By Valentine Obienyem
We can hardly forget those that play critical roles in our lives. As a young Seminarian in 1988, Rev. Fr. Dr Collins Okeke as our Auxiliary (then a Seminarian), came bubbling with philosophy, being a fresh graduate of philosophy at the time. He is intelligent and everybody knows that. He has a peculiar predilection to imparting knowledge to people.
As one desirous of acquiring knowledge, I carried a notepad and biro always to catch ideas that are in constant flight. My old, secondary school notes are full of what I then considered words of wisdom from the likes of Msgr Sylvester Mgbemful, Fr. Collins Okeke, Bishop Jonas Benson Okoye, Fr. Ekwenibe, among others. I even jotted some of their English expressions that caught my fancy. They also contain flashes from renowned philosophers and authors.
I can still recall by heart some of the expressions I garnered from Fr. Collins. Shall we sample him? Speaking on man, Collins would always say that “Man is both a dynamic and historical being, he retrospects into the past, projects into the future so as to make a better present”. From him, we also heard that “Man is a being of unfinished and unrefined nature, whose most excruciating problem is himself. He spends his time in the world trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, striving to make a nature which has been mercilessly immersed in disequilibrium to be at equipoise”. He also told us that “Man is a Spatio-temporal being and a constant slave to imperfection”. Collins would define freedom contrary to how we then understood it as “what defines man’s place in the hierarchy of material being”. It is also “the ability to control the soul from the pangs of irrational desires”.
But what is the connection of Mr. Peter Obi to the young Collins of the 1980s who was, among others, displaying his philosophical erudition? Is this piece on Obi or “Romanticisation On Collins Okeke?” Looking at the wise and philosophical expressions from the cornucopia of Collin’s mind, one would see that he was perhaps representing the very life of the first two-term Governor of Anambra State and the Vice-Presidential Candidate of the PDP in the 2019 elections, Mr. Peter Obi who turned 60 years today.
Those of us who have followed his life closely for some two decades now understand that the man is one in a million. Whenever the occasion calls, we look back at the lives of such men because understanding their lives would help us model ours as people conscious of the present. Peter Obi is a man who has demonstrated freedom from various chains that hinder the growth and development of man: wealth, “pangs of irrational desires,” immorality, spiritual lethargy, corruption, pride, among others. How do we define this man fully? Though he remains a slave, like all of us, to imperfections, a look at his life will reveal a lot of lessons that if imbibed, will contribute its quota in guiding the world immersed in “disequilibrium to be at equipoise”. How best do we do this? As an experiment in perspective, let us see him through all the phases of his development, noting his likes and dislikes and even odd quirks.
Peter Obi, the titan, was born placid on the 19th of July, 1961 at the Holy Rosary Hospital & Maternity, Waterside-Onitsha. Besides their eldest brother that was born in Lagos and the youngest, a peripatetic son born in Obe Maternity, Agulu during the civil war when Onitsha was under siege, all other siblings of his were born in the same hospital. At the time of his birth, his father was already a rich man – owner of Ideal Soul Super-Market, the biggest in the then Eastern Nigeria; while his mother – a matron of feminine tenderness – was already running what was called “Domestic Centre”, where would-be-married men send their would-be wives for training in acts of domestic economy and matrimonial peace that at that time usually guaranteed happy marriage and fulfilled homes. While undergoing pupillage, they learnt diverse arts: weaving, clothe-making and baking. It was an attractive alternative to the formal education of girls at that time. Part of the major curriculum was ways of ensuring peace in the home and the Matron’s favourite admonition to young ladies was that God gave us two ears to hear more and speak less – a veiled lesson for those who, by reckless exercise of the franchise of the tongue, always got themselves into trouble.
One of the acts flowing from Peter Obi’s retrospect into his life is the construction of the ultra-modern maternity building at the hospital of his birth. That singular act has deep significance that transcends the mere erection of a building. Mr. Peter Obi in his usually-measured speech and placid wisdom once confided in me that the act was a way of showing appreciation to one of the institutions that played a critical role in his life, by ensuring his safe ingress into the world. This informs his championing of adoption of schools, rendering help to schools that trained us as part of giving back to society. He has vastly expanded this very advice through his school apostolate.
Growing up, Peter Obi had the temperament of young ones the world over. Like others, he engaged in childhood pranks, made friends, attended and danced at parties and also discovered the charms of women. Did he go further than this? What do you want to read from me? All I can inform you now is that he also experienced the sexual and psychological transformation biology calls puberty in his growth process, a time most youngsters have few moral restraints upon desire. But his friends still testify that he gives to friendship the tenderness and solicitude that most men give to love.
During holidays and intervals in his studies, he did not spend in play or idleness, as other children do. Even when he attended parties he did not lose himself in such epicurean indulgence for he took time to experiment with one trade or the other. For reigning fashions, he got the local artists to replicate them for sale and making money. In primary school, he sold kerosene. In secondary school, he sold eggs and had commercial taxis plying for him. As an undergraduate, he was already engaged in international business, travelling to London every two weeks and buying brand new vehicles for personal use. All in all, he lived the life that at each level of his development transcended all expectations. He did not remain becalmed in any stage of life.
Sometimes we enquire into the workings of people’s minds not by the battles they fought and lions they killed, but through acts that sometimes appear insignificant as will be told about Obi. Once upon a time, his cousin was wedding and had to borrow the three exclusive vehicles he used from Obi, including the one used by the newly-wedded. As they were going to the Hall for reception, some of his friends passing by saw him flagging down a taxi that would take him to the venue and decided to pick him, but he declined because there was no room left in their car and he would rather continue with his taxi business than inconvenient them. When they could not persuade him to manage with them, one of the girls in the car advised they should ignore him as one ready to remain fixed in his poverty. When they left, the other boys explained to her that the three vehicles used for the wedding were his. The young girl, unknown to others, smoked out his hotel room, visited him incognito and became his friend. The rest, as is said, is history.
His academic life was intricately woven around his business activities such that after graduation and national youth service, it was a seamless transition into fully-fledged business life. While others were learning the wisdom of pleasure, he was engrossed in the pleasure of wisdom, which he employed successfully in all that he did. Thus, one of his colleagues, Chief Okey Ezibe described him with awe: “In my business life I am yet to see a businessman like Mr. Peter Obi. One can entrust his entire fortune into his hands and go home and sleep soundly”. When I asked Chief Emma Bishop Okonkwo about Obi’s character, he laughed loudly and burst with compliments: “Val, I give you any amount of credit you need in business simply because Obi requested that. If those of us that know him can trust the person he recommended, that shows you that he is Trust himself.”
What are the secrets of building the type of trust Obi has built over the years? I once referred to him in terms quite Confucian; “the Higher Man”. Recall that when Tsze-Loo asked Confucius, “what constitutes the Higher man?” he replied, “the cultivation of himself with reverential care”. Obi has cultivated himself along the lines of virtues that describing him is sometimes annoying because of few allowances for the frailty of man. His mother shall partly be blamed for this inclination to sanctity. To the question of transparency in dealing with people, he would always recall the five words to him by his mother when he was leaving Onitsha to Lagos. Let his mother speak directly: ‘My son, when you get to Lagos, I want you to abide by five canons, namely: do not steal, do not envy anybody of his success, if somebody gives you something to keep return it intact upon request, let prayer be your watchword and keep the 10 commandments as if your life depended on them.
Like life itself, business has not been all rosy. He has lost billions of Naira as when his almost 200 containers were seized by NAFDAC. By the time they were released, the goods were already expired. He invested billions of Naira in Mobitel and the empire came crumbling. When his successes are placed side by side with his failures, we can say that he is predominantly a successful businessman. Emphasising the loss recorded is a way of telling those in business that whatever man does has its ugly sides. It is defeatist to think of suicide whenever we are buffeted by the challenges of life. Bias, considered as one of the wise men of Greece tells us that “the most unfortunate of men is he who has not learned how to bear misfortune”.
As a businessman, Peter Obi was happy with himself and never thought about joining politics. However, when he came into politics he was fully prepared, understanding what his mission is. Because of the unusual zeal with which he faced politics; pundits have often asked why he went into it. He has answered this question severally by recalling his encounter at Kellog Business School. That day, the lecture was on the World Economy and the lecturer ended up not mentioning Africa but rather insisted there is nothing like African Economy. Obi, moved by the zeal of an African patriot whose identity was under attack, wanted to know why Africa was not mentioned. The lecturer after a debate with Obi on the subject – having observed his perceptive, penetrating, retentive, and logical mind not common among African businessmen – advised him to return to Africa and contribute in creating public wealth and the emancipation of Africans.
Returning and confronted by the degeneration in the society as amply demonstrated by the menace of criminals and the use of Bakassi Boys to kill with the clear conscience of nature, he resolved to help in the ennobling of the society. Thus, he entered politics and through it has been pushing for the enthronement of the good with adamantine consistency.
What is he in politics? I think he has remained a contradiction mirroring the controversy in the society or what, in Marxian lexicon, we can refer to as contradiction inherent in the society. While the elite see him as a stumbling block, the masses see him as one of their last hope in Nigeria. Various estimates of him are directly proportional to what he did as the Governor of Anambra State at a relatively young age. Added to his natural intelligence and wisdom, the office, guided by executive responsibility and experience moulded him into deeper maturity and judgement. He respected the elite but skillfully blocked revenue leakages that often found their way into their pockets. He thus had money to turn the State around and left over 75 billion Naira in the coffers when his tenure ended. He did this after clearing all the debt owed contractors, pensioners, compensation for land acquired by the state, etc. He did this because of his quiet, staid character, his modest simplicity that eliminated waste and his tested honesty that won him the sobriquet of “the just’ among his EXCO members.
The irony of today is the debate on how much the incumbent Governor, Willie Obiano will leave. This argument is valid among those who believe the impossibility of mindless squander of such amount of money in less than eight years without any corresponding development to show for it. These people may not be aware that the same man they are waiting to tell us about his own savings has been owing gratuities to pensioners since 2017, is indebted to contractors to the tune of more than 100 billion Naira and, to add salt to injury, has plunged the State into over 200 billion Naira debt. Is he not deterred by the condemnation that awaits people like him at the tribunal of posterity?
It was the same squalid elite that ignited the fire that led to the protest against Peter Obi’s nomination as the running mate to Alhaji Abubakar Atiku in the 2019 Presidential election. To show you how deeply he is loved, the people ignored the elite and voted for him en masse. Because of his factor, Anambra State gave the PDP the highest number of votes in that election.
As a politician, Obi has done very well. He has shown that one can be in politics without doing grievous damage to himself. As the Governor of Anambra State, he was in charge in every sense. He knew the balances of the state by heart at all times. He was orderly: the unity and hierarchy of his desires for the State imposed a clarifying and direct order upon his ideas, actions, policies and government. He required the truth about the health of the state, went the extra mile to discover those truths himself and insisted on being guided by them.
Obi admiringly refused to sell his conscience by doing what most other politicians do. During his contrived impeachment in 2006, many suggestions came from anonymous groups that wanted to be empowered to bring down the State House of Assembly building while the members were sitting, to smite their families as a prelude to them of what would happen to them, but Obi, like President Jonathan, would not stand the sight of a soul being lost because of politics, did not play ball.
He was at last impeached! One of the unsympathetic politicians described his impeachment as borne out of the “foolishness of acting like a governor in Plato’s Republic instead of our own corrupt society”. But out of the ashes of that impeachment and other indignities he suffered stem his memorable accomplishments as the first Nigerian – besides coming into office through the courts – to return from impeachment and cause the change of the electoral timetable in Nigeria. Indeed, while most men see politics as a trade few like Obi see it as a noble profession. As summed up by John Buchman, “public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men, it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and the most honourable adventure”.
How do we assess Mr. Peter Obi as a philosopher? Has philosophy, the course he graduated with second class honours in the university, helped him in his successes in life? A true philosopher is one, academic or not, who has so trained himself to reflective thinking, and who is so emancipated inwardly from external influences, and who can stand up free – to doubt, to question, to inquire, to think, to gather knowledge and spread it. You could see while the course was attractive to him. His project was entitled Steve Biko’s Concept of Freedom in South Africa. In the forefront of the Black Consciousness Movement that fought against Apartheid, Biko advocated the concept of changing the black man’s existential situation by first of all changing his mind to think positively at all times. Such a thought process caught Obi’s fancy such that when he became the Governor of Anambra State, one of his cardinal strategies of changing the State was by changing the psyche of the people, and it worked.
To some of us that also studied philosophy, he remains one of our proud heritage. Profoundly in love with Socrates, he considers his dictum about an unexamined life as not worth living as one of the most profound statements that shall daily guide our lives.
One thing that keeps Peter Obi going is that he has successfully reduced his needs to a Buddhist minimum. Though temperate in food and drinks, once he has to pay N10,000 for a buffet, he must eat to justify his pay. He has this mentality of getting the worth of his money as part of his disdain for waste. He could spend minutes waiting for a balance of N50 only to give it to the next beggar.
Counting Obi’s successes today, we must always remember that he has a tested and commendable partner and manager, Mrs Margaret Peter-Obi, a wonderful woman. I call her Obi’s manager because I have severally seen her say:” Oh Peter, you cannot do this or that, better do it this way.” To show he is in control, Peter would always disagree but will end up, after moments of introspection, obey the voice of a woman whose counsel is almost always wisdom personified.
But Obi is not a saint. He has his weaknesses. Sometimes it takes him decades to transit from thought to action. It is also gross weakness on his part to have promoted an incompetent as his successor in office. See what it has caused the state! Obi’s weaknesses remind us of Seneca’s consoling saying: “I persist in praising not the life that I lead, but that which I ought to lead. I follow it at a mighty distance, crawling”. Of whom amongst us is this not true?
As he turns 60 today, we look at him because he has so many things to teach us. May I recall one of Fr. Collins’ advice to senior students when he was our Auxiliary: “Do not allow yourselves to become agents of stagnant living in the Seminary”. Peter Obi has not allowed himself to become an agent of stagnant living in society. As long as this remains true, we shall continue to celebrate him.
- Barrister Valentine Obienyem, journalist and entrepreneur, is special adviser on media to Peter Obi.