Soccer lovers all over the world were looking forward to the epic final match, pitting the all-conquering Germans against Argentina on Sunday. But it was also the same day Mike Awoyinfa and I had appointment for a lengthy interview with Dr. Alex Chika Okafor, Chairman of Chicason Group of Companies, a conglomerate of eight companies and still counting. Our appointment was for 4pm, but the interview didn’t take off until 5pm.
Naturally, it was an inconvenient timing by Mike’s reckoning, but it was a choice between business and pleasure, between getting the vital interview material for our book, 50 Nigeria’s Entrepreneurial Success, and dissipating excitement for the glory of other nations, who, by the way, not only knocked us out, but sincerely never reckoned with us.
Even within the radiance of Ikoyi neighbourhood, Okafor’s mansion named, Praise Court, stood out in majestic presence. Inside the expansive compound, you need no further telling that the man of the house is a lover of exotic automobiles, but that, in itself, is no news in the world of Nigeria’s super billionaires. We are ushered into a tastefully furnished living room, then later into another and until finally, into a third where the numerous guests, waiting in the main living room would not disturb us.
While waiting to kick off with the main business, Mike started with small talks about the match. Okafor seemingly had no doubt that the Germans would win. It was not just that they are better organised and parade a strong team, it was rather to do with something rather arcane – tithing. Tithing? I wanted to be sure I heard him correctly. What has tithing got to do with national performance? The Germans, Okafor noted, are the only nation that pays tithe to the church, as a national policy. “That is why their economy is so strong in Europe, while the economy of other nations in Europe are down,” he declared. “Can you compare the German economy with that of any European nation?”
Of course, there is no doubt that the German economy is the strongest in Europe. “Even the Americans are turning against God and things are not working well for them anymore,” he added. “Their constitution started with God, but today, God has been outlawed in American public space. Prayers in schools have been banned and Christian symbols are no longer allowed in public offices. This is a country whose currency and symbol says, ‘In God we Trust.’”
But is it true that the German government pays tithe to church/es? Even as a pastor, who had waged a pro-tithe public debate, and a journalist at that, I did not know that. I am used to the fact that in Western democracies, spanning from Europe to America, there is a strict separation between the state and church. But, a little online research proved Okafor’s assertion right. Reports by BBC and other media confirmed that it was the policy of German government to remit 8-9 per cent of people’s income tax, as tithes to Catholics, Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues. A report in the online publication, thetrumpet.com of October 2012 noted that in 2011, the Catholic Church received five billion Euros (about $6.4 billion) from German tax payers remitted by the government. For German tax payers, the tithing is compulsory, except for those who officially register themselves, as atheists.
To raise the tithe fund, each tax-payer’s income tax is raised by 8-9 per cent by the government, who then transmits the same to the churches! In September 2012, “the German Catholic Bishops Conference issued a decree, warning that those Germans, who opted out of paying the country’s church tax would no longer be entitled to sacraments, religious burial or any part of parish life.”
I hope that the anti-tithe lynch-mob in Nigeria, including the members of the national confab, who want Nigerian religious bodies to be paying taxes are listening!
In 1977, a little boy, Chika Okafor, had just finished his five-year apprenticeship with his master in Onitsha Market, selling fishing materials and was due to be set up on his own. But owing to complicated circumstances, the settlement was not forthcoming. But after intense prayers, his mother put a sum of N1,300 in his palm, scooped sand from the ground and prophetically pronounced: “If the sand would ever finish from the ground then the money in your hand would finish! Go and trade with it and God would prosper you.”
That seed of faith had, over the years, given birth to a multinational conglomerate, spanning eight companies in manufacturing, oil and gas, mining, commodity trading and property, with over 4,000 employees in Nigeria. It is not only that Chicason Group is leading the consortium that signed the $2.7 billion contract with the Federal Capital Territory, for the famous Abuja downtown city project, which involves massive property development with many skyscrapers included, it is also working on a 100,000 housing project nationwide.
Through one of its companies, A-Z Petroleum, the group is involved in upstream and downtown petroleum sector with three major tank farms in Nigeria, and oil blocs and mining licences in seven African countries, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Congo and others. “I am a friend to eight African heads of state,” he said, describing his job, as mainly that of a “political image maker” of his companies.
Until Okafor mentioned it, you would never guess that the man, who sits at the head of Chicason Board of Directors, made up of top professionals that included professors, doctorate degree holders, engineers and others, didn’t even finish secondary school because his mother could not raise the fund. Dr. Okafor is humble, accessible, hardworking, very articulate and brilliant with nothing to betray a man of limited education.
Above all, he is a deeply religious man whose business strategy is Bible-based. Like the Germans, his companies pay tithes, not just to his Anglican denomination, but also to churches across Nigeria, based on the leading of the Holy Spirit. It is said you cannot combine God and mammon but Chika has successfully navigated that slippery terrain with great ease. The core of his strategy is to start his day with two hours of praise in the morning. “If you call my phone before 10am, you cannot get me because I am still with my Master,” he said, referring to God. “He is the one that tells me what to do.”
It was God, for instance, that directed him to go into oil and gas, directing him to Isaiah 1:19: “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land.” Once Okafor caught that revelation, the next question for him was, “What is the best from the land?” His answer to that question is oil and gas and mining, including gold mining. And that was how he plunged into that field through his company, A-Z Petroluem, where he had since become one of the big players in Nigeria and other African countries.
He rounds off his day with another two hours of praise and worship, Bible studies and meditation from 12 to 2 am every day, unfailingly. Part of the credit for his deep spiritual inclination is being married to Favour Chibuogwu Chika-Okafor, a deeply spiritual woman, who holds a master’s degree in chemical engineering and is the author of a dozen Christian books. Okafor credits her with helping to deepen his faith in God and providing him a lot of spiritual support.
In 2005, however, Okafor was in financial trouble, with huge debts owed to banks. “Everything I tried to do failed,” he said, leaving him heartbroken. At such low moment, his wife came with a counsel, “Assume the worst so that you would live,” she told him.
In the end, Okafor embarked on one-year fasting and prayer from January 4, 2005 to January 5, 2006. After that fast, Okafor said he saw a vision of Jesus, who patted his back and told him everything was going to be alright. “From that moment, I had 360-degree turnaround,” he said.
Since then, it has been success all the way. “At times, I used to wonder if God has no other thing to do other than just blessing me all the time! That is why I spend so much time, praising God all the time. He is my Master, who brings all the strategies, my own is just to follow where He leads me.”
When you finish with Okafor, you are left, wondering whether you have just come out of business strategy encounter or a spiritual revival session. We’ve been talking for nearly three hours. Time to rush out to go so that Mike can watch the World Cup final, but Okafor would not let us go until we had joined him in a dinner. “It is a tradition in this house that nobody comes here without joining us in a fellowship of sharing meal together.”
We were ushered to a 13-seater dining table where we had sumptuous meal fit for kings. But what do you expect from the home of a man whose asset base would rank in billions of dollars, not naira?
The World Cup final had kicked off and Mike’s body, twitching in early onset of soccer-addiction-withdrawal-syndrome, was the signal that we must rush out of the dinner table to enable him to catch up with the second half. Was I surprised that after a grueling 120-minute encounter, the tithe-paying Germans clinched the coveted trophy?