…TRIBUTE TO GEN. DOMKAT BALI @80
The first time I met General Domkat Bali (rtd) was around 1992. I was a swash-buckling young man at the time, only a few years out of the university and bursting with ideas. I had conceived the Yakubu Gowon Centre, which was a foundation named after former head of state, General Yakubu Gowon and was in search of a credible personality to headline it. I was a co-partner of a public relations firm, Cameo Adventures Limited. Our search led to General Bali, a choice that turned out to be most appropriate, given his iron cast credibility and the immense respect he enjoyed in the public space.
General Bali was enthusiastic in accepting the honour of chairing the centre. General Gowon had been his superior officer and also happened to be his kinsman from Plateau State. However, more importantly, he identified with the broad objectives of the centre, especially with regards to the issue of the promotion of national unity. Of course, like many officers of his generation, he had gone to war to fight for the sanctity of the Nigerian state.
With General Bali on the saddle, the Yakubu Gowon Centre which I had conceived as an idea, crystallised into reality and became a major force among non governmental organisations in the country.
However, it was not the Yakubu Gowon Centre that established my relationship with General Bali. Rather, it was the role he played in my life when I had reason to break out of Cameo Adventures Limited and strike out on my own. As is often the case with most Nigerian partnerships, the relationship between my business partner and I in Cameo Adventures soured by 1993 and we had to go our separate ways. I was still very young, in my mid 20s, still very idealistic, and needed an anchor.
I soon set up another company and approached General Bali to chair it. Always a very candid, straightforward man, he told me right away that he didn’t have any money to invest in the company; that the only thing he had to invest was his good name. And he said to me, ‘I will allow you to use that name, but I enjoin you to use it carefully and responsibly because that’s all I have got.’
It was a very touching moment for me, something that I have cherished ever since. As it turned out, the name Domkat Bali is gold and he lent it to me. With him as my anchor, I was able to grow the company and my career sustainably over the years.
Given the perplexing times we live in Nigeria today, it may not be possible to express fully the weight of the name Domkat Bali. In an era where the only value that appears to matter is the material, many may not fully understand how invaluable a good name can be. And indeed, how precious the name Domkat Bali has been, not just to me, but to many people who had reason to relate with him. I will recall a few instances to illustrate.
When I conceived the idea of the Zik Prize in Leadership, of course the need arose to reach out to the great Owelle of Onitsha, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and secure his approval and blessings for the initiative. It was General Domkat Bali who approached Dr. Azikiwe and it was to him that Dr. Azikiwe gave the approval in writing for the Zik Prize in Leadership and the annual Zik Lecture Series. It was also General Bali who, as the pioneer patron of the Zik Prize initiative, tapped Professor Anya O. Anya, a respected academic as the first chairman of the Public Policy Research and Analysis Center that organises the Zik Prize annually.
With General Bali at the saddle, the Zik Prize initiative took off and became one of the most respected private sector honour schemes on the African continent. Such illustrious Africans like the late former president of Tanzania, Mr. Julius Nyerere; the former president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, the late South African president, Mr Nelson Mandela and other prominent individuals have been honoured, many of them attending the events in person.
General Domkat Bali was not just chairman of my company, he was a father figure, a friend, a mentor, a role model and an invaluable source of inspiration. Usually a very relaxed person, he took me under his wings and effortlessly piloted me through the difficulty of the Nigerian socio-economic and political environment. He is an unusual man, indeed, a very rare human being. A man who is totally devoid of greed and ambition. He has very little regard for materialism, and has never been counted as one of the millionaire generals who leveraged on their position to acquire wealth.
I recall one instance when I asked former president, Ibrahim Babangida, why he moved General Bali from his position as Minister of Defence to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which many people considered to be a demotion, especially because the immediate past Minister was a brigadier; John Shagaya. He said to me, ‘Emeka it was because I realised that Uncle B – which is what many of colleagues and contemporaries call him – was approaching retirement and I felt there was a need for him to make some money in preparation for his retirement. So I posted him to the Ministry of Internal Affairs which is a powerful ministry.’
When I told General Domkat Bali of that conversation, he just grinned and said, ‘But Ibrahim knows that I’m not given to the pursuit of money. If I wanted to make money, even in the Ministry of Defence, there were ample opportunities to make money.’
There is a certain complex perspective to General Bali, which may not appear immediately obvious. Because he is usually gracious and affable, there may be a temptation by many to see him as a very simple and harmless fellow. But that may not be exactly true. The fact really, is that he is a man of iron cast principles and on occasion, may even be stubborn. He has a very basic notion of right and wrong. And once he is convinced on the justness of a course, he will embark on it, no matter how challenging it may be.
When President Babangida moved him from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, I’m not sure he expected the reaction he got. As General Bali told me, President Babangida had visited him at home one night and intimated him of his plans to reorganise the Armed Forces Ruling Council. As he recalled, the plans were broad and not specific to which he agreed. When the plan emerged, he was shocked to learn of his redeployment. Contrary to the expectations of many, he rejected the redeployment, called a press conference and criticised the Commander-in-Chief and the government.
It was an unprecedented move. Up till today, it is not common for a serving military officer to decline his deployment publicly and castigate his Commander-in-Chief. But General Bali did exactly that, an action that caused severe political tension in the country and prompted the cancellation of a presidential visit to the United Kingdom that had been scheduled.
It was at the height of then President Babangida’s power and glory and many were concerned about the safety of General Bali. But they didn’t need to be. To begin with, President Babangida, as I later found out, has immense respect and even admiration for General Bali and was never planning to hurt him. Two, General Bali himself harboured no fear of anyone, including the president. As a matter of fact, despite that action President Babangida and the Armed Forces Ruling Council approved the promotion of General Bali from a three star general to a four-star general, even while he was at home in retirement. At that point, he became the first person to become a four-star while in retirement. He therefore joined the few group of officers to earn full generalship.
That development puzzled many because it was unusual. Many years later, after I had gotten acquainted with President Babangida, I asked him, ‘Why did you give him a four star despite all that had happened and he was already in retirement?’ Babangida smiled and said, ‘Because as a full general he is considered to be on active duty forever until death. And is entitled to his full allowances and salary. And because I knew he didn’t make money while on service, it was a gesture to ensure that his retirement would not put him under pressure.’
Another instance where General Bali manifested his stern principles was on a personal matter. There were two incidents, one of which I recalled in my book, “Saved For His Praise.” Our company had just published a book, “The Judiciary And The Challenges Of Justice” being a collection of papers by the then president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Mustapha Akanbi. Naturally, the public presentation of the book was a major event in Lagos. It attracted very eminent personalities within the judicial circles and beyond. After the presentation, I went to see him one evening at his residence in Victoria Island. He told me that some judges came to him with a complaint about me. I was surprised and inquired to know who they were and what the complaint was. He told me that they came to inform him that I was using his name and wanted to know if he was aware of it. Then he said to me, “I won’t tell you their names, but I will tell you what I said to them. I told them that yes, I’m aware you are using my name, yes I allowed you to use it because you are using it for good causes and I do not mind at all.” It was a very poignant moment.
There was yet another occasion. I had taken him to visit the parents of a girl I was in a relationship with in the east. The girl is from a famous family and the General visiting was treated as an occasion. However, the relationship did not blossom and I had to move on. When I later brought another girl to the General and introduced her as my fiancee, he didn’t oppose me. So, I was surprised when I invited him to my wedding and he declined to attend, even as he said to me, ‘You introduced me to the parents of one girl. I will not attend the marriage you are having with another girl, but I wish you well at the wedding.’ I looked at him and admired him even more.
I could go on and on about Domkat Bali and I would still not exhaust the greatness which he encapsulates. He is a wonderful man, a fantastic human being, a man of honour, a man of integrity. He has lived a very simple and beautiful life, a life that doesn’t worship the material. It’s not just his name that is gold, his heart is also golden. His infectious smile and candour make him an extraordinary personality. He is a man that is secure in himself and at peace with the world. He never knew me from Adam, I’m not from Plateau State, I’m not the son of any of his colleagues. I was just a young Nigerian bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm and who needed a steady hand. He provided that hand freely. He is open and easily accessible. There was very little I could not discuss with him. Even when he gave the controversial interview in which he allegedly blamed the death of General Mamman Vatsa on President Babangida, I took him up on it. Long ago, his wife had said to me, ‘Emeka, always try to be present anytime the General is giving any interview to the press.’ More than anyone else, Madam realised that the General tended to speak very freely on issues. Sometimes, his candour rankled and created immense problems. That interview, which he gave to “The News Magazine” was one of such situations. I told him, ‘Sir, I thought I asked you to call me anytime you are giving interviews to the press?’ He laughed and said, ‘Emeka, it didn’t happen the way the press people portrayed it. I just went for a round of golf and we chatted.’ When I spoke with President Babangida on the issue, I said to him, ‘Sir, that interview is not as it was portrayed.’ Of course, President Babangida understood the General very well and also understood the media. He said to me right away, ‘Emeka, don’t worry, I understand Uncle B, I know how you guys in the press can be mischievous.’
Last week, this wonderful human being turned 80. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend the birthday event put together by his dear wife and children. From my small corner here, I wish you a happy birthday and more blessings of our father in heaven.
Indeed, General Bali is testament to the fact that true greatness doesn’t lie in material acquisition, but in the number of lives you have touched. He is a hero, indeed, a hero for all seasons. He is a man who has lived in very challenging times in Nigeria but has retained his honour and integrity. As the Igbo say, a good name is better than silver and gold. Indeed, the name Domkat Bali is better than silver and gold. And though he did not know me from Adam, he felt confident enough to lend that name to me. And by so doing, provided for me a ladder to climb. Thank you sir, thank you very much. May the Good Lord bless you and give you many more years. And may He provide even a stronger ladder for your children and children’s children in Jesus mighty name, Amen.
PRINCE EMEKA OBASI,