By CHEKWAS OKORIE —
It was about 32 years ago, when I was already an employer of labour – I had established my first company, Chel Water Nigeria Limited – that I met Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, a brilliant, self-effacing and consummate academic, when he was a member of the Board of Directors of Nigercem Nkalagu, now in Ebonyi State. Our friendship has remained unbroken and waxed from strength to strength. It is therefore my singular honour and privilege to write about a man I have been very closely associated with for over three decades.
Dr Onu was born on December 1, 1951, to the family of His Royal Highness Eze David Aba Onu, Eze Adu of Uburu in Ohaozara LGA of Ebonyi State, Nigeria. His academic brilliance manifested very early when he obtained Grade One with Distinction in his West African School Certificate examination at Izzi High School, Abakaliki. He went further to obtain distinctions in Physics and Chemistry at the Higher School Certificate Examination at the College of Immaculate Conception (CIC), Enugu, graduating as the best overall student. In 1976, Onu graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos (Unilag). He later obtained his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Chemical Engineering (without passing through a Master’s degree) at the reputable University of California, Berkeley, California, USA, in 1980.
On returning to Nigeria, Dr Onu taught at the University of Port Harcourt as the pioneer head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. On several occasions he served as the acting dean of the Faculty of Engineering, University of Port Harcourt.
Dr Onu was also elected as a member of the Governing Council of the University. He did not limit himself to acquiring high grade certificates in academic institutions; he had time for extra-curricular activities where he also excelled. His capabilities as a leader of his peers and others shone like a thousand stars. A few examples will suffice: While in the University of California, Berkeley, Onu was president of the African Students’ Union. He was also a member of the Graduate Assembly of the University of California at Berkeley as well as the president of the Nigerian Association of Northern California incorporated (Inc). Back in Nigeria, Dr. Onu served as the president-general of the Old Boys Association of his alma mater, Izzi High School, Abakaliki.
While in Port Harcourt, Dr Onu became president of the Rotary Club of Port Harcourt. He was also the chairman of the Nigerian Society of Chemical Engineers of Old Rivers, Cross River and Akwa Ibom States’ chapter. He was a pioneer national president of the Raw Materials Society of Nigeria. The society ceased to exist when the federal government established the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC) and Dr Onu served as a member of the first Board of Governors of the Council.
When Dr Onu delved into partisan politics, his attributes as an articulate political strategist with sagacity manifested and blossomed. Not many will remember that Dr Onu was an aspirant for a senatorial seat in the old Imo State on the platform of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN). That attempt could well be referred to as Dr Onu’s political baptism, as he did not emerge to become the candidate. But having stepped out on the political arena, there was no looking back for the ebullient and calculative personality.
Upon the creation of Abia State and partial return of Nigeria to partisan politics by the General Ibrahim Babangida military administration, Dr Onu joined the National Republican Convention (NRC) and threw his hat in the ring to contest for the governorship nomination of his party with the legitimate ambition to become the first elected governor of the newly created state on the platform of his party. I remember accompanying him to consult a number of party bigwigs and major stakeholders in Abia State. We went to Dr Chris Adighije at his Olokoro country home in Umuahia. Dr Adighije later became a senator of the Federal Republic. He was helpful in securing the support of Chief B.B. Akpugo, a major power broker in Abia State and NRC, and a few other opinion leaders in the state.
My late uncle, Mr J. U. Agwu, a permanent secretary in the First Republic government of M. I. Okpara, stood solidly with Dr Onu at that time and their friendship endured until my uncle died. I remember us reaching out to these leaders with traditional kolanuts as tradition demanded and very affordable modest drinks. Dr Onu did not get into the gubernatorial race with a large war chest, but his integrity, sincerity of purpose, humility, clear understanding of what he wished for Abia State and a high dose of political sagacity were some of his strong attributes. Whoever he encountered just once was convinced to support his candidature. In spite of paucity of funds, Dr Onu won the nomination of the NRC in Abia State to fly the party’s governorship flag and proceeded to sweep the polls at the governorship election to become the first elected governor of Abia State in 1992. It was a near-miracle to move from the classroom as a university teacher to win a governorship election in Igbo land where money is a major issue. It was in that year 1992 that Dr Onu appointed me as a member of Abia State University Governing Council.
As the beloved governor of Abia State, Dr Onu set out to introduce landmark reforms in the state. He introduced free maternal healthcare programme. Security of life and property was considerably enhanced such that, within a single year, the Abia State police command received two letters of commendation from the inspector-general of police.
Dr Onu abolished the state-of-origin syndrome in Abia State and proceeded to appoint non-indigenes of Abia State into his government. This was to underscore his belief in Nigeria’s unity as an instrument for national integration and development. It was Dr Onu that founded the Abia State Polytechnics in Aba; he established the College of Education at Arochukwu, and attracted the Michael Okpara Federal University of Agriculture at Umudike, near Umuahia. Dr Onu established the Abia Broadcasting Corporation in Abia State as well as the National Ambassadors newspaper which then won several awards as the best state-owned newspaper. He achieved all these within a little longer than 20 months with federal allocation ranging between 40 and 60 million naira monthly.
It was Dr Onu that christened Abia State “GOD’S OWN STATE” and symbolized his noble dream for the state by building the “Abia Tower of Peace”. At the resumption of partisan politics in 1999, Dr Onu emerged as the first presidential flag-bearer of the then All People’s Party (APP) which was later known as All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP). I was a member of the national caucus of APP. Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu with whom I joined the party became a member of the Board of Trustees of APP. Other notable Igbo members of APP at that time included Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, Chief Arthur Nzeribe, Chief Evan Enwerem, and Dr Joshua Odunna. It is to Dr Onu’s eternal credit that he showed an unalloyed loyalty to the party in the spirit of the supremacy of party and as a true democrat that he submitted to the directive of the party leadership to relinquish his position as presidential flag-bearer to pave the way for Dr Olu Falae of Alliance for Democracy (AD) to become the presidential flag bearer of APP in a curious political alliance between AD and APP. While all the notable members of APP moved out of the party at different times and for different reasons, Dr Onu remained committed to the party. Little wonder his fellow party men and women in recognition of Dr Onu’s rare political fidelity, discipline, steadfastness and exemplary commitment to the party’s ideals, in September 2010, elected him as the national chairman of the party.
It was from this privileged position that Dr Onu proceeded to reposition the ANPP that was already degenerating to a regional party and brought the party back to national reckoning. As the leader of the foremost opposition party in the country, which by extension made him the de facto leader of opposition in Nigeria, he led his party to a historic merger with the Action Congress of Nigeria and Congress for Progressive Change which was ultimately registered as All Progressives Congress (APC) on July 31, 2013. Dr Onu is a member of Board of Trustees of APC and was appointed by the president-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari, as a member of his Transition Committee.
Dr Onu is the author of many books and has garnered so awards and chieftaincy titles too numerous to be accommodated in this brief piece. He is married to Dr Chinyere Onu and they have children who, like their parents, are upwardly mobile.
I wish to conclude this brief narrative by acknowledging from personal experience of more than 30 years of unbroken friendship with Dr Ogbonnaya Onu that he is a first-class gentleman whose word is his bond. Any understanding reached with Onu is bankable. There is no difference between written and unwritten agreement as far as Dr Onu is concerned. His integrity, sincerity and honesty are incomparable. His humility is disarming. Betrayal and inordinate ambition are vices that are alien to Dr Onu’s personality. Entrust him with a sensitive national responsibility, you can sleep with your two eyes closed.
It is a common saying that if you show me your friend I will show you who you are. I am therefore privileged to refer to Dr Ogbonnaya Onu as my friend and brother. I urge all his friends to continue to pray for him in his stride to continue to render service to his fatherland as destiny beckons on him.
— Chief Okorie is the national chairman and 2015 presidential candidate of UPP