By Eric Osagie
Death has dealt a deadly blow on the ancient city. Benin Kingdom is in mourning; Edo state grieves the loss of an illustrious son. Nigeria mourns the exit of a hero and patriot. He was a hero of his people and many across the country, who benefitted from a heart filled with the milk of human kindness.
That Capt. (Dr.) Idahosa Wells Okunbo’s death is eliciting thunderous emotions and sentiments in the land cannot be unexpected: When an Iroko falls in the forest, everywhere vibrates, the earth quakes, the leaves crumble in obeisance to the force of gravity. And everyone can tell that something consequential has occurred.
Capt. Hosa or Capi to his numerous friends and admirers falls in the category of men, of whom William Shakespeare wrote, “When beggars die there are no comets seen, but the heavens blaze forth the death of princes.”
Since early Sunday morning of August 8 when news of his death filtered in from London, after a protracted battle with the big C, it has been a torrent of tears, deluge of condolence messages, reminiscences on the life and times of the renowned ex-commercial pilot, business mogul, philanthropist and humanist.
From President Muhammadu Buhari, ex-military leader, Ibrahim Babangida, Gov. Godwin Obaseki, former governors John Odigie-Oyegun, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole to other notable Nigerians, numerous friends and associates and all those who knew him or had contact with him while he lived, it’s been the same tale: A good man, a dependable brother and friend, an astute businessman, a genial family man; a man of peace and lover of people, city and country; an international businessman but firmly rooted in the rich culture of the Benin kingdom.
For a writer who lives by the word and has done countless columns on several subjects and subject matters, this is one tribute that has been difficult for me to write: He was an elder brother, a maternal relative whom I had several interactions with.
We had a special relationship. He was always proud to introduce me as his brother. “This is Eric Osagie. You know him na? He is my relation, a blood relation.” He often told me how kind my late mother was to him.
Another incident that comes to mind was in 2008. I had just assumed duties as one of Comrade Oshiomhole’s first three appointees after he was declared winner November 9, 2008. I was Special Adviser on Public Affairs and Strategy. Capt. Hosa was one of the first callers at the Government House, being one of those who heavily supported his emergence. On seeing me, he engaged me in a bear hug, “Comrade, this is my brother I am told is now with you.” Turning to me, he said “Look, you have to come to the house. Where are you staying? You can’t be in a hotel when I have a house in this city.”
Exigencies of duty didn’t make me visit him often during my brief sojourn in Oshiomhole’s government. I exited barely a year after. However, when once I sauntered in at his Benin residence, he was quite glad to receive me. “Look, this is your home. You can come in anytime you want, and go anywhere you want.” He told his wife, “Na my cousin be this o. Dey treat am well o.”
However, we got particularly close in the past few years. Being a big player in the corporate world, it was not unexpected he would have issues that had to do with interface with the public. That’s where I came in. He respected my views on media issues, which he often sought and got. Especially on his business forays which brought him in conflict with friends and foes in the shark-infested world of business. Politics and his political alliances were not where we often agreed, even though I respected and conceded to him his right (of choice.)
To demonstrate his love for me as well as his generosity of heart, he not only attended the launch of my book: THE BIG INTERVIEWS at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Center, Abuja on December 10, 2019, he shocked me and everyone when he emerged the highest donor, a pledge he redeemed in less than 48 hours!
It was not just his donation that touched me, it was the fact that he had to cancel a previously scheduled business trip abroad. “Look, Eric, if it’s for you I have no reason not to come. Don’t forget you are my own brother. You have also been very helpful to us in the company.”
If I thought he was joking, I couldn’t have been more wrong. He was one of the early arrivals, just like Alhaji Ismaila Isa Funtua (who was chairman), Uncle Sam Amuka, John Odigie-Oyegun, Adams Oshiomhole, representatives of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Gov. Aminu Bello Masari and my friend and brother, Gov. Nyesom Wike.
Capt. Okunbo not only came, he sat through the event and shook the gathering when it came to his turn to mount the rostrum.
“For all the good work you have been doing for us at OMS, I will donate N15m; and for family, since you are my brother, I am donating the sum of N10m on behalf of myself and other members of the family.” The hall erupted!
Am I then remembering him or engaged in this eulogy simply for his generosity of heart, his deep concern and affection for others or because he was a relative or kinsman? Of course, not.
Capt. Idahosa Okunbo was a truly good man; a large-hearted and compassionate man. There are several testimonies to the assistance he rendered to persons and families in distress, many of whom he hadn’t met or even remembered their names or faces. He just loved to give. He just loved to put smiles on people’s faces. He himself always wore a broad and bright smile.
Being from an indigent background, he had seen and tasted poverty. He knew it didn’t taste well. So, all his life was a struggle to conquer the monster and liberate others from its suffocating grip. He succeeded, largely. To the Glory of God.
Capt. Okunbo worked hard and played hard. He loved humanity, he loved people, all persons. He didn’t discriminate on the boundaries of ethnicity, religion, gender, class or those primordial sentiments that put a barrier between man and man, and kept our country glued to backwardness. He had friends and associates from different parts of the country. The world was his oyster.
Of course, he was no saint; neither was he infallible. No man is. However, his flaws weighed against his pluses clearly revealed a man with a clean heart, with malice towards none. If he felt hurt, his anger quickly disappeared and dissolved in the morning dew.
What could count as his major flaw ( if you could call it that) was that he was often too trusting of friends, acquaintances and business allies. He suffered serial betrayals on account of this.
He was no politician, even though he had political allies and alliances. I believe some of them took advantage of his generally good nature to feather their personal nest. I didn’t think he understood the wiles and guises of political sharks. I thought he shouldn’t have got involved as he did. We disagreed in that regards.
For me, there are three takeaways in the life and times of Capt. Hosa: Love. Commitment. Patriotism. He loved genuinely. He gave genuinely. He was committed to family, friends and community. He was a proud Benin and Edo son; a patriotic Nigerian, who invested his energy and resources to galvanise the Nigerian economy, as attested to by no less a personality than President Buhari.
Though some forces might have tried to portray him unkindly in some aspects of his business dealings in the maritime sector, his invaluable and patriotic contributions to national development the country would certainly be appreciated in the fullness of time. He was concerned about service to his country.
Yes, he was an extremely brilliant man. A pilot at barely 21, and retired commercial flight captain at age 30. He then established a chain of businesses and had his hands in several pies: oil and gas, maritime, real estate, security, hotel and hospitality, agriculture among others, and was quite remarkable in all the ventures.
He told me how his training as a pilot gave him the fillip in business, in terms of critical and strategic thinking.
“As a pilot, you are always taking decisions, critical decisions. You are constantly engaged in risk analysis. For example, If you are flying and you have 200 persons on board, you are carrying the fate, the destinies of all of them in the cockpit. There are persons who have weddings to attend; some have exams, job interviews, hospitals, holidays and so on. Now, if there is an emergency or you have to make an air return, you are the only one who is seeing what they are not seeing, the dangers ahead or the safety. You have to do a risk analysis: Do you continue the journey or not? You just take a decision. You may inform the passengers; sometimes you don’t. You just do your risk analysis, take a decision and see it through. There’s no room for prevarication or indecision when you are in the cockpit. One fatal error, everyone goes down. That critical thinking, risk assessment have come in handy in my business decisions.”
Now, Capt. Hosa will no longer fly as a pilot or in the business world, where he towered as a colossus. He has embarked on his final flight. The flight of no return. Only memories, fond memories of his remarkable life and times are etched in many hearts!
Adieu, Captain Idahosa Wells Okunbo!!
Eric Osagie is former managing director/editor-in-chief of The Sun