Thursday, April 30, 2020 9:45 pm
By Steve Osuji
They are not made like this anymore. Men, who are sturdy in physique as in character. Malam Ibrahim Ayagi looked like he was hewn from rock and through his very illustrious life, he maintained unwaveringly, what may be described as a granite persona.
Ayagi, Professor of Economics, passed on recently age 80. We remember fondly, not just for the elements that mixed fortuitously to grant him much eminence in life but more remarkably, the bright and enduring markers he left for posterity at every juncture of life and public service.
In the mid 80s, Malam Ayagi was the managing director of the top bracket Continental Merchant Bank (CMB). It was the era of wholesale banking and CMB was the very summit. But Ayagi didn’t mind to walk away from that plum job on grounds of principle.
Ayagi had disagreed with the Central Bank of Nigeria’s inequitable currency policy at the time. He was so strong in his convictions and defiantly dragged the CBN to court. CMB won. But it was the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida. He was fired shortly after by Babangida for what was described as “irreconcilable difference.”
No bank defied the CBN not to mention an individual looking at the military junta in the eye. One cannot remember another episode of a bank taking the CBN court till this day.
Asked how he felt about his sudden removal from office in such a manner, Ayagi said he handed over to the highest ranking personnel as was directed. He returned to his Victoria Island residence and the following morning he took the first flight back home to Kano. And that was it. Not one backward glance did he cast.
But according to him, it seemed by divine design that the Kano Foundation was being set up about the time he was sacked. He was invited to head it almost immediately. Again, he also had to resign in tumultuous circumstance from that job. He had described the foundation as becoming “a den of thieves.”
I had travelled to Kano to interview Malam Ayagi for The Guardian at this time. He reiterated that some trustees of the foundation were beginning to see the place as meal ticket of sort.
I found him a man of immense self-contentment and simple means. In his study in the modest story building in Ungwar Ayagi quarters, we had a lengthy interview touching all aspects of his life. He was never coy to tell his story. A man who seemingly had nothing to hide, his life was like an open book of sort.
He was already running with his wife, his private school in Kano, which was a rarity then. The school which later became the choice breeding ground of Kano elite’s children was later renamed Hassan Ibrahim Gwarzo Secondary School (HIGSS), after a great educationist, friend and mentor of Ayagi’s.
How did an orphan who almost missed going to school grow up not only to own the best school in the same community but to become a professor of Economics and a statesman!
By his account, his father passed on when he was two and his mother remarried.
Putting him in school was not his step father’s priority but his hunger for education turned him a straggler, who though unregistered, followed other kids to school all the same.
By chance, he managed to get enrolled in primary school and he never looked back as his hunger for knowledge and his sheer brilliance saw him through.
From then on, it was state support and scholarship all the way, though it may seem the hard way initially. While others transited from primary to secondary, Ayagi went the route of Teachers’ training grades three, two and advanced – all state sponsored.
Fortuitously he wrote to BBC, got a job in London for three years and that was his break!
A state scholarship saw him through Ahmadu Bello University (1963 – 70) and because he made the 2.1 cut off, he got a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship which earned him another pass to Pittsburgh University, Pennsylvania, for Masters and Doctorate degrees in Economics (1970 – 74).
He returned to teach ABU and by 1996, he became a professor.
Ayagi was Commissioner for Education in Kano under the military. He quit after two years to pursue a career in banking starting as Assistant General Manager in United Bank for Africa.
In 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed Ayagi chairman of a new body, National Economic Intelligence Committee (NEIC). Among other gains, this body was instrumental to structuring the monumental Paris Club debt relief.
Of course, Obasanjo had appointed him based on his trajectory as a patriot and nationalist economist who had original ideas about what worked for his country. Ayagi vehemently opposed Babangida’s pro-Bretton Woods economics which led to the ill- fated Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the mid 80s.
He kept newspaper column to repudiate the economic rascality of the military era and had a book, The Trapped Economy,” which encapsulates his thoughts and sought to give an alternative direction. The military government paid him no mind of course.
Prof. Ayagi, Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR) passed on last week in Kano aged 80.
A man of sterling character who had immense impact in the academia, banking sector and our national life.
It is however remarkable that he became a number in a gale mystery deaths affecting his much beloved state, Kano. He was a great man indeed.
May his soul find rest.
-Steve Osuji, senior journalist, writes from Lagos