A week ago, at a gathering of literary minds, we discussed him, his books, and even his health, which had, I informed my friends gathered, stalled his literary productivity in recent years. It was a friend from below the Niger who made him the subject of our conversation in his declaration that the man was under-sung.
“I don’t think so”, I offered. Describing a writer from this side of the Niger, one who broke boundaries and was author of widely read novels that still stir up nostalgia in many of us, books that also got recommended for tertiary institutions and listed in various syllabi of our national examinations as “under-sung”, was a tad uncharitable. Before Gimba, so many writers emerged in northern Nigeria, also exhibiting rare literary genius, some writing in indigenous languages, but all flickered out before they could even establish themselves. This set, to me, were the truly under-sung writers. My friends and I had no idea that we were only reviewing his essence, as he’s played his part out in full in this movie called Life, and was set to bow out finally around the midnight of Wednesday, February 25.
The north of Nigeria, where Gimba brought his talent to bear, was a dark house mainly known for its many military and political overlords, the very larger-than-life aristocrats and kakistocrats, who, with their counterparts in the south, turned Nigeria into a purgatorial space.
At the time Nigerian writers were shooting themselves to fame, with their participation in street protests, producing haunting oeuvres of protest literature, Gimba was a mandarin; a banker in the day, and writer at night. His brand of literary activism, which was an expose of societal decline captured in his novels and non-fiction, were seemingly “pacifistic” for the era. Though his social interactions gave him away as a member of the right-wing, as seen in his non-approval of the late Gani Fawehinmi’s style of unpacifiably radical civic engagements in a piece archived in a collection of his essays, Why am I Doing This? (Kraft Books, 2007), he was an unflinching critic of our socio-political and economic aberrations to which he was a witness, and thus, he’s known for emphasising, as encountered in one of his early novels, Witnesses to Tears (Delta Books, 1986), that “the general practice of a vice does not make it a virtue”.
Gimba did not condone injustice, he was just too much of a gentleman to become a placard-carrying advocate of change. Karl Marx was obviously referring to writers and thinkers of Gimba’s school where, in his book, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, he noted: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Gimba’s thoughts for our generation are to inspire a mental revolution, and a change through non-violence. This is his perception, for ours is a place where agitations are easily negatively exploited. This dilemma of the change agents he presented in his novel, Footprints (Malthouse Press, 1998).
I became a specimen for the behavioral study of this deep-thinking writer during the memorable January 2012 fuel subsidy removal protests, which I initiated in Minna, and thus, for being boycotted by a branch of the state’s writers’ league, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), of which I was a member, I renounced my membership. This decision was seen as rash by the novelist and in one of his interactions with members of the association, he expressed his disappointment in what was taken as misplaced radicalism. For a civil servant who became a Permanent Secretary in the state Civil Service at about the age I made that decision, dismissing mine as juvenile would’ve been a contradiction. I’m glad he never did that. I would later understand his philosophy, which I was too angry to see then, that to change a system one must be a part of it. This may be why Gimba was a critic and friend of the political establishment at the same time.
As social critics, those of us who once disagreed with Gimba, for sincerely highlighting that the main trouble with Nigeria is its people in his 2008 epistolary work “A Letter to the Unborn Child”, dissenting from Chinua Achebe’s now flawed assertion, a view he actually changed in latter years of his public intellection, that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership” in his celebrated seminal work, “The Trouble with Nigeria,” I guess it’s not yet late to apologise to the Minna-based thinker. At least to honour his wisdom. He reminded us that it’s lazy to blame the leaders as architects of our miseries; for the whole is simply a reflection of its diseased units!
Abubakar Gimba was vindicated, over the years since the publication of that important book, by the political irresponsibility of not exactly the leaders of Nigeria, but the followers who subscribe to the leader’s polarising and divisive politics, forming a society of bigoted, uncritical and sycophantic followers, when they know better.
I was in transit, but writing this short and quick tribute, on my phone, to one of the greatest inspirations of my life, despite our occasional private dissents, can’t be an inconvenience. He was a quintessential Zaguru – a good man. Not just for being family, not just for sponsoring the publication of my poetry book, not just for being the man who taught me the virtues of pacificism – as I maneuvered between being an ideological “rascal” and a “radical” ideologue… On so many occasions, many, curious about my literary presence, took me for Gimba’s son. He might not be my biological father, but he was one culturally. Our thickest link, perhaps, is the marriage of his eldest son to the eldest daughter of my parents – a union that has produced three beautiful children, and the first, a daughter, was named after my mother, Hauwakulu, also an incomparable Zaguru – good woman.
Indeed, history has lost one of its most resourceful custodians. Among Gimba’s books are Trail of Sacrifice (1985), Sunset for a Mandarin (1991) Sacred Apples (1994), Once Upon a Reed (1998), Inner Rumbling (2000), A Toast in the Cemetery (2002), Letter to the Muslim Fundamentalist (2004), This Land of Ours (2006), Letters to my Children (2007). What Gimba had shown in his career and association with every group of which he was a member are those qualities that made a true leader, which made him, without impositions, the natural head of all the groups he identified with. In the literary community, he became a National President; to the alumni of his alma mater, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, he was also the National President. Even in banking, he rose to the position of Executive Director at UBA.
These backgrounds prepared him for the leadership of his home state, Niger’s state-owned university, IBB University, Lapai; first as its Chairman Evaluation and Implementation Committee and then as its pioneer pro-Chancellor. So, it was not surprising that, when, in the uncertain 1998 and 1999, the People’s Democratic Party was scouting for an accomplished and popular Nigerlite as its Gubernatorial candidate, Gimba was first on their list. He reportedly turned down that invitation into the house of garbage that is Nigeria’s politics. For an activist too gentle to carry placards or endorse a popular revolt, that was a wisdom not misapplied. But if he had accepted, I’ve no doubt he would’ve gone down in history qualified for categorization as “patriarchal leader” in an Ali Mazrui book of Africa’s political biographies for, among many traits, his pacifism. Which is what the latter-year Nelson Mandela also exuded, and which is not cowardice. You’d be missed, Ya-Gulu. For your books, for your gentle words, for your effortlessly expressed humour, and of course for your similarly didactic poetry. May Allah forgive your shortcomings, and grant you eternal bliss!
By Gimba Kakanda
@gimbakakanda on Twitter