By Collins Ughalaa
Of the 365 days in a year, there is one day on the calendar we do not forget or play with. That is the second day of November. It is a historic day, a day we cherish and thank God Almighty for his magnanimity in giving us our leader, Chief Senator Francis Arthur Nzeribe, Ogbuagu, Oshiji, Damanze, Oyimba. On the second day of November in 1938 young Francis Arthur Nzeribe was born to his father, Oyimba Nzeribe, who was a lawyer and state counsel. His grandfather, Akapti Nzeribe, was a famous community leader who held the title of Ogbuagu, Oshiji, Damanze, Oyimba. Like every other child, young Nzeribe had his childhood experiences, including losing his dear mother when he was in primary school. At that time his father was said to have been away in Britain where he was studying Law. He grew up under the care of some Catholic priests who made sure he furthered his education. This upbringing no doubt helped in moulding the personality of Chief Francis Arthur Nzeribe.
Young Nzeribe attended Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu, and the Holy Ghost College, Owerri. After his secondary school, he travelled to Lagos State in 1957 where he got employment with the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) as an Engineering Cadet. After some time he got a scholarship from the NPA and went on to study Marine Engineering. He attended the Portmouth College of Technology and Chesterfield College of Technology in England. By 1960 when Nigeria got her independence Chief was already selling Life Insurance to black immigrants in Britain. He returned to Nigeria in 1961 and worked with Shell for some time. He would later work for a few months as an Air Force Cadet. He also worked for the Gulf Oil at the Escravos.
Energetic, well dressed, soft spoken, handsome, well-mannered and brilliant, young Nzeribe returned to London and cracked his kernels early by setting up a public relations firm called JEAFAN. This firm provided him a profitable linkage to a number of diplomatic missions from Africa in London. In the course of his public relations for the diplomatic missions in London, he met the Ghanaian leader, Kwame Nkrumah, and solved his public relations needs. He weathered the political upheavals in Ghana and retained his public relations job with the National Liberation Council (NLC) after Nkrumah. He established the famous FANZ Organization in 1969 in London, majoring in heavy construction, oil brokerage, publishing and estate. Nzeribe also set up businesses in the Middle East, and by 1979 FANZ became a success story, trading turnover of £70Million annually. He also established Sentinel Assurance and other companies in Nigeria. By 2018 he was adjudged to be worth over $1.5 Billion.
Nzeribe did not only do well in business. He also did well in politics where he spent over three decades serving his people. He ran for the Senatorial seat of Orlu Zone in 1983 with the slogan, Change ’83 and electrified the political space. In 1999 when Nigeria returned to democratic rule, he ran for the Senatorial seat of Orlu Zone once more and won. He was reelected by his people in 2003 and stayed in the Senate till 2007. As a politician and community leader, Nzeribe became the protective shield and armour of his people. He is one of the few Igbo leaders that are never afraid of being an Igbo, rather he flaunts his Igbo identity anywhere and anytime.
Nzeribe’s commitment to the service of his people both as politician, community leader and philanthropist knew no boundary. He was convince that one of the best ways of building enduring legacies is to invest in human capital. From across the country he built political followership, with many disciples of his stepping up to leadership as governors, senators, members of the House of Reps, local government chairmen, councilors, commissioners, etc. For example, Nzeribe was able to assist his friend, Chief John Oyegun, to become the governor of Edo State. Chief Oyegun decades later became the first elected National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Again, the current governor of Imo State, His Excellency Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, is a strong member of the Nzeribe dynasty. He was a three time member of the House of Reps, where he rose from the Chief Whip to the Deputy Speaker and Speaker of the House of Reps. Also, the Deputy Governor of Imo State, His Excellency Engr. Gerald Irona, is a beloved son of Chief Nzeribe’s. He rose from being a councilor in his native Oguta Local Government Area to being a member of the State Assembly. He later became Executive Chairman of Oguta LGA and also a member of the House of Reps. On March 9, 2019, he emerged the Deputy Governor of Imo State alongside the Governor in a keenly contested governorship election. Hon Jeff Ojinika, former member of the House of Reps, is also a fine product of the Nzeribe dynasty. Dr. Gideon Nwaeze, former Executive Chairman of Oguta LGA, is also a product of the Nzeribe dynasty. In Ngor Okpala LGA, Nzeribe has political sons among whom is Barr Enyinna Onuegbu, who was elected the Executive Chairman of his LGA in 2010. The list is inexhaustible. But suffice to say that many of Nzeribe’s sons are now traditional rulers and professionals, serving humanity in diverse ways.
On the humanitarian angle, through the Arthur Nzeribe Foundation Chief Nzeribe empowered people and gave many people a new lease of life. In the area of Education, he set up a scholarship scheme that sent many indigent children to school. Today many of the children who benefitted from the scholarship are in the academia and elsewhere contributing in serving God and humanity. Nzeribe was also able to open up the space in the area of agriculture by empowering his people with the cash needed for their agricultural activities. Beyond providing cash for the farmers, he also provided them the needed skill sets, tools and seedlings for their practice of agriculture. By this he was able to put food on the table of the families and also give them a sustainable income stream. Nzeribe also set up free medical programmes for pregnant women, children and the elderly. The beneficiaries of Nzeribe’s magnanimity did not need to know him or have any ties with him in order to qualify. No one needed to pay a dime to qualify to benefit. He built churches for the Anglican, Catholic and the Pentecostal denominations.
Commenting on Nzeribe’s magnanimity, the Deputy Governor of Imo State, Engr. Gerald Irona, in an interview with this writer in 2017 said: “I am a living testimony of Chief’s empowerment. He sponsored me to be councilor for two times, made me secretary of then APP. By his influence I became two term Executive Chairman of Oguta LGA. He also sponsored me and all other candidates from Orlu Zone for Imo State House of Assembly. By his influence and support too I became a member of the Federal House of Reps. We are happy for all Ogbuagu has achieved and continues to achieve. We celebrate him as a living legend. Senator Osita Izunaso, Hon Jeff Ojinika and others would tell you how magnanimous Ogbuagu is”.
As a principle, Nzeribe believes that the Igbo people would do better if they come together and fight together. He established what is known today as the CARIA Movement – a political movement that brought together states in the Southeast and South South, comprising of Cross River, Abia, Rivers, Imo and Anambra states. Decades after the creation of the CARIA Movement, the need for the two regions to form a common front rings a bell. The governors of the two regions have always canvassed the need for a common social political and economic front as panacea for the development of the two regions. Perhaps if Nzeribe’s clarion call was heeded the current struggle for a common front among the states of the Southeast and South South would not have arisen.
On the floor of the Senate, Chief Arthur Nzeribe proved his mettle as a lawmaker per excellence. He also proved that his loyalty did not only lie with the Federal Republic of Nigeria but to his kith and kin in Igbo land. His mastery of the Senate Rules and the intelligence and courage with which he approached issues of national importance and those that were of major concern to the Igbo people, was amazing. With his amazing mastery of the Senate Rules he became the ‘bible’ of the Senate Chambers. No other Senator in recent memory understands the Senate Rules the way Senator Nzeribe did. Nigerians and his colleagues alike waited with baited breath to hear Nzeribe’s contribution to sensitive national issues. Being a man of his own convictions, his contributions most times became solutions and made the headlines in the newspapers. As a result of this, he was always in a crossfire with the Executive who found it impossible to cow the people’s Senator.
One of the issues Nzeribe stamped his feet on was the creation of additional state for the Southeast, to redress the imbalance in past state creation efforts in Nigeria. While many people were arguing about the marginalization of the Igbo people, Nzeribe braved the odds and moved a motion on the floor of the 6th Senate for additional state in the Southeast. He came up with the Orashi State Movement and won the support of most people in the Orashi River Basin areas of Ihiala, Ogbaru, Oguta, Oru-East, Oru-West, and Njaba. Though for political reasons Nzeribe did not achieve the needed sixth state for the Southeast, nevertheless, the fire he ignited by that patriotic move on the floor of the Senate rages on and forms part of the current conditions for a restructured Nigeria. As the highest ranking Senator at the time, Nzeribe’s performance was beyond his contributions on the floor of the Senate. He was the Senate Committee Chairman on Power and Health at different times. Many people do not know that the National Health Insurance Scheme they enjoy in the country today was the handiwork of Chief Arthur Nzeribe. It was during his time in the Senate and as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health that the National Health Insurance Scheme was born as an Act of the Parliament.
In his days of active politics, Chief demonstrated his belief in team work and organization. He believed in political freedom as the foundation for popular participation on the political turf. His ability to campaign and negotiate is tremendous, no wonder he easily won the minds of the people. His negotiating and campaigning prowess is well captured in his expressions, like: “A ga a kpa ya akpa”, meaning: “It shall be negotiated”, and “Orlu Kwere ekwe” ( Orlu Zone has agreed). He is a thorough-bred democrat and a loyal party man. Outside the Senate, Nzeribe had continued to seek larger collaborations that would broker solutions to the challenges of the Igbo people in Nigeria. As a man of unusual courage and foresight, he had continued to tap his huge international and national relationships with global financial structures and political players to seek a workable solution for the Igbo question.
Since leaving active politics as a result of old age and its attendant challenges, Ogbaugu has suffered a few brushes in the media, ranging from rumours of his death to unfounded claims on his health status. In all, Chief’s gracious old age is evidence that God rewards those who earnestly serve him. It is in recognition of his good heart towards mankind that God chose to bless him with old age. And despite the frailties and other nagging challenges of old age, many Nigerians, nay Igbo people, are grateful to God that Chief Senator Francis Arthur Nzeribe is still with us and enjoying his old age. Growing up, we were told that old age is a reward from God. That is why all cultures demand total respect for the elderly. In some cultures it is believed that respect for the elderly brings God’s blessings. That God has rewarded Ogbuagu with old age is a pointer to the fact that no good deed passes unnoticed before God Almighty.
As Ogbuagu celebrates his 81 years of life of robust service to God and humanity, we celebrate an enigmatic leader, a colossus, an institution, a Maverick politician, philanthropist and consummate businessman, who has recorded earth shattering results for himself, Nigeria, Imo State and the entire Igbo nation. We celebrate a living legend whose firm belief in progressive constitutional democracy, negotiations and people’s power has paid off. His belief that ultimately power belongs to the people has remained unwavering. We celebrate the man that saw “change” in Nigeria as far back as 1983 when many people saw chains, decades before the change mantra took over Nigeria.
On November 2, we roll out the drums in celebration of a man who is loved by his people. This love is found in the lyrics of his 1983 campaign song which succinctly and solemnly declared that “Arthur Nzeribe is the people’s choice”. Ogbuagu is among the few leaders in the country whose kinsmen are so fond of that they name their children, Nzeribe or Arthur, after him. Such was the love. At 81 we celebrate a legislator par excellence, a man of uncommon courage and foresight with huge international clout.
Happy birthday, Ogbuagu.