There couldn’t have been a more poignant last chapter to a man’s life than my final text exchange with him. He reached out on December 31, 2023, to draw my attention to a Qur’an recital competition in Damaturu, Yobe State, stating that it transpired without deserving prizes. In his typical fashion, he outlined interventions that could align with the noble ambitions of the reciters and organisers. What he didn’t say this time around, while preferring the cloak he wore to redirect our concerns away from his health and towards others, was that he was on the brink of existence. He was in a hospital bed far away from home.
About a year earlier, Mallam Isa Gusau visited me at home in Abuja, and I couldn’t help but notice his sickly physical transformation. He opened up about his health struggle only when I insisted. I disagreed with his philosophy of not wanting his health to be the subject of interest in his line of work. However, he followed the direction we suggested for medical intervention and returned to prioritizing his job. With him, it’s always duty first, and that drive for excellence was once a source of trouble for us when we were on opposite sides of the table.
In 2007, when I assumed the role of Commissioner of Finance in Governor Ali Modu Sheriff’s government in Borno State, Mallam Gusau was the Daily Trust correspondent and later Bureau Chief covering the Borno-Yobe axis. He had been a problem for the government before my arrival. Fresh out of the private sector, I conducted sentiment analysis of my new station, and this inviolable reporter was a recurring problem in our efforts to manage the perception of the state and the government’s commitment to the people, especially during the critical phase of an ideological invasion in the North-East by a group that has since become the global calamity known as Boko Haram.
I had always admired objective contrarians and critics, and it didn’t take long to understand why Mallam Gusau’s journalistic overtures had been a nightmare for the government. His principles were as unyielding as ancient mountains, deeply rooted in the bedrock of his conviction as a chronicler of state affairs. I found myself compelled to acquaint with the fearless man.
Ms. Kwapchi Bata Hamman, who was then a reporter at NTA Maiduguri, became our eyes on him and eventually our bridge to him. She, along with the late Zubairu Maina Shani, a fellow Commissioner in Governor Sherrif’s government, formed our troika to untie the Gordian knot that was Isa Gusau. That one man could stir us this much, stand up to us with no fear or susceptibility to compromise, was a credential like no other. So, I knew just then that I wanted to be friends with such a man, a rebel with a noble cause.
Our destinies aligned sooner than I had expected. In 2011, when I was sworn into office as the Executive Governor of Borno State, I knew immediately that I must be surrounded by perceived trouble-makers if I were to make a difference, and Gusau easily came to mind. I was unconcerned about his origin, only what he was bringing to the table. I have always seen a leader who functions in an echo chamber as a tragedy.
Mallam Gusau agreed to be my spokesperson, testing the political divide that his path had crossed as a journalist. He mastered the art of shaping perceptions, traversing lengths unknown to me at the time. He was invested in the well-being of his colleagues and those he serves, and distinguished himself as a mediator and bridge builder in resolving office conflicts. Only many years later did I discover the depths to which he went to protect me, skilfully managing or quashing crosses without seeking the spotlight or credit.
Along with his team, he breathed life into the communication of government policies in Borno State, making us realize that even the finest idea or policy by the government is doomed to fail without strategic communications.
Shettima is Nigeria’s vice president