This Saturday, January 15, 2022, Mark’s 56 years since Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh was killed during the first coup in Nigeria.
To mark the occasion, Dr. Mrs Dere Awosika (with some of her siblings) is launching the nine stories Okotie Eboh Overlook Condominiums built on the grounds of the former estate of their father, Chief Festus Samuel Okotie Eboh, one of Nigeria’s most prominent historical figures and the country’s first and longest running Finance Minister.
By CHIEF BROWN MENE
PREAMBLE: Born in 1912, this year (2022) makes it 110 years ago. Assassinated in 1966, this year makes that to be 56 years ago. He lived for only 54 years (1912-1966). That means that a child born when he was assassinated would today have lived longer than he did. It could easily be surmised that his life was short, albeit only in relative terms. The essence and significance of life here, however, is neither the longevity nor the brevity of it but the quality of that life, as defined by the value(s) it contributed to the improvement of life and living for all and sundry in the course of the said life.
The colossus: The impact of Chief Okotie-Eboh’s life was so widely pervasive that the effect on our national life remains very visible today. Omimi is the Itsekiri word for waves. One can vividly recall that in the early 1950s, his car in Sapele was known by most people that when the horn was sounded, people (especially children) would chant Omimi in excitement and admiration. It was because of the massive impact he was known to be making on people’s lives in those days. He was just about 40 years old then. Although he was assassinated 56 years ago when he was only 54 years of age, he is still alive and by the grace of God, will continue to be while Nigeria remains. This is because of the undeniable contributions he made in the founding and building of this nation.
They are pillars that have remained and on which the country stands as a modern and developing economy. They are legacies which cannot be ignored. We remember him today and always in order to draw inspiration not only to confront the challenges of the present but also to have an expanding vision that stretches far beyond the moment and our immediate surroundings.
As we back-tract a little for us to see something of the profile of this man, we will better appreciate that politics and being in government did not make this man but that he already had a lot which he brought into politics and being in government. He was an added value to our politics and national development.
An astute businessman and industrialist: Before he became a front runner and an outstanding contributor in Nigerian politics, he was already a flourishing businessman, industrialist and benefactor to many. He already had long-standing business contacts and associates at home and abroad. That far back, his vision was already bigger than just Nigeria. His was the dream of the Nigeria with a pride of place in Africa and on the global scene. No wonder he named his company Afro-Nigerian Export And Import Company Limited. Africa was very much in his vision.
That was the company by which he exported Ribbed Smoked Sheets, RSS, rubber to several places in Europe, Canada and the United States of America. He later expanded that to include the production of processed rubber crepe as increased value-added product from otherwise rubber scraps and lumps which were previously only wastes to be thrown away. He later added a shoe production factory. Apart from providing employment for Nigerians, he was contributing to the Gross Domestic Products, GDP, of the country. He was a net exporter.
What he imported were only industrial machines and spares and some industrial inputs for what would be produced and exported afterwards. The only expatriates he employed for the factories were engineers from the builders of the machines and they were to train Nigerians on the job to eventually replace them. Apart from raising the country’s GDP as already indicated above, his business helped to tilt the balance of trade in favour of our country. He also generated revenue to government coffers through the payment of export and excise duties.
An early provider for manpower development: Before he went into politics at the national level, he also had founded schools for the education of Nigerians. He had primary schools at two separate locations, and at the secondary level, he had two as well. His vision was for the Nigerian and the African to be proud of their own. When apartheid was the political system in South Africa, he made his contribution towards dismantling it by offering employment to indigenous South Africans to teach in his post-primary schools. He also gave employment to African-Americans when racial discrimination against them was still rife in their country.
One has to say here that Dr.Nnamdi Azikiwe was his mentor, particularly in his dream to see sons and daughters of Africa everywhere to stand tall and strong. No wonder that he named one of his post- primary schools after him. This was Zik’s College of Commerce, ZCC, which later became Zik’s Academy, ZA, when he upgraded it to a co-educational secondary school. The other one was the Academy Grammar School which was later renamed Okotie-Eboh Grammar School long after he was assassinated. If he were alive today, he would, no doubt, have beamed with joy and pride to see the several national and international notables who came from his schools and have risen to prominence in the professions, academia, the business world and in politics.
There have been medical practitioners, professors, engineers, Generals and several others in this regard. He could also have founded a university to further extend the frontiers of his quest to contribute to our human capacity development. One can tell that he made no money from the schools but was subsidising them by having several of their major costs underwritten from his companies. Chief Okotie-Eboh helped to build Nigeria and the positive multiplier effects are still very visible around us. This man was certainly neither a leech nor a drain but a notable contributor to the building of this nation, worthy of some befitting honour done to him by this country. That honour is yet to come.
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In politics and in governance: He brought the assets of creativity and visionary leadership into politics and into governance. Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN, (of blessed memory) stated at a gathering in Sapele over 10 years ago, where I was also present, that Chief Okotie-Eboh was the treasurer of their party, the NCNC, and that much of the time, he made major financial contributions from his personal resources for the benefit of their party. Although he was Federal Minister of Labour and Welfare in 1957 when we were in the closing years of colonial Nigeria, he served longer and did more for Nigeria as Federal Minister of Finance. What he achieved in that office for Nigeria are in many fronts, the legacies of which are still to our national pride and will still be so into the foreseeable future.
As he reminisced in that same gathering referred to above, Chief Akinjide described Chief Okotie-Eboh as the go-getter of the cabinet of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He related the instance of when there was the plan to build what was to become Eko Bridge. At that time there was no oil money in Nigeria.
The bridge was considered and agreed to be necessary for our development, but there was no money to build it. He said all eyes turned to Chief Okotie-Eboh who then agreed to use his foreign connections to source for the loan to build it. He said that was what ultimately led him to Germany (West Germany as it then was) where the government agreed but on the condition that they would provide the construction firm to build it. He said that was how the now well known Julius Berger came into Nigeria, their first job being the construction of Eko Bridge. Chief Okotie-Eboh played his part for Nigeria and the bridge was built and it is still serving Nigeria.
Although it was during the time of the military regime when the bridge was built, many Nigerians did not know that the overthrown government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa did make and concluded the arrangement for it beforehand. Some of us got to know that the Ikorodu Road in its present profile (without the BRT lane) was also as planned by them. So was the East-West Road planned by them that long ago. Only the East Wing of it – Effurun to Port Harcourt – that has been under construction for a long while now.
The West Wing of it – from Koko in Delta State to Lekki in Lagos State – is still a mirage. Who knows whether if the spirit of Balewa + Okotie-Eboh had continued and prevailed, we would have had them completed already! This should also be food for thought and for action.
As Federal Minister of Finance, Chief Okotie-Eboh restructured the Nigerian Customs unit of that ministry. It then went beyond their sitting at ports to collect export and import duties. What was known then as the Preventive Services was created to confront, combat and prevent smuggling so that our local industries would be protected. As Federal Minister of Finance, Chief Okotie-Eboh was the one who introduced the Pay As You Earn, PAYE, system of taxation into Nigeria.
He presented the Bill that was passed by parliament to become the law. Today, the working class, through this system, are the most faithful tax payers in the country and the governments have found it an efficient and cost-effective method of personal income tax collection.
First set of Nigerian currency: As Federal Minister of Finance, Chief Okotie-Eboh saw to it that independent Nigeria should issue her own currency. The logical extension of that was that Nigeria should also have her own Central Bank instead of continuing as part of the then West African Currency Board as the issuers of our currency. That is how the Central Bank of Nigeria was founded in 1958. Apart from the pioneer Governor who was an expatriate, the others on the board and co-signatories on the banknotes were all Nigerians and they were all appointed by the minister. Chief Okotie-Eboh can be rightly described as the founding father of the Central Bank of Nigeria, FOFACBN.
The first set of Nigerian currency was released on July 1,1959 in readiness for our independence the following year. Some local musicians in the then Western Region waxed a song, part of which said: Okotie-Eboh gb’owotutun de; meaning: “Okotie-Eboh has introduced new money”.
He set the broad strokes and took the giant strides to see that they were produced in good time, quality and standard to raise the profile of Nigeria in that regard. Like the visionary leader that he was, Chief Okotie-Eboh was not pleased to have our currency produced abroad when we could do so at home and provide employment for Nigerians and grow local expertise in that exclusive preserve with very limited spread world-wide. He took appropriate steps and shopped around this exclusive preserves abroad to find well reputed experts who would partner with Nigeria to make his vision come true for Nigeria.
That was how the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company Limited was established in 1963 with Thomas De La Rue of Britain which already had about 150 years track record of expertise in this field as the Technical Partners in this venture. As reported in the special publication in 1988 to mark the silver jubilee of the Mint, the foundation stone of the “factory was laid by the First President of Nigeria, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe on April 14, 1964. At the ceremony, the Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh declared: “This is a memorable occasion of which all Nigerians should be justly proud. We are laying the foundation stone of an organisation which will be second to none in Africa. I take deep personal interest in the project because it is the first of its kind in an independent African country.’”
That organisation has performed as was envisaged by Chief Okotie-Eboh. So are other ones put in place for Nigeria by this visionary man of enterprise and drive. The Mint was established as a profit making commercial enterprise and it operated as such. Being part of the top management of that company for several years, I knew that the Mint was not among those that were receiving subvention from government but was actually paying handsome dividends to the Federal Government every year.
Before the Mint was 25 years, it had become the foremost security printers in Africa. In many respects, that institution rose to do Nigeria proud not only in Africa but very much so when we had stood among such organisations in Europe and America.
The Nigeria Stock Exchange, et al: Under his watch, what is now the Nigeria Stock Exchange was started in 1960 as the Lagos Stock Exchange, LSE. We know too that as at now the Nigeria stock Exchange, NSE, has since risen to become a player in the global market. He also led in the founding of the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank, NIDB, from which we now have Bank of Industry.
Raised to the heights but with feet firm on the ground: Many there are who quickly forget the ground level when they have been raised to the heights. It was never so with Chief Festus Sam Okotie-Eboh. He mingled freely with the high and mighty, so to speak, as he did with lowly, without pretence.
When the occasion demanded it, he naturally exuded pride in presenting himself in flamboyant Itsekiri cultural outfit without being vain, conceited or vulgar in so doing.
He could also be unashamedly simple and ordinary in his conduct that would make even the lowly to feel at home with him. Even when in the heights, he still had feet firmly on good old “tera firma”. He was a down-to-earth realist with a golden heart for the good of others.
Nigeria still owes this man the honour due him: He was assassinated 56 years ago but these and many other things he achieved for Nigeria have remained. How else could anyone have worked to build his nation for him be honoured, even if in posthumous timing, than as Chief Okotie-Eboh has done?
He gave Nigeria her first set of currency. He was the founding father of the Central Bank of Nigeria, the issuing authority of our currency. He founded the Mint that produces our currency (and other security documents). Since he was assassinated in 1966, we have had almost 10 issues (including re-issues) of our currency but not once did the nation ever think to honour this man who did so much with regard to the currency of this nation.
Some of us had long thought that having issued banknotes with the portraits of demised past heads of governments; we would get to the pioneer Federal Minister of Finance who had done so much for his country especially in that field. It was not so done. The Federal Government actually skipped him, most probably unwittingly but certainly ignominously, and portrayed demised previous governors of the Central Bank and breaking the order of precedence by so doing.
We have even preferred to portray nameless people (on our N50 note) to this man who did so much for the country. What wrong did he ever do to this nation to deserve this high level of ignominy? Whoever knows in government (past or present) should please tell the nation.
The Central Bank Building in Abuja could have been named after him but no one who could and should have done so appears to have risen yet. When we sing that: “The labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain”, what do we really mean if it is not to honour people such as Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh? At the risk of unwittingly rattling those who might be uncomfortable with it but unjustifiably so, the inevitable question is this: If Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh had been an Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba man, would his labours for this nation have been without commensurate recognition and honour?
It is quite ironic when one thinks of it. The Nigeria Okotie-Eboh contributed to building knew no such prejudice. He was an Itsekiri man but that was not a disadvantage in his day. It should never be in any of our days.
On a final note: The point must be made here as I had done before, that nothing is meant to blame or to condemn. It is only intended to remind the nation to do what is right and proper and that by so doing; we will thus demonstrate that the labours of our heroes past (or present) shall really not be allowed to be in vain.
As we honour our past heroes, we inspire the living to heroic acts in our joint efforts at building the nation we shall be proud to be part of and to which we shall always give our best even sacrificially for that purpose.
God bless Nigeria today and always.