Friday, January 08, 2021

A Comrade Falls (obituary)

 Suhuyini Nbang-Ba, the socialist activist, journalist and teacher died at home in the Gambia on 16th September 2020.  He was nine days short of his sixty-first birthday and is survived by a brother, a sister, three nieces and four nephews.

Suhuyini was born in the small town of Ejura, near Kumasi in the Ashanti Region of Ghana.  He was, however, a Dagomba, a member of the Muslim tribe of that name from Ghana’s Northern Region. He was originally named Mohammed Yacabou, and known as M.Y. to his friends, but chose the name Suhuyini Nbang-Ba in later life.  This was a political act reclaiming his ancestry and history — his Muslim name could be traced back to colonisation of the Dagomba area by traders between the 12th and 15th centuries.  Instead, Suhuyini chose a name in his mother tongue, Dagbani — ‘Suhuyini’ meaning ‘unity’ (literally ‘one heart’) and ‘Nbang-Ba’ meaning ‘I know them’— a reference to his ancestors and the act of reclaiming them embodied in changing his name.  In fact, having previously been very religious and renowned for his piety, as a young man in the early eighties he renounced Islam and publicly denounced both the activities of certain Muslim leaders and religion in general.  

As a schoolboy, Suhuyini was sent to live with his aunt in the north so he could attend Tamale Secondary School.  He was also educated at the prestigious University of Ghana, Legon, where he took his undergraduate degree and then later began an MPhil in African and European history.  While at university, he became very active politically and was a member of the United Revolutionary Front (URF), an underground anarchist movement opposed to the military junta led by Jerry John Rawlings.  However, Suhuyini later opposed armed struggle.  During his time as an undergraduate, he was beaten up by the military, hospitalised and placed under house arrest due to the student union’s opposition to the military junta.

Suhuyini then spent two years as a teacher back in the Northern Region, also setting up a self-help association for impoverished women and a drama troupe.  

In the late eighties, when the ruling regime introduced District Assemblies to lend a semblance of democracy to the dictatorship, Suhuyini contested the Nalung Constituency seat and won 75 percent of the vote. He became one of the first members of the Tamale District Assembly (a sort of district parliament.)

After his time in the north, Suhuyini returned to Accra to take his MPhil. While studying for this he joined the communist Weekly Insight newspaper as a reporter and columnist; the Insight was at that time the only non-governmental newspaper.  His column was titled “The Dark File” and targeted corrupt government officials. As he did not use a pseudonym, he started receiving anonymous threats from the top echelons of Ghanaian society and from hit-men of the military dictatorship.  Despite this he continued his political work.

When he could stand the threats no longer, and when the military turned up at his home while he was out, he fled on foot to the Gambia, having to sell the very shoes he was wearing to pay for his passage and to bribe border guards.  Once in the Gambia he continued his teaching and journalism.

During this period, five of Suhuyini’s close Gambian friends were rounded up by the military on suspicion of being involved in a failed coup attempt; all of them died while being transported between prisons.  Officials claimed at the time that they had died when the car they were in crashed, but the circumstances surrounding the event were suspicious and his fears for his safety led to Suhuyini finally giving up his political journalism in the Gambia.

However, Suhuyini continued his political work by writing for publications based outside West Africa.  He was a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and contributed articles to the party’s journal The Socialist Standard.  He also edited a magazine of the SPGB called African Socialist which was later renamed Socialist Banner.

At the time of his death Suhuyini was working on a book of essays, despite limited access to a computer and an erratic electricity supply.  Although the hospital did not give a cause of death, he had been increasingly weak for a year with little appetite.  

I came to know Suhuyini in the late nineties when he was living in Nsawam, Ghana teaching English literature and French at secondary school and working at the Weekly Insight.  Here he was known by pupils and teachers alike by yet another name: Afah, a Dagomba word meaning a Muslim teacher. This name had sprung up spontaneously and was indicative of the respect in which his pupils and colleagues held him.  

Tellingly, it was not widely known outside his home region that Suhuyini was born into Dagomba royalty.  In fact I doubt any of his colleagues in Nsawam knew of this fact.  His father was the sub-chief of the tribe and he was the only son of his mother, the tribal queen. However, when Suhuyini became an atheist he also chose not to inherit the chieftaincy and he kept his royal lineage as secret as possible.  I only became aware of it myself at the school where we both taught when one of his pupils, also a Dagomba, prostrated herself on the ground before him as a sign of respect.  Suhuyini quickly told her to get up and that she did not need to do this.  It was only when pressed by me that he explained the meaning behind her actions, otherwise he would not have mentioned it.

This was typical of the man.  There are some people who make a show of espousing socialism in theory, but fall short of its principals in the way they live their lives.  This was never true of Suhuyini — his political views were deeply held and stemmed from his character; he lived socialist principles.  Unlike some of his nominally socialist colleagues in West Africa, he refused to bribe his way into a lucrative post, preferring to remain a poorly-paid teacher with his principles intact.  He tenaciously battled depression, ill-health and constant technical problems to work on his political writing, and throughout his life he campaigned tirelessly, experiencing violence and risking death many times for his principles.

More than that, Suhuyini treated everyone he met as an equal and spoke to everybody with the same friendly respect, from the highest born to the most lowly street-seller.  While teaching in Nsawam he sponsored a schoolboy through his education, even though the child was no relation, out of pure compassion.  He sponsored a child again later in the Gambia, despite his own limited means.  When he died in the Gambia, the family where he rented a room told me he had been like a son to his landlady and like a second father to her grandchildren, who knew him affectionately as ‘Baba.’

He certainly had a life-long effect on me.  When I first met him I was seventeen, and my discussions with him then and over the intervening years helped form the political beliefs I still hold today.  

Indeed, Suhuyini left his mark on everyone he met.  He held strong views, yet was always willing to hear others out — debates never became rows — and with his humanity, sharp wit and easy, infectious laugh he enriched the life of all who knew him, no matter which name they knew him by.  He is deeply missed by those he left behind and the world is a lesser place without him.

Suhuyini Nbang-Ba, political campaigner, journalist, teacher and loved one, born 25th September 1959; died 16th September 2020.

 Anoushka Alexander

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