Africa: Reminiscences with Alagbo Tonye Graham Douglas
Alagbo Tonye Graham Douglas was a four-time minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He was the Minister of Social Development and Aviation during the Ibrahim Babangida administration. He also served as Minister of Culture and Tourism, as well as that of Labour, Employment and Productivity during the Obasanjo administration. He shared his experiences in life as he marked his 80th birthday in Port Harcourt.
At the age of 80 you look strong and healthy; how did your journey of life start? It is miraculous, in the sense that I have passed through the valley of shadow of death. I think I am luckier than most of my brothers because nobody in my family has ever reached the age of 80. I went through several challenges of life – bitter ones, sometimes very close to death, yet God saved me and put me on the path of the living. I am feeling very elated.
How would you describe your upbringing?
I had a very wonderful upbringing. My father was a paramount ruler and one of the founders of my community, Abonnema. He lived a very good life. He was a great merchant. We attended good schools and had good opportunities. When my father and mother died, my brothers worked very hard to ensure that the family was very strong. We got everything we wanted.
What are your most memorable moments in early schooldays – from primary school to university days? In primary school, one was rascally because it was the developmental age of one’s life. At this stage you are forming your little personality. In secondary school you are moulded into the main environment and basic principles of living righteously and uprightly. I attended a mission school where you tried to live right because the emphasis was on the need to know your God.’’
When you know your God you would have the wisdom that would guide you in your upbringing. The discipline and religion inculcated into my personality in secondary school was very significant. At the university level you are very free because you are independent. Being one of the early students of the University of Lagos, we had a lot of distractions because everything was wonderful. But I thank God that I was able to make a degree.
Did you face difficulty while growing up?
As a last child I was over-protected by my elder brothers. I was pampered. I got everything I wanted. You were an administration manager of the Port Harcourt Refinery Company (PHRC), a commissioner and a four-time minister, what are your experiences? With the background I had at the university and my upbringing, I was taught to be very conscious of my environment and handle my responsibilities conscientiously and zealously.
I was taught to ensure that at all times my efforts are productive for the benefit of the institution and the public in general. When I became a staff of the PHRC during the war, part of my duties as a public relations officer was to present the activities and functions of the refinery for acceptance in the environment we lived. I had a military, government and community relations, as well as the general man-to-man workplace relation. The combination of all the aforementioned was able to sustain the goodwill for the right operation of the refinery. This enabled us to operate very efficiently. The management never had a problem because the internal relationship one developed helped the organisation to function efficiently, to the benefit of the country.
How many refineries did we have at that time?
The PHRC was the only refinery. And we made sure that we met the fuel and energy requirement of the country as a whole. It’s not like today that you have a shutdown and the refineries are epileptic. Today, you spend lots of money that can be used for the development of infrastructure in the country on importation. And there is no organised importation. In those days the refinery imported the shortfalls when we had to carry out turnaround maintenance.
We sufficiently imported what we projected to be the requirement of the country during the shutdown period and there was no problem. When the Warri refinery came on board as number two, it embraced the principles and practice of the refinery culture. But when the Kaduna refinery came on board, the Nigeria factor came into it. I will say that in our days there was no corruption in the refinery. There was uprightness and absolute efficiency, but today, I am afraid of the situation. We have gone off from the normal practice. It beats my imagination and hurts me because Nigerians are very capable. They are very intelligent and determined. It is one of those things that make me unhappy when I think of it.
When you left the PHRC, where else did you work?
When I left the refinery I joined government. In the private sector the emphasis is on investment and good productivity. You will go to work as early as 6am and return about 6pm. That routine gave all of us a standard and reinforced our ability to work long hours and be productive.
I brought that standard into the government. When I was appointed into the Rivers State Executive Council, with my background and motivation in the private sector, government was slow, but within a short period I was able to define what I wanted to do – the youth, sports and culture. For the youth, I developed development policies, which was eventually adopted by the Federal Government. I built a youth development centre at Isaka. That institute was mainly to cater for the youth so that they won’t waste energies and idle away. Today, they have become miscreants and thrive as militants and so on.
The institute was a youth camp where everything was provided. We had so many skills acquisition training centres that were very functional. Unfortunately, when I came from Lagos, I realised that lack of funding made it comatose. In sports, I completed what Alfred Detti Spiff started. Today, it is known as Alfred Detti Spiff Civic Centre, Port Harcourt. I used it as a cardinal area and applied to stage the sixth All Nigerian Games, which was my first opportunity to test my ability to organise such events. We successfully staged the sixth All Nigerian Games in Port Harcourt. We also completed the Liberation Stadium.
I also rejuvenated the Sharks Football Club. In that competition we were second because of the training and motivation we gave to our boys in Rivers State. The third aspect of my position as a commissioner was culture. To make culture vibrant I reorganised the cultural centre. We created indoor games, which were done weekly. So the state became very much aware of the importance of culture to the society. You can really develop and export culture as a tourism product.
To cap it all, we had a cultural festival in Port Harcourt, which I tagged ‘The Canniriv 88.’ It was for unity in diversity. We invited other cultural troops. I believe it was a wonderful opportunity because Port Harcourt, and indeed, Rivers State, took the lead. It was the very first festival that attracted the whole country. I believe the Calabar and Abuja festivals were coined from the Port Harcourt festival. These are memorable landmarks of my sojourn as a commissioner in Rivers State.
When I finished as a commissioner in Rivers State I thought I would go into private business, but my good friend, General Ibrahim Babangida, a great leader, a very intelligent, forthright and proactive personality, invited me to serve in his cabinet as Minister of Social Development, Youths and Sports. Here, again, I tried as much as possible since it was almost what I did in Rivers State. I handled the social development aspect of our society, such as the downtrodden, lame, the blind, the deaf and so on. We devised a good method and made opportunities available for most of the people involved to be useful to the society.
They were never rejected, rather, we brought confidence in them and made sure that we created an opportunity for them to go to school because some of them were very brilliant. Some of them came out with first class from the university. So the fact that you were lame or had polio as a growing child, the fact that you were deaf or blind was not an inhibition. And Babangida really supported me in the social development aspect of the ministry.
He also gave me a free hand to organise sports. Everybody in the house was involved in the development of sports in the ministry. At the time, some Africa countries were beating us, and when the president saw it, he asked me to reorganise the system. Part of the reorganisation was to look inwards and outwards. We had very brilliant local football stars, but when they were exposed to outside competition it was difficult to perform because there was something lacking, including technicality, fitness and methods of the game, so I led a delegation to FIFA and met with Sepp Blatter and his secretary.
In line with his vision, Babangida asked me to solicit for staging the World Cup in Nigeria. Nobody imagined that Nigeria was going to be asked to stage the Under-17 World Cup. When I told FIFA president and the secretary in Zurich that we would like to stage the World Cup in Nigeria, they thought I was joking, so they received it with levity and without any significant reaction. But when I persisted and said that we really wanted it, they took me to task about the condition of our facilities. We had only the National Stadium at the time, and you needed a minimum of eight stadia to host such a global tournament.
At that time I was the president of the Supreme Council of Sports in Africa, so I was able to contact some countries in West Africa to know what they had. The prerequisite for staging a world tournament was to have six to eight stadia. Also, you must have electronic scoreboards, synthetic fields, light for the football, good dressing rooms and medical facilities, and a catalogue of numerous things. I was very honest to them and I told them that we didn’t have all these facilities. I told them that we had only one stadium, but since we had four years to prepare, with the support of my president we would get it done. They added that the whole team must be well prepared to play world class football games.
It was on that basis that they recommended Westerholf for me and I did not hesitate to recruit him. It raised a lot of eyebrows in Nigeria because Nigerians were very sentimental to patronages to local stars and sports. They wondered why I must bring a coach outside Nigeria. As a result of this, I changed his nomenclature from being called a coach to the title of a technical adviser. I allowed the other people to understudy him and it paid off. The strategy was to send most of the boys to teams in England and Europe and various parts of the world to have free training. They had some stipends and the opportunity to inter-relate and develop.
It eventually paid off when our boys won the cup in Russia. Those were the boys we sent out. That was the beginning of our fame and the development of football. We became a football nation through that decision. Finally, I was able to change our football season and pattern it like that of the Europeans so that we would be able to play at the same time with Europe and be able to keep talents so that we can thrive. That took time to metamorphose, and I am very glad that today, our league is developing very creditably and being managed very well. We initiated a sports development policy for the entire country.
I am delighted to say that it was made into law, and today, it is the bedrock of our sports development in Nigeria. When I finished my work at the Ministry of Social Development, Youth and Sports, my boss and leader, the president was very pleased with my efforts and work. Babangida appreciated and motivated his workers and ministers. He called all of us by our first names, and when you were going wrong he would call you to order. He gave us tremendous opportunities. When he dissolved his cabinet and eventually decided to reconstitute it, he did not drop me.
I was very lucky. He sent me to the Ministry of Aviation and gave me a particular task and responsibility. During the expatriate days, the Nigerian aviation industry had the biggest airline in Africa, but due to a lot of human factors and Nigerian characters, the airline began to dwindle. At the time I took over, from over 30 to 40 aircraft we did not have up to 10 in operation. Many things happened. When I got in there, and with the support of IBB, I was able to eventually deregulate the aviation industry. When I took over we had only three aircraft: the Nigerian Airways, Kabo and Okada.
I was able to reinforce the ones on ground and give license to other aircraft and improved on the airport that existed. I classified the Nigerian aviation area to an international airport status. I introduced the hub and principles of aviation. Today, the aviation industry has grown and consolidated. I believe that my successors have done the same thing and have gone further. The Nigerian aviation industry has become very strong. And many more airports have been built.
Before I left the Babangida administration, I made sure that service and control agencies were also reinforced, from the control tower to the maintenance facilities and safety landing aids, as well as the Nigerian Aviation Authority (NAA) that handles the commercial aspect, etc. When you left the Babangida administration, where did you go? When I left the Babangida administration I went to do my private business. I had companies – Toniscany Nig Ltd, a construction company; Ebitateco, a spare parts company. I had supermarkets and chains of hotels.
The friends I made in the army gave me a lot of opportunities to do many projects. Eventually, all the three companies I had were very successful. Without any equivocation, I will say that the army built me up in those days because of the genuine friends I had there.
How did you venture into politics?
I formed a group called the National Summit because I realised that the bigger powers had arrogated the right to always produce the president of the country to themselves. So I decided to go for the presidential race. When the military gave notice that they were going to lift the ban on politics, I came back to Port Harcourt and formed the group. I am sure you must have heard of the National Summit. We were able to cover to the South-South area. As a matter of fact, it was that group that met with G34 and others that eventually metamorphosed into what you know today as the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I became a member of the Board of Trustees of the PDP and I was given the mandate to produce the governors of Rivers and Bayelsa states.
The PDP eventually won all the states in the South-South – Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Delta and Edo. I efficiently engineered it and gave the required leadership. I did the presidential primary election, but Obasanjo eventually won. When he won, I thought I should go back to my duties and look for my future in the private sector, but Obasanjo was also gracious enough to appoint me as Minister of Employment, Labour and Productivity. I presumed it was because of the method of campaign I ran and my honesty. I have the mind of my own and incorruptible in nature.
As I said earlier, my motivation is always to leave a mark in any ministry I go to. I had a big problem with the Labour union, led by Adams Oshiomhole, but I was able to negotiate with them, and within two weeks we were able to talk about national minimum. At that time it was a little above N7,000 and it was increased to N18,000. I am proud to say that the unemployment figure was not outrageous. We had a craft training institute, skills acquisition bodies and a number of institutes that created opportunities for the Nigerian populace.
I had the ambition to create about five million jobs for the population. I wrote a big blueprint to that effect, but unfortunately, it was never implemented until I left that ministry to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. I had done it in Rivers State, so the ministry was not strange to me. There were ancient sites for our historical values, so I classified some of the tourism sites and I brought in the first world tourism conference in Nigeria. Thereafter, I classified the hotels into various categories, such as five-star, four-star, three-star etc. I staged the very first cultural carnival, which was the talk of town during my stay as a minister in the Obasanjo regime.
Back home, what did you do for your community?
I was able to bring in federal waterworks in various places in my community in Rivers State. In my village, I was able to get a local government for the purpose of development. I built a shore protection and brought electricity. I attracted a federal road to my village, which Babangida approved. It was also for the economic benefit of Bonny and Brass. Today, I am able to drive to my hometown, Abonnema. Abonnema was found in 1882 and since then we had been going on water.
I am one of the paramount rulers in my community. My father, according to the age of handing the place, was the number six person. We don’t have monarchy, we don’t have hereditary succession pattern, this is how the place is being governed as a cosmopolitan institute. My people hold me in a very high reverence, and I have been an illustrious son.
The Niger Delta region is presently enjoying peace, in the sense that there is no disruption in oil exploration activities. You are one of the Ijaw leaders that prevailed on the militants to sheathe their sword. How were you and other leaders able to achieve this feat?
This thing started during the Babangida administration. Before the war, we had a regional government known as the Eastern Region and we had a peaceful means of sharing the wealth. It was not an oil economy, it was an agricultural economy. To that extent we practised true federalism. Every region kept whatever it got and contributed to the Federal Government to sustain its functions.
The eastern area had palm oil, timber, fish and what have you. The western area was predominantly on cocoa and other agricultural cash crops while the northern area had agricultural products of very many varieties. We were all comfortable until oil was found in commercial quantity and the federation began to suffer serious mistrust and dwindling love. The federation collapsed in 1966; there was the military and the war came up. Part of the reason was how to handle the principle of derivation. In some cases it was 100per cent derivation and they contributed some to the federation. During the war, the principle of derivation was suspended in order to prosecute it.
In other words, the oil revenue was used to prosecute the war on all sides. The oil was coming from the Ijaw area, the riverine area of the Niger Delta region. After the war, when we began to plan the economy, the principle of derivation was thrown away. Again, IBB had conscience and set up a committee, which was chaired by T.Y. Danjuma, who recommended the five per cent derivation. When the white paper came up, its writer said the principle of derivation was not acceptable to the government.
And from that moment, of course our boys began to agitate while elders would tolerate and accommodate. But we knew that the generation coming after us would be intolerant to the inequities that prevailed. I am giving you this as a background because people say that our boys are militants, but what led them into this militancy is inequity, unjust and evil intentions of domination by the bigger powers. Little by little, various communities began to fight for land spaces and interventions erupted and the youth began to be very active. They formed themselves into groups to demand for true federalism, resource control and development. The elders immediately prevailed and formed the Ijaw National Congress (INC) and the youths became the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC).
At that time they were only expressing their views, they had not started any confrontation. Their activities were peaceful. But the leadership we had in the country mismanaged the opportunities. The Niger Delta produced over 90per cent of the wealth of the country, but we were neglected. There’s no infrastructural development, no empowerment, not even in education, so the boys realised that their future was in jeopardy. With that spirit they became active. And some of the emerging governors ceased the opportunity and patronised some of these youths. They created problems with a divide-and-rule system and it eventually crystallised into troubles and militancy.
These boys were used to run elections, after which they were dumped. Instead of being idle, they began to fend for themselves for survival, which eventually led to the creation of all types of social embarrassment and vices. When Yar’adua came on board, the first thing he wanted to do was to contain the situation. He did everything possible to appease the youth, using the foremost military people. I don’t want to mention names to give credit to anyone. I am just telling the story. Yar’adua introduced the amnesty programme and all the militant groups laid down their arms. The amnesty programme becomes a problem because you train a lot of manpower without jobs.
In the midst of many engagements, how do you relax?
I am a very sociable person. I accommodate anybody that wants to see me. Above all, I became very religious. I believe that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I have had terrible health challenges and been in and out of hospital, but God always saved me and brought me back to life. I never imagined that I would go beyond 60, but I am now 80. I give part of my time to interact with my fellow human beings. I answer my phones myself. If I have groundnuts to eat I share with people and relax with them. The other thing is that I serve God very effectively. Majority of my friends today clergymen. They are many and they come to see me at will. I also go to the churches to listen to sermons and grow in the spirit. Most importantly, I serve my nation, especially Rivers State.
By Victor Edozie