…to borrow the words of the American poet and educator, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the life of this great man should remind us that we must make our lives sublime, and departing, leave behind us footprints in the sands of time.
The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night. – Longfellow
Nigeria is a country of great men and women, each making their mark in various sectors of our existence. It is a privilege to celebrate these accomplished ones in our midst when they are alive, rather than when they pass away to the great beyond and cannot hear or appreciate our words. Former vice president and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, Atiku Abubakar, stands out for his immense contributions and accomplishments in more than one sector of life in Nigeria. As this great man turns 70, I will highlight his notable achievements in just three sectors: Education, agriculture and government — three areas which are key in the progress and future of our great country, Nigeria.
Many years ago, when the average Nigerian tycoon was blinded by oil and the pursuit for oil, Atiku looked into the future and saw differently. As far back as 1981, he saw agriculture as a great opportunity and solution for Nigeria when he started the Gesse Derdirabe Farm in Yola with a bank loan. The 2,500 hectares of land soon made him the largest maize farmer in what was then known as Gongola State. Shortly after establishing the farm, it began producing over 10,000 bags of maize a year for sale within Nigeria.
Unfortunately, the Gesse Derdirabe Farm was forced to close down five years later, in 1986, when changes in government policies as a result of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) induced Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) led to a sharp increase in the cost of production. High import duties made the prices of agricultural equipment, such as tractors, harvesters, ploughs and other inputs like herbicides, fertilisers and improved seedlings, shoot up. It became impossible to replace old or damaged hardware and there was no corresponding increase in the prices of local produce.
Atiku sold his machines to pay off the bank loan with which he started the farm.
However, he did not abandon his vision for agriculture. In 2013, Atiku presided over the groundbreaking ceremony of the Rico Gado Nutrition in Yola, Nigeria’s first multi-purpose animal feed mill. At the time, some of his friends were concerned about the timing of the project, about the insecurity in the North-East which was affecting Yola and Adamawa. But Atiku was more focused on the opportunity to change the way the Nigerian agricultural sector works and the way Nigerians look at our economy and agriculture. He asked himself: If not then, when?
Today, the Yola feed mill is an economically viable enterprise, and a catalyst for change. It produces 20 tonnes per hour of carefully balanced and locally sourced quality fodder for a wide range of livestock, including poultry, cattle, goats, and horses. The compound feed allows hundreds of producers to rear their livestock faster, to make them fatter, and to keep their animals in good health. The feed is reducing the expanse of land required to feed cattle, and in the future, it will hopefully help defuse the conflicts between herders and farmers that have plagued many agrarian communities in Nigeria and that are currently costing our country too many lives and livelihoods, and threatening our nation’s future.
The success of the Yola mill was not enough for Turaki. In May 2016, he presided over the groundbreaking ceremony of the Rico Gardo Nutrition in Abuja, an even bigger plant which will initially have an installed capacity of 50 tonnes per hour and will enable the company serve a wider market.
Atiku faced similar doubts from concerned friends when he decided to establish the American University of Nigeria (AUN), the university which he founded a little more than a decade ago. This, too, is located in Yola. Some wondered: Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to use that money to provide scholarship funds for students to study elsewhere? A great many more students could be sent to top schools abroad with the money now being used to run the AUN power plant and construct our buildings, and pay our security force and the like.
Atiku’s concern, however, was to help develop his country in deeper and more holistic ways. He did not want to facilitate the brain drain out of Africa, to enable our best and our brightest to take their ambitions, their intelligence, and their drive abroad. As Atiku said in a speech at the London School of Economics, “We need them in Africa. We need them to understand the problems in Africa. We need them to pitch in.”
Perhaps, Atiku’s philanthropy is most eloquent through his promotion of education at all levels, particularly higher education. He is the sole founder of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), formerly ABTI; the first American-style private university to be established in Sub-Saharan Africa with faculty from 40 countries. The University was a winner of the American Library Association award for “its pioneering work in the development of one of the world’s most sophisticated e-libraries”.
Atiku, in August 2013, sponsored a students’ essay contest to generate solutions to Nigeria’s most pressing institutional educational challenges on the topic “More Learning to More People: How can Nigeria be more innovative in bridging its literacy and skills gap?”. The joint first prize went to Kenechukwu Nneka Lily Nwagbo and Emeka Chigozie Ezekwesiri.
And in 2011, while celebrating the 50th anniversary of the US Peace Corps, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) honoured Atiku with the prestigious Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award, describing Atiku Abubakar as follows; “No private businessman in Africa has worked harder for democracy or contributed more to the progress of higher education than Atiku Abubakar,” the NPCA said.
And then, of course, there are Atiku’s obvious achievements in government and politics. For eight years, he was the vice president of Nigeria, under the leadership of Olusegun Obasanjo. His tenure and influence are directly responsible for the introduction into the Nigerian space of the most resounding names of that era.
Today, Nigerians revel in our democracy, which led to the historic election of President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo in March 2015. But, it is worth noting the major role Atiku played in perpetuating the form of representative government that we enjoy.
Former President Obasanjo’s intention to alter the constitution and extend his tenure from two terms to three was a well-publicised issue, which led to national debates and an altercation between the two men. In Atiku’s own words, Obasanjo said to him: “I left power twenty years ago, I left Mubarak in office, I left Mugabe in office, I left Eyadema in office, I left Umar Bongo, and even Paul Biya and I came back and they are still in power; and I just did 8 years and you are asking me to go. Why?”
Atiku responded: “Nigeria is not Libya, not Egypt, not Cameroun, and not Togo; I said you must leave; even if it means both of us lose out, but you cannot stay.”
This fight against Obasanjo’s third-term bid ignited the most bitter form of vindictiveness from Obasanjo, a situation which saw Atiku’s name dragged in the mud as all sorts of smear campaigns were instigated in the media. Atiku laid his personal political ambitions on the altar of national interest. He suffered that we might enjoy.
As Atiku Abubakar, the Turakin Adamawa who is fast transforming to the Turakin Nigeria, turns 70, please, join me in celebrating this great man of Nigeria. Indeed, to borrow the words of the American poet and educator, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the life of this great man should remind us that we must make our lives sublime, and departing, leave behind us footprints in the sands of time.
Paul Ibe is Media Adviser to His Excellency Atiku Abubakar, Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999-2007.