When I read the heartbreaking news of Malam Ahmed Joda’s passing on August 13 at the age of 91, fond memories of my encounters with him welled up in my mind. To the rest of the country, he was famous for being a cerebral and principled civil servant who served many governments from pre-independence until 1978 when he retired as a “super permanent secretary.” But I know him as a humble, easy-going, down-to-earth man who loved to tell stories.
I first met him in March 2002 at the Presidential Villa in Abuja when I was news editor of the Weekly Trust. He was chairman of the Presidential Research and Communications Unit—an inchoate government agency conceived to operate outside the constraints of the traditional structures of the federal civil service—whose raison d’être was to communicate Nigeria’s progress to the outside world.
The unit hadn’t been fully formed. It needed to be staffed with journalists with excellent writing skills. Someone from the Presidential Villa invited me to apply for a position there. After a lot of hesitation, I did but didn’t expect anything to come out of it.
A few days later, I was requested to come for an interview at the Presidential Villa, and Malam Ahmed Joda was the chairman of the interview panel, although I had no idea who he was at the time. (I was only five years old when he retired from the federal civil service.)
The week I went for the interview coincided with the week I wrote a cover story for the Weekly Trust that embarrassed the Obasanjo administration. Titled “Obasanjo’s Men Take Over INEC,” the story detailed how almost all the commissioners that the Obasanjo administration had appointed to INEC were card-carrying members of the PDP, which I characterized as the “4th republic’s original sin” in a July 15, 2021 social media update.
One of Obasanjo’s close aides who also was a panelist at the interview was furious with me. He observed that I had written several other “negative stories” about the Obasanjo administration and wondered why I wanted to work for a government that I disdained.
Because I already had a job and didn’t really care whether or not I got the job I was interviewing for, I didn’t let the aide get away with his hostility that was fertilized by deep ignorance of journalism. I schooled him on the difference between news reporting and opinion writing. My so-called negative stories weren’t my opinion; they were facts. The only way to avoid negative stories was to avoid doing negative things, I said.
I added that my job as a journalist was not to make governments happy, but to hold them accountable, and that I didn’t understand the job as I was interviewing for as a job in the service of the person of Obasanjo. I said I thought it was for Nigeria, which transcends Obasanjo or any temporary occupant of Aso Rock. I had read up on the unit, and there was no indication anywhere that it was a propaganda factory for Obasanjo. If it was, I said, I wouldn’t have applied for it.
I gave up hope that I would get the job until a frail, light-skinned old man, whom I later learned was called Ahmed Joda, spoke up. All through the tensile back-and-forth exchange that ensued between the presidential aide and me, Joda intently fixed a knowing gaze at me.
When he spoke, he said the cantankerous aide was being “short-sighted” and recalled a similar experience he had when he applied for a scholarship to study journalism in the UK in the 1950s. He had written pungent, hard-hitting articles against the northern Nigerian government in the Nigerian Citizen, the precursor to the defunct New Nigerian.
The interview panelists, he said, reminded him of his “unfriendly” articles and wondered why he wanted the assistance of a government he had a stone-cold contempt for. He recalled that it was the only white man on the interview panel who chastised the (northern) Nigerian panelists as “short-sighted” and insisted he be given the scholarship.
He retold his story (during the interview!) to draw parallels between his experience and mine and to say that the short-sightedness of overenthusiastic government officials often deprives governments of talents. He said he was impressed by my CV, my writing, and my performance at the interview.
But my respect for him didn’t come from his giving me a job at the Presidential Villa without knowing me. I got to know him even more when I started work at the Villa. As the chairman of the unit, he presided over our meetings periodically and often shared profound, and sometimes hilarious, personal stories and insights with us.
He once told us during a staff meeting that when he left the former Gongola Province in the 1940s (after his elementary and middle school education) to attend Barewa College in Zaria, he couldn’t speak a lick of Hausa and was often lost among his Hausa-speaking classmates.
He also said when he lived in Lagos and told his Yoruba friends that Hausa was his third language (after Fulfulde and English), they couldn’t wrap their heads around it. It made no sense to them that a Fulani man couldn’t speak Hausa since both identities have been erroneously conflated and made to seem indistinguishable in the Nigerian popular imagination.
By far the most hilarious of the stories he shared with us was his experience being compelled to lie about his relationship with famous Nigerian-American basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon during a visit to the United States. He was in the United States at the height of Olajuwon’s career. Each time he checked in at a hotel and it was discovered that he came from Nigeria, he would be asked if he knew Hakeem Olajuwon, but he’d never heard the name, so he’d say he didn’t know him.
He said about three different hotels declined his hotel reservations. He later realized that his saying he’d never heard of, much less known, Hakeem Olajuwon not only inspired a huge disappointment in the hotel workers but also questioned the credibility of his claims to being a Nigerian.
After the fourth hotel asked him if he knew Hakeem Olajuwon, he’d had enough. He called a friend who lived in the US and asked who the hell Hakeem Olajuwon was and why every American he met was mouthing his name. “Ha! Hakeem is a big deal here! He’s called ‘the Dream’ and is the biggest basketball star here,” he recalled his friend telling him.
When he went to the next hotel and they predictably asked him if he knew Hakeem Olajuwon, he was ready for them; he jokingly said he was Olajuwon’s uncle. He recalled that the staffer he told this joke to excitedly shared it with other people as fact and a crowd soon formed around him. The hotel staffers later threw a lavish party for him, wrote off his hotel bill, and took photos with him.
He said it was the most uncomfortable moment of his life. He told a harmless joke only so he could get a space in the hotel and be left alone, but the joke took on a life of its own and was now impossible to undo without inviting even more problems. As the party was going on, he was not only ill at ease, he also dreaded the possibility of a Nigerian just strolling by and bursting the bubble of a Fulani man from Gongola claiming to be the uncle of a Yoruba man from Lagos!
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Had it happened, he said, he would have defended himself by saying he only meant “uncle” in the fictive kinship sense of the term since both he and Olajuwon were Nigerians, and he was old enough to be Olajuwon’s father. Plus, they were both Muslims. We all roared with uproarious laughter throughout his retelling of that story.
Joda was jovial, pleasant, even-tempered, mild-mannered, upright, cosmopolitan, and incorruptible. I had the pleasure to meet him again at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja when I visited Nigeria in 2016 and reintroduced myself to him, but he didn’t recognize me. I wasn’t offended because I knew he was already in his late-80s at the time. May his soul rest in peace.