Senator Dalhatu Sarki Tafida was the chief physician to former President Shehu Shagarri in the 1980s. He was commissioner in various ministries in his home state, Kaduna, as well as a minister of health. In the Senate, he was a majority leader, and finally, the longest serving ambassador to the United Kingdom. At 82 he still looks very youthful. In this interview he spoke on his life as a medical doctor, especially a president’s physician, senator, the President Buhari administration etc.
By Kabiru A. Yusuf
You were born in Zaria and attended schools there and in Keffi. Can you give us an insight into those early choices?
Yes, I was born in Zaria in an area called Unguwar Kaura, where most of what you call Kanuri emirs came from. My family has a very varied history.
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If you go back to three or four generations you would find that we came from Sokoto area. One Mallam Shehu came to Zaria and was blessed by three children. One of them was Isah. Mallam Isa gave birth to my father as his eldest son and we moved across the marshy area there to where our house is in part of Kaura. From there, life started.
I was the fourth or fifth child of our father, from different mothers. From our mother’s side we were only two and I was the second. She left our father over what they said was a normal quarrel between wives of the same husband, so I was coming from Sokoto to Zaria. But my father said he didn’t want me to grow up there. He wanted me near him, so they went and pulled me.
When I was four or five, I started in an elementary school called Cikin Gari, not far from our house. From there I went to middle school, where I spent about two years and took examination to Barewa College, where I finished in 1959 with what they called Deputy One result.
Right from then, I said I wanted to study medicine. And there were very few Nigerian medical doctors. The first northern Nigerian medical doctor was one Dikko from Zaria.
Each time I saw a white doctor in our place I would be wondering how much he knew and if he would ever be sick, so I wanted to be like him.
In Barewa College, there were many people from Bauchi and Kano who wanted to become doctors during Sardauna’s time.
Our science subjects were not complete and we wanted to do medicine, which required Biology, Chemistry and Physics. We were doing Physics and Chemistry, but nothing much in Biology, so Sardauna advised us to take a high school certificate exam after two years. That was what happened to us and we were the first set to be put into a class in Keffi to do a higher school certificate from Barewa College.
We were put in the class from different schools, but majority came from Barewa. We started studying these subjects again at a higher level because we wanted to do medicine. That’s why it was called higher school certificate.
We finished in two years. At that time you would take the exam in December and wait for the result towards the end of the following year. You would wait for nearly nine months because it wasn’t marked in Nigeria. Cambridge exams were marked in England.
So when I finished I started looking for a job; I wanted to do something.
First, I got a job to teach in my former secondary school. I still remember two or three people who were my students. There was Alhaji Umaru Danbo from Zaria, a former minister of petroleum and publisher. There was also Tijani Umaru from our area, Kaura. Quite a number of them were my students. I taught them Physics and Mathematics. I was paid good salaries. I had my bicycle coming from home. That was how I got to the middle school.
Were you married at that time?
How did you get the news that you got admission into the University of Lagos to study Medicine?
I am coming there. I was one of those who got scholarships to go to the Soviet Union to read Chemical Engineering, but I rejected the scholarship because I wanted to do Medicine.
I left teaching and went to Kongo, part of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) to read Public Administration with some of my friends, like Magaji Mohammed, who is now late, and Isa Katsina. Isa was actually my mate in Berewa College. We made acquaintances; and suddenly, the idea of going for Medicine came and I got a scholarship to go to the University of Lagos.
My teacher, one Kaidri, was our coordinator in that Public Administration. He wrote a letter to the then government in Kaduna, stating that I would be a very good administrator and should not be allowed to abandon that opportunity. So there was contradiction as I wanted something but my teacher wanted something else. So the best thing I could do was to leave the school. I quickly realised that I was rebelling because they didn’t allow me to go to study what I wanted. Eventually, they gave me a letter from Kaduna and I went to Lagos.
Were there other northerners like you?
Yes, we were seven, but some of us were from Kwara, one from Igbin in Benue State, Stephen Ichina. I was the seventh one, from Zaria; and we were all looking for the same thing.
I got there three weeks late and I was the only Hausa man in the class.
I could be a little bit quiet. I could play table tennis and swim. I was even part of the university’s team for swimming against the police. We were 28 in the class, most of them from Ogun and Bendel in those days. Almost everybody spoke Yoruba.
One Physiology teacher, Professor Jose (I think he was from Ondo), gave us a test. It was the first test. He walked in and announced that we were going to have a test, without telling anybody before that time. It lasted for one hour.
After a week, he came to the class again with a piece of paper, frowning. He was a nice man though, but he was a bully. He asked: “Is Dalhatu Tafida here?” I was right in the middle of the class, so I raised my hand. He said I surprised him because the answers I gave was exactly what he wanted. From that date, I made several friends. My roommate was also a Yoruba man, an experienced pharmacist. He was there to do Pharmacy and I was to do Medicine, so we were classmates and became closer.
So, as a young man from Zaria, did you feel accepted in Lagos?
Yes, there wasn’t any tribalism. Even during the problem of coup and countercoup when Sardauna and Tafawa Balewa were killed, they came close to me because I was the only Hausa man and we became friends.
There was one Dougherty, a Yoruba man, who took me to their house because the Igbo in the school said there would be war in this country, so I was a bit worried that they could come and kill me in my room.
What happened when you finished training as a doctor?
In our final year, Sardauna sent a minister to come and talk to us and even gave us jobs and houses in Kaduna. So they were prepared to take us back anytime we finished.
I wanted to work in Kaduna but somebody asked: “Why don’t you go to Zaria?” I said I Knew Zaria but didn’t know Kaduna. So I stayed in my house in Kaduna, just a five-minute walk to the hospital.
Yes. I had a girl from Zaria, but somehow, we went apart, so I told my late elder brother to look for a wife for me. He said he would tell visiting teachers, who were also his classmates, to choose a girl for me.
And within weeks, they said they got a girl from the house of Waziri, but normally, they got involved in an inter-family thing; they hardly gave out their female children in marriage to somebody they considered a ‘foreigner’.
I flew from Lagos to go to that house. As soon as I went there, I saw somebody who was very close, a young judge called Shehu Mohammed, who later became the chief judge of Kaduna. He was her brother, so there was no contest.
After working in the Ministry of Health and rising to be a permanent secretary, suddenly you became the chief physician of former President Shehu Shagari, how did that come about?
As you know, as a civil servant, when you work up to the level where you are a permanent secretary in your ministry, it means you have reached the peak.
I was a chief medical officer who was appointed permanent secretary. I was there for four years and there was a change of government. The politicians advised the late president to look for a civilian doctor because the State House Clinic was run by a military doctor, one lieutenant colonel from Cross River State.
Finally, he set up a committee to look for a doctor who would be the president’s physician. I didn’t even know Shagari.
You mean you did not have any connection with Shagari?
Not at all; I saw him once when he came to lecture us in Barewa College when he was a minister. When it was decided that there should be a civilian physician for the president, they started looking for somebody to occupy the position. I don’t know who or how they got to know one Dalhatu Tafida. I was just a permanent secretary in Kaduna.
They asked me on telephone if I would be able to go to Lagos soon, and I said I would go anytime they wanted me. I didn’t know what to tell my government because at that time we didn’t even have a commissioner. So I used my money to go to Lagos and I didn’t want to ask the state government to pay me because Kaduna was governed by the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) while the federal government was under the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
In his jokes, Shagari asked where I came from and I said Zaria. He said he was going to be in trouble and I asked why. He said, “My second wife is from Zaria and I am going to have a physician from Zaria, so it means absolute control by Zaria people.” I said Zaria people were usually good and worked professionally. I went back quietly and he said they would write.
They wrote to the governor. But after two months there was no news. The letter came and the secretary to the government took it to the governor, who had a lot of hope in me, such that he removed all the permanent secretaries he met there, except me. I was going to the State House in Kaduna to discuss things with him as if I were a commissioner.
So he didn’t want you to go?
He accused me of being an NPN man, but I said I was neither PRP nor NPN; I was only a civil servant. He said it was an honour to be selected to a position of trust, so he said I would go. He gave me a sendoff party and I went to Lagos.
How was it to be the chief physician to the president? Is it a difficult job?
It is not a difficult job, but it is demanding because you would begin to think and pray that nothing catastrophic would happen.
Were you with him all the time?
I would be the first to see the president in the morning, so I could go to his bedroom sometimes. I would also be the first to go to the office and make sure that everything was alright with the ADC. And any day I felt the president should not come because of his health, he would not come out, and every appointment would be cancelled.
Were there days like that?
Maybe once or twice, it happened. The only day that Shagari was sick was in Saudi Arabia when we went for hajj.
Alhaji Umaru Dikko was your Zaria home person who was very central to the then government, but he became very unpopular in this country; do you think he deserved all the bad press?
The problem is that Nigerians like somebody who can help them to be in power, but unfortunately, once you are in trouble, many will dislike you.
Umaru Dikko was somebody who could go to any length to get a position of power, not money. He would get money and spend it on friends and other people. So it was wrong for people to believe that he stole money. He would never steal money; it was not his priority.
Dikko was very close to Shagari. I met him there. We knew each other right from Barewa College. He was my senior. There was a lot of respect between us, so I didn’t interfere in his work.
I remember that after Dikko’s first term he wanted to be a secretary to the government because of his nature; he wanted positions of authority and power.
Shagari told me that he would not give him that position; instead he would go with somebody he knew—Shehu Musa—who was not controversial, but a hardworking civil servant. Dikko was never a civil servant; he was a public officer, so he didn’t know the intrigues of civil service, the rules and so on.
So he opted for Musa, and Dikko didn’t like it. He wasn’t even going to the office, but I went to him and told him that in life one may want something desperately but God could give one another thing, which may turn out to be better.
After your career in the civil service and serving as commissioner for health, agriculture and education, as well as minister of health, you became a politician, what was your reason for that transition?
I used say that I would never become a farmer because it was a waste of money and time, and that I would never join politics, but somehow, it happened.
So you became a farmer and politician?
Let me take it one by one. The idea of becoming a politician came through Babangida’s ‘Maradonic’ tendencies. Babangida is a very intelligent man. He wanted to discourage all those who took part in politics during the Shagari time and before; he wanted brand new politicians who would not outsmart him.
So, he called me but I was a reluctant politician. However, the whole idea of becoming a president came in. I said I would do so if he wanted, but I did not have money. He said I should just get the form and I would see people giving me money.
Then suddenly, they said General Gowon was going to contest through Zaria in Kaduna State. I said I didn’t think so, but they said it was true. But it was rumour throughout because I didn’t see Yakubu Gowon in Zaria. I didn’t see anyone in that constituency; and I was going round talking to people, and so on.
I was surprised because he was in power during the military era when things were easier and money was easy to come by. He was there for good 9 years, so why should he put himself in that political situation. Of course they said it was IBB who convinced him.
Were you embarrassed that he contested; then you defeated him?
I was embarrassed. And right from the word go, if I knew that Gowon was going to go for an election, I wouldn’t have gone because I respected him. He was a Barewa man. I met him there, in the same house, and he was studying for an exam to go into the army. So we knew each other. I also knew his brother.
So I wouldn’t have contested, but he came very late. You know that in politics, if you say you are going to contest for an office and your people start going up and down, and suddenly, you become quiet, nobody will ever trust you again.
I weighed those possibilities and said I would rather lose the election than not to be trusted. So I decided not to withdraw. The late emir tried to convince me to withdraw, but I said no; I had to also think of myself, not any other person.
But the transition was truncated despite Option A4; what do you think really happened?
I won the election in my ward. I won in my local government, defeating Gowon, of course. I also won in my state constituency, so I was the only candidate representing Kaduna State.
So they said there would be a convention to select only one person for the presidency from the National Republican Convention (NRC). We met in Port Harcourt.
I represented Kaduna, Tofa represented Kano and Wilberforce Juta represented Adamawa. So we saw people coming from every state—one person each, brand new politicians. It was interesting. It looked like I was popular because the suite I was given was central and people were coming there and going, day and night.
From there, I went to Imo. Somebody gave a plane to go round the South. The plane would come and pick me and my people to go round. When I went to Owerri, while in a hotel, somebody called me and asked, ”Are you Dr Tafida? I said yes and he said, “You are coming to see us (politicians in Imo) tomorrow, how much are you giving us?”
I was giving every state N50,000, which was big money at that time. He said they would not accept that amount. I said, “That’s what I have, if I give it to you, you can give it to some of your boys.” He said they wanted me to give them N100,000, but I said I didn’t have it. He said he would give me the money. And I didn’t know the man. I asked how I would get the money and he said he would bring it to my room and drop it. He also said I should keep my money (the one I wanted to give them). I was surprised.
In the night they knocked at my room, and when I opened, they said somebody came to see me with a small box. At that time, N20 was the highest denomination; so they gave me N100,000 to give to politicians. I asked his name but he said, “You don’t have to know my name.” I insisted before he said his name. He was an Igbo man. So I got to know him and we became very close afterwards.
Why did he do it?
I don’t know, but he wanted me to win so that I could be of use to him. I went and dropped the N100,000 for them. Of course I lost the election.
One day, after Abacha appointed me as minister of health, I was in my office in Lagos when they said two people came to see me. I asked for their names; they were Igbo men. It happened that one of them, Ararume, was the man who gave me N100,000.
He wanted something from the ministry, which I gave him.
Is he still around?
He is still around. We went to the Senate together in 1999, but we parted ways because he was following Chuba Okadigbo. I knew Okadigbo very well. He was with Shagari as his adviser and I was the president’s physician, so I knew he would not make a good Senate president. He was very intelligent, but I said I was not going to support him.
All the people that surrounded Okadigbo tried to convince me to support him, but I said no. Our group won, but after 9 or 10 months, Enwerem was ousted and Okadigbo came in. But he didn’t even stay more than 9 months and he was ousted from the Senate.
Your time in the Senate also became controversial, especially about the third term bid of former President Olusegun Obsanjo. I think this is an opportunity to the clear air on this. Did you and Senator Mantu prefer that Obasanjo continued after his tenure was over?
It wasn’t like that, in the sense that I was not even visiting the Villa, let alone being close to Obasanjo. It was Mantu who was known to be very close to him. I was not part of that.
But you were a majority leader, and the assumption was that you carried the party, is that not correct?
The chairman of the party, Colonel Ahmadu Ali (retd) came to my office several times to talk to me and I said I would do my best, but really, I wasn’t doing my best because I knew the thing would not fly. We crashed the whole idea in the Senate. You know the processes a bill has to go through to be read the second time.
So Obasanjo really wanted a third term?
There is no question about it. He called us and we planned how to go about it, but we told him the idea would not fly. We told him that all the governors making promises to him were not in good terms with their senators, so they would not control them.
There was a night Obasanjo called us—the Senate president, myself and Mantu, the speaker of the House of Representatives, deputy speaker and the house leader—about this third term bid and said he wanted to travel outside the country and would be back in three days, but he wanted to know what was actually happening. I told him that all the governors who said they were with him were only deceiving him. I said he should really try to find out. We are all equal in that chamber, so once we got there, anybody could tell anybody anything. That night, he couldn’t travel because he wanted to make arrangement to invite the governors to receive the chief of staff, Abdullahi Mohammed early in the morning.
You couldn’t go for your own third term in the Senate, what happened?
As a result of greed, my governor wanted my seat. He proposed to be given an appointment as minister, possibly the minister of finance or governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, or something, so he wanted to be in the Senate as a bargaining chip. If you were a senator you would be given a weighty appointment, but if you were just hanging on nothing you won’t get anything.
That disagreement took us to the president, who called me early in the morning and said he wanted to see me. When I went there, there were Obasanjo, his chief of staff, the chairman of the party and the governor. The topic was Tafida’s senatorial ticket. I said I had already won the ticket for third term and did not know if they wanted to do something for the big man, but he said it was not changeable.
Although you were a nominee?
I was really disappointed with the president. All the big things he wanted to do for months but couldn’t do, when I became the majority leader, he gave them to me and I did them all, including gathering people in the House of Representatives to get things right. I brokered all the bills, including electricity; and he wanted somebody to come because he was a governor. I was disappointed, so I just left him. They said they should allow me to go and think about it. I left and they never saw me again.
When Umaru Yar’adua became president, he sent the permanent secretary from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying he wanted to give me something but didn’t know whether I would accept it. We knew each other because Katsina was my second home. I said if it was from him I would accept it because I knew he would not give me anything just because he wanted to shut my mouth up. I would accept anything provided there respect was attached to it.
Was that how you were nominated?
That was how Hakeem Baba Ahmed came here to give me and left.
How was it like, being an ambassador in the UK?
It was very hectic. You must have a way to work. And you must design your programme in such a way that it would allow you to do the work, otherwise you would spend almost all your time talking to the big men from Nigeria or going to the airport to bring some people. Apart from the president and the vice president I would not go to the airport to meet anybody. So, that was settled. Even the minister of foreign affairs would meet me in my office.
But he was your boss, isn’t it?
Theoretically, but in reality I was appointed by the president. He could be my boss, but with my experience I did all to make the job effective.
Can you tell us a little bit about your family life?
I have always been married to only one wife. My first wife from Zaria, as I told you, was the mother of most of my children. She asked for divorce, which I gave. Usually, for my own inconvenience, I don’t believe in sacking a woman, but I parted with that wife.
I had seen my current wife somewhere in Zaria with her friend, also a friend of mine, both from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU). I wanted to marry her friend but religion came in somehow. I thought we would solve that problem after marriage but she was going deeper and deeper into it.
Her friend, the same friend that is my wife now came and tried to reconcile us. I was trying to show her that I liked her, but she was trying to reconcile me with her friend. Anyway, somehow I married her.
At 82, how do you keep well as a doctor?
I decide to keep well.
Do you eat anything special and engage in exercise?
I don’t discriminate much; however, there are things I don’t eat. For example, I don’t take garri (eba) because of my health; it tends to somehow bring an attack. I am asthmatic.
So you are keeping very well?
I think I am fine. My blood pressure is alright, I am not diabetic, I sleep really well and I have a lovely wife.
You have seen several governments, what do you think the present government should do differently?
I am not in any way attached to this government, so I wouldn’t know what they are doing.
Are you happy or disappointed with what is going on in the country?
Buhari is one person I like, up till tomorrow. I like him as a person, but the truth is that I was disappointed when I knew he could do much better than the Buhari I used to know. We were mates; I am just older by maybe 2 years.
The Buhari I know can do better. He must have some people who don’t want him to do well. I know he is not a corrupt man and he made name for himself. But people around him, mostly the young one, take money. He knows about it but he seems to be encouraging them.
If I don’t like corruption, I will never be happy with somebody with me who in an office becoming rich overnight. I will show him that I am not happy by removing you; but somehow, he is looking as if he doesn’t know what is happening. But I know Buhari is too intelligent not to know, he knows everything.
The problem people had during the Goodluck Jonathan administration made them believe that Buhari must be better.
But you were the director-general of Jonathan’s campaign organisation.
I became the director-general of Jonathan’s campaign for one or two good reasons: I am a full blooded northerner, and I believe in the North having power for as long as possible, provided we can get the right person.
I am the saddest person in Nigeria today because Buhari is my president and everybody is suffering this issue of insecurity.
Let’s conclude with what you said earlier about your reason for being the director-general of Jonathan’s campaign.
I think I know the tactics our leaders in the North then —Sardauna, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and many others—used. Apart from getting votes here in the North, the Yoruba kingdom was a no-go-area, the Igbo area was also a no-go-area, so they used to go to the South South, and that was how they made friendship. We used to get people in the parliament that would align with us to pull whatever we wanted.
So one man found himself as vice president, then president and said he wanted to complete what his boss, Yar’adua, started; so why not? I believed in that too and said let’s allow him, at least so that the minority, as you call them, would have a sense of belonging. They helped us (northerners) when we needed them, so why can’t we help them. So I accepted that position.
They sent people to me in London, saying Jonathan asked if I could lead the campaign, and I said, “Why not? I am already in government here, so it is just an extension of my work.” When we talk of being the North we should exercise that with some degree of sensibility. If we don’t do that we will fail one day.