For two days early December last year, Government College, Bida, where I had my secondary school education between 1965 and 1969, celebrated its centenary. As you can imagine it was a great homecoming for many of the students of the school which, by sheer longevity alone, has produced some of the most pre-eminent citizens of this country.
The celebration was prefaced by the sad and sudden demise of one of the school's most eminent old boys, Ambassador James Tsado Kolo, Waziri Doko. JT, as his friends called him, was among the pioneer senior staff of North-West State, today's Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto and Zamfara states. A humble, diligent and upright gentleman, he rose to the rank of permanent secretary in the old state and eventually served as the secretary of the Niger State government before he ended his civil service career as an ambassador.
Ambassador Kolo was billed to deliver the keynote lecture about the journey to date of his alma mater on the night of December 7, the first day of the celebration, and had indeed prepared his paper. He died at 74, apparently from heart failure, a little over two weeks before the lecture and a day after the very day the centenary organizing committee put out the first newspaper advert announcing the programme of the event.
In the end it fell on his old teacher as a secondary school student, Professor Jonathan O. Ndagi, himself one of the most eminent educationists in the country and pioneer Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Minna, to deliver the lecture. The occasion was chaired by former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Alfa Modibbo Belgore, who though not an old boy, had sentimental ties to Bida as the closest childhood friend of Alhaji Umaru Sanda, the late Etsu Nupe, whose late father, Alhaji Muhammadu Ndayako, was one of the emirs in the North to plant the seed of Western education in the otherwise conservative and hostile region.
As you'll, expect Ambassador Kolo's history of his alma mater was full of reminiscences about the good, but at times not-so-good, old days of diligent and stern teachers, simple but delicious meals, notably nyanboci, the Nupe staple food of tuwon shinkafa served with bean soup or gbegiri soup as the Yoruba with their affinity with the Nupes, would call it, and of the senior boys all too often lording it over their juniors, etc.
The one thing Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the pioneer premier of Western Nigeria, was justly famous for was his policy of free education in his region. In a sense his Northern compatriot, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was one better than the chief; JT Kolo and his fellow pupils not only enjoyed free education, they were actually paid to learn. For, in addition to free tuition, primary and secondary school pupils in the North right up to the seventies enjoyed free meals and free uniforms, and received allowances which were princely sums in those days. Such was the great store the great Sardauna put on education and such was the strength of the momentum of his legacy.
As the college celebrated its centenary its good old days seemed light years away. Although academically it was not in the premier league, to use a football metaphor, it produced a few odd brilliant students that went on to set academic records in other schools. One such student was Malam Yunusa Paiko whom Professor Ndagi singled out from the audience for mention in the course of reading Ambassador Kolo's lecture. To date Malam Yunusa's record of six distinctions in West African School Certificate examination in 1959 remains unbroken. He went on, according to Professor Ndagi, to set a similar record in King's College, as a Higher School Certificate student where he made three straight A's.
Modest as the school's academic record is, it has produced more than its fair share of the country's most pre-eminent citizens. It holds the record as the only secondary school to have produced two military leaders of this country -Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar - both of them Class of '62. The same class has also produced the single highest number of senior military officers in the country. These officers, with the exception of Colonel Sani Bello who was retired as military governor of Kano State, left the military as major-generals. These were Muhammadu Magoro, now a senator, Muhammed Gado Nasko, a former minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Sani Sami, the current Emir of Zuru in Kebbi State and the late Mamman Vatsa, he too one time FCT minister. Another exceptional classmate of theirs was Garba Duba who retired as a three star Lieutenant-General.
The trail blazer for them all, however, was Lieutenant-General Muhammadu Wushishi who was their senior by two years. Along with the late Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, the military governor of the old Kwara State who was killed in the coup attempt against General Murtala Muhammed in 1976, and late Col Garba Dada Paiko, they were the first to be enlisted into the army by their old teacher, Alhaji Tako Galadima, as Nigeria's first minister of state for the army.
The military, however, was not the only sector in which the early products of the school proved their mettle. In the judiciary, broadcast, banking, bureaucracy, academia, and among traditional rulers many of its students have come to occupy prominent positions. In the judiciary, for example, a recent former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi was a student (Class of '54) and its head boy. Then there was Justice Abdullahi Mustapha, one time president of the Federal High Court. Again there is the current Chief Judge of Niger State, Justice Jibrin Ndajiwo, and before him a few other chief judges. This is not to mention many serving judges at various levels of that arm of government.
Among traditional rulers the school has produced the late Lamido of Adamawa, Sarkin Sudan of Kontagora, Alhaji Sa'idu Na Maska, the longest serving emir of Lapai, Alhaji Muhammadu Kobo, who was both student and teacher in the school, the current emir, Alhaji Umaru Bago II, the late Ohinoyi of Ebiraland, Alhaji Muhammed Sani Omolori, the current Sarkin Zazzau of Suleja, Alhaji Awwal Ibrahim and Sarkin Sudan of Wurno, Alhaji Shehu Malami.
Several of these old boys, along with some of their teachers, notably Professor Ndagi, Sheikh Ahmed Lemu - now famous for his hard hitting speech during the submission of the report of his presidential committee that investigated the 2011 post-election violence - the late Professor Albert Ozigi, also a prominent educationist, and the ageless Malam Iliyasu Bida who is most likely in his eighties but is always looking 60, came up for award on the second day, December 8, of the centenary.
Of the seven categories of awards on that day, the most interesting and telling for me was the Special Award that went to two of the school's pioneering students - both of them females. Telling because, first, mixed schools were rare, if not unheard of, in these parts at that time. This apparently explains why the old boys of the school who initiated the establishment of their association in October 1975 chose to name it Bida Old Students Association (BOSA). Second, I thought the award was interesting and telling because the elderly Hajiya Jibabatu Mohammed, who, of the two recipients of the award, was present in person to receive her award, spoke such perfect English in accepting her award you would be pardoned if you thought she attended some of the best schools in England; you would never imagine that all she got was Middle School education between 1945 and 1948, when the school's status as mixed came to an end.
Certainly it would make you wonder whatever happened to Western education in the country, especially in the North which had been a laggard in that field.
However, even by the school's rather modest academic performance, the last result of its WAEC was exceptionally dismal; out of 200 of its students who sat for the exams in June, less than half a dozen had four credits and above.
All stakeholders in the school - students, teachers, parents, old boys and the state government - must share in the blame for the terrible decline of the college. But the least blameworthy are the old boys, for the simple reason that under the chairmanship of Col Sani Bello, BOSA has done virtually all that any group can do to restore the past glory of the college. Along with his team, he has used a judicious combination of carrots and sticks to get many of the high-net-worth old boys to rehabilitate the schools buildings, infrastructure and equipment.
So successful was he as chairman in the last five years that the school today stands out among its contemporaries like Barewa College, Zaria, Rumfa College, Kano and Government College, Keffi, as probably the best in these three areas.
If the old boys are the least to blame, the worst culprit must be the state government. Like most states in the country, especially in the North, education seems to be Niger State's least priority, whatever the state authorities, going all the way to its self-styled chief servant, Dr Muazu Babangida Aliyu, may claim to the contrary.
And unless the state authorities begin to give primary and secondary schools their due and unless there is transparency and efficiency in the handling of what goes into the sector, things can only get worse than the dismal record of the school in recent times no matter what anyone else does or says.