Chris Okoye @ 70: ‘From childhood, I found that I was always concerned about wellbeing of others’
Engr. Chris Okoye (KGS), a doyen of the engineering profession in Nigeria, a serial entrepreneur, a consummate community leader and a non-partisan Statesman, turned 70 years recently. In this interview with REGINALD FACAH, he spoke on his background, family life and interests. He also bared his mind on salient national issues ranging from politics and economy.
Firstly, let me congratulate you on your birthday. 70 years is a tidy grand age – very biblical and spiritual. What are your thoughts exactly at this point in time?
Well, let me begin by thanking you very much for finding time to converse with me on a day like this, on which I have become 70 years old. It is a very, very, significant turning point in one’s life in the sense that one is obviously entering into the last phase of one’s life and sojourn here on earth. I remember now that when I was growing up, if one says he was 60 years old, I would always wonder when I would ever get to that age. However, here I am today clocking 70 years, with all my faculties intact.
Well I do not feel anything particularly different; I still feel my usual self. I still feel my normal self. I still do the same things, physically. And I thank God almighty that I am particularly healthy; I am well. I am not sick. All I can say is that one is in a state of thankfulness to God almighty for what has happened in my life. I thank God for this moment and hope the wellness I feel at this age would continue in the foreseeable future. Internally, I do not feel any significant difference in my approach to life. But of course, 70 is a most remarkable moment in my life and I am most grateful for the life and the opportunities given me thus far.
Any plans for a Platinum birthday celebration?
Of course, there is. You do not get to attain 70 years every day. But all celebrations will be kept in abeyance until sometimes in 2022 when, hopefully, the pandemic surge would have abated. Events to mark the birthday would include the presentation of a book on the national polity as well as a book of tributes from family, friends and well-wishers. A public lecture, musical performance, a grand reception and a Thanksgiving Service will round up the activities. All things being equal, the birthday celebrations would hold during my birthday anniversary in 2022.
Going down memory lane, how was growing up like – your nativity, parents and earliest recollected thoughts?
I was born in Jos in today’s Plateau State, but unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity of growing up there; I grew up largely in Enugu. I would say that it gave me the opportunity to interact with a lot of people, as Enugu was then a sort of melting pot for Nigerians from every part of the country.
I recall that I started school at Christ Church Primary School, Uwani – a very old school. At that time, young people looked up with respect to the elderly and seniors. It is probably not the way today’s youth see and treat elders. We had a lot of respect for our parents and seniors as well as our teachers. In addition, there seemed to be more order and orderliness in the society of those days, with everyone knowing and doing the duties expected of them. As children, we were very dutiful then, I recall. Unfortunately, I did not grow up in my hometown, Enugu-Ukwu. But of course, I did go there from time to time especially during the festive seasons like Christmas and to visit with my grandparents. We usually went to the village to celebrate Christmas.
Growing up with my parents was quite instructive. Of course, all parents then were an extension of your schoolteacher as great disciplinarians. In addition, my parents, especially my dad was not different. We were all brought up to worship God in truth and in spirit. Usually when we woke up in the morning, the first thing we did was to gather for the morning devotion as a family. It was a tradition and you wouldn’t miss it for anything, even when you were sick. After that of course, we all went to our different morning chores as we prepared for school.
My mother of course is a very pleasant woman who at that time had her seamstress work to do, which made her popular in the area we lived. She looked after the home very well. It was a very godly home as everything was done to ensure we grew up properly.
Your birth date is December 21, in the Christmas Season. How did you mark it in a festive Season? Did Christmas overwhelm or boost your birthday celebrations?
The climate of festivity certainly intensifies the celebratory mood. There is indeed something special about celebrating one’s special day during such an iconic period of joy and family togetherness. It is also special, because it often affords families the opportunity to come together and celebrate to finish off the year. For families with members scattered across the globe, this is obviously a pivotal moment for familial solidarity.
Finally, and most importantly, the religious significance of the mass of Christ coinciding with one’s birthday enhances the feeling of piety and self-reflection. The milestone nature of my birthday further deepens the spiritual contemplation that invariably proliferation during this season.
What great lessons did you learn from your father before he passed away?
Oh! My late father, Felix Godson Nwenechukwu (FGN), Chinyelugo of Enugu-ukwu na Umunri supported by his wife and my peerless mother, Lady Monica Chiebonem Okoye (Nee Okonkwo). Ochiora was a very meticulous person; he was a stickler to everything that was straight, honest, clean and appropriate. He never got himself involved in anything that was shady and dirty. Even in his dressing, you could see that cleanliness, too. So, one probably learnt a lot from him in making sure that I had no part in anything that was not right and in dressing spritely.
All my siblings imbibed our father’s virtue and legacy of honesty and being straight forward, no matter what. He taught us all to be truthful and godly and to think kindly of our fellow men. He taught us to live a transparent life, a life of honesty and decency. We got these unique virtues from him, and it stayed with him all through. Of course, everybody saw him as a clean person.
What were your early school years like, any particularly remarkable experience?
Again, my early schooling was at Christ Church School, Uwani. At that time, Infant classes (what is now called pre-school or nursery school), was part of Primary Schools. We had a very tough Headmaster, Mr. Oguejiofor. He taught all of us, his pupils, to be punctual to school. Again, that virtue stayed with me till now, as I try very much not to be late for meetings and appointments.
I recall that there was a particular spot where Mr. Oguejiofor would stand to assemble all late comers. Usually, he would have them publicly flogged at the school assembly, where, with all the students present – each late comer was given ten strokes of the cane across their buttocks. It was quite severe then, that pupils would rather go back home once they were late to school!
There was also the farming in school; pupils were apportioned ridges where we each planted crops. During class breaks, we tended the crops in our ridges. The pupils were in this way, taught how to farm and to look forward to the fruits that would come out of their efforts. It was a culture we adopted and we all left with it. I do not think they still do all these things in our schools these days. Of course, we also had serious sporting activities, which were called PT/PE (Physical Training/Physical Education) in those days.
How much farming and physical exercise have you been engaged since Christ Church School?
Well, for farming, not much because right after Christ Church, I got so immersed in academic activities and would only engage in farming activities when I visited my grandparents in the village during holidays and had to go to the farm to help like every young child.
However, since I left Christ Church, I have always been engaged in physical exercises. It may amaze you to know that I go to the gym twice a week where I do really strenuous and exerting exercises to keep fit. I am also a stickler for eating very healthy food with lots of fruits.
One of your most common traits revolves around seeking avenues for the pursuit of the public or common good. What does this mean to you and would you say that you have been able to achieve your set goals along these lines?
Let me put it this way, my life’s spring, which has been centred on the pursuit of the common good, might have come from the unique family experiences that I have gone through. Somehow, from childhood I found that I was always concerned about the wellbeing of others, especially those around me. I am always seeking for ways to reach out to others in need, as well as ensuring peaceful coexistence among people of any group I belong to; my family and my friends know me for this. I don’t know how it came about, but it seems to me as a character trait that ensured that I was not selfish, self-centred or greedy.
I am concerned about how others felt and I am always willing to extend a helping hand. Of course, this character trait stayed as I went into public life, as I found out that some people hardly go the extra mile for others, even their family members and friends. But for me, the reverse is the case, as I am ever ready to pursue the common good of all. And I think that is what is required to hold families, societies and even institutions, together.
My take in life is that whenever you find yourself in a position to contribute to the growth of your society, do it because you would also benefit from whatever comes to the group. So, that is my explanation for the concept of the common good, making sure that everyone in a group benefits.
What would you consider as your greatest lesson in Life over the years?
I believe that the greatest lesson I have learnt in life has been never to accept failure as an end but a lack of success, in a trial. I believe that whatever happens to one in life, the will to move on and never give up must be there. Indeed, wherever and whenever I have faltered and fallen, I never give up. I pick up myself and keep looking forward, believing that I can find a solution to the challenge. But where I have seen that I face a brick wall, I would make sure I explore every possibility to get it right.
So, that lesson of persistence in whatever I have been engaged in is what I would consider as my greatest lesson in life. I just keep pushing. I never give up on any pursuit, unless it becomes very clear to me that it would be most foolish and futile to continue along that path, because you cannot flog a dead horse, after all.
You have been married for over 40 year and is bound to have a bagful of marital experience. Tell us, how did you meet your wife and what advice would you proffer for matrimonial stability and longevity?
This is a very interesting question. The story of my wife and I goes back a long time. Interestingly, the parents of my wife and my own parents lived in the same premises, when my parents relocated from Jos to settle in Enugu. They moved into a property along O’Connor Street and lo and behold, the parents of my wife lived there too.
Unknown to my wife, when her mother was pregnant and put to bed, it was my mother that took her to the hospital and cared for her after childbirth. We both only got to know about this later. Living in the same compound, and attending Christ School Uwani, together, I knew my wife as a neighbour and a school contemporary. She was about two or three classes below me. Obviously, we hadn’t anything going on then. We were kids then and there were no feelings at all for each other. Only we lived in the same premises and at times walked together to school, until we left Christ School Uwani and we went to different secondary schools.
I went to Colliery Comprehensive Secondary school, owned by the Nigerian Coal Corporation, which established the school in Enugu, at the Hilltop, Ngwo. Mr. Henshaw, a Briton was our principal. It turned out that it was only immediately after the war that I found myself going to visit her at home, as I was inexplicably drawn to her at this time. We were both still in the secondary school. I am sure her parents couldn’t understand why I was always coming to their home, but would have assumed the proximity of our living in the same yard as the reason. There must have been something going on; this love for her and longing to be in her presence. So, that was how we met, but we later grew apart when I went overseas for further studies and she also left to commence her medical studies. It was only when I came back from overseas that we resumed our relationship. But what is important here is that when you talk about marriages made in heaven – ours is one of them.
So, what do you think drew you to her?
There was some uniqueness in her that certainly drew me back to her again and again, because I would have actually gotten married to someone else entirely. When I came back to Nigeria after my studies abroad, there was already some kind of marriage being arranged by my parents, but somehow, I stood my ground and stuck with her. So, there must be something that kept telling me that this is my wife. Her warmness, her truthfulness and of course, she is a very lovely young lady and I call her my darling till this very day.
Against the background of the breakup of marriages contracted these days, what advice would you offer to young and aspiring couples on how to maintain their relationship?
Of course, I have advice to offer. The first and major advice would be to structure their marriage to be God-centred in order to avoid serious problem. There must be very strong commitment of every couple to worship God in truth and in spirit. A husband and wife must also be dedicated to fellowshipping together. Young couples these days do not seem to grasp the relevance of fellowshipping together as it strengthens their bond and deepens their intimacy while allowing them to communicate effectively.
Indeed, the saying that a family that prays together stays together is absolutely correct. And each party must not doubt the sincerity of the other. Once you begin to doubt your partner, there is absolutely no way you can stand together. I think, too, that when challenges arise in marriages, couples should allow God help them overcome, rather that insist on man-made solutions, which ultimately are selfish and contrived.
I would use us (Ifeoma and myself) as an example here. When we first got married, we hadn’t any child for the first six years. It was a major challenge and if our foundation were not God and His word, we would have had cracks in our union. My wife of course was very distraught and disturbed by this development. I also had challenges with different people approaching me to proffer different solutions to the problem. There were talks behind our backs.
I recall vividly the instance of a dear old lady whom I visited in my village at Christmas. With tears in her eyes, she lamented, asking why I had to go through the challenge – saying why me? However, as difficult as the situation was, it was never really a bother, although I would catch my wife weeping about the situation from time to time. And I think she saw clearly that I was not overly bothered or rather that my faith was in God. But in the fullness of time, the children came – the first, the second, the third and the fourth. So, this is one of the vicissitudes of life. But any marriage that is God-centred would go through them and still stand strong.
You are often described as a serial entrepreneur when it comes to business. Is this correct and what has your experience been as a participant in Nigeria’s private sector?
I think that is a reference to one’s unique quality of being able to create a business idea and work assiduously to see it come to pass. But in my own case, I find that every business idea I conceive, I supported with determination and all my resources, to ensure it is well established. Innovation and hard work are two very important concepts that should guide any business venture and these unique qualities I very much believe are inherent in me.
However, I never believe in running these ideas even though they are mine. I am what you might call a systems and institution driven person. I work hard to create a structure and institutionalise a system, but I believe one must find the appropriate people to run and manage these business concerns successfully. That was my approach in almost everything that one did. But I found that Nigeria, where corruption is rampant, is perhaps not quite ready for this kind of enterprise management style and it became the undoing of several of these businesses.
So, in every business that we created, you always found people trying their utmost to defraud, corrupt and milk the system for their selfish ends. A typical example of course is that I created a micro-finance bank Harvard Trust Savings and Loans Company. It was the number one microfinance enterprise in the whole of Enugu and the South East and it became a hub for the setting up of several small and medium scale enterprises. But it was ran aground by its operators. It set up many young people in business. There is a pharmacist I know in this town (Enugu), who is one of the richest pharmacists in Nigeria today. He started out with facilities from this bank and it makes me so proud. Unfortunately, the then managing director of the bank obviously decided that he was going to make money for himself and then went outside the process of the company’s vision and it ran into trouble.
A similar thing happened with the printing press, one of the largest in this part of the country, which in its heydays was called the printers’ printer, because not only individuals and publishers, but also other printers brought their work to us for printing. In fact, at a stage in Enugu, this press was printing for almost every other printing press, including government’s documents for the Government Press. As it stands, every printing press that is standing and successful in Enugu today came from Fegno Printing and Packaging Company Limited.
What was the problem here? The General Manager had an issue with the Production Manager. The latter for reasons best known to him was charging customers on the side, to print with us. Those that did not pay the money to him had their jobs delayed. And so, everybody knew that if you were going to print at Fegno Printing Press, you must be ready to pay a sum of N5000 (five thousand naira) to the production manager. It was weighing down the company and I did not even know about it. It only blew open when the two senior managers had a face off. And because our staff, machines and products were the best around, people were compelled to pay these extra charges until the company’s fortune began to dwindle. At a stage, we had to close down the press. And even though it is back in business, it has not been like the good old days when Fegno Printing Press was the talk of the printing industry in Enugu and beyond.
Sir, you once published a weekly newspaper in the early eighties, what led to that venture and how did it fare?
I think that the publication of that weekly newspaper came as a result of necessity being the mother of all inventions. You will recall that Odumegwu Ojukwu had come back from exile, there was a very persistent cry out that he should not enter politics rather he should become a man that would lead the Igbo nation to the next level in the Nigerian project. At that time, it was clear that there was certain kind of barrenness that was everywhere; everywhere you looked, there was this feeling of hangover, what you might call an awful feeling of apathy and dejection. And some people were looking for a figure that could resurrect and restore the faith of the Igbo people in the Nigerian nation and everybody felt that Ojukwu should play that role.
There was a think-tank that was set up along this line; we kept talking about how to start a weekly newspaper for the Igbo nation, and each time we met, it was discovered that the cost of setting up a weekly newspaper kept soaring and no one was willing to raise the fund for this. This situation lingered on until I took up the responsibility of exploring the possibility of building blocks and networks that eventually led to the setting up of a weekly newspaper called Onyeije – this term was actually synonymous with Ojukwu then. Onyeije of course refers to Ojukwu as the man who went on a journey and is now back – Onyeije nno as we used to put it then. It was meant to reflect the character, person, and situation of the man Ojukwu and his new role for the Igbo nation.
If you recall, the Azikiwe’s Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) came into the scene at about his same period; so this newspaper came essentially at that time to propagate the notion of Ojukwu becoming the new Igbo leader as an apolitical figure this time. The fact that we were able to do it without the billions people talked about, was quite commendable. The newspaper was in English and was most sought out and we could never really meet the people’s demand for it. Unfortunately, the newspaper ceased publication suddenly when Ojukwu entered into partisan politics, thus the essence of setting up the newspaper was defeated. But it was fun while it lasted and made serious impact among the Igbo people.
You had a foray into academics while you were at the University of Houston in the State of Texas, in the United States of America and you are presently involved in the Engineering Curriculum project of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) and you are a member of the NSE Board. Tell us about this aspect of your life.
When I finished at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I ran into a gentleman at one of the Conferences of American Geophysicists, called Professor Mike O’Neal. He is one of the greatest geophysical engineers in the world. Mike O’Neal convinced me to enroll into a Masters programme at the school. And because he was a major authority in the geophysical world giving conference papers and publishing academic papers, I was easily persuaded.
There was a project he was doing for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Dubai at a time the desert city was just coming up. He had a lot of projects going on more so as Houston was also an oil city. Both of us got on very well and since he was often on the road travelling for his various projects, he pushed some of his works to me and I became a Graduate Assistant taking under my wings some of O’Neal’s undergraduate students.
When I finished the Masters, I immediately got a job with Harding Lawson Associates in Houston. Later on (they must have seen something in me), the company decided to take me to their Head Office in California. After about six months in the California Office, I was penciled down to head the London office, which was at the cusp of making inroad into Africa. They saw a potential in me and must have been ear- marking me for the African operations. As those plans were going on, the Bonny LNG Project picked up in Nigeria and Harding Lawson Associates got the job. And immediately, I was sent over to Nigeria to take over and run that project. At the end of that project, I decided to move into civil engineering works and the F.G.N Okoye and Sons Limited, which soon became a household name in Nigeria.
There seem to be a paucity of large indigenous engineering firms unlike what we used to have in the 70s and early 80s. What happened to us?
Actually, there were quite a few indigenous engineering firms in different parts of Nigeria competing with the foreign ones operating in Nigeria. We competed well with Julius Berger and the rest. I recall bidding with them for a project in Onitsha called the Metallurgical Training Institute and FGN Okoye and Sons won the bid based on the reports of the consultants. This was about N36 million, which could easily translate into billions today. And because the loan for that particular project was sourced from the then West Germany, everyone thought Julius Berger would win the bid. The consultants, however, thought otherwise.
The Permanent Secretary, Musa, of the Ministry of Mines and Power in those days, wrote a letter to the consultants instructing that the job be given to Julius Berger. But the consultant wrote back declining, adding that he had made his recommendation to the client (which was the Ministry of Mines and Power) who is free to accept or reject it, but that he (the consultant) would not change his mind as he felt F.G.N Okoye and Sons was qualified and competent to handle that construction based on their bid document.
The Permanent Secretary then summoned the consultant, one Mr Ibegbulam, a very tall and imposing fellow to his office in Lagos. On the day the man came, I gathered, the whole staff of the Ministry were fearful for him as no one had ever dared Musa and succeeded. I heard that every officer in the Ministry of Mines and Power ran away, not wanting to be part of the fight they were sure would take place that day. After a face off in which the consultant yet stood his ground, the job was eventually given to F.G.N Okoye and we delivered on the job.
This can obviously only happen in the Nigeria of that era, not nowadays when everyone is in on the sleaze and the engineering industry has so many incompetent fellows who can easily be swayed.
How did all these translate into your very intense involvement with the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) and all your activities with them?
As soon as I returned to Nigeria, I got involved with the Nigerian Society of Engineers. We have always had a strong social presence here in Enugu being the then headquarters of the former Eastern Region and the proximity of the coal industry. We had a very active branch and I had the privilege of having had engineering association experience at the American Association of Geophysicists. I probably knew that this was one way of deploying my capacity to be relevant in the operations of the engineering profession in Nigeria. I immediately threw myself into the activities of the association.
My activities enabled me to play quite a number of roles at the Enugu branch of the Nigerian Society of Engineers. I recall that I was the Chairman of the last major conference held in Enugu in 1990. It was acclaimed one of the best ever held. And surprisingly, no other conference has been held in Enugu since then. They tried to hold that of 2021 here, but the COVID-19 thing hampered it. And of course, from about 1992, I have served at the national body as an executive member, having been elected by the Enugu Branch. And from there I got to the council where I have functioned for about 35 years in – the Nigerian content and the Highway Code projects.
One area that has always interested me is being able to bring the industry and the academia together, as there is a deep gulf between the two in Nigeria. I find that most of the conferences here, unlike what transpires in the United States where it is actually driven by people in the universities, are driven by people in the industry. Why is this so in America? It is so because the people in the university derive from the industry and the people in the industry derive from the university. So, they are constantly in the picture of what new trends are. So, this is actually one of the things hampering the growth and development of the industry in Nigeria.