Jeff Amechi Agbodo, Onitsha
Chief Dr. (Sir) Godwin Ubaka Okeke, popularly known as GUO, is the Chairman, Board of Directors, GU Okeke & Sons Ltd; Chairman, Board of Directors, GU Okeke Transport Services Company Ltd; Chairman, Board of Directors, Anambra Motor Manufacturing Company Limited (ANAMMCO); Chairman, Board of Directors, Varaman Industries Ltd; Member, Board of Directors, Bhojsons Ltd; Chairman, Board of Trustees, Godwin & Patricia Okeke Foundation, and Member, Anambra State Security Advisory Council.
He said that at the age of 21, immediately after the civil war, he started transportation business with his father’s car, 404 Peugeot, from Onitsha to Enugu, which helped him to save money to buy his first vehicle for the business that has placed him where he is today..
In this interview with Daily Sun, he spoke on the economy, business and sundry issues including, Nigerian politics, youth empowerment and leadership, among others.
It was fine with a lot of challenges. I am the sixth male child of my parents. I am the sixth of eight children. It was tough growing up, but I found myself helping out in bringing up my younger ones. Apart from being the sixth, I have two others, one female and another male. I was just like taking care of them, helping out in the cooking and every other thing, although it helped me a lot, because even at this old age, I can still prepare food for myself in the absence of my wife and every other grown up in the house. It was a good experience.
Starting transportation business
You see, in my family we have never done transport business, and at the end of the war, I have told you that, the training I had with Man O’ War gave me the courage of moving into certain areas without being afraid of anything at the end of the war. So, on the second day the war ended, we trekked with some of my brothers, from Adazi Ani to Nnewi on foot, which is about 10 to 12 kilometres away from my hometown. We trekked to Nnewi, saw one or two things, came back, saw some of the military checkpoints; nobody molested us. They would just search you and if you were not having any arms, and you were not having anything with you, they let you go. So we went to Nnewi, no molestation, came back to Adazi, no molestation, and I now said, oh, it is true that the war has ended, having seen fierce looking northern troupes on the road without harming anybody, so that gave me encouragement.
So, the following day, I asked my parents to let me go to Onitsha and see if our building and property were safe, and they said okay, and gave me their Peugeot 404 vehicle and I drove down to Onitsha because during the war, I also got myself Biafran driving license, because we also helped the military in one way or the other. Even though I was very young, I drove. So I drove myself down to Onitsha, moved about; not much was happening. Most of my parents’ property were still intact. I said okay, let me go and see concentration of people around because I didn’t see people on the streets. They told me that people were at Fegge and I drove down to Fegge and very close to Fegge police station, I saw a very big market, makeshift market, attachment here and there and just saw things, saw some people, ate some rice and a very good stew, somebody coming out after three years of war without good food, so I enjoyed the food and went back to where I parked my car, only to see a lot of people hanging around my car. But because of the training, I had no fear about anything.
As I was entering the car, they said Oga, are you going to Enugu? And I said yes, jokingly asking them if they were ready to pay me one pound and I mean Nigerian pound not Biafran pound. They all jumped into the car. I carried them, eight of them, because 404 old model that time used to be very roomy. So I took them, collected eight pounds on the ground there, and went straight to Enugu. Then I saw bridges blown off, rebuilt with wood and every other thing with some iron, and I went to Enugu and ended up at Ogbete Enugu. I dropped them, and people were shouting Onitsha and I carried them, collected another one pound each, and they were also happy. I moved down to Onitsha, so I was having 16 pounds, the third day the war ended. Sixteen pounds was a very big money then.
And I was doubting myself, is this good money or were they playing on me. And I decided to go to the village and people started shouting, Enugu, and I said no, that I can’t go back to Enugu again today, maybe tomorrow. And I went back to the village. On getting to the village, my parents were so unhappy, they were panicking, waiting for me. You know that time there was no cell phone; even the land phone was not working in Biafra land. Until they heard the horn, they all came out asking what happened, where were you?
Why so late and I told them I went to Onitsha, saw people going to Enugu and I took them to Enugu. My mum started beating me and I had to run away to my father and my father protected me. I started bringing the money and putting it on the table, and after some time, I pleaded with my father to go and talk to my mum, and my mum was not interested in the money, but concerned with our safety and like every other mother, she listened to my father, and I told my father that the next day I will be going to Onitsha. And the next day I went back to Onitsha and started doing ‘kabu kabu’ transportation business, moving from Onitsha to Enugu, collecting good money, making three to four trips in a day. It was not easy. So, that was where I had the experience that there was money in transportation business. Then, after some time, I combined it with trading, buying one or two things and selling because a lot of people were so much into trading. I saw money within that first three months. We were paying it into the bank; there was no counting machine then. They will ask how much? They will just write receipt for you, any amount you pay, they will give you one receipt.
The Federal Government announced that all Biafran currency should be deposited in banks. I went to the bank to make enquiries on the modalities of the pronouncement and found out that irrespective of the amount of money deposited, a uniform receipt was issued. Therefore, I suggested to my family that they should split whatever amount they had and took it to bank separately.
That was to increase the number of receipts that will be issued. This idea helped my family as each member of my family had receipts in their respective names. The Federal Government paid £20.00 for each receipt redeemed. We started a poultry farm with the proceeds with my parents at Adazi-Ani and this complemented a shop for merchandise that operated from Ogbete, Enugu. I was barely 21 years old.
Glory be to God, by the time they started announcing that everybody with one receipt, should go and collect 20 Nigerian pounds from the bank, I said okay, but I didn’t know that it will be so low. I thought they could have given us 1,000 pounds or 100 pounds each but I said glory be to God, they gave something, and counted the money into twenty-something receipts and I added it to what I was using in transportation and trading.
So, that was how I took off without borrowing from the bank, and they were not ready to give anybody one pound in that 1970, although by 1971 we started getting some incentive, loans from the bank on trust. I bought some vehicles and I also bought some Volkswagen combi buses because that was what was in vogue that time, running from Onitsha to Lagos.
I graduated from running from Enugu to Onitsha to going from Onitsha to Lagos with combi buses, and by that time I had started employing drivers doing that for me because I also saw money in trading. I had to combine the two, and also looking after my parents in the village. They were interested in agriculture, so we developed local farming and poultrybusiness. We had over 1,000 birds as at 1971 and were supplying eggs to Enugu campus that time because I had already opened a branch in Enugu, trading in Onitsha and Enugu. At the same time, I was running about every week, I was here and there; that helped me a lot. It gave me a very solid foundation and my parents were very helpful to me.
Challenges of transportation business in Nigeria
What we are suffering in Nigeria today is a lot of people moving into business, especially transportation business, without proper calculation, without endurance, without experience. You see money flowing in; if you don’t know how to control that money, the money will come in and will disappear again. The transport business in Nigeria gave a lot of contact opportunity because banks were seeing us doing good turn over and they were giving us facilities and unfortunately for us, some of us were not doing proper calculation until the money fizzled away. The money was misused. They used the money in buying properties, taking so many titles, some married three to four wives, so the money was lost, and they were carried away with the money flowing. So, it is one problem people suffered not only in transportation business but in every other business. It misled people without proper foundation, and also without education.
One of the greatest problems we are facing is bad roads and insecurity because these criminals block the roads, search everybody, destroy our vehicles, break all the glasses, collect any available money and even kill people. The roads are so bad, so that they will mount their checkpoints, block the bad areas of the road all over the country, so that is why a lot of transporters are losing their money, and losing their passengers up till today. So, bad roads and insecurity are the greatest problems we are facing. Another problem is high cost of borrowing, which is also what every businessman is suffering today.
What government can do to boost transport sector
The government should start with the security, making sure that the people are not killed along the highways. You hear the government crying over Abuja-Kaduna-Kano Road; you hear police and the press talking about Onitsha-Benin bypass; it is one of the worst roads you can talk of. Then, from Benin to Ijebu-Ode is too bad, road kidnappers are everywhere.
Then you talk of Okene-Abuja, it is also very bad. Criminals are now messing everybody up along all these routes, then Makurdi to Jos is another terrible area, so every corner of our highway is in trouble. The government must do something security-wise. If they invite some of us in the field, we can give them ideas on how to solve some of these problems. By the grace of God, Anambra State Governor, Willie Obiano, is doing a lot of good job and some of us are giving him ideas and he is making use of them. So, if the Federal Government can invite some of us who are in the field, we can also give them ideas on how to solve some of these problems.
Motivation for philanthropy
Well, my parents thought me how to read the bible and how to be a good Christian. I learnt that from my parents, they were helping a lot of people paying their school fees. So, I learnt to assist others too from my parents, because I discovered that after reading the bible there is joy, and blessings coming from helping one another. Remember, Jesus Christ sacrificed everything for us, including his own life. And that is what we are enjoying today, being Christians, so why can’t we learn how to help others especially the needy in the society. The blessings will come from God because everything we have today is by God’s grace, not by our power. And that is why we made it mandatory not to collect money from any blind person travelling to any part of the country to work or school because we know they don’t have the money to pay, so we encourage them to study rather than going to the road to beg. We have many blind people as graduates in Anambra today. We have a blind man in Anambra State Executive Council today. You gain a lot from helping the needy.
I am celebrating my 70th birthday. At the age of 70, I believe I have done more than enough for myself. I need to rest, my children, my relations, my workers, they are all coming of age. Why don’t we start planning on how to hand over to our children? The problem we have in Nigeria is not trusting our children and not giving them the opportunity to grow. In America, we talk about Rothmans, Lemon, Coca-Cola, Guinness; the people who founded these companies are far gone. It is their children, their relations, their dedicated workers that are making the companies grow, and these companies are now family businesses.
We as private people, as a government, as a country, must copy from this. We have to equip our youths, and give them the opportunity. I am now telling everybody. I have done that experiment and it is working. My children are the ones controlling all the businesses I established. I am there as the chairman, giving them fatherly advice. They are controlling the businesses. They have moved my businesses from where I left them to the next stage. They are brilliant. They have gone far, they are highly educated, let’s make use of their intelligence.
And let me tell you about what we are doing with National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members. We are now using them in our organisations. Every year, high number of youths are released to different states, different companies but they treat them as slaves. They don’t pay them. The Federal Government gives small allowance. At the end of their service year, the companies don’t employ them. They just release them to the labour market empty handed. They should be equipped. In developed countries, they are given loans to get them equipped.
It is necessary we make them useful now that they are young before they turn into lions and devour our states and government. Let’s make them useful now. It is necessary that government and all private agencies should ensure they employ between 20 and 30 per cent of NYSC members assigned to them, while they give loans to the rest and use their certificates as collateral. They seriously need to empower the youths in this country because they are the taproot of all the atrocities happening in our country. There is need for them to be encouraged; some of us at the grassroots should be consulted for advice.
Comparing the attitude of youths of today and that of your time
There is no comparison and you can’t blame the youths because when we were young, even in secondary school, people were getting jobs. In the 60s and 70s, secondary school leavers were not interested in trading because they had well-paid jobs in banks, factories, just name them. They were comfortable. What we enjoyed in those days is not what we are seeing today. We have murdered everything for the youths and they are finding it difficult to squeeze in. It is difficult. It not easy. I told you that before we got loans from banks without mortgaging anything but since frauds have taken over, banks now request for mortgage. Continuously banks will complain to you – Mr. B borrowed without return. No bank is ready to give money to any youth. If the politicians will listen, let them know that whatever they are doing, they leave for tomorrow. We are in sort of a relay race; you must hand over the baton. Let’s start with our children. Some of us in position are not willing to hand over to the youths. That is why they become violent by the day. You hear of kidnapping, Boko Haram, etc. That is why they run to other countries because they are not fitting in. There is no country you will go and not see a Nigerian there. Go to Congo, Ghana, name it, you will see a Nigerian there. Let us have a rethink on how to rebuild our youths.
You are 70 years old and still very strong, what is the secret?
The secret is being grateful to God. If you are grateful to God, the next thing is to organise yourself and avoid stress. Do not over stress yourself. In the past 30 years, I must create time to go and do some exercise. I’m a tennis player, call it table tennis, call it lawn tennis, at my age I still play because I believe there is life in that. When you are doing some exercise, it makes your mind lighter. You know we advise these politicians to play politics in the spirit of sportsmanship. Why do we use sports, because in sports you have better understanding. Even in business, do it with the spirit of sportsmanship. I have time for everything; time to pray to my God and time to play my tennis. I have inspired youths in different churches on how to survive; read your books, move ahead even when your parents are not giving you, don’t wait for your brothers and sisters to give you, work hard because it pays.
After the civil war, sometimes people will ask me, GUO, why are you still using this car. If you go to the market you see different cars, just try and get the ones you can afford. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. In the early 80s, people were buying Mercedes car at N8,000 while Peugeot was sold at N5,000 something, but some of us were buying it like Ekenedilichukwu, Engr Iweka, GMO, SMO, Izuchukwu; all these big people had Mercedes. I now told myself, I have not got to one third of all these people, in age, experience and in business, even in the field, and I resolved within myself to buy a Peugeot Pick-up before I graduated to 504. But all these small boys now want to start with big cars like Volvo, Mercedes, heavy heavy cars. They don’t want to reduce their ambition to their level. It is one of the things that is killing our today’s youths and businessmen. When you start reducing your ambition to your level, you will live long. Don’t eat whatever you see, especially all these packaged foods, especially when you eat them without exercise.
The secret is, eat the little you can and leave for tomorrow, go for check-up, don’t wait till you are down and they will be rushing you to hospital. Don’t wait for doctor to come and tell you to stop eating this or that, stop smoking, before you stop. Tell yourself the truth and you will live long.
Combine business with family responsibilities
Well, I keep telling everybody to be prayerful. My wife is very prayerful. I encourage all my children to be prayerful. Before they enter into higher institutions, every Saturday, we used to have prayers for one hour or more, even with our driver. I used every Saturday to educate them that there is no shortcut to life and success. And I told them they must work hard because that was what guided us their parents. We taught them how to read the bible. Today, a lot of youths cannot manage their family businesses.
There are many churches answering different names and people are looking for where to make money quick. You don’t know the powers that are going on, people must go down on their knees and ask God for forgiveness. We should teach our children how to pray, not playing politics with church. You can hide from human beings but not from God. If you make your money in crooked ways, your children may not be in position to manage that money because you made it by crooked means. Teach your children how to worship God. It is for the parents to bring their children up in a godly way. It will be hard for them to depart from it. My parents did that to me too. I told you before that we were eight in my family, seven boys and a girl; all of us are engrossed to church activities, even local government too. I have said it before, all these big companies you are seeing, those who laid the foundation are no longer alive but their children have taken up with their dedicated staff. We must give opportunities to our youths.
You have to help the poor so that the society will grow; donating to churches is not enough. You cannot get money to train only your children. There is need to help our society. If we fail to take care of the youths today, it will definitely affect our tomorrow. We need to be open to ourselves and our children. Let our politicians learn from what is happening today, and let us take care of our youths.