Looking very smart in his made – in – Aba attire, he beamed with smiles and off handedly responded to questions with the smoothness of an academic, though with humility that radiated from inside of him. The Governor of Abia State, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, shares the story of his life with Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu, recalling his growing up, how his parents imbibed in him the virtues of integrity, honesty and hard work, among others
What kind of upbringing did you have?
If I introduce my parents to you, you won’t know, my father was a primary school teacher and my mother was a nurse and they had only three children. I happened to be the very first; so for them, they were concerned about an upright person, a trustworthy son, somebody that his friends can rely on and somebody the public can trust, somebody who should have the discipline of character and somebody who should not be an abrasive person, capable of relating with people in such a way that you add value and blessing. Then, also somebody who is capable of living a life of sacrifice, living for others much more than just being self-centred. Most importantly, a lover of God and a strong believer in the fact that God is the author and finisher of our faith.
My mother for example, all along worked for mission hospitals even when she had the opportunity and chance in the regular government hospitals that would have earned her pensions after retirement. During the civil war, she chose to work with Biafran soldiers. After the war, she also went to work for Christian hospitals where she rose to become the matron of the hospital and was managing the under-five clinics. All her life, she chose to work for people; that gives you the typical example of the family I come from. So I think these are the values my parents imbibed in us and they have continued to lead me as very important signposts along the way.
Growing up, who exerted the most impact on you among your parents and what were those?
If you had asked me this question as a teenager, I would have said my mother but as I began to grow into adulthood, I started to appreciate my father the more. Unfortunately, he died at 62, so recognition, appreciation and influence over me became much more, far more profound as the days go by and his lessons in life are timeless; standing for those things which are right, helping me to take decisions on time; I don’t have problems choosing between what is right and wrong, I don’t have any problem deciding what is right and then teaching me not to be influenced by my friends and teaching me to be a leader in the pack in terms of character, making sure there was no iota of pride in me, telling me that I am to lead through service and should be able to make my mark. As a teacher, my father would insist that you must excel because if you go to someone else class and he is the headmaster, how come you would not be among the first three or first as the case may be. But my Mum taught me the virtue of patience and listening intently before you speak. At times, I do not know whether it is a virtue or quality, at times I stand absorbing everything everybody will say and just walk away and then I recall once in school, it was a Chemistry class and I had a friend of mine who thought he was the best and leader of the pack in Organic Chemistry.
So, course assessments were conducted and scripts distributed; we use to have three course assessments and each used to have 10 per cent before the exam, I had nine and a half and the guy had nine and he was buying coke for everybody. I just kept quiet while he was busy celebrating as if he was leading the class as at that time. I learnt from my Mum that you can still be ahead and level-headed. I thank God that she was alive when I became Governor and she called me by the side and said that she was not happy or excited that I was governor that she was excited that I was going to make a difference and that if I knew that I wasn’t going to make a difference that it was going to take away the shine off whatever I called an accomplishment, that she was only excited because she knew I was going to make an impact. Those were some of the words she spoke the few times I had time with her before she departed that has registered in my mind; that she wasn’t excited because I was governor but because she knew that her son was going to make an impact. These are things I can’t forget.
Were you a village or city boy growing up?
I grew up in the village. I am essentially a rural person, I can crop cassava from stem till harvest. Each time in the farm, they will give me a portion as equal to what they will give my younger sister and other women so I farm it; I am essentially a rural person but the most important thing is that I later learnt when I was a university lecturer that what I enjoyed most was to mentor people. In fact, it is part of what drives me as a person and that is why I have it as a quality not to tell a lie to people but most importantly, to those that are younger than me because they look forward to me and when they look into my eyes and I say this is yam, please let it be yam. God gave me the grace to say sorry to anybody, it doesn’t matter your age in any relationship I have with you. If my driver catches me on any wrong side of fact, I will say sorry, if my house help does the same thing, I will say sorry; nothing will make me go away without doing that. The first reason is that I strongly believe that every human being is a spirit and that the power beyond that spirit is beyond the circumstance where that circumstance has placed that person, it can change tomorrow, anybody can go down.
After all, it is God that elevates people and God puts people down and nobody has God’s power, so whenever I do something wrong I will say sorry and I will do it from my heart; I don’t have any airs around me and if you want to mentor people, you must be willing to give service, you must lead, if you can’t hold the hands of those you are leading, then you can’t do social mobilisation that is required and that is the reason why we have huge gaps in leadership all across our country and in Africa. African leaders don’t spend time doing social mobilisation.
You grew up in the village, where did you acquire sophistication and simplicity?
I think going to school should give everyone one advantage, it is to educate your mind, it is not to come with a paper, it is to educate your mind for you to develop capacity to do indepth analysis quickly and respond adequately but if your analysis is wrong, then you can’t get your options right. I dare say I went to school thoroughly in Nigeria. I went through the rigours of a first degree, did a Masters by thesis and course work, did a PhD again by thesis and course work, so we were one of the few people in Calabar in those days that did 600 level courses. Actually, I was qualified for double masters but I decided to ignore the other one. All these put me through very serious mind training and it makes me sufficiently dynamic, gives me an air of confidence that is within me. More often than not, people tend to underrate me.
Were you a stubborn or compliant child?
I wasn’t a very compliant child because my area is Biochemistry so I was very curious as a person. I could get a lizard and dissect it even from my fourth birthday and I can get so busy doing it that I won’t want anybody to distract me. My father was a perfectionist, so I wasn’t a deviant but I wasn’t a very regular docile child. My father was a perfectionist who insists you draw a straight line without ruler and I will argue that daddy why after they have discovered ruler you are still making me draw a line without ruler but I have since discovered that whether in an interview or you want to drop a written note, you find yourself drawing a line without ruler. My father would say you must do homework before you play soccer but when I look at the home work and I know I have a good grip of it, I can decide to go and play soccer first and of course in return you will receive serious canning. With my father, if you commit an offence three times a day, he will cane you three times. I am sure wherever he is, if you ask him about me, he would be proud that his style turned me out the way I am.
What indelible disciplinary action did your dad take out on you that you will not forget in a hurry?
I remember very well when he was heading a school in Umuogele in Iheoji, Aba South and his friend came to see him and he served him Coke and Fanta; so he sent me to his office, which was opposite where we were living but he forgot to give me the key. So when I got to his office the door was locked and his visitors were waiting and I did a 100-meter dash to fetch the opener. I climbed into the office, I saw the opener on his desk, picked the opener but as I was about to leave, I saw my friend’s ball which he had seized so I brought out the ball also. When I returned home and told my father that I couldn’t find the key but I managed to find my way into the office and brought the opener, I gave him the opener and he was very happy of course. Immediately I gave him the opener I went out to play the football with my friend. When the visitors had gone, he came to the balcony and saw us playing. He asked me to come back and I did, he asked me where I got the ball from and I told him I saw it in his office. I lost count of the number of lashes he gave me. He flogged me 48 or more. At 48, I lost count, maybe I fainted or something. My grandmother begged and begged and begged, he wouldn’t let go. She packed her things and left that night. Nobody could pacify my father, I couldn’t pinpoint my offence, was it that I climbed into his office or was it just the ball I took? Meanwhile, I was seeing myself as a hero, who had solved a major problem in the family. I can never forget that day.
How did you meet your wife?
It was in my second year in the university and it was in a house party. She was in the teacher training college and her best friend at that time was a cousin of mine, so I didn’t know they invited her but before that time, our parents were very good friends; they were at the Missionary hospital together, her parents were nurses. I think at a point, my mother was living with her mother at Ife because my mother trained as a nurse at Ife. As a student nurse, she was living with them. That day, I saw her at the ballroom party and then as a second year student, I told her I wanted to marry her. I don’t know the kind of marriage a second year student would know at that time but 10 years or so after, I made that promise, I fulfilled it.
You must have been having your fair deal of ladies before seeing her, what made you stick to her?
The first thing is that I saw in her someone who was capable of tolerating me because I am somebody that once I apply my mind to an assignment, I want to be left alone to deal with it. I don’t like distractions and I don’t like to be disturbed. I am a very patient man but my wife is infinitely patient. Anybody who is more patient than me must be something else. I also saw that she was capable of raising my children. I could trust her with my children because I also knew that there would be things that would take me away from the home very often and till now she hasn’t failed or disappointed me. Finally, I needed someone who could do certain things because in our house we talk about everything, my mother shared her view about the kind of wives she would want me and my younger brother to bring to the house. The first was that our family was a small one, just three people; we need builders, lovers, people who will tolerate each other, tolerate me and my siblings. You can’t take me and leave my siblings.
Then somebody who would appreciate our parents for raising us and most importantly, somebody who is not coming with an air because at that time, both our parents belong to the middle class, but my parents in-law were a little bit stronger because as at that time, if you graduate with a degree, my parents in-law will buy a brand new car for their son that graduated but my parents couldn’t have given you the gift of a car or even if they could, I don’t think my father would subscribe to that but despite that, my mother insisted we must bring somebody who would not bring anything to the table and must abide by humility, integrity and fear of God and my wife had a good measure of all these. So I think even as I speak today, she is the most qualified to be my wife.
You always accomplish things you set your mind on, how come you never broke the patience of your wife or you didn’t even try to?
I didn’t try to and I didn’t need to break it but she is extremely patient just that I am a gadfly. I have my lines and I keep to those lines, so she is infinitely patient.
What would you describe as your lowest point in life, what has given you the biggest pain?
The loss of my father which came at a point I was defending my PhD thesis; I thought my father would have seen the icing on the cake, what he has made of his boy. I thought he would have been around to see some of those things. I have this burden of debt that I couldn’t give back. I was only able to buy him aftershave old spice so could that be the only thing anybody can get after spending your time and energy shaping and panel-beating one person to make him come out good? So I was really touched when the news came that he was gone but I think looking back, we are trying to live our lives within the guideline and frames which he had prepared because quite curiously, at three, he had told me everything, almost everything. I am not confused about anything in life to say what would my daddy do or have me do at a point like this. At each point, I know what he would want me do. Then, God blessed me with a mother that lived long enough to see some of the things I would have loved my parents to see.
What has given you the biggest joy, your highest point in your life?
My doctorate degree in Biochemical Pharmacology. That time, I thought… it took everything and then when I started publishing my works. My first published article was in Indian Journal of Medical Sciences in 1985 where I studied garlic and its effect on cholesterol and liver lipids and all those kinds of things. When you write a paper and the world recognises that this thing is good enough to make contributions to knowledge. I have a very strong passion for academics. Of course, some of you know that I still teach but beyond teaching, I lead two research groups and I have over 20 published articles between 2015 and now in Biochemistry. I am still involved in research.
How do you relax?
That has changed over time but my friends, my people are the things that keep me happy. More often than not, I stay awake till about 4a.m. not because anybody is compelling me but with my friends. I have kept tab with all my childhood friends because they are the people you go back to and they are the people who keep around you not because of what you are but because they know you, so at times when I have them around, we talk but I love soccer. Up till 2015, I use to play soccer every Sunday but I have not done that most recently.
And your favourite team?
Enyimba International and Man U.
Assuming you were to change any part of you, what would that be?
It is a difficult question because what am I changing into so that I won’t use original and exchange a fake. I like the organism called Okezie Ikpeazu and the way it functions.
Any guilty pleasures in your life?
(Laughs long) I don’t think I have. I had an active youth life as an African boy who grew up with privileges as son of a teacher in those days. Privileges in the sense that I had parents that were respected and then wherever I went around and introduced myself as son of so person, people look at me with seriousness, not now that many teachers are no longer respected that much. Then as an adult, I also had psychologically and socially balanced adolescence and youth life. I tried all kinds of things every young man would try and thank God that I had the courage to drop those I didn’t need for the rest of my life. Then, life is like a journey of somebody on a pilgrimage; when you want to plan to cross the desert, if you had two bottles of water, you carry them as you are trekking and you consume all the water in one water bottle, and you had water only in one, the best thing is to drop the empty water bottle so that you conserve energy. So what I don’t need, be they habit or anything, I drop them going forward. I will go back to teaching and full time gospel because I like to teach in the church actively almost every weekend, two weeks in a year. At times I marvel at that. What is left of me is teaching and spending more time in the vineyard of God.