Early last year, I missed a golden opportunity to participate in the first Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa (ABOT) Memorial Lecture, organised by Kano Concerned Citizens Initiative (KCCI) and his family. Such a lecture serves to keep alive the memory of our departed loved ones as we have every reason to immortalise the late Alhaji Tofa. The lecture was conducted online and the occasion was graced by HRH Alhaji Muhammadu Sanusi II, the 14th Emir of Kano and the spiritual leader of the Tijjaniyya Sufi order of Nigeria, and retired General Haliru Akilu, among other important personalities and associates of Alhaji Tofa.
The lecturers reminded the audience who ABOT was, the purposeful life he lived and the lessons to be drawn from it. ABO was a quintessential gentleman. I knew about his good-natured and affable personality before I met him. There was a time he gave me an appointment, but I missed my first opportunity to meet him due to conflicting schedules during my short-lived campaign for the House of Representatives membership from Kano Municipal in 2015. After I joined Nahnu Muslims (NM) – a WhatsApp discussion group formed by him – somehow, we reconnected.
In the summer of 2017, there was an animated debate on NM about the Almajiri education system in Nigeria. I wrote a long message and challenged the members to walk the talk instead of just debating. I advocated that members should meet and agree on actionable points. To that effect, I called a meeting in my office at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
To my surprise, ABOT was among the first to confirm participation. He, along with two others, arrived Zaria by 10 a.m. on the meeting day. The meeting was attended by ten members and was very fruitful. Although nothing was implemented under the auspices of NM, the outcome of the meeting and the moral support by ABOT partly led to my participation in another meeting that led to the creation of a Zaria-based NGO called ASRI – Almajiri School Remodeling Initiative. Many other groups announced different initiatives to address the Almajiri menace. That Almajiri meeting was my first face-to-face encounter with ABOT. I could observe his simplicity, sense of community service and commitment.
Later, he invited me to his house. One Saturday afternoon, I, along with my wife, visited him. He was very delighted. He took me around his picturesque and beautiful palace – to inner sections, his son’s kitchenette, magnificent mosque, general meeting hall and called my attention to his colourful peacock roaming around the compound. I was honoured and flabbergasted when he introduced me to his amiable wife as his friend.
This simple gesture turned out to be the most memorable take-home point for my wife. As soon as we drove out of the palace gate, she started wondering why he called me his friend despite about 20-year age gap between us. I simply reminded her that a friend (aboki) is a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection. It is different from a peer (sa’a), who is a person belonging to the same societal group, especially based on age, grade or status. As a teacher, that moment gave me an opportunity to teach and to point out the humility displayed by ABOT. As Chinese philosopher and politician, Confucius, said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.”
Another important virtue of ABOT was his anti-sectarianism. He was about the only person who was always ready to accept invitations and attend events organised by Sufis, Shia or Izala group in Kano.
This gave him a unique ability to engage all religious sects and sub-sects in the state. He narrated to me one interesting encounter he had with a group of Shia that visited him. In the course of their discussion, he pointed out the futility of name-calling and disrespect towards some devoted disciples of the prophet. “Can you imagine how the prophet had viewed such a situation?” he asked them. He explained to me his philosophy about differences in religious understanding, etc. Let me leave this for another day.
I also enjoyed his analyses of the contemporary challenges of Nigeria, especially the north. For example, he pointed out that the pervasive and abject poverty among the masses is avoidable.
He categorised poverty into three – Material Poverty, Intellectual Poverty, and Empathy Poverty. Thanks to ABOT’s intellectual analysis of the problem; now my understanding is that poverty alleviation can only be achieved if these categories are considered holistically.
Material poverty is more glaring and easier to measure. According to 2022 reports, 63% of Nigerians are multi-dimensionally poor. It is higher in rural areas, where 72% of the people are poor, compared to 42% in urban areas. How many Nigerians are intellectually poor? How many suffer from empathy poverty? My estimation is that the societal retrogression and other leadership problems in Nigeria are a result of the Empathy Poverty of our politicians. As the English writer, G.K. Chesterton, puts it, “It isn’t that they cannot find the solution. It is that they cannot see the problem.”
Perhaps our politicians do not care about our challenges, simply because they have no empathy.
By chance, I visited BOT one day, during the period when the relationship between the Kano Emirate Council under Muhammadu Sanusi II and the Kano State Government was at its lowest ebb. He told me about his efforts for reconciliation, the long relationship between his family and that of Sanusi.
My most important lesson of that moment was the importance of loyalty. In one strange moment, when he was seeing me off one day, he looked around and pointed at the mosque in his house and said, “If Allah accepts, this is the only thing that belongs to me.” As if to address my bewilderment, he said, “Only what you eat and use in your lifetime is yours – all the rest are for somebody else. You are just a conveyor, so know that you amass, keep and convey.” This was a great lesson in Taqwa and contentment. It was another unforgettable encounter for me.
In the course of my short but deep interactions with ABOT, I learnt a lot of very important and useful life lessons. The three most important ones are humility, loyalty and contentment. For the last two years, I have been struggling to put them into practice. By most accounts, Tofa was a great and noble man. As Imam Ali said in Nahj al- Balagha: “Live amongst people in such a manner that if you die, they weep over you and if you are alive, they crave your company.” Two years later, we are still weeping.
Allah Ya jiƙan Alhaji Bashir Tofa.
* Baba El-Yakubu is a PTDF-Professor of Chemical Engineering at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria