In this report, Amby Udeze reminisces on a recent trip to Okija in Anambra State, where he discovered how an indigene, Dr. Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi, is committing personal resources to overhauling his community
As Nigeria battles to bridge a gaping infrastructure deficit, analysts reckon that the country requires a minimum of $30billion annually over the next 10 years to address the situation. With dwindling government revenues, observers believe that government’s effective collaboration with the private sector and public spirited individuals could do the magic.
I love traveling and I believe it is a unique form of education. I realised early in my career as a journalist that travelling was pretty much an integral part of the job. So it was late last year, when I found myself in Okija, Anambra State to cover the Face of Okija Cultural Festival, the brain child of the Obijackson Foundation.
It was my very first time in Okija. All I knew about Okija was the infamous shrine and the stories of how men and women reportedly visited it in search of adjudication of the gods over personal disputes. Everyone my age remembers the media frenzy in the wake of the 2003 governorship elections in Anambra State after tales of visits to the Okija shrine by prominent Nigerian politicians to swear oaths of allegiance to surreptitious godfathers became the centerpiece of national discourse. As I embarked on this trip, the Okija shrine was on my mind.
It was a mixture of fear and excitement informed by the fact that I did not know what to expect. I learnt that the shrine had been destroyed in the wake of the national attention it attracted in 2003, but I wondered what would be left of this town. The images that I conjured in my mind about Okija ahead of this trip were not the most pleasant. I knew the Group Managing Director of Nestoil and Founder of the Obijackson Foundation, Dr. Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi, was from Okija so I prepared my mind to see the only semblance of modern life in his country home, while the rest of the village would be would be in a sorry state. I was so wrong.
The Okija that we drove into that night from the Owerri Airport was different from what I had created in my mind. It was a land with tarred roads, beautifully cleaned streets being fitted with street lights, a functional hospital and lots more.
Catalyst for Change
After three odd days in the town, I realised that societies do not need an entire crowd of people to transform them; societies need one man at a time. For Okija, that man is Dr Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi, it was actually refreshing to learn about a man who has fully committed himself to the role of using his personal resources to transform an otherwise sleepy town into the destination of choice in Nigeria.
On arrival in Okija, we were driven straight into Azudialu-Obiejesi, expansive country home. No sooner had we arrived than we were ushered into a room that was already set up for a press conference to be addressed by Professor Patrick Lumumba. The very same PLO Lumumba – famous Pan African political activist and orator better known for speaking truth to power across the continent; feared by some, admired by others for his candid and fearless perspectives on different issues around Africa.
In the course of my journalistic career, I have met and interviewed many prominent personalities but I must confess that Okija was the last place I expected to meet the professor. This was the beginning of a series of events and experiences that made this trip one of the most memorable in my career.
Lumumba spoke about why he had flown into Nigeria from Nairobi specifically to attend the Face of Okija Cultural Festival. The eloquent professor said he could not help but identify with what he described as a groundbreaking initiative to cause a cultural re-engineering of Nigerian youths and encourage them to imbibe positive African values. He spoke about being particularly impressed with the idea of a beauty pageant that produced kings and queens on the basis of intellect, character, language and knowledge of the cultural nuances of the people.
Tracing the moral decadence in most African societies to the abandonment of the positives of our respective cultures, he asked us to see the Face of Okija Cultural Festival as a movement whose time had come. He commended Dr Azudialu-Obiejesi for committing his resources to address an issue often overlooked by many but which sits critically at the core of our many problems. As usual, the professor spoke from the heart. When he commended Dr Azudialu-Obiejesi for being a blessing to his community and asked other wealthy Nigerians to emulate his heart of gold, Lumumba did not give details.
However, after three days in Okija, most of which was spent interacting with the ordinary people of the town, I realised the role of this man Obijackson in positively touching the lives of his people. Three days in Okija was enough for me to see concrete evidence of a man who has completely submitted himself to be used as a catalyst for the total transformation of his people.
Obijackson Women and Children’s Hospital
After the Face of Okija Cultural Festival that night, which in itself was a spectacle to behold, I proceeded the next day to the Obijackson Women and Children’s Hospital. When I was first told about this hospital, I imagined it to be a rural clinic where villagers merely get referrals to bigger hospitals in the respective capital cities of Eastern Nigeria. Again, I was wrong.
As I would find out with my very own eyes, the Obijackson Women and Children’s hospital is a state-of-the-art women and paediatric care hospital; the first of its kind in Eastern Nigeria catering for the healthcare needs of hundreds of women and children with facilities for pediatric surgery, a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Ambulatory Care facilities, Oxygen Plant services and ultra-modern diagnostic equipment.
As I saw the quality of equipment in the hospital it dawned on me that this project which is estimated to have cost several hundreds of millions of naira was not set up for commercial money making purposes. If money making was the primary consideration then the location would not have been Okija. Such a state-of-the-art hospital would have been better suited for locations like Port Harcourt, Abuja or Lagos where those who can afford such medical care reside. My thinking was later confirmed when I learnt that the Obijackson Foundation routinely pays the bills of indigent women and children who receive treatment and are unable to pay their bills at the hospital.
In a rural community like Okija where child-maternal mortality is expected to be high, this hospital has delivered over 300 women of their babies with zero mortality. The story is told of how Azudialu initially wanted to revamp an old government hospital in the community but his gesture of kindness was surprisingly met with opposition with many misjudging his intentions. Rather than retreat as many in his position would do, Azudialu-Obiejesi decided to build a brand new hospital from scratch. About 100 employees are currently on the payroll on this hospital: paediatricians, gynaecologists, family health doctors, nurses, medical laboratory scientists and more.
I could not help but ponder on that little story of how Azudialu-Obiejesi’s gesture of love was initially rebuffed by the same people the facility was meant to serve. Then it occurred to me that history validates the fact that some persons in society would always resist change even when such change is for their own good. I thought about iconic change agents like Dr Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela and it occurred to me that they equally faced opposition amongst their kith and kin but they pushed on. Not surprisingly, after the initial setback on the hospital project, Azudialu-Obiejesi has continued to push on.
Infrastructural Overhaul in Okija
The best way to feel the pulse of a community is to engage the common men and women on the street and I did a good job of that during my stay in Okija. In engaging the people, I realised that most of them are super appreciative of the change that has come to their community. They remember very well that before 2013, there was no single bank in Okija. I was told stories of how residents would go as far as Onitsha in order to perform banking transactions. Many did not bother to open bank accounts. This meant that Okija people had to keep cash that they did not need at home.
It also meant that most people living in Okija were shut out of the organised financial payment system and the attendant opportunities therein. All that was before Azudialu-Obiejesi swung into action, acquired land, constructed a building and invited a bank to use it for banking operations in Okija. That bank remains the only commercial bank in Okija till this day. This sheer act of magnanimity has greatly improved ease of doing business in Okija and created direct and indirect jobs for the people.
That’s not all, Azudialu-Obiejesi has concluded plans to build an ultramodern school in Okija. The school will sit on over two hundred and fifty thousand square meters of land. This is the equivalent of over 360 plots of land. The school initiative is in response to the dwindling standard of education in our country. The actual construction of the school is expected to commence soon. When completed, it will have capacity for over 1000 students aside the direct and indirect jobs it will create.
It does not take too long to realise that Azudialu-Obiejesi has positively affected virtually every aspect of life in Okija. As I was shown roads that have been completed and street cleaners employed to clean the streets and dispose waste on a daily basis, I could not help but envy the people of Okija for being gifted with such a man who gives so much and asks for nothing in return. I am told there is actually a department of the Obijackson Foundation that is entirely dedicated to the street cleaning project. About 65 persons are gainfully employed on this project alone. It is interesting to see how these projects have become veritable platforms for job creation and positive engagement of the people. I could not believe I was in Okija for the three days and no one ever mentioned the Okija shrine. That issue is fast fading into distant memory. The people would rather discuss the infrastructural overhaul that is fast making them the pride of Igboland.
I have met and read about men of means the world over but Azudialu-Obiejesi must be a rare specie, voluntarily carrying the aspirations and dreams of his people on his shoulders and completely surrendering himself for the onerous task of being the catalyst for socio-economic and infrastructural transformation of his community. As I prayed for his long life and good health to enable him to continue the good work, I thought about Nigeria.
How many Azudialu-Obiejesis do we need to cause real change in our country? With an infrastructure deficit that requires an estimated $30 billion annually over the next 10 years in a country where government’s net revenue continues to dwindle, it is a no-brainer that sustained intervention by private enterprise in respective communities could be the way forward. Azudialu-Obiejesi has shown the way.
Real change usually starts with an individual who dares to dream of a different world, influences people to join him in the quest to get there and takes action accordingly.History is replete with such individuals whose singular audacity practically transformed societies and entire nations for the better.
Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum is remembered as the founder of modern Dubai because he kick started the infrastructural revolution that has transformed what used to be a small trading port into a major international destination for tourism, commerce and services. The story is the same for Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore who is recognised the world over as the leader who single-handedly transitioned Singapore from a “third world’’ country to ’’first world’’ in a single generation. Paul Kagame is doing the same for Rwanda. From what I saw in Okija, Dr Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi has earned the right to be mentioned in the same sentence with these catalysts of change.