BY JULIUS OGUNRO
WHEN Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi was dropped from the federal cabinet a few weeks ago, the consensus was that he was one of the best ministers in the Federal Executive Council and that competence was sacrificed on the altar of politics. Even the sports media, notorious for its caustic pen and for being the albatross of more than one minister, praised Abdullahi for bringing stability to the sector and as the best minister of sports Nigeria had had in a while. Nothing best describes the affection of the sports community for Abdullahi than the soppy headlines, 'Thank you, Abdullahi,' 'Bowing out with pride', and the likes, which became common in the days after his sack.
I worked with Mallam Abdullahi for more than two years, first in Youth Development and later in Sports, so I think I know what makes the man tick.
I know that the adulation that followed his exit from the FEC was well earned and well deserved. I know too what it cost Mr. Abdullahi to follow the narrow path to build a reputation as a competent manager of men and resources. It is essential to tell the Abdullahi story, it is a story which suggests that Nigeria is redeemable, that in a society where mediocrity is often celebrated, there could be competent, honest and detribalised folks in government.
I first met him in 2008 in Lagos where I was the editor of a magazine and he a Commissioner for education in Kwara, becoming famous for radical reforms. After interviewing him, I left with the impression that he was very knowledgeable and cut out for greater things. The next time we met was in July 2011 when I was invited to be part of his team soon after he was appointed Minister of Youth Development. That began the journey with him, at the end of which I have come to admire him deeply as an innately good man imbued with rare qualities.
Abdullahi is a handworker who has a single-minded pursuit of results. No matter how difficult or complex the matter was he didn't let go until it was resolved to his satisfaction. And he is not easily satisfied. Not with mediocrity. Not with a job half-done. I recall his first task in sports.
It was to find peace in the troubled football sector, where factions and litigations were crippling the administration of the beautiful game. The
sector was so crisis ridden that our senior national team, the Super Eagles had failed to qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup in Gabon/ Equatorial Guinea.
Some of the parties quarreled with the election that brought in the current board of the FA; others faulted the change of name from NFA to NFF. Others were annoyed over some indeterminable issues, but very angry nonetheless.
The FA board led by Aminu Maigari was clearly distracted by the numerous court cases and increasing number of parties spoiling for a fight.
Abdullahi knew that achieving peace and stability was essential in creating the right policy environment for sports development. Without it, all efforts would be tantamount to fetching water with a basket. So he went about it, setting up meeting after meeting, sitting down with one aggrieved person and the other. At a point, I felt it was a wasted effort and it was impossible to achieve any kind of rapprochement among the numerous aggrieved parties. First, they were so many and secondly, and perhaps more
important, it seemed the parties thrived in a crisis environment. And their demands were numerous, some ridiculous, others irreconcilable with any
genuine effort for peace. But Abdullahi worked at it, and after several exhaustive meetings, soothing big egos, made the parties to agree to a comprehensive peace deal.
This open-minded nature and willingness to take on difficult tasks defined the 'ministeralship' of Mallam Abdullahi. He is very modest too and does not live above his means. I was a bit taken aback when as a newly appointed minister of Youth Development; he was busy looking for a rented apartment in Sun City, at the fringe of the Abuja metropolis. He got a modest apartment there and was the only minister living in the neighborhood. Abdullahi, would not spend above what he can personally afford and reminds us, his assistants that the job was temporary, which would come to an end someday.
But that does not mean he does not like the fine things of life. He does. His suits are often dapper and his babariga, well cut. It is just that he would not steal or misappropriate funds to acquire these things. However, like he often said, being poor does not indicate integrity, just as being wealthy does not mean one is a thief. Unbelievable as it may seem, I know that as minister, he relied heavily on funds from his businesses in Ilorin-
a farm and digital photography studio, among others - to supplement his living expenses, which ballooned when he became minister.
For Abdullahi, work came first. And, boy, was he good at it? You bet! With a degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos, several leadership courses across the globe, Abdullahi crowned his education with a master's (he made a distinction) in Development Studies from the University of Sussex. So he seemed well prepared for the leadership roles he has played since 2003 when he left journalism. In each of this position, whether as special assistant, commissioner for education or double-barreled minister, he served with distinction, initiating policies and implementing them with passion.
But of all the good qualities of the Mallam, what I admire most is his knack for being confident in his own skin.
•Mr. Ogunro, a SA to the former Minister of Sports, wrote from Abuja.