This letter is an act of remembering.
I think of you as a person thinks of a sweet scent that he has smelled briefly only once and yearns for because he will never smell it again. All I am left with are weak traces of what that smell was. I fear that the greater the distance between the last time I saw you and the present, the harder it is to pull together the details of your existence into an act of remembering. Still I shall try.
You died seventeen years ago, today. May 25, 1998. I was a month away from turning 12. I didn’t know you had died until about three days later, or so. Remembering can be hard, even impossible. But I don’t want to dwell on the occasion of your death, and how it was the bitterest thing I had ever tasted, and how I felt as if my existence itself had come to an end. No. Today, I want to dwell on the life you lived, and the sacrifice you made. Few people know of that sacrifice, and I confess that I haven’t had the presence of spirit or the strength of character to confront it in such a public manner. But today, I want the whole world to know how you died. I want the world to know what killed you.
I remember the day I learned you had cancer. You had taken Maryam and me to see an old friend of yours, an Englishman who had a house in Rayfield. Every time I pass by that house, I remember that day. I remember the soft drinks his daughter served us, I remember you telling him how you had recently lost your job, I remember you saying you were battling with liver cancer. You said it while I was seated right there in the living room. I had once come across a picture of you in a hospital somewhere in England or Germany, with tubes sticking out of your arms and nose, and I had asked you why you had been in a hospital with tubes sticking out of your body, and you had told me it was a painless method of collecting blood that they employed abroad, and I had believed you. I had only come to understand much later, after you had died, that you had lied to me to protect me from the knowledge that you had cancer, and that you had told Mum you didn’t want your children to be burdened with such knowledge; but before all this, you had told that Englishman in his living room that you had liver cancer while your son was seated right there. I will never understand why you did that. Perhaps it was an act of mercy from above meant to spare me the agony of finding out in a much uglier way.
Many things happened after that, and also before that.
Before that, you had had a job that you enjoyed very much and were very good at. You headed a federal agency in Kogi State that was responsible for supplying iron to the largest steel mill in Nigeria. I would overhear the grownups of my life speaking about how you were having problems with your Minister and his associates and, subsequently, how you had received a letter one evening at 11pm while you were still in your office informing you that your appointment had been terminated with immediate effect “due to negligence;” after that, the whispers among the grownups had shifted to how your superiors had expected you to line their pockets with the money you got to run your parastatal, and how you had refused, and then lost your job as a result. You had been “negligent” in paying your tribute to the powers above you.
I also remember other grownup whisperings about how you had been, ironically enough, a Ministerial candidate before all this, and how you had turned the opportunity down by stating categorically that you were a “career civil servant,” and all you wanted was to be left alone to do your job as a mining geologist. And many other tales of your heroic acts of integrity I remember.
After you lost your job, I remember how you were at home a lot of the time, working on your laptop in the small living room or in the round hut, and I had asked you why you were always on your laptop, and you had explained that you were consulting for people that could pay you millions for your services. That period was the first time I had a passing glimpse of the terror that can be instilled by financial uncertainty. I remember hearing you mention once to someone that it was the shop Mum ran that was sustaining our household, and now as I think about it, it only makes sense that whatever you had saved up through your 21 years of public service had been going towards the treatment you received twice a year in Germany, and towards giving your children the best education money could buy in this country.
After you died, I remember going through your papers and coming across a copy of a letter you had written to the Secretary to the Federal Government, appealing the unjust termination of your appointment. I remember phrases from that letter such as “I love my job” and “I hate corruption in all its ramifications;” I remember you providing specific examples of how you had taken the agency from a place of stagnation to that of productivity; and I remember my heart swelling with pride and gratitude because I knew every word to be true. Mum subsequently told me that the Secretary to the Federal Government had ordered your immediate reinstatement, even though the letter had come too late. This is where I would like to give in to the urge of wishing things had turned out differently, wishing you had got better and been reinstated and carried on with your career, wishing you were here to meet Ca-el, your first grandchild, wishing…
Becoming a man allowed me to ask better questions, harder questions. The last time you went for treatment in Germany, just before you had lost your job, the doctor had given a very favourable prognosis. There seemed to be hope. After you had lost your job, however, and gone back for treatment, the doctor had become confused. Something was wrong. The cancer cells seemed to be erratic and agitated. When the doctor found out what had happened to you in the past year, it immediately became clear to him that the shock of losing your job had caused the cancer cells, which had been heading into remission, to start multiplying rapidly. He gave you six months to live.
I finally came to understand the sequence of things that led to your death: your Minister, a man who served under the corrupt Abacha regime as Minister of Power and Steel and made a nice buck while at it, a man whose identity the curious can easily ascertain, was frustrated with you because you were standing in his way of milking the agency. And because he had nothing to accuse you of, he and his associates fabricated charges against you of negligence and corruption, and had your appointment summarily terminated in the most dishonourable manner possible. And because you loved your job and your service to your country so much, and the good name you had been protecting for so long, the magnitude of the event sent shockwaves through your body, causing your cancer to spiral out of control (I remember our cook Ibrahim weeping like a baby when he heard the news that you had lost your job). The cancer was so out of control that it killed you very quickly. At first, I used to think that it was the Minister that killed you. It was only recently, quite recently, that I realised with stunning clarity that it wasn’t a single man that killed you, it was our country’s entrenched system of institutionalised corruption. I no longer had to look far in search of an example of a victim of corruption. I had you.
But above all, this is what I remember. That you were a man who lived on only what he had earned and nothing more. I remember the respect and admiration with which people spoke of you and continue to speak of you. I remember that you always advised the young men around you to never rely on politics or government contracts for a living, but to instead develop a skill, a craft by which they could earn their daily bread.
Over the years, I used to think, somewhat bitterly, how you have been forgotten in the sands of time. I would think to myself how nobody really remembers you anymore and the accomplishments you had made in your field and the ultimate sacrifice you paid for standing up for what you believed. A part of me wanted to see you immortalised on a monument somewhere, perhaps with the words, “Dr Usman M. Turaki, Devoted Husband and Father, Able Technocrat, Gentle Soul, and Brave Veteran of Integrity and Service.” But you may not have wanted such a thing because you had been a simple man who did not care for accolades or recognition.
I am writing you a letter today to say that I remember you every day, even if the world does not. I am writing you a letter to thank you for being the kind of man I am proud to call my father. I am writing to say that the impact of your death is perhaps the single greatest force that has shaped my life: should I soil my hands in the mire of deceit and corruption, your death would have been in vain.
I am writing you to say that your death shall never be in vain.
I miss you.