His dimmed eyes radiate bright moments in life – and the vicissitudes that came with them. He is like a precious old book, unruffled by constant thumbing of its pages. His mind portrays perspicacity; his voice, clarity and his gait, grace. For good 80 years, he has lived a life of determination, integrity, honesty and perseverance. Born on April 19, 1936 in Warri, Delta State, Felix Matthew Ogbeyewebor Osifo is a testament of industry and ingenuity. His name, ‘Ogbeyewebor’ is striking; it means “a poor man has no voice or say.” In the case of Pa Osifo, that was not entirely true. But how did he get that name? As he shares his life’s episodes with Funke Olaode, he explains. After Standard Six, his hope of further education was put on hold. Rather than immerse himself in self-pity, he travelled to Lagos at the age of 17. From being an apprentice for a local firm, he rose to become an executive director and a managing director. The narratives of this former executive director in UAC and managing director of Vono Products cannot be fully captured in one interview. However, Osifo whose biography will be presented on May 7 talks about how he fell in love, how hard he worked and what helped him to break through
• At 80 Years Old, I Am Not Praying for Death
• I Wanted to be Doctor of Machine
• I Met My Wife by Providence
You don’t show enough signs of ageing and you’re so calm. What’s the secret?
Thank God for His goodness and mercies. My calmness is a combination of many factors. I was brought up in a very structured environment and home. I don’t believe in hustle and bustle and I keep the records of my duties. This has helped me not to be under unnecessary pressure. Again, I believe as a being that we should be grateful to God in every moment of our lives. Being 80 years old is very significant, particularly, in our environment where longevity is truncated due to various challenges. In the last 20 years, our country has been passing through a lot of challenges and it takes God’s grace to survive in such situation. Doing business in Nigeria is challenging. And to live up to 80 is the grace from God.
Then what has kept you going over the years?
Once one has trust in God, one will always be guided in the way one thinks, what one says and what one does. The bottom line is being conscious of one’s relationship with God. One should ask oneself: Am I doing what is right? Am I relevant in God’s scheme of things? Basically, I am a very contented person. I also believe you have to be good to other persons; bear no grudges and don’t be overly ambitious. I have a good wife and she has been very supportive of me. She is a woman that knows what her husband wants; my type of meals and so on. These help a man to be focused and stabilised irrespective of the age.
You sound so religious. Are you a clergyman?
(Laughs) I am not a pastor. I am an Elder in the church of the living God: God’s Kingdom Society. I have been a member of this organisation since the age of 14. I am not a churchgoer but a Christian who believes that Christianity, well practised based on truth, literarily transforms one’s attitude to life. You are positive and very clear in your mind that without God and His begotten son, Jesus Christ, there is a vacuum in one’s life. I am a Christian who believes you have to practise what you hear and read in the Holy Bible.
What is you background like?
My biography would be launched on May 7. My parents were poor in terms of resources. At the age of 14, I identified the situation of things and felt I would not enslave myself but rather take advantage of available opportunity and this is what has propelled me over the years. My middle name ‘Ogbeyewebor’ meaning a poor man has no say came about due to the situation of things when I was born. It wasn’t that my parents were so poor that they didn’t have anything to eat. In their case, they expected friends and relations to rally round them when I was being expected but the help was not forthcoming.
What was the Nigeria of your dream while growing up?
Nigeria of my dream is a country that is free, united in spite of difference in diversity; a country where an average Nigerian would be proud of. But it saddens my heart when you go abroad and once you introduce yourself (as a Nigerian) what comes to mind is ‘this is a fraudulent character’. This aspect is very worrisome.
Tell us about your growing up?
I was born in Warri, the famous town in the then Western Region now in Delta State on April 19, 1936. But my parents hail from Umunede in Ika North East Local Government Area of Delta State. Warri then was relatively small; we knew ourselves because it was a communal living. It was a town that was relatively quiet and the circles of friends were limited to your environment. Most young men and women were focused. It was a colonial area and I enjoyed my life. I never allowed deficiency of my parents to affect me. My mother traded in yams while my father worked as a sanitary inspector worker (wole-wole). He used to tap palm wine as well. That was my humble beginning. I came to Lagos after primary school at St. Andrews CMS School in December 1952. I desire to further my education but couldn’t due to financial constraints. I had a clear mind of what I wanted as a child and that path was further strengthened during one of the events of my church, God’s Kingdom Society. I listened to introduction of some of the members who had come from other branches within and outside Warri. One of them was introduced as a ‘doctor of machine’. That moment something told me I was going to be a doctor of machine. I went to one of the elders in the church to talk to the doctor of machine that I would like to toe his line. In February 1953, at the age of 17, I came to Lagos to fulfill my ambition. I joined a company owned by a member of the church as an apprentice. The company was involved in repairs and maintenance of office machines. I came to Lagos without knowing any relation but I believed in God that He would pull me through. My mother was skeptical that most people who came to Lagos never came back because they got easily carried away. But I made her proud.
What did you want to become before your encounter with ‘doctor of machine’ at a church event?
I have always wanted to be an engineer because I was good at using my hands, fixing things. The church event was a synergy of things coming into place and I embraced it because it fitted into the profession I wanted.
How did you kick off a career as machine repairer in Lagos?
Again, God was faithful. Immediately after my training in 1956 at the age of 20, I joined UAC group. And by God’s grace I got to the highest level as an executive director. By the time I retired at the age of 50 in 1986, I served as managing director of Vono Products, a subsidiary of UAC.
We live in a country that believes so much in paper qualification. How did you rise up the ladder with Standard Six?
I trained on the job. I was at a training school in Brighton in England in 1958. It was a company that manufactures office machine. It was my first trip abroad. I went back in 1961, 1962, 1967 and it never stopped. Well, I have always said that university education is the next level from primary and post-primary education. Here, you acquire knowledge and knowledge is not static. It now depends on which direction you want to apply that knowledge. To me, what is important is having that basic knowledge: the ability to read and write and the sky is the limit. I never had secondary education but was exposed to different training programmes that prepared me ahead. I was at Adult Education department for 12 weeks at the University of Lagos at a time. I also attended a college in the United Kingdom under the tutelage of a professor from University of Philadelphia. I also attended a programme at the University of Ibadan under the umbrella of Nigerian Institute of Management.
You must a genius then?
It can only be God. I believe in taking advantage of the environment. I read a lot and got myself exposed. In those days, I identified where I could get information, expand my knowledge and grew from them. I spent 30 years of my working years in UAC and left in 1986.
Did you face any discrimination rising up the ladder?
Not really; in those days, it was not a question of academic qualification. The questions are: ‘Are you the right person for the job? Do you have the mental capacity for the job? Can you perform? Can you do it? Before the indigenisation policy, the expatriates occupying those positions were not interested in big qualifications. Again, in those days, there were many correspondent schools and if you wanted to develop yourself further, you could enroll in such schools.
You pulled out of UAC to become your own boss. What gave you conviction that you were going to succeed?
Strength, ability and success come from God. It was an interesting decision. I felt then and even now that I have made my contribution to the growth and development of the nation. I wanted to add value to the economy which I did. I floated Osiquip in 1987. We just identified an area which was refurbishing of machines and equipment. We wanted to re-activate maintenance culture. And that was the direction the company went. We were faced with a few challenges such as finance, manpower, source of getting the technical competence; with time we overcame the challenges. After running the company for close to three decades, I took a back seat though my retirement is not (about) going to sleep as I am still the nominal chairman of Osiquip. And I have also slowed down on my activities. I am an active fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Management. The council (chartered) recently appointed me as chairman of Management Standard and Ethics of the Committee.
You have spent 53 years of your adult life in Lagos. Are you planning to go back home?
Not completely but as time goes on, I will be spending more time back at the village than Lagos. I have always been a community man and going home will be a gradual process.
Can you say you have achieved all?
You can’t achieve everything but as a being one should ensure that basic things are achieved. One of which is to have a good wife, good children, train the children because the best legacy or asset you can give your children is good education.
How did you meet your wife?
Meeting my wife was by providence because I never knew her from anywhere. Coincidentally, she is from my town. My late cousin, Mr. Justin Ozor and I were very close. He was much younger but took a lot of interest in my affairs. In fact, he encouraged me to marry early. When I eventually met my wife, Beatrice, our chemistry just gelled and we got married in 1960. I was 25 and she was 19 then. The marriage is blessed with children and we also have grandchildren. We have given our best to them in terms of education. As a matter of fact, all of them went through university education that I never had.
What lesson has life taught you in the last 80 years?
The last 80 years have taught me a lot of lessons. One, one needs to remain focused; there’s no point trying to cut corners to get to a destination. Two, leadership has been a big problem in Nigeria. This country is so endowed by God with resources in terms of natural and human resources. The get-rich-quick syndrome seems to have taken over people particularly those who found themselves in the position of authority. I believe contentment remains the operating guiding of any child of God. Once you have food, shelter and you are blessed with good health, you are blessed. You cannot ride two cars at a time or sleep in two rooms at a time. These are some of the lessons of life that one has not deviated from the norms.
If you could turn back the hands of clock, were there things would you like to do differently?
When I retired from the UAC, I had to start all over again. It was tough. Again, I asked myself that if I had worked for another five years may be I would have been dead now. Honestly, I have no regrets about life and my career path. I am fulfilled by the grace of God.
What would you like to be remembered for?
That I touched lives. I have been of a great value to my immediate family and the community at large. I have continued to be focused on God who directs our affairs. In spite of all the challenges, I maintain my integrity and God has been faithful. I also thank God for granting me good health and longevity. I have always said to my wife and children that rather than become a recluse or liability, I will rather sleep and not wake up because death is the ultimate end of all mortal. Only God knows when, where and how. I am not praying for it now but I am not afraid of death.
Would you say poverty shouldn’t be an impediment to attain greatness?
To the younger ones out there, it pays ultimately to remain focused. It pays to identify from day one to accept your situation. Having identified your situation, decide on what you want to be. There is no harm in starting from nothing believing that God will raise you to whatever level you aspire to. There are times that young men and women blame their parents for their situation. Most parents who are poor did not bring poverty to themselves. For instance, when I was very young in Warri, during holidays, I used to go to construction sites to do menial jobs. I didn’t find that disgraceful because I wanted some money for my upkeep which my parents couldn’t provide. I overcame my travails through hard work and the grace of God.