I met Air Commodore Dan Suleiman (rtd) last Sunday already seated and waiting for me. We had agreed for a 4pmappointment, but a telephone call from my in-law to be delayed my arrival by an hour. Through one of his confidants, I informed him I would be late and craved for his indulgence. As I walked into his living room, he rose to shake my hand and welcome me with a smile.
As we sat down to commence an interaction, the living room was devoid of the affluence expected of a man who has passed through the military and made impacts on both the military and political life of Nigeria. By 1980 when he was forcefully retired, Air Commodore Suleiman had become one of the most decorated member of first Air force elite corps after spending a little over 17 years in military service.
With the unanticipated retirement, the Adamawa-born military officer , who was born on Thursday July 30, 1942 in Guyuk, was confronted with the challenge of finding an accommodation for his family. With no personal House to take his young family, he looked stranded in the middle of nowhere. Sneered by people who then described his honesty and refusal to be corrupt as an act of foolishness, the former Federal Commissioner of Health and Special Duties under the regimes of Gens. Yakubu Gowon and Murtala Mohammed refused to cave in to the dialectics of sleaze as was the practice by those in the corridors of power.
Taking into cognisance his many roles in national affairs, one wonders why his home is not in Asokoro or Maitama. He gave me an eye shot and asked with the confidence of an officer: “What’s wrong in having my house here? I am happy being here as the peace enjoyed within the precincts of this environment makes all the difference. My focus in life has never been hinged on material acquisition, but providing transparent leadership for the people.
In the course of our interaction, his wife, Mrs Marie Dan Suleiman, walked in to collaborate her husband’s repugnance to fraud. She recalled a particular incidence in old Plateau state when certain contractors, afraid to reach her husband, had approached her with a big suitcase containing money to show appreciation for a road contract awarded to them.
“I have never seen such amount of money before in my life. My stomach rumbled and I felt like visiting the toilet. I promptly told them that I could not accept it as my husband is opposed to this. When later I called my father in-law and narrated the incidence, he said, ‘my daughter, don’t be foolish like my son. When next they come, just call me and I will be around to collect’”, Mrs Suleiman reminisced.
Suleiman survived the concealed discrimination from fellow Northerners for being a Christian and the contempt of his Southern colleagues during the military era. Despite pressures from his father who had converted to Islam to change religion, he stubbornly refused, insisting that he would maintain his Christian faith.
When former President Shehu Shagari wanted to appoint a new Chief of Air Staff 1980, religion played a fast one on him that was later to deal a deadly blow to his military career and expectation. The fearless officer resisted advice from various quarters to contact Shagari whom he had worked with during Gowon’s regime on the appointment of the new Air Force Chief, noting that if someone was appointed on account of lobbying, such may not discharge his responsibility as professionally required of him.
Unknown to the former Plateau Sate military administrator, Major Abdullahi D. Bello, a far junior officer, was the choice of the new power cabal. The reason for the appointment was later to play out when they, presuming that Bello was a Muslim, gave him the Qur’an to take the oath of office.
To their shock and embarrassment, he pointed to the bible. Dumbfounded and confused, they asked: “Are you not a Muslim? Are you not called Abdullahi D. Bello?”
He promptly replied: “No, I am a Christian. I am Abdullahi Dominic Bello”.
Bello’s seniors, including Suleiman, were subsequently forced to retire. Like a fish thrown out of water, the retired officer stared into what seemed as a blank world. Since then, he has survived the teeth of betrayal from politicians and had to cope with accusation that he is deeply involved in turning parts of the North into a Christian enclave on account of his leading position in the affairs of the Middle Belt Forum (MBF). He has watched the rancour that has trailed the defunct Northern Region that once provided a platform for consensus in the days leading to the Nigerian civil war.
His finest moments outside the military was his role in the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) that was then the symbol of resistance against the annulment of the 1993 June 12 presidential poll. While pressured by top military generals to abandon the Yoruba nation in the struggle to revalidate June 12, he stood his grounds and was forced to go into exile after his house was set ablaze.
In recognition of his contribution to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed him as Ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2007. Former President Goodluck Jonathan was later to award a national honour of the Commander of the Niger (CON) for his irreplaceable contributions to national development.
Looking back at the past, does he regret his role in the civil war that sought to protect the unity of the country based on Northern sentiments? He said: “I will answer your question with a story: In the early 1980s or thereabouts, the late General Hassan Katsina (rtd) was disturbed at the wave of disunity ripping across the North. He summoned officers from the North who fought in the civil war and asked why there was so much rift and hatred among Northerners. A general (names withheld) who is a Christian said, ‘If there is a war today, I will never fight on the side of the North. We only fought the Nigerian civil war to turn ourselves and children into second class citizens,’” Suleiman recalled.
“Has anything changed? There are killings by herdsmen in all parts of the North and Southern Nigeria, and the government is yet to grapple with the problem. Discriminatory practices against ethnic nationalities in the North are still prevalent. Unless something is done fast, the unity of the country which we have always taken for granted will slip through our fingers. We have always risen to the occasion in the past, and I do hope we shall do now in order to save the nation and avoid a repeat of the past”, the elder statesman enthused.
To mark his 77th birthday, the Dan Suleiman and Baba Ochai True Leadership Foundation that is chaired by him will on Tuesday July 30, 2019 at the Abuja NAF Centre launch his autobiography: ‘My Testimony’ and that of a retired Comptroller of Customs who was denied promotion for over a decade, Elder Baba Ochai, ‘The Grace of God And Awesome Mercy Of God’. These two books are personal accounts of how divine intervention made them survive the tides despite the injustice foisted on them.
Suleiman’s entire life’s journey is encapsulated in how the divine powers saw him through a tortuous life journey. He is full of praise to God for delivering him from sharks of public life and blessed him with a family, especially a loving wife and obedient children.
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