By Farooq A. Kperogi
A number of my readers wrote to tell me that they were expecting to read my tribute to the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua. Unfortunately, I cannot in good conscience venerate in death someone I didn’t think much of while he was alive.
While all the value systems that have molded my worldview frown at the idea of speaking ill of the dead, they also discountenance writing blatant, convenient, and politically correct lies in the name of paying tribute to the dead.
So my position is that if I can’t speak well of the dead I won’t speak ill of them either—unless, of course, they committed unspeakably egregious crimes against humanity while they were alive.
In any case, enough saccharine praises have already been written about Yar’adua by far more competent and better regarded writers than I. I won’t muddy up the immense corpus of immaculately sincere and insincere national praises for the late Yar’adua with any shoddy, hypocritical, mealy-mouthed tribute from me. All I can do—and that I’ve actually already done— is to pray that Allah forgive his shortcomings and grant him the al-jannah firdaus (the highest level of paradise in Muslim belief) that every believing Muslim desires.
But after reading the surfeit of cloying tributes that have been written about the late president—and that we are wont to write about dead people in general—I kept asking myself why, as a culture, we don’t often celebrate living heroes—unsung, little-known but nonetheless great people who have touched and influenced the course of people’s lives—with as much energy and flourish.
Well, this is precisely what I’ve set out to do this week and in the coming weeks. There are a whole bunch of people out there whose life stories have inspired me greatly, whose kindness and example have changed the course of my life, whose integrity and personal incorruptibility should be the stuff of legends but that are unknown to people outside a tiny circle of friends; people who truly deserve to be celebrated not just in death but while they are alive.
I encourage everyone who has similar tributes for exemplary but obscure individuals to share them while the people are alive. There is virtue in celebrating the living. My ordering of these real living little-known heroes is entirely arbitrary.
1. Umoru Ibrahim. This gentleman has a life story that I would have dismissed as simply fictional if I didn’t know him personally. Umoru rose from being an illiterate photographer with the Kano State-owned Triumph newspaper to a one-time editor of its Sunday edition.
He is from Edo north—in some place close to Auchi that I cannot for the life of me recall now. Unlike many people from his area who migrate to northern Nigeria, he didn’t change his identity in order to blend with his host community. He is so proud of his natal “Auchi” identity that he would go to war to insist that you not spell—or pronounce— his name in any form other than “Umoru”!
Anyway, his parents, who were devout Muslims, prevented him from acquiring Western education as a child. They said it would corrupt his morals. (You see, “boko haram” isn’t a recent phenomenon, nor is it exclusively northern Nigerian!).
So he learned photography in Benin City. In 1978 when the late Governor Abubakar Rimi started the then radical Triumph newspaper, Umoru applied for and was given a job as a press photographer. But he couldn’t write photo captions. He was literally illiterate.
Conscious of his deficiency, he decided to learn how to read. He solicited the help of reporters at the paper. After he learned to read, he decided to teach himself the primary school curriculum. And, as an adult who already had children, he wrote and passed the equivalent of a “school leaving certificate.” He then proceeded to study the secondary school curriculum in nine subject areas, again, with the help of reporters at the Triumph.
The process of his self-education wasn’t as smooth as my narration suggests. He was often the butt of jokes from colleagues and reporters in the newsroom. They thought he was the most quixotic person alive. But he wasn’t dissuaded. After several years of study, he enrolled for the GCE “O” level as an external candidate. In his first attempt, he didn’t get the number of credits he needed to be admitted into a university. But he wasn’t deterred. After more studying, he re-enrolled and, this time around, passed with flying colors.
He even wrote GCE “A” levels, which didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to be. So he decided to take the University Matriculation Exams (UME), the compulsory standardized test for university admission in Nigeria. He got the required points to be admitted to read political science at the Bayero University, Kano. When he graduated with a second class honors degree in political science in 1998, he was in his late 40s. I think one of his sons got his HND in architecture the same year. In 1999, Umoru again enrolled for his master’s degree in political science.
All this time, he remained a photographer but took an additional reportorial responsibility as the Triumph’s aviation correspondent. He also became a weekly columnist. In the early 2000s, Umoru was promoted to the position of editor of the Sunday Triumph, the Sunday edition of the Daily Triumph. For me, this is a remarkably inspirational story.
I first met Umoru in the 1990s. He humbled me with the breadth and depth of his knowledge, his incredible facility with the English language, the sharpness of his intellect, the quickness of his wit, the grace of his manners and, above all, his contagious humility and seemliness. His extraordinary aptitude for analyzing complex political phenomena with thoughtfulness, profundity, and great acuity—not to mention his trademark intellectually fashionable vocabulary— puts to shame some of us who have been in school since our impressionable, formative years.
And rather unbelievably, some of the people who taught him how to read ABC and count 123 as an adult have not gone beyond the qualifications they had when they were his teachers. Some had just high school certificates. Others had polytechnic diplomas. And Umoru became their editor! Umoru is no longer the editor of Sunday Triumph but still works at the Triumph as a top-level editorial staff member as I write this piece.
I would rather be celebrating this little-known living hero who is so modest and so self-effacing that he would be utterly embarrassed should he read this tribute. Umoru embodies the Hausa truism that says Gemu baya hana ilimi, that is, a beard (symbolizing adulthood) does not hamper the acquisition of knowledge.
More living heroes next week