In the celebration of June 12 as our national day, it must be pointed out that while a certain MKO Abiola may be the raison d’etre of the day, dozens of great Nigerians are the true heroes of the epoch.
Some of the unheralded would include Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, Chief Alfred Rewane, Chief Ralph Obioha, Wole Soyinka, Gani Fawehinmi, Olisa Agbakoba, Chief Frank Kokori, Maj. Gen. Ishola William’s, Bagauda Kaltho, Alex Ibru, Dr. Tunji Dare, Sully Abu, Bola Onanuga, Alao Aka Bashorun, Chima Ubani, Balarabe Musa, Ndubuisi Kanu, Ayo Obe, Chidi Odinkalu, among others.
But arguably, among the most outstanding of the number and with the help of hindsight, may well be a certain Col. Abubakar Dangiwa Umar.
Umar was among blue-eyed boys of the north recruited into the army in the 60s.
Son of a heavy weight pre-independence politician who was member of the House of Representatives in Lagos for about 10 year as well as Commissioner for Works in the old North-Western State. Joining the army was an added advantage for young Abubakar.
He had the best of both military and conventional western education. From Government College, Sokoto to the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna and some of the the best US military schools. Umar obviously had the best of two worlds for he later attended Bayero University, Kano and Harvard University, USA.
With such deep family and educational leverages, his career path in the Nigerian Army was already paved in gold. And so it truly was. Commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant at 23, he was Aide De Camp to former Governor of the Northern Region, Major General Hassan Usman Katsina, and at one point, Umar was Deputy Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters.
But his turning point must be between 1985 to 1988 when he was appointed military governor of Kaduna State upon the successful coup by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and company. He was only 34 years then.
BABANGIDA BOY, SINNER, SAINT: At the period of the June 12, 1993 crises, Umar had come full cycle even though he was only in his kid 40s and nearing the peak of his military career.
At the core of the infamous ‘Babangida Boys’ corps he had it all well laid out for him were he ready to play the game of the day.
Babangida boys was a cult of young officers, who were ultra-loyal to the former military President Babangida at the peak of his power and chicanery. Some of them were later to align with the brutish General Sani Abacha upon his ascendancy.
These boys included Abdulmumin Aminu, Tanko Ayuba, Patrick Aziza, Abdul one Mohammed, John Shagaya, David Mark, John Inienger, Halilu Akilu, Tunde Ogbeha, Raji Rasaki, among numerous others. It was a survivalist enclave of wide-eyed middle level officer who craved promotion and juicy political postings.
It was said that they would do anything to belong and some of them indeed did unspeakable things to remain in the power orbit of a corruptive and power mongering pseudo-despot, Babangida.
Umar was a key member of the pejorative corps but at the nick of time, his noble persona seemed to get the better of him.
The story of June 12 has been well rehashed especially yesterday. General Babangida, aka ‘evil genius’ aka ‘Maradona’ had managed to conduct a presidential election on June 12, 1993 after a long rigmarole and reluctance. Chief MKO Abiola clearly won the election.
But like most stupid African dictators, Babangida didn’t want to relinquish power, he aimed to perpetuate himself.
But June 12 happened in spite of him. However, instead of taking vicarious glory for an immense goodwill providence handed him on a platter, he annulled the election on some flimsy excuses. Nigeria was thus set off on a top spin that lasted for about six years up until 1999.
A LIFE OF CHARACTER AND PRINCIPLE: It was in the crucible of the ensuing crises that the real Abubakar Umar was born.
Though a well-known Babangida boy, there was no doubt where he stood during this turbulent period of Nigeria’s tryst. Though an officer who was not supposed to be politically partisan, he aligned with the democratic and anti-military forces of the time. He didn’t hide the fact that it was time for the military to return to the barracks and for democracy to begin to take its course in his fatherland.
At the height of the impasse that ensued after the annulment, he was reported to have made a move to clear the jigsaw with a coup d’etat and instal civil rule.
Col. Umar was then Commander, Armoured Corps Centre and School, and was alleged to have muted the seeming suicidal idea of moving tanks from his command base in Bauchi to execute the putsch.
This was long after his mentor Babangida had ‘stepped aside’. Chief Ernest Shonekan had been installed as head of the putative Interim National Government (ING) and Gen. Abacha, power behind the throne was plotting a power grab of his own.
Abacha was said not want to be distracted by the side-show of a minor coupist so he had allowed Umar to prematurely resign his commission and go quietly.
CONSTANT AS THE NORTHERN STAR: While it is true that many who played frontline roles in the opposition of the annulment of June 12, may have been induced, time has proved that Umar’s action was indeed an act of self-sacrifice, courage and statesmanship.
For nearly three decades since Umar threw a treasured Commission, he has never looked back. Neither has he seemed to feel a sense of loss of such privileged standing.
He is said to have retired to his farm where he rears the best birds, including exotic ones whose feathers are treasured abroad.
Now 71, Umar has not shied to intervene at every critical juncture in the life of our nation since then. Telling truth to power with much grace and solid strength of conviction, and it didn’t matter the tribe or party of the leader on the saddle at each point. What seems to matter to him is the best interest of Nigeria and her people. From Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo to Umaru Yar’Adua to Goodluck Jonathan, Umar never failed to speak up against perceived misgovernance.
Umar has earned statesmanship over these years. While his colleagues from the army had immersed themselves in dubious political pursuits and chased appointments and contracts, Umar had remained self-sufficient in his farming enterprise.
He once attempted to test Nigeria’s political waters by forming the party, Movement for Unity and Progress (MUP) but it was dead on arrival. He must have discovered to his eternal frustration that the so-called politicians prancing about the country are mete grubs who only seek to fill their tummies, pockets, cash vaults and even soakaways before they would consider the good of the country.
When about two weeks ago, Col. Umar had written so gracefully, yet so scathingly to President Muhammadu Buhari warning that his inequity, unfairness and lopsidedness in federal appointments would cost him dearly, it was very much in his character.
Abubakar Dangiwa Umar has become like the Polaris, the North Star… constant and bright. Would there were few more souls like him in Nigeria’s blurred firmament. Umar has indeed become a veritable compass; a man for all seasons.
Steve Osuji, a firebrand columnist, first wrote this piece on June 13, 2020 for The Nation.