By Omololu Ogunmade
In Quest of Perpetuity, the biographical sketch of one of Nigeria’s early and foremost business magnates, Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu, is a sad reminder of how a great and notable Nigerian who once bestrode the country’s economic landscape like a colossus has been completely forgotten.
Authored by Ifeze, a missionary teacher and nephew of the late Odumegwu, In Quest of Perpetuity, captures the life of Odumegwu Ojukwu, the father of the late Biafran warlord, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, from a humble background in Nnewi, in the then Eastern Region of Nigeria to his eventual rise to prominence.
Odumegwu’s journey to stardom was the offshoot of a little education platform laid by his mother, Ukonwa, a princess, and his consequent hard work and determination to succeed. Ukonwa’s commitment to get her son educated was the aftermath of her long period of barrenness which followed her marriage to Ojukwu Eze-Okigbo.
This period of her barrenness led to Eze-Okigbo’s decision to marry a second wife who gave birth to three sons in quick succession and thus denied Odumegwu, who was later conceived as Ukonwa’s first son, the opportunity to emerge as the heir apparent to the heritage of his industrious father.
Having lost his place to his older half brothers who were born during the period of his mother’s barrenness, Odumegwu’s place in his father’s heritage was only to tender the sheep, an assignment which gave his mother a huge concern as she pondered the prospects of her son’s future in animal rearing.
Concerned therefore by the fate of her son, Ukonwa believed that Odumegwu’s only hope of a meaningful future would lie in the acquisition of education which at the time could only be drawn from existing mission schools. In the same vein, this was the period that attending mission schools was unpopular among local people in the then colonial Igbo setting.
Nevertheless, Ukonwa’s passion for her son’s promising future propelled her to make secret arrangements for Odumegwu to attend the mission school in Umudim without her husband’s knowledge. Though a purely stark illiterate, but with a hind of foresight, she was convinced in her own perspective that Odumegwu would be successful if only he could acquire education, which albeit was not fashionable at the time.
So, she secretly sent him to a Roman Catholic Mission School in Okwenu, Umudim, a village in Nnewi, in present day Anambra State where Odumegwu was re-christened Louis Philip. Odumegwu, in accordance with her mother’s arrangement, would exploit the opportunity of the moment he ought to be on the field tending sheep to be in school until the cat was let out of the bag when his father heard him being addressed as Louis Philip one day. This discovery put paid to that hope of educational pursuit as his father banned him from returning to the school.
Born in 1909, Odumegwu’s journey back to school later began, when his mother who was engaged in the business of palm produce exchange in Umunede, across River Niger, in present day Delta State, with the United African Company (UAC), struck a deal with a Scottish and UAC Commercial Manager, McIntosh, who, upon seeing Ukonwa coming to the Umunede often with Odumegwu, offered to be his guardian with a promise to send the boy to school.
Ukonwa quickly embraced the idea and succeeded in convincing her husband to endorse the plan. Ojukwu, according to the author, consented to Ukonwa’s demand because of his love for her, and consequently, Odumegwu went to live with McIntosh and was enrolled in Government School, Asaba.
He was yet in the school when his father, Ojukwu, passed on in 1922. Nevertheless, Odumegwu carried on with his study in Government School, Asaba, and proceeded from there to Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar, the only secondary school in the East of Niger at the time and graduated in 1928 at the age of 19.
Again, Odumegwu was in school when he heard the tragic news of the death of his visionary and progressive-minded mother, which greatly devastated him. Following his graduation at Hope Waddell, he was deployed to the Department of Agriculture in Badagry, Lagos in Western Nigeria in 1929. He spent only a brief period in the department before opting to join John Holt Brothers as junior clerk.
His new job gave him the opportunity to set up his own business, Ojukwu Stores in Onitsha, where textiles were sold to Igbo traders who hitherto had to travel from the East to Lagos to purchase textiles. Odumegwu later saw greater prospects in transport business, and hence, formed Ojukwu Transport Limited, to serve as a transport platform to Igbo traders between Lagos and the shores of River Niger.
In a short while, the company flourished and Odumegwu soon dominated business in Lagos until he became a household name. The famous Akintola Williams, reputed as the first chartered accountant in Nigeria, would later owe his rise into the limelight to his early contact with Odumegwu in 1950 after he returned to Nigeria from London where he had studied Accountancy.
Odumegwu who at the time had become a renowned industrialist in Lagos, introduced Williams to a number of companies which engaged him as their auditor, a move which saw Williams rise to enviable height in auditing business till date.
The success of Ojukwu Transport Limited revealed the business acumen in Ojukwu, to such an extent that every notable company in Lagos, then sought to court him. Thus, Odumegwu soon became the chairman of several companies in Nigeria to such an extent that when the Nigeria Coal Corporation (NCC) was formed in 1959, the then colonial government could not find a better choice as its chairman than Odumegwu and hence, wrote him a letter, stating that the only concern it had about appointing him as NCC chairman was his chairmanship of several companies at the time.
Hence, the colonial government urged him to relinquish some of his chairmanship positions to enable them offer him the chairmanship of NCC, a suggestion he rejected, saying if NCC had found him worthy to chair the company, there was no reason doubting his efficiency because of numerous engagements.
Upon the advent of Lagos Stock Exchange (LSE) later, now known as Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), Odumegwu became the first chairman. He also became the life Vice President of Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Among the companies he chaired were Nigeria National Shipping Line, Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation, Nigeria Cement Company, Lion of Africa, the first insurance company in West Africa, Nigeria Marketing Board, African Continental Bank, among others. He was also a director of several companies including Shell, Costain, African Development Corporation, and the like.
His business fame went beyond the shores of Nigeria as he became a dominant force in the then British colonial empire which earned him the medals of Member of British Empire (MBE) in 1947, Officer of British Empire (OBE) in 1952 and in 1960, he was conferred with a British knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II. He was chosen to represent the Nigerian government at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in Great Britain in 1953.
Odumegwu lived in affluence, so much that when Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria in 1956, it was his exotic car that was found worthy as a loan to the colonial British government to convey her around. His uncommon and classified edifice, tagged Eastern House, in Ikoyi, Lagos was a harbour for white folks where he received governors-general, regional governors, British ministers, ambassadors and the like.
The author, Revd. Ifeanyichukwu Obi, whose pen name is Ifeze, while describing his riches and prosperity, remarked: “While there were many possible millionaires in Nigeria at Sir Odumegwu’s time, he was arguably the wealthiest.”
Odumegwu who later divested from Ojukwu Transport Limited, invested heavily in stocks and real estate and acquired countless numbers of assets in various parts of Lagos.
But Odumegwu passed on in 1966, at the height of his fame and prosperity, at the age of 57, following the political debacle at the time which later resulted in the secession move by the Igbo led by his second son, Emeka, the then military Governor of Eastern Region.
According to the book, Odumegwu strove hard to ensure amicable resolution of the face-off between the Eastern military government and the Nigerian federal government. He was opposed to the idea of secession being championed by his son because he was conscious of his several investments in Lagos which would be lost should the Igbo secede from Nigeria.
He died of heart attack on September 13, 1966, a day after he visited the Government House in Enugu to see the military governor and his son, Emeka. Odumegwu’s death appeared to have resulted from the way he was treated by the military government led by his son. On September 12, 1966, he had gone to see Emeka, in his quest to further advise against secession in company of his wife and another son, Lotana. But he was kept waiting by his son for so long up till about 10pm, an act which startled him.
The author recalled the words of his son, Lotana, who was in the company. According to him, he did not utter a word to anyone on their way back from the Government House to Nkalagu where they passed the night. Thus, by 3am that same night, he suffered heart attack which he had earlier suffered thrice in the past and by 6am the following day, Odumegwu gave up the ghost.
The event which led to his death was not his only ordeal in Government House. The author also narrated how upon entering into Government House in Enugu, he was not accorded the honour and dignity deserved by the father of the military governor as his vehicle was thoroughly searched at the gate and when a relative drew the attention of his son to such perceived humiliation, Emeka, a history graduate in Oxford University before joining the Nigerian Army, simply warned him: “Stay off military matters.”
Although Emeka later recovered some of his father’s assets from the government after the civil war of 1967 – 1970, his innumerable assets were seized by the Nigerian government because they were owned by the father of a secession leader. Some of the assets were also seized by the Lagos State Government while some individuals cornered others and remained in their custody till date.