Obituary: The Vizier of Sokoto

Alhaji Junaidu was Nigeria's foremost poet, historian and Islamic scholar. The Vizier to the Sultan of Sokoto, in north Nigeria, he was the son of Muhammad Buhari, the almost blind vizier who had negotiated with the British officers after the battle of Sokoto in 1903 which marked the beginning of colonial rule.

The family have held the title of Vizier since circa 1818; collectors of manuscript books, recorders of the history of the Sokoto caliphate, authors of poems and literary prose-works, the viziers have sustained for nearly two centuries the tradition of high scholarship in classical Arabic.

It is for his works of historical scholarship that the wider world will remember Alhaji Junaidu. His subject was the Sokoto caliphate, a 19th- century Islamic reformist state which was the largest in pre-colonial Africa. He wrote in Arabic and Hausa, but he put so many of his ideas and so much of his material into my book The Sokoto Caliphate (1967), that it too can be counted as "his" book - though in English.

He became Vizier in 1948, on the death of his brother (his father had died in 1910). As Vizier in the critical 1950s and 1960s Alhaji Junaidu played an important political role in northern Nigeria. He was one of the key intermediaries between the Sultan of Sokoto, who as the Amir of Nigeria's Muslims was a spiritual leader of great restraint, and the forceful Sardauna of Sokoto - a flamboyant politician, premier of the newly self-governing Northern Region and would-be architect of a revived "Sokoto caliphate". As a friend of the Sardauna's, Alhaji Junaidu accompanied him on many journeys to places where his wit and diplomatic skills were an asset and a pleasant relief. But, as scholar and representative of the Sultan, Alhaji Junaidu carried within him that moral authority which gave "Sokoto" a particular resonance far beyond the city or the province.

He was impressive to watch, particularly in the trivial incidents that showed how country people set him apart from the more rich and the more powerful. His big Pontiac might get bogged down in the long deep pools of mud that replaced stretches of the road through the forests. Farmers would appear and bodily lift the car (with the Waziri - Vizier - in it) the 30 yards or more to the other side. Other "big men" would have to get out and negotiate a heavy price to pass through the slough. Not the Waziri.

Politics and the throng of courtiers tired him. That dark-green Pontiac always betrayed his whereabouts if he left his house. To escape, he would climb into the back of "the tortoise" ("kunkuru", a Citroen 2CV), his turban scraping the canvas roof, and be driven to his garden, with its pomegranates and other fruit, on the escarpment beyond the city wall.

Alhaji Junaidu, blind like his father for the last years of his life, continued to teach each afternoon. His son Dr Sambo Junaidu would read aloud the text and his father interpreted and commented on it. He was a master of grammar and meaning, with a formidable memory, who could quote poetry and prose seemingly without end.

On the long, eight-hour journeys by car on the back roads to Lagos (where he would attend political meetings as a member of the Northern Region House of Assembly) Alhaji Junaidu used to compose or recite poetry. Once, to pass the time while hearing the Western Regional Premier, Chief S.L. Akintola, speak at length in Yoruba, he composed a poem comparing him to a dove and imitating in Arabic the bird-like rhythms and tones. In all, he wrote some 50 works and over 50 poems, mostly in manuscript.

He was not rich. His family had no big estates; on emancipating their slaves, they had given them the land they farmed. People brought them gifts instead. He did, though, keep a stallion, Danda, for ceremonial occasions in the courtyard, by the library; but otherwise there was no ostentation, in dress or furnishings. The library had a cushion, the manuscripts were in their traditional leather bags. Leafing through the texts he would recall hearing as a small child the flap-flap of the sandals as the long- distance messengers ran in to see his father; he would discuss how horses had to be trained to face camels (whose smell they hated), aware that ancient Lydian cavalry had once had that problem too, or he would comment on passages of Galen, Hippocrates and Plato whose work he knew only through classic Arabic texts.

Though his death may seem to mark the end of a certain intellectual tradition within Nigeria, there still are men and women, influenced by him and by others in that close circle, for whom deep scholarship and personal asceticism remain a vocation. But it will be difficult for anyone to be quite so lacking in pomposity or self-regard, so reluctant to voice complaint or to earn so much simple affection and respect from so many.

His eldest son, Alhaji Usman Junaidu, was turbanned Vizier in succession to his father on 22 January.Junaidu dan Muhammadu Buhari, poet and Arabic scholar: born Sokoto, Nigeria 1906; Principal, Kadi School 1943-48; Sultan's Legal Adviser on Religious Affairs 1946-97; Vizier of Sokoto 1948-97; Member and Legal Adviser in the Northern Region House of Assembly 1951- 66; died Sokoto 9 January 1997.