Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu got admitted into the octogenarian club on Sunday, September 4, and various groups stood up to salute him. Christians, Moslems, journalists, footballers, politicians, students and unnamed beneficiaries of his philanthropy broke into song and dance for the man who had touched their lives in pleasant ways. The large spread of those who honoured him is an indication of the depth and breadth of his eminence for, even though he is a man of Igbo extraction, he had grown by his deeds and utterances to become a Nigerian patriot and bridge-builder.
In 1995, the members of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) had assembled in Kaduna for the annual general meeting of the association. One of the items on the agenda was the election of officers to man the affairs of the association. Its president, Chief Moshood Abiola, was in prison for declaring himself President of Nigeria on account of the June 12 election, which he won but which was annulled by President Ibrahim Babangida. His term as NPAN president had expired and the members met to choose a new president. This was not an easy task because even though there was a gentleman’s agreement that Mr. Ismaila Isa would succeed Abiola, his incarceration posed an unanticipated problem. Some of the members thought it would amount to a betrayal of the man if a new president was elected while he was in detention. Others thought that since his term had expired and since he was not detained on account of what he did for the association it would be appropriate to elect a new executive. The meeting became rowdy, extremely rowdy, and a publisher of one of the insignificant newspapers, Mr. Godwin Daboh, threatened that, if the election was not held, no one would leave Kaduna alive. Some other members threatened to break up the association. I was of the view that if a new executive was elected it would be their primary responsibility to lobby for Abiola’s release. I had to canvass this middle ground with two of the well respected elders present, Mr. Sam Amuka and Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu. Both men thought that might be a tie-breaker. Iwuanyanwu decided to speak to some of the radical members not to break the association or threaten fire and brimstone. I can say without any fear of contradiction that those two elders, Amuka and Iwuanyanwu, saved the association from disintegration. When the matter was decided, I chose to call Iwuanyanwu bridge-builder not because he was a civil engineer but because he built a bridge at the conference that took us to a safe territory and the conference ended without people’s heads being broken. The election was held and a committee was set up to lobby for Abiola’s release. Even though Abiola was not released, it was not for a lack of effort on the part of the NPAN. Nigerian politics is always a bundle of complexities.
One of the things for which Iwuanyanwu is remembered kindly is the establishment of the Imo cargo airport. He was one of the founding fathers of the airport. When the Imo State government mooted the airport idea, there was a lot of scepticism about its viability but people like Iwuanyanwu had faith in the project and donated generously towards its actualisation. And even when it was completed, several airlines, including Nigeria Airways, refused to ply the route. Iwuanyanwu rose to the occasion, set up a private airline called Oriental Airlines and it started flying the route. When other airlines saw his aircraft taking off and touching down, they knew that there was business to be done. Today, that route is as busy as any other in Nigeria, thanks to Iwuanyanwu’s daring spirit.
Iwuanyanwu also rescued the Imo State Government in 1985 when its football club, Spartans Football Club, appeared to be failing from lack of financial support from the government. Iwuanyanwu took over the club, renamed it Iwuanyanwu Nationale and pumped money into it, which made it attractive for aspiring star players. The club produced such brilliant footballers like Nwankwo Kanu, Emmanuel Amuneke, Mobi Okparaku and Sam Oparanozie, among others. The club won several national and continental trophies. Now it is called Heartland Football Club of Owerri. For several years, Chief Iwuanyanwu had maintained an active interest in sports and even served as a board member of the National Sports Development Fund, where he helped in raising money for the development of sports at the national level.
Iwuanyanwu was a civil engineering student of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he made his mark as the best graduating student in his discipline. When he graduated, he worked as an engineer before starting his own business. His businesses are wide-ranging. They include construction, real estate, shipping, aviation, medical equipment supply, furniture production, insurance, banking and publishing. His newspaper the Champion, was one of the first newspapers in Nigeria to do simultaneous printing at more than one location. It was also one of the first newspapers to engage in colour printing. For many years, that newspaper became the voice of the oppressed and the choice of the Igbo business and political elite whose cause it championed unreservedly. Iwuanyanwu often spoke stoutly in defence of the Igbo cause but he is not an Igbo irredentist. He believes in the unity of Nigeria, if it is anchored on fairness, justice and equity. That is the belief of most fair-minded people and it is only such a philosophy that can build a fair nation. He believes that Nigeria’s diversity is something to be appreciated and acknowledged, not something to be ridiculed and derided.
His broadmindedness makes it possible for him to accept to be a patron of Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youths, Arewa Youths and O’odua Youths. The youths of these various ethnic communities also find it comfortable to accept him as their patron because they are certain that, in every circumstance, he will look at the broader picture of a Nigeria that is big enough to accommodate everybody. That is why I consider him to be a quintessential patriot. That also explains why he has sought three times or so to be the President of Nigeria but the complexity of Nigerian elections keeps decent people like him out of the power orbit. At 80, he has shown that he is a statesman, ready to play a statesmanly role as the need arises.
He has two foundations, namely, Iwuanyanwu Ambulance Foundation and Iwuanyanwu Foundation. The former deals with emergencies in various parts of the country by responding to the call of the distressed speedily. The latter is largely for awarding scholarships to young Nigerians from various parts of Nigeria for tertiary education. Education is a catalyst for development. Education is a veritable meal ticket because, when you get it, you are reasonably assured of a good job and a good standard of living. That is why he is the toast of young Nigerians from various parts of Nigeria who have benefitted from his large-heartedness not only in matters of scholarship but also in employment. A former governor of Imo State, Mr. Achike Udenwa, once praised Iwuanyanwu for being the highest employer of labour in Imo State, apart from the Imo State government. That means that he puts food on the tables of thousands, if not millions, of families in Nigeria. These acts of generosity are evidence of his unvarnished selflessness and compassion. And he does these noiselessly.
Philanthropy is something that is largely rewarded by God. That is why it is often said that the hand of the giver is always on top of that of the receiver. Iwuanyanwu has received God’s blessings. That is why God has allowed him to live up to 80 years in a country that is full of death traps.
It is amazing that, despite his many successes, Iwuanyanwu has remained humble, simple, unassuming and extremely approachable. He has no airs around him. He has no chips on his shoulders. He remains a truly humble man. That simplicity in eminence is the virtue of truly decent people, truly eminent people, truly humble people. Considering the conglomeration of activities in which he has been involved over the years and the range of people whose lives he has touched in many pleasant ways, Iwuanyanwu can be described as a tiger. But he is one tiger that does not proclaim its tigritude. That is a mark of true greatness, a mark of unvarnished statesmanship. Even though he never had the opportunity to run Nigeria at the presidential level as he would have wanted, he stands tall, very tall, among the few Nigerians who, in my book, can be faithfully, truthfully described as statesmen. I wish him many more years of toil in the Nigerian vineyard.