It fills one with pathos that an institution of the Nigerian state should confer honour and recognition on the ultimate anti-establishment man, the late Dr Bala Yusufu Usman. Few weeks ago, Hadiza Bala-Usman, the daughter of the late Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, history teacher, received a post-humous honourary doctorate degree on behave of her late father from the Federal University of Kashere, Gombe State. Hadiza, the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, has again put her father’s name in contemporary affairs. But would Bala Usman, the ultimate intellectual rebel, ever believe that an institution of the Nigerian state would consider him worthy of recognition and honour?
Bala Usman was not my teacher but I came under his mentorship. He was one of the group of radical intellectuals crisscrossing Nigerian campuses to infuse the tenets of an egalitarian society to the youths of Nigeria. He was an historian and an incorruptible philosopher. His twin brother was the late Professor Segun Osoba of the Department of History at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Osoba, who was my teacher in Ife, posited that Nigeria was not developing because the ruling class suffers from “intellectual aridity.” Along with Usman and Osoba were the likes of Patrick Wilmot, also of ABU, Professor Ayodele Awojobi of the University of Lagos and the late Aire Iyare of Benin. In a special class has always been Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate and perpetual torn in the flesh of the establishment. But none of them surpassed the magic of Bala Usman, the rebel prince from Katsina.
I first met Usman in 1977 when he was invited to Ife by the Wantu-Wazuri Society (a Black Power Organisation). Our leader then was Bayo Adenekan, the founding Managing Director of Capital Oil Plc., who is now one of our country’s leading engineers and environmentalists. If intellectuals like Professors Jacob Ade-Ajayi, Boar Icemen, Adagio Akinjogbin, Akinjide Osuntokun and others are chroniclers of our history, Bala Usman and the likes of Segun Osoba were the interpreters of that history. They questioned the intellectual basis of African historiography and its interpretations by Western scholars like the likes of Heinrich Barth. They were Marxist-Leninists and they look at history and contemporary society through the prism of ideologies. They were advocates of class struggles and they fought for the creation of an egalitarian society. They lost most of their battles. But they were great patriots and incorruptible men and women. We believed them.