Former Minister of Information and Culture, Prof. Sam Oyovbaire is an academic and political figure held in high esteem, particularly in Delta, his home state. But all that would not have been without mom’s insistence that young Sam must go to school. With the push from mom, he recalled, he later realised how important it was for him to succeed even as a very young man. Now he recalls with nostalgia such issues as how his wife was packaged to him in the UK, the intrigues that culminated in his exit as the Minister of Information and Culture and his dealings in government with former Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and his erstwhile deputy Augustus Aikhomu, among others. He spoke with PAUL UKPABIO.
What would you say inspired you to success?
I am the eldest in the family. Somehow, I felt I had to succeed. Environment and time determine a lot, but the important point is that one should be determined. Children come from various homes. Those who grew up in Lagos or Abuja would likely have a different kind of experience from mine, because I grew up in my village. Incidentally, I am here in the same village where I grew up. That is because I retired fully to the village.
Another point is that whatever the situation, one should be determined to succeed. That was what made me to become who I am today.
I have so many memories. My father didn’t really believe much in education. He thought that I could just take over from him in life. But my mother thought differently about it. She insisted that I must go to school. Although she was not educated too, one of the greatest memories I can recall is her determination to see me through school. In the village where I grew up in the early 40s, I am not sure we had up to three educated people.
Definitely you were not a privileged child…
No, I was not. The part of the country where I am is midway between Sapele and Warri. I remember in the early 50s when I was in the primary school, two times I shocked my mother when I arrived for holiday having walked the entire stretch of the way home; an unbelievable distance for a child to trek. She was not expecting me. So you can see that there were no privileges for me in terms of access to the means of living well.
You went to school in Warri. What was Warri like in those days?
By the time I got to Warri, I was already out of primary school. Then, Chief Obafemi Awolowo had established schools. We had what was referred to as modern school. I went to Warri also to attend the Provincial Teachers Training College where I met new friends. One of them is alive today and we are still close.
Warri was a rustic town also bustling because it was largely a commercial town. Businesses were everywhere. Ships came to Warri, but more went to Sapele. There were villages outside Warri then. But today, you cannot separate those villages from Warri itself. The lifestyle which is available today and referred to as ‘waffi life,’ was already there!
You attended Provincial Teachers Training College. Did you plan to be a teacher? What were your early dreams?
It was determination that took me there. There was also a young man my age who is now also a professor. I recalled that I passed three common entrance examinations. The first was Government College Ughelli, and two others. But my parents could not afford the fees. I ended up at the model school and from there passed into the teachers training college. So I became a trained teacher at the lowest level with a certificate.
I didn’t sit down to decide that I wanted to be a teacher. Instead, I found myself with what was available. My mother was helpful in seeing me through. In 1961, I was ready to be a teacher and ended up in the Sapele Township Modern School. From there, my friend who is now a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and I decided to travel out of the country for greener pastures.
In those days, we were into correspondence courses from abroad and I was able to sit for the General Certificate of Education where I made seven passes in the first sitting. We also considered the A-level examination before we traveled out.
How did you raise the money to go to London?
It was my father. I was already teaching. I was doing little savings, though two of my brothers were living with me then along with my sister who is still alive now. When I had completed arrangement to go, I went to see my father. He had left home in the village to a settlement in Yorubaland called Idanre, Ondo State. He was shocked, because he didn’t know much about traveling abroad. He gave me some pounds. His contribution was three quarters of the entire money.
What were the immediate challenges you faced in the UK? Did you experience culture clash?
Not much. But during winter, it was a challenge. However, culturally, people like us felt comfortable in the old colonial place, because I started experiencing most of the things that I had read about the British Constitution, which finally got me into political science. I had gone through British history, European history as one of my courses theoretically. So we adjusted quickly to the culture because it was not a problem.
Another experience then was these London double-decker buses which are still available over there today. You know you can smoke upstairs when you are feeling cold. So my friend and I did it for about two weeks but couldn’t continue with smoking after that. That was how I started smoking and also quit smoking after two weeks.
You stayed in the UK for years. Did you eventually marry a Briton?
No, I didn’t. In those days, those who travelled out did not do so to go and work there or marry. It was just for education. But over there, the opportunity of working and studying late became a driving force. My friend and I did several odd jobs and eventually, I got a good job in a post office. My friend and I were much focused. On my part, I didn’t get attracted to a white lady, and I didn’t have the desire to sleep with one.
Surprisingly, it was after we were set to go for our academic degrees that the issue of marriage came up. However, before I travelled out of Sapele, there was a particular girl who was about 15 and close to me. We knew ourselves but it was not to the point of getting married or in the context of making love. So I told my father and brother to go to that family. There were three ladies there, but I told them the particular one that appealed to me. My family members went there, my parents met with hers, and the actual bride price and ceremony was done in my absence and she was able to join me in the UK. That was how I got married and I have never regretted it. And she is just a simple lady. Again, my friend too went through the same process to get a wife for himself from Nigeria.
You returned to Nigeria to pick up a job as a lecturer. What motivated that?
I entered the University of London in 1966 and graduated with a 2:1 (Second Class Upper) in 1969, just like my friend who studied Law. I decided that I would further my studies immediately. My wife was with me. She was doing petty jobs. I applied for a scholarship, which I got and enrolled for further studies. By 1970, I started looking for a job. The attraction for a job then was for external service. Surprisingly, I got a reply from Ahmadu Bello which started a new Department of Political Science. I had two children and my wife. I was told if I wanted to take the job, tickets would be sent. So I sat my wife down and told her that I didn’t want to lose the job. I asked if I should leave her behind in the UK and she said no; that wherever I went, she would follow me. That was how we came home in 1971, and straight to Sapele to see our families and then to Ahmadu Bello University to resume duty as Assistant Lecturer.
You got your PhD in a record time. How did you do it?
I knew then that if I wanted to grow in the university I had to have a PhD. So while at Ahmadu Bello University in 1994, I got admission to the University of Manchester in UK for a PhD programme. The policy then was you could go and still be on the university staff list, but you could only be paid salary. So, I had to source the school fees by myself. It was still Midwest. I met with Chief (Samuel) Ogbemudia. He was a nice man. May his soul rest in peace. Another person I got to like too was Chief Tayo Akpata, the Deputy Registrar at the University of Ibadan, when he was appointed the Minister of Education in the Midwestern State. I applied for scholarship, attended an interview and two days after, I got the scholarship from the Midwest region. I returned to Ahmadu Bello to take permission to return to the UK for the PhD. I told myself that in two years, I would have my PhD. I arrived in the UK to the good hands of Prof. Austin, who was a renowned scholar and expert. Exactly two years later, I got my PhD.
What was it like working in the cabinet of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida?
I knew IBB, as he is commonly known, before he became head of state. The National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru had been there since 1979. He was one of the pioneer attendees of that programme. I constantly came from Zaria to Jos to give lecture there. That was when I met IBB. He was a Brigadier then. We took a liking to each other. Buhari was their senior, and in August of 1985, he became head of state.
The first thing that brought us together again was his setting up of a 17-member group to look at the problems limiting the political development of the country, popularly known as the Political Bureau. By the time we finished in 1986, I was to go to Kuru as the Director of Research. But by then, there were other social forces which I was not so much confident about. But I was not confident about moving my family back to the north after I had already just moved them to Benin where I was then lecturing. So I went to him and told him that I was not comfortable with going back to Kuru. He told me to look for somebody to fill that position, and I did find a friend who was a Dean of Social Sciences in the University of Jos, a Benin man: Professor Osagie. He was already in Jos.
Did you get another chance?
After I turned down the offer, Admiral (Augustus) Aikhomu, who was not so close a friend, took over from Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe and needed someone to work with him. IBB sent for me. That was the beginning of my being in the corridors of power, because I was there and we did a lot of things together. But then in January 1992, he called me and said I should take over as Minister from Chief Alex Akinyele who himself had taken over from Chief Tony Momoh as Minister of Information and Culture.
Being a minister was quite an interesting exercise. By 1993, the June 12 thing was in full swing. He needed somebody who would be able to do the kind of dirty work that fitted in at that particular time. So, my friend, (Uche) Chukwumerije, may his soul rest in peace, took over from me. I couldn’t do that kind of job because even till today I am always informed by ideas and the intellect, I wouldn’t blow a whistle if there was no need to blow a whistle. But Chukwumerije just fitted in well, an ex Biafran and war monger. So he took over from me. But what happened was that even when I was a minister, I doubled as an adviser to Admiral Aikhomu. So when I left as minister, I was still an adviser to Admiral Aikhomu and to IBB. It was indeed an interesting period.
You have worked in and traveled to many countries. Which of them did you find most comfortable?
Of course, the UK, being a colonial person! But today part of my family is in the US, and I can go to the US any time. But the UK is very homely, that is, even to many Nigerians. I have travelled to Dubai (UAE), Asia, Malaysia, Moscow several times, to the USA and other places. But in terms of feeling free, it is the UK where there is so much Nigerian life. I was a student there many years ago, where I recall telling people to send garri to me, and I could easily send things home to Nigeria. UK is homely.
What eventually led you into politics considering that people say politics is a dirty game? Was your family comfortable about it?
Having studied politics and being a teacher of politics, what else would I have done? Actually, I was prompted just before the June 12 thing started and I had to convince myself that transiting into elective politics shouldn’t be difficult for me. But I knew I couldn’t because of the issue of money. At that time, it was a small thing, but then I didn’t have the kind of money that one needed to have to go fully into politics.
A few friends assured me that they would support me. But you know how this game usually turns out. My experience taught me that if you do not have 50% of the money you believe you need for politics, don’t start. Before you exhaust it, you can fall back on your wife or family member. By the time you have exhausted 30% you will know if you are succeeding or whether you should withdraw. Of course, if it looks like you are going to fail, you should advice yourself to stop.
So, how did you get into politics?
In 1997 after General Abacha passed on, we sat together in what was called UNCP and graduated into PDP. As far PDP in Delta State is concerned, I was the founder. The rally at the international conference in Abuja was the beginning of PDP proper. A lot of meetings took place. Chief Alex Ekwueme, may his soul rest in peace; Solomon Lar; Jerry Gana; the group of 34 was a prelude to the formation of PDP. That rally in 1998 was the formalization of PDP, and I was there.
We left the rally with the instruction that everybody should go to their states and hold a nucleus of the party there. Everyone from Delta State converged on my hotel suite in Sheraton, Abuja, to arrive at the takeoff date for the party in Delta State. Abel Ubeku was there; he was the most elderly among us. That was how we birthed the party, and we all returned home to a meeting at the Petroleum Training Institute Conference Hall where a lot of things started happening.
Ibori and I emerged as major players amongst those who wanted to be governor. After much horse trading, Senator James Manager emerged as the party chairman. That was how PDP started in Delta State, and at some point, I realised that I couldn’t make it, so I dropped it and James Ibori emerged as the PDP gubernatorial candidate.
Looking back now, do you regret not having emerged as the governor of Delta State?
No, I do not have any regrets at all. I always try to look at the past, present and the future. That I lost out of the process of being governor then wasn’t anything that gave me sleepless nights. Till today, all of them, including James Manager, relate with me like I am their big brother. Some even call me father! I enjoy it, so there is no regret at all.
I am not like some of my friends who when they had issues with the party, just packed their loads and off to go away from the party. It is important that when there is something wrong in the party, that we sit together and iron it out instead of just jumping out of the party.
Apart from politics, what other things do you do these days?
Most of the time, I read, though it shouldn’t be news that a Professor is always reading! But I really do. I have a library in Benin and also in the village. I am a lover of football, though I have never played it professionally. I am an Arsenal fan and I love the club because of the former manager, Arsene Wenger, who enjoyed bringing up new talents, using them and also selling them out.
What do you do for socials?
I am in the second half of the 70s now, so I take it easy. Moreover, I do not even know how to organise elaborate celebrations. We had one sometime ago, and it was a conspiracy that my wife organised when I was 50 years old. But I try as much as possible to honour social events of family members and friends. I used to be active at Ikoyi Club, and I can still do club runs as in go to sit with friends to take a little drink, talk and share. But I cannot go to the dancing clubs any longer. It is a long time I did that.
Are there some special exercise you do these days for longevity?
Well, for the hearing of the younger ones, I am very conservative about our foods. I take one good meal a day, and that is it. Sometimes if I take something else, it must be very light. Many of my friends sometimes are surprised about the way I am disciplined about food.