His face glistened as he stands, shakes hands with well-wishers, business partners and friends. Dressed in blue simple, elegant attire with a cap to match, his chubby face beams a smile that underlies his robust and gracious nature. As the crowd mills around, it’s impossible to feel the grandeur in the air. It is a surprise birthday bash for him – put together by his seven children. From the church service to the reception venue, there is pomp and circumstance in the air. Sir Godson Iheaku takes in some fresh air as he looks into the clear, bright sky and gives thanks to God. A tycoon in stockfish enterprise, he has risen from being an apprentice to sitting atop various boards of companies. His business acumen and values go beyond Nigeria. Since 1969, he has frequented the European countries of Iceland and Norway to deal in stockfish – and even at the age of 80 he has not stopped his business trips. Sir Iheaku’s simple, even if single-minded pursuit, on these trips remains constant. Unrelenting in determination, it is not a surprise that he has become the oldest trader in stockfish and the biggest importer of the delicacy into Nigeria. Nseobong Okon-Ekong captures Iheaku’s life and times on the sideline of his recent 80th birthday celebration
Perhaps, Sir Godson Nwosu Iheaku gained confidence somewhere along the line. But it was not always so. His path to success, wealth and fame was lined with many obstacles. And his advancement did not come from determination only. The best education he could get as a child was a primary education. Immediately after completing primary school in 1950, he became a young and vulnerable apprentice. He was to learn the rudiments of commerce at the feet of his father’s friend. That was in 1951.
That year, he started serving his father’s friend, Chief Abel Onuchukwu. From his homestead in Osina, Imo State, Iheaku ventured out to Onitsha. It was the beginning of a life characterised by thrills, adventures and twists. It is that life, even though Iheaku is 80, which still drives him and made his children – seven in all – to throw a grand birthday bash for him.
As a child, the 80-year-old’s brilliance was not in doubt.
He recollects: “I was brilliant to a reasonable extent, particularly in English language. But my father and uncle who were very friendly with my father decided that I should go into business. I told my father I wanted to go to school; he said no. In those days, whatsoever your father tells you, you don’t object. You don’t even argue with him because you know he is going to tell you the best. I went into business and as God would I’m happy also that my father gave the best he had at that stage to have trained me up to the level of elementary school. I can express myself. I can read and write. I can communicate with whites and blacks. I don’t have any regret. I know education is the background of everything but the one I had is enough for me.”
He had hardly set foot on Onitsha when he was dispatched to Jos, Plateau State, to join an arm of his master’s enterprise. The major item of trade, at the time, was enamel ware. In the first quarter of 1952, another transfer beckoned. This time, he was moved to the emerging city of Lagos to be groomed in stockfish trade. This item of trade would later become his stock in trade, earning him both stupendous wealth and fame.
His apprenticeship ended in 1955, thus becoming an independent and bona fide trade; and today, Sir Iheaku, sits atop five companies as chairman and chief executive officer. The businesses, with diversified interests including agriculture, have been pooled under the name Iheaku Mega Group of Companies.
Blessed with a vivid memory, Iheaku explained when it all started: “I started this business in the elementary form, serving my master with all seriousness. Eventually, I had to start up my own in 1956. We used to go to Lagos to buy goods and come back to Onitsha to sell. Things were not easy. We had to travel with in trucks that had wooden backs. We sat on the wooden bench to and from Lagos. The road was terribly bad.”
As the biggest importer of stockfish into Nigeria, Iheaku recalls his first trip outside the country in 1969. The Nigerian Civil War was raging, but for this shrewd businessman, it was time to look ahead. It was 14 years after he set up a shop. Since then, there has never been a year he has not travelled abroad.
A master and teacher of stockfish trade, Iheaku has nurtured an army of entrepreneurs in that industry – many of them coming from all parts of Nigeria – including his children. At the last count, there were 34 of his grandchildren learning the trade. His seven surviving children have become affluent in their own right. Therefore, when they went to town to invite their friends and associates to a party to celebrate their father’s 80th birthday and their mother’s 70th birthday, the All Saints’ Cathedral Onitsha and the Onitsha Sports Club venue of the church service and the civic reception respectivelywere filled with eminent persons from all walks of life.
They all turned up to honour a man who has reached a distinctive height in business. And he has a bragging right.
“In Nigeria, I am the biggest and the oldest importer of stockfish today. There are people who started the business before me in Nigeria. I cannot tell you I’m the first person who started it. But today I’m the biggest and the oldest stockfish tycoon. Nobody will contest that,” Iheaku pointed out.
Many at the All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral at Onitsha in Anambra State echoed the prayers of the officiating ministers. They all prayed to be celebrated in the same manner as Sir Godson Iheaku and Lady Esther Iheaku, whose affluent children rolled out the red carpet for their joint fete.
The Iheaku children: Njideka, Chineme, Izunna, Onyii, Uju, Mmaobi, and Ekeoma, had gone about the event planning surreptitiously, afraid that if it leaked, their father might not approve of it. However, it was too late to halt the proceedings by the time he got wind of the planned celebration. His only request was that they should make it a good outing.
“One of my sons has joined the business. I didn’t ask him to join and I was very glad about that. My children are in the board of all of my companies, including my wife. I don’t operate in isolation,” he said.
At the party were his European business associates from Iceland and Norway came all the way to honour their valued associate. In the gathering also were the Deputy Governor of Anambra State, representing Governor Willie Obiano; former Anambra State Governors Peter Obi and Lady Virgy Etiaba;former Governor of Imo State, Chief Achike Udenwa; President of the Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, Agriculture and Industry, Chief Uche Apakama;Awade Agbabiaka, SAN; Chidi Okoye; Hon, Jones Chudi; former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Emeka Ihedioha was represented by Chuma Nnaji; Mr. Ben Akabueze; Chief G. U. Okeke; Chief Tony Ezennaya of Orange Drugs; and Chief Charles Ezeagu.
The reception which followed the church service chaired by the Chairman of the National Population Commission was marked with pomp and circumstance at the Onitsha Sports Club. On the band stand were entertainers like Onyeka Onwenu, Humblesmith, Kcee, Emeka Rollas, an offshoot from Oliver de Coque’s band and a troupe from the Anambra State Ministry of Culture Tourism and the Diaspora.
Iheaku is a pillar of service to his community and the church. Originally from Osina in Imo State, he is also at home in Onitsha which is home to his business empire. Iheaku himself is surprised at the achievements he has attained, coming from a humble background. He can’t seem to fathom why God singled him out for so much blessing. He holds the traditional title of Nze Omenkeahurunanya, which addresses his transparent nature.
“That’s how the Almighty God created me. I’m the only surviving child of my mother. My mother had other children. My mother later died. I don’t have anybody who is of the same womb with me. I don’t know how it happened. I think the Almighty God wants it to be like that, otherwise I would have died like my other siblings,” he said.
For a man whose formal education stopped at primary level, Iheaku has been variously described as ‘the academic his community never had’ and ‘an Englishman’, mainly due to his suave mannerisms which he cultivated as a teenager. Another thing that many observed about him is that he does not jettison his cultural values. He sits well on both sides of the divide. He claims that he does not play to the gallery to win popular acclaim.
“I say what I think is right. My father was an old man before he died. He had me as the only son from my mother. My father was a very intelligent man even if he didn’t go to school, he observed the tradition of our people to the core and everybody respected him for that. I don’t think he ever told a lie. He was the head of kindred. I followed him everywhere to observe what he did. I learnt from him. My father died when I was a grown-up man. I learnt a lot from him.”
It is debatable whether his people and the church would have got better service than what is currently credited to him if he had gone on to secondary school and perhaps acquired a tertiary education. For one, he cannot recall anyone from his primary school class whose achievements tend to make him feel small. Long ago, he learnt to rely on himself and to stand tall, not minding his little formal education.
“I can’t recall any of them that I can say has made me regret my position or standing. God has all answered all my prayers. One of them whose friendship I maintain till today is the traditional ruler in his community. I call him by his first name and he does the same to me. And we laugh about it,” Iheaku said.
The 80-year-old understands the different layers of interaction in the Onitsha community –the commercial, traditional and social layers. He keeps a fine balance to retain good relations at all levels.
“I can tell you quite frankly that anybody who has had an opportunity to meet or deal with me in one way or the other will like to deal with me again. I am a member of so many organisations here which comprise of Onitsha indigenes and non-indigenes and we interact among ourselves both socially and in church activities. I interact as much as I can. I am a member of so many social clubs. I built the Gatehouse at the Onitsha Sports Club. My name is there. Nobody is going to remove it,” Sir Iheaku stated.
Stockfish, Iheaku’s stock in trade, has passed through many stormy waters in Nigeria.
One particular incident of note was when a presidential aspirant anchored a key point of his political agenda on ban of importation of stockfish in the late 1970s. Calmly, he replied that this was not the only ill perception they had to deal with in the stockfish trade.
“As a matter of fact, we’ve had a lot of turbulence. The kind of turbulence we have now is smaller than the ones we had in the past. But we surmounted it. I don’t know how I can explain it to you because this trade has a lot of attraction for people in the government. There are certain trades you can hide. Nobody will see you. As we sit here, if anybody comes into this apartment with one stick of stockfish, the environment will change. As a trader in stockfish, wherever I go, in the vehicle, market or even in the church, they will say ‘Onye Okporoko’ (stockfish seller). Some people think importation of stockfish is valued at a lot of money. That is not true. Stockfish and allied products like fish waste are mainly consumed by south-easterners. Fish waste is a by-product of stockfish,” the octogenarian explained.
Iheaku gave an insight into the reason the Igbo make a fetish of stockfish.
“The fact is that the people who originated the importation of stockfish in Nigeria are the Igbos. As far as I know by 1952 when I started the business, people who started before me were Igbos. They introduced it and having introduced it to their people, anybody who tasted it liked it. When you introduce something to your child, he grows up and admires it and introduces it to other persons especially when you observe that those things are giving good results.
“It’s not because I’m a stockfish merchant, but stockfish has a special taste. If you are preparing any local food here and you have not added stockfish to it, the taste will be sour but the moment you put stockfish as part of your ingredients, the taste becomes different. Sometimes people call stockfish in Igbo language, ‘Azu nku’ (fish stick) which is a wrong interpretation. Stockfish is prepared by nature, dried by nature. People think it is dried by a machine or by fire. It is a product of nature. There are special places in Norway and Iceland where you can dry it. Naturally, it dries by itself. It’s not dried anywhere in those countries. The weather of the areas is also instrumental in the drying of stockfish. The protein in stockfish is highly concentrated. It is a special kind of fish that has the highest nutritional value. That’s what makes it special,” he said.
Debunking the notion that stockfish is mainly a delicacy for the affluent, Iheaku insisted that it is a matter of preference.
“What you like may not be exactly what I like. I may say something is quite interesting but you may not see that way. It’s not a luxury but a basic food. Everybody needs that nutritional protein. The protein in it is quite high. It gives you energy and nourishment. As a matter of fact, stockfish and its by-products are mostly consumed by people who don’t have a lot of money. It’s not a consumable item meant for the rich,” the 80-year-old tycoon said.
The European countries of Norway and Iceland are the main supplier of stockfish. Iheaku has lost count of the number of his visits to these countries, since his maiden trip in 1969. “That is where I get my daily bread and I have to nurse it,” he said.