In Quest of Perpetuity: The Ojukwu Nigerians didn’t know

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Ernie Onwumere

When the name Ojukwu is mentioned in contemporary Nigeria, it immediately evokes the memory of that late bearded Biafra war leader and hero who bestrode national consciousness like a colossus that he was. He was the audacious, adventurous and rebellious Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu, then military governor of Eastern Nigeria, who started the Igbo secessionist war in 1966 following coups, counter-coups and genocidal massacre of Igbo indigenes in Northern Nigeria.

This Biafra war-famous Ojukwu is the name that still rings bell in the ears of most Nigerians today. But then, how many people know there was an Ojukwu before Ojukwu? How many Nigerians know that there once lived a legendary Ojukwu who was the father of not only the Biafra war-famous Ojukwu, but also one of the founding fathers of modern Nigeria?

Taking it a bit further, how many Nigerians could remember the first known Nigerian millionaire entrepreneur in history? In Nigeria today, certain heavyweight names come up and inspire tremendous awe when entrepreneurship and wealth creation are discussed. Everybody is familiar with such wealth-personified and entrepreneurial names like Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga, Dr Uche Ogah and others. Dangote is not only the richest businessman in Nigeria today, he is the wealthiest in Africa and one of the richest in the world. Dr Uche Ogah also belongs among the younger wealthy Nigerian business class as the President of Masters Energy Group, a multi-billion Naira conglomerate with a workforce of about 42, 000 people, over 15 subsidiaries and interests across a variety of industries.

By the sheer breadth of their businesses and the genius of their world-class entrepreneurship, the current generation of wealthiest Nigerians easily commands national recognition in home-grown entrepreneurship and capitalism. Yet, before them there were colonial and post-independence era Nigerian entrepreneurs who laid the crucial foundations of modern Nigerian economic system and private enterprise. One of those foremost early Nigerian entrepreneurs is Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, OBE, a transporter, businessman, investor, nationalist and the first acknowledged millionaire in Nigerian history.

My first non-physical contact with Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu was sometime in February 1980, at Nigerian Cement Company, Nkalagu during my school excursion. The second indirect encounter was in 2002, when my then advertising agency presented a strategy document and brand development campaign on the legendary Ojukwu to then Anambra State governor, Dr Chinwoke Mbadinuju. With Ikemba Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in attendance, the proposed campaign concept was to build a new city to decongest Onitsha christened “SIR ODUMEGWU OJUKWU CITY – a place to live, work and play.” But perhaps my third encounter was more revealing that I would want to share the experience through this medium of a book review. Ifeze, the missionary teacher, after our session at 3rd Anambra Book and Creativity festival 2015, presented me with a book he wrote on this great man called Sir Odumgwu Ojukwu.

But it is an ironical twist of history that such a phenomenal Nigerian with an iconic name before Biafra war, once lived and is hardly remembered today about 50 years after he died. It is an indictment of our flawed national sense of history and the nonchalant way we treat our national heroes who have passed on. Yet Nigeria would not be Nigeria today if not for the collective efforts and pivotal contributions of such heroes in their time. The quest to preserve the memories of a great Nigerian nationalist like Sir Ojukwu, draw lessons from his quintessential entrepreneurial odyssey and elicit due national recognition of his selfless legacies is what informed the publication of the book, In Quest of Perpetuity: Bio-Sketches of Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu.

Authored by Ifeze, a missionary teacher and nephew to Sir Ojukwu, In Quest of Perpetuity can be classified as a seminal biographical collection. The book is a 289-page paperback published in 2015 by Tate Publishing and Enterprises, USA. Just as the title indicates, it is indeed a collection of assorted sketches using authorial narration, eyewitness accounts, historical documents, pictures, references and appendixes to tell the story of the life and times of one of the most legendary Nigerians who ever lived in the colonial era.

In Quest of Perpetuity has about 16 chapters, variously detailing the childhood, family, educational, entrepreneurial, marital, filial, political, social, religious, war, will, assets and death aspects of Sir Ojukwu’s life. However, despite the chapter by chapter title segmentation, the various facets of the subject’s life story still run through many of the chapters, thereby causing a varied repetition of same accounts in the memoir.

By the way, in the introduction to the book, the author takes pains to rationalize the necessity of the biography and the struggles he underwent in getting necessary materials and support from Sir Ojukwu’s immediate family for the writing project. At the end, he concludes that the memories and legacies of a pan-Nigerian nationalist and business titan like Sir Ojukwu deserve to be treated better, and that In Quest of Perpetuity is only a foundational work upon which he invites more comprehensive and authentic accounts of Sir Ojukwu’s life to be written.

The book opens with an account of an interview with Akintola Williams, acclaimed Doyen of Accounting profession in Nigeria, who details how met Sir Ojukwu, how he became his auditor and the kind of exemplary businessman he was. In the chapters that follow from 2 to 16, the reader extensively encounters the ‘top tree’, the ‘comet’ and the ‘titan’ called Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu. He was born in 1909 in Nnewi in Southeast Nigeria to peasant parents who were palm produce merchants during the colonial era. The young Ojukwu attended Government School, Asaba and Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar from where he graduated in 1928. Due to the unexpected deaths of his father and mother in quick successions, Ojukwu could not have any further education as the responsibility of taking care of his sisters fell on him.

Without much ado, but reminiscent of the typical adventurous Igbo drive to do business and ‘make it’ in distant lands away from home, the orphan Ojukwu left Nnewi in 1929 to seek his golden fleece in a far-away Lagos of the colonial era. Luckily for him, he got a job in Lagos as a junior tyre sales clerk with John Holt, a reputable trading company then. While at John Holt, the entrepreneurial instinct in the young Ojukwu began to take roots when he opened Ojukwu Stores in Onitsha to sell textiles, tyres and bicycles to Igbo traders who used to undertake tortuous journeys to Lagos to buy those goods. Before long, Ojukwu also started Ojukwu Transport Limited in Lagos when he noticed that Eastern traders had transportation challenges as they used to wait every three days before they got a lorry to board from Lagos back to the east.

It is told that the restless Ojukwu eventually stopped working at John Holt and got fully invested in his fast growing Ojukwu Transport Limited, turning the company into the best transport company on East-West route at the time. With sheer hard work, Spartan discipline and accountability, Ojukwu built a wildly successful transport business and earned a fame that made him the unofficial Igbo business ambassador in Lagos.

From his growing wealth, he began to acquire choice properties and lived in the best areas of the then peaceful but bustling Lagos. He lived and had businesses at various addresses on Lagos Island, at Agege, Mushin, Commercial Avenue, Yaba, Ebute Metta, Creek Road, Apapa and Ikoyi. His most prestigious address then was on Alexander Avenue, Ikoyi where he built an ultra-modern house called Eastern House.

When the Second World War came, Ojukwu made his transport company services available to the British imperialists to execute the war from Nigeria. After the war, Ojukwu became a closer friend and confidant of the colonial British government. His transport business continued booming, but Ojukwu had the business foresight to divest and moved into real estate investments and later acquisitions of shares and stocks in the most reputable companies of the then era.

Having shares in such blue-chip companies like John Holt, Costain West Africa, Thomas Wyatt, Shell d’Archy Petroleum Development Company Limited, Guinness Nigeria Limited and others launched Sir Ojukwu into becoming about the most influential and wealthiest of his time. From 1930s, 1940s, 1950s leading to Nigeria’s independence, Ojukwu grew with Nigeria and became influential with politicians like the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mbonu Ojike, K.O. Mbadiwe and others who were involved in the struggle for Eastern Region development as well as for a new independent Nigeria.

As a true Igbo man, Sir Ojukwu was known to champion the economic development of Eastern Nigeria. As a pan-Nigerian patriot, he was also said to make himself available for national responsibilities. Thus he was appointed as chairman or director to the boards of many Federal Government parastatals and private sector companies. For instance, he was Vice President for Life, Lagos Chamber of Commerce, first Nigerian President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, pioneer Chairman of the Nigerian National Shipping Lines, and several others.

It is most note-worthy that, from the accounts in the book, Sir Ojukwu was not in support of his rebel son Lt. Col. Ojukwu’s Biafra war secession bid in 1966. In fact, the senior Ojukwu died in September 1966 at Nigerian Cement Company Hospital Nkalagu (NIGERCEM) due to his failed last-minute efforts to help avert the Biafra war by trying hard to persuade the Biafran secessionists to make peace with the Federal Government in Lagos.

The family life of Sir Ojukwu was one of his low points. Although he had only 3 sons (Joseph, Emeka, Lotana) from 3 different women, he was more of a patriarch to many people who lived with him and got educated through his sponsorship. In Quest of Perpetuity is replete with accounts of many beneficiaries of Sir Ojukwu’s legendary generosity and magnanimity.

The major take-away lessons from Ifeze’s bio-sketches of Sir Ojukwu, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth of England in 1960, are indeed many and inspiring. He worked hard and made his fortune with “neither dynastic heritage nor university education”. And he was a humanist who used his wealth to benefit so many people. He was an authentic Igbo man to the core, yet he believed in and fought for one Nigeria. He was not an ethnic bigot but a liberal-minded man who would not discriminate by sentiment.

For instance, Sir Ojukwu’s personal driver at the height of his fame and fortune in Lagos was one Sunday, a Yoruba man. His appointed auditor for all his business interests till he died was Mr. Akintola Williams, the first Nigerian certified accountant who is also a Yoruba man. And when Sir Ojukwu became pioneer Chairman of the Nigerian National Shipping Lines in 1956, the first indigenous Managing Director he appointed was also a Yoruba man called Mr. Nathaniel Oyesiku. Further establishing Sir Ojukwu’s broad-mindedness, at the first visit of Queen Elizabeth to Nigeria in 1956, his Rolls Royce was the official car used to convey the British monarch.

In a way, I observed that Sir Ojukwu was a man with a high sense of self-esteem and confidence who never minced words no matter who was involved. His correspondence with the then colonial government Permanent Secretary, Mines and Power reveals that. A.C.F. Armstrong wrote on 3 July 1959 thus: “…the appointment of a part-time Chairman for the Nigerian Coal Corporation …The minister feels that within your wide knowledge and experience…he would like to consider you with other candidates…unless you were prepared to surrender one, and possibly more of your chairmanships”.

Sir Ojukwu replied on 8 July, 1959 with assured confidence: “…the impression I get from your letter is that I am being treated in same manner as a prospective employee might be treated…I feel compelled to point out that the chairmanship I hold were offered to me without my asking and I accepted in each case because I felt competent to discharge the duties of the post.”

And above all, Sir Ojukwu was known to be held to no-compromise high standards in integrity in his business dealings and public service. As a result of this, he kept corrupt politicians of his time at arm’s length even though he was involved in public service. The book In Quest of Perpetuity is worth reading for its sheer insights into an epochal era in Nigeria that many contemporary Nigerians are ignorant of.

It is a befitting celebration of a business titan and nationalist whose memories and legacies should not fade in our national reckoning. The book beckons both the Nigerian government and Sir Ojukwu’s family to immortalize the legend and place him in his right place in history, the same way we celebrate fellow national heroes like late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bello. Indeed, In Quest of Perpetuity unveils to us an Ojukwu before Ojukwu that every contemporary Nigerian should know.
––Onwumere is a cultural activist, book enthusiast and brand management consultant based in Lagos.