By Gambo Dori
Last week we picked snippets from the book written by Abdurrahman Okene, In the service of my country, showing his beginnings from Okene, to the heights he reached in the Northern Nigerian public service.
His career trajectory is a study of the growth of Nigeria’s public service from the difficult days of the colonial times to what it became at independence.
In the North, as regional self-independence approached in the other half of the 1950s, it became apparent to the fledgeling government of the Premier, Sardauna Ahmadu Bello that the higher rungs of the administrative cadre in the Northern Region public service was totally dominated by the white British overlords.
The importance of this cadre cannot be overemphasised as the cadre was the only avenue for all civil servants then to reach the very top of the civil service. There was not a single northerner in that cadre despite having many capable hands across the professions, particularly in education, where the likes of Abdurrahman Okene were playing leading roles.
Something had to be done fast. The Sardauna convinced his cabinet to put out a notice in the official government gazette that in preparation for self-government the administration required people of experience and proven track record in other sectors to come into the civil service.
Abdurrahman Okene did not see the need to apply because he did not want to leave the teaching profession which he loved so much. He was, however, surprised to receive an official letter from the Premier’s office asking him to apply.
He wrote: “Thirty of us sat for the examination and went through the interviews. During the interview at the Public Service Commission in Kaduna, I was asked only one question: ‘Having done so much for education and with your name as a reference point in education here in the north, why would you want to leave now and come into administrative service?’
The panellists made so much of the question that it looked like they were doing me a favour taking me into the service. I felt annoyed that they could have a contrary opinion of me and said: ‘Mr. Chairman, sir, let me assure you that I prefer my teaching profession to any other.
The reason you see me here is that my ministry told me that there were goods to be delivered in administration and they felt that I was the right man to deliver those goods.’ That was all I said and the interview ended on that note.”
When the results were released four of them were selected and transferred into administration as senior assistant secretaries; Ali Akilu, who became secretary to the premier and head of the civil service, Yahaya Gusau, who was appointed the secretary to the cabinet, later permanent secretary in many ministries and would much later be a minister in the military government of General Yakubu Gowon and Abdurrahman Mora who was in the Ministry of Health, who would later hold the post of permanent secretary in many federal ministries.
Abdurrahman Okene was posted to the Ministry of Agriculture, but for starters, he was retained in the Premier’s to take charge of protocol duties in the conduct of the all-important celebrations for self-government that took place in March 1959.
He performed the assignment with such aplomb that the Premier gave him a medal of commendation at the end of the celebrations. In due course, he made the rounds of the top of the administrative cadre as a Resident (equivalent now to a governor) of Zaria and Sokoto Provinces.
He was the pioneer provincial secretary of the newly-created Sardauna Province which had just joined Nigeria from Cameroun Republic. Later he was moved to Bauchi where the coup of 1966 caught him. In all he did in the Northern Nigerian civil service he looked at the Sardauna as his number one role model.
He wrote: “In the civil service, there were some people that excelled in the art of administration that I admired and did everything to emulate. The late Sardauna was one of such persons. You would admire him when you came closer to him. Indeed, no matter how hard you tried to provoke him, he never gave to anger.
Rather he would turn it into humour. He did not force loyalty out of people. You simply found out that he was so endeared to you that the best you could do was to offer him 100 per cent loyalty.
“He taught me how to have interest in the affairs and wellbeing of people that worked with me especially my subordinates. For instance, when I was secretary to the Northern Region’s cabinet, I often had to work late into the night.
At such times the Sardauna, without my notice visited my family gave them gifts and reassured them that I would be home soon. Indeed, it became a routine that each time I arrived home from late night in the office I would be greeted by the phrase: ‘The Sardauna was here.’ I later learnt that he did this to the families of all the senior officers who worked directly with him.”
The assassination of Sardauna was an unexpected shock to, not only Abdurrahman Okene and his colleagues, but to the whole north. He wrote: “The death of Sardauna became a rallying point for most of us. It kept the north united. And for those of us in the civil service, it engendered in us a will to succeed in our assignments as a tribute to the eternal legacy of the Sardauna.”
When states were created in May 1967, Abdurrahman Okene was a provincial secretary Bauchi Province and was saddled with the responsibility of being the secretary to the military government and head of service (SMG) of the newly created North-Eastern State (comprising the present Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba and Yobe states).
In April 1968 he was transferred to his home state, Kwara State as SMG and worked closely with the Military Governor, Col. David Bamigboye to put the new state on a sound footing before retiring from the civil service in 1970.
Identity and fertile opportunities
At retirement, he was inundated with other offers to serve in higher capacities. There wouldn’t be space to list the public institutions he headed or was a member. Suffice it to say that he was at one time or the other Chairman of the Police Service Commission, Nigerian Population Commission, Union Bank and was also Pro-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan.
He capped all these with serving as Minister of Internal Affairs during the Babangida regime. He was also a prominent member of all the constitutional conferences in that period.
Abdurrahman Okene was proud to be a Nigerian. He wrote: “Nigeria, my country, has always had a pride of place in my heart. I am proud to be a Nigerian, a country that offered me an identity and fertile opportunities to develop to where I am today.”
He was also proud of his Okene origins and his royal heritage and devoted a good piece of the book extolling that. Above all, he was proud to be a northerner and he was one of those that could always be counted upon to protect what they perceived as northern interest.
During the national crisis of 1993 following the annulment of the June 12 elections, when the unity of the country was threatened, it was Abdurrahman Okene and his colleagues that rallied round helping to save the situation. He was the prime mover of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF).
He took the initiative to write to selected leaders in the north. He convened the meeting and presided over it, along with fellow compatriots, Ambassador Jolly Tanko Yusuf and Justice Mamman Nasir. They worked together to make the NEF a permanent feature, a vital pressure group and non-partisan.