Wednesday, 7 October 2015

(109): Five encounters with Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf

Journalism has lost another icon, not an ordinary one, but a heavyweight in a profession we hold dear to our hearts. As tributes continue to pour in, the loss of Bilkisu Yusuf, who died in the stampede on the way to the Jamrat in Makkah during the 2015 Hajj, I cannot help but take my pen to narrate my experience with this humble woman.

Of course I knew Bilkisu Yusuf through her writings in various newspapers in Nigeria.  But the first time I saw her was in 2001. It was during a symposium organized by the Centre for Democratic Research and Training, Mambayya House, under the leadership of Professor Attahiru Jega, the immediate-past chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

As undergraduates, we had always been on the watch for activities organized by Mambayya House. You can rest assured, they will bring high quality speakers, and at the end of the event, you would leave more educated, more refreshed and more motivated than you envisaged.

This time around, the event organized was the annual lecture in memory of the late Malam Aminu Kano, the leader of the Talakawa (the masses), and a revolutionary politician who greatly contributed in shaping and redefining politics in the African continent.

The theme of that year’s lecture was “The Leadership Question and the Quest for Unity in Nigeria”. Among the guests and speakers present were Professor Musa Abdullahi of blessed memory, the then Vice Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano, Alhaji Bukar Abba Ibrahim, the former governor of Yobe State, Alhaji Tanko Yakasai who spoke on ‘Politics of Population Census and National Unity in Nigeria”, and Ambassador Yahya Abdullah, who spoke on “The Politicians and Principled Politics: The Example of Malam Aminu Kano”.

Other speakers include Dr. Okwadike Chukwuemeka Ezeife, former governor of Anambra State, whose topic was on “The Relevance of Leadership to Democracy and Good Governance”, and of course Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf who spoke on “Democracy and National Unity”. The special guest, former speaker of the House of Representatives, Alhaji Ghali Umar Na’Abba, couldn’t make it, and was represented by Alhaji Jibrin Barau, at the time a member of the House of Representatives.

The symposium took place at the peak of the Obasanjo administration, when issues of ethnicity were heating the political temperature of the country, particularly the heightened activities of the Oduwa Peoples’ Congress (OPC).

Hajiya Bilkisu was the only female speaker at the event. It was the first time I saw her, and when she was introduced to deliver her paper, she did not disappoint. Her presentation was, to say the least, one of the best. She was eloquent, fearless and to the point. Few excerpts from her speech could prove my point.

“The current preoccupation of all the elected officials is how to ensure their re-election and every action is geared towards that aim. The politics of Tazarce [succession] has clouded their sense of judgment and distorted their priorities,” she said.

“The concept of separation of powers has been jettisoned and state legislators and councilors also called ‘CASHillors’ who are working hand in gloves with the governors and chairmen also known as ‘SHAREmen’ to feather their nests. Corruption, violence and disrespect for the rule of law are threatening to erode any success made in forging unity and promoting democracy,” she added.

Hajiya Bilkisu was also critical of her profession, journalism. She told the participants at the symposium that “the press is older than the various arms of government and several civil society organisations”, but “as defenders of democracy and human rights, the media have quite often turned their role upside down to become perpetrators of iniquities and protectors of violators of human rights. They have through the ages, eroded the confidence they should have commanded from the public by their wanton disregard for ethics”.

This is just a small portion of her paper which reviewed the entire political history of Nigeria. Gladly, Professors Attahiru Jega and Haruna Wakili have compiled and edited the presentations made during the symposium, and produced a book bearing the theme of the annual lecture.

The second time I met Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf was in August 2007. It was during the fieldwork of my doctoral dissertation. My research was comparing the coverage of corruption scandals in the Nigerian press, and I was interested in finding out whether regional and cultural biases of journalists influence their reporting of corruption.  As part of the research, I needed to conduct interviews with journalists from northern and southern Nigeria.

It was also an opportunity to meet face to face with some of the household names in the field of journalism. I got her number from one of the veterans of journalism in Nigeria.

I called her and explained my mission, and she asked me to visit her office at Citizens Communication in Kaduna, which I did a few days later.  On arrival at the office, Hajiya Bilkisu was busy doing an advocacy training for some youths. I waited briefly, and we started the interview.

This encounter says a lot about her personality. Instead of conducting the interview in an office, we sat on a mat in the premises of Citizens Communications.  While the interview was going on, her attention was partly on those youths who came for her mentoring in civil society activities.

As we finished the interview, I asked her whether she planned to return to journalism on full-time basis, or even establish a new media outfit. “I will only start a newspaper if there is two billion naira available,” she said. “I have to be sure I can pay salaries for one to two years even if we don’t make profit, otherwise, I will not get involved. I knew our experience in Citizens magazine,” she concluded as I packed my bag and said goodbye to her.

The opportunity to meet her once again came in 2011. I was planning to go on holiday, when my senior colleague and the current editor of the Hausa Service, Dr Mansur Liman, asked me to write a proposal to the BBC World Service Trust, now called BBC Media Action, for a grant to conduct some debates on World Press Freedom Day in Nigeria. 

I drafted the proposal, submitted it and left for the holiday. On my return, Mansur told me that my proposal was successful and had been expanded to cover aspects of the 2011 elections. Our then editor, Mrs Jamilah Tangaza, was to conduct the political debates in Kano during the election period, which she did at Mambayya House, while I was to organize the debate on World Press Freedom day in Abuja later.

I organized three different debates at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre on three different topics, press freedom, media accountability, and the use of media for poverty alleviation.

On the first segment of the debate, I contacted Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf in order to serve as a panelist alongside Malam Muhammad Haruna, former Managing Director of New Nigerian Newspapers, Hon. Musa Sarkin Ader of the House of Representatives and Dr Abubakar Alhassan of Bayero University, Kano. Once more she was at her best. Hajiya Bilkisu seized the opportunity to analyze the failure of leadership in Nigeria, and as usual encouraged women to actively engage in the media.

The fourth time I met Hajiya Bilkisu was in January 2014 at King Fahad Palace Hotel in Dakar, Senegal. It was during a stakeholders’ meeting of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) for its member countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The bank was working on producing a 10-year strategic framework, and also to assess its 40 years as a development institution. Hajiya Bilkisu has been active stakeholder of the NGO section of the IDB, and was also invited to participate in the meeting, which as usual she did with every commitment. 

The last time I saw her was in Jeddah at the IDB headquarters, we only exchanged quick greetings as she was busy with her meetings, and that was it.

In the five times that I met her, what you could never miss was her simplicity, dedication, and most importantly, she never lost her essence as a woman and a mother. May Allah (SWT) forgive her shortcomings, grant her eternal peace, and protect those she left behind with His guidance.  

23rd Dhul Hijja, 1436
6th October, 2015