I was numb with shock when I read on Professor Abubakar Aliyu Liman’s May 29 Facebook status update that Professor Abubakar Momoh, famous Lagos State University professor of political science and director-general of INEC’s National Electoral Institute, had died the previous day.
The news hit me like a bolt from the blue, and I am yet to come to terms with it. Professor Abubakar Momoh, until his premature death, was one of the brightest, sincerest, and most committed Marxist scholars and social justice crusaders I’ve ever known.
I first met him in February 1995 toward the end of my undergraduate studies at Bayero University, Kano. He, along with several Marxist scholars, participated in a Nordic Africa Institute-funded workshop on the “transformation of popular identities in Nigeria, especially in the context of structural adjustment and the Babangida regime’s programme of transition to civil rule (1986–1993).”
The workshop was facilitated by former INEC Chairman Professor Attahiru Jega, who made me one of his research assistants. Of all the scholars who presented papers at the workshop, which were later published into a book, I recall being impressed the most by the then youthful, ebullient Momoh, who hadn’t earned his PhD at the time.
I was bowled over by his deliberate lexical exuberance, his boundless scholarly energy, his facility with the intellectually fashionable phraseology of high theory, his theoretical showmanship, his mastery of Marxian polemics, and by his admirable capacity to integrate theory with praxis. He struck me as “identity agnostic,” that is, you couldn’t tell where he was from by merely looking at him or by talking to him.
He spoke perfect, “accentless” Hausa and perfect, accentless Yoruba, yet he was so light-skinned that he could pass for an Igbo, a Fulani, an Idoma, an Ebira or even African American. I wanted to ask Jega where the man was from, but I couldn’t because Marxists were not supposed to be hung up on incidental, primordial identity such as ethnicity.
Jega himself didn’t know where I was from and never once asked me. Nor did Adagbo Onoja through whom I got to know Jega. Adagbo got to know I was Baatonu from Kwara State several years after we left school, even though we lived in the same house in Kaduna for a year. It also turned out that Jega was an NYSC buddy to my first cousin’s ex-husband—a fact we learned only after the man gave me a note to give to Jega years later.
It took many years to realize that Professor Momoh was from Auchi in Edo State. But his mother lived in Kano as of 1995. I know because he always said he was going to see his mother after the workshop sessions. I wonder if his mother is still alive. I also wonder how his very close friend Professor Said Adejumobi, whom I learned now works with a UN agency after a stint at a South African university, must be feeling.
They were like two peas in a pod. They were both clearheaded Marxists who were also deeply observant Muslims. I reconnected with Momoh on cyberspace on the USA/Africa Dialogue Series, a listserv for African and American academics to share thoughts and perspectives on African and global issues. While he and I agreed on many issues, we also robustly disagreed on others. He certainly didn’t know I was the same undergraduate who was Jega’s research assistant in 1995 because when Adagbo Onoja, our mutual friend, sent a mass email in September 2014 to thank some 13 friends of his who contributed to the success of his academic odyssey in the UK, Momoh sent this humorous mass reply:
“Comrade Onoja, So you are in the same circuit with Farooq Kperogi and Moses Ochonu? Me l go carry waka comot…. Diaris God! I am happy you had a good circle of profoundly deep scholars. Congrats. Abu.” Coming from Momoh for whom I have deep-seated reverence, that was overwhelmingly flattering. All I could say in response was: “Comrade Abu, Where you dey waka go na? Me I go follow you there o. The grammar you are sharing, diaris God o. Farooq.”
His comeback was even more flattering. “Farooq, Carry on my broda. We are proud of you, Moses Ochonu, Pius Adesanmi and such folks doing well as Public Intellectuals in North America. Kindly keep it up. Abu,” he wrote.
I called Moses Ochonu, my friend and former classmate at BUK who is now a professor of history at Vanderbilt University here in the US, and said, “I am certain that Abubakar Momoh has no idea I’m the same person who photocopied documents and ran errands for him and his colleagues when they attended a workshop at BUK in 1995.”
But I think it also spoke to his humility and large heart that, although we sometimes vigorously disagreed on the USA/Africa Dialogue Series listserv, he had these kind words to say about Moses and me. This wasn’t altogether surprising, though. People who knew him said he was unencumbered by the conceit, genrontocratic condescension, and titular vainglory typical of many (senior) academics in Nigeria.
He always self-identified simply as “Abu” even when he related with his social inferiors. I didn’t get a chance to tell him that I knew him in Kano, that his activism inspired me, and that his commitment to critical scholarship and progressive, emancipatory politics shone a bright light that guided my own path. I’d had it on my “to-do” list to call or email him and reintroduce myself to him. I never got round to doing it because he was so full of energy, so full of life, so full of contagious passion that I never imagined for a split second that he would be gone so soon.
This is a sobering reminder that tomorrow is never guaranteed and that there is no virtue in postponing till the next day what you can do today. After my wife’s death in 2010 and my dad’s death last year, I thought I had overcome the shock and terror that death inspires. I was wrong. Abubakar Momoh’s death has shaken me in ways I didn’t anticipate, and that I can’t persuade anybody to believe. We, especially on the left of the ideological spectrum in Nigeria, are all the poorer without Momoh and his kind. May his soul rest in peace.