The trouble Emir of Kano, myself and others caused at ABU —Bello
Hassan Bello is one of Nigeria’s brilliant lawyers and current Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC). He shares the story of his life, especially the exciting childhood he shared with the current Emir of Kano, Alhaji Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and others, with SEGUN KASALI.
HOW was your growing up sir?
I grew up in Birnin Kebbi. Somebody said he was born with no spoon at all. But mine was not a silver spoon. We were born with a spoon of knowledge and respect within the community and the community checks itself. We were brought up in the strictest sense of learning fairness and justice. My father was a judge (Mallam Bello). And growing up right from the beginning in the Fulani house, the cultural ethics of the Fulani is putting others before you, endurance and tolerance. That is what we learned right from the beginning. You couldn’t distinguish yourself because it was a large house. My mother was extremely philanthropic, a social worker of a kind. Her house was turned into a hospital. I know that some miles away from our house, there was a hospital called infectious disease hospital (IDH). There were abandoned people there actually and she had a way of bringing them to our house. I couldn’t understand, but they had a talk with all my brothers who said she was going to infect us, you know, with disease, but she would not relent. So, it’s like everybody was, ‘oh somebody had problem,’ ‘somebody is sick and so on’, ‘ go to Mama’s house’.
So, that is how she brought up so many orphans. Of course, when we were growing up, we were always saying why would we be treated the same with other people. But she would always say, humility is the key. I lost my father when I was five years old. So, she brought me and my elder brothers up. But there is something she always says, ‘tolerate others’. That stayed with me when I was going to school, because at that time, I was very close to going to school in Ilorin and it was a difficult thing moving from Birnin Kebbi to Ilorin.
Can you still remember how well you did in primary school?
I was a normal person in primary school. Even at an early age, I was thinking analytically, but I wasn’t writing to get first position. I never did (laughs). I was in Central Primary School, Birnin Kebbi. It was a walking distance to our house. In fact, next door to the house. We had excellent teachers, who spoke perfect English and taught Arithmetic well. And you know, and I think there was some feeding programme at one time to induce people to go to class. Discipline was number one, then cleanliness, tidiness, hygiene and all that kind of things. We were also given religious instruction. So you have the two worlds; you go to primary school, you learn the Roman script and also Arabic and once you learn the basic knowledge of the Quran, you also go into philosophy, into mathematics. You know, many people don’t know that Islam has given this world so much in terms of algebra, physics and chemistry. I remember my father and some Mallams used to argue about mathematical formula. It was actually two worlds and even right from the early stage, you’ll be able to distinguish, here is a religious guidance because Islam is not just a religion but a whole way of life and Islam is not a new religion. It has been there for a long time, from Abraham to Isaac to Jesus to all the other prophets.
And you and your siblings didn’t revolt when your mother was bringing infected people home?
No, no, no, no disagreement except that it became a norm. So, if anybody from the hospital is discharged and you don’t have money to go home, they will refer you to the second hospital, our home.
Was she part of the hospital personnel?
No, no, no, she wasn’t working there. She was just a housewife. But that is how it is with us. The treatment she gave them was nutrition. Our house became the place to recover. I saw people who were brought in like skeleton. But, of course, she even developed a place where my father used to keep horses. She made it into rooms so that some people would come there. She would feed them and when they became better, they go to their various homes.
But you and other children must be a bit aggrieved getting same treatment as others from her.
Yes! When we were kids, we had a little reservation about that because we were treated equally. You sit with all the other children, orphans and eat with them. You are not special. What my mum always told me was that, ‘you I am your mother, but these ones have nobody to teach them the way of life’. And she would add, ‘but they can be better than you if it is what God has made. So, never think that you are superior to anybody’. And then, she went on to teach us to be tolerant and that tolerance was what we were seeing then. Thirdly, she usually said, there’s nothing that is permanent that you could be up there and suddenly come down and then people you look down on, could be the ones who will change places with you. That has stuck with me.
You possibly could not have known much about your father, considering the memory a five-year-old would have.
I remember him as a disciplinarian and he kept to himself because of his training as a judge. However, he was also an intellectual even at the time and well versed in Islamic jurisprudence, which actually is their family thing. They have been judges in that family since 1844. I know that he used to come from the court and all that, but there’s something about him which is regal. He was also what you called a blue-blood Fulani. And when people say Hausa/Fulani, I really begin to wonder where they got that from because like my father, he didn’t have that kind of thing because he believed that there should be some puritanical ethics. Nobody could just come to his house because this is the ethics of judges and he kept to that up till the time he passed on.
There must be an experience from primary school you still cherish.
Yes, we had a headmistress, who is still alive. So, I don’t want to mention her name. There was excessive punishment and I stood up for the class. I had a twin brother, who is deceased now. He died about seven years back. He was the stubborn one, very courageous in fighting injustice. So when that incident with the headmistress happened, many people said it must be his twin brother. But when they came and saw that it was me, everybody was surprised.
There was so much education, but being delivered with too much of cane, therefore, I resisted it. I formed a kind of group which wrote graffiti in the school (laughs). That was in primary five. The group was saying we are against excessive caning. The way we did it was even funny. I think it was three of us with my nephew. So, for them not to detect our handwriting, I came with the idea that when I write A, it is in my name; the other guy would write Y (laughs) and then the other guy would write L. And then, I would use my own. That got everybody confused and nobody could find out who wrote it, but we were suspected.
Did you achieve your aim?
Yes, we did, because the education authorities at that time looked into it and the caning was stopped.
Why Ilorin from Birnin Kebbi?
I went to Federal Government College, Ilorin. After the common entrance, the top three: Buhari, Bala and Hadiza Usman, who is late, were picked, and after that, the second batch about three ladies came from Birnin Kebbi and so it is.
Of course, you experience some form of culture shock, like when I saw women at a construction site. It was a culture shock to me because I only knew women were going to school and doing their domestic chores in Birnin Kebbi and maybe going to the market and so on. But to see woman actually involve in construction was a shock to me. But, we had a very good school and an exemplary pioneer principal, Mr. Olaniyan. Yeah! I think the government should recognise him, because he was an extremely fair person. When we were there during the fasting period, he made sure we were given sahur, the early morning meal. I remember a day when the cooks were late, I think he fired the head of the cook for not giving us the early morning meal, though he’s a Christian. He is still alive. He was ready to help. At that time, many people were poor and he would say we are giving some scholarships, maybe eight pounds or something. So, he was like a father you don’t have. He stopped bullying. Certain top people were expelled because they bullied younger people and they were brilliant people. There was a Moses who beat up a student and was suspended. Our first head boy was Okeleke Nzeogwu, the younger brother of the guy (Kaduna Nzeogwu) who was involved in the 1966 coup. Then, nobody worried about where you came from. We were together with Donald Duke, Buhari Bala, who was a Minister during Abacha’s government. We had many big guys. We started the school. We were pioneers.
Your Ilorin days must be memorable then.
(Laughs) That was the time of pop. Pop means popular music. We had the patron of the dancing club as a teacher and she believed that you could use dance to express a lot of things. We acted so many plays to the amazement of the Ilorin community. The gods are not to blame [by Ola Rotimi] was very popular then and we acted it. Ilorin had Grammar school and Ilorin Government College which were tough opponents for us in debating and football and anytime Federal Government College was meeting Ilorin Government College, for example, was like a war.
I think the community saw us as elitist because we dressed so well. Most of us wore glasses and this attracted a kind of envy (laughs) and we made sure we turned that into a challenge. So, we beat Ilorin Grammar School one of the few times and it was unthinkable. Fine Art was also something that was done. You find out that every subject is important in this life. To read Yoruba, you have to be outstandingly brilliant because, for me, Yoruba is the manifestation of the African culture- the mysticism, the legends, some ethical things and even the human sacrifices.
Being social would also mean getting into boyfriend/girlfriend stuff.
Yes, I was highly social, but we were too young to have those kinds of things. Up till the time we finished secondary school, we were not mature. We were collegiate of friends and you know that when you are young, you don’t even keep that loyalty. There was an organised party. If you are not invited, then you are dead. So, we would do everything to get that invitation because your social standing is measured by that invitation.
So, you never missed any?
No. I remember Vincent. Vincent was my friend. My brother was working at a pharmaceutical company. So, I told him this party was coming and he bought me a nice [pair of] shoes. I requested for it, because your dressing is also important for the party. But this Vincent stole my [pair of] shoes a few hours to the party (laughs). Yeah, he stole them, put them on and went to the party (laughs). I looked for it and it was a disaster. So, I managed to get a pair from my own. When I got to the party, Vincent was the person I saw dancing with those shoes. He is still alive (laughs).
What did you do to him?
There is nothing you can do until you come back. I can’t remember what happened when he came back, but I think we had a showdown. So, all kind of things happened in the hostel.
Let me also tell you a story. I had a senior, who was supposed to be a kind of school father and when I had my provision, they were always stolen. My school father was always angry with me because he had a key to the locker and I had the other. One day, I came suddenly from class in the evening and I saw him removing the provision. He went away but he did not see me and I quickly ran back. So, I realised that he was actually the thief stealing my provision. I thought of asking him, to hear what he would say and, as usual, he said, you are very careless. And you know, there is nothing you can do. Even if it were to be your classmate, it is natural not to expose that kind of thing.
You studied Law at ABU…
Immediately I left secondary school, I went for my preliminary school at School of Basic Studies, ABU. ABU was another experience altogether. Here, you have no supervision. The Emir of Kano, Sanusi, was my classmate also. We were really young. He came from King’s College. Most of the guys from Federal Government College came to the School of Basic Studies for one year preliminary studies. You could have lectures from morning to evening. You are not supervised. You are either in Arts or Science. I studied English, Literature, History and Political Science. We were opened up to history, not the history of King Jaja. It was about what was the agricultural system at that time, what was the land use, what was the means of production at that time. So, it’s history of using your eyes to see whether the society is progressing or not.
How then did you end up studying Law?
I hated Law. I really hated Law. What we did at that time, me, Sanusi and some others, who were known as the back benchers, caused a lot of trouble. Because of this, the principal had to invite us. We had a provost at ABU, who told us that myself and my colleagues would never be admitted to study Medicine, Law or Business Administration, because of our trouble. But, we dared him and we got the best results you can think of. So, I was admitted to study Law even though I didn’t like Law. I wanted to study History. I really made attempt to try to change, but I think ABU was very strict on that. Sanusi went to study Business but we were in the same campus.
What did you and the Emir do?
(Laughs) We were just rowdy and rebellious. We disagree with the teachers and we also engaged them in a debate. At that time, we were open to liberalism. ABU was full of social clubs. There was Kegites. There was Movement for Progressive Nigeria, which was a Marxist club, Islamic movement and all sorts. So, all these gave you the world outlook. We were in the Movement for Progressive Nigeria, where we met a lot of selfless people. I remember Bala Usman, who was a very radical teacher at that time. There was Shuaib Mustapha, who died about two years back and many others. And you got to look at your world and you would see something was expanding your horizon, which would change your tool of analysis. So, we had debate with the teachers about history. They said kings don’t make history but the people. Kings could be the representative of the people but we challenged them and we always had very healthy debate.
What was your grouse about studying Law?
I see Law as very conservative. That was why I hated Law. For a long time, I didn’t relocate to the campus, where Law was taught. I was still on main campus doing a lot of things.
Things like what?
Being involved in Students’ Movement. We travelled all over. I was in Ife with my friend, Femi Falana, some lecturers like BJ [Professor Biodun Jeyifos], Idowu and so many others.
Was your studying Law not suffering for you then?
You don’t have to read Law because Law is common sense. You could read Law and pass because you have a particular outlook. You read things. (laughs). Even when exams happened, the lecturer would hold my scripts and said who is this guy? You know I must have raised fundamental issues. I remember one Sri Lankan woman, who was teaching us Law of Tort, kept saying she had to see the owner of the script and she said everybody should go and read the script, because ‘this is what Law is all about’. Law is examination. Don’t be conservative about things, but our students are so studious. I remember in Family Law, I raised the issue of when to marry. It was a debate. From the Christian perspective, to the tradition. I think it was about at what age are you supposed to get married? In the North, it is earlier because people get married at ages 12, 13 and so on. I told them that in the North, there is what I termed embryonic marriage. I said it is among the Fulani; if one is pregnant, then you say that I am giving out this girl. That engagement will be honoured. So, Law is not the conservative way our students behave nowadays. We challenged things, but we are so dogmatic these days. Some even wear ties. Law is society, you cannot be elitist. So we would not go to class, but we would pass very well.
Why did you get involved in unionism?
We thought we could change the social order. We did a lot of things and that was why I did not relocate to the campus where Law faculty was. For example, I was very stupid about the issue in Zimbabwe.
We captured the consulate in Kaduna. We led and we occupied that consulate. There was also the Lancaster House issue aside the racist, white supremacy in Zimbabwe and that was taken all over the world. We led that (laughs). We went early in the morning. We waited for them to open and we occupied the whole place. We travelled from Zaria to Kaduna. Other students came and we demonstrated and took over the embassy. This was important news in all major newspapers in the world. Of course, we were always hounded by the police and many of my mates, like Issa Aremu, who is the current President of Nigerian Textile Workers Union, were expelled. He was the Secretary General of the Movement for Progressive Nigeria. I told you there were two campuses and so, they never thought a Law student could be involved in such. They thought I would be on the main campus or maybe Faculty of Social Science or Political Science. So, that was what saved me from the police.
Since you escaped expulsion, unionism must have cost you something.
There were times we had our meetings on the train. We would board a train from Zaria to Kano and had the meeting as the central committee of our organisation, because we were hounded by the police. But at that time, it didn’t matter to us, honestly! laughs). In fact, when you are expelled, it was a kind of honour then. That is what is guiding us. While we were occupying the consulate, there was an altercation between us and the police commissioner, and he vowed that I must be captured. Unfortunately, for him, we went to bring food. So, we had to go to some place to get the food and somebody informed us that the police had stormed the place (laughs). The commissioner of police was looking for me. So, that was a near miss. We also had magazine and the police almost caught us. They had laid a siege waiting for us. I think something happened and I wasn’t caught. But it was a good life.
Most unionists are believed to be cultists…
No. They are not cultists. There were fraternities. The secret was opened. They were registered.
Was it at the university you met your wife?
My wife? Yes, but she was not there. But she knew I was involved in unionism (laughs). She knew that I was in school, but she was in a different university in Sokoto. She has always been around in Sokoto. You know I am from Kebbi. We have always known ourselves. Since she was very young, her family and I were close.
Is there a certain act she really wants you to stop?
(Laughs) Even now, she likes me to be serious (laughs). This is because I am never serious.
How do you mean?
Not taking things like a do-or-die affair. But she understands and is very supportive.
But the Law you hated then is doing good for you now…
Yes. Immediately I finished Law School, we did a lot of things. If we finished from Law school at 4 p.m, we would go to Yaba, which is NLC Secretariat, to teach workers, because we had lessons for workers. We participated in a lot of things. On every May Day, I had to talk to workers. Even now, we have a place where we discuss workers’ issues. So, Law school was also another elitist thing. They think they are going to die if they don’t pass the Law School. They wear suits and they think they are above the society.
Where was your first work experience?
Ministry of Justice in Sokoto State. And that time, I was a prosecutor, a very good one for that matter.
What were some of the memorable moments as a lawyer?
I was giving a legal advice when the Director of Public Prosecution, one Omokri, came to the office and said, who is Bello? That was the last time I went back because he put my desk in his office. So, I was giving him advice. There was a particular case we handled. He said he had never seen anything like that. It was about one person who was in GNPP (Great Nigerian People’s Party) who was removed as the district head. I was the one his file came to meet and we descended on the NPN government, insisting he should be restored. There was no quarrel, no query at all. And when they took it to the attorney-general at that time, he said I should come and defend it. And I told them, you can’t allow government to be doing things anyhow and the man was restored. Then, I was prosecuting somebody who also beat his wife to death and he had a strong defence. His lawyer said he pleaded insanity. But I asked him just one question. I said when you beat your wife, what did you do? He said he ran away. I just sat down. I didn’t say anything. I said I am okay My Lord because running away is knowing the consequences of your action. There and then, he was convicted. I don’t think he was sentenced to death. I also had a brother, Bukhari Bello, also a prosecutor. The Ministry Of Justice was sleeping, but we really brought it up. I also had the idea to teach the police about human rights at that time. I also lectured part-time at the university.
Any near-death experience?
Maybe near-plane crashes laughs). From London to Argentina, I had a terrible experience. Everybody thought that was it. So, I remember that.