BACKPAGE COLUMN: Suleiman: Cherished Life Despite Thorns

July 4, 2020
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When on Tuesday April 14, 2020, Mrs. Marie Patricia Suleiman, who was married to former Military Governor of old Plateau State and former Nigeria’s Ambassador to Russia, Air Commodore Dan Suleiman (retd), breathed her last at the Nigerian Air Force Hospital, Abuja, it drew the curtain over a beautiful life spent in the service of God and mankind amidst prickles.

My first encounter with Mrs. Suleiman was sometimes in September 2019 when I visited their home to interview her husband ahead of the formal public presentation of his autobiography at the NAF Conference Centre, Abuja.

Before then, I had seen her pictures and looked forward to meeting her someday. After the interview with the former military governor, Mrs Suleiman, tall and elegant and unchanged by old age, walked into the living room.

As she took a seat, the lady who once took the modelling world by storm still looked beautiful and radiant. After the introduction by her husband, I requested if she could spare me a little of her time for some interaction. She obliged and we quickly moved to the dining section to avoid the sound of the television.

As a first comer to the Suleimans’ home, I threw several glances around and one thing stood clear: It was devoid of the badge of affluence usually associated with men and women that have tasted power.

Apart from living in an environment where facilities were shared by others, the environment does not befit the status of a family whose patriarch played decisive roles in the defining moments of Nigeria.

As if reading my mind, Mrs. Suleiman told me that she had always prayed never to be rich or poor. Much wealth, according to her, may ruin life. Cascading poverty, she explained, was capable of truncating dreams and turning deserts all hopes for people committed to realising development goals in life.

To demonstrate that riches has never been the cornerstone of the Suleimans, the modelling icon and film actress reminisced how she turned down a suitcase filled with money from a contractor who had come to show appreciation over a contract given to him by her husband when he served as military governor in old Plateau State.

Beyond the footprints of a beautiful life that attracted acclamations from family and friends, Mrs. Suleiman was a metaphor for determination amidst the thorny paths that were thrown her way by life. She suffered traumatizing moments as she attempted to synthesise divergent cultures of her parents.

The little baby, who was born to a Lebanese father, Mr. Hassan Hallowi, and a Fulani mother, Hajiya Halima Abubakar, on June 30, 1944, was christened Marie Patricia. Little Marie got thrown into a well by jealous relations.

She escaped death by the whiskers when domestic servants brought the little charming girl that would later be teased by school mates as ‘yellow banana’. Irreconcilable disagreements between her parents would eventually lead to a divorce. To ensure that both parents have access to Marie, she was placed under the care of nuns.

Little Marie attended Our Lady’s High School in Kaduna State for her nursery and primary school and, thereafter, proceeded to the Queen of Apostles College, now Queen Amina College, Kaduna, for her secondary education.

After four years of studying at Bradford Royal Infirmary, she qualified as a registered nurse in 1964. Marie would later proceed to Charing Cross Hospital, London, and qualified as a Casualty Nurse after two years.

As wife to Air Commodore Suleiman for over 51 years, she left inspiring footprints in various human endeavours, especially serving the needs of the less privileged and standing by her family at all times. Unlike veterans of power players that are accustomed to allowing their glorious past to follow them into retirement, the Suleimans were wiser and allowed the past fizzled out into oblivion.

With the support of his wife, the air force officer whose military career was torpedoed by President Shehu Shagari in 1980 braced up to face the vicissitudes of life outside the military. As someone that has been under the floodlights, Mrs. Suleiman quickly adjusted and supported her husband to face life outside of power.

Taking charge of the home front was her duty and did discharge herself so well to the admiration of all. Quite a classic person when it comes to supporting her husband and making an ideal of the couple to the admiration of all who came across her, support for family was not negotiable. She left no stone unturned in being the second half of her husband and father to her six children.

When her husband fled from the hunting dogs of the late General Sani Abacha in the 1990s as a result if his involvement with the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), Mrs. Suleiman refused to let go of her husband during the darkest trial of his life that was made worse by falling health conditions in London.

The Suleimans may have seen and tasted the best of glamorous living, but in their old age, they got involved in philanthropic activities and tending to orphans, prisoners and the wretched of the poor.

In recognition of her sterling service to the poor, she was appointed the patron of the ‘Poor of the Poorest’ an organisation committed to serving the interest of the deprived. The late mother of six children, who symbolised humility in greatness despite her smashing beauty and great poise, reached out to the lowest and turned her life into succour despite being born by privileged parents. Her choice of simple words for communication made her an effective communicator.

The heavenly bodies did not sound a trumpet at her birth, but her demise was acknowledged by the earth when prominent Nigerians thronged the deceased’s Abuja home to commiserate with the grieving family. The lady who modelled for top designers like Christian Dior and Chanel, among others, became a dedicated Christian whose death was mourned by the pastor and members of the first Baptist church, Garki-Abuja.

Despite health challenges that trailed her twilight years, Mrs. Suleiman remained strong to the last and remained strong. When the finger of God touched her and she passed on, she was surrounded and in the warm company of her loved ones. Her burial in Guyuk, according to her death wish, attracted distinguished prominent Nigerians from all walks of life, with representatives of governors of Adamawa, Nasarawa and Plateau state in attendance. The National President of the Middle Belt Forum (MBF), Dr Pogu Bitrus, represented the southern socio-cultural organisations, Afenifere, Ohaneze and PANDEV in the burial that proved a success.

Tuesday June 30, 2020 which would have been the 76th birthday of Mrs Suleiman was observed as a commendation service at the First Baptist church, Garki-Abuja, in her memory. The life of Mrs Suleiman sums up the essence of great lives as  contained in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem: ‘Psalm of life’:

“Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.” The life of Mrs Suleiman, a consummate modelling icon, actress, nurse, caring wife, quintessential mother and great lover of humanity, lived a great life worthy of emulation.

Thorns may have dogged her path in life, but she ended on the peak through changing lives for the better. As a principled person, discipline was her middle name as she never spared the rod to spoil the child. In her nearly 76 years on earth, Mrs Suleiman gave her best in the service of humanity and God. Therein lies the essence of her life in a society that is gradually losing its compass of morality.

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