At 50, Osita Okoli evokes the picture of a man who has walked through fire and survived. A real estate magnate with over three decades of practice, his insistence on doing things with professionalism and integrity has won him a lot of enemies, but a passionate faith in the divine has granted him many victories. Recently, he granted Solomon Elusoji an interview at his Lagos office, and shared a bouquet of tales from his adventurous world
In 2001, Osita Okoli received a vision from God. He was in the middle of a looming crisis within his professional organisation, the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers (NIESV), after he had stumbled on some documents that provided ample evidence that some of the institution’s leaders had been involved in document forgery.
The vision consisted of a charge to Okoli to stand on truth and justice, regardless of the cost and consequences. “Out of the crises of the ashes, God told me,” Osita says, during a recent interview with THISDAY in his Lagos office, “will arise a new and glorious dawn to the joy of man and the glory of God.” It would turn out to be a life-changing revelation.
Earlier in 1999, during a NIESV meeting, a certain Chief Kola Akomolede had mooted the idea of moving the institution’s secretariat from Lagos to Abuja, which was then just living up to its identity as the nation’s capital. But the idea was thrown out by the institution’s leaders. The next year, the issue was brought up and, again, was stifled.
Then, Okoli, who had served as the institution’s Publicity Secretary between 1996 and 1997 and was then a council member, decided to take it upon himself to go to all the state branches of the institution, to find out the preponderant opinions of the members on the Abuja issue. When he realised that many people wanted to make the move to Abuja, he approached the institution’s leaders with his findings. But the harder he pressed, the more jinxed the idea seemed. “The more I tried to explain to them, the less they understood,” he says.
Expectedly, he soon became the target of a plethora of hate and criticism for his progressive ideas; friends turned their backs on him and he was betrayed severally. But his 2001 vision helped him stand on solid ground. And, in 2002, the institution passed a resolution to move its central body to Abuja.
In 2001, the current Executive Governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, told him: “My brother, if you put half the energy, time and money you are putting into your professional body into politics, you’ll go places.”
But he would never have been fulfilled in politics at that period of his life. He was a consummate professional, dedicated to the art and science of real estate, and his first responsibility was to his professional organisation. “All through my life, since my days in Onitsha, my prayer to God has always been for him to make me a blessing unto others,” he says, “I don’t mind if I catch the flak, as long as others get the booty. I believe that people should strive to give their best in whatever they do, because the way you make your bed is how you are going to lie on it.”
That attitude, of selflessly living and leading for others regardless of the opposition, has set apart Osita Okoli among his contemporaries.
He was born in Onitsha on April 15, 1967, shortly before the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War. His father was a renowned trader, a dealer in Raleigh bicycles. Okoli describes him as a “profound and dedicated Christian”. He was, for 22 years, the pastor’s Warden at St. Andrews Catholic Church, Onitsha and was made a knight. His mother was a seamstress who dabbled in baking and petty trading, but also, like her husband, went into trading, majoring in plastics. “I come from a traditional trading family,” Okoli says. “And even while I was growing up professionally, I was doing some trading on the side.”
The war forced his parents to relocate to their hometown, Ukpor, in Nnewi South Local Government. He started his education at Ukpor, where he spent more time on mango trees than in the classroom. After the civil war, his parents moved back to Onitsha and he was enrolled in Central School Onitsha (now Community Primary School 1, Onitsha).
In his first year at Central School, his playfulness continued and he came second to last in the class and had to repeat. But the girl he used to share his desk with was promoted to the next class. That inspired him to begin to take his studies seriously. Within a year, his grades shot up. By the time he was graduating, he was the best in the entire school.
He then proceeded to the Federal Government College, Enugu for his secondary school education, before attending the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1983, studying Estate Management. His decision to study Estate Management was heavily influenced by his elder brother, who was an architect.
He observed his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme at Kaduna between 1987 and 1988, where he commenced his professional career, as a Pupil Surveyor, with the Kaduna Branch of Knight Frank and Rutley, a global real estate consultancy firm. He impressed during his service years and was subsequently granted full employment, moving to the Lagos Head Office of the company; and worked as an Estate Surveyor in the Management Department. He also worked as an Estate Surveyor in the Agency and Valuation Departments, having been elected an Associate Member of NIESV.
However, during his time at Knight Frank and Rutley, Okoli made it clear to his employers that he had a vision to set up his own practice. “I promised them unalloyed dedication, but I also made it clear that I would leave one day,” he says.
And unalloyed dedication he did deliver. One of his managers during his time at Frank Knight and Rutley was Chief Simon Okeke, and he describes Okoli as “a brilliant professional who understands the content of Land Economy and Estate Management. He worked under me for a couple of years and I evaluated him, and I gave him a very good pass-mark. He is also reliable. He has a very high measure of integrity, which is required in any profession, especially in real estate. And he is someone who comports himself very well.”
He left Knight Frank and Rutley in 1991 and moved to Fox and Company, another real estate firm, as an Estate Surveyor and Valuer in General Practice. He was attached directly to the Founding Partner of the firm, Mr. John Paget Fox. But in 1993, he left Fox and Company and set up his own practice, Osita Okoli and Company. Today, the firm has its Head Operations in Lagos, with branches in Abuja and Port-Harcourt, as well as a Representative Office at Onitsha. They’ve worked on a plethora of huge, complicated projects, including the valuation of the assets of Westminster Dredging and the management of the Century City project in Cape Town, South Africa. They’ve also worked with several government institutions like the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) and the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS).
A consummate real estate professional, Okoli is a member of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation (IRRV) of the United Kingdom and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). He was designated Senior Certified Valuer (SCV) by the International Real Estate Institute (IREI) USA in 1997 and was elevated to President of the Nigerian Chapter of the Institute in 1998. He revived the defunct Nigerian Chapter of the IREI and led its delegations to the International Real Estate Expos and Conferences of the IREI in Las Vegas, USA from 1999 to 2003.
He became a member of the International Real Estate Federation (FIABCI), Paris, France in 1994 and served variously as Secretary General of the Nigerian Chapter as well as the African Region; Vice President of the African Region; President of the African Region; Deputy World President/Director as well as President of the Marketing Committee. He also facilitated the visits to Nigeria of three FIABCI World Presidents: Dato Alan Tong of Malaysia in 2006, Owen Gwyn of the USA in 2007 and Lisa Kurrass of the USA in 2010.
Okoli organised the first FIABCI Trade Mission to Africa led by World President Lisa Kurrass in 2010. The hugely successful Trade Mission featured Board Meetings, Seminars, Receptions, Project Tours, Cocktails and Dinners in Cape Town, South Africa, in collaboration with SAPOA (South African Property Owners Association) and sponsorship from Old Mutual Group and Liberty Properties, of South Africa. The Nigerian segment featured Meetings, Courtesy Calls on the Nigerian Minister and Minister of State for Petroleum, the Minister of Lands and Housing; Minister of State for the Federal Capital Territory; Cocktails and Dinners, in Abuja, Nigeria. It was rounded off with the investiture of President Goodluck Jonathan as Grand Patron of FIABCI Africa and a Gala Dinner/Awards presented by the World President Lisa Kurrass to notable leaders of the Nigerian Real Estate community.
The visits, presented the FIABCI World Presidents with the privilege of meeting with key government functionaries, including the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and was targeted towards attracting Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) to the Nigerian real estate sector.
Tomorrow, Okoli turns 50. A strong believer in God, he is grateful to his creator for sparing his life. He also reserves special gratitude for his wife of 23 years, Mrs. Cecilia Okoli, who is also a partner at Osita Okoli and Company. “She’s the greatest gift God has given me outside my life,” he says, “she’s a gift from heaven. My story is not complete without her.” They are blessed with five children.
In 2011, Okoli was expelled from NIESV, a consequence of dark politicking from some mischievous elements, and had his license revoked. It was one of the most testing periods of his life, and only his wife’s license as a certified estate surveyor and valuer kept their firm afloat. Even then, they lost almost 90 per cent of their revenue. But a 2015 court judgement, delivered by Justice Evelyn Anyadike of the Federal High Court in Kaduna, vindicated him. “I have no regrets,” he says, of sticking to his principles and scruples, “everyone who wants to be a good leader must go through what I call the wilderness experience. Even Jesus went through it.