OBITUARY: David-West, the petroleum minister fired by IBB for drinking tea by Haleem Olatunji

Professor. Commissioner. Two-time minister under military regimes. And a Special guest at Nigerian prisons. Very few men in Nigeria’s history can boast of such a mix of professional dexterity and political ups and downs. The indomitable Tam David-West, as President Muhammadu Buhari fondly calls him, will be remembered for many things in Nigeria’s modern history, including for nights at the Kirikiri prison in Lagos, and months of harsh experience in Bama prison, Borno, for drinking a cup of tea.

David-West went from being a professor at the University of Ibadan, to becoming Rivers state commissioner for education, then minister of petroleum and energy under the military leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, and minister of mines, power, and steel under ex-President Ibrahim Babangida.

On Monday, the life of the octogenarian, who hails from Buguma, Kalabari kingdom of Rivers state, was put to rest. President Buhari was quoted to have described him as “a consultant virologist of national and international standing” who had “an indomitable spirit, stood resolutely by whatever he believed in, and was in a class of his own”.



Tea has a special place in Nigeria’s history, but little did David-West know that a cup of tea would land him in prison. He was tried by the Babangida regime for drinking tea with the executives of a firm, which the regime claimed compromised the ex-minister of petroleum in the process. The regime made reference to a $57million contract between Nigeria and Stinness oil company, in New Jersey, United States of America.

The deal, which was made during the era of ex-president Shehu Shagari, but negotiated during the Buhari military era, landed David-West in a “huge mess” during the Babangida regime. However, in an interview with TheSun, the elder statesman said the company which offered him tea was not the same as that which made an oil deal with Nigeria.

“The company that gave me tea and wristwatch was different from Stinness. But the government mixed up the two. The company that gave me tea did not have any contract with Nigeria. How can an oil minister take as bribe a lady’s wristwatch and a cup of tea? Stupid. In fact, $157million can buy a tea factory and wristwatch factory,” he said.

“I met the president of the company that gave me the tea and wristwatch in Geneva. The company’s president invited myself and my team for dinner. I was there with my team from Nigeria. All of us were served cups of tea.  The company’s president said he wanted to have an oil contract with Nigeria. Then, I asked him to negotiate with my team so that my team would report the outcome of the discussion to me. I insisted he must come to Nigeria to open the negotiation. The company was in Geneva and Stinness was in Vienna.”


Young David-West

The Babangida regime accused David-West of “trading off the country’s interest” for a cup of tea and wristwatch, which was linked to the proceeds of the $157million offshore processing contract with Stinnes oil company. The contract, which involved exporting crude oil from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) for refining and sales outside the country provided revenue for both Nigeria and the company. However, an outstanding $157million payment came up after the Shagari government fell, which made Buhari mandate David-West to negotiate a deal.

In a 2018 interview, the professor narrated how he made needed effort to recover the funds from the US oil company, but was only able to reconcile $100million. The Babangida government subsequently charged him for $57million corruption, which it believed David-West traded with a cup of tea and a piaget wristwatch.

“All they said about the tea and wristwatch was a fat big lie and fraud. It was tagged $57million tea and wristwatch. When Shagari’s government fell… Buhari called me for discussion on the $157million with Stinness. He gave me a mandate to negotiate with the company, so that we would reconcile and Nigeria would get its own share. We negotiated with the company. The company finally agreed to pay $93million or so to Nigeria as our share, after three negotiations with my team.

“Then, I told the MD of NNPC and other members of the team, that they should tell the company that the minister is a simple-minded professor, who likes round figures. They should make it $100million. We were surprised that the company agreed to pay the $100million, and everybody was happy. The $100million was not paid during Buhari’s era.

“In 1991, which was about five years after leaving the government, the Babangida government accused me that out of the $157 million, I accepted $100 million for Nigeria and got the remaining $57 million for myself. They said the company must have given me $57million as bribe. The government set up a tribunal, which sat many years after I had left office. In December 1990, I was summoned on a two-count charge to appear before a Special Military Tribunal. I was surprised when SSS invited me for interrogation.

“My lawyer filed a no-case submission, which the judge did not accept. They jailed me for life. Then, my lawyer, Tunde Olojo, who is now a monarch, and Peter Ige, who is now a judge, and A. Raji, who is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) now, told the tribunal presided over by Justice Gusau that the maximum sentence by law was 22 years for the two counts, not life imprisonment.”


Kirikiri prison

As part of the judgment given under the Babangida regime, David-West was denied bail and sentenced to prison. In the interview with TheSun, he narrated how he spent six days in Kirikiri maximum prison in Lagos state, followed by a nine-month stay as an inmate in Bama prison, Borno state.

“It was stated in the judgment, contrary to the law, that I should not serve my jail term in Lagos. Why he (Babangida) did not want me to serve in Lagos was because the support for me was too much. Students all over the country were coming to Lagos. He thought if I had served in Lagos, they might break out the prison for me.”



David-West served under both Babangida and Buhari military regimes. While Buhari appointed him as minister of petroleum in January 1984, Babangida retained him when he came into power in August 1985, but later redeployed him to the ministry of mines, power and steel.

Describing both military leaders, David-West said Buhari is stiff but sincere, while Babaginda is foxy but lacks sincerity.

“Well, Babangida was a very foxy person and likable. Buhari is stiff, but pleasant. But Babangida is foxy, smiles all the time, but not sincere. Buhari is stiff and sincere. Buhari will not plant evil to the best of my knowledge,” he said.


In his days as minister of petroleum, David-West said he earned lesser compared to when he served as a professor at the University of Ibadan. In an interview he granted a year ago, he said he worked an average of 12 hours on most days, including weekends, while he was minister of petroleum, yet earned lesser than his previous job in academia.

“I was earning less salary as a minister than I was earning at the university. How many people know that? My salary in the university as Professor/Consultant Virologist at the University of Ibadan, was higher than the salary I was earning as Minister of Petroleum.

“Buhari is here to confirm it. Later on when Buhari discovered that I was earning less as a minister, they wrote to the University of Ibadan to get my payslip, and they increased my salary as a minister. So, how can you serve your country so well with so much dedication and sacrifice, and go through this absolute nonsense?”


Until his death, the social critic was an ally and loyalist of Buhari, perhaps because he gave credit for the lessons he learnt while serving as minister under him. But despite being a loyalist, David-West never failed to criticize the Buhari’s government when things went wrong.

In 2018, he criticized Buhari’s ministerial appointments and faulted his handling of the economy, saying the president’s mistakes are haunting his government. In one of such cases, he criticised Buhari for appointing Kemi Adeosun, former minister of finance, over Udo Udoma, ex-minister of budget and national planning.

“I have said it before that the economy is not doing well. People are suffering. I told him to alleviate the suffering. Give greater happiness to the greatest number. Let me be personal, if I were Buhari, the person I would have appointed the minister of finance is Udo Udoma, who is the minister of budget. That is not a good place for him,” he said.

“The economy is not doing well because of the mistake in appointment. I am not saying the minister of finance is not doing well. I do not know her. From what I have seen on television, she talks well, but talk is not enough. People are suffering. I am a diehard Buharist, but I cannot close my eyes and my conscience to admit there is not a lot of suffering. And something should be done about it.”


David-West on stage during Buhari’s presidential bid declaration in Abuja in 2014

Unlike the average minister or loyalist who wills membership card of a political party, David-West never joined a political party until his death. In an interview with TheGardian, the virologist said he would rather support principles and persons than hold party affiliation.

“I have never joined any political party, but I support principles and persons. I do not see anybody in the political terrain that can contest against Buhari on moral turf. That is his greatest asset.

“Buhari is clean and upright. I cannot say that of any politician. All of them who are saying he should not re-contest are not better politically and on a moral turf. None of them can contest integrity with him,” he added.


Kachikwu, former state petroleum minister

The former minister of petroleum, in an interview with Punch, called Ibe Kachikwu, ex-minister of state for petroleum, a “minister without portfolio”. He was reacting to a petition Kachikwu wrote to Buhari, which accused Maikanti Baru, group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), of insubordination. David-West said Kachikwu’s office was redundant, superfluous and should be scrapped.

“Actually, Buhari should be the chairman of the NNPC board and not Kachikwu, who is a minister without a portfolio in reality. It would be better if we scrapped the ‘minister of state’ which is superfluous and redundant,” he said.

“When you say that a minister of state is the boss of the GMD of NNPC, it is wrong. That cannot be. People are making those claims because of misconception. The minister of state in the first republic was a minister without a portfolio. He cannot be a boss of the GMD of an oil industry, who is the livewire of that sector.”

No more politics, no more prisons, no more academic interventions — at 83, David-West has had enough of this earth, and has now taken a journey home, to be with the ancestors. Rest in peace, professor.


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