Last week, Malam Mamman turned 80, and a few more Nigerians were afforded an opportunity for a glimpse into the life of a man who, by all accounts, deserves his own accolades without the added trimmings of a Buhari presidency and some of the less flattering mentions he gets in the frictions around the first family or in the Villa. It is the story of a young northern student who, in the tradition of leadership of the region then, was sent to study in the UK with the best that his abilities demanded, and is then ploughed back into a system designed to produce more like him. He played a major role in the pivotal New Nigerian Newspapers as Editor and Managing Director when the North and the nation needed clear and sober heads to steer through dangerous waters of the civil war and post-war reconciliation.
He left footprints as a successful industrialist, banker and major player in the private sector for decades thereafter, but managed to resist our pervasive and seductive political environment, except in those small, intimate circles that discreetly concerned themselves with Northern interests and policing the boundaries of governance. A recent touching tribute from his daughter confirmed what many in his intimate circle have always known: Malam Mamman is gifted with a rare strength of character that allowed him to follow only paths charted by his deeply-personal traits. As a man reputed to have deep faith, he would know that with a Buhari presidency, fate has cast him in a powerful supporting role in the political arena. The real question is whether he is a reluctant manager of power, or an enthusiastic facilitator whose value, among many others, is to mind the shop from some distance.
I am one of those people who know next to nothing about the character of Malam Mamman, but I suspect that his larger-than-life image is most likely earned. A rare outing splashed on the media a few weeks ago showed this virtual enigma (with one or two other members of the cabal he is reputed to head) closely following the decisions of the Supreme Court on the challenge by Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the PDP. This was the closest most people saw him linked directly and publicly with the fate and fortunes of the Buhari Presidency. But he has been, and is likely to continue to be the linchpin of the Buhari administration. It is perfectly believable that his position and relations with the Buhari presidency are founded in decades of primordial and genuine loyalties, and for these, he is willing to endure the most searing assaults from millions who think the president is caged by him and his handful of loyalists, and from members of the Presidents family who have little reverence for his position or history with the president.
It is equally possible that Malam Mamman has finally found his political niche with the Buhari presidency, a position that allows him to exercise tremendous power without responsibility. Certainly this will be a position popular with many politicians who had made long, eventful and often painful journeys, some with the president, others meeting him at the Villa, but all of them with variable levels of grievances at the largely distant but powerful and ubiquitous power of the quiet octogenarian who holds no official position, but serves as an agenda-setter or final clearing house. The path to the president is reportedly strewn with bruised ambitions and prospects of people who thought they had crossed all streams, only to meet the impregnable circle built by Malam Mamman.
Since we are involved with popular speculations, why not mention another? This one will suggest that Malam Mamman is a study in loyalty to a relation and a system, the type of loyalty rare in Nigeria. The case will be that of a brilliant, highly-educated and exposed Nigerian who serves a president-relation entirely within the parameters laid by the president. In other words, Malam Mamman is there, lock, stock and barrel exactly as the president who is entirely dependent on him, wants him to be. He knows the president inside-out. He will defend him, protect him, represent his interests and take the bullet for him because he knows his place, and his place is to be loyal to the president, and allow the president to float or sink as he wishes. Whats in it for him? Apparently, the satisfaction that he renders service where it is needed most, and does so without the temptation to show his face in the picture.
The problem with the last suggestion is that it goes against the record of Malam Mamman. Sure, you will hear of ventures that failed and about limitations arising from his lack of exposure in public service or the political process, a strong conservative instinct and an unhealthy distrust for changes, but Malam Mamman, in those areas where he devoted much time and energy, cannot fail to pass the personal accomplishment test. Would a man such as this be content to be merely at the beck-and-call of a president only to reassure him that there are only familiar faces at the dizzying heights of power? Is it fair to him, the president and the nation they impact so profoundly, that history will record him merely as a gatekeeper, a loyal nephew who prefers the shadowy sections of power without claiming credit for success or paying the price of failure?
If history had been kind to Malam Mamman in the past in the manner it helped him design the length of his shadows, President Buharis stewardship has robbed him of that comfort. He is, for all intents and purposes, a major player in the administration, and he has acquired the scars to show for his intimate proximity to power. Clearly, this is a man of very strong character and a clear idea of the place he choses to be. In any endeavour, these are strong attributes. In the exercise of power, particularly in a context that challenges personal character in the manner it responds to standards of accountability, the possession of a clear vision of your place in history and the manner you discharge obligations are vital. Ideally, the best in President Buhari and the best in Malam Mamman should combine to leave a legacy of the highest tradition of governance by northerners; to open new frontiers in national security, public safety, economic empowerment, good governance and an assured future for Nigeria as a peaceful, united country. There is a long way to go before May 2023. What happens between now and then will form part of the last few pages in the accomplished history of Malam Mamman Daura.
Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja
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