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The last time I saw my boss, brother and friend, Rt. Hon. Ghali Umar Na’abba (
was at the National Hospital Abuja, and he looked at me and tried to talk, there was something he wanted to tell me, but no words came. My heart broke.
I had seen him sick before, he had been ailing off and on for a couple of years now, but he had never lost the power of speech and the force of his character always shined through.
This time however, though his fiery eyes looked fiery still, he hadn’t been able to muster a word since he was brought to the hospital. I had visited him every day, was with him on Christmas Day before I travelled the next day to Minna where I got the call by 3:20am from his son that he was gone. It was devastating news as I had not only lost a leader and mentor but a brother and colleague with whom I was in the trenches for many years, fighting to save our nascent democracy from the dictatorial clutches that were the hangovers of decades of military rule.
I first met Ghali in 1999 as a member of the House of Representatives and we basically gravitated towards the same group of likeminded members determined to prove the point that democracy could work, that Nigerians from all regions and religions could strive together despite their differences, that patriotism was not an anachronism.
After the wheeling and dealing, the horse trading that was a necessary adjunct to selecting the leadership of the House, one of our group, the young and charismatic Salisu Buhari emerged Speaker, and Ghali Na’abba who had been gallant enough to step down for him, became the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Although I had not originally sought for it, I was elected the Chief Whip of the House of Representatives, a position I was to hold for eight long years, during which time Salisu Buhari was forced to resign and Ghali was elected in his stead.
As Speaker, Ghali had a unique perspective about leadership. He had grown up amongst aristocrats, and had seen his father and grandfather hobnob with emirs, ministers and business moguls so he had this natural affinity with power and its uses. He also began his political tutelage as a member of the welfarist Peoples Redemption Party, PRP. As he said sometimes later, “I grew up in a family that was rich but also radical and that influenced a lot about my life.”
Between July 1999 to June 2003, Nigerians were to benefit from those influences as he led the 360 members of the House of Representatives, and the nation, on an exciting rollercoaster.
Ghali was a man without cant, confident in his own skin, bold and sagacious, and utterly without fear or greed. He was often willing to forego whatever emoluments promised in order to ensure that the freedom of the legislature or the interest of Nigerians, was protected.
As part of the leadership of the National Assembly and the House Whip, I was almost always involved in the efforts to mediate between the head of the Executive branch, President Olusegun Obasanjo and the leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Ghali Na’abba over issues that range from budgetary matters, to bills that the House had passed against the wishes of the Presidency, to alleged misappropriations and
interference in the running of the party or the National Assembly.
Things came to a head when the executive branch initiated the plan to impeach Ghali on some spurious charges, having bribed a number of members to lead the charge at the plenary. We were able to expose the shenanigans of the Executive by shaming some of those bribed into bringing the money to the floor of the House where it was laid out for the media and the world to see. Subsequently, it was determined that the President himself may have committed impeachable offenses and a list was made of these, and proceedings started towards his removal. In the end a truce was reached and charges were dropped but the battle to establish separation of powers between the legislature and the executive remained unrelenting because Ghali would give no quarter.
It was all part of the process of growing our democratic culture especially as the legislature had so often been absent from governance in the past that the new administration tended to ignore this critical arm of government. It wanted a rubber stamp National Assembly and couldn’t understand why with the Peoples Democratic Party having such an absolute majority in the House, we weren’t just saying Yes Sir to every demand of the Executive.
But Ghali, a student of political science and of power, knew instinctively that while the country had returned to democratic rule, the executive had poor ideas about how to govern with checks and balances. The very idea that the legislature is to act as a check on the excesses of the president and his cabinet was anathema to a coterie of leaders who had always thought the head of government rules by fiat. Even the citizenry tended to take the part of the executive and see the members of parliament as a group of upstarts who presume to question the older, more experienced, and in their eyes more legitimate president.
It was the first time the country was been ruled by democratically elected leaders after 16 years of military interregnum and we had to build the parliamentary institutions from scratch. There were no precedents for most of the things we needed to do and we had to write our own guide book or rule of procedure, determine budgeting procedures and committee numbers and membership, provide offices and accommodations for members, many of whom were coming to the nation’s capital for the first time, set our roles apart from an executive branch used to combining both roles, and reestablish relations with other international parliamentary organisations at a period when we were just emerging from the wilderness as a pariah nation.
Perhaps no other leader but someone with the iron will and unique acumen of Ghali would have made such a success of the job within a brief period. He was able to rally together members from different parts of a country fragmented by primordial beliefs which had only worsened by 1999, and made them believe again in the possibility of One Nigeria. We all could see that he was as impartial as he was quick at seeing the strength and capabilities of every member, and he was more concerned with finding those who could help in advancing the legislative process and building a virile democracy than with any desire for personal aggrandisement.
He was bold and he made us bold, leading us to face down all kinds of prejudices against the parliament and take back leadership for Nigeria in many international institutions and partnerships for which we were signatories. We learnt quickly that so many opportunities had been lost to the country as a result of the long years of military rule, and that if we hoped to restore these we had to be both determined and audacious and put our best foot forward.
Soon we were taking up leadership positions in such crucial international parliamentary organisations, as the African Parliamentary Union (APU), Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), International Parliamentary Union (IPU), and the Africa, Caribbean, Pacific and European Union Parliamentary Assembly, ACP-EU, which we successfully hosted less than one year later in 2000, at Abuja. In the same year, we were at the forefront of the inauguration of the ECOWAS Parliament in Bamako, Mali, and the rest is history.
Ghali helped lay the foundation for a thriving National Assembly and his gallantry earned him the nickname of The Lion. He had a way of reaching decisions by a direct route and his serious, sometimes forbidden mien brooked no frivolities. Time and again he chose to bear the brunt of the antagonism against the National Assembly and the House of Representatives particularly, and to sacrifice his comfort for the benefit of that institution or any of its deserving members rather than sacrifice some other individual. He was big on loyalty but he reciprocated that with his trust, friendship and all that his big heart could give.
As a man he earned the respect of everyone who came across him, and there were always many who were willing to follow him blindfolded. He had a commanding presence and a deliberate attitude that some mistook for arrogance but he was just not one to give respect unless it was earned and he was not swayed by position, wealth or power. His lack of pretensions was to make him many enemies and to cost him his reelection when he tried to return to the House in 2003.
Out of office he remained committed to the progress and wellbeing of our nascent democracy and all those who were members of the National Assembly between 1999-2003, even those who had opposed his tactics, acknowledged his vision and commitment. At the height of the so-called Third Term imbroglio, he was at the heart of the struggle to stop any attempt at tenure extension for the president, and his influence went a long way.
Ghali was a national icon but he had left his position as Speaker without accumulating any money or property and when he first fell ill friends had rallied round to send him abroad for treatment. This time however, the close group of former presiding officers of the National Assembly was still rallying when he passed on.
At his burial, Kano people again proved that they don’t do things by halves. The mammoth crowd that gathered and sang his praises, the way people from every part of the country fell over themselves to attend and pay their last respects and the sheer weight of emotions that attended his death, was evidence that the contribution of Ghali to the growth of our democracy will never be forgotten.
There are talks of immortalizing his name and while the Kano State Government and the Federal Government may eventually choose to name a building or an institution after him, the fact is that the name of Ghali Umar Na’abba is already written in gold.
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