Few words on Scientist David-West (1936-2019

By Godknows Igali

One name that will continue to reverberate in our memories is that of one of Nigeria’s most outstanding social critics, essayist, thinker and scientist, Professor Tamuemi Sokari David-West,  who passed on 11th November, 2019. Born on 26th August, 1936, he was 83 years when he passed on at the University College Hospital of the ancient city of Ibadan.  Apart from occasional call to political duties, he had lived for most of his adult life in Ibadan, Nigeria’s third most populous town and most expansive in terms of landmass of over 3,080 square kilometres. Like many other academics, Ibadan became his adopted home till the time of his passing. 

Typically, maverick, his remains were, weeks later, cremated as requested by him. However, consistent with his strong Christian faith, a Special Commendation Service was held within the precincts of Nigeria’s premier, University of Ibadan. According to leading Nigerian journalist, Femi Adesina, who also doubles as spokesman  of President Muhammadu, Prof David- West,  with whom he shared a father-son relationship “prayed (daily) at 9am, 4pm, and 6pm. And because we  were always talking, he would call me when prayer time was approaching,  to tell he would  need  to switch off”. But then, incinerating of human remains,  is still alien to many parts of Nigeria and to most Nigerians for that matter. Yet, this has spared the people of his old coastal city state of Buguma, the entire Kalabari Kingdom in Rivers State and the Ijaw nation (his ethnic abode), the rigours and carnival  of extended burial rites. But in another sense, might have denied the Kalabari people another opportunity of showcasing at the funeral of such illustrious son, the very rich cultural resplendence of masquerade displays expressed in depictions of their history of early contact with Europe and unique attachment to their marine ecology.

Prof David-West, whose first name, Tamunoemi, shortened “Tam'” surprisingly translates literally as those recently popularized cliché” – There is God” – was typical “a blue and green jewel that shone from a million  faces”. First and foremost, in contradistinction to his nonconformist instincts,  he was born into royalty of the Kalabari Kingdom in Rivers State. The Kalabari people are one of the main subgroups of Nigeria’s fourth largest ethnic groups,  the Ijaws. The Ijaws are domiciled as indigenous in six of Nigeria’s thirty six states; occupying a major part of the country’s 850 kilometres coastline and home to over 60% of the oilfields. The Kalabari themselves are one of three main groups in Rivers State, the other two being Ikwerre and Ogoni.

Talking of his own antecedents from which he was an obvious rebel, Prof David-West in a 2014 Interview disclosed “Let me start with my father. By just sheer accident, I was born into Kalabari royal family. I am an Amachree. Amachree dynasty has been in existence for over 300 years”. His own great ancestor, King Amachree 1, the Great was one of the original founding notables of Kalabari identity nearly four centuries ago,  in the 1700s. In Ijaw historiography,  the word “Amakiri” anglicized as Amachree in simple word denotes title to  land and  is an easy pointer to a position of influence and title as it pertains to ruler-ship. His affinity to Amachree royalty however comes from his maternal strands. On his paternal side, his original forebear adopted the English name “West” in deference to  European trading partners  and thereafter his grandfather added his name David, making it David-West. The founder of the family, Chief West was a “war canoe leader” and an intrepid dominant trader of his time. Under the favour of cannon laden war canoes or better rendered gunboats which people like him could afford, they controlled inland bound trade with European merchants through the creeks which around them. Some of the 18th and 19th centuries founding fathers of “War Canoes Stools” became established enough to the large extent of challenging British Gunboats. Clearly, this set a tradition of strong chieftaincy institutions and war lordism which still defines life in most of the Niger Delta coastal communities. Like most other Ijaw, especially Kalabari notables of his day, they adopted such names as Graham-Douglas, Long-John,  Martins-Yellowe, Tom-George, Flag-Amachree, Horsfall, Johnbull, Whyte, Brade, Bob-Manuel, William-Jumbo, Blue-Jack,  etc 

Due to their strategic location being one of Nigerian groups to have contact with Europeans, the Kalabaris,  are highly educated having acculturated to education for over 150 years. So unlike many Nigerians born in the 1930s, both parents of  Prof David-West were well educated. He again provided insight thus “My mother was named Ari. My father met my mother (who later became a famous cane-bearing teacher) when she was going to school in Onitsha, St. Monica Missionary School. Then my father was in Hope Waddell Secondary School. Later, my father became a banker with the Bank of the British West Africa, now First Bank.” 

So how did one from a royal and elitist background become such a radical and outspoken figure from cradle. The answer is in his DNA  said to have come from his maternal grandfather, who was a known “no nonsense person”, respected for that in his own days. Because of his grandfather’s scalding temperament,  he was reputedly nicknamed  “the Scorpion” and on few occasions,  took lone positions against fellow chiefs on matters pertaining to truth and justice within Kalabari  Kingdom during his time.  

Like many other prominent Nigerians of his ilk, Prof David-West cut his teeth in scholarship and pursuit of knowledge. In days, when academic brilliance and hard work paid handsomely by way of scholarships, he was renown for topping his class at all levels and benefiting from federal educational grants for most of his schooling journey.   In particular,  his years at Kalabari National College, along with his contemporary, the present Amayanabo (King) of Kalabari,  His Eminence, TJT Princewill, Amachree XII, he excelled and excelled. Onward to University of Ibadan (1956–1958) and Michigan State University, 1958–1960 for separate undergraduate degrees and Masters degree at Yale University (1960–1962) and ultimately at Canada’s premier McGill University (1964–1966) for a doctorate in Microbiology, saw him covet all the academic laurels. He was simply, distinctly, brilliant and passed examinations with ease, often leaving his peers in distant front.

Not surprising, David-West decided to pursue a life of academia at his Alma mater: University of Ibadan. He soon attracted to himself national and international notice as a studious and thorough scientific mind. His chosen area of study – Viruses – was apt, overarching and notable. Why? Because the survival of humankind and indeed the other existing 9.1 million animal and plant species and billion and billion of living creatures depend on the activities of these microscopic infectious agents.  {He came up with a lot of new thoughts and well published postulates that have made the global scientific community more understand the dense world of these living organisms that ever around us nur cannot be seen by mere human eyes?} He later became a Consultant  Virologist and by 1975, a full Professor of Virology; which itself is Biomedical Science. 

In another sense, Prof David-West shared social crusading instincts with some other great Nigerian scientific minds. Much before him and in some cases, contemporaneous, were the likes of  mathematical geniuses, Prof Chike Obi and Prof Ayodele Awojobi, as well as the medical siblings, Prof Olitoye  and Dr Bekon Ransom-Kuti and the trade unionist Dr. Tunji Otegbeye. These and even Dr. Tai Solarin, who was somewhere between the Pure and  Social Sciences were men of rigorous numeric and scientific details which often harped on exactitude and empiricism. So besides, the role of human genome, which influences our behavioural instincts, the entire world view of scientists who become involved with the world outside the laboratory often becomes deeply influenced by the unyielding pursuit of ideal. For a virologist with an activist DNA Prof David-West coming from a grandfather,  Prof David-West easily became a veritable mutineer within his own palace.

From his days of radical activism as a lecturer at University of Ibadan to appointment as Commissioner for Education in Rivers State in 1975 and one of 150 Member Constitution Drafting Committee, he was unwaveringly independent minded. As he moved to higher national space to serve in the Federal Executive Council of then military Head of State, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and briefly  his successor, General Ibrahim Babangida,  Prof David-West remained unbending, austere, spartan; and always on the side of truth. He was avowedly incorruptible and despite his plump positions as Minister of Petroleum, Nigeria’s cash cow, and later Minister of Power, Mines and Steel, he existed public office relatively “a poor man”; always returning to the comfort of his three bedroom apartment at the University of Ibadan 

Shortly after his exit from ministerial positions,  he was framed up as having received a gift of a “golden watch”, which all who knew him thought was completely alien to the rather stoical character of Prof West. This and similar trivial accusations latter turned out to be a hoax,  even though he had suffered incalculable physical and social stigmatisation.  Yet, he remained unbent and  intransigent in sparking and speaking loudly on national issues. So in the rest of his public life, he remained fearlessly an apostle of whatever ye adjudged to be truth, equity and justice; not minding whose ox was goad. 

For example, he was the most prominent critic of unwholesome practices pertaining to Chieftaincy amongst his Kalabari nobility and gentry. Most prominently, he distanced himself from the echo and praise-singing of fellow Ijaw kinsman former President Goodluck Jonathan.  So in 2011, he attracted the angst of many Nigerians when he published his “The Sixteen Sins of Muhammadu Buhari”, to debunk  what he considered as unfair portrayal of his preferred candidate for Presidential elections against a very popular, President Goodluck Jonathan.  Even more particular, he was bold to take principled stance against foremost Niger Delta leaders such as Chief Edwin Clark and fiery militant leader, Mujahid Asari Dokubo, who happened to be his first  first cousin,  over their unwholesome support for the re-election of Dr. Jonathan as Nigerian President in 2015.  This seemed taking it too far and was, ordinarily un-Nigerian and attracted no little  remonstrations from many people of the Niger Delta. He however, he never derogated or recanted his  position till his passing. 

Today, we, Nigerian baby boomers,  who have grown up during the heydays of post Civil War oil boom and our emerging offspring,  are largely incharge of the country. So both the public and private sectors are in the hands of men and women in their 60s and 50s; not leaving out, the anxiousness stricken, persons in the 40s and late 30s. As a matter  of fact, these younger people of both genders are equally lurking not far away to wrest control and take over affairs in  Nigeria. They rightly spare effort in reminding all of the global fade of generational power-shift in France, United Kingdom, Canada, Austria,  New Zealand and just few days ago in Finland with the emergence of 34 year old Sanna Marin as Prime Minister. 

Sadly and most embarrassingly,  the batten which appears available to pass on in Nigeria unlike most of these other countries is laced with some of the most depressing indices and paradigms at all tiers of governance. A beleaguered nation where ethnicity, creed, insecurity, inequities and the harsh existential conditions openly dwarf the incalculable opportunities and promise of greatness which remain latent. Societal values that proclive towards get rich quick, materialism, corruption and valorization of the obscene and mundane. Or is it the skewed reward system that accords scant regard to hard work, excellence and productivity but even the most learned, give  pride of place to mediocrity and sentimentality.

African traditional wisdom and even the good old Books, especially the Holy Bible enjoins in Proverb 22 verse 1 that ” a good name is better than gold”. In conformity with his wishes, the David-West family has sprinkled Prof David-West’s ashes along the creeks and water ways of Kalabari land, closing the curtain of his life. He is gone and gone like a vapour. But his towering name emblazons Nigeria’s Hall of Fame, as a Man of Great Ideas, purest of Ideals and ebullient Truthfulness. Undoubtedly, he was Good Man and a Nation Builder.

The tribute by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, with whom Professor David -West maintained lifelong comradeship of sorts, captured, aptly, summary of his unique personae which “would be sorely missed for his integrity, sense of accountability, and radical opposition to corruption.”

Lives, well lived that served with uncanny self abnegation and incredulous dedication like Prof Tamunoemi David-West should remain timeless pointers and reference points for us and the anxious emerging generations. Perhaps we need to retell more of such eulogies!

Rest in peace, great Virologist and Idealist!

Dr Igali is a notable social commentator

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