Flowers for Shettima Ali Monguno
Iwas out of the country when one of the public officers I most admired as a young man passed away. His passing didn’t come as a shock for he had lived to the ripe old age of 90, but can mortal man ever come to terms with the inevitability of death?
In those heady early 70s when men and women of honour held important positions in government, I was billed to see Mr. Attah with whom I was to discuss my decision to “enter the world”, having opted out of sacerdotal training. Mr Attah was a mentor of sorts and he worked at the Federal Ministry of Trade, located in the famous Six Storey Building on Broad Street, Lagos. As I waited for the elevator, suddenly there was a buzz: an entourage of three people, one of them in police uniform, was accompanying the Commissioner for Mines and Power, the ascetic-looking Shettima Ali Monguno.
As the policeman tried to commandeer the lift for the exclusive use of the Commissioner, the big man himself spoke up: “No, no, no. Let them join me. The lift can still take five more people.” That was how I found myself in the same enclosed space with the respected commissioner. Lifts took forever to climb from floor to floor in those days, but if you were in distinguished company as I was, there was no hurry. I stole a couple of glances at the man. Something about his mien reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi. Many decades after, I can now say with conviction that that fleeting Gandhi image was real. Monguno did not join the band of treasury looters and favour seekers. He died a simple man without the trappings one would expect around men who have held high office.
Everyone who has met Monguno would probably have their own anecdotes to share, but one of the stories that attracted my attention after his death was the one explaining how he managed to build a house in Maiduguri. He was Petroleum Minister. He had no extra source of income apart from his salary. He applied for a loan of N40,000 from the bank but the bank insisted that he must get a guarantor. He approached General Gowon, the Head of State, for a guarantor’s letter. The Head of State said it would amount to abuse of office if he guaranteed Monguno’s loan to build a personal house. Eventually, Monguno reached an agreement with the construction company, Julius Berger. The deal was simple - Berger would build the house and let it out for as many years as necessary to recover their costs before handing over the house to Monguno. That was how Monguno built his Maiduguri bungalow.
I don’t want to think what a contemporary politician in Monguno’s position would have done. (Check out his other achievements: Chairman, Maiduguri Metropolitan Council 197778; Member Constituent Assembly 1977-78; President of OPEC 1972-73; Pro-chancellor University of Calabar 1978-80; Pro-chancellor University of Nigeria 1980-84; National honours Ethiopian Empire, Republic of Egypt, Sudan and Cameroon 1970; Trustee Girl Guides Association of Nigeria 1970-90; Deputy National Chairman National Party of Nigeria December 1980-84; National Honour - Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, CFR, 1982; Chairman Borno Education Endowment Fund 1986; Hon. Citizen of Oklahoma State, USA).
These days, they even make anticipatory declaration of assets: they simply submit their wish list to the Code of Conduct Bureau in place of physical assets, knowing that they would acquire those assets with stolen funds as soon as they were sworn in. When you consider how integrity and good breeding have been pummelled to submission by the lowlife rejects we allowed to corner power at various levels of our national life, you will know that the generation of Shettima Ali Monguno is not just old school; the values his generation stood for are gradually going into extinction.
We have not always been a nation of low standards or ethical aridity. Once upon a time when we had people like Michael Okpara, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa and their generation in charge, political office was but a means of doing good to the greatest number. Today, it is the quickest route to billionairedom. If the likes of Shettima Ali Monguno are not replaced by men and women of conscience, the country is doomed. That is why it is important to highlight - and indeed showcase - the lives of upright public servants of yore with the hope that it will recommend itself to the present generation of leaders, especially the kleptocrats among them.
I am always interested in learning lessons from happenings such as the demise of a grand old patriarch. Abdulrafiu Lawal, a Boston-based commentator and fellow admirer of Monguno, spoke my mind when he wrote:
“Monguno passed on at a time Borno is in dire need of leadership and words of wisdom, six years after Boko Haram took the state forty years backwards. I once asked him why he sold his only house in Abuja to build a female hostel for the University of Maiduguri. He told me the story of how he grew up in the house of a district head and how the colonialists had asked the traditional ruler to enrol one of his sons in school then, but thinking it was an attempt to convert Kanuri children to Christianity, he sent Monguno instead. Monguno added that his father never left anything for him and he went to school free of charge. Hence he has no plans to leave any inheritance for his children, but good education.
“Baba died peacefully in his home, was never moved from one hospital in London to another in the United States - as is the case with most Nigerian elites. To me, this is gratifying even though it is a big loss for Nigeria.”
May his soul find sweet repose.