Malam Abdullahi Ladan Katchalla
Malam Abdullahi Ladan Katchalla, 90, was the Katcallan Suleja before he became the Wazirin Zazzau Suleja, a position he inherited from his grandfather. In this interview he took us down memory lane, including how Suleja ceded its name, Abuja, to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
Can you take us through your childhood?
I was born on August 10, 1928. I grew up with my father and later, my grandfather, who was the Waziri Abuja. I stayed with him for 10 years. He sent me to the then Abuja Elementary School in 1936. In 1942, I went to Bida Middle School. And in 1945, I went to Barewa College; that was after it was moved from Katsina to Kaduna. I was there for four years. After that, I went to the School of Hygiene, Kano, for two years and obtained a diploma in Public Health and Hygiene. I passed out in 1949 as a third class sanitary inspector and was employed by the government. I was posted to Bida, where I worked for about three years.
What was the experience like?
In those days you worked comfortably. People were sincere and devoted to their jobs. Everybody was obedient to civil service rules.
From Bida, where did you move to?
I was posted to Kano in 1954. I stayed there for three years before I was posted to Katsina. In Kano, we embarked on house-to-house inspections. Then, the local government was called the Native Authority, and before you put up a building you had to submit your plan to the health office for approval. We inspected abattoirs in Sabon Gari.
Mosquito-controlled offices were created. We inspected mosquito breeding places and asked people to clean their houses and the drainage system. These days we don’t have similar services. Things were better in those days because you had a lot of discipline.
From Katsina I was sent to Lagos. I was in Lagos for about six months; that was 1956. At that time, Lagos was not overcrowded, so you could move freely. We had drainage systems to inspect, and of course, the lagoon. My work was in Yaba Technical School. I lived in Agege before moving back to Katsina.
From Katsina I was posted to Sokoto Province, specifically Birnin Kebbi. By then the World Health Organisation (WHO) had started malaria control campaign in Sokoto, I worked under the WHO in Birnin Kebbi. We were using chemicals to spray Fadama. Between River Niger and Birnin Kebbi, there was a wide Fadama which breaded mosquitoes. I went for several courses under the WHO. From Birnin Kebbi I went to the Malaria Eradication School, Cairo, in 1962. I was there for six months.
How was your Cairo experience?
We had the Nigerian Embassy, but the British Embassy was taking care of it. That was my first time of going outside Nigeria, but I knew that since Egypt was a Muslim country, I would be in good hands. I visited their villages, the pyramids in Giza, and the River Nile. They had a lot of mosquitoes breeding where they did their irrigation. From Cairo, I went for another practical work under the WHO for Africa in Congo Brazaville.
Was Congo peaceful at that time?
We have two Congos – Congo Brazaville and Congo Kinshasa. The former was under Belgium Leopodville and the other was under French Brazaville. I stayed in Brazaville, I was there when the Patrice Lumumba problem started. Only River Congo divided the two.
What are the fond memories of your youth?
I stayed with some experienced people and learned a lot from them, especially the WHO. It taught me a lot about government procedures etc. I also went to the University of Ibadan during the civil war and studied nutrition. There was the need to train people on nutrition in case of persons who were displaced from war.
Can you describe the late Emir of Suleja, Suleiman Barau?
Suleiman Barau was a good man, very intelligent and helpful. He did a lot to develop Abuja, now called Suleja. He was the longest serving emir in Suleja. He ruled for 36 years.
Tell us how you met your wife?
I got married in 1951 in Bida. My marriage was just like a family arrangement because my wife and I were brought up by Suleiman Barau, the Emir of Suleja. After the death of my grandfather, Suleiman Barau took me to his house. I was brought up there, so I had access to the palace.
You have been referring to Suleja as Abuja; was that its original name?
How did its name change to Suleja?
It is a long history. After my work with the WHO, there was the first coup in 1966 and the second one in the same year. States were created after the civil war.
Where were you during the civil war?
I was in Birnin Kebbi. Yakubu Gowon created 12 states, so we had to move when Niger and Sokoto were merged as North Western states.
When General Murtala Mohammed became head of state, more states were created, including Niger. So those of us from Niger moved to Minna, the capital. I worked in Minna as a sanitary health inspector under the Department of Public Health. Then there was the local government reform. The idea was that the population of a local government should not be more than 300,000 but not less than 150,000.
I became the first secretary of Abuja Local Government; hence I changed from public health to administration. At that time we only had an interim chairman known as Muhammadu Gambo, but after elections we had Abubakar Mai Kwato.
Murtala brought the issue of moving the feudal capital from Lagos, saying it was congested. He created a board to go round, after which he selected our Abuja to be part of the new federal capital.
How was the news received?
When they mapped out the area, the greater part of it was from former Abuja, three quarters actually. When they started thinking of what name to give it, that’s where we came in. They wrote several names on paper but later asked whether the people of Abuja could relinquish the name of their town for the new federal capital city and think of a new name for their town.
I was the secretary while Colonel Joseph Oni was the sole administrator of Niger State. He was instructed to contact us, so he sent a letter. As secretary, I read the letter to members of the council, including the emir, his councilors, the chairman and supervisory councilor. We went to Minna and had a meeting with Col. Oni. After further clarification, we agreed that we would not retain Abuja as the name of our town.
But the emir said we would go back home and consult our people. When we came back he invited all the learned people, imams, traders, rich people and top civil servants and asked me to explain the message. After that, many names were suggested. At the end, it was agreed that the name of Suleiman Barau, who was the longest serving emir, be combined with that of Abuja to become Suleja. Many people agreed and supported the idea, so we wrote formally to the chief of staff, who replied that they were grateful.
Was there any form of compensation?
That is the issue. They did whatever they wanted to do through the Niger State Government, so the communication had to go through the state.
How did the people accept the decision?
They accepted the decision in good faith.
How has life been since your retirement?
After retirement I went into farming.
How many children do you have?
I have 14 children, two wives and 54 grandchildren.
Did you envisage that Suleja would transform into what it is today?
Suleja is very peaceful, that’s why everybody wants to stay here In Suleja, nobody will molest you except you put yourself into trouble. The indigenes are very hospitable, that’s why you see the town growing. Most of the big people in Abuja have houses in Suleja because it is just a 30-minute drive to Abuja.
At times it is beyond my imagination because I am blind now. I have been blind since 2002. I have glaucoma, the disease that affects the eyes. It came suddenly. As a health person I know it has no cure. I was taken to America for possible treatment; they tried, but I just had to accept my destiny. But I am happy, I don’t have any worry. Once you allow such things to worry you, you will be nowhere.
When I was growing up, Abuja was not more than 7,000 people; everybody knew each other. Suleja is more populated by visitors than indigenes but we accept that. Some of the visitors don’t even want to go back to their villages.
What message do you have for the youth?
They should learn trade. When you consider the number of new graduates, you can’t rely on the government to provide jobs for you.
Informate source: Daily Trust