN Bala Takaya, President of the Middle Belt Forum, MBF, went to be with his Maker at dawn of Sunday 25 May. He died on Trinity Sunday, an important date in the Christian Calendar. For five years, he had wrestled bravely with the prostate cancer that was eventually to claim his life. A profile in courage, he bore the affliction with a wry smile. He always reminded me of Socrates. He embodied excellence, virtue, wisdom and the humane values of the peoples of the Middle Belt in a beautiful and unforgettable way.

And elderly woman stands outside her house on May 5, 2016 in Nimbo, southeastern Nigeria, where nomadic Fulani herdsman attacked the village. Ongoing clashes between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and farming communities in Nigeria’s middle belt and southeast states have accounted for the death and displacement of many people./ AFP

I first met Bala Takaya in August 1986 in Jos. I had just returned home from graduate studies in France to resume my Fellowship at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru. He was at the time Senior Lecturer at the University of Jos. We both served on the committee that received General Yakubu Gowon on his first homecoming after more than a decade of forced exile. As part of the event, a major conference was spearheaded by Professor Jonah Isawa Elaigwu, Gowon’s biographer and late Kenyan political scientist, Professor Ali Al-Amin Mazrui who had been appointed Albert Luthuli Professor in Jos. We received generous funding from the Ford Foundation headed at the time by the Trinidadian-American Rhodes Scholar, Richard Joseph. Bala was the treasurer of the project. He managed the finances so prudently that we all agreed it was easier to squeeze water from the proverbial stone than to extract money out of him. Someone once said that if you wished to be finance minister or central bank governor the most important skill you will ever need is ability to say “No”. Bala had this penchant of saying “No,” even before he had heard you out. We joked that he ought to be the next finance minister.

John Bala Takaya was born on 5 November 1949 in Mabuguva, Mubi Local Government of Adamawa State. He attended the local mission school before gaining admission to the famous Baptist High School Jos during the years 1965-1969. Baptist High was run by American missionaries who set rather exacting academic and moral standards for their pupils. He was a brilliant pupil. He was known to be a brilliant science student. It was therefore a big surprise to his mates when he made a detour into the social sciences. The secret was only revealed recently by his widow, Mairama LarabaTakaya. She revealed to me that when they were mere teenagers he solemnly declared that he had resolved to leave the sciences. He said he needed to study political science to empower himself with the tools to liberate his people. Blessed is the young man who knows his life’s vocation early enough!

He was among the pioneer students of the newly-created School of Basic Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in 1970; an institution that brought together the brightest students from the North to prepare them for university studies. It was part of a regional policy to accelerate educational development in the backward North. After successfully completing his A’ Levels he gained admission into the Department of Government, as Political Science was then known. The Department was headed by one of the most renowned political scientists in the world, in the person of the Irish scholar James O’Connell. A counsellor and confidante to Gowon, Professor O’Connell was deported after the General fell from power in 1975. He later pioneered the famous Peace Studies Programme at the University of Bradford in England where he reigned like a colossus until his death in 2013.

Bala graduated from ABU in 1974 and was retained as a Graduate Assistant in the Institute of Administration. It was the custom in those days to give automatic employment to the most outstanding graduates. He subsequently did his postgraduate studies at the famous London School of Economics and Political Science, graduating in 1978.

Late Dr. Takaya was a lecturer in public administration at ABU Zaria during 1976-83 before transferring to the University of Jos as Senior Lecturer during the years 1983-1987. During 1979-1981, he served in the exalted capacity of Secretary to the Government of Gongola State. He was also a member of the Political Bureau that was created by the military to midwife the transition to constitutional government during 1986-1987. In 1999, he contested for the governorship of his state under the banner of the All Peoples’ Alliance, APP. He lost to none other than Atiku Abubakar. There are some who believe that the late Takaya actually won those elections but that the dark powers of the day were determined that he would never rule the state.

Apart from several academic papers, Bala Takaya co-authored a book with Sonni Tyoden, The Kaduna Mafia (Jos University Press, 1987), in which they exposed the sinister networks and institutions underpinning the anatomy of Northern power and the system of patronage that enables them to maintain a stranglehold over the North and the entire Middle Belt. He became a marked man whose career was thwarted at every turn. But his spirit was never broken.

It is a tragic irony that the late Takaya came into his best element when the billows of death were closing in on his life. His beloved Mairama Laraba often chided him for such an exerting schedule without regard to his fragile health. He would smile and tell her that he did not have much time left. In the one year he served as President of the Middle Belt Forum, he proved to be a consummate leader of his people. Even from his hospital bed he was dishing out instructions, teaching and encouraging. Someone once said that great leaders are also great storytellers. Bala was a dramatic storyteller of the rank of the Greek playwright Sophocles; an encyclopaedia of politics and ethnology. He wore his great learning, to echo the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, with a lightness of being. Mild-mannered and compassionate — a man without guile. But he was nobody’s fool. An astute administrator, he could smell chicanery and cant from a mile.

What stood him out above everyone was his commitment and love for the people. A man of steadfast and unwavering principle; he was never swayed by the duplicities of our confused and illiberal age. The Middle Belt was his life. He once drew me aside and sternly counselled that even if he died tomorrow we must never give up on the struggle for our emancipation. He confided to his wife that he would die a happy and fulfilled man, having had a foretaste of the glorious rebirth of the Middle Belt and the New Nigeria that is to emerge. His greatest legacy is the historic “handshake” across the Niger and the solemn resolve by the leadership of the Middle Belt to cast their political fortunes with their brethren in Southern Nigeria.

Funeral obsequies commence at 4pm, Wednesday 6 June, with a service of songs at Baptist Church, Gimbiya Street, Garki, Abuja; followed by a Commendations Service at University of Jos on Thursday 7th at 3pm. Body arrives Yola for Commendations Service at Ribadu Square at 11 am, Friday 8 June. In the evening of the 8th, the body arrives Mubi for wake-keep at Haske Baptist Church. On Saturday the 9th final funeral service holds at 8.00 am at Bishara Baptist Church in his hometown of Mabuguva, to be followed by interment in the family compound.

How are the mighty fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice! O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

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