‘At 60, I have learnt that there’s a God factor in everything’
Dr. Emi Membere-Otaji is the Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of Elshcon Group of Companies with interest in Oil and Gas, Shipping, Healthcare and Deep Sea Fishing. A medical doctor-turned entrepreneur, he is a graduate of the University of Lagos and McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University, Washington DC, United States of America. He is a former Commissioner for Health and Special Adviser to Rivers State Government on Privatisation and Investments.
Presently, he is the President of Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce, (PHCCIMA), Chairman, Board of Directors, Clearline International Limited, Member – National Economic Council Committee on Export Promotion and Member, Board of Directors Oil & Gas Free Zones Authority (OGFZA) among others.
As part of his 60th Birthday anniversary, Dr Emi Membere-Otaji will officially launch the Completion of the five-star Princess Medic-Clinics (Multispecialty Signature Hospital) in Port Harcourt. He commissioned and handed over a rebuilt/furnished library in his alma mater, Baptist High School, Port Harcourt, as a 1976 set, old student, that was declared open by the Rivers State Commissioner of Education, Tamunosisi Gogo Jaja. He also constructed and handed over a modern Play Pen at the Port Harcourt Children’s Home, Borokiri.As he clocks 60 this month, he goes down memory lane with The Guardian, reminiscing on how he has been able to chart an enviable path for himself in life with the guidance of the Almighty
I am Dr. Emi Membere-Otaji. I was born on June 10 1958 in Port Harcourt. While growing up, my life has been like a ship in a sea, without an engine, no propeller, but remotely controlled by God. My mother, Deborah Lawson, was very loving. Her mother, Princess, loved me so much. Her life and my mother’s revolved around me. My mother was the only child and for nearly 20 years, I was the only child. On the flip side, for nearly 20 years, I was my father’s only son. He loved me, but was a very strict person. He was always flogging us; but looking back now, that stern posture of my father was the best thing that happened to me because most of the children, who were pampered as I was pampered by my mother and my grandmother, became spoilt kids.
My life as Dr. Emi Membere-Otaji today has two sides. That background was perfect. I could have been spoilt and might not have done well in school. But me, my academics were incidents-free. I had a normal ride and that was it.
In 1967, I was still a kid when the Civil War began, forcing us to go back to my village, Buguma. When Port Harcourt was captured in 1968, I returned to Township School, Port Harcourt, one of the top schools at the time where I met friends like Gen. Kenneth Minima, former Chief of Army Staff. He was my classmate from 1968 in primary school up to secondary school. There was also the former Petroleum Minister, Dieziani Alison-Madueke, among others, and Port Harcourt was very enjoyable.
Looking at how parental guidance and the world around me shaped my journey into independence on my career path, like I said, I was like a ship without engine; I had no career plan. I finished primary and went to Baptist High School. As I finished secondary school those days, the only higher institution was College of Science and Technology, CST, now Rivers State University. There was no university, and then College of Education. So, I didn’t apply anywhere. There were only five universities in the country. In 1976, our results came out, I had Grade 1. My mother called her friend, a Deputy Registrar at the CST. Academics had already started and I hadn’t applied because the results were delayed. At the time, I didn’t use to plan before I get to the bridge. It wasn’t until later in life that I began to see value in planning.
My mother took me, with my results to CST; they looked at my result and said I should do A’ Levels. We were the last set of London GCE A’ Levels in this part of the country. Ours was London GCE, Queen Paper, very tough to pass then. I passed all my three papers and had to go to the university to study medicine.
Medicine was not planned but I found myself given pre-medicine. Though the trend as at then was to go to America and that featured in my plans, but destiny had its stock for me. Rev CTT George, my Principal at Baptist High School, had become the scholarship board’s chairman. I told him I wanted to go study in America. He refused and urged me to finish my A’ Levels saying, “you are brilliant, stay and study medicine in Nigeria.” That was how I didn’t go to America. Then, University of Ibadan (UI) was the most famous school to study medicine. So my mother handed me to an in-law going to Lagos through Ibadan. He went to UI with me. We had a couple of days in Ibadan. I wasn’t too impressed with the campus. We got to the University of Lagos (UNILAG) and I discovered that from the first year of study, you are in the Medical School where the hospital is located, unlike in Ibadan. That was how I picked UNILAG and got admission. Having done with A’ Levels, I spent five years. My time there was eventful. I won’t say I was brilliant, but we were less than 10 per cent of us that never had a re-sit in my time. Maybe my friends could say I was brilliant, but I didn’t see myself as exceptional. I made good friends.
In 1983 when I completed my programme at the medical school, I wanted to join the military but was dissuaded by someone I respect and resolved to serve in a military hospital. Since my mother was a single parent, who had struggled to raise me, I decided to go for the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Port Harcourt. But before then, I was lucky to be retained during my houseman-ship at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) without any godfather. Every big man’s child or ward, who was a doctor, wanted to be in LUTH at the time. So to get a place there, you had to be very well-connected.In 1984 after my one-year houseman-ship, I came to the military hospital in Port Harcourt for my NYSC. I was also into private practice. Before I came back to Lagos, I dropped an application at the Teaching Hospital in Port Harcourt, then in Town.
Core Medical Practice
Even when I returned to Lagos, my immediate desire was to go abroad, preferably America, as many of my friends had done. However, one day, at my uncle’s place, we had a visitor, Dr. Nimi Briggs, who later became a Professor and Vice Chancellor of University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT). He came with a letter of offer from UPTH offering me a job in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. I recalled I dropped an application on my way back to Lagos, not expecting anything. I was in a dilemma, not knowing what to do. At that time, I knew I wanted to be a gynaecologist, but I had also told myself I wasn’t going to stay in Port Harcourt. I considered it too small a town in 1985. I went to my Head of Department (HOD) in LUTH to tell him of my dilemma, stressing how small Port Harcourt was with an unknown teaching hospital. There was an option of going to America.
He looked at me and said there is one man called Prof. Kelsey Harrison in that unknown hospital. At that time Prof. Harrison had become one of the biggest authorities in maternal health with research work quoted worldwide. So my HOD at O & G told me, “my son, if Prof Harrison is in a hole, follow him.” I spent about two to three months, pondering whether to take the offer. Eventually, I went there and my position was still intact.
Foray Into Politics
I started work in 1987 as residency and a student. I wrote the first initial examinations and passed them. By 1988, I opened a five-bed clinic at Trans Amadi while also doing my work at UPTH. A friend, Fafaa Dan Princewill, wanted to be governor of Rivers. I joined him but found out that Ada George, who was also trying to be governor, had a better chance. So, I aligned with Ada George. In 1990, Babangida said nobody should do part-time politics. It was either you remained in government or resigned. So, on June 1, 1990, I went to my HOD, Briggs to tell him I was resigning. He reminded me that I was working, doing examinations brilliantly and he wouldn’t let me go.
I later went to the Chief Medical Director of the school, Dr. O. R Longjohn, present day NLNG Board Chairman. He also said I couldn’t go. Incidentally, four of the five gynaecologists in the department were from Kalabari. They were grooming me to take over and they also advised me not to go.However, when I went on vacation, I threw in my letter of resignation and did not go back. If I were asked why I had to leave the job, I had no reason to give. I wasn’t even thinking of expanding to a bigger hospital, but I felt I could do something better than the job. In any case, by 1991, Ada George won as Governor of Rivers State. Then, Chief Zebulon Abule, not George, was the favoured candidate of NRC to win. But then, I just liked Ada George, soft spoken, approachable. I wasn’t serious about where my bread would be buttered, I could have taken anything Zebulon threw at me, but I liked Ada George.
So, Abule predictably won the primaries, but later Abule got disqualified. Then Ada George got NRC’s ticket and eventually, won the general elections. That’s why I said it is God that has been directing my life all through. I remember riding in George’s car, and he said, “Emi, you have supported me all through. You will be a commissioner. Incidentally, Babangida with a fiat of a law limited the maximum number of state commissioners to seven. With rivalry in my native local council and some persons in my profession who felt I was young, I didn’t get the appointment. Eventually, I became Chairman of the Board of West Africa Glass Industry. I sat on that board as chairman with boardroom gurus, without any knowledge of corporate governance.I went to Lagos Business School, we were the first set and I read a lot. I went to the Stock Exchange where Dr. Ndi Okereke was then an Assistant Director General, later Director General. She took interest in me and introduced me to high profile persons so I could learn the language of the corporate world.
The Lagos Business School at that time was not well-organised. The tutors were volunteers, involving the big names in the corporate world. Such names included the Tayo Kolades, Gamaliel Onosodes and others, who actually impacted us. That helped me a lot, especially with the Stock Exchange experience. That was where the corporate person I am today was nurtured.
In 1993, I was still managing my small hospital and still running politics part-time. In 1997 and 1998, I became chairman of Sgt Awuse for Governor Team. We had a strong team. In 1998, when Sani Abacha died, I went to Awuse and told him: “We seem to be different. I am a bit mellow, and you aggressive. I don’t think I want to do politics again.” But my friend, Precious Ngilali, chairman of campaign team for Peter Odili for Governor at that time, when the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was formed and my school father in Baptist High School told me I should not quit politics, having contributed much and had come a long way. He asked me to remain in politics.
For Odili, he knew me under Ada George. We were close. Secondly, he was the Secretary of Private Doctors in Rivers State before becoming Deputy Governor. At his exit, he handpicked me to succeed him in that capacity. I felt, if I was leaving Awuse, I should quit politics.Ngelali took me to Odili and he convinced me. He said, the United Nigeria Congress Party (UNCP) under which I served Awuse had ended, Abacha had died, and Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar had come with a new system. He said it wouldn’t amount to decamping. So they convinced me and I joined them. In 1999, some of the Kalabari elders and power-brokers, including Marshall Harry, wanted me to go to the Senate, but the lifestyle of the Senators under Babangida didn’t interest me. I opted to be Secretary to the State Government but with so many Kalabaris on strategic position, I couldn’t get that but got Commissioner for Health.
Before then, the company I had opened was into supplies of chemicals to National Fertilizer Company Nig. Ltd (NAFCON), today’s Notore. We were also doing oil locations, civil works at Kolo Creek, Buguma, Afam, and others. We were also working for Shell, where we bought chemical from Halliburton, Schlumberger and supplied under Elshcon. But we had no structure on these businesses. Today, I am ISO certified. I have many workers, before it was all about Dr. Membere Otaji, so if I was not around, the business was almost closing.
When I left politics to face my business 2005, I had this piece of land at Woji. Before the first Slaughter Bridge was built, Woji was one-track entry. And I like waterfronts where I could build to rest by the water. The government constructed the bridge and it passed through the front of my property. So Woji, as end of town now, became Trans Amadi, because of that bridge and oil companies were looking for a place, waterfront, as a melting point for their locations. That was how I got into marine business by chance. I hired barge, tugboat and all that. I would go to Abuloma and other places to get what clients wanted and add N5000 markup as a broker. I started constructing my first barge and building an office in GRA.
In 2005, I found I had no more money to continue the barge and the office I was building. I was at a crossroad. I went to my mother. She had a piece of land somewhere. I sold it for N19.5million. She took N500,000 and gave me N19 million. So, I put N10 million to finish the barge, used N9 million to roof the building. I could not complete it. Siemens took the building thereafter, took a floor, finished the building and stayed there for donkey years before it left.
I finished the barge, called it ENL (Elshcon Nig Ltd) Miracle. If my mother wasn’t there for me, I would have lost my initial investment. That barge didn’t have a job for a year. Later, however, Saipem took it for five years. That was the turning point in my life. From there, I progressed to own other barges, tugboats, drew boats and other offshore equipment, to fabrication. My businesses took a turning point.
Sadly, my mother died a year after. She died from a minor surgery, an anesthetic accident, done by one of the best consultants around. Ever since, I have been involved in several things, and going back, I no longer wait to get to the bridge before I cross it. My spirituality has increased. I pray more and I plan ahead to guide. I guide my children on what to do and how to plan for it. I am now the President of the second largest and most vibrant Chamber of Commerce in the country: Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce. I am also in the National President, Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA). I am chairman of a couple of companies. I am Chairman of Board of Directors, Clear Line, one of the oldest health insurance companies. For the health sector, I hadn’t gotten so deeply involved, but we are building one of the best hospitals in Port Harcourt today, to be commissioned in the next few weeks. Through the instrumentality of NACCIMA, I was put in a number of federal boards, which is still contributing to my turnaround. From a ship without engine, I am remotely controlled by God. I know the Bible more and still pray. Now I plan and ask God to fight my battles.
What Life Has Taught Me At 60
At 60, I have learnt there is God-factor in everything. I am a better Christian today. I have realised that things don’t happen by chance. Work hard and pray hard and take your situations to God for direction, for guidance, for blessings and protection. I also imbibed this forward ever, backward never attitude. I make mistakes, but I never dwell on them, but rather see everyone mistake as a stepping-stone for greater heights. I learn from my yesterday to shape my tomorrow. I don’t keep enemies in my heart. People have hurt me, but I sleep like a baby, not keeping them in mind. If you hurt me, I tell you and move on, but I learn from it.
That is to say if you step on my foot, I learn from it and I would tell you and avoid putting my leg near you so you wouldn’t march on me again. I would not plan revenge. I would rather avoid getting marched by you again. That is my story at 60.I pray a lot, read a lot and give written and spoken guidance to my children. I read biographies and autobiographies to know how people live and lead a better life. I have six children.