By Tunde Olusunle
There was almost always a familial disputation between his friends, about the most appropriate moniker to prefix to his name, at every point in time. He aggregated quite a number of them over several decades of leading his organisation to deliver global standard, durable public infrastructure as commissioned by an avalanche of government ministries, departments and agencies. Most famous of his references were the chieftaincy titles Ochendo Awka-Etiti and Eziafa Amaka Ahaba. He was also a Knight of the Anglican Communion who was at liberty to prefix the honorific “Sir” to his name. He was also the chairman and chief executive of his companies. The title Ochendo conferred on him in his hometown, Awka-Etiti, Anambra State literally means “the umbrella.” This was most fitting considering his various contributions to his traditional community. He assisted in modernising and beautifying Awka-Etiti by building roads and engaging qualified professionals in departments of his organisation.
Eziafa Amaka was bestowed on him by His Majesty, Obi (Professor) Joseph Chike Edozien, CFR, Asagba Asaba in Delta State, about 20 years ago and it translates as “a good name is better than riches.” Instructively, he was honoured on the same day with the iconic retired Lieutenant General and political figure, Jeremiah Timbut Useni. Being draped with a knighthood in his religious denomination must have been informed by his attributes in secular service. Useni, we got to know, was instrumental to inspiring the subject of this treatise, to explore opportunities in the construction industry back in the days when Useni was military Governor of the former Bendel State in 1984, before its sectioning into Edo and Delta states in 1991.
I first met Nath Okechukwu early January 2002, through Onyema Ugochukwu, the revered economist, redoubtable media practitioner and pioneer Chairman of the Niger Delta Development Commission, (NDDC). Olusegun Obasanjo was President at the time and part of his official schedule was to regularly tour the nation’s 36 states. He elected to check up on how well the dividends of democracy which he assured Nigerians democracy would beget was actually impacting people at the grassroots. Obasanjo took the visits very seriously and passed at least one night in the host state. State governors used the opportunity to showcase projects they had completed, initiatives they were driving and new grounds they intended to break.
In the course of Obasanjo’s visit to Delta State that January 2002, the intuitive Nigerian leader took special note of the fact that Inter-Bau Construction Ltd featured recurrently at various points. James Onanefe Ibori, the Delta State helmsman led the President to perform the ceremonial “cutting of the tape” of roads, hospitals, stadiums, and so on and Obasanjo asked to meet the Inter-Bau boss, Nath Okechukwu. He was impressed that the construction firm was a wholly Nigerian outfit doing good things as it were. Ugochukwu himself recorded Okechukwu’s Inter-Bau’s good works and asked for a formal meeting at the corporate headquarters of the NDDC in Port Harcourt. Those who know me, know my relationship with Ugochukwu over the decades. Whether it is in Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt, I’ve never been far from him. It therefore followed that I would get to meet Okechukwu at some point.
Inter-Bau, is a subsidiary of Landgold Holdings Limited. The parent company was originally in the business of foreign trade, logistics and the supply of medical and pharmaceuticals. After delivering on the procurement and installation of medical equipment to General Hospital, Benin City in 1984, Jerry Useni reportedly engaged Okechukwu about if his organisation ever gave any thought to diversifying into construction. Useni admonished that foreign partnership would be inevitable at the beginning but the future was bright for the construction sector. This, Okechukwu once told me, sired the baby, Inter-Bau. The first ever projects assigned the newly formed organisation was by the Useni government in 1984 in the old Bendel State. The company was commissioned to build Asaba township roads; the Asaba/Anwai link road, and to reconstruct the Isele-Uku/Olona/Illah Road. All of these are in the contemporary Delta State.
Inter-Bau acquitted itself on its primary assignment and became a much sought-after bride across sectors. It built capacity in civil and highway construction; engineering works; bridges and allied structures; flood and erosion control; engineering consultancy services, marine works and quarrying among others. Under Okechukwu’s guidance, Inter-Bau bravely sited an operational base in Asaba. This was in response to the continuing request for its services by state governments and federal organisations in the Niger Delta are. Inter-Bau had become more and more acquainted with the peculiar terrains and topography of the Niger Delta area. Consistent with the desire of the Obasanjo government to encourage homegrown expertise in national development, Inter-Bau’s experience easily recommended it for partnership with several MDAs.
The clientele of Inter-Bau blossomed under the hands-on leadership of Okechukwu who refused to recline into the comfort of the corporate headquarters of the organisation on Lugard Street in Ikoyi, Lagos. Neither did he ensconce himself into the coziness of the Asokoro, Abuja annex of his office. Successive administrations in Delta State continued to engage Inter-Bau even as Anambra State followed suit. The federal ministries of Works and Housing; aviation; transport; the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, (FAAN) and the National Inland Waterways Authority, (NIWA), variously engaged Inter-Bau. The organisation has also worked with the World Bank on projects in Nigeria.
At the last check, Inter-Bau’s imprimatur featured in Lagos, Delta, Anambra, Abia, Imo, Rivers, Edo, Enugu and Kogi states. “Legacy” projects undertaken by Inter-Bau include the construction of the Ekeoba-Umudibia road which links Imo and Abia; the upgrading and rehabilitation of Onitsha River Port and the reconstruction of the Port Harcourt International Airport. Inter-Bau also built the perimeter fence around the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos and its service roads. The company built the Utor road and bridge which connects Edo and Delta states, even as it is working on the Lokoja River Port project, under Okechukwu’s watch. As far back as March 2013, the plants and equipment owned by the organisation was valued at over N30Billion. Given the heedless downward spiral of Nigeria’s naira besides global currencies, the current value of equipment and devices owned by Inter-Bau would be in three-digit billions.
Despite his affluence and relative comfort, Sir Nath Okechukwu was a simple, genial, unobtrusive gentleman. He was renowned for his restlessness and would typically drag me on his extensive road trips across sites and locations where his company was engaged. We could begin from Lagos for instance, traverse Edo and Delta states and end up at his favourite “Grand Hotel,” Asaba. We’ve been through Iyuku, in northern Edo State where his outfit has a large quarry; inspected the river port project in Lokoja and passed the night in Abuja. All of these tours were before Nigeria got lost to ransom-seeking kidnappers, freestyle bandits and malevolent insurgents. He would typically patronise hawkers on the highways as a means of supporting locals. Sir Nath was ever a good host wherever you found him. He loved the banter and laughter of friendly communion.
He was an unyielding stickler for perfection in everything, especially on issues of professionalism and integrity. He sought second opinions about whatever seemed fuzzy to him. He called you on phone for clarification or asked that a contentious document be screenshot and forwarded for your input. He received several personal plaques for philanthropy and freewill discharge of corporate social responsibility, (CSR), as well as corporate recognitions for professionalism and innovation. His golden, grey hair was a standout characteristic. He was unmissable in a crowd. He doted on his family, his wife Lady Anne Okechukwu, his children and grandchildren. As his business engagements broadened, he engaged his children, Obinna, Doris, Kenneth and Onyeka as understudy. He was a very keen lawn tennis player and a respected member of the Ikoyi Club 1938 in Lagos. He received awards from the club for his contributions. His racquet and kits were always part of his luggage even as he challenged his friends to duels at any court of their choice!
News of his departure after an illness filtered in on Monday January 22, 2024. Chief Ugochukwu who called to inform me, actually sympathised with me on the development. He was familiar with my closeness to Sir Nath. Amaka Ahaba patented a nickname for me, Atuna derived from my name, Tunde, to underscore our chummy relationship. The news was a most unsavoury way to start the new year. He would have been 79 on October 3, 2024. By whatever name he was known, “Sir Nath,” “Chairman,” “Ochendo” or “Amaka Ahaba,” Sir Nath Okechukwu will be surely, sorely missed by us all. He was a remarkable personality no doubt, a man of style. He had his distinct ways of doing things. You would usually find some of the latest, most coveted beverages in his cellar. Fare thee well, Amaka Ahaba.
- Tunde Olusunle, PhD, poet, journalist, scholar and author is a Fellow of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (FANA)