Even though he had just recently had a major operation, when news came that Alhaji Aminu Saleh, Wamban Katagum and former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, had died, it was as devastating as it was unexpected.
He had just gone back to Azare from Abuja after undergoing a successful operation in a private clinic; and for the two weeks he stayed in Abuja after the operation, he was as lively as could be in the circumstances. And on each of the many occasions I was with him, he always had to apologise for what he saw as his talking too much and for dominating the conversation.
Always a good conversationalist and one who talked from an experience of the world that was extensive, we never minded if he allowed us no chance to open our mouths. Only that it was indeed hard to believe that a person so full of life only a few days earlier had really died on the morning of that Tuesday at the Federal Medical Centre in Azare at the age of 82.
When I visited him after the operation, he was not just recuperating he was in fact at his hilarious best-cracking jokes and dwelling at length on the enormity of the problem confronting newly-elected President Muhammadu Buhari. He went down memory lane-to their days in the First Republic, the times with soldiers and with Shagari. If he was in any pain, he didn’t show it. It was with some relish that he recounted the details of the operation performed on him.
He said the doctor showed him the areas of the problem: one looked like a hill and the other like a tympanic membrane both of which shouldn’t be where they were; and both were obliterated with laser beams. And after giving graphic details of the operation, which he said he watched on a television screen making manifest the hidden world of the inside and displaying other happenings in our organic subatomic world; he fell silent and sat motionless for what appeared to be a long time, his face expressionless, and his eyes wearing a far-away look. He finally looked in my directions and gave all the glory to God for the complicatedness of the internal system.
Three days after that visit to him, his youngest son Mohammed Bello, who was completing his master’s degree at an Egyptian university, died in a car accident in Cairo; and when we went to condole with him, he was visibly pained but in high spirits. He had always been good at bearing personal tragedies with much equanimity. When Ibrahim, his second eldest male child, died in 2006, he bore the blow well.
As far as I have known him, he had always been a religious person; and, especially after his retirement from service, he had devoted all of his time to religion and community service. An energetic and tireless Tijjaniyyah muqaddam, he had been an active and hardworking student, prompt at attending his lectures and always consulting the classical sources in his spare time. Whenever you met him at home, there was always a pending scholarly issue to discuss.
In life, he was someone who minded his own business and never interfered with yours. He was always magisterial in bearing and aristocratic in delivery, and, even though he could on occasions appear to be moody, which accounted for the aloofness that from a distance had often been misunderstood as amour proper, he was at heart a very simple and pleasant personality who expected everyone, especially the younger generation, to know their limits.
Born in 1933 in Azare, capital of Katagum Local Government in Bauchi State, he attended Azare Elementary School from 1941 to 1944, and from there he proceeded to Bauchi Middle School between 1944 and 1949. On graduating, joined the services of Katagum Native Authority that same year; and the following year, he gained admission into the Clerical Training College in Zaria. After graduating as a clerk in 1951, he proceeded to the Institute of Administration of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where he obtained a diploma in accounting in 1957. He was promoted Katagum Native Authority Treasurer, a post he held for the next five years, on account of which he became famous in Azare as Maaji Aminu.
Those were the days of excellence in administration, and Maaji Aminu and his group, under the competent leadership of the redoubtable Alhaji Sule Katagum, turned Katagum NA into the best administered native entity in the entire North; and Azare, its capital, became a model for efficient financial management and the Mecca and source of attraction for the hands-on training of native administrators.
In 1962, Maaji Aminu transferred his services to the Federal Government in Lagos; and, for him, the then Federal capital became both a posting and a school. With the encouragement of his bosses, he enrolled on an extramural evening degree course at the University of Lagos from 1963 to 1967, and attended a post graduate course in management at the University of Wisconsin in the United States.
He combined the thoroughness of Northern Native Administration, his tutelage under an array of accomplished civil servants and his readiness to be a lifelong student of administration and economic management.
On my last visit to him, he gave me five of about 20 pamphlets he had written on a wide variety of subjects. Two were on issues of public service, two others were papers he had written and presented at various forums, and the last was a transliteration of Bakandamiya an end-of-time tract with great religious significance. All this stood him in good stead as he made his way through the rungs of Federal service.
His public service spanned the entirety of the First, the Second and the abortive Third Republics and all the military interregnums between them. He served under some of the best names in Nigeria’s public service-in the office and at the hands of Professor Pius Okigbo, the Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister during the First Republic and Nigeria’s foremost public economist; under the guiding hands of Dr Bukar Shuaib, then permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, all under the watchful eye of Alhaji Abdulaziz Attah, the Secretary to Federal Government and Head of the Civil Service and one of the nation’s all-time greats and renowned public administrators.
He had held appointment as deputy permanent secretary in the ministries of finance, communication and agriculture; and was permanent secretary in the ministries of defence, communication and trade.
[a] In the words of Candido, that highly regarded, now rested high-brow gossip column of the New Nigerian of old, sitting behind his mask yet seeing everything, Alhaji Aminu Saleh, Wamban Katagum, was Sarkin Yakin Nigeria. And so it seemed. In 1984, Alhaji Aminu Saleh was permanent secretary in the ministry of defence; and, because, following his second-term cabinet reshuffle, President Shehu Shagari had decided not to appoint a defence minister, Alhaji Aminu ended up wearing the two caps of being the accounting officer of the ministry as its permanent secretary; and acting, at least unofficially, as its political head. In essence, while he was permanent secretary of defence, he was, by default, also the defence minister of Nigeria at the same time that he was Sarkin Yakin Katagum.
He enjoyed the power and appeared ready for war at that time; and when I drew his attention to what Candido said, he gave his approving voluble chuckle. It was a dignifying sobriquet that fitted him so well. He relished the fact of power-and enjoyed the semblance of power play; because he had seen power at close quarters and was a witness to what it could do and undo. Even though at times, in the national interest, he might have, as he once told me, overstepped bounds, as a true civil servant who knew that his role was only as an adviser on policymaking, he only allowed himself to be seen and not heard, as he faithfully subordinated himself to the political executive.
Following his retirement from the civil service, he was minister in the ministries of industries and finance. He capped his career with his appointment as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Head of the Federal Civil Service. And so ended an illustrious career that has spanned virtually all of our post-independence period. But retirement he seemed to have only been brought on more engagements.
In 2006 he became the chairman of the National Quranic Recitation Committee. At the state level, he served as chairman of Bauchi State Elders Advisory Committee, chairman of Bauchi State Constitution Review Committee. He was the chairman of the Committee on the Creation of Katagum State and chairman of the Committee on Kafin Zaki Dam; and was also awarded Grand Commander of Nigerian Students by NANS and honoured with the Prestigious Merit Award by National Union of Bauchi State Students, NUBASS.
A member of the National Honours and Merit Award Committee, he was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Laws, LLD, by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University Bauchi, ATBU. A recipient of several other honours, Maaji Aminu held the second highest national honour of the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON.
With a life well-accomplished, at his death, he is survived by a wife, many children and grandchildren. Heartfelt condolences to the head of the clan, Justice Mohammed Dahiru Saleh, head of the family, Engr. Kabiru Aminu, Alhaji Tijjani Saleh and His Excellency Sagir Saleh on this great loss. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
Daily Trust Friday column
Written by Adamu Adamu [email protected]