To do a tribute on a man like Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, the Esama of Benin kingdom is a very difficult task I must confess. This is because Chief Igbinedion conjures various feelings in people and also means so many things to so many people at the same time. The reasons for these feelings vary. For example, the Esama of Benin never permits the untested acquaintance to stain the loyalty of a proven friend, he, like most successful people limit the access others have to him. One, therefore, does not expect everyone to like him. For me, Chief Igbinedion, is a grandmaster in the area of achievements and accomplishment, because only few people in history have equaled his magnificent humanitarian works in life.
From the close interactions I have had with the Esama over the years, I have so many reasons to continue my admiration and respect for him. For example, whenever the world seems to be in doubt of the workability of a project, that is when the Esama of Benin will show optimism, and deliberately resolve to make profit out of such a situation. Just give him some time; he will invariably turn things around positively. Two, when the world has a reason or two, to want to slow down, that is when you find the enigmatic Osawaru running to find solution. Three, if for whatever reason(s) the world has cause to weep, rest assured, our local “Arkad” the richest man in Babylon and Edo land will be smiling to his banks. Four, in the challenging world of business, the Esama never gives up; he perseveres, no matter the odds and obstacles. It is therefore not a surprise to people, who are close enough to him; that he has continued to give an unblemished account of himself even as he attains the ripe age of 80 years.
Now, my chance meeting with the enigmatic Osawaru, (came)sometime in 1975 at the tender age of 21 years, when going to the then Mr, now Senator Roland Stephen Owie’s office, who was then, the Registrar, Administration with the Auchi Polytechnic, Benin Campus. I had earlier in life worked as a clerk under Owie, before gaining admission into the University. R.S. as he was then fondly called was therefore gracious enough, to find me an administrative job in his office during holidays. Benin Campus of the Auchi Polytechnic as it was then, was sited just beside the then Catering Rest House, in Benin City. And that was a short distance from where the Esama of Benin has always lived. It was therefore, a routine that I trekked past Igbinedion’s fortress every morning. A walk that usually begins very early in the morning from my uncle’s residence, Mr. Lawrence Asiku in Edo College lane, Benin City via Ring Road to the GRA. Every morning, as I walked past the Esama’s palace, I always admired the sculptural pieces that dotted the vast expanse of land with magnificent buildings, I never for once dreamt of entering the place for any reason(s) whatsoever. But one morning as faith would have it, as I walked past the place, I saw so many people entering and coming out of the compound. In a split second, without any serious consideration to the consequences of my action, I decided to take the risk by also strolling into the compound without an invitation, and began to admire very closely all the works of art that adorned the place. The chance to enter the fortress came; as soon as one of the gatemen threw open the main gate in the building, for some vehicles that brought in laborers who worked in some of the buildings. Now inside the place, I moved closer to a sculptural work and began to admire it, moving swiftly from one art work to another all around the compound. Just about 30 minutes after my unauthorized entry into the place, I heard a loud voice, commanding me to come over to one of the shades in the compound. All the while, I was unaware of the fact, that the Esama himself was sitting quietly watching me closely while sipping some fruit juice from a glass cup. He enquired in a very low tone but wearing a hard look, “who are you and what do you want in my compound this early morning?” and I told him my name and showed him my school I.D. card. After so many other questions in quick succession and my calm response, he smiled, and I immediately noticed that he was somehow elated to know, that I was his name sake. He asked me to sit down, and called out to a steward, ordering him, to come and serve me breakfast. While I ate, he watched with keen interest my table manners. Trying to figure out, if truly I was an undergraduate, Peter Igbinedion, the young man, who later on in life became the Managing Director of Nigeria Airport Authority was then a little boy of about eight or ten years, if my guess is right. He sat quietly, watching me and his father closely.
I have since that chanced encounter, had and maintained a cordial relationship with the Esama of Benin on a personal note. Anytime I am in Benin, without any prior notice, once I arrived in the gate and send my card across, in split seconds, I will be ushered into the Igbinedion’s home as long as the Chief is in town. I have, during these periods of close relationship with the Chief over the years, continued to study the uncommon life of the man Igbinedion. And I have come to realize, that uncommon leaders like him are few and worth knowing. They are worth studying and also uncommon dreamers like the Esama of Benin are worthy of pursuit. Because the chief is an effective dreamer, an unforgettable dreamer and above all other things, an influential dreamer, people often times, do not know what to expect from him. But as it is to be expected, dreamers are often misunderstood. They provide jobs and income for those who refuse to dream. They stretch the imagination of everyone around them. They thrust average people into the “zone of greatness.” Yet they are often called money hungry, materialistic, and greedy.
What really is the secret of the greatness of Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, the Esama of Benin and his unequalled attainment in life? His obsession and thirst for wisdom. The facts most people do not know, about him, is that the Chief knows how limited he really is within his own power. In 1 Kings 3:7b, 9, we read the description of a man being overwhelmed, and he said: “I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in. Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge the people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?”
The Esama, the traditional “godfather” of the Benin people is pursuing wisdom continuously. In Ecclesiastes 1:3, like King Solomon, he will tell whosoever, cares to listen, “I will give my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven.” Any surprise therefore, that from a humble background as a Constable in the Nigerian Police, he emerged from nowhere to establish one of the biggest motor company in the early 70s, the defunct Hino Motors. In 1981, at the time, when no single individual could venture into an airline business, Chief Igbinedion blazed the trail and began the Okada Air business. Before, he was done with that business; he had forty aircrafts made of Boeings, exotic jets and helicopters in his fleet. His other business empire includes an international property portfolio, oil refinery, diamond, gold and marble mines all over Africa. Again, when most people, could hardly understand the cost and benefits derivable from the establishment of private secondary schools and universities in Nigeria, the Esama decided to pave the way, and delved into that business with all the forces you would expect from an Igbinedion and made a remarkable success out of it. Without any prompting, Chief Igbinedion, is aware, that informed people are much easier to manage by any government and less prone to crime, the Edo people as far as he is concerned needed an alternative voice from the government organs that daily dish out propaganda to the people. He wanted the Edo people to have a choice. He therefore wasted no time in establishing the Independent Radio/Television (ITV) in Benin City; this singular move has proved to be a valuable resource during the present political dispensation. What is most intriguing about the man Igbinedion, is the fact, that he has single handedly developed his village, Okada, to become a major city to be reckoned with in terms of infrastructural development. He has also brought the name of the village “Okada” to national limelight and prominence. Despite being a University City, he has been building the Okada town for about twenty years now that the word “Okada” is now on the lips of most Nigerians. How else does one explain a motorcycle being called “Okada” in most cities in the country. I once accompanied him to the Presidential Guest House he built in his place; that Guest House is a sight to behold. I wish and pray that God will one day give Ewu my village, men and women like Igbinedion, who have hearts made of gold and Midas touch to help develop that place.
As he marks 80 years in the land of the living, Chief Igbinedion has mastered the “Principles of Achievement.” He is much more than a dreamer, and has created a collection of monuments every uncommon dreamer should study and absorb. As the Esama continues to celebrate, I wish him very many years of good health, long life and higher productivity. Happy Birthday, the Esama, my Oga at the top.
Mr. Omonhinmin is a Lagos based Media Consultant.