Nature appears to have created him for the limelight and therefore imbued him with enhanced cerebral capacity. By his mien however, one may be tempted into taking him for granted until he speaks. Samuel Ifeanyichukwu Onuigbo has held several positions, including the Commissioner for Lands and Survey and later, Finance in Abia State. This two-time House of Representatives member spoke with Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu about his life, values and journey from being a village boy to playing the big league on the national turf…Excerpts:
How did you start life?
I was born in Umuahia. I grew up in my village, which is Obuohia Obi Ibere in Ikwuano Local government Area. That is where I attended my primary school and after school because of the challenges that came after the civil war I lost about a year without really moving to the next stage of secondary before I was taken to Umuahia to learn how to sell motor parts. I learnt that for one year before my sister and my brother, Odochukwu and Lawrence Onuigbo took me to Lagos and registered me in a school called Alexis Institute of Commerce. From there, I returned to Old Imo, now Abia to continue with Oboro Secondary Commercial School, which was in Umudike before it was relocated. While so many people were in a hurry to go to Lagos and work because the economy was booming, I ensured I stayed back and wrote my exams, both the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), which I passed most of the subjects with Distinction. But when I proceeded to write the General Certificate of Education (GCE) as a private candidate and I was able to make my credits and from there I wrote the entrance examination to go to Alvan Ikokwu College of Education, Owerri. I passed the entrance, went for the interview but I did not remember I had two certificates that I left one of the results at the office of Principal of the school, Late Chief Ananaba.
That was because I was used to receiving my certificates and all the papers I used to write the exams from P.O.Box 408 Umuahia which was owned by my maternal uncle so he would go and collect those things and bring them to the village; so now that I used box 456 Umuahia and I didn’t remember again so I continued to wait for the result to come to box 408 but then I had to write entrance examination again in 1980 but by then someone had informed me that my GCE result slip was lying in the manager’s office. I wrote that exam again, I was number three on the merit list and I passed and started Business studies. When I finished, I served in Kaduna at Tafawa Balewa Memorial College, Samaru Kataf which is today in Zonkwa Local government, Southern Kaduna. I returned to then Imo under Ike Nwachukwu as a governor and was employed as a teacher. I taught at Ozza Secondary School in today’s Ukwa West Local Government for about two years before my relatives said there was a job in the private sector. I was part of those who contributed money for what we call Sam Mbakwe Airport because they were making deductions from our salaries for the building of that airport and so many other deductions that were made towards rebuilding the economy.
In addition to Alvan Ikoku College of Education, I also attended Enugu State University of Science and Technology; John Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, US Foreign Service Institute. I am Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators London (FCIS); Fellow, Nigerian Institute of Management (FNIM) and holder of Diploma in Law.
What kind of child were you; stubborn or pliable?
(Laughs) Tough question, well, I think I combined two things in one. Occasionally they will see me as a little bit stubborn but focused on what I wanted; on the positive side, my parents loved me so much because we always made them proud. Those days we use to announce results towards the end of the year where parents would gather. From that angle, I think they were very proud of me but occasionally there were those momentary time when people either step on your wrong side where your reactions are perceived as stubborn.
What indelible prank can you remember that got you into trouble?
I liked climbing trees within the neighbourhood and anyone that looked for my trouble, I used to stone people very easily but climbing trees actually got me into trouble because one of those days, I lost grip and fell off and landed on a sharp firewood which created a gash very close to the sensitive part of my body. I was lucky to have survived it. So I will never forget that, the mark is still there. I just thank God that it did not hit the other side because if it had hit the other side, I don’t think I would have survived it.
Did your parents beat you often over such pranks?
We were not many like in other households where they were like nine or 10, my parents even though they were peasant farmers, I think they understood early that they needed to take good care of their children. Usually it was my older ones that tried to beat me anytime I fell out with them. My dad cautioned us more by way of talking to you and getting you to do the right thing. I am happy he and my Mom actually brought me up the way they did which is something I still treasure till today.
Were you more attached to your Dad or Mom?
I was closer to my Mom even though I use to go to the farm with my Dad but I recall one instance in particular, I had written one exam, RSA but by then I had not written GCE so one of my teachers in primary school called Mpam Owasi, he later read Law, saw me one day returning from school and asked me about the exams I had written and if I had written GCE. I told him the ones I had written and passed and he said I had to go and write GCE quickly. I explained to him that I had just collected money to register for one exam and he said ‘let’s go and meet Uwo Onuigbo.’ Uwo is like a title you give to an elder. So we went to see my Dad, that my teacher who while he taught me in primary school use to give me the chance of marking fellow students scripts while they were digging ridges for agriculture. So he told my Dad who brought out palm wine and Kola and after, he opened up and told my Dad that I had told him the exams I had written but that he wanted me to write GCE. My Dad told him that he gave me money not long ago to come and do another exam and he told my Dad that I had said so but that he wanted my Dad to give me money to register for GCE which he was sure I would pass. So, my Dad said I should return to school and allow him to go to the next market which is Ahia Ndoro where he would sell his yams and other stuff to raise money to give me. I went back to school, so on the appointed date, I came back and on the eve of returning to school, my Dad gave me the money that I needed to enter for those exams. While I was going, I will never forget this experience, that’s why I am very close to mothers. I didn’t know that my Mom was looking at me through one of the small windows in the house, so as I was passing, she now called me Ifeanyi so I turned and she signalled me to come and I went, she opened a corner of her wrapper and brought out I think it was N5 just to add to what my Dad had already given me and that money made a great deal of difference and apart from that, she had two sons while others had to have six or seven but she took care of us and gave us the kind of education other people could not give their family. I think there are other things God did in our family so that whatever we touch must transform to something better. I was very fond of my parents.
What is the best gift you received as a child?
It was not really a gift but it was when one of my maternal uncles came around while I was in school at Umudike. I needed table to place my books. My uncle, Emeka Uzoegbu, was working at Afam Power Station, gave me N2 and it meant so much to me such that the little money I had which was about N1 and I added it to the money my uncle gave me and was able to acquire a reading table. So, while others were packing their books anyhow, I had a reading table which made it possible for me to sit up and read better than others thereby saving me from reading on the bed, which is an invitation to sleep. It enabled me to read for a long time, listen to my news, BBC, VOA till about midnight and go off. The kind of opportunity owning that table gave to me, the strength and ability to read, outclassed so many other persons is a thing I still value till today.
What attracts you to people?
Key thing is if they are straightforward, if you have integrity, good conduct and that ethical background. Next is intelligence and the next is love. If you care for humanity, which is the motto of my foundation, Odozi Obodo Foundation, then, I am attracted to you. The foundation is about service to humanity.
What do you detest in people?
Dishonesty; that is why it is a bit difficult for some of us to ply this trade they call politics. Dishonesty and betrayal are no go areas for me.
How are you balancing that being a politician yourself?
It has been tough, very tough because I am significantly predictable and that is not one of the virtues of a politician. Politician usually finds answers to situations so I am predictable but my concern is when people tell you one thing and before you turn around they are doing another thing… dishonesty and betrayal don’t find space where I am.
What has given you the best pleasure in life?
I can’t rate it; it is very difficult because it is when I help people in need. People pattern their request in accordance to my areas of interest and helping them solve their problems gives me immeasurable joy. What gives me pleasure is when I find myself being able to assist somebody to change his or her position for the better. My parents had five children but we used to be up to nine or 10 in our house and these were not their children. They were training all the children or assisting them. It was later on that we discovered that they were not our biological brothers and sisters and we have internalised it. A lot of good things come to us because we help others. Being able to better the wellbeing of others and it ties properly into what leadership is all about. Once I have the potential to help people around me and even beyond, that gives me joy.
What do you consider your saddest moment?
When I lost my parents because given the kind of life that they gave us, training, happy life, love despite that they were peasant farmers they were able to organise the family such that we were the envy of others. To lose them the way I lost them in quick succession; my Dad died in October of 1981 and my Mom died in June 1982. They were so much in love that as soon as my Dad passed, my Mom could not recover. It affected me so badly that I now stayed away from the village. I’m a community person such that maybe due to the love I have for my Mom, I love mothers and I take interest in what they are doing. In my community, the Women Wing of our development union can confirm this, I have been consistently attending their Annual General Meetings successful and consecutively since 200I that they call me honorary member. I take some governors wives to the meeting and even some Americans. The loss of my parents without them benefitting from the good works that they did; they did not live to have people like us take care of them in appreciation.
What was your village experiences like, growing up?
I was a hunter too, we set traps and we go to the stream to catch fish at night. So, I farmed and know the details of farming; can plant and tend yams and I know how to cut the bush and burn it in a special way and cultivate it. So, I’m a village person; that’s why I tried to encourage people to do farming to ease suffering. I facilitated the establishment of a secondary school in our place to minimise the suffering of my people who had to trek like 12 kilometers to and fro to the nearest secondary school. I grew up, stayed in the village and passed through all these things. I try to find ways of ameliorating those pains which some of us passed through. Knowing the trails of animals and using the marks they leave on the ground to know which animal had passed through was actually part of African educational system because if you are in the village, you need to know when a lion has passed so that you warn people and experiencing those things roundly prepared me for leadership.
What near-life experience apart from falling from a tree rattled you?
That happened while I was working at the Mail Newspapers. That was the time we were doing environmental sanitation; I left office early, around 5am because it was on a Saturday; I stopped at Abule Osun and was crossing the road to climb the demarcator when I heard woomm. What I am telling you was that I never knew a car was coming at that speed because it was coming without light. I collapsed and my body started vibrating. I was coming home to get ready to return to work because in the newspaper house we work at night. The vehicle was a truck and at that speed, without light. It is an experience I will never forget till the day I die.
You were very intelligent, passed your exams and worked in good places; that makes you a woman’s man. What was your life with the opposite sex like?
I do not know that women used to lay ambush for such qualities but if you are talking about whether maybe because of what God endowed one with, women tend to move towards you but if you say one has intelligence, you don’t have to go and challenge God, it is His mercy to give you. Do not also forget that society is transforming but I don’t know these days whether women rely totally or fully on intelligence but all the same, I have always related well with the womenfolk and I am happy that by the training and upbringing my parents gave me, I never took anything for granted about them. I learnt from my Mom that women are the smartest people around but they are always taught to humble themselves and create the impression, the appearance that the man is leading and that is what most men are yet to truly understand.
How did you meet your wife?
My wife’s father, Professor Sam Ifennwanta taught me in school. He is a prominent and illustrious son of Nigeria. He is a community man who used to host clan meetings in his place, so even as a student who was not working, I would attend these meetings to help them do certain things, run around and all that so maybe he observed since he taught me in school that I was intelligent. I saw my wife, I really loved the humility as despite the fact that the dad and the mom belong to the class of people that saw better things. The dad was a grounded man, a hunter and all that but he was a Professor. He went to Boston where he took his PhD but he was a community person. No wonder some years down the line, he was made the traditional ruler of our autonomous community before another one was created. When I saw her, I took interest in her but of course you know women, it was difficult for me to break through seeing that there was a great gap between our backgrounds – the son of a peasant farmer and the daughter of a Professor and community leader who was well known and whose name was on the list of who is who in Nigeria. Somehow, I think my wife also like what you talked about women gravitating towards you either out of intelligence or comportment so somehow our relationship blossomed and we became husband and wife. I do not know where to pin it, whether on my humility or God’s kindness towards me in terms of intelligence. Maybe it is a combination of these factors that made it possible for us to understand ourselves despite the gap in social status between us. My wife is Pastor Princess Chinyere Sam Onuigbo.
Politicians are the money people who ladies swarm around, how do you resist their advances?
I had the opportunity of reading Chinweizu’s Anatomy of Female Power in the 80s and from that I know that just respect women and know where to draw the line because they too know more than us and also know where to draw the line. If you do that and pray to God for safety, you will be able to arrive safely without offending them.
What are we likely going to see if we break into your wardrobe?
Well, I wear traditional attire as a traditional Igbo Chief with the title Odozi Obodo. I have been wearing that since the 90s because as an Igbo man, I also have to have an identity because all the other tribes, the Ijaws, Tivs, Hausas, Fulani, Yorubas, once you see them, it is easy to know and that is the unity in diversity and that is where I focus my dress sense on because if we all were to wear all Yoruba or Hausa dress, that diversity is lost, the cultural diversity is no longer there because dress is part of a peoples culture. So I wear my Igbo dress almost always, that’s what you will see in my wardrobe. It is only when it becomes absolutely necessary like when I travel overseas or if they say they are doing black tie ballroom that’s when I can look for my suit, otherwise, I wear my Igbo dress because I am an Igbo man and I am part of what is called a culturally diverse nation which is Nigeria with over 300 languages, different dress code and I think it gives me space to move around.
What’s your costliest life possession?
It is life itself. To treat life which we do not make or create, to treat it with absolute care, my own life as well as life of members of my family and the life of others. I am not a man of cars or buildings. I am focused on development of people because I know that human capital development is key and that kind of development is even more enduring than where lizards and cockroaches and rats take over your beautiful building because you are no longer there.
How do you spend your spare time?
I listen to music particularly gospel and I also listen to Fela’s music a lot for a long time because his music is meaningful and based on social realities, it mirrors the society. I am a news person so I like to know what is happening globally.