Ambassador Imam: The Demise of A Diplomat of Simplicity, By Abubakar Imam
AREWA AGENDA – On Thursday, September 1,2022, Ilorin Emirate, the renowned sanctuary of saints, scholars and soldiers, lost one of its uniquely unsung heroes, Ambassador Abdulkadir Muhammad Sambo Imam, to the cold hands of death. The deceased diplomat, who was simply known in his early days and among his contemporaries as Mallam Abdulkadir Okekere, was the immediate younger full sibling of the centenarian Alhaja Rihanat Ajetunmobi, the mother of Ilorin Emirate’s first Professor of Islamic studies, Musa Ali Ajetunmobi.
One phenomenon that is common and which would surely happen to anyone born of a woman is death. It is a universal leveller that no one would be exempted or excused from.
While many died young, so many others live to old age before kicking the bucket. The latest in the list of Ilorin ancestors, Ambassador Imam, transited to the great beyond at an obviously advanced age. His departure was, however, one death too many for the people of Ilorin. This is so considering the continuous depletion of the league of outstanding senior compatriots of his calibre from among the aged population of our beloved community, particularly in recent time.
Despite transiting to the great beyond at the ripe age of 90 and with so many accomplishments, his death, nevertheless, threw many informed compatriots into deep mourning. No one should be surprised with such a development. It is often the way of those who earned greatness through industry and personal strives.
But to say the fact, many members of my generation and those who are much younger do not really know him despite his greatness. He was mostly known to his contemporaries and those closely behind them. Only very few of us who are younger know him. Crossing his path might have been occasional and accidental for us as he was in foreign service for the greatest part of his illustrious career.
Compatriots who didn’t know him are not to be blamed at all! He was an extremely unassuming gentleman. He was effacing. He was a typical Ilorin man who preferred a quiet life! He was a replica of our progenitors who left everything to and for Allah. The Ilorin of his generation is peopled by those who are convinced that “saying a little about oneself is too much”. This must have informed the failure of this author to meet the late patriot while he was alive with a view to cross-checking some information gathered about him. In spite the efforts of my sister, Dr. Aishat Imam-Omolosho, towards that, I was outstandingly unsuccessful in the mission of knowing the essential A. M. S. Imam through no other person but himself.
How I wish I would be joined by my contemporaries in the enterprise of ensuring that the lives and times of our unsung heroes are not surviving ones that it is not a sin to be known beyond one’s immediate enclave, if not for anything but for the love of our people. Let us do that so that they would let us into what and how they did it so well that they retired from their various careers and navigated the oceans of life without blemish! It is important for their labour not to be in vain!
I first saw Ambassador Imam in 1988 when he and his family hosted a lecture of the Ansarul Islam Society of Nigeria as part of the wedding ceremonies of one of his children. The event took place at his ancestral home, Ile Okubiyi, Okekere Quarters, Ilorin. The ceremony was well attended by dignitaries from far and near including the pioneer Grand Mufti of Ilorin, Shaykh Muhammad Kamaldeen Al-Adabiy, MFR, OFR, ORSA; the late Honourable Justice Saidu Kawu, CON; and Alhaji Hamidu Gambari Erubu, MFR, CON,who was his intimate friend, among several others.
I was to see him more often after his retirement a few years after when he relocated to Ilorin and was living at his ancestral home earlier mentioned. He always passed through Pakata Roundabout on his way out of and from his abode before eventually relocating to his GRA Residence in Ilorin.
Ambassador Imam was born into a scholarly reputable family. His ancestral home was an abode of versatile Muslim jurists including the popular Alikali Saadu Okubiyi and the father of the deceased, Muhammad Sambo,who was also a notable Islamic Scholar and Alikali in the defunct Ilorin province. The exposure of his parents, which convinced them that Western education was not a forbidden phenomenon and the presence of one Mallam Ibrahim Okekere, who was a famous teacher in those days(I cannot establish his relationship with the subject of this piece) might have given him and his elder half brother, Alhaji Shehu Ahmad Okekere, early opportunities in the mission of acquiring Western education among their contemporaries from that segment of Ilorin. Alhaji Shehu Okekere,a respected financial technocrat and the Auditor who was attached to the Office of the Premier of the defunct Northern Region, Alhaji (Sir) Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, was elected on nonparty basis as the Chairman of the old Ilorin Local Government Council in 1987.
The deceased was a member of the early generations of pupils admitted into Pakata Primary School, Ilorin, which was founded in 1934. He left the school for the then Ilorin Middle School (now Government Secondary School), Ilorin.
The solid background Ambassador Imam had in Arabic and Islamic education from home must have accounted for his outstanding performance in the twin subjects and other secular ones at the Middle School. His performance encouraged the then Ilorin Native Authority to recommend and sponsor him for further training at the popular School of Arabic Studies, Kano,where he met his contemporaries from other parts of Northern Nigeria.
Ambassador Imam was trained at the Kano school as a teacher of Arabic and Islamic Studies. He subsequently attended the famous Omdurman University, Republic of Sudan. One of his contemporaries at the University was the Grand Kadi of the defunct Northern Region, Shaykh Abubakar Mahmud Gumi, CFR,(1922-1992).
Prior to and subsequent to his completion of his degree programme, Ambassador Imam served as a teacher and educational administrator in the defunct Ilorin Native Authority. He taught Arabic and Islamic studies at the Ilorin Middle School, Ilorin and among those he taught was the second Professor produced by Ilorin Emirate, Saliu Suleiman, who died last year.
While I could not ascertain who predated each other in the nation’s diplomatic service between him and Ambassador Abubakar Garba Gobir, the father of the Madawaki of Ilorin and Wazir Kasar Hausa, Alhaji Yakubu Garba Gobir, what is undebatable is that the two gentlemen were the first generation of career diplomats produced by Ilorin Emirate. Their recruitments and those of several others into the foreign service was shortly after the nation’s independence. And it was informed by the need for Nigeria to have full diplomatic stations in most countries of the world.
As a career diplomat, Ambassador Imam served in various capacities at home and in foreign lands without blemish. He served as the Chief of Protocol in several missions. He was a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and Poland. He eventually became an Ambassador.
This great son of Ilorin Emirate was Nigeria’s Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt in the 1970s. I recall vividly seeing him in a picture with the then Military Governor of Kwara State, Colonel George Agbazikah Innih, on an edition of the then Nigerian Herald when the former paid the latter a courtesy visit in Ilorin as Nigeria’s Envoy to “the Land of Pharaohs”.
After representing Nigeria across the world in different capacities and missions, Ambassador Imam was redeployed back to the headquarters of the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was the Executive Secretary of the defunct Nigeria Pilgrims Board. His sublime personality informed his recall from time and appointment as the Director and Head of the Nigeria Hajj Commission in the early 1990s. I must say that I felt proud, as an Ilorin indigene, seeing a picture peopled by my foremost senior compatriots on the front page of an edition of the authoritative *The Guardian* sometimes in 1993. The picture was that of the three of those who handled that year’s Hajj. They were all from Ilorin. They were the subject of this piece, Ambassador Muhammad Saleh Abdulwahab (Adeyi) and Ambassador Abdulkabir As-Sayoutti.
Before, during and after his career as a diplomat, Ambassador Imam did yeoman’s jobs for Ilorin Emirate in several instances. In the early 1950s, Ambassador Imam was one of the facilitators of periodic refresher courses organised for teachers of Arabic and Islamic studies in public schools across the defunct Ilorin province. While he was one of the Secretaries of the Ansarul Islam Society of Nigeria in the 1950s, he was equally of great assistance to his compatriots everywhere he served.
In continuation of his community development services, Ambassador Imam was appointed a member of the Committee constituted by His Royal Highness, the Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji (Dr.) Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, CFR, shortly after his installation. The Committee was set-up to resolve the crisis surrounding the moribund Ilorin City Hall Complex. Other members of the Committee led by the Honourable Justice Saidu Kawu, were Alhaji Abubakar Lah, MFR; the late Shettima of Ilorin; Honourable Justice Abdulkadir Orire, CON; who was the then Grand Kadi of Kwara State; and Professor Saka Nuru, who retired as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
In the year 2000 or thereabout, Ambassador Imam was one of the elder statesmen of Ilorin Emirate extraction who signed a newspaper advertorial in defence of their son, Prof. Shuaibu Oba Abdulraheem, OFR, NOPM. The then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin was a subject of harassment in the media by some staff members of the University. The intervention was proverbial stick that break the Carmel back as far as the struggle to destroy the tenure of the first son of Ilorin Emirate who headed a University was concerned.
Long before then and to be specific in the early 1970s, Ambassador Imam had the onus of “rescuing” a former National Missioner of the Ansarul Islam Society of Nigeria, Shaykh AbdulRaheem Ameen Al-Adabiy,from the angst of the Libyan authorities who wrongly arrested him at Bengazi for alleged trafficking in passports. Shaykh Ameen had travelled with the passports he obtained in Lagos for the prospective students while sorting out their admission issues in Egypt and Libya. Despite being in possession of the files of the affected students, which ordinarily should be an enough defence,he was not allowed to go until Ambassador Imam who showed up at the scene to clear him.
Since his death, prominent individuals from far and near including his colleagues, subordinates and mentees have been paying glowing tributes to his memory. These include the Governor of Kwara State,Mallam AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq,who not only participated in his Janazah but also eulogised profusely in his condolence message to the family and relations of the late elder statesman;and the Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji (Dr.) Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, CFR, who described him as a singular son of Ilorin with tremendous accomplishments. Similar tributes also came from the National President of the Ilorin Emirate Descendants Progressive Union, Alhaji Aliyu Otta Uthman fsi, who saluted him for his exemplary life and worthy achievements.
A former Grand Kadi of Kwara State, Honourable Justice Idris Abdullahi Haroon, noted that the late diplomat was a pious, honest and highly intelligent gentleman who was equally humble and always willing to assist younger ones to grow. He noted that he was a man of few words and deep thought who was blessed with profound wisdom. He recalled that Ambassador Imam contributed greatly to the career growth of several indigenes of Ilorin Emirate during his life and described him as a versatile jurist and very respected ally and contemporary of one of his predecessors, Honourable Justice Abdulkadir Orire.
To Ambassador Muhammad Saleh Abdulwahab, mni, the late diplomat was “a gem, a decent human being, an erudite Islamic scholar, a noble elder statesman and one of the great diplomats of our time”. He added that Ambassador Imam “served our country faithfully and was endowed with humility, simplicity, gentleness, patience and perseverance”.
The immediate past Chief Imam of the University of Ilorin, Prof. Abdulganiyu Abdulsalam Oladosu, also recalled the wonderful fatherly services he and others enjoyed from Ambassador Imam when they were students of the Al-Azhar University, Cairo. Prof. Oladosu, who was an undergraduate at the famous University when Ambassador Imam was an envoy there, recalled that the diplomat was a man who was always willing to serve.
Speaking on his life and times, a Professor of Islamic Studies and former Dean, Postgraduate School, University of Ilorin, Badmas Olanrewaju Yusuf, noted that Ambassador Imam was a refined scholar and a diplomat of rare bred. He added that he was also an excellent technocrat who assisted him greatly when he (Yusuf) was the Chairman of the Kwara State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board between 1992 and 1994. Prof.Yusuf cited many instances of the positive interventions of the late diplomat, which, had he maintained indifference, could have negatively impacted Hajj exercises conducted by Kwarans in those years. Prof. Yusuf, who later served as a National Commissioner in the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, (NAHCON) asserted that the deceased was a wonderful diplomatic technocrat and a man whose proficiency in the use of Arabic and English languages was quite exceptional. He added that Ambassador Imam was a quintessential public servant and an humble servant of the Almighty Allah whose place in history is assured.
Prof. Binta Sulyman of the Kwara State University, Malete,also described Ambassador Imam as a wonderful father,a pious gentleman and a scholar per excellence, saying that her father,Alhaji Hamidu Gambari Erubu,and his family would miss him greatly. “They were close brothers and intimate friends who were together for many decades right from their school days. We children met them together”, Prof. Sulyman concluded.
Ambassador Imam was happily married. He was also blessed with many successful children who are keeping the flag of Ilorin Emirate glowing as he did. His children include Dr. AbdulRazaq Imam and Ambassador Isiaka Imam, the Nigeria’s Ambassador to D8; and Alhaji Ibrahim Imam as well as Dr. Aishat Imam Omolosho of the Department of Mass Communication, University of Ilorin. Other children of this diplomat are my namesake, Alhaji Abubakar Imam; Alhaji Musa Imam,Alhaji Abdulateef Imam and,of course, the baby of the house,Hajiya Kareema who holds a doctorate degree. One of his children that was particularly well-known to me was Mrs. Zainab Imam-Alafara, who until her death a few years back, was a staff of the Kwara State College of Arabic and Islamic Legal Studies, Ilorin.
One thing I particularly found plausible about the deceased and which I must put on record was his extreme simplicity. He was unassuming, gentle and reserved. The way and manner Ambassador Imam reconciled himself with the Ilorin environment soon after his retirement was emulative. Despite being an international civil servant who had sojourned in countries where things are better organised, he did not find it difficult to return to and lived in his ancestral home and among his people, many of whom were not as sophisticated as he was. Only very few among the fortunate ones could do that!
Prior to his death, Ambassador Imam was the Chairman of the Kwara State chapter of the School For Arabic Studies Old Students Association (SASOSA),which has Prof. Badmas Olanrewaju Yusuf(who encouraged the author to do this piece) as the Secretary-General. He was also a Member of the National Executive Committee of the Association under the leadership of a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Justice Abubakar Bashir Wali,OFR,CON.
May I round off this piece by sympathising with the relations and friends of Ambassador Imam on his death as I pray Allah to grant his soul a place in Aljanat fridouz. It is also my sincere prayers that Allah blesses Ilorin Emirate with more people of his calibre who would serve the community, Islam and humanity selflessly. Aamiin.
Imam is National Secretary, Ilorin Emirate Descendants Progressive Union.