Alhaji Maitama Sule, an elder statesman, was Nigeria’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations during the second republic. Before then, as the Minister of Mines and Power in the first republic, the oil portfolio was under his ministry. While at the UN, Sule chaired the committee which sought to end apartheid in the now independent South Africa. In this interview, he explains why many first republic politicians, including himself, ended in penury.
There is this needless dichotomy between the North and the South of the country. What do you think?
One of my problems is the fact that some section think that the North is no good for the country. That should not be. They think we are hangers on and that we don’t have anything to offer whereas over 70% of our ‘oil’ came from the North in the past. The revenue base of the country at that time was in the North. The cocoa in the South-West also contributed to the revenue base of the country. And nobody complained at that time. At that time, there was no division, we were all one and that is why the leaders of those days behaved in a nationalistic manner.
We know how the oil industry started, and how the contributions of those leaders, irrespective of where they came from, made our oil industry what it is now . Let me tell you another thing. When Shell decided to leave the country after some years of exploration, they invited the Minister of Mines and Power, Alhaji Ribadu, to London, and told him that they had spent so much money and time looking for oil in Nigeria and they had not found any, and so, they were leaving the country. Ribadu (he had native intelligence, he was not academically qualified but he was sound), he saw through what they wanted to do, he suspected that they must have found oil but they were trying to sit on it until it suited them to start exploiting.
So, he said ‘if you are leaving Nigeria, please, take everything along with you, shut down your filling stations, because, you will not sell any kerosene or anything to do with oil, good bye and thank you’. They too saw through him, too, and came back the next day and said, ‘Mr Minister, please give us some more time, we will try again, perhaps this time we will be lucky’. So, they came back to Nigeria. Two, three months after, they announced they had found oil in commercial quantity; that was in 1958. There was the independence election in 1959 and I succeeded him as Minister of Mines and Power.
Battle with oil firms
There was another fine gentleman, Chief Feide, Nigeria’s first Chief Petroleum Engineer. He was the boss of Maurinho. He employed Rilwan Lukman as a young engineer. Feide was a man of integrity, a decent Yoruba man. There was another fine gentleman who was my Permanent Secretary, Musa Daggash, a very honest person. Talking about oil, Shell was the only oil company in the country at that time, and Chief Feide said we could not afford to have only one company operating in Nigeria.
He said one company should not monopolize our oil industry, we must promote competition. He then said Shell must surrender part of its concession so that we might give other oil companies. Shell refused at first, they said that legally, concession the belonged to them, and that they will not give it up. Of course, we all argued it that the concession was given to them so that they might work on it, not sit on it. ‘If you are prepared to work on all aspects of the concession at the same time, I will be prepared to leave it to you, otherwise, you have to surrender part of the concession because, we want to bring other oil companies in order to develop our country’. Of course, they threatened.
We knew oil companies were very powerful, they could make or mar countries. Eventually, they surrendered part of the concession, and we advertised and oil companies came. They took up concession only for Chief Feide to tell us that we were not out of the woods yet, because all the new oil companies that had now taken up concession belonged to the same club. They were seven sisters, such that the issue of competition we were talking about may not be there after all. So, what do we do?
There was only one oil company in a country that was not in this club and which was giving them (seven sisters) headache and that was Italy. The Eni of which Agip was a subsidiary was the only company that was not with the seven sisters, Mobil, Shell, BP, ESSO, Texaco and so on. So, we had to go to Italy. I remember the late Sunday Awoniyi, Senior Assistant Secretary, served as Secretary to the delegation. I led the delegation naturally. We got there and saw Mate who was the President of the Eni.
A powerful man, a man of integrity, he had no wife or house, he lived in a hotel and he was earning more salary than the Italian Prime Minister. He was very much respected. He asked if we were not afraid of the powerful oil companies and I told him we were not, and that all we wanted him to do was to give us a better offer so that I could justify my invitation to him, because, back home, these oil companies –seven sisters – were mounting a campaign against me. I added that I would be in trouble if I returned home without anything better than they were offering us.
So, he said ‘alright, we are coming to Nigeria, we would give you high royalties, we train your workers (engineers, administrators, lawyers and so on) and if Nigerian government wanted, we can offer participation, that meants that we can be partners’. By the time I returned, the pressure against us was already high. The Prime Minister then asked me, ‘what is this new oil company about?’ I told him we wanted to promote competition. He said what he heard was contrary to what I was saying.
I told him that the oil companies then in the country were in the same club, and I thought it would be better if we could promote competition, and that the new company I was bringing had offered to do this and this for us. Then the Prime Minister said ‘why not bring your paper to the Council?’ I did. I remember Festus Okotie-Eboh (Minister of Finance) was jokingly saying I wanted to cause trouble for the country. After my presentation to the Council, the Prime Minister asked if there was anybody who had something to say, that is how Agip came into Nigeria.
Nigeria’s first refinery
Shortly after that, I thought it would be unfair for Nigeria, an oil producing country, not to have refinery and that is why we built the first refinery in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Then, there was this issue of oil companies paying the highest wages among other companies in the country. If you bring any body to the ministry to work under a Permanent Secretary, naturally, he would not earn more than the Permanent Secretary.
But a Permanent Secretary’s salary in the oil industry is nothing but a chicken feed; that is why we decided to take the oil sector out of the ministry and make it independent and allow them to employ people of right caliber and give them salaries commensurate with their qualifications while we remain the supervising ministry. We called it then NOC, National Oil Corporation, which later became NNPC.
I got Nigeria into Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, against the wish of the oil companies, because they didn’t want the oil producing countries to form a group. They lobbied so much that the Prime Minister had to ask me what the hullabaloo about OPEC was. And I told him that the OPEC was a group of oil producing countries including developing countries like Nigeria, ‘they get together to look at their problems and seek solutions’.
In any event, if the oil companies, the buyers of our oil, unite to form a group, why should we, the sellers, not have a group? The Prime Minister bought the argument and gave me the go ahead and we joined OPEC in 1962 or 63.
Controversial continental shelf
There was this crisis on the controversial continental shelf. The Eastern Region came with an argument that territorial waters contiguous to a region belonged to the region. At first, as you know, our oil was onshore, it was not offshore but the East got to know that most of our oil, if not all, was offshore. If it was agreed that territorial waters contiguous to a region belonged to the region, then everything in the territorial waters should also belong to the region, but I said no, that it was not possible because it was not the practice anywhere in the world.
Territorial waters belong to the central authority in a federation. In any event, the regional or state government has no navy to protect the waters. You cannot claim something you cannot protect. However, the argument became heated so much so that I had to set up a committee, comprising of representatives of the Eastern Region and the Federal Government, to go round the world and visit oil producing countries and see what obtained in those countries concerning territorial waters.
They did and came back to report that in all the countries visited, territorial waters belong to the central authority, therefore, whatever is found offshore belongs to the central authority, not region or state, and that put paid to the matter.
What was it like being the Minister of Mines and Power for seven years, with all the influenceof having oil under your portfolio? It was a powerful office?
It was a powerful office, but we didn’t use it to amass wealth. When the coup took place in January 1966, I had to borrow money from my friend and Permanent Secretary to send my family home. I had no bank account. Here at home I had no house except the house where I was born in the city and where I lived with my father. I had no money at all. I remember I was told that when Ironsi took over, he asked the oil companies to tell them what they were paying me, of course, they said nothing.
‘In fact, he was a good riddance to bad rubbish , we are glad that he is gone because he has been giving us a lot of trouble’. Then, he set up a judicial enquiry on the ECN now NEPA. I was in charge of ECN at that time; we were installing high tension cables all over the country, it was a big contract at that time. And by the grace of God, not even once was I asked to come and give evidence. I think that was an act of God. Again, I must say that all my actions then were inspired by my leaders.
Who were the leaders?
The Prime Minister, a gentle man who went into politics to serve but not to be served, to give but not to take.
Can we replicate that now?
I don’t know. You can answer that yourself by what you see in the country today. When the Prime Minister died and they looked into his bank account, he hadn’t a kobo except a mud house he left in Bauchi. There was no fleet of cars. No investment or shares in any company. The Sardauna, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, died like that too. In fact, when the coup leaders sent for his bank account, they discovered that it was in red.
That was the Premier of the North. These were good leaders. We have a saying in Hausa that if any congregation prayer goes wrong, it is the Imam leading it that spoils it. Regarding other leaders, they were excellent leaders, too. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, these were principled politicians who went into politics to serve but not to be served.
After all, Zik returned from abroad a rich man. He stopped in Ghana to establish a newspaper, he could not have established a newspaper unless he had money. He brought the newspaper to Nigeria, the West African Pilot. So, he was in money even though he didn’t make the money from politics. Chief Awolowo was a successful lawyer, one of the most prominent lawyers.
He made a lot of money from his law practice, it was not from politics that he made the money. Tafawa Balewa and the Sardauna were poor teachers before they came into politics. These people belonged to different parties, tribes, religions and cultures, just as we are today but there was a difference.
What is the difference?
They loved Nigeria. They were always ready to put national interest above self interest. These people, inspite of their differences, were always ready to come together, to accommodate one another, to respect one another, to cooperate with one another in order to move the country forward. That was why Nigeria was a decent country, that was when we were our brothers keepers.
Nigeria, as a result of this good leadership, became very much respected in the eyes of the world such that our reputation was high. Wherever a Nigerian went in those days, he was respected and held his head high. Those were the days. The norms and values these men and leaders left for us have been thrown away. We are no longer what we were, what is happening now in the country was not in our character then.
It was a decent, peaceful, united, morally sound country with little corruption, if any. I am not saying there were no problems in those days, after all, we are all humans, we were not perfect, perfection is only an attribute of God but, even at that, they were not as bad as it is now.
Why was it that your career as a diplomat overshadowed that of minister of oil for seven years?
First of all, it was years after I had left as Minister of Mines and Power that I went to the United Nations. I was Minister of Mines and Power in the first republic, 1959 to 1966. Then, there was the coup which brought Ironsi to power, then Gowon, and later Murtala, then Obasanjo. It was not until 1978 that the military lifted the ban on politics. It was a long time in between.
When we returned to politics, I remember Chief Awolowo called me, I was then Chief Ombudsman in the Public Complaints Commission. He said, ‘Maitama, I want to see you,’ and I asked if anybody had brought complains against me. He said was going to Ikenne for his birthday and on his return will like to see me. So, when I saw him, he said politics was around the corner. He said he wanted to float a national political party that will cut across religious and ethnic boundaries. He said he wanted me to come on board with him. I said why me?
He said, ‘I cannot forget when you were a young minister and I was leader of the opposition, every morning, during the sitting of the House, you come and greet me, kneel down in the presence of the members and greet me? Really was the politics of those days. Respect for elders was there such that the Prime Minister noticed this and called me to his office one particular day and said it was like there was an unholy alliance between me and Awolowo and I replied him that it was what he taught me.
So Chief Awolowo told me he had the dossier of every prominent politician in this country. I replied that that much I knew. He said there were two of us in the North who he could not point accusing fingers: me and Ali Shettima Munguno but Shettima Munguno was too much of a gentleman to be a good politician. You are rascal like me.(laughter), I need you. You are bridge between the old and the young. I said thank you sir. I advised him and you know Chief Awolowo was a proud man. He did what he wanted to do against my advice and he told me that there was a time the North rebuffed him. I told him to avoid certain things but he did not.
He was a principled man, he would not lie. He would speak out his mind. So, I joined the NPN. Adamu, Shagari, Saraki and I sought to be the flag-bearer. I came second, followed by Adamu Ciroma and we the first three were to go for a second round. It was quite clear I would defeat Shagari in the second round because, all the other candidates said they would give me their votes, however, I saw something. If I defeated him, those promoting him will not take it kindly with me, thereby dividing the party.
Shagari would lose, I will lose and we would lose the election eventually to UPN or NPP. So, I decided to concede to Shagari and announced at the convention that Nigeria and my party were greater than any of us. Eventually, Shagari won the election. He wanted me to be a member of his cabinet but I said no. I had my own idea of how to run the government just as Shagari had his.
Was it that you were angry?
No, far from it. I was just being realistic. I thought there would be conflict joining his cabinet, but I told him I would give him support. Some people said I should go to the United Nations as the country’s representative and some said taking such a role would amount to sending me on exile but I was later telling them that it was a pleasant exile, because, of all the political appointments I took, that appointment to the United Nations, to me, was the best.
I went to the United Nations to serve the international community, to serve the world and humanity, it was a place where what made us prominent was our struggle against apartheid. Nigeria, being in the fore front of the struggle, was made the Chairman of the committee against apartheid. So, I found myself in the special committee against apartheid as its Chairman which gave me the opportunity to tour the world, to talk about apartheid, to preach and pray for the release of the late Nelson Mandela and end of apartheid.
So, I have been around, doing one thing or the other. For example, I formed the NEPU, not Mallam Aminu Kano. I gave the name NEPU to it. Even the NPC that eventually became a political party, we formed it . I was the Vice President in 1949, shortly after I left secondary school, I was barely 20 years old then. People forget about all these political activities and focus on my diplomatic career.
Did you envisage you will become this famous?
I think it was an act of God. However, I remember when I was in Kaduna College, Shagari was four years ahead of some of us in the college. I used to pray God to give me the opportunity to serve my country. I think in 1946 or so I left the college and trained as a teacher in Zaria, I went to Lagos for the first time on education excursion. On my way back from Lagos, I was in the same train with Dr. Azikiwe. He was coming to Kaduna, and we were in the same coach. He became interested in me and we were talking all the way from Lagos to Kaduna.
What was it the younger ones respected the older ones at that is now missing in today’s politics?
You can’t eat your cake and have it. The present day leadership wants money. You can’t have money and honour at the same time. Our former leaders didn’t want money, they wanted to serve the country, and that is why they were respected. As some people say, if these leaders were to come back to life, Azikiwe, Awolowo, Sarduana, Tafawa Balewa would die 10 times and go back to their graves because this is not what they were expecting.
They expected that Nigeria by now would be a decent country, united, morally sound and its leadership will not be corrupt, these were their dreams, because there was respect for elders, constituted authority, there was morality in the society, there was little corruption in the society and, above all, we were peaceful people. We had problems then too but we were able to over come them.
There was a statement credited to you then which was that the West had intellectuals, the East was blessed with industrialists and the North were born leaders, which generated a lot of controversy?
Compared with what happened in the past, I leave that to you. In any event, I tried to explain to people what I meant by that, that Nigeria is lucky that we have got all we need in leadership. To lead a country, you need industrialists to develop the country, enterprising people; to lead a country, you need diplomats, good civil servants and, of course, administrators. So, we have all these things that we need for good governance.
And luckily for us, all the three things are not concentrated in one area, they are divided, we have to need one another. That was the import of the statement which was misunderstood. However things have happened, people have been able to compare and contrast, so it is not for me to make comment anymore.
Are you fulfilled?
I thank God for everything. I am the luckiest at my age. Nobody of my age is looking as healthy, as young as I am. I am 85 now. You think I am 57? I became member of parliament when I was 24, I became a minister at the age of 29. So, I thank my God. Even at that, one way or the other, my names keep coming up and I think maybe because I have finished paying my debt(long laughter). I am still relevant by the grace of God. If I wanted to contest election, I still would because politics is a thing of the mind. And even if it a thing of the body, God has given me good health.
Allah says ‘if you are grateful to me, I will give you more, if you show your ingratitude, your punishment is severe’. People say the joy of a dying father is seeing a worthy successor. If you want your successor to be wealthy, you have to train him, you have to groom him and impact your experience in him. That is why I keep talking, telling people about what happened in the past, how things went wrong. And that is why I am saying we need leadership, not rulership.
When would that happen?
When you, the potential leaders, the younger ones, make up your minds to do the right thing. You are the panacea to our ills, the solution to our problems, the vehicles of change, the vanguard of the revolution. I am not calling for a bloody revolution, but a reorientation, change of attitude, you are the real change. When you refuse to be bribed in order for those in authority to perpetuate themselves. You can mar make your future through your actions. However, you must seek the experience of the old, because the best organization is the combination of the old and young.
Who are your role models?
Tafawa Balewa . His love for the nation, honesty and gentility. Awolowo, he was a man of principled, here was a man in Nigeria who never had a girlfriend in his life, he never smoked nor drank , he never lied. He was a great man. Zik inspired me when I was young and Mallam Aminu Kano who I regarded as the greatest politician in Africa because he never had a government but, yet, his people obeyed him more than any leader that I know of. They died and suffered for him. They were imprisoned because of him and he never gave them a penny. He was a man of his words.
What would you consider your saddest in life?
The death of Tafawa Balewa. And that of Murtala Muhammed. Murtala was trying to give Nigeria a sense of direction, he was about instilling discipline in the society, he raised the moral tode of the society. He fought corruption.
– See more at: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2015/01/some-people-think-the-north-is-not-good-for-nigeria-maitama-sule/#sthash.BVM1cTVs.dpuf