In early 1983, I made it possible for Nuri and Bah to get the Nigerian Defence Academy admission forms. It wasn’t difficult at the time. To fill the forms, however, became a problem. They were not interested in a military career. They wanted to go to the University of Maiduguri. I made them to keep the forms and think over it. They did, reluctantly.
After a week Bah came. As he stretched his hand to give back the form to me, he said: “Me I will not join the Army.” Ok, Bah, I said, as I tried to suppress my anger and disappointment.
A few days later, Nuri came. He would only go for the Navy, he said in manner that was meant to provoke an argument. You can go for anything I said and shifted attention to other things.
They amazed me. The uniform job was not new in the family or in the community. Our elder brother, Air Commodore Ibrahim Alkali (retired) was a Group Captain in the Air Force; Babayo Alkali and Umar Idris were of the ranks of superintendent in the Immigration Service and the Nigeria Police respectively.
In the adjoining streets, Buba Fika was Assistant Inspector General, having served as a member of the Supreme Military Council under the Murtala Obasanjo government; Yakubu Maaji, Garba Galadima and Baba Ciroma were Assistant Commissioners of Police; Abubakar Waziri was a major general and months away from becoming the Military Governor of former Borno State. There were several majors and captains and corresponding officers from the other services in the community. What’s their problem?
In the end, Nuri completed the form, returned it, was invited for interview and admitted into the NDA, Nigeria’s version of the West Point.
His name is Mohammed Idris Alkali. But no one had ever called him Mohammed, not in the family nor in the community. Idris was his father’s name while Alkali was the name of his paternal uncle who was the most senior judge in Potiskum at the time. Our father and his elder brother, Alkali Abdullahi, were Chief Imams of Fika at different times. We lived in a big family compound sharing one entry point.
In the family, you bear Idris or Alkali depending on who took you to school. And anyone could take you to school in those days. One morning, we had started massing in front of our house waiting to take over the street as soon as people leave for work. The man opposite our house barked out command. You, you, you come here!! He gathered about a dozen of us from different families and marched us to Central Primary School, Potiskum. He enrolled me with Idris as my surname and my bother with Alkali as his.
Babayo (who retired as Comptroller of Immigration and Umar who retired as Commissioner Force CID) bear the surnames Alkali and Idris respectively. Later Bah and Nuri would follow suit. There are three illustrious Alkali families in Potiskum. The heads of these families were all judges.
Alkali Umaru: Virtually everyone studied at his feet during his time. He was Nuri’s maternal grandfather and the father of Alhaji Muhammadu Alkali, a former Permanent Secretary in old Borno State; Alkali Abdulkadir, retired Grand Khadi of Yobe State and Alhaji Suleiman B. Gimba, Chief Registrar, High Court of Justice in old Borno State.
Alkali Abdullahi: The brilliant student who had so impressed his Arab teachers at the School of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Kano that they kept asking him who his teacher was. One day when the school closed for the holidays they followed him to Potiskum to meet the great Alkali Umaru. Alkali Abdullahi was Nuri’s paternal uncle and the father of Air Commodore Ibrahim Alkali, (Retired) former military Governor of Kwara State and Alhaji Alkali, Director, Personnel Management at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, who died in June 1997.
Alkali Ba’aba: The father of late Baba Ba’aba, a former Justice of the Court of Appeal, and his younger brother of the same name, Baba Ba’aba, former Secretary to the Government of Yobe State.
The first two families were joined by marriage and Islamic scholarship. The Chief Imam ship was virtually domiciled in the Alkali Umaru Family.
Nuri was of the 34th Regular Course. Like many successful officers, his rise in the Army was steady. He had earned his promotion as and when due until he made the Major General rank. To all of us he was simply Nuri; Second Lieutenant Nuri; Lieutenant Nuri; Captain Nuri….. Maj Gen Nuri.
He was granted Regular Combatant Commission in the rank of second lieutenant on 28 June 1986 with seniority in the same rank effective 4 July 1983. He was of the Nigeria Army Armour Corps and rose to the rank of major general in 2014. He retired on 7 August 2018 after 35 years of service. In the military you retire at 56. There are efforts to raise the retirement age to 58 but it hasn’t happen yet.
Nuri attended Young Officers’ Course (Armour), Young Officers’ Course (Infantry), Platoon Commanders’ Course (Armour), Company Commanders’ Course (Armour), Junior Staff Course, Senior Staff Course, Integrated Disaster Management Course, United Kingdom Sponsored Disaster Management Course, International Peace Support Operation Senior Mission Leaders’ Course, Senior Management Programme Course, National Defence Course. He held a Nigerian Defence Academy Certificate of Education and a Master’s Degree in Strategic Studies.
He held positions including the Platoon Commander 232 Tank Battalion, Platoon Commander 221 Tank Battalion, General Staff Officer Grade III, Training Company Commander and Staff Officer Grade, General Staff Officer Grade II – Command and Staff College (Junior Division), General Staff Officer Grade II – Delta Division, Army Faculty, Command and Staff College.
He was also Company Commander 212 Tank Battalion, Staff Officer Grade II Headquarters 3 Division Quartering, Second in Command 242 Reconnaissance Battalion, General Staff Officer Grade I Plans Army Headquarters Department of Policy and Plans, General Staff Officer Grade I Policy Army Headquarters Department of Policy and Plans.
He was Commanding Officer 231 Tank Battalion, Colonel Logistics Headquarters 3 Division, Deputy Chief of Staff Headquarters 3 Division, Assistant Chief of Staff Headquarters 3 Division, Chief Instructor Communication, Nigerian Army Armour School, Chief of Staff Headquarters 23 Brigade, Chief of Staff Headquarters Nigeria Army Armour Corps, Director Research and Development Training and Evaluation Headquarters Training and Doctrine Command and Deputy Director Human Factor, Defence Headquarters.
He was the Chief of Staff Headquarters 3 Division, Commandant Nigerian Army Armour School, Commander Armour Corps Headquarters Nigeria Army Armour Corps, Director Veteran Affairs Defence Headquarters Directorate, Chief of Administration (Army) Army Headquarters Department of Army Administration.
A passage in the funeral oration read by his course mate, Maj Gen Tarfa reads: “He was a full combatant officer who is calm, firm and charismatic. He had a remarkable conduct and overwhelming moral standard. He was honoured with medals including Forces Service Star, Meritorious Service Star, Distinguished Service Star, General Service Star, Command Medal, Field Command Medal, Corps Medal of Honour, Training Support Medal, General Service Medal.”
In the course of his career only once did Nuri complain to me that he was facing a serious problem. He was then a major and he believed his commanding officer at the time was trying to mess him up and he feared that this had the potential to make him lose his commission. I was worried, too. I said to him: Do your work, stay out of trouble and pray a lot.
Sometime in 1994, I went to Kaduna to bring my children back home from school for the holidays. I was in Mohammed Bomoi’s house in Kaduna when Nuri showed up. He must have passed through Umar’s house to know I was in town. I had intended to use one of three cars readily available to me in Kaduna. However, on seeing Nuri I asked him to bring his car in the morning for the Abuja trip.
He did. When he came in he sat on the edge of the chair, and stayed barely long enough to say: “Here is the key, these are the vehicle papers. Sell the car and do something with the money. We are going.”
He stood up and made for the door as I protested. I told him he needed the car more than I did. By then we were at the gate. He pointed at a car parked outside. “Here is a car.” Someone was behind the wheel, his friend apparently. He virtually jumped into the car and they drove off.
I stood there thinking: He needed the car more than I did. He had a family and his own work to do. It doesn’t look good to depend on someone else’ car to go to work, take the family out, etc. Again, the car wasn’t his yet. It was one of hundreds of Peugeot cars the Babangida regime was giving out to military officers. But the rate at which armed robbers and car thieves were stealing the cars, made many officers to trade them off for other brands like Honda and Toyota. Nuri’s was a sleek Honda Prelude.
But to him he had done his duty to a sibling who had fallen on rough times. I had resigned from New Nigerian Newspapers to join Citizen Magazine. But I delayed going to Citizen after getting a book writing job. However, before the job was finished the magazine’s travails began and it closed down subsequently.
I only saw such selflessness once when I was growing up. Our elder brother Yaya Muhammadu was a teacher. Every month end he would come into town, visit the NA treasury, collect his salary, come home and placed it before our father. It consisted of paper notes and shillings. Our father would take time to divide the money, sometimes into two and other times into three. He would then draw one towards himself and pushed the other (others) towards our brother who would pick it up and take his leave. I witnessed these sessions for so many years. What duty, obedience and loyalty to one’s parents!! Anytime I think about it, up to today, I become full of regrets because I was never able to do it. But here was Nuri doing something akin to it.
That singular act defined Nuri’s perspective on life. He would always want to give and give. As he grew in the service, he took on more responsibilities. At times when collective efforts were needed at home he would ask what role he should play. “Say it,” he would demand of me and would insist until I did so. At times he would give on our behalf and we wouldn’t know until when we called home. When my daughter was getting married he came and asked straight away what and what he should do. It wasn’t quite long that he played a central role in another event so I wanted him to get a break. We had gone far in the arrangement so I told him not to worry, that we were through with everything. He tried to argue but I stood my ground. He said ok and left. It turned out to be a big mistake on my part. He found his way through my wife. They grew up on the same street. They were in the same class in primary and secondary schools.
Nuri lived a simple life, humble and very good at self-effacement. He would like to be incognito in a crowd. He rarely used his escort. Whenever he returned to the house or from official trips he would excuse his details to go and attend to their affairs. That Toyota Corolla which some evil minded Berom youth pushed into an abandoned mining pit filled with water was the only serviceable car he had for the past seven years before he was killed.
He came down to my house regularly but never with an official vehicle and very rarely with a driver.
He would come alone or with his family or a friend. Once I asked him what he told soldiers at checkpoints when they stopped him. We were seated side by side. He turned sharply like he was shocked at the question but remembering where he was he smiled broadly. That was the answer. At weekends when he went to his farm in Bauchi he would return home looking like a farm hand.
The only time he came to my house with his official vehicle and a driver was in the third week of April, 2019. American Army officers were in Nigeria for a weeklong activity. A major joint exercise was taking place in Gwagwalada and that was what brought him early in the morning. He was wearing a military camouflage trouser and a customised Army T-shirt. After we greeted he said: “I am retiring on May 7. Tell Ayya (our mother) I can’t tell her.”
On several of his official trips to Borno or Yobe states Nuri would take a detour into Potiskum to visit our aged mother. But he would not go with his convoy much less use a siren. The convoy would stop on the outskirts of the town from where our nephew would take him home in his car and bring him back to continue with his journey. When I heard about it at the time the Boko Haram activities had escalated, I asked him to stop. “They will disturb them,” he said. I witnessed what he meant by that on his last day in office. The Chief of Army Staff had directed him to attend the commissioning of the Fika Dam project, a military intervention project. His convoy was departing town when our mother said he should come home. He was in uniform and his consternation therefore knew no bound. No one could ever remember when last he saw him in uniform at home.
After he entered the house, armed soldiers disembarked from their Hillux vans and took over the streets. A JTF Commander, a Lt. Colonel, stood in the middle of the road, creating a scary scenario. Some youth had gathered and were chanting military songs. A soldier barked out command and that quietened them.
A word about the Fika dam project. One morning Nuri came and not long after he sat down he said: “The Chief of Army Staff is coming to commission the project.” Big problem! The project hadn’t even started then for technical reason. From the beginning the engineers wanted to dam a stream running below the surface and which flows into River Gongola. Then a second GPS studies revealed a second stream running in the same direction below the first one. So the two had to be dammed otherwise the water from the first stream would drain into the stream below and flow out into River Gongola.
We were again seated side by side with Nuri. When I told him that he turned swiftly with a heavy frown on his face, his lips parted and he fixed me in his gaze, unable to speak for a few seconds. I was looking ahead, not focussing on anything in particular. Then he began: “You see …” He concluded by ordering us to go back to the second option – which was to renovate the town’s hospital and provide equipment. Then he left. The people of Fika were also making things difficult. It is water or nothing. I sent the model of the dam to him, a very beautiful edifice but he was not impressed. A day after he told me he had shown it to the Director of Military Civil Affairs, Major General Nuhu Angbazo who suggested that they go see the COAS together. Nuri refused. I asked him why, he replied: “I don’t know what he will say.” He added: “It will be worse to return the money.” I was puzzled. Two senior Army officers very reluctant to appear before the Army Chief; a Major General plus a Major General, is it not equal to a Field Marshal? The message is clear – failure is not an option. I called Col Kore (retired) and told him my dilemma. I didn’t know how he did it but later in the day he called back and said: “Go and start.” But he emphasised that the work should be completed quickly.
After the commissioning of the Fika water project Nuri returned to Bauchi that evening to begin a civilian life. He served his three months pre-retirement leave at work. He said his retirement letter was on the desk of the Chief of Army Staff of Army Staff but he did not authorise it to be released to him. Later I would hear that he had turned down an offer for an extension of service. He came to Gwagwalada for what turned out to be his last visit. We talked about a wide range of issues. But the name of our younger sister kept popping up in our discussion. There was a balance of money to be paid to enable her to own the house she was staying in. The discussion would veer off and then he would bring it back. Finally, I said “pay.” “I don’t have the money,” he said. He went on to explain in great length the efforts he had made in the past few months to build a house in an estate in Gwarinpa where he would relocate his family. His retirement was first approaching and he wanted to vacate his official residence in the Niger Barrack before they would come ask for it. His house in Potiskum is standing unfinished for many years such that it has decayed. He had applied for a federal housing loan and sought my assistance to facilitate its success. Then he was a colonel. Later as a Brig Gen he gave me the application number of another officer, a colonel, who also had applied for the housing loan. I couldn’t succeed with both, sad to say. One day he told me he would not take the loan anymore. He said he had only a year to go and he wouldn’t be able to pay in retirement.
We went for the afternoon prayers together with three young boys, all of them senior secondary students – his son, Umar’s son and the son of our younger brother, late Dr. Alkali Idris of ABU Teaching Hospital, Zaria. They were out of the mosque before I did and they lined up by the wall of the Imam’s house to wait for me. Alkali Adamu Wakili, now in private practice, who has his way with children, has finished questioning them and was talking to Nuri when I emerged from the mosque. Finally he asked who he was. Instead of answering him Nuri looked in my direction as he smiled. He has retired, I told Barr A. Wakili. When it became known in our estate that the missing General was my brother, Barr Wakili came. We are from the same place so he wanted to know who the person was. I said it was the person he met at the mosque about a week ago. “Is that man a General?” I said yes. “Is that man a General? he asked again and I said yes. In the words of Col Kore, (Retired): “When you meet him when you don’t know him you won’t know him.”
On September 4, when I returned from the mid-afternoon prayer I saw a missed call from my wife. I returned the call and I heard her say: Nuri’s wife called a moment ago that she had not heard from him since yesterday (Monday Sebtember 3.) Her last conversation with him was at about 3 pm when he was in Bukuru, Jos on transit to Bauchi. My heart sank. They don’t kidnap people in Berom’s part of Plateau State. If you are a Muslim you disappear; forever. I thought we had settled that since he was a colonel, not to take that route any more. Pull of Fate is the title of Alhaji Magaji Danbatta’s autobiography. What followed was two months of emotional turmoil for the family, his friends and for the generality of Nigerians.
I made several phone calls – to relations and friends. I usually speak with our mother every day in the morning but the next day I was hesitant to call. I asked my elder sister, Wawu to break the news to her but then thought it would be fruitless. I picked the phone and called her. After the usual morning greeting I asked if she had spoken with Nuri.
No, she said; that she couldn’t reach him on phone all day the previous day. That she got through to his wife but she did not answer her call. Hmmm!!
I told her Nuri had arrived in Jos but he was yet to reach Bauchi. I promised to find out from Jos and get back to her. I never did until the next day.
My brother Umar, the retired Commissioner, Force CID, picked the information on Wednesday that a car was pushed into a pond on Monday. He made a formal report to the police in Jos about Nuri’s disappearance. The police got the fire service to move their equipment to the pond. However, the Duru Du residents chased them away.
The story of a missing Army General was gradually finding its way into the media. I was on the Airport Road when one of my brothers called me from Kaduna that someone was out there on the social media spreading the story that Nuri had been killed. On reaching the office I found out that one Idris Ahmed from London was furiously posting and updating with Machiavellian energy, from late evening right into afternoon of the following day, making all sorts of wild allegations. I asked Hamza Idris, our politics editor (now Editor, Daily Trust) to send him a private mail to tell him that if it was his intention to cause the family maximum pain and anguish he had succeeded. Hamza did and the evil machination stopped.
The military stepped in. Soldiers first checked the road for report of accident and hospitals as well. Finally intelligence information led them to Duru Du pond. About 500 Birom women clad in black tried to stop the operation to drain the pond. They claimed their husbands would die if the pond was drained. They even attempted to seize guns from the soldiers. The JTF Commander in Jos, Brig Gen Umar I. Mohammed brushed aside the protest and said the soldiers were on a national assignment.
About this time, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai, granted audience to members of the family. We were led by Alhaji Ma’aji M. Alkali. Those in the delegation were Arc Yunusa Yakubu, Abdullahi Kore (Retired) and Madu Liman. When we arrived at his office, Gen Buratai had assembled all the directors at the Army Headquarters. The DMI, Gen Adebayo gave us a detailed briefing about the rescue operation. Gen Buratai also spoke during which he reassured the family that the Army was doing everything possible in the operation to find Major Gen Alkali. He said they had just finished writing a second report to the Presidency on the operation. To me the Army had precise information about what had happened to Nuri and that was why they were pinned down at that particular pond.
The nation waited with bated breath and then shock when several vehicles whose owners had long disappeared were pulled out of that pond of death. Finally on November 1, Nuri’s car was pulled out from the world’s second Bermuda Triangle created in Nigeria by the Buba Gyang and David Jonah Jang’s Berom ethnic group into which only Muslims and their vehicles disappear without trace. Immediately the car was pulled out, I got a call from the Director Military Intelligence, Major General Adebayo. He said Maj Gen Alkali’s car had just been pulled out of the pond and his body was thought to be in the car. He said I should come so that together we go to the house and inform the family before the social media would go to town with the story.
It wasn’t quite one hour that I returned from the city after paying a condolence visit to the family of Abu Baba Ari (who was a year ahead of me in school) whose son, Squadron Leader Bello Mohammed, died in a plane crash Friday during a rehearsal for the October I Independence Anniversary. I dressed up; made just one phone call and left the house. We were on the airport road when Nuri’s wife called my wife to enquire if we have heard the news. My wife told her we were on our way. The DMI called again to say that no dead body was found in the car. He therefore sent another officer. We arrived at the house at almost the same time with Major Yusha’u and Brig Gen Yerima. Brig Gen Yerima had made it his duty to visit the family every day. Major Yusha’u went through the difficult task of informing the family about what had happened. After that the waiting game continued.
On October 26, the General Officer Commanding 3 Division, Major-General Benson Akinroluyo, announced that Maj.-Gen. Alkali had been killed by Berom youths despite identifying himself as a retired army officer who was merely passing through Jos.
At this point there were suggestions that the funeral prayer in absentia should hold for Nuri and that his wife should begin the takaba (mourning period). There were differences of opinions among the clergy. We worked it up to our mother’s younger brothers – Alhaji Muhammadu Alkali, the retired Permanent Secretary who was the Chief Imam of Fika and also his younger brother, Grand Khadi Abdukadir retired. They returned the verdict: The funeral prayers in absentia should go ahead and the wife should begin the takaba.
Around mid-day I was in Alhaji Maaji Alkali’s house monitoring development regarding the funeral prayer in absensia in Potiskum when my phone rang. It was Brig Gen Umar I. Mohammed, the JTF Commander in Jos. He said with urgency in his voice: “We have found Gen Alkali’s body, what do you want us to do?” Let me consult with my elders I said. “I know,” he said. Brig Gen Mohammed made the call as he stood by the side of the well from which Nuri’s body was recovered in a remote village in Dura- Du area. The Army did not want to repeat the mistake whereby the announcement of Nuri’s death was made in Jos before the family was informed. This caused not a little consternation. A few minutes later some senior army officers were in Nuri’s house. When we arrived we met Major Gen Yaro, four Brigadiers General and a Colonel waiting for us. They were sent by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Buratai, to officially inform the family about Nuri’s death. The COAS himself came to the house the next day after he broke off his tour of Borno State to attend the funeral.
From that moment we were in constant contact with Major Genera K.A.Y, Isiyaku, who succeeded General Alkali as the new Chief of Administration. He was the person who directly took charge of every arrangement from when the remains of General Alkali were discovered up to the burial and for several months thereafter. A bus load of Nuri’s course mates, about 16 of them, also came on condolence visit. They had been visiting the house in groups throughout those traumatic two months.
When I received the call from Brig Gen Muhammed in Jos I informed Alhaji Ma’aji who immediately called Retired Air Commodore Ibrahim Alkali in Potiskum to inform him of this development. Air Commodore Alkali stopped the funeral prayers in absentia in Potiskum and directed that the funeral and burial be held in Abuja. It did on Saturday November 3, 2019.
The next day President Buhari called our mother and offered his condolences. He also called our elder brother, Air Commodore Ibrahim Alkali. A day or two later, we received a message from the office of the Governor of Plateau State, Barr Simon Lalong, that the governor was coming to offer his condolences. It was thought that Gwom Gwom Jos, Buba Gyang, would be on the delegation. Therefore, one of our elders suggested that the family should exploit the presence of all these important dignitaries from Plateau State to make a preposition for peace in that volatile state. The elder acknowledged that the killing was heinous, grievous and virtually unforgivable. He also noted the pain and anger it caused across the country and the prevailing mood at the time. He said even though it is a crime against the State, he suggested that the family should offer to forgive and the warring parties should in the same spirit pledge to cease hostilities and bring about a lasting peace on the Plateau. In that vein Gen Alkali’s death would not be in vain. Key people in position of authority in Plateau were on Governor Lalong’s delegation – the Speaker, the traditional rulers, the Secretary to the Government, commissioners, etc. But the Gwom Gwom Jos, who is central to whatever was going to be proposed, did not come, so the idea was dropped. By coming in person and along with people in the top echelon of the government in Plateau State Governor Lalong had discharged his responsibility very well. He also spoke well. His action has reinforced the adage that wrong is wrong whoever does it.
A large gathering of concerned youth on Plateau also took place in Jos to denounce the killing of Gen Alkali and other travellers who are merely passing through Plateau to reach other states. The convenors argued that by their actions the Berom people have now endangered the lives of every other innocent person from Plateau State who will be travelling through other states. Specific warnings were said to have been issued against any attack against travellers. Weeks before that, Governor Lalong had issued stark warning to community and traditional leaders that they would be held responsible for any assault against travellers passing through Plateau State. That warning had worked out well because since that despicable incident no traveller is known to have disappeared or killed in that volatile area in Plateau State. In that respect, Gen Alkali’s death could be said not to be in vain.
He had avoided the limelight throughout his entire life. In death he was thrust into the limelight, more than the kind he had worked hard to avoid. Almost all the Islamic jurists and scholars I am introduced to since his killing react the same way – “Kuyi hakkuri, dan Aljanna ne.” Mr Arimoro from the South West did his NYSC service with the Tank Battalion in Biu when Nuri was there. Since then they had struck a close bond that lasted till his death. We have never met but two weeks ago I had cause to speak with him on phone. “Your brother is also my brother. He is one of the finest souls that walk on the surface of this earth,” he said.
Last Saturday (November 3) marked one year that General Alkali was interned in Abuja. May the Almighty Allah have mercy on his soul, forgive his sins and admit him to Aljanatus Firdaus.