By Prof. Abdalla Uba Adamu
I was never lucky enough to come under Yusuf Bala Usman’s tutelage while I was a student at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria, from 1976 to 1979. Being a student in the Faculty of Education, I missed out on having to take lectures in the famous FASS – Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, undoubtedly, the hotbed of critical theories in the 1970s.
Yusufu Bala Usman, Ibrahim Tahir, Patrick Wilmot, and Mahmoud Tukur enlivened the university with their rhetoric about culture, history, polity and anthropology. My roommate was a History student, so I gleaned a lot from him about the critical theories flying about on the campus. Those years were indeed the intellectual years of ABU. Every subsequent northern radical traces his roots to that era and its critical reflection on Nigerian society.
As M.M. Gwadabe noted in his obituary to Yusufu Bala Usman, published in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 2010, 80(1): 165-168.
The contributions of Bala Usman lie not only in the number of papers he has written or the publications he has left for posterity. He spearheaded the establishment of a school of thinking quite distinct from the perception of history that used to be prevalent in Nigeria before the 1970s. Before him, history was generally understood and taught within the paradigm of colonial historiography. The efforts of Bala Usman and some of his colleagues in the department liberated history teaching as they masterminded the establishment and nurturing of the School of African historiography at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (ABU).
And in spite of his towering intellectualism, he remained humbled by the very scholarship he served. As Gwadabe further informs us:
“In 1985, the authorities of Ahmadu Bello University, considering Dr Usman’s contribution to knowledge, promoted him to the rank of a Professor. Humble as he was, Dr Usman turned down the promotion on the ground that ‘he was not convinced that he had done enough to be a Professor’. While he was without [a] doubt qualified for the promotion, his action was an attempt to show his displeasure with the way promotions to the rank of professorship were politicized and abused. So, Dr Usman died with the rank of a Reader.”
Now compare this towering inferno of intellectualism with our intellectuals today – who, based on some newspaper and junk journal publications, proudly present themselves as professors – when no one has ever read their works or become impacted by their expected contribution to knowledge.
Yusufu Bala Usman passed away at 60 years old in 2005, relatively still in his prime. His thoughts and ideas, however, live on through the Yusufu Bala Usman Institute in Zaria. To refresh our memories about his fiery and critical writing, the Institute, on 23rd September 2023, released a compendium of his lectures that captured the years of engagement as a leading Nigerian historian, political activist and public intellectual, mainly from 1972 to his death, in 2005. The book, The Historian and Society: Selected Historical Writings of Yusufu Bala Usman, was edited by George Ama Kwanashie and Normal Perchonock. It provides a handy introduction to the thoughts of Yusufu Bala Usman for those who only heard about him. Going through the 12 chapters of the book would convince you that with his death, northern Nigeria has lost a formidable voice in contemporary critical theory.
The book is now available as a physical copy. There is a website for the Institute where you can order the book at 3,500 NGN.