NUEL OJEI: Toasting to a genie at 71! By Tunde Olusunle

Tunde Olusunle

Permit me to begin by stating very clearly that I have not seen the subject of this article, in over a decade now. Yes. I remember very clearly because Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was not yet president, the last time we saw. He is indeed a global citizen on account of his multifarious enterprise locations, so seeing him therefore requires some structuring. This, however, does not obfuscate, nor diminish my candid, personal impressions about this rare breed Nigerian. I’m indeed reminded by a section of the lyrics of one of the revered *juju* musician, Sunny Ade’s classics, that “he is worse than an thief, that person who was done a good turn, but who failed to show gratitude.”

A very senior technocrat who served in the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, shared with me his experience aboard a flight to the United States of America, (USA), when he was in office. He found himself in the same cabin compartment with a very affluent Nigerian he knew well by reputation, but had never met in person. Both men got chatting and the erstwhile Obasanjo official introduced himself, affixing his official schedule to his profile. The super-rich private sector player expressed his delight about meeting one of the administration’s most notable performers, who by his good works, was burnishing the image of the government. As they took a break in between their chit-chat, the “big man” reached quietly into his hand luggage, fiddled with documents and brought out an envelope.

The former Nigerian official said the Big man “apologetically” handed him the envelope and “pleaded” he used the content to do some “inflight shopping for madam.” “I felt the envelope and I knew it was foreign exchange,” the former top government functionary said. “It was a respectable sum, not one calculated to disrespect my person and office.” Continuing, the government honcho said: “What baffled me the most was that he never knew me, we had never met, he didn’t owe me anything. I was also touched by the fact that his gesture was against the popular grain where most people always look up to the public official for support. In this instance, it was a private citizen who was being benevolent to a government official!”

I was to have a proxy encounter with this same unobtrusive, yet genial and generous gentleman ahead of the yuletide in 2006. The Obasanjo administration in which I served, was on the verge of winding down. May 29, 2007, was sacrosanct as handing over date to a successor government. There was noticeable frenzy in the political atmosphere. New friendships and alliances were being cultivated in anticipation of the coming regime. Trust Nigerians. Unknown to some of us, this “mystery” man had commissioned a discreet inquisition on us.

His brief: Please furnish me with the names of 10 personal and principal aides of the President, who have served Nigeria with every commitment, diligence and patriotism, under the outgoing administration. People who work for their fatherland with every altruism, especially those who served through Obasanjo’s two terms of the nation’s teething democracy, should be remembered and rewarded, he told his “search team.” To my eternal amazement, my name featured on the list compiled for this purpose! And that was a major lesson for me: You are the best ambassador of your own self, your own brand.

Happily, there was a telephone number on the season’s card which accompanied the message, which I found as I inquisitively unsealed the white-coloured, “A-3” envelope bearing the “souvenir.” It has never been in my character not to show appreciation for favours, no matter how little or seemingly inconsequential. I called the line on that card and someone answered from the other end. I introduced myself and asked to speak with the Big man. I was connected to him and I thanked him for his kind gesture. “I can appreciate your very busy schedule, Sir. You don’t owe me the goodness you’ve just demonstrated towards me. I will appreciate an opportunity to meet you, to further express my gratitude and the goodwill of my other colleagues. He gave me a date.

I was at a loss about what manner of memento to take along with me as I prepared to honour this appointment. Yet, it has never been in my character to visit people with empty hands. My book on the democratic evolution of Obasanjo, *On the Trail of History: A Reporter’s Notebook on Olusegun Obasanjo* had just been launched. I knew I would take an autographed copy along with me. I equally clutched a bottle of “Johnnie Walker Blue Label” and an exotic animal skin I brought with me from my previous trip to Australia.

And here I was in the living room of Emmanuel Isichei Ugochukwu Ojei, multibillionaire Nigerian entrepreneur, Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive of the famous Nuel Ojei Holdings, (NOH) behemoth! Regular users of the Mobolaji Bank-Anthony Way in Ikeja, Lagos must be familiar with the dominant address of the conglomerate, abutting the domestic wing of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, (MMIA). The Abuja headquarters of the business octopus, has since joined the skyline of the burgeoning business district in the nation’s capital. Its glass exterior glitters in the sun of the city centre, en route the boulevard to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, (NAIA).

A very organised personality, he was seated by the time I arrived, and generous with his welcome smile. He astounded me when he spoke effortless Yoruba on my arrival, for a man whose names are distinctly Igbo. He was apparently trying to make me feel at home as much as possible, having deciphered my cultural background, from my name. As phone calls lined up in some relay on his phone, he code-switched effortlessly between impeccable English language, Yoruba and Igbo. For a man of his age and means, he came to me as an unassuming person. His occasional interjections with the expression *Diokpa,* in between his conversations, which is the Delta Igbo expression for “elder,” the equivalent of *De* in conventional Igbo, echoed his humility.

We chatted for a while. I told him my colleagues and I were thrown off balance when we received his most thoughtful, most kind messages. Our astonishment, I told him, was heightened by the fact that not one of those of us he reached out to, ever met, or knew him. Smiling with delight and contentment, he said it was his personal pleasure to have “located” us with his gesture. Continuing in Yoruba, to reinforce his linguistic proficiency, just in case I had any doubts. *Ka sa ma se dada ni’gba gbogbo,* which means “let’s continue to be good, honest and hardworking at all times.”

I put together my gift bag and presented the items to him, one after another, providing a short background to each item. Smiling with some admiration, Dr Ojei said: “I can see you are a very good natured young man. You didn’t have to do this, but the good side of you informed your gesture. Many people hide behind a finger, always pretending not to know what to offer in appreciation of other people’s kindness to them. I regard such people as unserious people, *awon ti o ni’nkan se.* It is not about the material worth of what you give, it is about the spirit behind what you give to others. Such people should learn from you.”

Dr Ojei was born May 23, 1951, in Lagos. He went through primary and secondary schools in the former Nigerian capital, which explains his proficiency in Yoruba. He subsequently attended the Issele Uku Technical College, Issele Uku, his hometown in modern day Delta State, between 1970 and 1972, where he obtained a National Diploma in Business Administration and Management. He returned to the economic capital of the country immediately after, and began his working career as a Sales Executive the following year, at Rutam Motors Ltd, owned by the super-wealthy Ibru Family. He exited the organisation having risen to the position of Sales Manager, in 1976. He was engaged in 1977, by Kapital Assurance Ltd, an insurance company, where he rose to become a Director.

In 1989, Ojei whose business interests straddle several departments in the private sector, restructured and harmonised his affiliates and concerns, under one corporate umbrella, for ease of corporate governance. For the avoidance of doubt, Ojei’s versatility as a major private sector player has spawned almost a dozen different strands. These include automobile distribution; banking; insurance; construction and telecommunications. Ojei’s interests also subsume oil and gas; solid minerals; telecommunications; safety and security, as well as shipping and ship building. All of these are subsidiaries of Nuel Ojei Holdings Ltd, (NOH), incorporated in 1989. In an economy with shrinking public sector job opportunities, Ojei is a significant employer of labour, which includes about 200 expatriate personnel.

He has been hailed as a very courageous, visionary, focused, tireless and multitasking operator, who refuses to sit back, despite the jaw-dropping successes of his business empire. He prefers to keep pushing, driving forward and breaking new grounds. The operations of his businesses have long been standardised in consonance with global best practices. This has catapulted him to the topmost brackets of exemplary businessmen in the country, despite his traditional reticence. Much as he is a dogged philanthropist, his benevolence is never known or advertised in the public space. He is content just plastering smiles on people’s faces and joy in their hearts.

Unknown to Dr Nuel Ojei, he almost gave my driver a pleasant heart attack on one of my visits to his place, years ago. A government organisation I handled some consultancy brief for during the Obasanjo government, failed to remit my dues. A new administration had been emplaced and was foot-dragging about the reimbursement, typical of the Nigerian system which virtually disowns the preceding regime and displays total absence of institutional memory. I had very credible intelligence that he, (Dr Ojei), had a good relationship with the chief executive of the organisation and could help out. He didn’t disappoint. He put a call through to the other side right while I was with him and received reassurances.

My chauffeur, by the way, had discussed his challenge concerning his residential accommodation with me a few days earlier. His rents were due for updating, failing which his family would be ejected. I assured I’d support his quest for the house rents once I was fiscally more solvent. As I stepped out of my host’s home, on that occasion, however, I found my driver sitting on the kerbs draping the flower beds on the premises, head bowed in contemplation, lost in thought. He was totally oblivious I was already entering the car for our onward movement. I had to bark his name to startle him back to consciousness and hurrying to his duty post. He spontaneously apologised once he got into the car.

He moved quickly to explain to me that he never fully understood or appreciated the realness of God’s wondrous ways, until the day in question. Apparently while I was having my meeting with Dr Ojei, he (my host), had, unknown to me, detailed one of his staff to quietly go outside the building and confirm the number of aides who came with me. On this occasion, it was only my driver. The honorarium handed over to him, courtesy of our host, was enough to underwrite his accommodation rent debacle! That, genuinely was the cause of his bewilderment! For him, his benefactor was a genie, a magical spirit in Arabian folklore, the type the Yoruba will describe as *anjonu.*

Much as he regularly shies away from public adulation, honours have come, deservedly for Dr Ojei from a number of reputable organisations and institutions, at home and abroad. One of such medals which he found very difficult to resist, was awarded at the instance of the Delta State University, (DELSU), Abraka, in 2003. It was a most fitting investiture with an honorary doctorate *(honoris causa)* in Business Administration, for his exploits and conquests as a global business icon and a most venerated “son of the soil” of the state.

A man of many addresses across the world, he used to be more regular in his younger days, in his countryside villa in Issele-Uku. There he enjoys the company and companionship of his holidaying wife and children, and also his kinsfolk. He is revered in his community where he grew out of *Ogboli Quarters,* as a benevolent and community-centred personality who has impacted his roots in several ways. He is credited with underwriting the bills for the electrification of the community, among several other crucial interventions. But he has long enjoined his people of his preference for anonymity, irrespective of whatever he does for his homeland. Dr Ojei’s charity truly begins at home, as the old saying goes.

His eye-catching resort overlooks the luminous Niger River and sits on a sprawling 35-acre expanse of land. It was designed by the Israeli architectural big brand, *Peri Davidovic,* owned by Hanan Peri and Shalom Davidovich. The project entailed a preliminary 3D animation of the anticipated palace, over a seven month period, before the actual construction which took a whole six years. If you were blindfolded, flown in a small aircraft and dropped within that palatial complex, you will be forgiven for mistaking the place for a slice of Disneyland. It has practically everything you can imagine in a bourgeois resort.

From his quiet corner, Dr Nuel Ojei continues to contribute on a sustainable basis, across sectors, to national socioeconomic development. He should indeed, very correctly on the basis of pure merit, be called up someday and decorated with an appropriate national honour, by Nigerian authorities, for his authentic good works. An eminent statesman in his own right, he remains in the unsung business of ministering to the needs of others in his own way. This is wishing him many more happy returns of this special day.

● Olusunle, PhD, poet, journalist, author and scholar, was a senior aide to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR.

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