Chief Dr. (Sir) Godwin Ubaka Okeke, MON, popularly known as GUO clocked 70 years on 6th June, this year. He was born 6th June, 1949 at Iyi-Enu Hospital, Ogidi, Onitsha. He is the sixth of eight children of his parents made up of seven male and one female. The 70th birthday bash is this Thursday in Lagos. He started GUO Transport business at barely 21 years.
GUO went to Central School, Onitsha and Community Grammar School, Nnobi. He married Lady (Dr.) Patricia Obiageli Okeke (nee Ozoh) of Umuru, Adazi-Ani. Lady Okeke is a retired civil servant and currently the Proprietress and Principal of Supreme Knowledge Schools, Nkpor, Onitsha providing quality education from Crèche to Secondary School. He has six boys with their wives, two daughters with their husbands and twenty-four grandchildren.
GU Okeke is a strong personality but humble and hardworking. He has been Chairman, Board of Directors, G. U. OKEKE & SONS LTD; Chairman, Board of Directors, G. U. OKEKE TRANSPORT SERVICES COMPANY LTD; Chairman, Board of Directors, ANAMMCO LTD; Chairman, Board of Directors, VARAMAN INDUSTRIES LTD; Member, Board of Directors, BOHJSONS LTD; Chairman, Board of Trustees Godwin & Patricia Okeke Foundation; Member, Anambra State Security Advisory Council; Awards, Titles and Decorations; Honorary Doctorate Degree, Doctor of Business Administration (D.BA) from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, 2008; Member of the Order of the Niger (M.O.N.), 2007; Knighted by the Diocese on the Niger (Anglican Communion); Admitted into the Order of Gideon on the Niger; Certificate of Honour from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 1999; Life Vice President Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, 2001-till date;
He was also President, Anambra State Market Amalgamated Traders Association (ASMATA), 1988 to 1991; and President-General, Onitsha Main Market Amalgamated Traders Association (OMATA), 1991 to 1993. He is a Member of Onitsha Sports Club – member of Board of Trustees and President for six years and avid tennis player.
He has numerous traditional titles including Onwa Anaocha Local Government and Adazi-Ani; Agunecheibe of Amandugba, Imo State; Babalaje of Otto and Lagos Mainland among others.
In this telephone interview with Odogwu Emeka ODOGWU from USA, Chief G.U Okeke spoke on a wide range of issues including his business, way Nigerian politicians can make the difference, handing over to our youths leadership and his life, even as he advised youths o how to make it in life. Excerpts:
Question: How was your growing up like?
It was fine with a lot of challenges. I am the sixth male child of my parents. I am the sixth of eight children. It was tough growing up, but, I found myself helping out in bringing up my younger ones. Apart from being the sixth, I have two others, one female and another male. I was just like taking care of them, helping out in the cooking and every other thing, although it helps me a lot, because even at this old age, I can still cook and prepare food for myself in the absence of my wife and every other grown up in the house. It was a good experience.
Question: Can you let us into what your experience looked like during the Nigeria Biafra civil war? It was a bitter one, bitter experience, because Nigeria has not witnessed anything like war before ,and some of us who were still in College that time, they started disrupting everything, movement and every other thing. But, luckily for me by 1966, I had the opportunity of having this training, what you called citizenship and leadership training course or Man or War.
Before the war, we were trained on how to handle certain things because in my school Nnobi Community Secondary School, you have to be trained to be ready to take up leadership of controlling the students. That is to be a prefect; it is one of the conditions. You have to go for that training, so that you know how to endure, how to handle people, it helped us, we were in the training. We finished it, and immediately after that, the war came up, so it helped me a lot. I was so young that time, 1967-1968, we were able to do certain things even to train the younger ones, because it was the army that trained us that 66, 67.
It was a military training. We have to go for cross country, by 5am they woke you up, you got up with your kits and ran about and after that you do rod climbing, rope climbing , trekking for more than 20 miles in a day. So, it was a terrible thing and it helped me a lot during the war and I made very good use of it during the war and still making use of that training today, because that training is what the graduates of today are doing, going for about six weeks course, they called it orientation course to prepare them in NYSC, although what they are doing today is not as difficult as what we had during the 60s.
Question: Onwa, you are a prominent transporter, how did it start?
You see, in my family we have never done transport business, and at the end of the war, I have told you that, the training I had with Man O’ War gave me the courage of moving into certain areas without being afraid of anything ,at the end of the war. So, on the second day the war ended, we trekked with some of my brothers, we trekked from Adazi Ani to Nnewi on foot, which is, call it about ten to twelve kilometres away from my home town. We trekked to Nnewi, saw one or two things, came back, saw some of the military check points, nobody molested us. They will just search you, and when you are not having any arms, and you are not having anything with you, they let you go, so we went to Nnewi, no molestation, came back to Adazi, no molestation, and I now said ooooh!! It is true that the war has ended, having seen fierce looking northern troupes on the road without harming anybody, so that gave me the encouragement.
So, the following day, I asked my parents okay, let me go to Onitsha and see if my our building and property my parents were having if they are safe, and they said okay and gave me their 404 vehicle and I drove down to Onitsha because during the war, I also got myself Biafran driving license ,because we also helped the military in one way or the other, even though I was very young, but, I drove it, so I drove myself down to Onitsha ,moved about, not much was happening. Most of my parents’ property is still intact. I said ok, let me go and see concentration of people around because, I did not see people on the streets now, and I asked. They told me that people were at Fegge and I drove down to Fegge and very close to Fegge police station, I saw a very big market, make shift market, attachment here and there and just saw things, saw some people, ate some rice and a very good stew, somebody coming out after three years of war without good food, so I enjoyed the food,and went back to where I parked my car, only to see a lot of people hanging around my car. But, because of the training, I had no fear about anything, I was entering the car, they said Oga, are you going to Enugu?
And I said yes, jokingly asking them, if they are ready to pay me one pounds and I mean Nigerians pounds not Biafran pounds. They all jumped into the car, I carried them, eight of them because 404 old model that time use to be very roomy, so I took them, collected eight pounds on the ground there, and, I went straight to Enugu then I saw Bridges blown off, rebuilt with wood and every other thing with some iron, and I went to Enugu and ended up at Ogbete Enugu. I dropped them, and people were shouting Onitsha and I carried them collected another one pound each and they were also happy. I moved down to Onitsha, so I was having Sixteen pounds, the third day the war ended, Sixteen pounds was a very big money then.
And, I was doubting myself, is these a good money or are they playing on me. And, I now decided to go to the village and people started shouting Enugu and I said no, that I can’t go back to Enugu again today,maybe tomorrow and went back to the village, on getting to the village my parents were so unhappy, they were panicking, waiting for me, you know that time there were no cell phone, even the land phone was not working in Biafra land. Until they heard the horn, they all came out asking what happened, where were you?
Why so late and I told them I went to Onitsha, saw people going to Enugu and I took them to Enugu, my mum started beating me that time. And, I have to run away to my father and my father protected me and I start bringing the money and putting it on the table, and after some time I pleaded with my father to go talk to my mum, and my mum was not interested in the money, but concerned with our safety and like every other mother, she listened to my father, and I told my father that the next day I will be going to Onitsha, and the next day I went back to Onitsha and started doing kabu kabu business, moving from Onitsha to Enugu ,collecting good money, making three to four trips in day. It was not easy. So, that was where I had the experience that there was money in transportation. Then, after some time, I combined it with trading, buying one or two things and selling because a lot of people where so much into trading. I saw money within that first three months…..we were paying it in, there was no counting machine. They will ask how much? They will just write receipt for you, any amount you pay; they will give you one receipt.
The Federal Government announced that all Biafran currency should be deposited in banks. I went to the bank to make enquiries on the modalities of the pronouncement and found out that irrespective of the amount of money deposited, a uniform receipt was issued. Therefore, I suggested to the family that they should split whatever amount they have and take to bank separately.
This is to increase the number of receipts that will be issued. This idea helped my family as each member of my family had receipts in their respective names. The Federal Government paid £20.00 for each receipt redeemed. We started a poultry farm with the proceeds with my parents at Adazi-Ani and this complemented a shop for merchandise that operated from Ogbete, Enugu. I was barely twenty one years old.
Glory be to God, by the time they started announcing that everybody with one receipt, should go and collect 20 Nigerian pounds from the bank, I said okay, but I didn’t know that it will be so low, I thought they could have given us one thousand pounds or hundred pounds each,but I said glory be to God, they gave something, and counted out the money into twenty something receipts and I added it to what I was using in transportation and trading. So, that was how I took off without borrowing from the bank, and they are not ready to give anybody one pounds in that 1970, although by 1971 we have started getting some incentive, loans from the bank on trust. I bought some vehicle and I also bought some Volkswagen combi buses because that is what is in vogue, that time, running from Onitsha to Lagos.
I have graduated from running from Enugu to Onitsha to Onitsha to Lagos with combi buses, and by that time I have started employing drivers doing that for me because I also saw money in trading. I have to combine the two, and also looking after my parents in the village , they were interested in agriculture, so we developed local farming ,poultry farming, we have over one thousand birds as at 1971,and was supplying eggs to Enugu campus, that time because I have already opened a branch in Enugu, trading in Onitsha and Enugu. At the same time, I was running about every week, I am here and there, that helped me a lot. It gave me a very solid foundation and my parents were very helpful to me.
Question: Having done the business for so many years, what do you think are the challenges associated with transportation business in Nigeria?
What we are suffering in Nigeria today is; a lot of people moving into business especially transportation business without proper calculation, without endurance, without experience, you see money flowing in, if you don’t know how to control that money, the money will come in and will disappear again. The transport business in Nigeria gave a lot of contact opportunity because banks were seeing us doing good turn over and they were giving us facilities and unfortunately for us, some of us were not doing proper calculation until the money fizzled away, the money was misused, they used the money in buying properties, taking so many titles, some married three to four wives, so the money was lost, and they were carried away with the money flowing. So, it is one problem people suffered not only in transportation business but in every other business. It misled people without proper foundation and without education also.
Coming into what we are seeing, one of the greatest problem we are facing is bad road and insecurity ,because these criminals block the road, search everybody, destroy your vehicle, blow all the glasses, collect the money that is available and even kill people. The roads are so bad, so that they will amount their checking point, their blockages along the bad areas of the road all over the country, so that is why a lot of transporters is losing their money, and losing their passengers up till today. So, bad road and insecurity are the greatest problems we are facing. Another problem is high cost of borrowing which is also what every business man is suffering today.
Question: What do you think government can do to boast the transport sector??
The government should start with the security, making sure that the people are not killed. You hear the government crying over Abuja- Kaduna-Kano road, you hear police and the press talking about Onitsha-Benin bypass; it is one of worst road you can talk of.
Then, from Benin to Ijebuode is so bad, road kidnappers everywhere, then you talk of Okene-Abuja, it is also so bad. Criminals are now messing everybody up along these entire routes, and then from Makurdi to Jos, it is another terrible area, so every corner of our highway is in trouble. The government must do something security wise, if they invite some of us in the field, we can give them ideas on how to solve some of these problems ,by the grace of God Anambra state Governor Willie Obiano is doing a lot of good job and some of us is giving him ideas and he is making use of it ,if the federal government can invite some of us who are in the field who can also give them ideas on how to solve some of these problems
Question: You are always helping the needy in the society, why are you doing so?
Well, my parents thought me how to read the Bible and how to be a good Christian. I learnt that from my parents, they were helping a lot of people paying their school fees. So, I learnt to assist others too from my parents, because I discovered that after reading the Bible that there is joy and blessings coming from helping one another. Remember, Jesus Christ sacrificed everything for us, including his own life. And that is what we are enjoying today, being Christians, so why can’t we learn how to help others especially the needy in the society. The blessings will come from God because everything we have today is by God grace, not by our power. And, that is why we made it mandatory not to collect money from any blind person traveling to any part of the country to work or school, free of charge because we know they don’t have the money to pay, so, we encourage to study rather than going to the road to beg. We have many blind people as graduates in Anambra today; we have a blind man in Anambra state Executive council today. You gain a lot from helping the needy.
Question: Your contribution towards the growth of the Church is equally outstanding, what is the motive?
The Church will help you talk to people knowing that Christianity is not only about going to Church to pray or to sing or to thank God with your mouth. You serve your God with the little you have, no matter how poor you are, you will see people that you are better off. In American, where I am talking from now, there is what they call Thanksgiving Day, on that day no matter how little you have , it is very popular, you must go and give a gift to somebody. The downtrodden, poor, the needy, you must give someone a gift. So, the government and Churches should plan on how to give scholarship to the needy, in my village Adazi Ani, we planned a scholarship skill for the indigents. We pay them through scholarship, in All Saint’s cathedral Onitsha, they have started doing that, we developed that in all Saints Cathedral Onitsha.
It is not all about going to Church, but being a blessing to the needy, I and my company built a three storey building accommodating about 400 students. At Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka also, which is a Federal university ,we built English department building because they were having poor infrastructures then but now, they have converted it to Chinese program building. Also at Central school Onitsha, we built a storey building that is accommodating about eight class rooms for the deaf and dumb, and some others. So, it gives joy when helping people, it gives you joy to help the poor get an accommodation. It gives joy to give people job, let them earn salary and move on with their families. So, that is what we are doing and we are today still helping the society.
About four of them have retired as principals. I think it is only two that are still remaining in the teaching profession, when my wife retired she thought of not working for somebody, there is so much joy in the teaching profession. So, we started buying properties and building a School Supreme Knowledge Comprehensive School. We have one at 80 Bida road Onitsha and one at Nkpor, both Primary and Secondary school. We are running it. It gives joy when helping people. There are some of these people their parents are not billionaire but their children are brilliant, when they go out for external exams they beat some of these people that their parents are wealthy, so we give out and receive in returns, so that is how we develop the educational sector.
Question: There are so many Universities and other Higher Institutions in the country yet, many students fail to secure admission year in year out, what should be done?
You see a lot of people are having multiple exams, multiple sittings, at the end you will see that they will pass more than the people that even did the right thing. We are having this problem of identification, if by end the Federal Government should introduce an Identity card, so that when somebody is sitting for exams, the person’s data is already registered, Nigeria is not bigger than China, India, but they have Identification card, but we are still battling to have an Identity card only for the purpose of election.
Nigeria has more than enough Higher institutions that can accommodate all of them, all we need to is to re-plan our educational system, the admission problem we are all facing, then after that we have to start planning what to do with the number of youths that is been pushed out of the University, we need to know how to handle it to avoid explosion like what we are experiencing in some part of the country, they call Boko Haram, Fulani herdsmen or even kidnapping ,we have to cultivate our youth ,we have to plan ahead for them if we fail to do that we are seeking for crisis.
Questions: What is the importance of agriculture to the nation building knowing fully well that you have also invested into the sector?
Before we move into agriculture let us talk about how to empower our youths, because I just talked about that in passing, let me give you an idea, I am celebrating my 70th birthday. At the age of 70, I believe I have done more than enough for myself. I need to rest, my children, my relations, my workers, they are all coming of age, why don’t we start planning on how to hand over to our children. The problem we have in Nigeria is not trusting our children and not giving them the opportunity to grow. In America, we talk about Rothmans, Lemon, Coca-Cola, Guinness, the people that initiated this companies are far gone. It is their children, their relations, their dedicated workers are the ones that are making the company grow, and these companies are now a family business.
We as private people, we as a government, we as a country, must copy from this, we have to equip our youths, and give them the opportunity. I am now telling everybody, I have done that experiment and it is working, my children are the ones controlling all the business I established. I am there as the Chairman, giving them fatherly advice. They are controlling the businesses. They have moved my businesses from where I left them to the next stage. They are brilliant. They have gone far, they are highly educated, let’s make use of their intelligence.
And let me tell you about what we are doing with National Youth Service Corps members. We are now using them in our organization. …every year, high numbers of youths are released to different states, different companies, but they treat them as slaves. They don’t pay them. The Federal Government does, with the minimum wage, it will be worst, at the end of their service year, the companies don’t employ them. They just released them to the labour market empty handed. They should be equipped. In developed countries, they are given loan to get them equipped.
It is necessary we make them useful now that they are young before they turn into lions and devour our states and government. Let’s make them useful now. It necessary that government and all the private agencies should ensure they employ between 20-30 percent of NYSC members assigned to them, while they give loans to the remaining ones and use their certificate as collateral. They seriously need to empower the youths in these country, because they are the taproot of all the atrocities happening in our country. There is need for them to be encouraged; some of us in the grassroots should be consulted for advice.
Question: How will you compare the attitude of youths of today to that of your time?
There is no comparison and you can’t blame the youths, because when we were young even in Secondary School, people were getting job. In the 60’s and 70’s, Secondary School leavers are not interested in trading, because, they have well-paid jobs in Banks, factories, just name it. They are comfortable. What we enjoyed in those days is not what we are seeing today. We have murdered everything for the youths and they are finding it difficult to squeeze in. It is difficult. It is not easy. I told you that before we got loans from the bank without mortgaging anything, but, since frauds have taken over, banks now request for mortgage, continuously banks will complain to you Mr B borrowed without return. No bank is ready to give money to any youth. If the politicians will listen, let them know that whatever they are doing, they leave for tomorrow. We are in sought of a relay race; you must hand over the baton. Let’s start with our children; some of us in position are not willing to hand over to the youths. That is why they become violence by the day, you hear of kidnapping, Boko Haram that is why they run to other countries because they are not fitting in. There is no country you will go and not see a Nigerian there. Go to Congo, Ghana, name it, you will see a Nigerian there, let us rethink on how to rebuild our youths, let us think seriously on that.
Question: You are 70 years Old, and still very strong, what is the secret?
Well, the secret is being grateful to God as first priority. If you are grateful to God, then, the next thing is to organize yourself and avoid stress. Do not over stress yourself. In the past 30 years, I must create time to go and get some exercise. I am tennis player, call it table tennis, call it lawn tennis, at my age I still play because I believe there is life in that. When you are taking some exercise, it makes your mind to be lighter; you know we advise these politicians to play politics in spirit of Sportsmanship. Why do we use sports, because in sports you have better understanding, even in business do it with the spirit of sportsmanship. I have time for everything, time to pray to my God, time to play my tennis, I have inspired youths in different Churches on how to survive, read your books, move ahead even when your parents are not giving you, don’t wait for your brother and sisters to give you. Work hard. It pays.
Let me tell me you the story, after the civil war, sometimes people will ask me, GUO why are you still using this car. If you go to the market you see different cars, just try and get the ones you can afford.
You don’t allow yourself to be carried away, at early 80s,people were buying Mercedes Car at 8 thousands while Peugeot is 5 thousand something , but some of us were buying it like Ekenedilichukwu, Engr Iweka ,GMO, SMO, Izuchukwu, all these big people they have Mercedes. I now told myself I have not gotten to one third of all these people, in age, experience and in business even in field, and I resolved within myself to buy a Peugeot Pick up before I graduate to 504, but all these small boys they want to start with big cars like Volvo Mercedes heavy heavy cars. They don’t want to reduce their ambition to their level. It is one of the things that is killing our today’s youths and business men. When you start reducing your ambition to your level, you will live long, don’t eat whatever you see especially all these packaged food especially when you eat them without exercise.
The secret is eat the little you can and leave for tomorrow, go for check-up, don’t wait till you are down and they will be rushing you to hospital. Don’t wait for doctor to come and tell you to stop eating these or that, stop smoking all that before you stop. Tell yourself the truth and you will live long.
Question: Do you think promiscuity is part of the problem of youths today?
Women are problem to the society not only for the youths. You see what is happening today with the high risk of tramadol, etc; the youths didn’t learn it from the air. They learnt from us adults. Adults are also involved. Elderly people are also involved. So, it is not only the problem of the youths, but we will keep advising them.
Question: Many successful businessmen are known to have failed at the home front, how were you able to successfully combine business with family responsibilities?
Well, I keep on telling everybody to be prayerful, my wife is very prayerful. I encourage all my children to be praying, before they enter into the higher institutions, every Saturday we use to have prayers for one hour or more, even with our driver. I use every Saturday to educate them that there is no short cut to life and success. And, I told them, they must work hard because that was what guided us their parents. We taught them how to read Bible. Today, a lot of youths cannot manage their family business. There are many Churches answering different names and people are looking for where to make money quick. You don’t know the powers that are going on; people must go down on their knees and ask God for forgiveness. We should teach our children how to pray, not playing politics with Church. You can hide from human beings, but not from God. If you make your money in crooked way, your children may not be in position to manage that money, because you made it in a crooked way.
Teach your children how to worship God. It is for the parents to bring their children up in a godly way. It will be hard for them to depart from it. My parents did that to me too. I told you before that we are eight in my family, seven boys and a girl, all of us are engrossed to Church activities, even local government too. I have said it before, all these big companies you are seeing, those who laid the foundation are no longer here, but their children have taken up with their dedicated staff. We must give opportunities to our youths.
You have to help the poor so that the society will grow; donating to Churches is not enough. You cannot get money to train only your children. There is need to help our society. If we fail to take care of the youths today, it will definitely affect our tomorrow. We need to be plain to ourselves and our children. Let our politicians learn from what is happening today, and let us take care of our youths.