It is accepted that life is not necessarily measured by the length of time spent on earth but by how it impacts on people and the society. Yet, longevity is one of the most cherished aspirations of human beings. To see one’s children and grandchildren, to reminisce on times past, to mentor younger ones who are privileged to drink from one’s fountain of wisdom, to have the opportunity to make peace with our maker before exiting this planet are, no doubt, some of the abiding benefits of old age.
When old age is accompanied by impact, society is moved to celebrate such a person. That is what is expected as Dr. Peter Otunuya Odili, CON, the third Governor of Rivers State (1999-2007), attains the age of 70 on August 15, 2018. Like any other politician, Odili will naturally mean different things to different people. As managing director/editor-in-chief of Champion Newspapers Limited between February 2000 and January 2008, I had the privilege of interacting with him at close quarters before his tenure, of two terms, (1999-2007) ended. I therefore consider it a joyful undertaking to pay this tribute to a man whose commitment to service; patriotism, philanthropy, and loyalty to friendship match the loftiest human ideals attainable.
Looking back, one of the most remarkable qualities of Odili was his determination to ensure that the people of Rivers State enjoyed the dividends of democracy by providing visionary leadership in two areas. If my recollection is correct, he laid great emphasis on political education and leadership development. Just emerging then from military rule, he made it a point to assemble a corps of young men and women on whose shoulders the future of the state would rest. It is a measure of his visionary leadership that, through astute mentoring, he incubated a corps of younger politicians many of whom are today holding strategic positions at all levels of governmental administration in Nigeria. The persons concerned are well known and they know themselves!
Beyond that, Odili had the vision of establishing legacy projects through ambitious infrastructural development. I will mention one of such projects, the Omoku Power Plant not because it was the only one but for the important reason that it epitomized the quintessential Odili, a gentle giant who, for the love of his people, was prepared to strive where angels feared to dare to tread. At Omoku, Odili demonstrated the power of vision over tradition, of courage over criticism, of love over fear. Before Omoku, no level of government had tried an independent power project of that magnitude. To make matters worse, the terrain was terrifyingly discouraging: it demanded the highest of civil engineering expertise and enormous resources to stabilize the swampy soil. Naturally the criticisms cascaded not as drops but in torrents. Odili remained undaunted. In the end, he prevailed. Many years later, I was extremely elated when the regional head of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, in Port Harcourt, disclosed that about 75 percent of the power consumed in capital city, was generated from the Omoku Power Plant. I said to myself: here is the power of vision.
For a man with his kind of focus, it is only to be expected that Odili would place premium attention on education. He did. For him, emphasis on education encompassed infrastructure and manpower development at home, complemented with global benchmarking abroad. I recall an incident at the Port Harcourt International Airport. Our flight, from Lagos, had just touched down and there was this large group of young men and women whose excitement literally illuminated the departure area of the airport. Why were they so happy, I enquired? I was informed that those were students on the scholarship of the Rivers State Government who were about leaving for one of the Asian countries, either Singapore or Indonesia. Odili had opened the floodgates of overseas education to the children of all classes of parents.
In spite of the challenge of militancy and cultism, Odili was determined to make Rivers unique. At the same time, he never missed any opportunity to make Nigeria great. He believed, and I hope, still believes that the legitimate aspiration of states for greater self-expression should not be allowed to undermine national unity and political stability. As Governor, he never discriminated against anybody. To him, gender, tribe, religion and all labels should never erode our sense of common humanity. With this enduring philosophy, he supported very legitimate cause to the extent that the governance environment permitted. Those who know him will agree that Odili is the epitome of compassion and philanthropy.
What I distilled from my interaction with Odili was his strong belief in the promise of a greater Nigeria; he always felt that sub-cultural nationalism should never truncate the promise of a Nigeria that would be the undeniable leader in Africa. To drive home his point, he made friends across all the divides to the extent that he was loved and admired by people-traditional rulers, religious leaders, students, artisans, etc-all over the country so much so that at some point, his popularity or, put differently, national appeal, could only be compared to that of the late MKO Abiola. So, for those who invested emotionally and professionally in his run for president in 2007, it was from the perspective of a people who genuinely yearned for a bridge-builder, a visionary politician, a statesman who, then 59, was endowed with the energy, focus and presence of mind to consolidate on whatever gains that had been achieved post-military Nigeria. That the dream died, is now history.
However, we can take consolation that the disappointments of the past have not deterred Odili from continuing to contribute, in profound and diverse ways, to national development, the most recent being the commencement of the PAMO University of Medical Sciences in Port Harcourt, the first specialized, medicine only, university, in Nigeria. Surprising? Not so. For those who do not know, Odili, an alumnus of the University of Nigeria, UNN, is a medical doctor. Medicine is, should I say, his second love since his first love is his wife, the inimitable Hon. Justice Mary Ukaego Odili, Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria! We should be grateful to this judicial Amazon, this scion of the Nzenwa royal family in Obizi, Ezinihitte Mbaise of Imo State, with her children, for standing behind this outstanding humanist, for allowing him to touch the lives of many, including mine, in unforgettable ways. His name is Peter and he has been a solid rock to friends, family, state, nation, society and humanity. We may not all be present at the anniversary; yet neither words nor gifts nor physical presence can express the depth of gratitude owed by us all.
This is wishing His Excellency, Sir (Dr.) Peter Otunuya Odili, CON, happy 70th birthday and many more years of God’s blessings.