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My phones stopped ringing when I ceased to be minister – Former Petroleum Minister, Umaru Dembo

Alhaji Umaru Dembo is a journalist, publisher, businessman and politician. He contested more than once for the governorship of Kaduna State. He became the Minister…

Alhaji Umaru Dembo is a journalist, publisher, businessman and politician. He contested more than once for the governorship of Kaduna State. He became the Minister of State for Petroleum in the government of General Sani Abacha in 1997.


Let’s start with your early life in Zaria. 

I was born in Ikara, which was under Zaria Province, in 1943. My father was a teacher. He was transferred to several places, but by 1950 we were in Anchau, also in Zaria Province. I spent three years there in classes one to three. Then we moved to Kudan and finally to Giwa, where I did my senior primary school and we took examinations, some of us passed to the Government College, Zaria, and some to the Provincial Secondary School, Zaria.

I did not pass to any of the two, but later on it was discovered that 11 of us had the same marks. We were called for an interview and out of the 11 I was the lucky one who passed and so I was admitted to the provincial secondary school. After five years there, we were the first class to spend five years instead of six years in secondary school, I went to the College of Agriculture.

I did not stay for a long time there. I left the college and went to the Federal Office of Statistics. There, we had an American training us in the field. We were doing the analysis of whatever they brought, various materials, food items, people, whatever that mattered, and we were to be sent to America for a degree. I didn’t wait long enough so I left and joined the Nigeria Tobacco Company (NTC).

Did some of your classmates get this opportunity to go to America later? 

Yes! Some went to America to do various studies, including statistics. I went to NTC as a salesman, and after some time I wanted to do broadcasting because I felt that was the best place for me.

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Already, my elder brother was with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). The late Abubakar Nafarti asked us to come for an interview. When he heard my voice he was very impressed. So, they took me as a studio manager.

When I went to the Voice of America (VOA) and the Voice of Nigeria, Hausa Service, they gave me scripts to write, news and so on, and even for the national network, I was given the chance to be an announcer and I did very well.

But at that point, you were not a trained journalist?

That’s right.

But later, you went to Fleet Street, London, to train as a journalist. How was the experience on Fleet Street?

I was given a scholarship by the Kaduna State Government and we went there for a two-year course. It was very nice because we had people from all over Africa. Some were non-Africans.

Alhaji Umaru Dembo


Was there any bad experience?

Yes! In 1969, that was when I went to London.  When we went to the housing agents, we were sent to the owners of houses to be given rooms. They looked at us as something else; as if we were not human beings. It was not easy.

And the food we were getting to eat there, but we eventually were able to buy cooking utensils and we were cooking our own food.

But on the whole, it was a good experience.

Who were your classmates, did you have any from Nigeria? 

Yes! There was one Ibrahim Madaki, who used to be an editor with the New Nigerian Newspaper. Actually, it was because of him I knew Mamman Daura.

There were other people like Adamu Mohammed. He was also in NBC with us. There was Adamu Mohammed Misau, and another Adamu, I cannot remember his second name.

When you came back after the course, did you go back to your announcer job?

I came back to my announcer job, but then because I had met Mamman Daura in London while we were there for the two years, we had good interaction. I used to pick him from the airport to his hotel, and when he was going back to Nigeria I used to pick him from the hotel to the airport.

At that time, Mamman Daura was the Editor of New Nigeria Newspaper? 

Yes! So, he told Ibrahim Madaki to ask me if I was interested in employment with the New Nigeria Newspaper, and I said why not.

But I went back to NBC and registered formally as having come back and continued with my job.

Then I came back to him and said I was back. So, he arranged and I was given a letter of employment as an assistant editorial executive or something like that.

I then resigned my other job at NBC and started working for the New Nigerian.

Unfortunately, not too long after I took the job, I got another job from the Ministry of Information in Kaduna State.

What were you doing in the ministry, I saw something about FESTAC, were you involved in FESTAC 77? 

Exactly! I was admin secretary with the Kaduna State Council for Arts and Culture, I had connections with the National Arts Theatre in Lagos. One Dr Asiwaju was in charge, he was very friendly.

When a group was going to America he selected me to be the one to be introducing the group wherever we went to the various cities in America. And when we went to Ghana, there was a trade fair, I was the one introducing all the artistes as they played.

Later in 1977, I was one of those who became FESTAC announcers. There were three of us, the late Adamu Augie and the late Khalifa  Baba Ahmed and myself. So, we were the ones who did the announcement for FESTAC 77 during the durbar in Kaduna.

At what stage did you leave government employment and set up as a businessman? After the FESTAC 77, I left government employment and I didn’t know what to do.

Why then did you leave, as most people with a nice civil service job will stay until retirement? 

I left because I had one nasty experience during Murtala’s regime. When he became head of state, he sacked a lot of innocent permanent secretaries, directors and so on who were blamed for cheating, corruption and so on, and it was not the best.

But did that affect you? 

No; but it touched my heart and I had two wives at that time and about four or five children. So, I thought where were we going? If I stayed in government I might not be able to continue to sustain my family.

So, the best thing I did was to first of all try to organise myself businesswise, with my book which I wrote. We produced and we were selling to primary schools in various parts of the North and I was making some money.

What is the book about? 

It is science fiction. It has to do with going to space. I wrote it in 1960.

Is it still in print? 

It is. When I left government service I had a stint in broadcasting, in television and newspaper, but then I could only get a licence for newspaper publication, none for television.

So, I started, we tried and eventually I started printing the Telex Newspaper. Later on we started printing the Hausa version, Zuma, in Zaria. Those were the first private newspapers that were constantly being published by us.

But why Zaria? A lot of people will be surprised at the location, why not Kaduna which is bigger? 

Kaduna is bigger but I didn’t have any facilities in Kaduna to start with. If it were to be Kaduna, I would have had to start negotiating, begging, involving other people who might not have the same ideas as me. But this one, whatever I got I put into the newspaper.

So, where did you start it? Did you start it in your backyard or something? 

I had a guest house, I had houses, two in one place and one in another place. I used them. I bought machines and got people employed.

It suggests then that you must have been fairly well established to be able to afford all that outlay? 

Yes; but I didn’t realise it. I was too young to understand. I just wanted to do newspaper business.

Telex is one of the first private newspapers in the northern part of the country. How was the reception? How did it go as a business? 

It went very well, except that people who should patronise us never patronised us. Even when they patronised us they never got to pay us. It is a very, very difficult business. When it is good, they will praise you, they will say this is nice, it is important news, they will see you next week and you will never see them again.

If it is Lagos, the advertising companies will just let us say use your words, chop our money and they will not give us, they will just chop the money and they will leave us alone.

Did this apply to Zuma, the Hausa paper? 

Both, because I was doing the same thing. I employed so many people, some were in Maiduguri, some in Lagos, some in Sokoto, in various places, everywhere. We had agents and we had both pickup and panel vans for Telex and Zuma.

For distribution? 

Yes! For distribution, and we were not making any money.

How long did you continue before you gave up? 

Let’s say from 1980 to 1998 or 1999 before it collapsed.

Did you sell the business? 

They started stealing most of my machines. So, the best thing I thought was to start selling them myself. I needed the money. When I saw how much I was losing I started selling the machines, In the long run I sold even the houses and the land.

But will you say that despite the challenges, publishing has a reward because it launched you as a politician? 

Yes, but one interesting thing was that because there were no publishers in the North, they equated me with Abiola. I was laughing at them because Abiola had all sorts of money. I didn’t have any money. I was just struggling to go and work, and when I worked what I got I put into it. They said Abiola, Northern Abiola, and it gave me a lot of advancement.

When did you start to think politics is your next step after publishing? 

I was nominated a member of the Constituent Assembly; that was where I met so many people, where I had friends like late Dr Bello Katagum, Abba Dabo and Abba Gana – who was one time MD of LNG – and also the immediate past SGF, Boss Mustapha.

So that’s your beginning point in politics? 

Yes, because at that time we had problems, there were so many problems between the North and the South; they were trying to make it a religious problem.

This was the Sharia debate? 

Exactly. So, I called a press conference on a Friday and said our chairman was a Christian cleric, so it was just like Sheikh Gumi was heading the assembly so he should resign and let us have one neutral person.

Alhaji Umaru Dembo


So, you added to the controversy? 

When I wrote that, I ran away and went to Zaria. Some people were looking for me, they were saying that they ought to deal with me. When I did the press conference, somebody got a copy and took it to the chairman, to say this was what one honourable member of the Constituent Assembly wrote. So, he adjourned the house indefinitely.

Tell us about your journey into politics, it seems to closely follow that of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari.

I was in politics before Buhari, but the coincidence is that in 2003 I met Buhari in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He was thinking at that time, trying to get into politics. He gave me his phone number and said I could meet him anytime every Sunday.

In Makkah or in Nigeria? 

He gave me his number and said I could meet him in Nigeria every Sunday, and since then I think most of the Sundays I was with him. If I couldn’t be with him there must be some communication, maybe we must have met, or we would meet the following day.

So, you would visit him on Sundays? 


Was it for politics or just friendship? 

Politics. Unfortunately, it was not defined like you just did now, because if we had defined it, I would not have suffered what I suffered with him. We were doing the best for him and his government, but I never got within an inch of his government.

You were never involved when the time came…? 

I was never involved, not a thing, not in business, not in appointment, but as one would say, Allah made it like that. I have no quarrel with him or anybody.

So, since 2003 basically have you been together? 


I think you were or became the Director General of the Buhari Support Group Centre?

Right from the beginning I was the one who established the nucleus of his campaign, of his support groups, I was the first to introduce the support groups and we worked very hard.

Who was funding the support groups? 

I was making it myself, getting to people and making sure that they understood what they would do and they would give us. Some gave us furniture, some houses, whatever, and nothing from him.

Why that, as I have seen pictures of you and him acknowledging your work in the support groups when in 2019 he won a second term, but how come you feel left out? 

Won’t you feel left out if it were you? I think it is not fair, and with my age I cannot go begging anybody, and so I did not beg him or tell him or ask him.

So, you didn’t protest that you were not…?

To whom, to him? If he didn’t want to give me anything and he refused to give me anything, to whom will I protest? He was the president.

You didn’t have access to at least put your case? 

He even called me at a time. I went to him, all I did innocently was to go with some proposals for myself or my friends or some other people. He did nothing. It was just as if I didn’t see anybody, as if I met a rock.

But you tried to be governor in CPC which was his party, did you get support to become governor of Kaduna State at that point? 

He is not the kind of man that supports anybody, even at that time when he was looking for the presidency, he was looking for money, didn’t we pay, buy cards for him, to pay for his own contest; he didn’t give me support.

I sold houses, machinery, farms and so on and so forth to pay for the governorship; all the levies that go with looking for governorship, and to pay people, vehicles, campaigns and so on and so forth, all for nothing, I got nothing from him.

I don’t think there was anybody who came to me and said because of Gen Buhari we give you this much for your campaign, nobody did. We just suffered together and in the long run I could not win.

Buhari has just stepped down and you were the DG of the support groups for all these years; what do you make of the general performance of his government? 

Forget about my support groups, because some people had the intention of doing away with my support groups and they did away with them. They took up the seats and they enjoyed them.

But as an onlooker, I will say, you know for every government,  there are the good and the bad, you cannot be perfect in everything.

My main problem is that, the one that touches me most is that some people around him sort of carved him away from some of his people, people who could have helped him in doing whatever he was doing as a president, otherwise






he did his best and he has finished. We now look forward to the current president.

What do you expect, because you are also actually part of the campaign committee of President Bola Tinubu? What do you expect now that we have a new government? 

In Nigeria, people who look for positions like president and governor just look for those positions because they can do it, maybe because they have the wherewithal, the money to do it, but they never prepare for how and what to do if they win.

Right now the problem we have is that here is a government and we have a president, see how long it is taking the president to get his ministers, he is supposed to within 60 days get his ministers, he has not been able to do it.

How to control the country, how to manage the country, how to instill discipline, how to also empower people economically in various fields. So, the government is not ready; everybody, the president, the governors, let alone the local government chairman, they have nothing on ground.

If you ask him what he wants to do in the next six months, he has nothing. He may bring a fat book and read, but that…

That is his manifesto? 

Yes! But that is not the truth.

But what would you advise if you are to meet President Tinubu?

There are people even in the presidential campaign council who are never talked to, who are useful, who have brains, who have ideas, who know what to contribute to him, to his government. So, it is very important if Mr President will try to look for people from various states who have ideas, who are worth talking to and discuss with them for 30 minutes or one hour and he will gain a lot.

There was one president, Gen. Sani Abacha, who favoured you, made you a minister, and not just a minister, but Minister of Petroleum, how did this come about? 

I had never said to anybody except to those of us who know. Incidentally, you know there are connections. One of my wives was a school mate to Mrs Mariam Abacha, and it was my wife that took me to Mrs Abacha and Mrs Abacha introduced me to Gen Abacha.

There were so many things that were going on. He noticed what I was doing and how I was doing. I think you know sometimes it depends on how you present yourself and how you behave, how you do things, those things matter.

Was becoming Minister of Petroleum life-changing? Did it bring you friends, business connections and resources? 

I didn’t last that long, within five months or so the problem happened, Abacha died. I was even on the verge of going round to the various sections of the NNPC and the other sections of the ministry when the work finished. So, I don’t think it is not possible for one to say this or that.

But one thing I know is that, once a minister, always a minister. So, since then everybody calls me a minister, including yourself.

How is life after being a minister?

Oh, it is very interesting because the day I was given the position of minister, my phone started ringing, and the day Abacha died, no more phone calls.

Nobody called you again? 

Nobody was calling me again. All the people were for the ministerial position, all the people who were coming to me were for the ministerial position. So, once you are a minister and you are no more, everybody goes his own way, they will go and look for the new minister.

It is very strange, you will sit down wondering what is happening, because the position is not yours, but it was the position they were coming to, not you as a person.

What do you do with your life now? 

What I was doing with my life before is what I continue to do. I have been taking life very easy, doing what I know, reading, talking and discussing with friends. I have no particular interest in doing things that I cannot do. I do only things that I can do.

Luckily enough, all my children have now completed their university education. I have no small children or school fees today, all I have is maybe taxes for houses or whatever, and one can always try to manage and get out of it. So, it is not difficult, once you take life easy, then life will not maltreat you.

You mentioned that even as a young man in Kaduna, you had two wives. How is family life for you? Has the family grown bigger since then? 

Oh yes, since then I have had up to four wives and 25 children. We are all successfully running the house with their help, they keep me happy and I try to keep them happy.

Do you have any extracurricular activities?

Not much, but most of the things I do is that I read, especially the holy books, Quran and other books that are recommended. I used to play hockey, but now not anymore, and table tennis sometimes.

So, what’s your typical day like? 

I wake up in the morning, of course go to the subi prayer and come back.

Do you live in Zaria or Abuja? 

I live in Zaria, because you will always find my three wives in Zaria, but I come with one to Abuja, we stay for two weeks or whatever number of days and then go back.

But it seems I spend more time in Abuja, because in Abuja I find there are more people of my age, or my thinking, that I can interact with than in Zaria. So, I am more in Abuja than in Zaria.

My last question to you is on the petroleum subsidy. It is only right that as a former minister yourself, I ask you, what do you make of the situation? 

I think there needs to be some consultation, I think the president was in a hurry to remove the subsidy without telling people what to do.

People are hungry. During Shagari’s time, there was help, whereby food was imported and everybody was happy. We were getting rice and so on from the National Supply Company.

We should be able to use this money, which is surplus in dollars because of the removal of subsidy. We should be able to use it to get food for people, people are dying, people are hungry and that is one of the best things to do.

Secondly, transportation is also biting, and I know even 25 years ago when I was minister, gas was being used for cars, why not spend some of that money and make sure that all the taxis, buses and so on and so forth are now turned into utilising gas?

And the third one, which I must say is on the health of the people, believe me we need to be serious in Nigeria. We cannot continue to cry about mosquitoes, we should be able to get rid of mosquitoes ourselves instead of crying every day for years. We have the money, we have intelligent people, we have everything.

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