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Monday, 15 September 2014

Tribute To Esama Of Benin Kingdom At 80

“A mighty wind blew night and day. It stole the Oak Tree’s leaves away. Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark until the Oak was tired and stark. But still the Oak Tree held its ground while other trees fell around. The weary wind gave up and spoke “How can you still be standing OAK?” The Oak Tree said, “I know that you can break each branch of mine in two, carry every leaf away, shake my limbs and make me sway. But I have roots stretched in the earth growing stronger from my birth. You will never touch them, for you see they are the deepest part of me. Until today, I wasn’t sure of just how much I could endure. But now
I’ve found with thanks to you, I’m stronger than I ever knew.”

Fellow Nigerians, the words of that powerful Poem, by Johnny Ray Ryder, sums up the extraordinary story of the amazing business titan and cultural icon, Sir Chief (Dr.) Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, famously known as The Esama of Benin Kingdom or The Lion of Okada. Say what you will, Chief Igbinedion has no duplicate anywhere else. He is in a class of his own and has achieved what many souls would never be able to attain in many lifetimes rolled into one. His story is the stuff of fiction and action-packed like a cowboy movie. But his story is very real, inspiring, motivating, spiritual, riveting, mesmerising and outright stunning.

I first heard of this famous Chief in my childhood days. I’ve grown up to still find him flapping his wings and flying higher and higher. I’ve been privileged to get closer to him and his family in the last ten years. I’ve studied him like a book and done so much work and research on him to qualify me for a PhD Thesis. I’ve found his epic journey too compelling to be dismissed like common cynics would do. I came to the conclusion that Africans the world over deserve to know about this remarkable son of the continent and grant him a deserving ovation while he is still very much around with us.
The tales surrounding Chief Igbinedion’s uncommon life should form a special case-study for researchers into African entrepreneurship. His is a classic rise and rise from grass to grace. I shall take you straight into this unusual narrative and attempt to squeeze enough details and juice out of what should normally occupy a 1,000 page biography. Please, sit back, relax and just take in the incredible details.

On September 11, 1934, a baby boy was born to the family of Mr Josiah Agharagbon Oviawe Igbinedion and Mrs Okunozee Igbinedion in the little farming village of Okada. The small boy was named Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion. His father was a Road Overseer while his mum was a fish trader. Gabriel started his primary education at the Catholic Primary School, Okada in 1940. At the age of eight, he lost his father and hero. He moved to Lagos where he struggled to enrol at Eko Boys High School after completing his primary education but lack of funds forced him to return to his village in Okada. At that tender age, he was thus confronted with the harsh realities of Lagos, the heartbeat of Nigeria and the New York of Africa, where life was lived on a roller-coaster.

Back home, and life wasn’t this difficult then, he got employed as a Teacher at Okoro II Primary School in the then Iyeke-Ovia Divisional Council. He later got another job as a Messenger at the former Benin Divisional Council.  Tragedy struck when his mother fell ill and died. His adventurous spirit was ignited from that moment as he had no one to curtail his movement. He joined the Nigeria Police Force in 1959 and trained at the Nigeria Police College, Ikeja, Lagos. The new Constable Gabriel Igbinedion was posted to Ibadan and later to Osogbo. The restless young man resigned on September 9, 1963, as an officer and joined Leventis Motors as a Sales Manager in Ibadan. His salary quadrupled that earned with the Nigeria Police Force. Nothing much has changed there, except probably for the worse. There was the added incentive of commissions on vehicles sold. Life was good and the life of socialising began.

The smart man was soon sent to Benin City to head the Midwest Region office of Leventis Motors. He was extremely good at his job, made good sales and had bountiful rewards. By 1964, he had built properties in Ibadan, Benin City, and bought his first house in South West London at £5,000 only. He earned extra income from representing R. T. Briscoe as Sales Reps on a part-time basis. He ended his employment in 1968 and started his own business empire with Mid-Motors (Nigeria) Limited under a parent company, Okada Group of Companies. His own company took motor sales a notch higher by distributing Mercedes Benz cars, Japanese Hino cars and trucks and Nedion Fiat cars from Poland. The business took off then with barely £2,500 to possess a showroom and one car for display.

In 1972, Igbinedion secured an arrangement with Hino Motors to construct an assembly plant in Nigeria. The shrewd businessman also got the Japanese to train his Nigerian staff in order to cut down on paying heavy wages to expatriates. This created job opportunities for many Nigerians. The man was clearly ahead of his peers. Within six months, the plant was able to assemble hundreds of vehicles, especially trucks and tipper Lorries and the company was smiling to the bank.

Like King Midas, Igbinedion turned everything into gold. His propensity for generating ideas and actualising them became a passion without equal. His blistering foray into business gave birth to diverse ventures that brought him stupendous wealth and fame: Gabdion Motors Limited (1973), Nedac (Nigeria) Limited (1975), Okada Export & Import Company Limited (1975), Cable & Rods Company (Nigeria) Limited (1975), I.B.W. Enterprises (Nigeria) Limited (1975), Okunozee & Igbinedion Holdings (1975), Day & Zimmermann (Nigeria) Limited, now Ovia Farms (Nigeria) Limited (1980), Mako Bottling Plant (Nigeria) Limited (1980), Bala Bottling Plant (Nigeria) Limited (1980), Okada Brewery Limited (1980), Moncrief Oil International Limited (1981), Swede Water (Nigeria) Limited (1986), Okada Wonderland Limited (1987), Okada Tours Limited (1987), La Phamachin (Nigeria) Limited (1988), Crown Corks, Crown Estate Limited, Nigeria Salt Factory, The Telegraph Newspaper, The Speaker Newspaper, Independent Television & Radio etc, all came thereafter.

I deliberately left out his most important company, Okada Airline, which he started in 1983. It would be a great disservice to have lumped what easily became the biggest private airline in Africa, and perhaps the world at that time, with other ventures owned by Chief Igbinedion. The Okada Airline played a pivotal role in the development of transportation in Nigeria and beyond. At its peak, it had close to 40 aircrafts in its fleet. On May 7, 1992, Chief Igbinedion became the first Black man ever to own and operate a Boeing 747 in the entire world.  It is a sad testament to the business climate in Nigeria that the Airline had to fold because of interminable regulatory problems not associated with ssafety.

By far, more than making money, the name Igbinedion has become synonymous with education in Nigeria. This may turn out to be his greatest achievement ever because education is always a permanent investment. Thousands of students have benefitted hugely from his substantial incursion into the field of learning. He and his priceless jewel, Lady Cherry, co-founded the Igbinedion Education Centre in 1990. It comprises of Nursery, Primary and Secondary schools and a Teacher Training Centre. The foundation was laid by His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolor, Oba Erediauwa, CFR, Oba of Benin.

Chief Igbinedion recorded the singular honour of being the first Nigerian to be licensed to establish a private university on May 10, 1999. The Igbinedion University has graduated many lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants, agriculturists and others in diverse disciplines. Chief Igbinedion’s contribution to public health is highly commendable. He built and equipped the Igbinedion Hospital and Medical Centre, Okada, now known as Alayeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade Teaching Hospital.

He is known to offer help and succour regularly to the needy. He is totally detribalised despite being a proud Ambassador of the Benin culture and tradition. He is also a very tolerant man in matters of religion. Being of the Baptist Faith has not stopped him from donating a 4,000 capacity church to the Catholics in Benin. He has even built mosques in many of his own facilities and establishments. Just as with religion, Chief is comfortable with everyone in politics regardless of party affiliation. He believes ethnicity, politics and religion should not separate friends. Though his first son, Chief Lucky Igbinedion was a Governor on the PDP platform, Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State is usually seen at many Igbinedion functions. As a matter of fact, the great Comrade was tasked to take the first Bible reading at Chief’s 80th birthday church service. And the PDP Chairman, former Governor Adamu Muazu, and PDP BOT Chairman, Chief Anthony Anenih led A powerful PDP team to the occasion.

Chief Igbinedion is a style icon who is easily recognisable at home and abroad. I doubt if anyone has ever projected the Benin culture more than him. This has gotten him into trouble several times with dastardly people trying to set the revered Benin monarchy against this worthy Edo son by creating the impression that he impersonates the King which is far from being the truth. There is nothing he treasures after his large family more than his legendary status as a foremost Benin Chief and the prestigious title of The Esama which was bestowed on him by Oba Akenzua II in 1974. He has received over 30 chieftaincy titles from varied kingdoms as well as honorary doctorate degrees from various universities at home and abroad.

The proud family man is richly gifted with well-educated children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The minimum standard he sets for them is a Master’s Degree. As he prepared for his 80th birthday, Chief invited all his children to a memorable reunion on August 8, 2014, where they got introduced to one another and bonded well to the happiness of all. He and his adorable wife Lady Cherry invited the children’s spouses as well. The following day, Sir Gabriel and Lady Cherry invited all of them again to visit their ancestral home in Okada. Chief is exceptionally blessed with an understanding and totally caring woman in Lady Cherry. The family climaxed the beautiful reunion with the thanksgiving worship at God’s Historic Chapel situated within the vast compound of the Garden of Eden Home of The Igbinedions.

There is no man without blemish in life. Like all mortals, Chief Igbinedion has his own foibles but his many positive sides and good deeds have helped in obliterating whatever shortcomings he may have. He tells everyone who cares to listen that he is not a perfect man but as a Christian, he seeks God’s purification and forgiveness by serving his creator with all his heart and extending his unconditional love to all of mankind. This is the abridged story of the oracular character known globally as a human phenomenon.

I am proud and privileged to be closely acquainted with Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, his Rock of Gibraltar, Lady Cherry, their children and extended family, and to be counted among their friends.
I invite you to join me in raising a toast to the Oak Tree at 80…

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