A former General Manager, National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria and former Chairman, United Bank for Africa, Chief Israel Ogbue, tells ARUKAINO UMUKORO about the story of his life
When and where were you born?
I was born on February 18, 1927 in a town called Onitsha-Olona, in Aniocha North Local Government Area, Delta State. My father, the late Timothy Nwani Ogbue, was a Catechist, and he was transferred from one place to another, evangelising. He was later posted to the eastern part. My mother was Flora Ayana Ogbue.
What was the most interesting part of your childhood?
Childhood was like any other in the village in those days. We grew up playing and going to the farm. It was interesting and fun. I liked sports while growing up and always looked forward to playing football with my friends. In those days, we played football with small lawn tennis balls. I played for my school’s football teams. In those days, nobody ever thought of a career in football. People were more interested in pursuing other vocations and improving themselves. I am still an avid football fan till today.
How do you feel about Super Eagles not qualifying for the last Africa Cup of Nations which was won by Cameroon?
It was a disappointment. I feel there is a problem with Nigeria football that must be addressed decisively. One can see there is a lot of frustration in the whole system. I would say we should always put square pegs in square holes.
Where did you school?
For my primary education, I attended CMS school, in Amawbia, Awka, Anambra State; and St. Bartholomew CMS School in Enugu; before I did my Standard Six in CMS Central School, Okpare, near Warri, in Delta State. From 1944 to 1947, I attended Enitonna High School, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, for my secondary education. I did my senior Cambridge School Certificate Examination in December, 1947 and I made a Grade One when the results were released. Afterwards, I relocated to Lagos to seek employment. In those days, with one’s school certificate, it was easy to get jobs. I went to register at the Labour Office then. There was nothing like a ministry, just departments. On the day of my registration, they asked if there was anyone with a Grade One school certificate, and I was picked. The official asked if I would like to work with the Town Council as a building inspector. They sent those of us selected to the federal secretariat of employment and after being interviewed; only four of us were selected. Then, I was employed as a junior clerk in the chief secretary’s office at the secretariat, Marina, Lagos. I worked there for some time and then resigned and became a produce inspector under the department of marketing and export. After some years, I resigned and travelled overseas for further studies.
Where did you travel to for further studies?
To start with, before I set out, I was already doing a correspondence course in accountancy with Faulk Lynch and co. accountancy tutors in the city of London, United Kingdom. When I left for the UK, I then registered for studies at the City of London College. In the second year, I started getting a bit worried, because at that time, it wasn’t easy to get jobs in offices in Britain. I tried to register for the ACCA exams, but when I could not, I decided to change my course and enrol for secretaryship courses. During the course of my studies, I did the exams of both the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and the Corporation of Secretaries, and passed both of them in 1960. In 1961, I came back to Nigeria.
What were your hopes and aspiration for a new Nigeria then?
We felt we were coming back to enable us to progress in life. At Independence, we had many colonial administrators in various offices and they had to start retiring and making room for us Nigerians and many Nigerians abroad were anxious to come back home.
Where was the first place you worked when you returned to Nigeria?
It was called Nigerian Pools Company Limited in Apapa, Lagos. I was employed as an accountant and worked there for about eight and a half years. Then, they had an expatriate company secretary, and being a chartered secretary by profession, I was then moved to the secretary’s office. That was how I became the company secretary and the administration manager. In 1969, I responded to an advertisement for a post to be filled in the newly established National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria. I applied for the post of secretary of the corporation. Eleven people applied for the same position and fortunately I got the job in late 1969. In February, 1970, I assumed duty as NICON secretary in charge of its day-to-day administration. From secretary, I was promoted to the position of Assistant General Manager, Administration; and subsequently, Deputy General Manager, Administration; and secretary to the corporation at the same time. When there was a reorganisation a few years later, I had to relinquish the post of secretary and was made a general manager, manpower development and training, NICON, in 1981. I was the GM, NICON, for about seven years until 1988, when I retired.
Where were you during the civil war?
I was in Lagos. But I remember it was exactly eight days after the Biafran troops took over the Mid-West in those days, armed soldiers came to my office to pick me up at gunpoint. Because I was Igbo-speaking, they thought that I was a saboteur. I was taken downstairs in their land rover and they drove to my house and searched the whole place. They collected all the money I and my wife had in the house, which was not much. After much questioning, they found nothing. I was later released after several hours and the soldiers apologised that they had got the wrong information about us. It was unfortunate that the civil war, which was precipitated by the 1966 coup, ever started. I would advise the Federal Government to be open-minded and extend development to those areas that need it. We are all Nigerians and should be seen to be Nigerians. We cannot be foreigners in our own country. I believe Nigeria should remain as one.
Have your hopes about the country been dashed considering the issues confronting it?
There are some elements of disappointment, yes, but that notwithstanding, I think we should try to be one.
What were some of your challenges and achievements?
During my working career, I tried as much as possible to infuse some degree of discipline in the setup where I worked. I was able to achieve some degree of success there and also because I was in the administration, in the places I worked such as NICON, job seekers were employed strictly on merit. I helped build the organisation to an enviable level. I am happy about that. That was one of my greatest achievements. We didn’t need any government intervention or subvention, but we worked hard and NICON became a household name. This gave us satisfaction.
After your retirement from NICON, what were some of the prominent positions you held?
After my retirement from NICON, I served as Chairman of the Board of BGL Securities Limited and TGI Insurance Brokers Limited, where I was a director for some years. I must say my son-in-law (Tony Elumelu) wiped my tears by coming into my life. All those challenges and the frustrations one suffered unjustly in service became a thing of the past. In 2001, I was made a Director of Standard Trust Bank Plc. It made life comfortable for me. When Standard Trust Bank and UBA merged, only two of us, out of nine or 10 directors of STB, crossed over to the board of UBA. In later years, I served as a Director of United Bank for Africa Plc from 2005 to December, 2013. And from January 1, 2011 to December 22, 2013, I also served as the Chairman of UBA Plc.
Some people, who did not know the depth and quality of your experience in the corporate world, might have thought you became the chairman of UBA Plc simply because of your relationship with Elumelu…
When I was in NICON, we had some investments all over the place. And I represented the organisation on several boards, including that of NAL Merchant Bank Limited, where I served as a non-executive director for about 10 years from 1977 to 1988. I was also on the board of Nicon Noga Hilton Hotel, Abuja, for four years, from 1985 to 1988; Nigerian Match and Chemical Company Limited; and Inland Containers Nigeria Limited from 1982 to 1988. So, I have gathered all these experiences over the years. My son-in-law only came in after I had left the service. My experience over the years counted for me. During my working career, I served as Chairman of the Nigerian Association for Training and Development from 1984 to 1988.
What was your first impression of your son-in-law, Tony Elumelu, and did you know he would become a prominent person in Nigeria?
Not at all. I didn’t know him from Adam. But I saw a young man who was respectful and calculated. I saw in him somebody who wanted to move on in life, and I just liked him as a person. I am very proud of him and his achievements. I thank God for him and I pray for him.
That a prospective son-in-law does not have a car now does not mean he won’t have one later in life. But a father has to weigh, what are the chances of getting this man to make a success of the marriage? Money is not everything. There may be money and no happiness. But there may be happiness with little money and you find such couple succeeding more than people who have billions in the bank.
When did you get married?
I did not get married early. I got married in January, 1965. I was first introduced to my wife by my bosom childhood friend. I was a bit very choosy then. I drove all the way from Lagos to Benin to meet her for the first time. Then, she was teaching at a private school in Benin, Edo State.
Was it love at first sight?
Oh yes, it was. My friend had told me much about her already. I didn’t know if she was also told about me then. When I saw her, I liked her. We courted for about a year before we got married. We have been happily married for over 50 years.
What are the secrets of a good marriage?
Couple should learn to have the spirit of give and take. There is no perfect human being. Man is not infallible. Thus, couples should love each other and learn to understand each other well.
You look younger than your age. What is the secret?
I think being moderate in everything that one does helps a lot. Also, being prayerful helps. I like singing. I have been a chorister from my childhood days. In my present church, Our Saviours Church, Tafawa Balewa Square, I have been in the choir for four decades. I only retired in 2014. I am also a contented person. All these things make life easier.
What kinds of music do you like?
I especially like classical music as well as our traditional music. I like Ebenezer Obey’s music, Fela Kuti, Victor Uwaifo and a host of others.
At your age, what are you most fulfilled about?
I’ve achieved many things that anybody would look forward to. I have a loving wife, I have a very happy marriage, I have five children who are successful in their different fields, and grandchildren who come visiting from time to time. I get to travel abroad to visit some of them too. I was a licenced lay reader of the Anglican communion. I am a Knight of St. Christopher; I was knighted 11 years ago in Asaba. Contentment is one of my strongest points. Whatever God gives me, I accept and I am grateful.
What kind of exercise do you do now?
Nowadays, I do indoor exercise. But a few years ago, I did a lot of 40-45 minutes’ walk outside the house.
Do you want to live up to 100?
It is up to God to decide.
Do you have any regrets?
No, but the only thing I failed to achieve in life was to be a pianist/organist. I had tried to do that in the past but was distracted by some things.
What is your favourite drink and meal?
In those days, it used to be Brandy or Whiskey soda, but these days, it is just soft drink and the occasional champagne. My favourite meal is any meal with a lot of vegetables. I enjoy our local vegetable salad.