OUK, THE MAN, AT 50
The last time I wrote about Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu was on December 26, 2004 in my column at the Abuja-based Leadership newspaper. That was after the Enyimba Football Club of Aba had won the African Nations Cup for the second time, back-to-back. The club had broken the 37-year jinx which had kept the elusive cup away from the feel of Nigeria. Thereafter, Nigeria had not touched the prestigious trophy ever again.
The occasion had provided me with the opportunity to comment on the politics and foresight of Orji Uzor Kalu whose Midas Touch had affected many people and circumstances in many significant ways. I had written about how, in spite the many things people who had only seen him from a distance had concocted against him, OUK had remained consistent in achieving anything he had promised or pledged to.
As I write about OUK again six years later, I feel a bit restrained doing it in his own newspaper where I have kept a column for over one year. However, there is no way I could have felt justified not marking this significant milestone of the 50th birthday of my friend of 25 years, whose life has become so tied to the fate of Nigeria, which like OUK, is also turning 50 this year. Notably, as he celebrates his golden jubilee on earth two days from hence, Nigeria, as an independent nation, keeps date with history six months from now.
At this significant milestone of his life, many will write volumes about his politics, leadership qualities, his enormous business successes, his passion about Nigeria and about the fact he is the one man who has employed the highest number of Nigerians in the different fields of his business endeavour and makes no fuss about it. I will cede others the major areas of discourse and move to the other 'small' areas of OUK's life which are not obvious to those who do not know him intimately. Those are some of the aspects of his humanity which have made him, perhaps, Nigeria's most ordinary person alive today, in spite of the gargantuan heights which he has attained through raw discipline, prayerful life and dogged determination.
It is usual for people in political quest to suddenly court the friendship of people from other parts of the country whose votes or favours they would be seeking. On the other hand, OUK does not court friendships for any material purposes - present or future. He is naturally attracted to people of all ages and stations in life, not because he wants anything from them, but rather because he would be lost without the variety of people who hourly troop to and around him. It would never be because those people who could provide him with any material benefits, a fact which has become a matter of wonder to those who have encountered him.
OUK's humanity has become such that it is not the ordinary people that troop to him that act in such ways as to conform, but it is rather OUK, whose unprecedented humility always compels to conform to the pleasure of those who troop to him, often for help and assistance. For instance, whenever he is at any of his key bases in Nigeria - Abuja, Igbere or Lagos - he makes sacrifices with his time, comfort and resources, living totally at the behest of others, because doors to his homes are thrown open to all-comers who do not need any invitation to his home for shelter or table for meals. There are no special tables or dishes for the mighty or the lowly as for OUK, such a distinction hardly exists.
Significantly too, the dining tables do not hold the type of value it does for most other big men and women in the society, who measure their social quarters by the size of food that is thrown away from their tables, even as the needy yawn. There are no wastes from OUK's table because there are always enough people to consume every bit of every meal. My readers might start wondering why this emphasis on meals and food. But, it is only those who know OUK well who would understand the significance of this ostensibly innocuous issue.
For one thing, the fact that he fasts on certain days of the week is an indication of the disciplined regime which OUK maintains to remain what he is. Moreover, Muslims would remember that the Holy Prophet Muhammed usually fasted on those days. OUK also fasts (six-to-six) on all the 30 days of Ramadan and the 40 days of Lent. And when he breaks his fast at 6pm on those days, it is with everybody around, without any special considerations or invitation. He cannot eat alone; he has never in the last 25 years! The truth is that OUK would never feel comfortable seeing others suffering material or psychological want. This consideration is extended to those who work for and with him, even as ethnicity or religion does not constitute any element in the way he relates with or treats people. Every establishment he is associated with, including this paper, is a mini Nigeria.
While it would be impossible to fully do justice to this tribute to OUK's humanity, I wish to indicate that he is a living proof that God never stops providing for those who make the society the object of God's favour on their lives. There is no doubt that OUK is one of Africa's wealthiest people - his disarming simplicity and humility notwithstanding - it is not to the personal aggrandizement and search of personal pleasure or Epicureanism that he takes recourse. He is forever in search of new quarters to contribute to the betterment of the social lot. While it would not be fair for me to reveal some of the areas he has continued to deployed material succour, I must nevertheless point to one of those areas that is bound to leave an indelible mark on the society long after him.
About one year ago, Dr. Sam Nkire and I accompanied OUK to the National University Commission where he had gone to perfect some issues relative to the new university he is building at this Igbere home in Abia State. He moved most people there to tears when he recounted his reasons for building a university as a way of returning to the society, some of the enormous favours God had done to him - a poor boy from poor parentage. He spoke emotionally about his wish for the day the future of the uncared-for youth of this country would be provided for by the many materially endowed people of this country.
He spoke from the heart like a man in a trance about the wastage of the future and present of this country. And if you are close to OUK, you would realize that he daily lives, breathes and thinks of how Nigeria future would become better than its present and the past. He wishes that his university would lay an emphasis on science and technology as according to him, it would be desirable to harness the wasting potential of the youth of Nigeria. Among the thousands of technicians that work for the SLOK Shipping Line, none is a Nigerian, but rather Phillipinos, and yet our youth is wasting. He would often ask you, almost from nowhere: 'what are we going to do about the youth which is wasting and no one seems to care?'
Words would not be enough for me to pay enough tribute to Orji Uzor Kalu, this great detribalized Nigerian as he turns 50 on April 21. It would rather be necessary for Nigerians to appreciate, applaud and acclaim this self-effacing man whose worth is better appreciated outside our shores, where, no thanks to killjoys like OBJ, his many contributions to the country had become aborted. While OUK is treated and honoured like a head of state in many countries of the world, his many business interests have been hounded out and chased out of Nigeria.
One day, Nigerians will come to realize and tap into the humanity of this man, about whom, while granting SLOK a loan of fifty million dollars last year to build more ships, the Malaysian government held in awe and informed the world that it would be the first time that the Malaysians would extend such a gesture to any African country, concern or individual.
Happy birthday to OUK, my special friend and Africa's man of the future!