On 19 November 1982, over 40 aeroplanes carrying VIPs and well-wishers touched down in the sleepy town of Yola to honour two men: a federal minister and an obscure 36-year-old customs officer, both of whom were being installed with traditional titles by the Lamido of Adamawa, one of the most influential kings in Northern Nigeria.
This 36-year-old customs officer named Atiku Abubakar had left the town as a mere village boy and joined the customs service in 1969. However, within just 13 years, he had become one of the most senior customs officers in the country and was being named the ‘Turaki Adamawa’, a traditional title that had hitherto been exclusively reserved for princes.
With the conferment of this title and a marriage to the king’s daughter, this unknown customs officer was on the pages of national newspapers. “Who is he?” the main opposition party led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo said. Aware of Atiku’s rising popularity in Yola, an upcoming politician, Bamanga Tukur, picked Atiku – who was still a public servant – to help him with his governorship campaign.