Orji Kalu at 57:  The Story of An Icon

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By Kunle Oyewumi

On Thursday, April 21, 1960, at the popular Saint Anthony’s Catholic Hospital, located at 62/80 Etche Road, Aba, the family of Mr. Johnson and Mrs. Eunice Kalu welcomed the arrival of their first child. As the news filtered into the air, it was merriment galore at the Kalu’s house situated at 11 Azikiwe Road, Aba, Abia State. Eight days after the arrival of the baby, he was christened “Orji” (a mighty tree) in the presence of family and friends.

     From the name, you will agree with me that the life of Kalu, former governor of Abia State, had been divinely ordained.Despite being successful traders of second-hand clothing (popularly known as Okrika), Kalu’s parents were more concerned with arming their children with western education and they enrolled the young Kalu at Christ the King, Aba, for his primary education. He served as captain in different classes and was also a football player. For his secondary education, Kalu proceeded to Eziama High School, Aba and later Government College, Umuahia. His sports expertise became pronounced in Eziama, as he was a student-coach and player for the school team.  He was also enrolled for evening coaching after school on weekdays while he assisted his trader-parents at their lock-up shop at weekends. 

     The young Kalu was quick to master the art of buying and selling of fairly-used clothes. After passing examinations at 19, not losing focus of his academic pursuit, Kalu gained admission into University of Maiduguri to study Political Science. Owing to the goodwill he enjoyed among his schoolmates, he was elected as a representative in the student union government (SUG) of the tertiary institution and eventually he served as President of the SUG. It was during one of the protests, tagged: “Ali Must Go’’ against the then Minister of Education, Col. Ahmadu Ali (retd.), that the student activist Kalu and others were expelled during the regime of Professor Jubril Aminu as Vice-Chancellor. After much pressure on the school’s Senate, Kalu was recalled, but he refused on the grounds that his expelled colleagues must also be recalled. 

    Since the school authority refused to yield to his request, Kalu moved on with his life. His expulsion from the university opened his eyes to the business opportunities in Maiduguri and as such he borrowed a token from his trader-mother to start palm oil trading in the city.  The business, which started on a small scale, rapidly expanded to other parts of the North and East. Having made a fortune from the oil palm trading, Kalu diversified into furniture business with the registration of his company, Ojialex Furniture. 

    As fate would have it, as Kalu was standing in front of his furniture outlet someday, a car stopped and the occupant (Prof. Jubril Aminu) greeted and asked him if he was the Kalu that was once a student in University of Maiduguri. At that point, Kalu was nervous but he answered the academic with confidence and respect by saying, “Yes Sir,  I am Orji Kalu that was expelled from University of Maiduguri” and then Professor Aminu hugged him with enthusiasm and they exchanged pleasantries and contacts. After taking a quick look at the furniture products in Kalu’s shop, Prof. Aminu made a phone call to the Procurement Director in University of Maiduguri, who then asked Kalu to bring a quotation for supply of furniture to the school’s staff quarters. After several business meetings with officials of the university, Kalu was awarded a contract to supply furniture to the school’s staff quarters. From the profit of the contract, Kalu bought a large factory for the production and storage of furniture.  Ojialex Furniture was also supplying furniture to Chad Basin Authority and National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) camp in Borno State.

Owing to his contributions to the economy, Kalu, while serving as Chairman of Borno State Water Board, was conferred with a national honour—Member of the Order of the Niger (MON)—by the then President Ibrahim Babangida in 1986. It was in the course of doing business with NYSC that Kalu met one Brig. Gen. Akpan, who introduced him to other NYSC formations. During one of his visits to NYSC headquarters in Lagos, Kalu heard a staff talking about the NYSC youth corps members’ uniforms imported from Hong Kong. He swung into action immediately by meeting the official in charge of the NYSC uniforms and offered a better quality at a cheaper price if given the opportunity to supply the uniforms. Within 72 hours, Kalu, who had travelled to make samples in Aba, was back in Lagos. The officials of the NYSC were so impressed with the Nigeria-tailored uniforms presented by Kalu and he was, thereafter, appointed a major supplier of the NYSC attires using his newly registered company – Slok Nig. Ltd (incorporated on May 6, 1987)

 It was in view of his growing business relationship with the NYSC that Kalu, on the advice of his property agent, Mr. Obi Achebe, rented a residential apartment at No. 6A Adeleke Adedoyin Street, Victoria Island (Kalu built his Lagos residence on the same street, at no. 191A in 1990)  and an office space at 42 Calcutta Crescent, Apapa.

 Despite sitting on the boards of several private and government-owned companies, including Cooperative and Commerce Bank, (where he was board chairman at age 29), Unipetrol, First Bank, Imo State Marketing Board, Kalu was still hungry for more business opportunities and he delved into commodity trading with the importation of sugar, salt, rice and other consumables.  In the course of his business, he embarked on many business trips to America, Europe, Middle East and Asia and this exposed him to oil trading. 

Luckily for him again, Prof. Aminu who was then the Minister of Petroleum was able to guide and assist Kalu in securing oil transactions from the Federal Government- crude oil lifting. Despite the booming oil venture, Kalu did not still give up commodity trading, as he used the foreign exchange proceeds from crude oil sale to pay for imported commodities.

  Kalu served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1992 to 1993 on the platform of the National Republican Convention (NRC) and held two key positions of deputy chairman of the Finance and Internal Affairs Committees. He moved the famous Dual-Citizenship Rights Bill in the House. After the military cut short the civil rule, he went back to consolidate his business concerns. 

Having built political follower-loyalty during his short stint in the legislative chamber, he was again approached in 1998 to join a new political group, which later metamorphosed into the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).  During the formation stage of the party, Kalu donated and lent the party N100million and N500million respectively.

 In 1999, Kalu was elected governor of Abia State on the platform of the PDP at the age of 39. It was a challenging period, as he took over the mantle of leadership of a heavily indebted state. Having pledged to govern with his conscience and to the best of his ability, on assumption of office, Kalu began to deploy his business acumen and secured a loan from Guaranty Trust bank (GTB) with the assistance of his late friend and former Managing Director of GTBank, Mr. Tayo Aderinokun, for construction of roads in Aba. To the surprise of many, including the then President Olusegun Obasanjo, within six months in office, Kalu had already constructed six roads in Aba metropolis. This feat earned Kalu the title, “Action Governor” when Obasanjo visited Abia State on February 26, 2000. The energetic governor continued to execute more people-oriented projects across the state. 

Aware  that education is the best weapon to arm a child, Kalu declared free education from primary to tertiary level in the state. Both Abians and non-Abians alike began to migrate to God’s Own State to benefit from the laudable gesture. Kalu built, re-constructed and equipped primary and secondary schools. His government was responsible for full payment of Junior Secondary School Certificate Examination (JSCCE) and West African Examination Council (WAEC) fees for students. Teachers were motivated, as they were trained and re-trained. They also received their salaries, like other state workers, before 25th of the month. At the university level, Kalu increased the monthly subvention to Abia State University (ABSU) to about N200million before the end of his tenure, for capital projects. He also subsidised tuition and other fees for university students, as they paid N7, 000 as against N100, 000 per annum. Kalu also upgraded Aba General Hospital to ABSU Teaching Hospital.  

 Other achievements recorded by Kalu’s administration are: winning of CAF Cup in 2003 and 2004 by Enyimba FC of Aba, timely payment of bursary to Abia indigenes in various tertiary institutions, construction of more than 200 rural and urban roads, distribution of 10 million day-old chicks to civil servants, religious houses and cooperatives, awarded special scholarships, embarked on rural electrification projects in over 150 communities, attraction of private investors, peace and security, among others. Above all, Kalu laid a good foundation for sustainable development in Abia State.

After his stint as governor, the ambitious Kalu threw his hat at the presidential ring by contesting for the position of President in the 2007 general elections under the Progressive People’s Alliance (PPA), a political party he personally founded. During electioneering, Kalu visited the 36 states in Nigeria to canvass for votes based on a well-articulated manifesto, tagged, “My Social Contract”. The policy manual, prepared by a 24-man team made up of professors, business persons and the youth, detailed the presidential candidate’s action plan if given the chance to steer the affairs of the country. 

Unfortunately, Kalu lost the election to his former colleague and personal friend-the late Alh. Umaru Yar’dua. It was during Yar’dua’s regime as governor of Katsina that Kalu was honoured by the then Emir of Katsina, Alhaji Muhammed Kabir Usman as Maiyakin Katsina, not forgetting the fact that Kalu holds more than 165 chieftaincy titles from different parts of the country, including Ahi eji agamba of Igbere, Ikemba Ohafia, Aro of Ogbomosoland, Baa Danide of Borgu, Bobameeto of Ijeshaland to mention just a few. Although he lost the presidential contest, Kalu ensured victory for his erstwhile Chief of Staff, Chief T. A. Orji and Chief Ikedi Ohakim as governors of Abia and Imo states respectively under the PPA. For the PPA, which was formed less than eight months to the 2007 general elections, it was a huge success. 

 Despite the ill-actions meted out to him by some ungrateful persons he empowered financially and politically, Kalu has not lost his qualities of selflessness, generosity and large heart. If only Kalu had not paid deaf ears to his father’ advice not to join politics, he may not have suffered from political blackmails and the clamp down on his business interests, including the cancellation of Slok Airline licence, closure of Hallmark Bank Plc (where he had substantial investment at optimal level) and South Gate Bank.

 Understanding the fact that life is not complete without challenges, strong-willed Kalu has, in the past few years, been busy expanding and diversifying his business frontiers as a way of supporting the Nigerian economy. His company–Slok Group – today has many subsidiaries, including Slok Shipping, Slok Energy,  New Telegraph Publishing Ltd, Slok Shipping, Sun Heaven Hotels and Resort, First International Bank (Sierra Leone, DRC, Liberia, Guinea and Gambia), International Insurance Company (Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Gambia), Bende Export Import Ltd operating in shipping,  banking, insurance, hospitality, media and publishing, aviation, real estate and agriculture, among other entrepreneurial interests. The purpose of identifying these companies is to appreciate them for creating jobs and wealth for the teeming African populace most especially Nigerians.

 Kalu has attended courses locally and internationally, including Advanced Management Programme (AMP153) at the Harvard University Graduate Business School and has won many awards, including Leon Sullivan Award by the World Bank, Washington, Special Award by the European Union, Industrialist of the Year by the Nigeria Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry and Mines (NACCIMA) and Humanitarian Award by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

  OUK, as Kalu is fondly called, will not cease making meaningful contributions to national discourse through various platforms, including G-34, Njiko Igbo, Orji Uzor Kalu Foundation, Hope Alive and Team Good Governance (TGG), among others. He has also been presenting papers locally and internationally on issues bordering on good governance, leadership, entrepreneurship, activism, politics, youth and women empowerment etc.  For Kalu, sharing knowledge and mentoring, is the best gift God has endowed him with.

Looking at Kalu’s life, from his humble background, there is a renewed hope for the younger generation if only they can remain focused, committed, strong, determined, hard working, prudent and honest in their pursuits can learn from the businessman-cum-politician’s continued eventful life. 

•Oyewumi is Special Adviser to Ex-Gov. Orji Kalu