Peter Obi: Life Not about Owning Billions of Naira, but about What You Did to Add Value
He is almost an eccentric in response to questions and keeps popping up obscure but reasonable angles that make you feel not having given enough consideration to every topic. However, you cannot fault the simplicity and demystifying ordinariness he brings to the environment.
What are your recollections of your childhood up to your teens?
To the best of my recollection, I was a normal child, born in Waterside, Onitsha. I obtained my primary education at Ave Maria School, Onitsha and a school in Anam, where an Aunt was the head-mistress. For my secondary education, I attended Christ the King College (CKC) also in Onitsha. About two years after leaving CKC, I went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) for my degree programme. From my primary school days, I have been in business – often engaged in the marketing of one item or the other. In secondary school, I became a full-time businessman; supplying products, including eggs which I purchased from a farm in Delta State. Indeed, I have always desired to be a businessman and to be on my own; and set up my own business soon after I left secondary school in 1978.
Would you say you were a pliable or stubborn as a child?
I would say there were portrayals of both traits. For instance, in my junior years at CKC, I had some ‘run-ins’ with the then Principal, Father Tagbo on his “Don’t Do This, Don’t Do That”. However, as a senior student, I became one of his favourites to the extent that he handed over boys whose fathers bring as errant and needing special care for me to look after. Years later, while I was the Governor, I cherished my visits to Father Tagbo where he would ask me: “I hope you are no longer stubborn and doing the right things now”. He passed on a few years ago.
Do you recall any specific stubborn acts that landed you into trouble?
We had CKC and we had the QRC for girls. As a junior boy, you were not permitted to go to QRC. Few of my friends and I went there and we were suspended. Consequently, my mother told me to look for another school, but eventually the senior teachers at CKC insisted that we should be pardoned and our places restored on the grounds that we were very intelligent students and generally well-behaved. Interesting I ended up as the College’s Disciplinary Prefect.
You took to business quite early. Did it come to you naturally or you were influenced by the commercial environment of Onitsha?
Both factors, I believe. I was born into a business environment. My father built the first super-market in Onitsha. He was in big-time business, and operated with branches in Port Harcourt, Enugu and some other locations in the then Eastern Region. For him to have bought a Mercedes Benz car in the 1950s shows that he was a wealthy man. He passed on during the civil war. My mother herself owned a bakery, and ran some of my father’s business concerns after his death. That environment – at home and the wider Onitsha – had tremendous influence on deep interest in business and set up mine.
How did you receive the news of your father’s death?
I was about six years old then and did not quite appreciate what happened. At that early age, one hardly knows the difference between life and death. I came home, met everyone else crying and joined them to cry. We were shown our dad (lying in state) and we all cried. I felt the loss of my mother more because she passed on when I was already grown; a Director in many companies. At the time of her death, she had already prepared us on the challenges of life.
So, you took your moral lessons and fibre from your mother?
Absolutely. She was always guiding us on Dos and Don’ts. Indeed, the five things my mother continually told me not to do when I was relocating to Lagos remain with me till this day.
What are those things she told you?
Well, some of them are very private. However, the most important one is to acknowledge always that in life wherever a man sees himself in success is by the grace of God, not because of his own cleverness; and that you must not abuse grace. She also cautioned us not to allow anything entrusted with us to get lost or be misappropriated; to manage the trust for the owners and always remain appreciative. While I was in office as Governor, I always remembered that I was there by His grace; that grace must be utilised to do something which the Almighty will approve of because one day, He will ask me, ‘I made you Governor; what did you do with it?’ As a human being, I would not say I did everything right, but I believe that if one scores 70% in school, it is an ‘A’ though there is still 30% you could not achieve.
As far back as 1978, I applied one of the things my mother taught me about good conduct on my first visit to the UK. I went to a shop and met a man called Foxy and I bought bags from him. I continued to procure bags from him till he folded-up the business in 2015. After the initial transactions, he willingly released the goods to me on credit and I would pay him after selling them in Nigeria. I remained consistent in fulfilling my own part of the bargain. Interestingly, during my tenure as Governor of Anambra State, Mr. Mac Rae was appointed European Union (EU) Ambassador to Nigeria. He had gone to Mr. Foxy’s shop to purchase a suitcase and on informing the latter that he had been posted to Nigeria as EU Envoy, the UK shop-owner told him a wonderful story about me; expressing his strong belief that I would perform well in office. The fall-out was that Mr. Mac Rae made contact with me and ensured that the EU gave their full support to the development agenda of my administration. Keeping faith with your partners and those you have interactions with are both very important and rewarding in the final analysis.
With your background can we say you were born with a silver spoon?
There was a silver spoon when my father was alive and doing well but the civil war came and took both the silver and the spoon – leaving my mother and us toiling to meet our needs. One of the good things the war did not take away was the roof over our heads. My mother – a wonderful woman she was – struggled to see us through and guided us along the path of growth; a strong influence which I have imparted to my children.
Growing up in Onitsha, did the city’s rough side rub off you?
Rough? I don’t understand what you mean by the rough side of Onitsha. Onitsha is an interesting place to live in and I still stay there, I don’t think there is anything rough in Onitsha which is like other great cities like New York and Lagos with their interesting combination of the good, the bad and the ugly.
So how come the “Bad and the Ugly” traits are not evident on you?
Growing up in Onitsha, I had the parental guidance of my parents, especially my mother, on how to appreciate life and do the right thing always. Again, I attended Ave Maria and CKC with a long tradition of rounded training, including academics, moral instruction, civics and sports, which have stood me in good stead over the years. As I indicated early, even when I acted out of turn at CKC, I still came around to become a responsible person.
What would you consider your most painful experience to date?
There are quite a number of them. As Governor of Anambra State, I always experienced great sadness when I saw children in school without a roof, going to school without learning materials or those who could not afford to be in school. Another painful experience was losing people like Dim Odimegwu Ojukwu whom I could go to and he listened to me and gave me invaluable advice – being always there for me. Then, there is the death of my brother, Iranaeus. The large number of unemployed persons and we are busy celebrating as many go hungry, also give me pains. Indeed, for a human being with the fear of God, what could be more painful than knowing that millions of your fellow Nigerians are living under the poverty line and some other millions of graduates unemployed but willing to work? One can only imagine what they are going through, especially as they are being harassed by a system that is supposed to look after them.
Have you had any near-life experience?
What is more threatening to someone than living in Nigeria? We live under constant threats here…
That’s a general threat, we mean personal to you…
I have experienced a number of them. I would have been in a Fokker 28 plane that crashed but three of us missed the flight. I was a student at UNN then and a businessman. I have been involved in a motor accident as well as survived armed robberies, my Lodge at Onitsha was burnt down when, as Governor, I was fighting hoodlums in Onitsha, but I am happy I returned order to the town in the final analysis, among other life-threatening incidents.
As a student, what was your relationship with the opposite sex like?
Not rascally, and I still have a good relationship with women. For me, I relate to them as friends and partners, not as objects to be used. Over the years, I have received invaluable support from women; and I believe one of the major problems of this country is not allowing women to take their rightful place and not investing enough in them. As Governor, my administration accorded them a decent place – in the civil service, political appointments, education, health and other human services. Among others, at a time, my Chief of Staff was a woman.
Given your status as a two-term Governor and successful businessman vis-a-vis the level of poverty in Nigeria, how do you manage women throwing themselves at you?
I do not believe that women throw themselves at anybody; it is the men that take advantage of them. Women are wonderful people and we should not exploit them. Let me give you an example: you meet a girl that cannot pay her school fees and does not know where the next meal will come from, it is wrong for you to exploit her situation — that is slavery and is what people get punished for. From the abundance God has given you, you could assist the young woman in question to improve her condition and still derive satisfaction from your role in her life.
Young women come to me every day with one problem or the other; and God forbid that I should exploit them. Similarly, you could have met someone who had a road accident and help take the victim to a hospital. On the other hand, if you go through the victim’s things and rob him, you have brought yourself under a curse for which you will be punished.
The other I obliged two young women who requested they joined one of my vehicles on my way from Owerri to Onitsha. There was space in that back-up vehicle and rather than cost me any extra money, it was a big relief for the women. As they came to thank me for the lift, I introduced them to an associate as my daughters. In any case, they did not look much younger than my daughter whom I adore; and it was pleasure to extend that gesture to them. So, for me, women do not throw themselves at men; rather, it is men that exploit their relationship with women.
When did you make your first million’? In primary school, secondary school or in the university?
I am not into that type of business. You can always confirm that with those who were at UNN with me. It was when I was in Nsukka that I built Savannah Bank branch in Omogho. In fact, I built two buildings for Savannah Bank, lived on my own, had a Peugeot 505 car, which I bought brand new as well as a BMW 520. How much I was worth then is not the issue, but I was doing well and still do today. To me, life is not about ownership of millions or billions, but about what did you do to add value.
You had all those as a Bachelor?
What is your costliest possession in life?
The question reminds me of a man who suffered ship wreck and lost all his property. When friends commiserated him on the loss, he said that since his intellect was still intact that he did not lose anything. My costliest possession is not in terms of material possession.
Could you point at one?
None. I don’t believe in that. I am sure some people will expect me to mention what money can buy. I just make money, save what I can, use what I need and give out the rest. There is nothing I can miss today that I think is too much; my wife knows that. When people lock the door so that thieves will not come and carry this or that, I’m not moved. You can come and carry everything I have. As far I know, I don’t even have anything.
Given a private jet, would you use it?
Yes and no. Yes, when we start campaigns and you give it to us to run around; but no because it is of no permanent use to me. If it is for a specific purpose, okay; that was why I trimmed my convoy to just a few vehicles to avoid lining up the road for the sake of status. When I see Nigerians own houses in New York, Abuja, Lagos, Johannesburg, London, France, here and there – some of which they rarely occupy – I wonder what they hope to do with all of them. What are you going to do with them? I have a house in Onitsha and was urged to have one in the village, I simply responded ‘No’, because it is 10-minute drive from Onitsha to my village. If my presence in the village is required, I will be there in time. Again, living in Onitsha gives me access to go to the airport in Asaba for my longer trips. As it is, my residential arrangement is convenient for me.
Assuming we stumble on your bank balance, are we going to see trillions, billions or just millions?
It is poverty of the spirit to think in terms of millions one owns.
Why don’t you build a private university like others since you love education?
The addition of “like Others’, has questioned your question. I do not do things because others are doing because I am not in competition with anybody, I weigh my options. I don’t need to build a private university ‘like others’. I am talking about basic education, which is the critical foundation for human development. I would rather support, say, an existing university than build one for myself. This is not to suggest that those that built private universities are wrong.
In the same way, I have heard people say I should establish a Foundation, but not all of us can have foundations; you can always support existing ones. For example, what I am doing in schools now is to see how I can support the Pope’s Foundation on education because I believe in education and I believe in what they are doing. Likewise, I don’t have to build a church in my village because it is not needed but I have built churches elsewhere, including the Philippines where they were needed. Whatever I have is by His grace so when I give back to Him, it doesn’t have to have a tag wearing with my face on it.
The infrastructure my administration built, for which you gave me an award, was not tagged ‘Peter Obi’ because the funds came from the State. I was an agent that was used to save the money and people are happy because they are using the facilities.
How did you meet your wife?
We were introduced by a mutual friend; and were both ready for marriage. It was not a long-drawn process as we both knew what we wanted; and then, we were in business. There has been no going back.
What attracted you to her?
I have great respect for my fellow human beings and believe we should grow to love others. I saw her and liked her and the feeling was mutual; so we decided to spend the rest of our lives together.
So what type of wedding did you have? With Limousines and other high society symbols?
No. I have always told you, in my life, I have an allergy to money being wrongly spent. I undertook the traditional wedding quietly and later had the Church wedding in London with 35-40 guests at the reception. We agreed that it was mainly about two of us and no amount of Champagne would make us better husband and wife? When did you see me celebrating my birthday? I turned 50 during my tenure as Governor and some people wanted to shut down the state to celebrate the occasion. Among others, three companies offered to underwrite all the activities – one of them was ready to commit N120 million to the ‘Project’. I told the sponsors that I wanted 200 sets of computers, which I subsequently gave to 20 schools – 10 sets each. Another company wanted to build a house for me in the village as part of that same birthday celebration. I asked how much the house will cost and was told about N100 million. I said fine, and directed the sponsors to erect one building valued at N30 million at Monsignor Maduka Secondary School, Ekwulobia; construct another at St. Anthony Secondary School, Agulu; and a third – a Dormitory – for a School run by Dominican Sisters in Abatete. That’s how the N100 million was spent.
Another sponsor bought me watch valued at N5 million. Fantastic Watch it was, but I told him I already had a good watch that has been keeping the time for many years. I requested the sponsor to procure a bus for a Seminary in Ukpor that urgently, as they told me, needed that means of transportation. He bought the bus and I gave it to them. All these were memorable birthday presents for me, and they still stand today.
That is how I like to mark my birthdays. Those engaged in expensive celebrations have a right to their private tastes and it is not in my place to regulate their lives. Meanwhile, I know that my village and elsewhere in Nigeria, there are millions of children out of school and several schools without basic facilities – all of them needing the support privileged people can give them.
But going abroad to wed is as expensive as a high society wedding here?
I was living in London then. My wedding cost me almost nothing. In fact, wedding abroad is cheap, we had just a small hall for about 40 people and we paid 20 Pounds each for their food which my friends paid. We didn’t pay the church; I was serving at mass and just did the reading and then the programme was over.
How do you relax with your family?
I have an interesting family. I have two components – my personal wife, one daughter and my son who is often on his own; a hard-working person who can’t stay without doing anything. My son finished school and told me: ‘I want to be on my own, I don’t want to have anything to do with your business. I want to work’; and that is what he is doing. He is all over the place doing his own thing. We are close; we talk and joke, but he is on his own, lives his own life.
My wife is somewhat my opposite: when I say ‘I don’t like this and I don’t like that’, my wife enjoys life a lot. My daughter stands in the middle, a bit of me and a bit of my wife – depending on her moods. She is a secondary school teacher, which is the main thing that keeps her happy. On balance, we all blend well; happy with the way God blessed us. However, like every other family, we have our own issues from time to time as we can’t be laughing always.