Igwe Umenyiora… The Making of a quintessential monarch
No matter how casual he decides to go, you will always find an emblem of royalty on him; if it’s not the traditional beads, it’s the red cap.
But on this day, it was a rare experience to see HRM Igwe John Ositadimma Umenyiora, Ezediromma of Ogbunike, looking sporty.
Dressed in a pair of white shorts, white polo shirt and white sneakers, Igwe looked entirely different from his usual.
However, Umenyiora is no stranger to sports wears as he wore a whole lot of them during his days as a goalkeeper.
From Township School Port Harcourt, up to the time he enrolled at the Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH) to study Electrical Engineering on the scholarship of the then Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), Presido, as friends and admirers fondly called him, was always in-between the sticks for the football.
“They used to call me Presido in school, I created a lot of laws back then.
I was in Standard 4 when I was made the captain of the school; I was handling people above me.
Little did I know that today, I will be here, the King of Ogbunike. So, it’s quite a lot of experience,” he enthused.
Young Umenyiora started his early education at St. Paul’s Primary School, Jos, but later moved to Central School Onitsha, before Township School Port Harcourt, where he turned out to become one of the best goalkeepers in the city.
“I used to be the best goalkeeper in Port Harcourt. If you ask people that grew up in Port Harcourt about ‘Township Goalkeeper,’ they will tell you it is John Umenyiora.
Any day that Township School was going to play football, the whole market would close down because they would want to come and watch us,” he recalled.
Beyond stopping the ball from going into the net, Umenyiora added a lot of glamour to goal-keeping, which endeared him to fans and also got him in trouble with the senior boys.
“I put a lot of glamour in football because of the way I perform on the field; I played with class.
For instance, if you tried to score, I could use three fingers to catch the ball and spin it around.
Because coach John Chidiaka noticed me in primary school, he decided to invite me to join the senior team.”
Though a promotion, the invitation to play for the senior team did not go down well with the seniors, who preferred their main goalkeeper, Areh.
“That day, the whole of Port Harcourt came to watch me, we used the Police Barracks field for that trial match.
Throughout the game, Uwalaka, Onyeanwuna, Onyeali… they couldn’t score; that was the day Uwalaka gave me this cut with his boot,” he said, showing the scar.
For his outstanding performance, Umenyiora was drafted into the squad to play Onitsha team.
In fact, his father, the late Rev. P.N.C Umenyiora, who heard many positive stories about his son’s goal keeping skills, decided to come and watch him play.
“I was originally selected to keep that day, but the team revolted. To them, how can a small boy come and remove one of their members; they ganged up against me.
They didn’t look at it as sportsmen, they were more concerned that one of them was dropped because of me.
That day, they were humiliated. Before you knew it, Onitsha scored the first goal. I went to Areh, the goalkeeper and said, ‘can I come in?’
But he refused. In the end, they trashed us 4:0. When we came back, everybody disappeared; that was when I decided to hang my boot,” he said.
At YABATECH, Umenyiora resolved never to play football; he stayed away entirely.
But somehow, his skills found him out. Meanwhile, a certain Oramalu, who knew Presido back in Port Harcourt, had spoken to the team about his goalkeeping skills.
“Oramalu from Oba kept telling them in school, ‘you see that young man, he’s a wonderful goalkeeper.
If you can bring him into the team, he will make a difference,” he noted.
There’s this saying that, once a soldier, always a soldier; that was the case with Umenyiora.
One evening, on his way back from studies, he passed through the football pitch about the time the school team was training.
“Someone kicked the ball and it was coming towards me.
I was having my books in one hand and by impulse I just raised my hand and caught the ball with three fingers and the whole crowd started shouting; that was how they dragged me back to football.
I was eventually selected to play for a team in Lagos, but again, they removed my name and changed it with someone else’s.
So, I lost interest in football. Till date, I don’t even watch football, but my son, Osi, inherited it; he played for the New York Giants in the National Football League in USA,” he noted.
THE Nigerian Civil War was a huge setback for most Igbo youths.
While many lost their lives, those who survived the war, had tough time finding their rhythm.
Luckily, Umenyiora was among those that survived the war, having fled Lagos. All he had left was his suit and his recorder.
“During the war, I told my mum that whatever happens, I must keep that suit.
We came out of the war without any money, so I had to start a new life in Enugu.
I sold my recorder to a soldier on Abakaliki Road for 30 pounds; that was my capital to start a business.”
Umenyiora’s plan was to return to Lagos and reconnect with old friends, but for lack of fund, he had to first travel to Benin en-route Sapele to meet with an old friend.
“When I got to Benin, I got stuck financially, I had only one shilling left.
So, I took a taxi and, on the way, I told the taxi man, ‘look, I don’t have money to pay you, I’m just coming from the warfront.
But I need to go and see a friend in Sapele to help me, I will be grateful if you can drop me in Warri to take a boat to Sapele. The man shed tears and when he dropped me, he gave me 5 shillings,” he recalled.
Luckily, Ben, his Sapele friend was able to raise him 15 pounds with which he headed for Lagos in search of new life.
“When I got to Lagos, there was another classmate of mine called Morafa.
When we were in school, I used to call him, ‘Aboy Indiana’ because he used to like Indian films.
Then, he calls me ‘Umezora.’ He studied Civil Engineering, while I studied Electrical Engineering.
So, when I got to his house in Lagos, I started shouting ‘Aboy Indiana…’ with the hope that he would be happy to know that I survived the war. But he came out, looked at me and banged the door.
The people in the compound were just looking at me like a madman; I was so disappointed. I decided not to go to any other friend,” he lamented.
Left with no other option, young Umenyiora started sleeping on the streets of Lagos, particularly around Fadeyi Bus Stop on Ikorodu Road.
“Very early in the morning, I would take my bath and wear my normal slippers; I was always having that my suit with me.
So, on Broad Street, I met another senior in my school, he’s from Edo State. He saw me and shouted, ‘John, are you alive?’ I said, ‘yes.’
He asked, ‘why are you like this?’ He then took me to a shop and bought me a shoe; I just wore my suit and became a businessman,” he said.
Presido first started freelancing for Atlas Nigerian Limited, where he used to get jobs to supply furniture, before he eventually got a job as salesman with CAC Furniture Company in Mushin.
“I took up the job and things were going fine.
Unfortunately for me, I was going to see a girlfriend I had wanted to marry, Florence Nnakwe, who later married Prof. Okigbo.
On my way that day, I had a motor accident. I thought I had died, but God saved me.
After I recovered, things changed; our GM didn’t like me. He was jealous that I was pulling more business to the company.
In fact, he conspired with other staff against me.
You know, I happened to be driving the company’s car when I had the accident, which I wasn’t supposed to. So, I decided to leave the company.
But before I left, I told Mr. Taylor, ‘I’m going back to my company, you will hear about UNICCO soon.”
With UNICCO, Umenyiora returned to Enugu in search of contracts.
At that time, the East Central State Government under the late Ukpabi Asika was trying to make some copies of documents and they needed photocopying machines to do so.
“I didn’t know anything about photocopiers, but I went into the business.
They gave me an LPO (Local Purchase Order) worth about 25,000 pounds then, but I had no money to finance it; I didn’t even know the value of what I had.
So, I came to Lagos to meet with the company that had the machines; I discovered that what I actually needed to do that job was only 2500 pounds, the rest are profit.
So, you can imagine the volume of profit,” he enthused.
With his discovery, Umenyiora returned to his elder brother Jabez Umenyiora, an architect, who brought in his friend to finance the contract.
“Ossy Gravel offered to finance the project, so, I went back to the Ministry and asked them to break the LPOs into fives.
So, I had one of 5000 pounds, which was what I showed to Ossy Gravel; I didn’t want people to know how much I was going to make from the whole business.
He went to UBA and raised the money with his property and we got the machines supplied.
The day I came, the whole Ministry came out jubilating and said their problem had been solved.”
He continued: “They started pumping in money into printing; that was where I made my first money.
From there I went into scientific and hospital equipment supply. Then, I got my first agency from Japan and the rest is history.
I later got the contract to equip all the health facilities in Nigeria, which I called Project 285 because we had about 285 clinics in the whole country.
We also supplied and installed Agricultural Science Equipment to 156 Teachers Training Colleges in Nigeria; the business just kept growing,” he said.
In 1984, Umenyiora, who is also the Chairman of Blue Bells Securities Limited, introduced for the first time the electronic system of fighting crime in Nigeria.
Later, Blue Bells Communications brought INMASAT Satellite Telecommunication Technology into the country, a technology that Shell, Chevron, Union Bank, Texaco, Chiyoda, Hydson, Eleme Petrochemicals, JGC, NITEL and others used extensively.
The company is currently introducing to Nigeria the latest state-of-the-art Electronic Court Recording System called JAVS, which records both audio and visuals.
This technology will save presiding judges the task of recording and writing during court sessions, as well as eliminate misinterpretation and misrepresentation of facts.
RIGHT from his youthful years, Umenyiora has always thought of helping his community develop.
In fact, he once opened up to his bosom friend John Okadigbo that, if ever the resources come across, he would use part of it to change Ogbunike community.
“I looked at Ogbunike, a community I grew up from and I saw the way things were moving in the negative direction.
Maybe God heard my prayers because the resources came.
The person who really inspired me was John F. Kennedy, he said, ‘think not what America will do for you, but what you will do for America.’
First of all, I built the Town Hall.
When I completed it, I took over the Oyeolisa Market and built it with my hard-earned money, and then I built Ogbunike Boys Secondary School.
I can’t remember how many scholarships I gave to people to study home and abroad. I was doing all that just to fulfill my promise to God,” he said.
When Murtala Muhammed came into power and decided that all communities should have a traditional ruler, Ogbunike resolved that young Umenyiora, who was only 35 years old, was going to take the slot.
“I was in Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo, when late Chuba Okadigbo called me to say, ‘John, you know what?
The community has decided that you are going to be the traditional ruler of Ogbunike.’
I laughed over it and said, ‘this is the greatest joke of the year, what do I know?
I have no experience, I don’t know anything about the custom and tradition.’
He told me it was the decision of our community, but I insisted, ‘why can’t they pick an elderly person and I will give him my support.’ I was about 35 years at that time,” he recalled.
On his return to Nigeria, Umenyiora discovered the community had reached a consensus on his candidacy, but he turned it down.
“They pleaded with me until late Chief Augustine Ilodibe (Ekene Dili Chukwu Motors) and late Justice Mbanefo approached me; they intervened and pleaded with me that I should not reject what my community wants me to do for them.
That was how I accepted to be the first Igwe of Ogbunike and was crowned on December 26, 1976.”
Now 42 years after, Umenyiora still remains as quintessential as ever.
In fact, his last Ofala Festival in 2016 was a talk of the town; it was class personified.
“I’m somebody, who believes in class; I like the best of things.
If you look around me, you will notice that. For instance, if I want to buy a car, I go for the best.
The first car I had was a Peugeot, from that I moved to Rolls Royce, I’ve driven Mercedes Benz several times, I’ve used Limousine, Hummer… I’ve seen it all.”
He continued: “Now, look at the traditional institution, I’ve changed the style.
When I come out, you see a psychedelic traditional ruler.
I believe in emulating great kings like Caesar, Mansa Musa of Africa and others in the way I dress,” he quipped.
On his Round Palace, which remains a major attraction in Anambra, he explained: “This place you call palace today was designed as Round House because I like naming all my buildings; the Glass House, The Castle now the Round House, which I turned to the Round Palace after I became the Igwe.
If you see the way it was done, it is unique; it’s not the normal rectangular buildings you see.
So far, I don’t know if there’s any other palace within this region where you can see helicopter land.
When I gave David Mark chieftaincy title, his helicopter landed here. When he was told he could land inside this place, he was surprised.
But on that day, he landed at the helipad and was escorted down into the palace to take his title,” he boasted.
Meanwhile, having been on the throne for long, Igwe Umenyiora sure knows what it takes to be a king.
“It’s not easy,” he noted. “You know the Igbo man will say Eze bu ilo (Kingship is enmity); some people will admire you, some people will hate you.
To be a governor or president is easier because you can enforce decision or law.
In our own case, you have to convince people to toe your line and get the job done.
So, if you don’t have that charisma and skill, you won’t be able to do that.”
On the need to give traditional rulers more constitutional roles in Nigeria, he said: “You know the traditional institution today is not the same with what we had in the past.
Most of the traditional rulers we have today are highly skilled and educated men; some of them are highly qualified professionals. I think they should be given very important constitutional roles,” he noted.
IN 1974 when Umenyiora wedded his first wife, the city of Enugu stood still.
He shutdown the popular Presidential Hotel Enugu for the classy wedding that brought together dignitaries from different parts of the country.
“In fact, one incident happened that day; the then administrator of the East Central State, Ukpabi Asika, wanted to use the hotel.
They planned to cancel my booking, but I thanked God because I had already paid well in advance.
I just said to them, ‘just cancel it, maybe I would become the new owner of the hotel.’ That wedding was rarely something Enugu has never seen before,” he boasted.
Umenyiora’s first love was actually Florence Nnakwe from Oghe in Enugu State, but somehow, that marriage didn’t work out.
“When we went for the dowry, her parents were not there; I was a bit disappointed.
Her elder sister, the late Lucy, who was married to Igwe Lax Ekwueme, didn’t like our association because then, I had nothing; she was looking at me as a ‘nobody.’
Really, I was nobody then; I never knew I was going to be somebody someday,” he said.
When that plan failed, he looked inwards to Ogbunike and Chinelo Okadigbo, who happened to be a close friend, became the lucky bride.
“She’s a sister to the late Senator Chuba Okadigbo; I used to think she’s my sister.
I actually went to ask her father and he started laughing and said he knew that Chinelo was going to be my wife.
When I told Chinelo, she was surprised. But finally, we got married; we had four boys and a girl.
My plan was to have four boys and two girls, but I had four boys and a girl before the marriage ended.”
After separating from his first wife, Igwe returned to Enugu State, this time to Eke Community. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last beyond nine months.
“I think I got the wrong girl, though the father warned me about her. But we had a son, who is an Engineer in the United States now.
I now have this pretty wife Ijeoma from Obosi; she had four girls and a boy.
So, in total, I have 11 children. They all graduated from universities in the United States; they are all doing well,” he noted.
Though retired, Umenyiora is not tired; he still finds time to make contributions when there’s need.
Through the Umenyiora Foundation, he’s currently running a nationwide campaign, Back To School, which is targeted at the youths.
“It’s something I want to use to preach against social vices among our youths.
I’ve already written to all state governors, I’ve also produced and sent educational materials to be distributed in schools across Nigeria.
I’m encouraging the governors to join in the campaign; we must help the young people.”
He continued: “Years ago, I told people that China was asleep and that when they woke, the world would know.
Today, China has become a world power and major economic hub.
Now, I’m saying the same thing about Nigerian youths; they are sleeping today, but once they wake up, people will see a different Nigeria.
I believe the future lies in the hands of the youth,” he said.
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