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Yusufu Bala Usman: 1945–2005

[Editor’s Note: On this day 17 years ago, Dr Yusufu Bala Usman died. We reproduce here a piece written by Muhammad Mustapha Gwadabe on the late scholar]

The intellectual community in Nigeria received with great shock the news of the death of Dr Yusufu Bala Usman on 24 September 2005. Indeed, the shock went beyond the intellectual community or the Nigerian nation because Dr Yusufu Bala Usman was not only a Nigerian intellectual but one recognized across Africa and abroad. He was not just an intellectual but also a democrat, a freedom fighter, and a lover of peace and justice. Thus his house, at Hanwa in Zaria (Kaduna State), witnessed a large crowd of people who came from villages, states and countries within and outside Nigeria. Those trooping to offer condolences to the family included peasant farmers, spare-parts sellers, factory workers, mechanics, labourers, messengers, politicians, serving and retired military men, Heads of State, Governors, Ministers, Commissioners, businessmen, intellectuals, bankers, labour leaders, technocrats, students and market women. For over one month after his death the Department of History at Ahmadu Bello University, where he taught until his death, received letters of condolence from within Nigeria, Africa, Europe, North and South America, the Middle East and from as far away as Asia.

Born into the royal family of Katsina (one of the nineteenth-century emirates under the Sokoto Caliphate), Dr Yusufu Bala Usman attended the Musawa Junior Primary School, Kankia Senior Primary School, Minna Senior Primary School and Government College Kaduna in the period 1951–62. He received his university education in Europe, first at University Tutorial College (Great Russell Street, London) and then at the University of Lancaster. In 1967 he returned to Nigeria with a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in History and Political Science. He declined the lucrative jobs his royalty guaranteed him and chose to be a common classroom teacher, starting as a secondary-school teacher at Barewa College, Zaria. It was here that Professor Abdullahi Smith, the then Head and founder of the Department of History, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, discovered him. From 1970 to 1974, Bala Usman undertook MA and PhD degrees. He was the Head of the Department of History until 1980, when he left the university to serve as Secretary to the government of the former Kaduna State. His PhD research was on ‘The Transformation of Katsina, 1796–1903: the overthrow of the Sarauta system and the establishment and evolution of the Emirate’; it was a pioneering study from the perspective of an Africanist historian. Similar studies followed, a number of which are now published or about to be published. Indeed, Bala Usman was in the midst of editing a number of volumes of research papers when death caught up with him on Saturday, 24 September 2005.

The contributions of Bala Usman lie not only in the number of papers he has written or the publications he has left for posterity. He spearheaded the establishment of a school of thinking quite distinct from the perception of history that used to be prevalent in Nigeria before the 1970s. Before him, history was generally understood and taught within the paradigm of colonial historiography. The efforts of Bala Usman and some of his colleagues in the department liberated history teaching as they masterminded the establishment and nurturing of the school of African historiography at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (ABU). Its influence spread to other universities and organizations in the rest of Nigeria, Africa and beyond. This brought the ABU Department of History to prominence, and indeed left a mark on all students of the department, wherever and whenever they make their presence known.

The ABU School of History was based on the principle that history involves rigorous evaluation and assessment of all types of sources for historical reconstruction. This approach exposes the bankruptcy of over-reliance on written sources, and encourages the use of oral, archaeological, linguistic and other sources for historical reconstruction. When it started, the perspective appeared very refreshing, though difficult to conceptualize within the colonial outlook of history teaching in the secondary and advanced-level schools and their syllabuses. It was refreshing because it posed a serious challenge to colonial historiography, emphasizing how this had tended to distort the significance of other sources and to downgrade African history vis-à-vis British imperialism. Using written sources as a yardstick, some colonial historians had argued that Africa had no history, because ‘the African past was nothing but darkness’. Africanist historiography challenged this position. This led to a revolution in the courses taught in ABU’s Department of History, and in the calibre of teaching staff of the department. Nor did these revolutions stop at the Department of History; the rest of what was then the Faculty of Arts and Social Science – Political Science, Sociology, Economics, Mass Communications, Nigerian and African languages, French, English and the Archaeology Unit – followed suit. The impact of the revolution was so great that students of Ahmadu Bello University in general are still noted today for one thing: their radicalism. It was not surprising that in 1983 the Faculty of Arts of the University hosted the first-ever event to mark the centenary of the death of Karl Marx.

Yusufu Bala Usman was an inspiring teacher, as I can personally testify. I had known of him since 1978 through reading his commentaries in the newspapers and electronic media; I first met him personally in 1981, during the commemorations for Dr Bala Muhammed, the political activist and member of the People’s Redemption Party assassinated in 1980. It was my readings of Dr Usman’s works and my close relations with Dr Bala Muhammed that influenced my decision to read history in the University and to take up teaching as a career. Dr Usman taught me for most of my undergraduate years. He gave me the courage to face the public and air my views. I thank him greatly for that, for, being an introvert, I could have ended up as an administrator somewhere in my village if he had not encouraged my transfer to the university system.

In 1985 the authorities of Ahmadu Bello University, considering Dr Usman’s contribution to knowledge, promoted him to the rank of a Professor. Humble as he was, Dr Usman turned down the promotion on the ground that ‘he was not convinced that he had done enough to be a Professor’. While he was without doubt qualified for the promotion, his action was an attempt to show his displeasure with the way promotions to the rank of professorship were politicized and abused. So Dr Usman died with the rank of a Reader.

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