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A close friend for 40 years

Writing a tribute to a recently departed family member, colleague or close personal friend is one of the most distressing experiences in the writing business. Less than a month ago I paid tribute to Inuwa Abdulkadir, a student-turned-close friend for 35 years.

Today I must pay tribute to Dr. Abdurrahman Umar, classmate, comrade in the days when we were ardent left wingers, my intellectual reference point and very close personal and family friend for 40 years. He died in Abuja on Tuesday last week, July 21, after a brief illness.

I first met Abdurrahman Umar in 1979 in our Part One class at the then University of Sokoto, now called UDUS. I had done my pre-degree course there while he arrived, with many other mates, from the North East College of Arts of Science [NECAS], Maiduguri.

He was from Gombi in Adamawa State, which struck a chord with me because I was born in Mubi, also in Adamawa State. Though he was in the Faculty of Education [with English as his teaching subject] and I was in the Faculty of Science, we soon became very close because the student population was small and everyone knew everyone else.

I could see from day one that Abdurrahman had a very sharp mind and was very widely read. Conversing with him on any local, national or international issue, he displayed easy familiarity with the subject and always offered a deep insight. I soon heard from his Education classmates that he was the top student in class.

One day I overheard one Education student telling another that he did not know who was Abdurrahman. So the other student said, “Just wait. On the day of our convocation, look out for the person who will be called out to collect all the prizes.”

Sure enough, Abdurrahman was the only one who bagged a First Class in his faculty, and one of only three First Class students in our graduating year, 1982.

We found another common ground in political radicalism. We were members of the underground Socialist movement. Again, Abdurrahman was so far ahead of the rest of us in his study of Marxist-Leninist literature that we dubbed him “Suslov,” chief ideologue of the Soviet Communist Party at the time. During our NYSC, he twice left his station in Benue State to visit me in Anambra State.

Immediately after the service, we came together again as Graduate Assistants at Unisok. The university lodged us in the same guest house, together with Bashir Ladan Aliero, current VC of Kebbi State University. As bachelors the three of us maintained one cooking pot. Our house was noisy, with a string of comrades visiting and arguing ideological and political issues. That was when I noticed that Abdurrahman sometimes created private moments for himself by going out of the house, then sneaking back in, locking himself in his room and reading from his already big pile of books.

He was madly in love with Bilkisu, then a Unimaid student, over whom he endlessly fantasied. I personally thought she was not interested because she used to send brief replies to his letters. One Saturday, Abdurrahman administered a test to a large General Studies class. I noticed that he tried to hide the question paper from me so I sneaked in, got hold of the question paper and saw what he was hiding. The first question asked students to rearrange certain names as they would appear in a telephone directory. Each student returned “ABBA, Bilkisu” [his beloved fiancée] as the first name. Anyway, she was his wife for 34 years until he passed away.

Because he bagged a First Class, he was automatically entitled to a Federal Government scholarship. It was easier said than done. In 1984 he spent one month plodding up and down the Federal Ministry of Education offices in Lagos, before he was finally helped out by the Coordinating Director, Malam Yahaya Hamza. Abdurrahman then went to University College of Wales, Aberystwyth in the UK, where he bagged an M. Ed in Educational Technology in 1985 and a Ph D in 1988.

He resumed teaching at UDUS in 1988, where we resumed our very close personal and ideological friendship. In fact we stayed in the same house for a year in the late 1980s, with his young wife. Apart from Socialist comrades, Abdurrahman was also very close to his colleagues in the Education Faculty, especially his townsman Prof Gidado Tahir, Prof Mohammed Junaidu, Prof Mohammed Dukku and Prof Mohammed Jagaba. They were all united by hard work and intense love for their subject. In fact, we used to tell Abdurrahman to slow down on his obsession with research and publications and not to toe the line of the very intense Prof Tahir, who appeared to have little interest outside research papers.

Luckily, he did not listen to our admonition because his 2015 CV showed that he had three books, 34 publications in learned journals and another 10 papers waiting for publication. He was already an authority on teacher education, pastoral education, educational technology, curriculum development and distance learning. He was also visiting lecturer, external examiner, M.A and Ph D supervisor, journal Editor in Chief and member of 59 expert committees on education, visitation panels and other national and international committees. His death reminded me of what Cheikh Anta Diop once said, “A $1million library has been set ablaze!”

In 1994, Abdurrahman became Special Assistant to Minister of State for Education Alhaji Wada Nas. It was accidental; Minister of Education Dr. Iorchia Ayu had asked Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman to fish out for him an educationist of the radical school to be his assistant. When Alhaji Wada saw the CV, he begged Ayu to donate Abdurrahman to him. He followed Wada Nas to Ministry of Special Duties and from there went to National Commission for Nomadic Education in 1997 as Director of Programme Development & Extension.

In 2001 he moved to National Teachers Institute, Kaduna as Director of Academic Services responsible for Programme Design and Development, Research and Training, organizing national examinations and Quality Assurance. I was in Kaduna all those years and Abdurrahman was a regular visitor to my office as Editor of New Nigerian and to my house. I also regularly visited his office and house. From our endless discussions, I soon realized that I was becoming an inattentive expert in education matters.

From 2008, Abdurrahman was at the Commonwealth of Learning [COL] in Vancouver, Canada for five years as Education Specialist (Teacher Education) and Team Leader Education. He didn’t like it in Canada, especially having to shovel snow from his courtyard every morning during the winter. He returned to Abuja in 2013 as Lead Specialist, Pre-service Teacher Education, Teacher Development Programme at DFID/UKaid.

Late last year, President of the UN General Assembly Prof Tijjani Mohammed Bande sent me to convince Abdurrahman to come over to New York and occupy a UN position on education. He refused, saying at this stage in life he did not want to live abroad again.

During the lockdown however, the government appointed him as Nigeria’s Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. He was waiting for airports to reopen before he resumed duty in Paris. Alas, he fell sick a day after attending a long meeting on basic education and passed away a week later.

I have missed a friend from whom I was inseparable for 40 years. My condolences to Bilkisu and Hauwa and to all his lovely children. May Allah reward Abdurrahman for his excellent work here on earth with Aljanna Firdaus.

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