Author: Chiedozie Udeze Publisher: Kachifo Ltd, Lagos Year: 2017
Reviewer: Henry Akubuiro
It is foolhardy to think money falls down like manna, as a lazy man is wont to think. With the Nigerian Civil war over in January 1970, Sir R.O. Udeze, then in his thirties, returned to Enugu to witness a city in ruins and his petrol station, which he had laboured to establish, occupied, sadly, by a Nigerian soldier, as a war booty.
Would he surrender his toil and moil to a gun-toting, opportunistic soldier or wrench it from his stranglehold? The ebullient Ebulue moved heaven and earth, and got his filling station back but with just 250 litres of dregs left. That, he used to begin life anew, and profits ratcheted.
The aforementioned offers a glimpse of Nze Eyisi Ebulue II, chronicled in the biography entitled Ebulue written by his son, Chiedozie. Though the book is centred on the Ebulue family, especially Nze Eyisi Ebulue II himself, it offers the reader a whiff of Nigerian history and Igbo culture from pre-colonial to colonial and postcolonial periods, especially how they impacted on the socio-political life of an Igbo entrepreneur from a humble beginning, exploiting new frontiers in commerce.
Sir Ozoekwe Udeze, from Neni, Anambra State,ispresented, in this recollections, as a nun assuming, hardworking man, a role model to be emulated by anybody buffeted by adversities early in life.
Born in 1934 in Obiuno Umudioka community in Neni, we are instantly led into the genius of the Umudiokas who functioned as both traditional herbalists and wandering artists specialising in igbu ichi –traditional tattoos.
Ozoekwe, we get to learn, is a contemporary of Chidi Maduka, the University of Port Harcourt professor of Comparative Literature. While the latter accomplished his ambition of being an intellectual, the former had his academic ambition truncated as there was nobody to fund his college education after his benefactors pulled out last minute, citing the adamant attitude of his family members.
It turned out, however, that his destiny was elsewhere. So, he opted to be an apprentice under a businessman, Chief Okpala Agbasi, who had assisted him through Standard Six, and who “sold everything and anything that could be sold” in Otukpo (p.20).
In 1955, young Ozoekwe started making business trips on behalf of his master, traversing hundreds of kilometres on bicycle to purchase agricultural produce from the Benue hinterland and journeying to Makurdi to sell to John Holt. He never knew he was laying a solid foundation for himself.
Writes the biographer: “Even as a ‘servant’, Ozoekwe took initiative. He was what you would call a ‘servant-leader’ … He learnt all he could from his master” (p.26). But it wasn’t until he ventured into selling gallons of kerosene in Otukpo on his own that he discovered his niche in business. His master joined the business, too, pumping in more money. This book takes us to Ozoekwe’s meritorious rise to become the pioneer manager of Total Petrol Station in Otukpo in 1958, with his master, Chief Agbasi, as the major stakeholder. When time came for Ozoekwe to be released by his master in 1960, he only had 100 pounds to his name, and needed extra 100 pounds from his master to become a dealer of petroleum product. He obliged him without a blink. Things moved so fast for Ozoekwe that, in 1961, Total Petrol Station was built in Enugu, close to the motor park, and handed over to him by Lapage. Within a short time, he began making good money for Total and himself.
The author recalls that, in that same year, he registered Udeze and Sons and, two years later, Okacha Nigeria Enterprises – Okacha meaning “the biggest” in Igbo language. From there, he started his own petrol station, Okacha Petrol, which grew into branches in old Gongola State, as well as Plateau and in eastern Nigeria.
The book also chronicles the life of his wife, Veronica Obesie, who was three years younger than him, whom he married as a nurse few months before the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in 1967. In chapter 7 “Love and Biafra”, we follow the trajectory of the Ozoekwes as they try to survive the war, leaving us with cliffhangers and gasps of awe.
Besides, the biographer regales us on how the couple raised their children, who, today, have become distinguished in various fields. The ups and downs of Okacha Petroleum and Okacha Bakery offer us valuable lessons that life isn’t a rollercoaster ride, after all.
Nze Ozoekwe’s contributions to the founding of the Orthodox Church in Neni, his passion for culture and his elevation in the traditional hierarchy, with the chieftaincy title of Nze Eyisi Ebulue II, make the offering an enlightening read.
READ ALSO: Nigerian churches tasked on unity, tolerance
What’s more, photographs come as a bonus at the end of the narrative, making it easier to reconcile with different epochal developments. Inspirational life: this biography surely verges on these simple words.