Umaru Saro: The Exit of Ilorin’s “Saving Grace”

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By Abubakar Imam

Ilorin o ni Koko(Cocoa) Beni ko ni obi. Asiri Ola To nbo konitu.–Alfa Dodo Agbarere(d. 1978).

I never heard of the name, Umaru Aminu Saro until sometimes in 1986 when the late Sardauna of Ilorin rose to the occasion to restore the grace of Ilorin as the capital of Kwara State through his monumental contributions to the then Forty Million (N40,000,000:00) Naira Kwara State Industrial Development Fund. The Fund was the project of the then military administration of Kwara State under the leadership of the Offa-born Group Captain Salaudeen Adebayo Latinwo(b.1943).

Probably due to the encouragement received from the Buhari/Idiagbon leadership at the federal level, each of the then 19 states of the federation was raising funds for one project or the other to provide facilities for their people as a way of augmenting what was obtainable from both the internally generated revenue and revenue allocation from the Federal Government. And so, Kwara State decided to do its own towards generating money through which it could establish industries all over the State with a view to facilitating employment opportunities for its teeming school leavers.

Though I was a secondary school pupil then, I was quite aware of many ongoing developments due to my “closeness” to my late father, Mallam Jimoh Imam Pakata(1931-2012), who always allowed me to sit by his side while listening to news on radio, watching television and even reading newspapers. Along with him,I watched the “main Fund Raising” which was held at the Indoor Sports Hall of the Kwara State Stadium Complex, Ilorin, as it was televised by the NTA Ilorin. It was a memorable Naira rain. Dignitaries from all walks of life,most especially from every part of the old Kwara State were present with the then Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji (Dr)Sulu Gambari, CFR(1914-1992), as the Royal Father of the event.

When it was the time for guests to announce their contributions, Chief Samuel Adedoyin,the celebrated industrialist from Agbamu, made his Igbomina stock very proud with his generous donation of N150,000:00.The late Asiwaju of Offa,Chief Emmanuel Olatunji Adesoye, came down from his erstwhile Kaduna base to unveil similarly huge amount. I was sure the people of Offa and the entire Ibolo tribe were delighted with his donation, which confirmed that the “Iyeru-Okins” were no pushovers. The late Alhaji Mohammed Attah, the then Chairman of First Bank PLC, who was also based in Kaduna, announced the donation of N25,000:00, if my memory is sound enough, to the pride of the  Ebira people of the present-day Kogi State. Though His Royal Highness,Alhaji Sulu Gambari,the 9th Emir of Ilorin and pioneer Chairman of the Kwara State Council of Chiefs ,donated the sum of N10,000:00,which was the highest from any of the Royal Fathers present, the people of Ilorin, particularly those in the public service were “mocked” by their colleagues from other parts of the state that none of their Ilorin compatriots could match the donation of those who did not hail from the state capital.

The Northern edition of the fund raising, which held either in Kano or Kaduna, also took place with similar outcomes. The southern edition, which was held in Lagos and perfectly organised by a Committee under the Chairmanship of Alhaji AbdulGaniyu Folorunsho AbdulRazaq, SAN,OFR(1927-2020),the father to the current Governor of Kwara State, Mallam AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, saw friends of the State dazzling or dashing the people of Kwara State huge amounts as donations. Alhaji Abdulwahab Iyanda Folawiyo, the then Baba Adinni of Nigeria, donated N250,000:00,while the Chairman of the occasion, Olorogun Michael Ibru, the then President of the Ibru Organisation,also donated a princely sum that was barely lower to that of Chief Folawiyo.

Not longer after the Lagos event, the Guest of Honour at the launch ,the then Major-General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida,CFR(b. 1941),who was the Chief of Army Staff,benefited from a bloodless palace coup, which made him the Military President. The changes in government saw to the removal of the Military Governor who mooted the launching. Despite the situation, the raising of the funds continued under the new Governor,the then Wing Commander Mohammed Ndatsu Umar(later Air Vice Marshall), who took-over from Group Captain Latinwo.

The launch was taken to each of the then twelve(12) Local Government Areas of the State to encourage healthy rivalry. Each of the LGAs tried to out do the other. When it was getting to the turn of the old Ilorin Local Government, stakeholders were determined to ensure that Ilorin raised enough money that would conform to its leadership position in the scheme of things at the state level. The IDPU,under the leadership of its then National President, Alhaji L. A.K. Jimoh, was tireless in encouraging the people of the LGA to contribute handsomely to the Fund. The Chairman of the Local Government Area ,Alhaji Saidu Olayinka, and the then Honourable Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Engr. Sulaiman Oba Saleeman(b. 1948) worked with other stakeholders,most especially the then Ilorin Descendants Progressive Union, to identify those who could be invited among indigenes of Ilorin to the event . It was at the end of those patriotic efforts that stakeholders decided on Alhaji Saro for invitation as the Chief Launcher at the Ilorin edition of the Fund Raising. As a patriot, Alhaji Saro not only accepted the challenge threw at him but also left everyone positively surprised with his handsome donation of Two Hundred and Fifty Thousands (N250,000:00) from his deep purse. He also announced various the sums of money N200,000:00 on behalf of his friends whom he personally invited to the event to support him. The total sum he announced,N450,000:00 at the time when the exchange rate was N35:00 to $1, was the highest to be made by a single individual in Nigeria of that era. The people of Ilorin Emirate were very happy that a son of the soil had proved that “asiri bi bo ti awon Ilorin lo je”.

For those who are unsure of the reason behind the renaming of the Road linking the General Hospital Roundabout to the Geri Alimi Roundabout, Ilorin,as Umaru Saro Road, the above narration explains it .The same reason accounts for the renaming of the Unity Road as Wahab Folawiyo Road while Amilegbe Road was renamed Michael Ibru Road in honour of the other two highest donours. Just as Opomalu Road was renamed Zainab Oniyangi Road in honour of the wife to the second republic Minister of Defence,Alhaji Akanbi Oniyangi(1930-2006), Alhaja Zainab Iyabo Oniyangi,who was the highest donor among the female folks.

That was not all. During the tenure of Prof. Shuaibu Oba AbdulRaheem, OFR, as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, between 1997 and 2002,Alhaji Saro was the only indigene of Ilorin, the host community, who responded to the calls of the University for private support. Alhaji Saro donated a building named Zahra Isowo-Jaji House,in honour of his grand mother, to the nation’s most sought after University. The building housed the institution’s School of Postgraduate Studies for close to two decades before it was recently moved to its new place near the Centre for Ilorin Studies, University of Ilorin. You and I ought to imagine what would have happened to the perception of the capacity of the first son of the soil and Muslim to head the nation’s most sought after institution of higher learning as far as the image of his people was concerned, if Alhaji Saro had not responded the way he did.

Towards the end of last year, it was on air that it was the patriotic intervention of the departed hero that culminated in the issuance of the Certificate of Occupancy in respect of the Ilorin Yidi Praying Ground to the Ilorin Emirate community. He had shared the experience of the Lagos Muslim Community, which lost the Obalende Praying Ground with his friends,which he explained was due to the inability or ignorance of the leadership of Lagos Muslim Ummah of the colonial period to secure permanent rights over the property. The colonial authority was able to “colonise” the property because of the loophole. That was the fear the Sardaurna shared with his friends like the Danmadani of Ilorin, Alhaji Shehu AbdulGafar,OON ;the author of Ilorin: The Journey So Far,Alhaji L. A. K.Jimoh; and a former Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources in Kwara State, Alhaji Yinusa Gada,all of whom are former National Presidents of the IEDPU. They shared his fear. Their idea was bought by the Emir of Ilorin and Chairman, Kwara State Council of Emirs and Obas,

Alhaji(Dr)Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, CFR, and that led to actions that forestalled the possibility of a repeat of the Lagos experience in Ilorin. I read it elsewhere that he would have sponsored the raising of the perimeter fence of the sanctuary to further protect it against encroachment if not for his death.

Today,we are crying that the “eros” are buying everything everywhere across Ilorin. The situation would have been worst if not for the likes of Alhaji Saro. As far back as 1995, Alhaji Saro had hearkened to the call of his people not to allow “unwanted elements” to buy the erstwhile Tate and Lye Staff Quarters in the Government Reservation Area of Ilorin. Unconfirmed reports have it that Alhaji Saro bought the property at the huge sum of Eleven Million (N11,000,000:00) Naira 26 years ago just “for the love of our people”.

Alhaji Saro’s personal successes, despite limited western education, and the surname he bore throughout his life are nothing but confirmation of the strides of the good people of Ilorin Emirate to prove that they are not indolent as erroneously perceived in some Quarters. Saro is the Yoruba name for a sister West African country, Sierra Leone. The surname he adopted is the acknowledgement of the fact that his father traversed the West African subregion for economic activities before taken Freetown as his base,which informed the adoption of the name just as Alhaji Ahmadu Commasie,(Kumasi in Ghana), the father to a former Inspector-General of Police, Alhaji Ibrahim Ahmadu Coommasie, CFR,GCON, did. The senior Saro later settled in Lagos where he died as his son. Incidentally, younger Coommasie also held the traditional title of Sardaurna of Katsina, like the subject of this piece who was the Sardauna of Ilorin.  
It is also significant to say that,despite not being raised in Ilorin and living outside his ancestral home for most parts of his life, most of the friends of Alhaji Saro were indigenes of Ilorin. They cut across ages and social strata. They included General Abdullahi Mohammed (Adangba),CFR,GCON;Justice Saka Yusuf,OFR(1933-2018);Alhaji Yakubu Amori Gobir(1931-2012),Alhaji AbdulRasheed Salman Alada(b. 1938) and Alhaji Safi Usuf Olodo(b. 1929)and,of course,the musical avatar,Alhaji Jaigbade Alao, to mention a few. The 92 year old Alhaji Olodo even told me a few years back that Alhaji Saro was quite a generous man who always found it very easy to assist his friends,most especially the less-privileged, whenever the need arose. A renowned academic and distinguished public servant also disclosed to me , while  discussing the life and times of Alhaji Saro on Monday,  that the late international business magnate was quite generous to him and many others. 

Alhaji Saro,who died on Sunday (January 31,2021) ,was born in Lagos on August 10,1940 to parents who hailed from Ilorin. His father was Alhaji Aminu Saro,who was a successful magnate, while his mother was Alhaja Muniratu, a daughter to the famous Jaji-Arijigin family of Alikali Lane, Isale Aluko,Ilorin. The foremost philanthropist had his elementary education in Lagos. It was from the same city that he also obtained his secondary school education.

Armed with a fascinating school certificate , the late Sardaurna of Ilorin worked in the services of the government of the erstwhile Northern Region. He served in Maiduguri, the capital of the present day Borno State. 
He,however, opted out of the civil service very early in life because he wanted to prove his mettle in the private sector.He subsequently joined John Holt as a management trainee where he worked between 1962 and 1964.He thereafter joined the services of the United African Company(UAC) as a Sales Executive in the Niger Motors Division of the conglomerate.
Having obtained what he considered as enough exposure as a paid employee, Alhaji Saro left paid employment in 1970 to start his own business outfit, which he called Umaru Saro Nigeria Limited. He successfully ran the business,which majorly revolves round the importation of essential daily needs for over 50 years.
Until his death, Alhaji Saro was a leading light in the nation’s business community. He was one of the dominant figures in businesses relating to Sugar and the likes across Nigeria. He was also into banking and properties, among other legitimate businesses.He was highly respected for his patriotism,humility, honesty and transparently apolitical stance throughout.
In appreciation of his numerous illustrious contributions, Alhaji Saro received several honours and awards. He was appointed as the pioneer Sardaurna of Ilorin by the Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji(Dr) Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, CFR. The Federal Government of Nigeria also conferred on him the awards of the Officer of Federal Republic (OFR) in 2003 and the Commander of Order of Niger(CON) in 2014.
Alhaji Saro was a man who took care of both his nuclear and extended families. He was also happily married and blessed with children and grandchildren many of who are highly accomplished citizens contributing their quotas to national development through various spheres of human endeavour.
While I hope that the rest of us would emulate his admirable patriotism as we would be remembered for whatever we do, it is my sincere prayers that Allah forgives his shortcomings. May He also rest his soul in Al-Janah fridaouz and grant his relations, contemporaries, friends and other bereaved the fortitude to bear his demise. Aamiin.
Imam is National Publicity Secretary, Ilorin Emirate Descendants Progressive Union

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