By Kaye Whiteman
Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem
Monday, January 6, 2014, marked the 53rd birthday of Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, the Nigeria-born, Pan-African scholar and Rhodes Scholar, who was born on January 6, 1961 in Funtua, Nigeria. Brother Taju, as he was affectionately called by many who knew him well, served as the General Secretary of the Pan-African Movement, Director of Justice Africa, the Deputy Director of United Nations Millennium Campaign for Africa, as well as a writer for numerous newspapers and journals across Africa.
In remembering Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, we bring you this tribute by former WEST AFRICA MAGAZINE Editor, Kaye Whiteman, one of several in memory of this great son of Africa who died in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 25, 2009 in an auto accident.
The untimely death of Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, at the age of 48, has come as a deep shock to a large number of Africans and people committed to the future of Africa.
He was both an intellectual and an activist who worked tirelessly for the causes he supported, of which the greatest by far was the unity of the African continent. His life’s slogan was “don’t agonise, organise”.
While it is cruelly tragic that he should have died in a car crash on the way to the airport in Nairobi, it is fitting that he should have been on a mission to Rwanda as part of his continuing pan-African efforts, and even more emblematic that it should have been on 25 May, which is marked internationally as Africa day.
He was born in Funtua, in Nigeria‘s Katsina state, where he was also buried. He was educated at government schools and went on to Bayero University, in Kano, where he obtained a first-class honours degree in political science and then won a Rhodes scholarship to St Peter’s College, Oxford.
His tutor there was the influential radical Gavin Williams, under whose guidance Tajudeen obtained a PhD with a thesis on party politics in Nigeria. With his talent for intellectual debate and his restless energy, he was swept up in a multiplicity of diverse political activities, as well as embarking on a side career as a journalist, contributing to and, on occasion, editing journals, both academic and popular, and broadcasting on BBC African and Hausa services. In the late 1980s, he worked as a research officer at the Institute for African Alternatives run by the South African Marxist Ben Turok.
Tajudeen’s most important career move was when he became secretary general of the seventh Pan-African Congress held in Kampala in 1994. If the congress itself was perhaps not all its organisers had aspired to, he was not discouraged, and the position gave him a base in Africa for several years. A book arose from this period: Pan-Africanism: Politics, Economy and Social Change in the Twenty-first Century, published in 1996.
During the 1990s he was also involved in the political crisis in Nigeria, and helped found the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in 1997, in the worst period of General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship. In a way his pan-Nigerianism helped form the basis of his pan-Africanism. The CDD is still a thriving campaigning Africa-based organisation, with tentacles way beyond Nigeria, and Tajudeen remained its chairman.
In 1999 he also helped to found a London-based organisation, Justice Africa, which offered a further platform for his views. Of late it was regularly putting out his “Thursday postcard”, actually begun in the 1990s, long before blogs were blogs, which he sustained almost unfailingly each week, always finding something new to write about.
It was reproduced by several African newspapers and on the internet by the popular East African Pambazuka News website. The postcard carried each week the dictum of Kwame Nkrumah “forward ever, backward never”. The last one, dated 22 May, incisive and outspoken as ever, was entitled “city beautification is destroying livelihoods”, and was about how planners in cities such as Nairobi drive out street traders. He asks: “Of what use is a beautiful city peopled by citizens who have lost their livelihoods?”
Friends say that the cause of pan-Africanism increasingly became his most important motivating factor, and all his commitments were in that direction. In 2006 he took a UN post as director for Africa for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, but his friends felt this was perhaps marking time, although it mattered to him having a base in Africa.
I knew him as a fellow trustee of the Africa Centre in London, where I witnessed at first hand his combination of idealism and pragmatism in pursuit of solutions, always forged with diplomacy and humour.
In an age when African leadership has all too often shown itself to be self-seeking and corrupt, he presented in his life, his work and his writing, another face of the continent, representing a generation that has dreamed of something different. It might have seemed a lonely struggle, in that while trying to work from within civil society, he was mostly outside the main power networks in Africa.
There has, however, been such a widespread wave of great emotion at his unexpected death, that one may presume to surmise that the influence of his life and his thinking may well have a deeper impact and influence than that of those who currently enjoy the fruits of office in presidential palaces.
He is survived by his wife, Munira, and two daughters, Aisha and Aida.
Cameron Duodu writes: Tajudeen was the composite man par excellence – everything about him hung together to create a persona that was impossible to ignore. His large oval face, expressive eyes, loud voice and unbounded energy all fused together to compel everyone to take notice of him. His message was simple and clear: “I love Africa and I want you to do the same.”
Even when he was alive, he was already a legend. There is a story that once when the military dictator Abacha had him detained in Nigeria, intelligence operatives from Uganda went there, sprang him out of jail and flew him out on a false passport. But this did not spare the Ugandan leader responsible for his rescue, Yoweri Museveni, from being lashed by Tajudeen’s tongue when Museveni changed the rules of tenure in office, in order to continue his rule.
No one could take Tajudeen for granted. His analysis of Africa’s problems was incisive and ruthless – it could not be dismissed on the grounds of ideology, religion or any -ism. Nor did he allow his views to be softened by personal affection.
His work for Africa will live on: his “postcard” columns are to be compiled and published. And there are proposals for a Tajudeen prize, even a Tajudeen day.
And what about him? He would just have laughed boisterously and shaken his head on hearing of all of that.
“But that’s crazy!” he would have said, after wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. What a man to lose at such an early age.
• Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, pan-African activist, born 6 January 1961; died 25 May 2009
This piece first appeared in The Guardian, Tuesday, 9 June, 2009.