The story of Chief Igbinedion typifies the rag- to –riches, grass-to-grace one. That he rose from a humble background to affluence and influence is too well known. His entire life has been characterized by challenges, which he overcame, thanks to the of his risk-taking efforts and his pioneering drive. He is so many things rolled into one-an industrialist and a billionaire of international dimensions, philanthropist of global renown, devout Christian and a Justice of Peace. As the Esama, he is one of the frontline chiefs in Benin Kingdom. He is on record as the youngest person to be given that title in the history of the ancient kingdom.
After losing his father at the age of nine in 1943, with little education and no money to fall back on, he knew he had to take his destiny into his own hands. To pay his way through early education, he undertook all manner of menial jobs. One of them was tapping and buying rubber lump. It was a daunting task, but the young Igbinedion would not be deterred. “I had to ride bicycle with rubber for a distance of 60 kilometres every day to Itigbo and Uhi in Orhionmwon to buy rubber and snails to sell in Benin City. Sometimes, I rode the bicycle and other times, it rode me because the route to those areas was very hilly and steep,” he recalls.
From such humble beginning, Chief Igbinedion has risen to Olympian heights reminiscent of great achievers. He is a philanthropist and a humanist of national dimensions and an industrialist of international fame. How was he able to do it? What have been his guiding principles and philosophy? What have been the sources of his strength and how has he been able to over¬come the obstacles along his path to greatness? He spoke to Daily Sun at his palatial home in GRA Benin City last week.
It is a vintage Esama inter¬view. Savour it.
What does it feel to be 80?
Well, first and foremost, age is of the mind, particularly in my own case. Anything I did when I was 50 years has not reduced. One, I don’t take siesta and I still work 18 hours a day. I wake up every morning by six o’clock, or latest seven. I plan my itinerary and programmed for the day between the hours of 2a.m and 3a.m. I work throughout till 11 o’clock in the night because I have calls, contacts all over the world on a daily basis.
I plan a project and see it through to execution, getting involved all the way. That is how to succeed. So, that is why I said everything I have been doing since when I was 50, I can still do now that I am 80. This is no mere talk. I can say one thing, last April 5th; I went for my normal annual checkup. The doctor said: ‘Oh, you are even more fit than I do.’ Let me tell you the true story, because of the way the Oyibo spoke to me, I said I would never go and see that doctor again because it appeared he was jealous. When I discussed with my wife, she said, ‘No, he is com¬mending you.
So, if God helps you, you have no ailment in your body and then you move… the secret of agelessness is for you to be working most of the time. Keep your brain working and at alert. Discuss, don’t be reclusive. Only God gives good health. When you are lucky to be on the side as I am, you begin to thank God Almighty for piloting you. Only yesterday in Ibadan (Univer¬sity of Ibadan) during the presenta¬tion of my biography, my mind was wandering about. I only sat there but my mind was not there. I said, ‘why me?’ And one thing occurred to me, which I am going to discuss on the 11th of September, my birthday. I think it’s time to write the second edition of the Bible because David, Abraham were human beings. Things happened during their time. Since those 2,014 years, many men have come and gone, people who made the same history and mark without the world taking notice of what they are doing.
There are still miracles, there are still descendants. When you say Haile Selaisie was the last descendant of Solomon, if you think at your quiet moment, you will not know the mys¬tery of the world, you can only guess. Therefore, to answer the question as to my feeling at 80, the only one that I want to sincerely thank is God that cre¬ated me, who gave me a sound health, gave me nice height and also blessed me with high favour. Thereafter, I am grateful to my wife who gives me balanced diet, the one who makes sure that I eat good food at the right time, and my children who have not given me any headache or cause to be run¬ning up and down. I think that is God’s doing because no one is careful or intelligent enough to guide children. In my children’s lives, I have one philoso¬phy; I don’t tell them don’t do this or don’t do that. I allow them to exercise their initiatives so that they can de¬velop their minds. If you control them like robots, they will not be mature in their minds. That’s one of the things I learnt from my father. My father told me that the grandfather told him that during his time, there were two stories in life – good or bad. In his time, he didn’t record any bad but only good. If during your own time you have a name to bear and there is anything bad in it, the story could change but he did not contribute to it. Therefore, I also transmit it to my children day in and day out. My children will be playing, they will think I am not looking at them, but my focus is on them.
Sir, I have seen you dance; you move elegantly, you move so beautifully. Have you always been a dancer all your life?
It’s inspiration. I like dancing from my youth. I wanted to be an instructor in Benin here – Jojo and Watz, tango, etc, I am still very good at them today. What obtains today is no dance. Dur¬ing our time, you dress up with tie, suit and enjoy life.
Talking about inspiration, who are those people that inspire you?
Inspiration is when you are happy, there is nothing in my mind, no grudge. I build, I don’t destroy. Whether you offend me I will say let God revenge. My God answers me very quickly.
What is your favourite meal?
That’s secret to me. I eat anything. The only thing I don’t eat is frozen food. My wife does not allow it. You see, nutrition… when people say eat vegetable, it is not the leaf. When you just pluck the tender leaves, it is the water from them that is the nutrition. I don’t take tablets, I don’t take any vitamins. I only take supplements.
At 80, are you thinking of slow¬ing down or retiring from active business?
The body will tell you what to do. Your body will tell you to slow down or to continue but it is always good to keep your body and soul going. If you slow down, then you will resort to exercise. But exercise would not do for you what the other things would do for you.
You are the chairman of the boards of so many companies and we also saw that with God, you have endured longer than any business leader in Nigeria. What is the secret?
We plough the fields and scatter the good seeds on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s Almighty hand. So, to answer the question, I would say the secret is God, God, God. From 1955 till now, God has always been there for me, to show me the next road to take. But one secret I want to let out is that I would have been 10 times richer than this but I have the fear of God in me. When I look at my background, I know where I am coming from, if I go and take more than what God has given me, God can be annoyed also. He could say, upon all that I have given to this man, he is not satisfied. That’s the fear of God I have in me. If you have the fear of God, He would always be there for you. At times, it is hard to do the will of God. And all the time, it is hard and all the time, it cannot be rosy.
Beyond reliance on God, what are the other success tips?
You need determination, you compete and you aim to win all the time. You fight and insist on remaining on top. You set high standards and expectations and work hard to achieve them. You must have the fighting spirit and unbounded energy to be consistent. Again, never leave anything until tomor¬row; do it now. There has never been a substitute for hard work combined with prayer.
How are you able to combine your various roles as businessman, hus¬band, father, etc?
If you put your organography right, you won’t have any problem. Each of them has a tree. When you’re dealing with your wife, it’s own branch of tree. The way you deal with your wife is different from the way you deal with your children. The way you deal with your children is different from the way you deal with a friend. In the chieftaincy division, we are trained. When any matter arises and any person comes before us, we know how to deal with it, we know when they should not step over their bounds. So, it’s God’s work. It’s a gift. And also an art.
What lessons have life taught you and what regret(s) do you have?
My successes in life overwhelm my regrets. Life has taught me many lessons. One of my regrets is the death of my airline. For instance, I was the first person in this country to have 46 aircraft in his fleet. As I speak now, no one is left. But for me, Boeing 747 would have not been in any Nigerian fleet. I had two 747… But because I went for a launch in NIFOR, I left home with N500, 000 bank draft (hesitates)… It is very touching. When they called me (hesitates) in order to obey my ruler, I do¬nated N2.5 million instead. Somebody now said I had overshadowed him. I became a victim for doing right. Four of my pilots were hired to ruin Okada Airline. Go to the airport, you would see the ruins. I would go and complain unknown to me that I was complaining to the person who gave the instruction. The 747 never flew in this country until I sold it to a northerner. They tried to pull me down without any reason. There are lots of regrets. Today, govern¬ment owes me 62 million dollars.
What are the greatest lessons you have learnt in life?
That’s what I am saying. My airline, the best private airline in Africa was ruined.
How would you want to be remem¬bered?
There are so many things to remember me for. You should judge me. So many angles, so many legacies. I am the first person the UI (University of Ibadan) would commission his biography. UI has put the study of my business exploit in its curricula. So many things.
What is your advice for the young generation?
Yes. We are not in one boat. You younger generation do not want to work but want to be millionaire the same day. Whatever you tell them goes into deaf ears. The only advice I want to give them is what hap¬pened to our generation is not what is hap¬pening to them now. This is a jet age, but let everybody be careful. Nigeria is one that is why we are together. Anything you can do to pull Nigeria together to be one let every one of us contribute to it.
What is your management style?
I train each of my children to the highest level that they can attain in school and then hand over some of my businesses to them. I cannot do everything alone. I only inter¬vene when the survival of my business is at stake. All my children and executives freely run the businesses assigned to them without me constantly looking over their shoulders.
(Published by DAILYSUN Thursday, September 11, 2014)