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 a 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 the community. Our elder brother, Air Commodore Ibrahim Alkali (rtd) 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 left for work. The man opposite our house barked out a 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 a 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.
Nuri was of the 34th Regular Course. Like many successful officers, his rise in the Army was steady. He earned his promotion when due until he made the Major General rank.
He was granted Regular Combatant Commission in the rank of second lieutenant on June 28, 1986 with seniority in the same rank, effective July 4, 1983. He was of the Nigerian Army Armour Corps and rose to the rank of major general in 2014. He retired on August 7, 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 happened yet.
As a result of hard work, Nuri attended many courses and held many positions in the Army.
A passage in the funeral oration read by his course-mate, Major-General Tarfa reads: “He was a full combatant officer who was 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 believed his commanding officer was trying to mess him up and feared that it 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.’
Nuri had a wonderful perspective on life. He would always want to 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. He 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 he drove when some evil men pushed into an abandoned mining pit filled with water was the only serviceable car he had for past seven. 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, he turned sharply as if 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 farmhand.
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 trousers 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 many 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. 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 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.
About the Fika dam project, one morning when Nuri came, he said: “The chief of army staff is coming to commission the project.”
After the commissioning, Nuri returned to Bauchi that evening to begin a civilian life. He came to Gwagwalada for what turned out to be his last visit and we talked about a wide range of issues.
On September 4, when I returned from the mid-afternoon prayer, I saw a missed call from my wife. When I returned the call, she said Nuri’s wife called and said she had not heard from him since Monday, September 3. Her last conversation with him was at 3pm when he was in Bukuru, Jos on transit to Bauchi. My heart sank. I thought he would not take that route as we had settled that since he was a colonel. 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 relatives 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 I thought it would be fruitless, so I picked the phone and called her. After the usual morning greeting, I asked if she had spoken with Nuri.
“No,’’ she said, adding that she couldn’t reach him on phone the previous day. She got through to his wife but she did not answer her call.
I told her that 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, got 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 residents of the area 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 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 allegation.
The military stepped in. Soldiers first checked the road for report of accident and hospitals as well. Finally, intelligence information led them to Dura 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, Brigadier-General Umar I. Mohammed, brushed the protest aside and said the soldiers were on a national assignment.
Chief of Army Staff Lt. General Tukur Buratai granted audience to members of the family. When we arrived at his office, led by Alhaji Ma’aji M. Alkali, 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 and 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 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. Immediately the car was pulled out, I got a call from the Director, Military Intelligence, Major General Adebayo. He said Major-General Alkali’s car had just been pulled out of the pond and his body was thought to be in the car. He said we should inform the family before the social media would go to town with the story.
On October 26, the General Officer Commanding 3 Division, Major-General Benson Akinroluyo, announced that Maj-Gen Alkali had been killed despite identifying himself as a retired army officer who was merely passing through Jos.
At this point, there were suggestions that funeral prayer 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 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 midday, I was in Alhaji Maaji Alkali’s house monitoring developments 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.
From that moment we were in constant contact with Major-General K.A.Y Isiyaku, the person 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 burial, and for several months thereafter.
When I received the call from Brig-Gen Muhammed in Jos, I informed Alhaji Ma’aji who immediately called Air Commodore Ibrahim Alkali (rtd) 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, Simon Lalong, stating that the governor was coming to offer his condolences. It was thought that Gbong 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.
But the Gbong Gwom Jos, who was 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 reinforced the adage that wrong is wrong whoever does it.
A large gathering of concerned youths on Plateau also took place in Jos to denounce the killing of Gen Alkali and other travellers who are merely passing through to reach other states. In that respect, Gen Alkali’s death is not in vain. May the Almighty Allah have mercy on his soul, forgive his sins and admit him to Aljanatus Firdaus.