In every palace, there are constants. Stools, pictures, drawings, songs, and other relics, like the buildings, that reminds everyone of the historical value of the place. And in almost every palace, there is someone who connects these dots of history. Learned or unlearned in letters, known or unknown outside the precinct, worshipped or disparaged, there is that household name that lights up faces and readily provides guidance and answers on operations and etiquette. Unarguably, late Malam Tijani Yusuf, mostly known as TJ, fitted the picture of the pointsman in the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
Until his death on Wednesday, July 31, 2019, TJ was the Special Assistant (General Duties) to the President. He retired from Public Service as a Director/Special Assistant (Special Duties) to the Permanent Secretary in 2016 and was given another appointment for his invaluable contributions. But for ill health, Nigerians would have seen TJ on television for the last time on July 24, 2019, when President Muhammadu Buhari swore in Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, at the Council Chambers. For many years, TJ had been the constant face at the swearing-in, oath-taking and inauguration ceremonies. Rarely noticed, he effortlessly provides the Bible, Quran, registers and guides personalities on where to sit, stand, sign and how to recite the ordinances.
Reticent by nature and unassuming in character, TJ was the most popular name in the Villa for many years. Hardly in the limelight, but regularly mentioned, TJ is known among gardeners, stewards and cleaners, Presidents’ and Vice Presidents’ families, and he seamlessly befriends and connects the more visible operational tripods of the Villa; security, protocol and media. TJ knew the Villa history and operations by heart and experience. Since the 90s, he was there when First Families moved into their official living quarters, known as The Residence, and was most likely there when they moved out. TJ knew the joys, tensions and lowest moments of the First Families in the Villa.
He was among the first to be called to work when a President drew his last breath, and was around as Presidents’ moved their personal belongings from the Commander-In-Chief’s Office. He knew when there was a light cut, when taps stopped running and was regularly on hand to ensure decorum and decorations for various ceremonies, including visits by Heads of Government and envoys. TJ was a constant.
For his diligence, TJ had many handshakes with both sitting and visiting presidents. And he made history in the Villa and public service by receiving two national awards. In 2006, he was honoured with Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) by President Olusegun Obasanjo and six years later, 2012, TJ was honoured by President Goodluck Jonathan with Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). Preceding the awards, TJ had smiled home with commendation letters for hard work and dedication from former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar and Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
In a 2014 interview with an in-house magazine, VillaScope, the quintessential workaholic recalled: “For the two national honours, I was just sitting down in my office when I was called upon that the President had approved that a national honour be bestowed on me. I didn’t canvass for it, I didn’t go looking for it, I was just doing my job and I didn’t know people were watching. I was just called one day that the President had approved that I be given MON and I was told to bring my Curriculum Vitae. The then Chief of Staff, Gen. Abdullahi Mohammed, also called me and told me about the President’s decision.
“The next one, OON, honestly I didn’t know how it came about. I was just told that President Goodluck Jonathan said that I should be given OON. I was asked if I had a national award before and I responded that I was given MON before. The then Chief of Staff, Chief Mike Aiyegbeni Oghiadomhe, said the President said I should be given another national honour.
“I should think it’s for humility, hard work, perseverance and endurance in doing your work. Honestly, like everyone else, I do my work. I dedicate myself. I do all that is before me, go home and come back the next day to make sure there’s no failure. My thinking is that if there’s failure in this house, then the country will be a failure. I make sure nothing fails.’’
The former director graduated with a B.SC in International Studies from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, relished his work, especially the private times spent with visiting Heads of Government, like United States President Bill Clinton. According to him, the contacts served as motivation and broadening of the horizon, including the local and international training, conferences and official visits on the federal government’s delegation.
Like a typical public servant, he hardly talked about personal life. But he once gave a glimpse. “All through my primary school I was a class monitor and in secondary school, I was a class prefect and eventually became a senior prefect. Even in my advanced studies, School of Arts and Science in Sokoto, I was the secretary of the Student’s Union. I was also the financial secretary to the Niger State Students’ Association in 1979 to 1980. All along, I have been building myself and the society has been building me as well. And when I finished my university, just like a carry-over, God has always been with me in leadership.’’
For many years TJ coordinated swearing-in/oath-taking ceremonies of chief justices, ministers, permanent secretaries and commission members. He handled meetings of the weekly Federal Executive Council and other sundry issues relating to the President’s office and Residence. TJ worked with house-keepers on domestic issues in the Villa. Most meetings, he recalled, were not easy. “I remember standing from 9.30 am to about 5 pm when President Olusegun Obasanjo swore in 60 ministers in 1999.’’
TJ lived a life of sacrifice, friendliness and diligence. As news filtered into the Villa that he passed on after a brief illness, the reality was obvious to every staff and political officeholder that certainly a gap had been created. TJ was a recurring decimal – a human constant — that will surely be missed by all.
-Oche Echeija Egwa is a Press Officer in the Office of the Special Adviser to the President, Media and Publicity.