My encounter with Prof Ibrahim about thirty five years ago made a profound impact on my career and growth over years. I have read a lot of reactions on social media and other platforms to the appointment of Professor Ibrahim Gambari as the President’s Chief of Staff. I have also heard a lot of comments from friends. It is not my objective to counter or disparage what others have said about their personal experiences with Professor Gambari because I believe that God – and history – will have the final word.
I just want to share my own personal encounter with Professor Gambari 35 years ago. This was an unforgettable encounter that had a profound impact on my life and contributed in no small measure to whatever I have, by the grace of God, achieved today.
In 1985, I was admitted to study (BA Ed) at the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. With my distinction from the Federal College of Education, Katsina and just completing the mandatory National Youth Service I looked forward to going through the processes and becoming a student of the great institution. But when I went to commence the registration process, I ran into a hitch. The gentleman whose name I would not like to mention now because I learn he died sometimes ago was in charge of the process; an assistant registrar from the Senate Building came to the faculty to check the credentials of new students.
This man asked me what state I came from. I told him Ondo State. And then he asked me how many universities were located in Ondo at that time. Thinking it was an innocent question; I replied that there were two universities. Then he asked me why I was looking for admission in ABU if there were two universities in my home state.
Initially, I thought he was joking but he bluntly refused to continue with the process. For two weeks or so I kept going back to try in his office but he refused to budge. It was a very shocking and depressing experience for me. My dreams were literally crumbling around me.
It was in this situation that I met Professor Gambari. One day, I was standing in the foyer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, FASS as it was then known. I saw him walking past. I had never met him but I was sure he was the one because as a young man who was very interested in current affairs, I had seen him on television and in the newspapers. You cannot miss Prof Gambari with his signature immaculate white flowing babanriga and cap to match. He just completed his tour of duty as External Affairs Minister in the Buhari administration in 1984/85: the great years on radical foreign affairs policy for Nigeria. He noticed that I was looking at him. Suddenly, he asked me in a friendly tone: Young man! why are you staring at me. I replied, Honourable Minister, I know you. He replied, “As what and how?’ I replied that I was proud of his Regime’s Polisario Policy that made Nigeria to recognise Western Sahara before the then OAU Summit adding that his initiatives with regard to the Polisario Front negotiations were well thought out. He was pleasantly surprised by my response and he invited me to his office where we had a good chat. Then he told me, this is my office, any time you have any problem come to me. Subsequently, I went to see him several times. Prof Gambari has always been a great motivator and he will never stop to use any opportunity to coach that as young students, we can become anything we want to be in life, with dedication and hard work in pursuit of national objectives.
But after my efforts to get registered met a brick wall, I informed him that I was going back to Ondo State. He asked me why. When I explained the situation to him, he was shocked and told me to see him the next day. I complied and when he couldn’t reach the Assistant Registrar, he asked me to follow him and we proceeded to walk around from one faculty to the other in the large ABU, main campus looking for the assistant registrar. I estimate that Professor Gambari who was in his customary clean flowing Babanriga and I walked about ten kilometers searching for the uncooperative gentleman that day. Given the hot weather in Zaria, it wasn’t a pleasant walk. Every lecturer who met us was surprised with Prof Gambari trekking from one faculty to the other.
Eventually, we found the assistant registrar in Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. After asking him why he refused to register me and not getting a satisfactory explanation, Professor Gambari requested him to do the right thing. And the assistant registrar did so right there, signing off on the document on the bonnet of a car. That was how my dream of attending ABU was revived – through an act of uncommon kindness by a man I barely know.
When I went to thank him later, he waved off my appreciation and advised me to instead go and thank the unfriendly gentleman who had refused to register me because I was still going to go through the registration ritual the following year. Few months later, Prof Gambari left ABU for the United Nations and we lost contacts. More so, there were no cellphones in those days. Throughout my three years in Zaria, the wise counsel of Prof Gambari was always ringing in my head: you can become anything you want to be in life with dedication and hard work in pursuit of national objectives.
As fate would have, in January 1995, I was part of a delegation to the United Nations in New York. I think it was for the World Summit for Social Development, WSSD preparatory meeting. My colleague and myself were standing in front of the UN Headquarters when a car was approaching. The main attraction for me was that the car was flying the Nigeria flag: The Green White Green. As I was telling my colleague to see our flag, the car stopped and behold Prof Gambari stepped out of the car in his immaculate white again. He remembered our encounter in Zaria and reminded me that ABU has given me the best education, what I make of the training was now left for me. I thanked him and he granted my request to take photograph with him before he left for his Security Council meeting that morning.
Like I said, others are entitled to their opinions but this was my experience. Professor Gambari intervened at a critical point of my life and gave a critical lift to a young person he barely knew for absolutely selfless reasons. Later in life, I discovered I was not alone. Hundreds of us in Zaria benefited from his kindness and patriotic support for Nigerians he never bothered to ask where they came from.
Ogidan is a development planner and business development strategist who works across different countries in Africa.