A CLASSY GRASS TO GRACE STORY

0

Sam Omatseye

When Professor Hope Eghagha was working on the book, it looked like an eternity because, in the course of the past few years, including his distracting time as commissioner in Delta State, our conversations flashed occasionally into the subject. It seemed it was a project of the age of Methuselah. Although I never ventured to say it, I prayed in private earnest that the Almighty God granted the plenitude of double grace. The first grace was that the subject, Mr. Osifo, would enjoy longevity enough. The second grace was that God would give the project the speed of an eagle and turn a Methuselah into a young and bustling David. Put simply, I prayed that Mr. Osifo outlasted the book project.

So, when I picked up a call from Benita Osifo, the subject’s daughter, about my role as reviewer, I thought to myself, “at last, the eagle has landed. Thanks to the Lord on high.”
It would seem, on the surface, like clockwork to review a biographical account of a personage like Felix Matthew O Osifo. The reason is that one has known him virtually all my life, at least my adult life. But that, precisely, is why it poses a challenge. I am playing a double role as interlocutor and witness. Sometimes the roles collapse and dovetail.

As one read from page to page, it became clear that projects like this book titled, From Machine Boy to Managing Director: the Biography of Felix Matthew Ogbeyewebor Osifo, justify why the lives and activities of great men are written. They afford us the opportunity to play amebo into the lives of people we know, or we think we know. Even more so, into the lives of people we know of but whose public exploits arouse a restless and drooling appetite to know.

Generally, as FMO Osifo, as his friends and colleagues often refer to him, grew in profile as a corporate and public success, stories that wound around him did little credit to the toil and dynamism of his early years. Thanks to this book, we know better. The public only knows of his outward persona, his physical attributes, his guttural voice, his majestic strides, his sometimes imperial or royal carriage, his guttural voice, or what Felix Ohiwerei calls his “robust laughter,” the charisma of a tireless inspirer, his eyes that are at once bold and kind, his impeccable sartorial taste, his air of prosperity without ostentation, his pious dignity, his gregarious grace, his sharp and dissecting intellect, a man who simultaneously soars and bows, depicting a success that recognises the root of his route.

But few know the following. That the same FMO was a houseboy, the same FMO of the swagger once pushed truck, that the same corporate giant hawked items to keep body and soul together, that he accompanied his father to the farm when he was not toiling at his studies. He was also a motor park help, he re-baggged cement and worked at building sites.

Professor Eghagha alluded to the psalm by Henry Wadsworth Longfellowto demonstrate FMO Osifo’s life reminds us that “Lives of great men all remind us/ we can make our lives sublime.”
Yes, the beginning was turbulent. His father was poor. His mother, for all her love for the children, could not do more than the little that was available. But the young Osifo did not limit himself to the environment. He completed his primary education and decided, unlike some of his contemporaries with ambition, that he was going to chart a path all his own: that of a doctor of machines.

When he told his mother, she resisted. The virtue of persistence shone early in his life. He wanted to train to be like one Amachree who had been gloriously introduced at the Feast of Tabernacles in Warri as a doctor of machines. He wanted no other dream. He had seen his role model. Osifo rallied his friends, members of the God’s Kingdom Society, including the president, the late Brother Ebenezer Temisanren Otomewo, to persuade the mother. Sheacceded to her son’s request and sold her jewelry to pay for his son’s journey and training as a doctor of machines.

Ambition is like leaping in the dark. The young man had left home, father, mother, siblings and the security of the unknown for the wild and boisterous unpredictability of the big, bright Babylon that Lagos was believed to be.

With Amachree and Co., he set out and he outpaced those he met in training. He also put his imagination to work, scraping from his meager resources to take advantage of a correspondence course. So good was he that when his training and apprenticeship ended, the owner of the business did not want him to leave. Here again, we see the single-mindedness of FMO. He joined G. Gottschalk as journey man or technician. That was the beginning of a trajectory up.

From then the author tracks how FMO rose. But it happened with an unswerving devotion. He paid attention to detail and his energy was boundless. More importantly, he bested his fellows and his bosses noticed. Before long, he was approved for a course in the United Kingdom, this was the beginning of a string of courses and travels that would illuminate his career for decades.
Promotions came, his fortunes improved, and the Osifo who sought free accommodation in No. 1Pike Street, soared to become one of the mainstays of the UAC and jewels of corporate Nigeria.

A few points need to be observed here. First, he worked in an ambience of jealousy. A funny scene happened when his stature intimidated quite a few of them and someone planted a fetish abject, or juju, in his work place. An undaunted Osifo poured petrol over it and burned it while invoking the power of the Holy Bible. The culprit had to confess. Ironically he was Osifo’s senior but he would later serve as his junior in the office.

Two, he operated in an era of meritocracy in Nigeria’s corporate world. Partly because it was that era when the company elite were expatriates, especially British, and were not crimped by the Nigerian penchant for ethnic or clannish proclivities.

Three, Osifo was working in UAC. Few today know the stature of that octopus. It was Nigeria’s economy. It is not like the UAC today that is now shrunken. Osifo rose in an ambience of mammoth corporate dynamism. He rose and he worked. So big was it that at one time, the management decided to streamline its operations to obviate duplications. Since he was in office machines, he started working at BEAM. He rose there to become the general manager. He also moved to become the head of GB Ollivant, or GBO. He at one time, moved to a position where he supervised seven divisions. He took up a public responsibility in a time when essential commodities were scarce. He took over the task and performed not only for the company but for the country.

He later moved on as the managing director of Vono. It was a task he did not want at first. But it was a job that tested him, and his good sense triumphed over ego. He wanted the job as chairman and managing director and that was what befitted him.

This brings out some high quality of the man. He began as a machine boy and dreamt machines. But his versatility shone so that his bosses saw that he was not only a man of technical virtuosity but also a manager of the first rank. When he trained abroad he bested his mates. He did so at work. So good was he that in the course of his career, he became a mister Fix-it. That was why he went to GBO and that was why he was asked after his GBO exploits to save Vono.

Now, Vono provided an interesting drama. Osifo had long dreamed of owning his own concern, and sometime in the 1970’s, he had wanted to quit the company. But friends and his wife, Beatrice, cautioned him. He relented. He saw a great opportunity in Vono. When he took over, Vono International was contemplating shutting down the business until the hand of Osifo breathed a new and profitable life into it. The business owners decided they did not want to sell it any more.

Osifo eventually decided to quit in line with his dream to be on his own when he turned fifty. The decision shocked everyone at the top. He had so become a big part of the UAC success that his leaving blindsided the corporate brass of the company.
Osifo formed Osiquip and showed that he could do for himself what he had done for others. Osiquip became a nimble company, and he had to overcome a lot of the teething challenges of setting up a company.

But his corporate life was not without its chink. It was a story of false allegation that involved his chairmanship of a bank, Royal Merchant Bank. The author tracks with pathos how he was accused, how he had to spend time in detention and went on trial here in Lagos and Jos. The story ends with his vindication and he had to shed tears and also have a party with friends and church members.

The other part of his story is his faith. From reviling the church, he joined the GKS early and took part in its very early years. Missing in this narrative is the process of conversion. How did he imbibe the church’s clearly different train of doctrines? Howdid he navigate such distinctive beliefs as Christ has come, not every faithful will go to heaven, who are saints, what is a soul, the challenge of trinity, etc. I would have wanted to read how the young Osifo grappled with this universe of doctrines, especially from his father’s paganism. His mother may have had to wrestle with the same existential transition.

But the big and sublime shadow of faith over Osifo’s life breathes throughout the book. Through the loneliness of ambition, the hunger for hope and the turbulent certitude of faith, we see the overarching umbrella of the Almighty God. He is never seen to flinch or even despair. The role of church leaders like Otomewo in his life is unmistakable. Even in London, he went to church. His devotion to work is matched only by his devotion to faith. His role in the church from organizing to inspiring is invaluable. I remember as a young man, I always followed his church activities. I was always glad to see him in church. He dissected the Bible with vigour and clear-eyed brilliance. His articulation with his rich voice gave the discourse a certain loftiness that few matched. He is an example that God rewards the faithful.

Because of his devotion, he became the secretary of the Lagos Branch and later the head of the laity worldwide. His was a leadership without the whiff of scandal or profligacy or ostentation or vanity. It made him very easy as a role model for many young, such as myself.
All through the book, the support of his wife Beatrice shines. The courtship and wedding reads like a fairy tale. And she was a consistent bower through all his travels and travails. As she herself said, she knew how to talk to him.

I would have wanted to read more about Beatrice though, especially how her vision of family coincided with the husband’s, with clear anecdotes. Also, the children seem to have taken a back seat in the narrative. We know of Benita the Iron Lady, Emmanuel the CEO, Ebenezer in the United States, etc., but snippets about them as they grew would have enlivened this beautiful book. The author acknowledged difficulties of ferreting some facts.

There are letters that move the heart. For instance we read the one from Otomewo congratulating the young Osifo when he was promoted foreman. We also read the letters between him and Ernest Sonekan. He avails us his action plan to turn Vono around after his successes at BEAM and GBO, successes he attributes to the divine guidance and mercies.

We cannot forget funny parts of the story. One was about Osifo as a boy who out-ate others. He was so fast with the food that he beat everyone. The mother waylaid him and cooked him a large pot of rice that Osifo could not wolf down. He had to beg his mother. Very early, he learneda lesson in sharing. Or is it the story in one of his early trips to the United Kingdom when he froze on the bed until the house keeper at the hotel educated him that he could use the layers of sheets and blankets. He slept soundly afterwards.

From Machine Boy to Managing Director is a keepsake. Professor Eghagha weaves the stories with an eye for details, and it is written with curiosity, analytical flair, warmth,compassion and an enthralling simplicity. It lacks a professorial pomposity or book tedium. His particular eye on the trajectory of the subject up the corporate ladder bears so much detail and sometimes picturesque fascination that the reader sometimes feels transported in time.

We also enjoy the philosophical quotes that help situate sections and chapters of the story. Osifo’s reliance on God bears the frequent quotes from the Bible. One quote that sums up his life is this: “Seest thou a man diligent in his business. He shall stand before kings and not before mean men.” Proverbs 22:29.

Nigeria and the world must be grateful for this project. It is the telling of one of this life’s authentic stories of success unblemished by the peculiar Nigerian disease of opportunism, slothfulness and corruption. It is a book of inspiration, of a man who dared to dream. Henry David Thoreau, American philosopher and writer once wrote, “Idealist nations make the most machines.” I want to add that idealist humans become doctors of machines. History has shown that dreamers make machines, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. He started off with the fantasy of a doctor of machines, he has ended as a doctor of life.

FMO Osifo’s life as a manager entitles us all to study him as an icon. It is a life of discipline, focus, righteous fervour, industry and the grace of God. I thank Professor Eghagha for this great effort to document this life as I wish Pa Osifo happy birthday and many more years with good health.
– Omatseye is the chairman of the editorial board of a national daily