As Odili Clocks 71

Peter Odili

Though former Governor of Rivers State, Dr Peter Odili, would rather that August 15 went by just like any other day, his immense contributions to humanity, his state and Nigeria in general have inevitably made him a gold fish with no hiding place, Davidson Iriekpen writes

Former Governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Odili, turned 71 yesterday. Typically, he would have wished no one noticed that, given his self-effacing nature. That wish, however, hardly ever gets fulfilled. His professional accomplishments, political clout and humanitarian inclination mean he cannot possibly have a quiet birthday, no matter how he longs for it.

But, indeed, Odili has ample reasons to celebrate, for his life has been strewn with God’s abundant grace and mercies. The years he has spent on earth have been eventful and full of achievements that many, including his peers, can only dream of.

The former governor’s philanthropic imprints are legendary. The number of persons he helped; the school fees he has paid; the hospital bills and house rents he assists in paying; the land, community disputes he helped resolve and the broken homes he salvaged, are mere minuscule glimpses of his philanthropy.

Odili may have been quiet for a while, but he continues to be politically-relevant, nonetheless, due to how he impacted his community and transformed lives. Despite the fact that he seldom interferes with the politics and governance of Rivers State, he is still very much relevant in the state. At the occasion to mark his 70th birthday last year, eminent personalities including his former governor colleagues were all in Port Harcourt to rejoice with him.

Because of the inclusive nature of his administration, everybody who served under him in the state, whether as local government chairmen, in the civil service and political appointment, still rally round him.

Any time PAMO University of Medical Sciences – the new institution he promotes – has major programmes, he still attracts a galaxy of eminent persons. For instance, last July when the institution held its second matriculation ceremony, the occasion was a carnival of sorts.

Born on August 15, 1948, in Ogba, Egbema, Ndoni Local Government Area of Rivers State, his parents, Chief Philip Celestine and Princess Janet Okwei Odili, may never had imagined the great heights their then little child was destined to attain.

Like the legendary Professor Chinua Achebe would say, a chick that will grow to be a cock is known the day it was hatched. This wise saying would later become manifest in the boy, Odili, when he enrolled in St. Michael’s School, Oguta II and Sacred Heart School, Onitsha, between 1953 and 1960 marking the commencement of his intellectual quest that saw him pass through the famous Christ the King College in Onitsha and the prestigious University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, where he studied Medicine.

After his mandatory internship at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital, Benin, he moved on to be a Resident Staff Physician, Medical Consultation Centre, Port Harcourt, between 1979 and 1980. Not one to shy away from new challenges, he went into private medical practice by establishing PAMO Clinics in 1980, serving as its Resident Clinician-in-Charge between 1980 and 1982.

Still eager to add some sheen to his academic laurels, he went in pursuit of a specialist programme at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. It was an opportunity for him to hone his skills, and so he grabbed it. The knowledge so acquired made his proficiency in Medicine much sought after in Port Harcourt and around the country, and even beyond.

Indeed, it is a testament to his expertise in the medical field that Odili emerged as personal nominee of then President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, to a 10-member roundtable committee charged with the responsibility of formulating the methodology for addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis in the workplace in Africa.

But medicine was by no means his last bus stop. He is too versatile to be so pigeon-holed, and strongly believed his experience and leadership qualities must be deployed in serving his people.

Public service, for him, was the appropriate way to prove that he can replicate his knowledge of medicine in the field of politics and governance. But the military were still in charge and he bided his time.

In 1988/89, Odili was elected member and leader of Rivers State Delegates to the Constituent Assembly and was elected to the National Constitutional Conference, where he served as the Chairman of the Conference Committee on State Creation. In 1992, he was elected as the Deputy Governor of Rivers State. At the peak of the struggle for the laying of the foundation for the Fourth Republic, Odili first served as National Vice Chairman (South-South) Democratic Party of Nigeria (DPN), and later as National Secretary.

He was Founder and Leader of Rivers Platform, 1998; Founder and Leader, Restoration Team as well as the State Leader of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); elected Executive Governor of Rivers State in 1999 and served two terms. It was in that capacity that he took the country by storm and became a reference point in the nation’s political calculations. He was at various times the National Chairman, PDP Fund Raising Committee (2000); and Chairman, Presidential Committee on Housing and Urban Renewal (2001).

Even his ardent critics concede to him that his sojourn in office yielded stellar accomplishments that have till date remained a yardstick for measuring performance in that resource-rich state. Before him, substantial parts of Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, were not connected to the national grid.

The National Independent Power Project (NIPP) which later became a federal fad had Odili, in his capacity as governor of Rivers State, as one of its pioneers. Before him, also, the Rivers Government House, the seat of the governor, was no better than a guest house and that’s being charitable. He built a grand and befitting edifice that remains a major architectural landmark.

Other landmark projects and policies of his administration are there today as Odili’s legacy of excellence in governance. They include the free HIV treatment designed to achieve some of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs; his intensive commitment to mother and child healthcare; investments in banks; the Eleme petrochemical industry and the now aborted Port Harcourt refinery deal. One will not forget to mention that by sheer strength of character and personality, he was able to tame troublemakers and secured lives and property in the state.

One positive part of the Odili phenomenon is his large heartedness as well as his proclivity to mentor successors. But it has also led to some personal regrets as captured in his autobiography, Dr. Peter Odili: Conscience And History – My Story. A close associate of his commented that an area that one could easily empathise with the governor is his expressed disappointment over the numerous betrayals by those he so trusted and brought up socially, politically, financially, academically and even religiously. Regardless, the former governor has remained the issue in the politics of Rivers State. One may agree or disagree with him. In fact, one is either for or against him, but there is no room for neutrality on matters of Odili’s politics.

Odili is married to another achiever and distinguished professional, Her Excellency, Justice Mary Ukeago Odili, a Justice of the Supreme Court. Their marriage is blessed with four children.

To some, 71 can hardly be said to represent a milestone. But it is not the number of years that count. It is the impact one is able to make on existence. It is often said that in between birth and death are legacies.

Looking critically at his journey of life in the past seven decades, Odili has had his own fair share of those by which he would be judged by posterity. As they say, time and posterity will not fail to recognise his enduring service to humanity.