By Chuks Iloegbunam
From Monday, the narrative continues with how Governor Obi handled a visit by some rude Onitsha park officials, displaying uncommon tolerance which defines him as a humble and effective leader
He was wearing a smile but, knowing him, it was obvious that his bile had been stoked. Outside, the Governor’s security detail, including even his aide-de-camp, started hailing Ezeweruka, calling him Pawa ka pawa – the Power that surpasses power. They obviously knew him. Beaming, the super-powerful man dipped a hand into the pocket of his traditional jumper and out came a wad of mint-fresh bank notes, which he proceeded to spray on his cheerers.
Well-meaning people rallied to the government’s side. One of them was Mr. Sylvester Odife, Jnr. Following the footsteps of his father, Mr. Sylvester Odife, Snr, who had founded the Anambra State Amalgamated Traders Association, ASMATA, in 1956, he had been the Chairman of the Onitsha Main Market Association. He had known Peter Obi who was three years his junior at the CKC. And he was all for giving to Caesar his due and to God, His due as well. These guys were of immense assistance.
In two weeks, Ezeweruka realised where the real power resided. With abundant detachment of Army troops and police officers, Anambra retrieved all of its parks from the parasites that had, for decades, captured and harvested resources therefrom. The Pawa ka pawa himself fled Anambra State and became an internal exile in Enugu State. It took close to six months before the fear of many things allowed him to step on Anambra soil again. And, when he returned, he left Onitsha parks well alone. E get as Onitsha be!
The point of these stories is that Peter Obi’s voice and gentle mien belie the steel in him. He meets an Igwe (traditional ruler) and bows to greet him, intoning Igweeeee! He meets a prelate and bows to salute them, kissing his ring. Once he thinks a man is older than him, he never forgets to add “Sir” in addressing the person.
On the first day I met him, he addressed me alternately as Uncle Chuks and Oga Chuks. Through the five years I was in his government and even up till next tomorrow, he still so addresses me. I thought it was incongruous for a Governor to be addressing his appointee as Oga but he didn’t want to know; so I put the matter in the back burner. But everything has an explanation, some of which may not be easily or comprehensively identified.
In the case of Peter Obi, placing a finger of the factors that encapsulate him calls into play the Igbo saying that: To find the hand that stabbed another to death, the smith that molded the knife must be identified. The true Peter Obi is straight out of his background. His parents were Mr. Josephat and Mrs. Agnes Obi from Agulu in Anaocha Local Government Area of Anambra State. In Hebrew, Josephat means, Yahweh will Add Another Son. Yahweh gave the couple seven sons.
In fact, the couple scored just one short of a soccer team in procreation, all of them born in Onitsha where the Obis resided. In seniority, this is the order in which their children were born: (1) Dominic. (2) Bibiana (Mrs. Adani, deceased). (3) Iraneus (deceased). (4) Martina (Reverend Sister). (5) Damian. (6) Peter. (7) Fabian (Reverend Father). (8) Francis (US-based medical doctor). (9) Agnes – who was named after the mother, but is better known as Mama Chioma (Mrs. Okoye), and Ndibe (the boss of Next International).
Before the civil war the family lived at Nwosu Lane in Odoakpu, Onitsha. At the cessation of hostilities, they moved to 98, Modebe Avenue where the family owned a supermarket. The house was a two-storey building. The ground floor had the NADO Supermarket. The first floor housed a restaurant. The top floor was the living quarters of the family where each of the children lived in a separate room.
Peter attended the Sancta Maria Primary School right inside the grounds of what is now the Holy Trinity Basilica. Damian was at the adjoining Holy Trinity Primary School. Each school day they walked some 15 minutes to school, Damian in his white shirt and brown shorts uniform, Peter also in white shirt but red shorts.
After school, they mostly didn’t go home together. Damian played good football and will stay back with other soccer addicts to enjoy themselves. Peter wasn’t keen on the ball game. His main interest, even in that early stage of his life, was business, aspects of which will be discussed shortly.
Because both parents were traders, or businesspeople, as today’s fad dictates that people in their profession should be described, all the Obi children are also traders, including those that have taken the holy orders. This is because they were of a home where life revolved around the church, the school, and the shop. Apart from Martina, Fabian and Francis, all others are into business; none ever bothered to seek paid employment anywhere. But trading is ingrained in them all, including the nun, the priest, and the doctor, whether or not they advertise that trait.
Just as people describe Enugu as a Civil Service town, Onitsha is the Traders’ town. Another name for Onitsha is Market. Apart from the Main Market, which is the biggest market in West Africa, every Onitsha street is a market in its own right. The entire landscape is dotted with shops and stalls. In fact, almost every compound has shop or a marketer with wares on a table facing the street.
No one grew up in such an environment without knowing the ropes of entrepreneurship. Most of the kids brought up in Onitsha in those days were all traders first before anything else, even if they later turned out to train as forensic psychologists or became consultant anesthetists. The business texture of Onitsha is mainly thanks to the lordly River Niger and the entrepreneurial Igbo spirit.
Peter’s propensity for buying and selling manifested when he was at Christ the King College, Onitsha. When he collected his school fees, which he did on the first day of a new term, he didn’t pay it straight to the school but first used it as capital for trading, making gains before meeting his monetary obligation to the school. By the time he got to Form Three, he was already into inter-regional trade.
He will often take a bus that took him across the Niger Bridge into Asaba from where he travelled another 82 kilometres to Agbor. At Agbor, there was a farm where he purchased eggs by the crates and at bargain prices. Back in Onitsha, the eggs were delivered to a lady who ran an eatery close to the CKC.
Every morning, students and workers lined up and bought sandwiches or yam or plantain or potatoes and fried eggs. By mid-month when most were already broke, they bought their meals and their takeaways on credit. Peter had a large notebook in which every customer’s debt was recorded. Once the month ended, no debtor feigned surprise at seeing Peter in front of his door early in the morning to get paid what he was owed.
Before leaving secondary school, he had started travelling to the United Kingdom to buy wares, which he sold to students and through outlets in the markets. On one occasion, he went to London and returned with a TV set he installed in his room at Modebe Street. Friends visited him soon after, and as they watched a programme on the box, one of them professed love for the set. Peter immediately offered it for sale, defeated its power supply and yanked off the mains’ wire.
He put the TV back in the carton in which it had arrived. The friend left with the television, Peter pocketed his money, his profit. Within the month, he had done another trip to London and come home with many of the TV sets, one for his room, the others for sale. At that time, a Lagos-London-Lagos flight ticket cost no more than N150. The Naira enjoyed parity with the Pound Sterling.
When Peter gained admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, eyebrows were raised in quarters that didn’t fully understand. They thought it was a joke. They believed his rightful destination was the Main Market, or a supermarket of his own. They were wrong because they knew not the high degree of importance that Ndigbo attach to education. It will surprise people to discover that a lot of the “rustic” Igbo traders seen all over the place rendering English with heavy accents are, in fact, university graduates.
Peter stayed at Nsukka through four years to earn a degree in Philosophy. But he was more at home travelling overseas and importing goods that he sold. That was how it came about that as an undergraduate, he owned a Peugeot 504 while many a student worried about where their next school fees would come from.
The 504 then sold at less than N5,000. After his freshman year, Peter no longer saw the point in sharing dormitory spaces with fellow students inside the Zik’s Flats, and Awolowo Hall, and Azikiwe Hall etc., on the campus. He went into provincial Nsukka and rented himself a flat.
There is another trait of the Igbo trader that Peter readily imbibed early in life. The typical Igbo trader believes in the saying that: “The snail passes through thorns by the use of a sweet tongue.” If a customer came to your shop and severely underpriced your product, you would not get offended if you were Igbo.
Iloegbunam, an author, wrote via:[email protected]