By CHARLES KUMOLU
THIS encounter gives valuable insight into the life of the Chairman of Autobahn-Techniques, Dr. Alban Ofili-Okonkwo. Though not someone, who cherishes being in the limelight, he tells his story as a multi-talented company CEO, ingenious social entrepreneur, and astute business personality. Often described as a thinker, he is credited with many ideas one of which is the KEKE NAPEP. Certainly, the story of Ofili-Okonkwo, who has never worked for anyone since graduating from University of Bening ,UNIBEN, .in the 1970s, is useful in this society where many seek promising direction.
In the beginning:
Calm looks and infectious smiles. These distinguishing features welcome you at a glance.
His soft voice charms you as he courteously introduces himself thus: “Hello, I am Ofili-Okonkwo.”
Still beaming the smiles that could disarm any vicious person, he apologised for the two-hour delay at starting the interview attributing it to an earlier appointment.
Like his mien, the ambiance of the venue of this chat, an upscale hotel in Ikoyi, was nothing but relaxed on that Thursday afternoon.
The meeting was long in coming, as he had earlier been considered a guest for this column last year but for whatever reason, efforts at having an appointment with him yielded no result.
However, when the opportunity came to speak to him this year on a different issue, it was seized as an avenue to kill two birds with a stone.
Interestingly, he obliged to the request of having the chat two-pronged.
And he did keep to his words after the first phase of the conversation, as he narrates the story of Ofli-Okonkwo the serial entrepreneur, innovator, wealth creator and bridge builder.
His, is a journey that commenced with his birth in Jos in the defunct northern region where his formative years were spent.
“I was born into a middle-class family in the north, Jos precisely. That was where I started my education. We later moved to Kano” he said.
Like most of his southern peers, who were in northern Nigeria during his formative years, Ofili-Okonwo had his stay cut short by the progrom leading to the Nigerian Civil War.
From Kano to Asaba
It was a historical episode that saw him relocating from Kano to his home town, Asaba.
“I was just entering secondary school in Kano when the war started in 1966. That was how I first came to the South and the war met us there, “Ofili-Okonkwo added.
Like most Asaba indigenes, who witnessed the Nigeria Civil War as adults and minors with cognitive memory, he recalled thus:” I remember that I was in the south and there was a progrom, the Asaba massacre in which many people were killed. We recently celebrated the 50th memorial and I was fortunate to be the chairman of the event. It was quite an experience for me. It is from that background that I grew.”
Continuing, he said: “I grew with a father, who also thought us that there is no lesser human being. He thought us that everyone created by God should be treated with respect. We grew up not being be boastful by saying do you know who I am? My father often referred to a section of the Bible which says that even a fingernail that is cut off cannot be replaced. We grew up not being boastful. It was such that as a child we could not hit anybody and say do you know who I am?
”I don’t like being in the limelight, I just like to stay in the background and be the normal human being that I am created to be. I am comfortable in my skills. My greatest joy is when I am able to interact with people by sharing their joy and share their tribulation. And when I am able to help, I do that in an enormous way so that my identity will not be revealed. If I want to help, I will go to a corner and make my contributions.
Blessed by destiny
”Again, my father thought me that if one is blessed by destiny, it means that God has made that person a pipeline for those in need. Everything one has is a gift of destiny. That is why the air which is the most valuable resource of life is free. It is not just about acquiring wealth and heading to the banks. It is about helping those at the lower level of the society.
” My worldview was shaped by those kinds of modest things I learnt from my father. And it can tell who I am. I have done business with the Federal Government and in the corporate circles. What stands me out is my belief. I can stand up for my belief and it makes me a difficult man in some circles. I believe that if I compromise on my own values, it means I am committing suicide. I find it very easy unlike most people to hold onto my beliefs firmly. A lot of people will stigmatize me for that because Nigeria has become a wayward country. People who stand up for their beliefs are stigmatized and I am one of them. But I will live and die for of my beliefs because that is what I have chosen. That we took those, who would have been armed robbers out of the streets through KEKE, gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Sense of joy
Interestingly, the value-based upbringing he had has kept him on track since he left UNIBEN in the 1970s to the extent that he built a successful indigenous firm, Autobahn Techniques without working for anyone.
Another side of Okonkwo-Ofili that could be found amazing is that unlike many Nigerians of his social status, he doesn’t consider himself-super human as a result of his wealth. To him, being wealthy is not the same as being an achiever.
He explained achievement thus: ”There were junctures that defined my life. They were my marriage, my children’s births, and others. But in terms of contribution, there was a sense of joy in me when I persuaded the government of Obasanjo to buy into KEKE NAPEP concept. I looked at the growing populace at the bottom of the society, who have no education and no skill. Because they have no skill, they have no means of sustenance. That made the society to stigmatize them as area boys. I was able to convert this legion of idle youths into a productive workforce. That is how I conceived the KEKE idea and took it to Obasanjo. I did the cash-flow because one does not need to go to school to drive the KEKE.
On making profit
” I told him that if we key into it, we will start teaching them how to save when they start making profit. All they needed to know is that they cannot sustain themselves if they don’t save. We did it in the language they understood. For example, if the person made N5000, he can save N4000. If the person is extravagant he can save N3000. We did that and it gave me a lot of satisfaction. Obasanjo accepted the idea. What we did was taking a handful of people and planted something in their head to make them productive.
”With KEKE, area boys were taken out of the streets. Today, statistics indicate that we have more than 1.5 million KEKE across Nigeria. I told Obasanjo, that with the cash-flow, if we are able to sustain it, KEKE will become successful because it is a free market. Today, from Kontongora to Awka and other places, you will find KEKE there. We have so many templates like the Phase 1, Phase 2 and I-Work. At the moment we have moved into other African countries with I-Work and we have multilateral companies talking to us. Why can’t we implement it here?
A difficult person
”The reason is because Nigerian governments are using it as sub-heads to steal money. And when you say no, you become a difficult person. People can steal what they steal but the poor at the bottom of the pyramid should be considered.
That people still want to steal when many are suffering, questions the sense of mercy and altruism of leaders. Can’t there be a decision to give a fraction of the commonwealth to the forgotten ones in the society? This society has become so ugly. That is why I said that people, with a sense of compassion, should come up with a new narrative that can better this society. It gives me a lot of satisfaction recalling that I put a lot into it. It is a success and everywhere I go to, people recognise the fact that I brought KEKE into this country.
I have a Fulani friend I respect a lot, who invited me to Adamawa where the KEKE people showed love to me.
Everywhere I go, it is like that. KEKE people are my family.
Fundamental junctures of my life
“The KEKE story is one of the fundamental junctures of my life. I don’t want to stop there. I am trying to see where I can do more to help this society. And I hope we will inject ideas that are transformational so that we can get young people to occupy the Nigerian space.
”I believe in preparation. I believe in inspiration. I believe that people can have their icons, who they copy. I encourage people a lot because I believe in humanity but I have never called myself a mentor. Mentoring means that people who know me even without talking to me will want to be like me. I have never thought of myself in that regard. I encourage people.
“Sometime in 1998, I started a Non-Governmental Organisation, NGO, called Ayni Bu Ofu which means we are one. And I remember that one of the tenets of Anyi Bu Ofu is that all men created by God under the sun are brothers. We also had one that says that it was a duty for all those who are blessed by destiny to use their gift in the aide of their fellow men. I also said that if we ignore politics to face our businesses and live our private lives, that same politics will destroy our businesses and private lives. I also talked about the needs of the society. Since that time till now, those things define the person I am.”