Dr. Joseph Wayas, GCON, became Senate President at 36. Ten years earlier, he had served as Commissioner for Transport in the now defunct South-Western State. Diminutive and slow-talking, the cerebral senator was considered one of the most flamboyant and influential politicians of his era. Now living in relative obscurity, Wayas spent close to four hours, with Sunday Sun, in his Abuja home telling the story of his life.
What is your education background?
I began primary school in Kafanchan, Kaduna State, and finished up at home. At that time, Obanliku was part of Obudu Local Government Area. After that, every aspect of my education was on scholarships. My first scholarship was from Obudu Native Authority. This led me through secondary school. I finished my secondary education at Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha. Immediately after my secondary education, I won a Federal Government scholarship to the UK. There I bagged my first and second degrees. I then got what was known as British Overseas Development Agency facility to do post graduate degree at Aston University. My area of specialisation was behavioural sciences. Thereafter, I proceeded to the US for further studies. At the doctorate level, I specialised in organisational behaviour. This is a much wider aspect of behavioural sciences, and is mainly for training and development for leadership in public organisations like government and private ones. They are generally regarded as organic and inorganic structures. Whenever I was invited to lecture, even in those days, I earned $50,000 an hour.
What year was this?
This was in the 1960s.
Means you must have earned a fortune?
Not exactly. It wasn’t something you did everyday. It was usually organised by institutions, and the audience was graduate students researching in different fields. They were expected to benefit from such experiences.
Which institutions invited you for such?
Oh! Most Ivy League schools did.
When did you return to Nigeria
I returned to Nigeria in 1970. There was a demonstration by Nigerian students in London. I was part of it. Two days later, the Nigerian High Commissioner, General Ogundipe, was looking for me. His deputy was one Balewa- brother of the late Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa. He said to me, ‘We’ve been asked to look for you. Perhaps you forgot that you signed an undertaking when you were offered scholarship that you would return home upon completion of studies’?
Did you agree to return?
Of course! My air ticket was arranged, and I was well received in Lagos. A panel I faced upon my return asked if I knew I had broken my pledge. They confronted me with a copy of the document I signed to return. I apologised. ‘Well, you are here to stay!’ one of the panelists told me. Trust me, I was still filled with the white man’s ideals. I retorted, ‘Are you stopping me from exercising my rights on what to do?’ Of course, they were very careful. I can’t recall their names now, but one of them was from Bauchi, a director of research in the then Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They offered me two jobs. One was to be deputy to the General Manager, Nigerian Industrial Development Bank, Chief Silas Daniyan. He was a graduate of Fourah Bay University, and they thought my degrees from the UK and America would complement his. Another offer was to go to Niger Dam Development Authority. The GM was one Yahaya Dikko, an engineer. I was to go to assist him.
So which did you choose?
As it turned out, I didn’t have to choose either. Whilst going through screening in Lagos, a signal came that I was wanted in Calabar. Nobody told me the content of the signal. All I know was that ticket was provided and I landed in Calabar. The person who received me said, ‘Welcome, sir. Congratulations!’ Confused, I asked what he was congratulating me for. He asked, ‘You don’t know? Okay, come let’s go.’ He drove me to the Secretary to the South Eastern State, which today is Cross River and Akwa Ibom states. This man used to be a federal permanent secretary. He said, ‘Young man, welcome. Congratulations!’ I said, ‘what is all these congratulations about, sir? He said, ‘Didn’t they tell you from Lagos?’ Nobody did sir, I said adding They merely said I was wanted here. He said, ‘a new cabinet was announced yesterday, and you are part of it.’ He then turned to the protocol officer who brought me and said, ‘take him to the governor.’
How old were you at the time?
I was 25 going on 26.
So you went to see the governor?
Sure! He was Brigadier U. J. Esuene of the Airforce. He welcomed me, but left me standing. ‘Young man, you know why you are here?’ ‘No, sir,’ I replied. ‘You mean you were not told from Lagos?’ No, sir, I said and he continued ‘well, we dissolved cabinet and just yesterday appointed a new one which you are part of.’ The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘is that how you do it here? You don’t even bother to ask the person whether or not he is interested in your plans?’ The governor looked at me and laughed. He then turned to me and said, ‘You know what? It’s people like you that must be here to help develop this country. Look at him!’ I was wearing a three-piece suit with gold necklace. He continued, ‘You see, you won’t be wearing this here. You see this bush, you will help to clear it.’ Looking back, he could have talked me out of it- he could have made me lose interest. He continued, ‘look at this one, what people are lobbying for and begging for, you got on a platter of gold, and here you are asking if you shouldn’t have been consulted.’ This was the first time I really understood the meaning of lobbying in the Nigerian sense. The governor said, ‘All right, the swearing-in is 9am tomorrow. If we see you, we know you are coming on board. If we don’t, then we’ll take it that you rejected the offer.’ He then asked that I be taken to Government Guest House. There were three guest houses. One was for the Head of State and governors. That was where he asked that I be accommodated. No commissioner, I later learned, had been given such a privilege. When I got there, I met another guest- one Ambassador Ukaegbu, then Nigeria’s Ambassador to the USSR. This meeting with Ambassador Ukaegbu helped me make up my mind to stay. For up until when I left the governor, I was confused. With just the two of us alone, the Ambassador told me everything after dinner. My mind was a maze. I was reflecting on the friends I would leave behind in London and New York. I told Ambassador Ukaegbu my predicament. He said to me, ‘listen to me, young man. You don’t know where your destiny lies. This is only the beginning. You are not the most educated. They are out there, begging to be taken. Here you are thinking of rejecting it. If I were you, I will take it. Do you know how old I am? My son is almost as old as you are, yet I’ve just been appointed Nigerian ambassador. Yes, the title ambassador seems big, but I am a mere errand boy for Nigeria in Russia. Here you are, at such a young age, you are already a commissioner.’ When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept reflecting on Ambassador Ukaegbu’s words. He might just be right, I kept telling myself. When I woke in the morning, there was this corridor close to my room. Through it, I could see the channel through which ships come and leave. I said to myself, yes, this place needs development.’ By the time I dressed up, I discovered that the Guest House had been filled with chiefs, dance troupes and persons from my town. I had this cousin who was parliamentary secretary in the former Eastern region. He was leading them. I didn’t know how news filtered that I had rejected the appointment. The parlour was full. Each of them began, ‘go and take it! Don’t rob us of our chance!. Honestly, it was an experience. When the governor saw me, he administered the oath and I was assigned the transport portfolio.
How long were you in the cabinet?
I was there from 1970 to 1973. See, in those days, new year resolutions were very popular. In December 1973, I felt I had accomplished some feats. I had built bridges- Cross River had two- one at Ikom, and the one on Calabar-Etu road through Ikot Epene and Aba. I said to myself, you have done the basic things. You should give another young man the opportunity to test his new ideas. I decided this overnight. The following morning there was a cabinet meeting. I attended and sat quietly. After the prayers, I raised my hand. The governor always obliged me to speak whenever I elected to. This time, however, the story was different. He said, ‘Yes, Joe! You want to say something?’ I replied, Yes, Your Excellency. I stood up and began to thank my colleagues for the working relationship we had, for without them my time there could have been wasted. The cooperation I got from them enabled me achieve the little I did. ‘And to you, Your Excellency, I must tell God to continue to bless you. Had you not given me the opportunity, I could not even have tested my ability in what I did. Like everything in life, there is time for everything. It is my time to move on, so I must move. What I am saying, Your Excellency, is that I have had enough. I must move on.’ Brigadier Esuene stood up and saluted me. I stepped forward and shook his hand, then took my seat. A pin drop silence enveloped the hall.
What happened thereafter?
Truth is that I did not have anywhere else to go. If I’d returned to the village, I would only have returned to my mother’s house. No commissioner had been appointed to succeed me, so I had to beg my permanent secretary to give me a truck to pack my belongings to my home town. He obliged. At the time I had two children- a girl and a boy. I took my wife and children to the village to my mother and proceeded to Lagos.
I had a cousin, G. G. Ali, who lived on Cameroon Road in Lagos. He was at the time a Colonel. He accomodated me at his guest house. He had a white woman as wife. Eventually I got my own flat off Alhaji Masha Road at Surulere- directly opposite the new stadium which had been moved from the island. There I registered a company- Petro-chemical Installations Company. I met a woman who happened to be my wife’s classmate in London. Though she was married, she told me she wasn’t employed. I told her to be my secretary. She danced and said ‘ so long as it wasn’t going to be Calabar’. She was excited on learning it would be in Lagos. Thus she became my first worker. I met another friend who offered me a small hall. I partitioned it. That was where my secretary and I used. I also met a white friend who was planning to set up a business in Nigeria. I asked him to join me and we became partners. We then began growing. In 1977, my people invited me to go to the Constituent Assembly. At the time, my business had so expanded that we had to move from Development House, Apapa, to Lapal House. Lapal was Western Nigeria Development Company property. In 1979, when I decided to quit business and contest election into the Senate, my company had 2,756 Nigerian workers and 43 expatriates. I was given another expatriate quota of 50.
Why did you people in the Constituent Assembly choose the American presidential system over the Westminster we inherited from Britain?
We had tested the Westminster system and seen the crises that came with it- even resulting in a coup. We discovered that our people were somehow republican, therefore the Presidential Republican system was ideal. Of course, that was for people like us who had the exposure and had spent time observing how the system worked in the US Congress. Almost everybody in, the Constituent Assembly had his mindset on the Presidential system.
Tell us about the defunct NPN
National Party Of Nigeria (NPN) started during the Constituent Assembly. We interacted a great deal, and when the ban on politics was lifted we decided to form a political party. The party started opposite the stadium where we were accommodated during the Constituent Assembly. I can’t remember the name of the place now. When they suddenly closed the place, we were evicted. With no money, few of us were able to tax ourselves. I offered a section of my office at Lapal House. That was the first office of NPN. However, when I contacted Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO), they said we could not register Lapal House as NPN national headquarters, since it was a business office. Therefore, Chief K. O. Mbadiwe got us a house at Yaba, which I think belonged to his brother. Mbadiwe’s brother vacated the place for us, and that was where we registered NPN. However, we continued to use Lapal House for meetings. It was a long time ago, so I can’t start recalling all the names now. We had Shehu Shagari, Sule Katagum, Adamu Ciroma, Umaru Dikko amongst others. Our chairman was Aliyu Makama Bida. Alex Ekwueme was there too.
What about life in the Senate?
When I won a seat in the Senate, I was unanimously elected President of the Senate. We had 95 senators then. During my second term, Aderibigbe Adesanya of the then UPN challenged me for the seat. I polled 92 votes against his three. Life in the Senate was serious business. Money wasn’t an issue. For instance, our budgets in those days were in hundreds of millions of Naira, not billions. We had, for instance, a budget of about N800 million. By the end of the year, we would have spent not more than N200 million out of the total. We usually returned the balance to the treasury. I remember the day the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the late Edwin Ume-Ezeoke approached me. He advised that, instead of returning the monies, we should build projects in our constituencies. I asked him to bring the House leaders to meet with the Senate’s. I tabled the matter before the body of principal officers and Ezeoke repeated the same thing. The then Senate Leader, Olusola Saraki jumped up to support the idea. I told them, ‘I didn’t want anybody to conclude that it was a decision we took as principal officers and brought for them to ratify. No! Left to me, even if you say we should spend the money on projects, please count me out. I’m not interested.’
The moment I said this, people began to stand up and that ended the meeting. I also remember that the Constitution gave us power to fix the salary and wages of public officers. I presided over the first deliberation on minimum wage in Nigeria, with the Nigeria Labour Congress participating. We proposed N50,000 for the President. The moment Shagari heard, he wrote us asking, “How can I alone receive N50,000 per annum when Nigerians are suffering?” He asked us to halve it (to N25,000). Thus, we had to scale down the others. The Vice President and President of the Senate got N22,000, the Chief Justice N21,000, while governors and ministers got N18,000. The NLC accepted it and we recommended N150 minimum wage.
What led to the reported collapse of Accord Concordia?
It never collapsed. It lasted until the end of our first tenure in 1981. There was no carpet-crossing like in the parliamentary system. This was one of the reasons we opted for the presidential model. We believed the presidential model provided more stability.
You were reportedly quite popular among African Americans, and some of them frequently held lavish receptions for you. Tell us about the receptions.
I guess you are referring to the one in New York. I was invited to the reception. A very famous broadcaster and DJ in WDLS, Chester Cracker, was the MC. When he started introducing VIPs, he erroneously introduced me as the President of Africa! (Laughter). This caused real pandemonium. Suddenly the place became surrounded by police officers from NYPD. It was total confusion. I struggled without success to correct the mistake that I wasn’t even President of Nigeria, let alone Africa.
What did you do to make the legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali put up a demonstration fight in your honour?
Long before becoming President of the Senate, I had met Muhammad Ali. I was his fan even as a student in the United Kingdom. Naturally, when I went to America, I met him and we liked each other. I had this good friend, a musician, who was nicknamed ‘Mr. Personality.’ His name was Lloyd Price. Through him, I met a lot of people including the famous boxing promoter, Don King, and Ned Adams of the United Negro College. I invited Muhammad Ali to Nigeria as my guest and later, Don King and Lloyd. When we assumed office, they came for our inauguration at Tafawa Balewa Square. They bore testimony to our commitment to democracy. This led to the visit of US Vice President, Walter Mondale. George Bush Snr. followed after Reagan took over from Jimmy Carter. They addressed the Senate here. I was, in the same token, invited to the US to address Congress. We nurtured our democracy by taking America into confidence.
There was this celebrated property deal you sealed in the US in 1977 or so, when you bought off the property of a famous celebrity. What was it all about?
(Laughter) What happened was that Elizabeth Taylor broke up with her husband, Richard Burton and they had this property in Beverly Hills. My friends- Muhammad Ali, Don King and the others who lived in LA (Los Angeles) contacted me. They felt that it would be good for a black man to buy the property. I sensed that it was a good investment and I bought the property.
You are from Obanliku, yet you have conversed with me in Igbo. I’ve heard you speak Hausa and Yoruba. How many languages do you speak?
I speak English, German, Dutch, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Esan and a little bit of Tiv. But for France’s test of an atomic bomb in North Africa in my student days, I could have been fluent in French. In our MBA programme, we were required to do one modern European language as a course, particularly if your language was English.
Was it by coincidence that you and late Senate Leader, Olusola Saraki, had differences with governors of your home states – Adamu Attah of Kwara and Clement Isong of Cross River – so much that they were the only NPN governors that didn’t return?
I never had problems with Isong. I put him there. Why bother myself with state issues when I was President of the Nigerian Senate? We were practising zoning, and this came with a lot of forces. If you were not careful, this could sweep you from office. Cross River was no exception. Besides, Isong, you remember, was not a politician. He didn’t have a good public relations with the President and people at other levels. That was his undoing.
Where were you during Buhari’s coup?
I was not in the country. I was on a return visit to Vice President George Bush who, as US Senate President, had visited earlier in the year. It was my turn to return the visit and I did. People later speculated that I fled Nigeria because I had prior knowledge of the coup. That’s not true. If I had any clue, I wouldn’t have travelled. On the night of December 31, 1983, I was asleep in New York when a friend with whom I had travelled to London called me. He had stopped over in London while I took a flight aboard a Concorde to New York. It was about 3am in New York. I said, “Hey! Olu, you should know the time here!” He said, “Joe, are you still sleeping?” I replied, “Why shouldn’t I? It is three O’clock in the morning.” He then said, “I am sorry. But if I tell you what I’m about to tell you that sleep will clear from your eyes.” He said “Joe, you are no more Senate President. For your information, you are now ex-Senate President!” (Laughter). And true to his words, the sleep disappeared. Again I asked him, “What are you talking about?” He said to me, “Switch on your TV. You will see for yourself.” When I did, I was surprised to see a lot of people carrying leaves on the streets of Lagos. I asked him, “Were we that unpopular?” He replied, “No! There has been a coup.” A coup? How did it come about? George Bush(snr) didn’t want me to return. He asked me to wait until things became clearer. I didn’t prepare to come and stay that long, and it was costing the US government about $30,000 a week to keep me. Tired of the expenses, I just took off. It was on the way to the airport that I called some friends. Some of them were retired Army officers. One said, “If you had consulted me, I would have advised against that.
But since you have your mind made up, you are a man, and should be able to bear whatever you meet.” When I arrived, I was ushered into the same presidential wing. They kept coming to tell me they were trying to arrange a vehicle, not knowing they were preparing where to keep me. Eventually, a car came and they took me to Awolowo Road. They kept sending panel upon panel to question me. I was there for three months. In fact, when late General Sani Abacha became Head of State, he confessed to me that they found nothing on me and that they kept asking the panel to dig in more to get something on me. Remember it was Abacha who did the Buhari coup speech?
What did you make of an allegation by Late General Tunde Idiagbon while you were still in exile in the US, that some of you had recruited mercenaries to invade Nigeria?
That was fabricated. I have never conspired with anybody to do such. In fact, nobody would even dare invite me to such a meeting. What else do I want in life? I thank God for my life. Not many of you know I once was Nigeria’s acting President.
You were in the vanguard of the campaign to make Goodluck Jonathan president in the wake of the late President’s illness….
Let me put it this way. We in NPN introduced zoning as a policy. This was to make all corners of the country benefit from government. Even though we zoned the country into six, it was based on North-South basis. If the president came from the North, next time, the South would produce. If the president came from the South, next time it would be the North’s turn. Inside the big zones, the offices would rotate amongst the say South-west, South-east and South-south. Ditto for the North. As Shagari came from the North-west, the next president from the north would come from, say, the North-east. When the then President Obasanjo invited me as chairman of the presidential screening team, and we had gotten Umaru Yar’Adua from the North-west, we had to get his running mate from the South. Obasanjo said to me, “I am from the South-west, so the Vice President can’t come from my zone. The South-east, he reasoned, had produced president and vice president; so we had to consider those who had not produced the president or his vice- which was the South-south zone. He said to me, “Joe, you held the highest position from the South-south – the Senate Presidency. You take it.” I rejected the offer because it would be misunderstood that it wasn’t democratic. Obasanjo was interested in avoiding the situation that brought a young and vibrant Atiku Abubakar as his running mate. He wanted somebody who would be ready to work without any problem. He suggested Jonathan to me. When it became clear that Yar’Adua could no longer continue as president, I had no choice than to lend my voice to the campaign that the right thing should be done – that the Constitution be obeyed.
What’s your take on the Governors’ Forum?
I don’t see anything wrong with having a Governors’ Forum, as long as it is not abused. Sitting together will help the governors share ideas to ensure even development in the country. Their abilities differ and so are their peculiarities. To me, it’s good as long as it is used to promote governance. We only had 12 states in our time and didn’t foresee this forum. We would have put it in the constitution.