Mai Deribe: A Man Ahead of His Time

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Jubal Kanayo visited the palace of the late Mai Deribe in Maiduguri and narrates his experience.

“Will you follow me to Mai Deribe’s golden palace? I should take you there one of these days and let you wander into its vastness.” That was my colleague Khadijah.

“There is a gold-speckled mansion in this town?”

“Haven’t you ever heard of Mai Deribe’s Palace?”

“Never. I have only heard of Mai Idris Alooma.”

There was general laughter. Only then did I know that other colleagues were eavesdropping on the exchange.

Thus, the plan to visit Mai Deribe’s Palace started formulating.

On March 15, 2021, we set out for Mai Deribe’s place, driving through Shehuri (around the Shehu’s Palace) and finding ourselves somewhere in Jere (Old Maiduguri). Of course, there was the fear of being attacked by Boko Haram, but I was not alone, I thought. If it was unsafe, we would not go there. I consciously banished my fears.

It was 20-something minute ride and you’d have to drive past a building which must have been the reception at some point, then drive through a narrow drive-way, make a few turns to the right and, voila! you are greeted by a majestic mosque with glittering mounds.

Who is Mai Deribe?

Mai Deribe was one of Nigeria’s foremost billionaires in the ‘70s. A business magnate, he had his hands in all the juicy pies – crude oil, agriculture, manufacturing etc., – at the time.

Family members were not on-hand (fact is, the few who are around rarely have contact with tourists/visitors and chances are high they could keep mum even when asked) to tell the story of how the son of an astute trader in the Old Kanem kingdom came into his wealth and rose to fame.

A few things are common knowledge; he was one of the first men on earth to own a Gulfstream G550 private jet, hosted royalty like the late Princess Diana when she visited Nigeria in the mid-‘80s, King Juan Carlos of Spain who spent two nights there in 1986, General Saad Abubakar (who is now the Sultan of Sokoto), as well as former military head of state Ibrahim Babangida, who commissioned the place.

The search for crude oil in the Borno portion of the Chad Basin did not begin today. Back in the mid-‘80s, Deribe donated the sum of $1million to prospectors for crude on the Gajiganna and Kukawa aspects of the basin.

A Philanthropist

Mai Deribe was not a loner. He spread his wings far and wide and his hands were open to the people of his immediate community and beyond.

He constructed the Deribe Mosque, Bulumkutu Central Mosque, Doggon Masalanchi in the Fezzan Ward of Maiduguri, Deribe Hospital for vulnerable people in his community, Deribe Hotel, sent every household a bag of millet during the holy month of Ramadan, Government College, Maiduguri and Fillin Polo Mosque, Airport Mosque. In total, he erected 78 mosques.

During the devastating flood disaster in September 1994, thousands of displaced residents camped at his house where they were catered to. Although he was not in the country when the flood happened, he sent a sum of N135million (about $375,000) to the Borno State government to assist them with the relief efforts to purchase food items, shelter materials and other accessories for them.

Deribe sponsored many to observe the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and many more to go study abroad.

A house worth its salt

A bold display of wealth, Deribe’s sprawling mansion indicates that the late business mogul was a man ahead of his time.

As you enter Mai Deribe’s gigantic abode, nothing warns you of what you are about to behold. The huge door, made from oak or some other kind of hard-to-breach wood, was pulled up by a wiry teen (the door creaked from constant opening or disrepair. I don’t know which) to let us in.

Spoiler Some portions of the mansion have fallen into disrepair and, given the cost of maintenance and the degree of interest of family members, this is understandable.

A long hall (the word ‘long’ here actually means that) draped with wooly blinds on both sides (‘How old are they?’ I wondered, as I felt them) led into the huge conference room.

The conference room, fit for any conference (even in this 21st century) is awe-inspiring and regal, with a huge air-conditioner and a world-class kitchen with state-of-the-art cooking utensils to boot.

The living room has two grand television sets mounted in huge boxes. Who could have imagined televisions were that huge and tiring to the eyes, talk more of being carried. Matter of fact, they are ‘coloured’ television sets. As you imagined, he did things in full measure.

The meeting room (permit to call it the ‘yellow room’ because of how much gold was sprinkled on many of the stuff there), with cute side stools and even more royal-looking, cute chairs is hard to resist. At this point, I had to sit on one to cop a picture.

In Mai Deribe’s bedchamber, there is a secret passage (we could not use it, out of bounds) but the highlight of the chamber is the bed which was said to have belonged to late King Hassan II of Morocco.

A door in the corridor (through which we entered in the beginning) gave way to a huge, sprawling courtyard laid with marble cobble. Children from the neighbourhood could be seen playing in the empty courtyard, as the wind whipped our faces (it was March and the Harmattan winds were still sweeping through parts of Borno).

“Why is this place not visited often?”

“Well…seeing the way Maiduguri is, not many would like to venture this far into Old Maiduguri. Anything could happen to one who does not know his or her way around here,” Abubakar, another member of the team, explained.

In another place and time, Mai Deribe’s gold-speckled palace would have been a tourist attraction of astonishing proportions; one which would have drawn tourists and sigh-seers from all walks of life but, Maiduguri and Borno being what it is, that is not the case.

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