A review of Wale Okediran’s Rochas Revealed by Obari Gomba
Okediran’s book comprises nine parts and twenty-three chapters; and it highlights Owelle’s life from birth to the present. My task is to stir a conversation on both the book and the personality because both are inseparable in the context of Okediran’s work. I have seen that Okediran has been careful to describe his book as evidence-based. Whereas societyis inclined to debate and/or contest every evidence, ‘solid’ evidence is never afraid of scrutiny. That is why Okediran has offered this book to the public.
There are approaches to a book review. A book reviewer could choose to fact-check a text and/or examine the style of delivery by subjecting every sentence to linguistic evaluation. My approach is different: it is to call your attention to the ‘weight of context’ and to discuss the significance of Owelle’s story within the context of our collective history. My approach is to urge you to ask a simple question: How does Owelle’s story resonate with us as a people?
The book reveals that Owelle was born on a rainy night on 22nd September 1962. He is one of those who were born between Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and Nigeria’s attainment of a republic status in 1963. That was a period of immense hope and expectation. It was also a moment of intense political drama. But the said child chose his own peculiar drama: when a child chooses to be born around midnight in a market, is there nothing symbolic about that? It seems oddly significant enough to warrant a personal mythology or a belief. Owelle has thus described his birth in this book; he says:
Around midnight…in an obscure village of Ogboko…at the village square where elders performed their annual sacrifice and rituals called IgbaIgwe…, a woman on her way to the hospital was forced by natural circumstances to deliver her fourth child. The birth…proved [to be] controversial, and was given different interpretations by the elders. To some, ‘a king was born;’ to others, ‘the woman defiled the shrine.’
There you are. Owelle is not new to controversies. But that is only a fragment of the story. The child grew up to become a son of the market.
In this book, testimonies upon testimonies speak about Owelle’s early ability as a trader. The child became a dependable hand and assisted his parents in their shop. He is described as a child who sold goods with ease…as a child who could sell anything and make profit. What did they expect from a child that was born in the market? There are testimonies that the child was wiser and bolder than his age. What did they expect from a child that was born at his community’s sacred location? Of course there are forces that drive destiny; we make those forces and they make us too. The ambience in his family was positive. The child keyed into a narrative of value. Note that his parents and siblings believed he was a gifted child. Never underestimate the value of positive words in the life of a child. We see from Owelle’s example that he acquired a sense of purpose very early. As a child he bought a television set for his family to save his family from the embarrassment of watching television in someone else’s house. As a teenager he bought a bus to expand his family’s stream of income. He assisted the family from his trading efforts. Do you still wonder why his father called him a lion cub?
Another key aspect of this book is its depiction of the poverty of the Okorocha family in the days of Owelle’s childhood. The images of their poverty are very graphic. Owelle and his siblings tell us about their struggle. Their journey through life is a typical grass-to-grace story. Why do I find this story inspiring? It is because the Okorocha family chose to confront poverty as a unanimous workforce. Every member of the family was in the workforce to redefine the family’s status. The parents led the way and the children followed. The family did not choose crime or money-ritual. They chose hard-work, to make one penny at a time.
Owelle did not only trade in his parents’ shop; he was also a street hawker. On one occasion he was almost killed by a truck.Okediran has included thatincident to remind us that ‘living on the edge of survival could be hair-raising at times.’Owelle tells us about that incident; he says he was trying to sell oranges to another driver when the truck got to him:
I did not know that a truck was coming from nowhere. The truck had a steel frame that had broken and jutted out, and it…dragged me for almost…one kilometre. I thought I was dead.
I have always believed that when children trade on streets and highways, they face constant danger. It is an indictment on our system that children are thus exposed. Let us not forget why they are on the roads. Those children earn their places as heroes/heroines that carry the banner of resilience in an insupportable system. The odds they face are exemplified in Owelle’s story.
So when next we pass those children on the road, until we take them all from the road, we should be careful with them. The ones we see today could grow, at the turn of fate, to become legislators, governors and presidents tomorrow. They could become the doctors that would save our lives; they could become the engineers that would raise industries; they could become the lawyers that would defend our laws; they could become the generals that would lead our army, etc. The ultimate objective is to save them from the road and put them on the path of self-advancement and greatness as Owelle has done for himself and for many children through the Rochas Foundation (more on that later).
Okediran’s book shows that one interesting aspect of Owelle’s childhood was his civil war experience. Okediran says that Owelle understands ‘the ravages’ of war and that ‘may explain some of his recent public statements’ against ‘the activities of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB).’ Between twenty-seven and thirty men were conscripted from Ogboko on a particular day. Owelle’s father was one of them. Because other persons had been taken from the community before and they never returned, Owelle’s mother ran after the soldiers and demanded for the release of her husband. Owelle too, who was just a child, had to confront the soldiers. The Okorocha family was lucky to have their father returned to them after a lot of drama. All the other men that were taken from the village on that day died at the front. It was a terrible war; men were often sent to the front with sticks and machetes to confront a well-armed enemy. And the rear was just as dangerous. The Okorocha family survived malnutrition and bombardment. Yet, in this theatre of death, propagandists were too active to mask the daily tragedies of war. Local and international real-politik presided over the carnage.
Owelle’s father returned to BarkinLadi after the war. His family joined him a little later. From Ogboko (which was homogenous) to BarkinLadi’s heterogeneity, it was Nigeria’s traditional sense of community that prevailed over the machinations of destructive politics. Okediran’s book shows that BarkinLadi was a significant launch-pad for Owelle’s development. He grew from BarkinLadi and spread his contacts far. Owelle completed primary education at St. Joseph’s Primary School, had secondaryeducation at Juladaco High School, started his first post-secondary school job as a teacher, started his entrepreneurship as a school proprietor, prospected for contracts in Benue and other places, earned university degrees in Law and got other certificates, met his wife and started his own nuclear family, owned property, built business and charity, fostered goodwill amongst traditional and religious leaders, etc. Okediran portrays Owelle as a man who knows how to build and explore opportunities in any given community or field of interest. Owelle is also seen as a man who is good at multi-tasking. While he was building his business, he also studied at the University of Jos, and he supported his wife to do so. His faith in both enterprise and education is highlighted constantly in this book.
Besides Owelle’s effort to raise his own profile, he has also made investment in the education of others. Okediran reveals that education is a key pillar in Owelle’s philanthropic life: this is epitomised in the Rochas Foundation Schools. Owelle incorporated his charity in 1998, and the charity has gone on to build schools in Ogboko, Owerri, Jos, Ibadan and Kano. There is a plan to build schools in more states of the federation and to extend the philanthropy to the African continent. So far, over fifteen thousand children acrossNigeria have benefited from the all-expense paid school system. Some beneficiaries have been sponsored at university level. There is an ironic sign that Owelle’s philanthropic school system is impactful. If the rich are trying to sneak their children and wards into the foundation’s schools, then it means that the schools have made significant milestones in service delivery. However, Okediran says that measures are always taken to prevent the rich from disguising themselves in the facilities that Owelle’s foundation has built for the poorest of the poor.
Okediran also shows that Owelle’s philanthropy extends to feeding the poor in many places. In the past, Owelle had even feed the less privileged at Jos Juma’at Mosque. Owelle’s NGO has given health assistance to the sick. Owelle’s NGO has renovated critical infrastructure: one example is Court Road in Kano. The charity efforts have gone beyond ethnicity and religion. And it has attracted critics too: there are persons who believe that Owelle’s philanthropy is a political gesture. Owelle’s reply is worthy of note; he calls on all Nigerians to play his type of politics if they think his charity is political. His reply makes a lot of sense. If other wealthy Nigerians reach out to the poor as Owelle has done through the Rochas Foundation, our citizenry will be richer and worthier to behold.
Okediran’s book gives us a peep into Owelle’s family through the testimonies of his wife and children.Owelle’s wife is shown as a woman who said ‘Yes I do’ to her spouse at a point when things were not rosy. She has had quite a journey of life with her spouse. No wonder she restates her faith in God and her love for her husband. She understands her husband and she sounds like a woman who renews her commitment to him daily. Their children are better for it.
When parents live in harmony, children tend to do well. The children are shown to be purposeful. They are well educated and they believe in the dignity of labour. Some of them are building their own businesses from the scratch. We should not expect less from children who have grown under the wings of entrepreneurial parents. I believe that Owelle and his wife ought to be happy because they have a political family that has avoided the kinds of scandal that bedevil a lot of political families around the world. And they must be vigilant to keep things as good as they are.
Okediran’s book also gives us a picture of the extended family too. Owelle’s siblings are still dear to him and he is dear to them. Owelle is aware that some persons in the larger kindred believe they ought to get more from him now that he is in office. Some persons believe that Owelle is not as generous (now) as he was before. But Owelle states that he has helped many of them to the best of his ability. I hope he would keep helping them as long as his resources can support his generosity.
Faith and politics mix very well in Owelle’s life. There are a lot of religious triggers in his life. Okediran tells us that Owelle has survived a road accident, and he has avoided two plane crashes by providence. Are those incidents not enough to make Owelle feel indebted to God? Add that to the heat of politics. How does a family cope in the face of high-tension politics?
There are moments when faith and politics have collided in Owelle’s life. Okediran shows that Owelle was almost denied credit for his effort to mobilize support for the completion of the Ecumenical Centre in Abuja. When we work in a political climate that aims to deny our contributions, we ought to constantly reinforce our aspirations. This book shows that Owelle’s politics has thrived on sheer doggedness. We get to know that it was Owelle who donated the first national secretariat of the Peoples Democratic Party and paid the wages of the party’s staff. What did he get for that? Political spin-doctors were afraid of his clout and worked hard to pull him down. In his days at the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), a plot was hatched to stain Owelle’sreputation, he stood his ground until he was cleared of any wrong-doing by the Nigerian parliament.
Not many Nigerians know the story behind Owelle’s glamorous presidential campaigns. Not many Nigerians know about his gubernatorial campaigns. Not many persons know that he has contested and lost a senatorial election. Not many persons understand his political adjustments from one party to another. Through this book, Okediran has shown that Owelle has been consistent with his political journey, and that Owelle understands that a political party is a vehicle. The role of a vehicle is to facilitate a journey. A vehicle must be assessed from time to time to see if it can reach a desired destination. It is this practical approach to politics that has made it possible for Owelle to get a two-term mandate from the people of Imo State. Okediran portrays Owelle as a politician that understands both his terrain and his mandate.
Owelle describes his pact with Imo State as a Rescue Mission. And he always sounds like someone who is driven by a missionary zeal. He believes he has given Imo State his best under the prevailing circumstances. He sometimes sounds really hurt by the waves of criticism he has received. Political criticism is often more like a show of force, not a show of facts.
Let me conclude by saying that Okediran has given us an important book on Owelle’s life. Apart from the text, there are a lot of pictures to corroborate Okediran’s narrative. The pictures are of good quality. For those who think Owelle is an enigma, please read Rochas Revealed even if you do not agree with Owelleand/or Okediran. It has a simple message: if you keep working hard, you will meet opportunities on the way.
Dr. Gomba teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State