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Reminiscences With Tam David-West


This material belongs to: Daily Trust.

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 of misappropriation 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.