By Gambo Dori
I HAVE been bemoaning the paucity of good libraries in Abuja and access to reading material when a friend introduced me to his friend’s library.
And what a treasure trove! I found an assemblage of books on shelves, over shelves, over more shelves that would probably last a lifetime to read. It was during one those forays in that most private of libraries that I stumbled on a book of biography on the life of Abdurrahman Okene. I have never met him, but his name has been loud as one of the architects of the Northern Nigerian public service.
The book is appropriately titled, ‘In the service of my country’. It chronicles the main events of this great public servant’s journey through life which I shall share with the readers today.
Abdurrahman Okene was born in 1914, a milestone whose significance had never been lost on him. In the book he wrote: “The amalgamation of the Colony of Lagos, and the Southern and Northern Protectorates into one entity which was named Nigeria was completed on January 1, 1914. I was born in the month of August that same year in Okene, situated in Kabba Province of the then Northern Region. I feel there exists a special bond between Nigeria and myself since we were both born in the same year, 1914.”
He was born to the royal homestead of Ebiraland. His uncle was Attah Ibrahim, the paramount ruler of Ebiraland – the first to be installed and given staff of office by the colonial administration. Abdurrahman Okene grew up in that household among the Attah’s many wives, and many children – a household that gave Nigeria many prominent sons and daughters, including Abdul Malik Attah, the first Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom; Abdul Aziz Attah, a Secretary of the Government of the Federation who died in office in 1972; Adamu Attah who was Governor of Kwara State 1979-83, and Ambassador Judith Attah who in her youth married Christopher Okigbo, one of the finest poets Nigeria ever produced.
Unfortunately, he was cut down in the early stages of the Nigerian Civil War. Judith Sefi Attah nonetheless went on to have a glorious career in the Federal Civil Service rising to become a Federal Permanent Secretary, then an Ambassador and capped it with a ministerial appointment in 1995.
Abdurrahman Okene, after a sound grounding in Islamic education became one of the first set to benefit from western education in Okene. He attended the first elementary school in Okene which was established in 1922.
The school had no building as such and little Abdurrahman joined other boys in the only class in the premises under a tree. Five years later the Attah enrolled him in Bida Provincial School as a boarding student. It was the first time he was out of Okene and it was an opportunity for him to see and know his compatriots from other parts of the country.
It was also the first time he was away from the comforts of the palace and endured the deprivations associated with a boarding school.
He wrote about some of the exciting happenings of the times, like the day he watched one of the first planes ever to land in any parts of Nigeria. He wrote: “I was in Bida when one of the first planes to arrive Nigeria landed. It landed in Minna and all the chiefs in Niger Province gathered to receive it. Many people came to watch the landing. When the plane was coming they lit up a bonfire and the plane was guided in with the smoke from the fire. We could not believe our eyes until the plane landed and people actually came out of it. Some of us were not ourselves for the whole day and even weeks after. Many people thought that the end of the world was imminent since men had started to fly in the sky like birds. That was around 1929.”
In 1930, Abdurrahman Okene was among the four in his school to make it to the Higher College Katsina. The college, built in 1922, was then the highest educational institute in the north and probably the oldest higher institution in the north. The college had the distinction of producing most of the elite of the north including the first Premier, Ahmadu Bello Sardaunan Sokoto; the first Governor, Sir Kashim Ibrahim, and Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa. It was the first time young Abdurrahman Okene had journeyed to the far northern end of the country and was troubled to discover that the weather was unlike anything he had encountered before. Unlike Okene and Bida, Katsina was hot and dry.
He persevered and graduated in 1935 with specialization to teach in the science subjects. It was in Katsina that he decided on a teaching career and at graduation worked at it for many years. He started as a science teacher in 1936 in Zaria Middle School. He spent eight years there, where he stood out as an outstanding tutor. He wrote: “All through my stay here, my classes maintained a record of high achievement in their passing-out examinations.
“Indeed, all the students that sat for their final mathematics and science examinations under me scored credits and distinctions. A pass result was regarded as a failure by my class.”
He was posted to his hometown Okene in 1945 where he was able to establish himself as a community leader. He was away in the United Kingdom from 1948 to 1951 on government scholarship to study comparative education at the Institute of Education, London University. On his return he was made a Government Supervisor of Schools for Kabba Province. From there he headed to Bauchi Teachers Training College as Vice-Principal and the only indigenous staff. He later moved to Maru Teachers Training College as Principal. That was a famous school that had Malam Aminu Kano and Sheikh Abubakar Gumi as tutors in earlier years.
In Maru he had a memorable chance encounter with the Premier of Northern Region. He wrote: “Once when the Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was driving with his entourage past my school in Maru on their way to Sokoto, I lined up my students on both sides of the road to wave them as they went past.
The Premier did not expect this reception and he broke the journey out of curiosity to address the staff and students. When we were all gathered in the assembly hall, I introduced the Premier to the staff and students.” Abdurrahman Okene went on to deliver a brilliant off-the-cuff speech. The Premier was delighted and he made an appropriate response before proceeding on his journey.
Actually Abdurrahman Okene had an earlier encounter with the Premier in Jos where he was bold enough to tell him to his face that people from the middle belt were being unfairly treated in the distribution of government appointments.
Though the Sardauna made explanations he was clearly taken aback by the daring accusations. But fate was to bring them together shortly as Abdurrahman Okene would be one of the four to be selected to the highest rungs of the Administrative Cadre. He worked very closely with the Sardauna and came to admire his administrative skills. We continue the story next week. Keep a date with this page.