Professor Tam David-West passed on at the age of 83 last week. He granted this interview two years ago, reflecting on his early life, time as minister and more.
Professor Tam David-West, 81, served as minister under two military Heads of State, as Minister of Petroleum Resources (1984-1985) under General Muhammadu Buhari, and that of first, Petroleum Resources, and later Mines, Power and Steel under General Ibrahim Babangida (1986). The virologist, who still lives in an apartment in the premises of the University of Ibadan, recalls how he was able to read Medicine in the university despite not doing the three key science subjects – Biology, Chemistry and Physics – at all in the secondary school. He also speaks of his travails under Babangida, about restructuring and his hope for Nigeria
You are from Rivers State, but it seems Ibadan has become your permanent home, with the two of you seemingly inseparable. How did the so strong a bond come about?
Yes, I am Ijaw Kalabari from Rivers State. My full name is Tamunoemi David-West, while my father’s name is Sokari David-West. Tamunoemi means, ‘There is God’, while my father’s name, Sokari, means ‘I look up to heavens.’
I did my first undergraduate studies at the University College, Ibadan, now University of Ibadan, in 1956, which gave me many scholarship awards. Now you can see how the bond started.
Then, there was only one university in the country and only one national examination to get to the university. The best 10 candidates nationwide in the examination were given scholarships by the University College, Ibadan. I was among the best 10 then and received full scholarship from the university to study Medicine abroad.
Interestingly, I didn’t do science subjects in my secondary school days. And when we did the inter-Bachelor of Science examination, I didn’t pass all the three science subjects – Biology, Physics and Chemistry. I then approached the Dean of Faculty of Sciences, Mr Bevans, a Welsh, who promised to get me a federal scholarship so I can leave the country.
He was nice to me. He took my records to Lagos and they offered me a federal scholarship. So, I left the country for the United States. I attended three different universities in the United States of America. I started from Michigan State University, then to Yale University and later to McGill University. The most interesting thing was that when I became a Minister under Gen Buhari in 1985, this same Dean of Sciences, Bevans, who had retired to his country, Wales, saw me on television and traced me to Nigeria.
You didn’t have the required science subjects but you spoke of records that Bevans took to Lagos that helped to get you a scholarship to study Medicine. So which records were you talking about?
That is a very big aspect of the story of my life. I didn’t do sciences but many people didn’t know this. When I came to Ibadan in 1955 as a technician, I approached the University College, Ibadan’s Deans of Botany, Sam Song; that of Sciences, Bevans; and Alexander for Physics. I told them I didn’t do science in the secondary school but that I would like to do science now.
They were so kind and organised. They attached me to undergraduates in those departments to start teaching me science subjects. So, I did the three key science subjects at A-level. My mentors prepared me for the Cambridge certificate examination. At the end of the day, I got distinction in the three subjects. That was how I became a scientist.
What was your growing up like?
It was interesting. I told the David-West family that whatever I am today was 80 per cent of the work my maternal grandfather did. He influenced my life a lot while bringing me up. He was nicknamed Scorpion. He was always stubborn for what was right. He was very upright and didn’t take nonsense. He would always tell us that a good name is better than gold.
He was very outspoken. Let me give you one example. There was a group of singers who were critical like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti; they used to sing to criticise the system in my village. They called them “Owelepo”. They would always criticise the chiefs when they did something wrong. One day, the king called a meeting of the Council of Chiefs and their decision at the meeting was to proscribe the group. But my grandfather declared that the group shouldn’t be proscribed so long what the singers were saying was the truth.
He told the king and the Council that if they tried to proscribe the group, he would join them (the group). The chiefs went ahead to proscribe the group and warned them not to perform in the town again. But my grandfather invited the singers to his compound to perform their music. He told them that nobody can intimidate them in his compound. Yes, they were proscribed in the town but he accepted them in his compound where they were sleeping for many years. Still, when he died, the Council sent a delegation to console the family.
He wouldn’t tolerate nonsense and he never allowed anybody to intimidate him. He was wealthy and very comfortable, and with his wealth was very generous and kind. In every three months, we had banquet for all the chiefs in my community. After that of chiefs, he would organise ours for us and the children from poor families. He used to tell us that being comfortable did not mean we were special, as God had created everyone equally.
That philosophy of his has a very great influence and impression on me. If you ask my children today what the rule is in our house, they will tell you that you should be bold and shouldn’t tell lies.
You mentioned your children. They aren’t in the limelight and the public don’t seem to know much about them. Where are your children?
They are all grown up and doing fine in their respective careers.
You have been a minister twice, in sectors regarded as juicy. In this clime, your ilk would be living in mansions in choice areas for the rich. So why have you chosen to stick to residing in this spartan abode in an academic environment?
I have been living in an academic environment since 1955. I love it because it guarantees you freedom of thought. You may not have money but you will command respect.
Haven’t you your own personal house?
I don’t have a house. I am still building my house in Port Harcourt. If you go to Port Harcourt you will see my house there. The contractor cheated me. For nine years, the building has not been completed. Do you know that Buhari has no house in Abuja? He has a house in his village in Daura and this is the man that was once a President and Minister and had held many offices in the past. If you go to my house in Port Harcourt, you will see what I wrote on it. The inscription is Tamuna Sakiware”, which literarily means, ‘The house built when God wanted it’.
Why didn’t you build one while in government?
Oil companies actually wanted to build a house for me but I refused. I don’t want to mention their names in order not to embarrass them. A king once asked them to ask me what I wanted them to do for me but I told them nothing.
You were a Minister of Petroleum under Gen Buhari, and that of Mines, Power, and Steel under Gen Babangida. Can you share your experiences working with the two leaders?
Buhari appointed me Minister of Petroleum and when Babangida became Head of State, he brought me back as Minister of Petroleum before he later deployed me to the Ministry of Mines and Steel.
First, leadership matters. Babangida can never be compared as a leader with Buhari. I take responsibility for that statement. Buhari and Babangida are two different personalities.
Buhari is a clean man. I can take any oath that Buhari is very clean and I won’t die. I cannot do that on Babangida. I cannot vouch for him not because he put me in jail but because that is the fact. Buhari has some good qualities, some positive characteristics that Babangida doesn’t have.
In terms of governance, Babangida cannot be compared with Buhari in any way. For instance, if you give Buhari a memo at 9am, by 12pm he would call you that he has finished reading it. But if you give the same memo to Babangida, a week and he won’t read it. I have examples. Whatever I say, I take responsibility for and can prove it.
Another thing is that if Buhari tells you something, believe it is true. But if Babangida tells you something, don’t be too sure. I want to quote former President, Obasanjo, when he said, “When Babangida tells you good morning, check your watch very well if truly it is morning.”
Let me give you an example. Chris Anyanwu was a great lady journalist. Many people believed that I had a love relationship with her, but I didn’t have any such relationship with her. She was covering the oil industry then. I just liked her as a professional and fantastic energy reporter. Never romance.
Why do I say this? When Rilwan Lukman took over from me as a Minister, Chris Anyanwu phoned me that they wanted to remove her from the Energy desk because they thought it was the desk that made her close to me. I went to Babangida and told him that this lady was the best energy reporter in Nigeria and I heard they wanted to change her.
Babangida said I should tell her that nobody can change her. So I told Chris, ‘I was just leaving the President now and he has assured me that nobody can change you from the Energy desk because you are good on that desk for Nigeria.’
Chris Anyanwu replied, ‘Sir, why did you bother yourself on this issue?’ She said anywhere they send her, she would go with her talent. Could you believe that the following day Chris Anyanwu was changed? But if it was Buhari that had told me that, she would never have been removed from that desk. I repeat, whatever I say here, I will take full responsibility for and can prove it.
Another area you cannot compare them is that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and other government agencies were more disciplined under Buhari than Babangida. So they are not comparable.
You insisted that you can vouch for Buhari but today, we hear cases ofmisappropriation of funds even under his watch?
I had told him before now that some people in his cabinet are not his type. They don’t have the same principles he has. And I said I don’t know if they are working for him or for themselves. He cannot have total control over some of them. I think the first mistake our people are making is rubbing Buhari with the same mud as those working with him. If somebody who is working with him has a questionable character, Buhari shouldn’t be blamed or judged with that.
What memorable experiences as minister can you recall?
There are many, but let me share this with you. One day, I got a security scoop in the oil industry on how somebody was cheating Nigeria in collaboration with a white woman. I told Buhari that this lady had gone out of this country with our millions before and she was back in the country to take our oil money away again. I also told him the person sleeping with her.
One week later, I didn’t hear anything from the Head of State. I went back to him and reminded him. He then ordered his aide de camp, Colonel Mustapha Jokolo, who later became an Emir, to track her down. Buhari then asked me how I got the scoop. I told him that though he had his National Security Organisation, I also had my own TSO. When he asked me of the meaning of TSO, I said Tam Security Organisation.
So to me, Buhari has zero tolerance for corruption. In one of the books I wrote about Buhari, which I titled, ‘Who really is General Buhari?’, I said if my father was contesting against Buhari, I would tell him that I would work against him and vote for Buhari.
How do you feel anytime you remember how Babangida controversially removed you as Minister, ostensibly for dining with a white man?
Not even dining with an Oyinbo and taking tea. He did to me the most stupid thing.
And what about the gold wrist watch issue?
Absolutely stupid. Babangida could be so petty in his wickedness. I leave Babangida to his conscience and God. I told Babangida that it was not only that he told lies against me but he acted stupid and wicked. But do you know that it was a blessing in disguise? The Bible says everything work for good for those that love God. If people do something negative to you, leave it for God and he will show you that there is something good about it. I am happy that Babangida did what he did to me.
Why did I say so? If Petroleum ministers were to be influenced to take bribe, would it be a bribe of wrist watch and cup of tea? So stupid! A month before I became Minister under Babangida, somebody came with $5 million to bribe me because he wanted just my signature. He said there was a document that was supposed to be signed before Alhaji Shehu Shagari was overthrown as President and that it was only the Minister who can sign it.
I told him I would never sign the document even if he brought $100m. I made it clear to him that even if he brought the whole money in the central bank, I wouldn’t sign because my name was worth more than millions.
What specifically was government’s accusation against you?
What he claimed was that a company that was owing Nigeria $157m paid me $100m out of the money and that I forfeited $57m. This is absolutely not true. It is true the company was owing $157m during the Shagari administration and Buhari knew about it. We investigated them and they ran away when we invited them to come to negotiate in Nigeria. Some of the people who knew about the deal are still alive. My Public Relations Officer then, Mr Ikigwe, who is now a king in the Southeast knew about it, as well as many others.
I was able to get $100m from them, which was paid into government’s coffers. Those people were afraid to come to Nigeria believing that if they came, we would arrest them and put them in jail. When I went to Buhari that if we wanted to get anything from them, we would have to promise that we wouldn’t do anything to them, and Buhari agreed. They were to balance us $57m but they never did. We paid the $100m to the Nigerian government.
The agreement between the company and the federal government was to give them their share of the $157m. Babangida did not know this because the agreement was done during Shagari’s time. They took us to court in New Jersey, USA, and I went there and won the case and they were asked to pay another $10m to Nigeria.
Babangida is a wicked man for sending me to jail despite my sincerity with the federal government. If Babangida was a thorough person, such a thing couldn’t have happened.
If he had taken his time to ask Buhari what happened about that money, Buhari could have told him the whole story. The company we are talking about was financing the political party Shagari belonged to then, the National Party of Nigeria. But we could not allow them to be stealing our oil and cheating the system with their dubious company.
What would I do with money? For you to know that I was a selfless Minister, the Concord newspaper wrote an editorial to praise me. My hands are absolutely clean. A general once told me that whenever the issue of the cup of tea and wrist watch comes up, I should reply that it is the most terrible thing anybody could do to a fellow human being. Now, what wrist watch in the world could cost $57m then? Babangida is wicked. I leave him to God.
Do you still have documents to back up your claims?
Yes, I have documents on how the NNPC accounted for money during my time as Minister. It is in my book coming out soon.
For how long were you imprisoned?
He put me in Kirikiri Prison for six days and in Barma Prison for nine months, and I eventually won the case.
How did you win the case?
I won at the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Coker, who said in their judgment, “There is no iota of corruption in this man.”
If Babangida hadn’t done that to me, would I have been given such a commendation?
In the immediate past administration, we saw and have been hearing of how the then Oil Minister looted millions of dollars. But me, I challenge every Nigerian today, including Babangida, to come out and prove that Tam David-West was, or even is, corrupt. Obasanjo bought a wrist watch for me, one for the same Babangida and one for the late Sani Abacha.
Has Babangida forgotten? So Babangida needs to clear his conscience.
Though I have forgiven him, I will continue to be annoyed with him. My children and friends are also annoyed with Babangida because of what he did to our name. You cannot place a price tag on a name. People that are corrupt use to see others as corrupt. I am not corrupt and I can never be corrupted.
Buhari may not be 100 per cent perfect but when it comes to governance, he has my support. He is trustworthy, corruption-free, hardworking and very serious.
Do you still have access to President Buhari?
Yes I do. Whenever we meet in Abuja, we are always alone in the room. We talk in very high confidentiality.
How did you tackle corruption in the ministries you headed?
There was no room for indiscipline and corruption at that time. Except Nigeria tackles corruption, we cannot go forward. I am not being self-righteous but I think any government that fails to fight corruption as we did is a failed government. Any government who cannot manage the oil sector in Nigeria is a failed government. Corruption is not easy to curb in the NNPC because it is a very large sector of the economy.
I was always at my office when I was a Minister. I would go to the office seven times a week. I used to arrive in my office latest 7.20am.
Did you have any issue with Babangida before he overthrew Buhari’s government?
Yes. He might not remember but I keep records. When he deployed me to the Ministry of Steel and Mines, he thought he was punishing me but he was blessing me. I visited Ajaokuta Steel and it was a fantastic place. They wanted to use the project to get more funds from government but I said, ‘no, I cannot be part of it.’
I wrote in their Visitor’s book that I would not ask for more money for Ajaokuta from the government. Babangida had in one of our executive council meetings said that if we had any contract that was up to N20m, we shouldn’t bring it to the council meeting. He said we should discuss it across the table, to which I said, ‘Never, all contracts must be discussed at the council meetings. It is Nigeria’s money not any individual’s’.
He may have other reasons for which he wanted to punish me but these are what I suspected as reasons. I have documented what he did and I don’t want to embarrass him by publishing them, but one day they may find their way into a book. What Babangida did to me is very sad. Barma Prison for nine months? Terrible place! Even Amnesty international said, ‘Nigeria’s Oil Minister has been jailed without doing any evil.’
If you would be an objective analyst rather than a friend of the president, how would you assess the Buhari government?
I will be talking about Nigeria and not as his friend. I am not happy about the economic situation in the country. There is a lot of suffering in the land. The sufferings are not caused by Buhari; it is as a result of bad management before he assumed office as President. Now that he has come to power, he needs to change the abnormality because government is a continuous business. We have to tell our leaders when they are doing wrong things. Many state governors cannot pay salaries now and this is because there were free hand-outs to everybody during Jonathan Goodluck’s time. We have heard the story of a former Group Managing Director of the NNPC who buried hundreds of dollars in his compound. Nobody can try that with Buhari. People in government take advantage when they see that the leadership is weak. If they know that the leadership is the serious type, they won’t try such nonsense. Those that worked with Babangida and Jonathan can get away with corruption. They knew that their leaders were also corrupt.
Buhari needs to work more to ensure that the economy improves. I am not happy with the economic situation. How can I be happy when many states cannot pay the salaries of their workers? The governors also need to check themselves. How did they use the bailout money that was given to them? What do you see as the greatest impediments to a successful Buhari administration?
Even before his wife cried out, I had already cried out that some of the people working with him would ruin him. That some of his aides are corrupt does not mean that Buhari is corrupt, but I want to advise him again that when corrupt people have been identified, they must be punished. He should kick such persons out completely.
How can the government stop ethnic agitation in the country?
To me, the way to stop it is not by resorting to arms. We should find a forum for dialogue. The agitators cannot all be mad. They must have reasons for their agitations. Government shouldn’t see them as enemies. It should call them together and dialogue with them. It should call their elders in different communities, with their boys, and talk to them. What we have at stake is Nigeria, which we don’t have to allow our personal agitation to destroy.
When I was Minister of Petroleum, I told the Niger Delta militants that I knew what their problems were and I felt the pain with them. But I also cautioned them that we cannot resolve it by blowing up oil installations, because once they blow up the oil installations, there won’t be money again. So, the only way to deal with agitation is through dialogue and sincerity of purpose. Unfortunately some leaders are fuelling the agitation because they are gaining from it.
What do you think government should do with the 2014 confab report?
They are making too much noise about it; there is nothing particular about that document, nothing in that document that has not been said before now. We don’t need any confab again. All the President has to do is to set up a committee of trusted people. Let them go to the archives and bring all the recommendations that have been made for Nigeria to move forward and work on them.
My grouse about the last confab they are talking about is the huge resources that were wasted on it. How can you say you want to do something for Nigeria and you are collecting millions of naira? That alone disqualified them all in that confab. I was among the 50 people that drafted the 1979 Constitution and we were not paid a kobo. In fact, the people at that last confab should be ashamed of themselves.
How can you be paid millions to talk about your country? We even heard they grumbled about the food they were served, saying it was not big enough.
So, there is nothing special about that document that had not been said before now. We like glamorisation in Nigeria. They are talking about implementation of that report as if it is enough to solve our problems in Nigeria.
Our problems can only be solved when we are serious. We are not serious yet.
As a former Minister of Petroleum Resources, what is your opinion on the Petroleum Industry Bill?
If they pass it, most of the oil companies will leave Nigeria. The first time they introduced that bill, a friend send a draft to me. The first heading had 40 words as title and it was rambling all over. I said a bill that has 40 words cannot be a serious bill. I was actually doing a write-up on it before I put it aside.
If you look at it carefully, there are certain policies that are directed to favour certain individuals. The bill gives the Minister of Petroleum so many powers.
The oil companies will need to pay more taxes. We have the Petroleum Institute in Efunrum in Delta State which has not been properly funded and the bill is proposing another one in Kaduna. This is not good for us as a nation.
Whatare your thoughts on restructuring?
That is another thing Nigerians has blown out of proportion. If you ask 10 Nigerians about restructuring, they will give you different definitions. Some people are confused on the issue of restructuring and devolution of power.
I believe in restructuring because what you have today may change in the next 10 years, and that means you need to look for a way to adjust it again. Even God restructured. The theory of organic evolution by Darwin is a good example of God restructuring. God created certain animals in a particular time on earth and when the climate changed, they could not survive again and He then chased them away and brought other animals that can survive. That is restructuring by God. God who created us restructured, so who are we not to restructure?
But my grouse with restructuring is that most of the advocates are dishonest. We need to see unity in diversity, as propounded by Tafawa Balewa. Nigeria is a great nation. God has a reason for bringing us together. Let us sit together and channel a way out of our current situation. Of course, there are some selfish politicians who hide under advocacy for separation and for their evil gains. Some people are even of the opinion that certain parts of the country are a parasite. But, in truth, no part of the country is a parasite.
Is there hope for Nigeria?
There is hope for Nigeria. But hope never comes by accident; we will have to work towards it. If we are expecting hope to fall like manna, we are wasting our time. We must identify what we want, agree on it and work towards it as a nation.
This interview was first published November 26, 2017