Eighty-one-year old Ubakaeze Onianwa, also called chief executive of newspaper vendors in Asaba and environs, a title given to him by his colleagues, tells OCHEI MATTHEW about his job and the secret of his longevity
What makes you so sure that you are 81 years old?
I know my date of birth because my father was an educated man. When politics was practised the right way, my father was elected as Chairman, Asaba Urban District Council. You can see that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. He kept our birth certificates for us (me and my siblings). I was born in Enugu.
What else can you say about your parents?
They were wonderful; I was blessed with good parents. They actually tried all they could to ensure that we were all educated, but I was careless at a time. I did not go to university, but then, when I remembered all they had done for us, I changed. I finished from St Patrick College, Asaba. My father held several positions in those days. I’m the 9th child of my father.
I started elementary school at St Bath’s Anglican School, Enugu. When my father retired, we came to Asaba and I was enrolled at Holy Trinity School in Asaba. Then there were no primary five or six, so when we got to primary four, we were transferred to All Saints School. I did not go to St Patrick after three years as a result of financial constraints because my father had many children and all of them attended school. It got to my turn and there was a delay, although I was asked to go to a boarding school, stubbornly, I refused. But it later dawned on me. Thank God I passed the entrance exam to St Patrick in 1961.
In January 1962, I joined my immediate elder brother in Lagos. And within two months, I had got two job offers; one was with what they call the Ministry of Commerce and Industry today and another one was with the railway service. But you know, as a young man, I needed money so I chose to work with the railway service because they wanted to pay me six pounds more than what the Ministry of Commerce and Industry wanted to pay.
What was the job like?
I was very happy. I worked as an Accounting Clerk. We were living at Obalande but my office was at Ebute Meta, so I had to wake up early in the morning to get a bus to the place. And my brother took care of my transport and feeding until I was paid a salary.
How did your parents inspire you at that time?
Even when I was working, my father was still writing to me, advising me on what to do. That is what I am doing for my children today. One of the instructions my father gave me which I will never forget was that he had no house in Lagos, therefore, I should pay my rent first, then take care of my feeding and clothing and make sure that I saved something, no matter how small.
How did you cope after retirement?
I wouldn’t say it was very fabulous because my wife was a headmistress in the old Bendel State. When Delta State was created from the old Bendel State, they asked them to go, so she left with the children while I remained in Benin. So when I retired, you can see that it was a great reunion. While I was in Benin, I went home from time to time to visit them. I went to Delta at least once a month. And my job at that time permitted me to do that because I worked in the marketing section. After going around, I had to report in Lagos. Then, I could fly from Maiduguri to Lagos and if I was returning to Benin, I could go by car. Therefore, I could branch at Asaba to see my family before going back. So when I retired, it was great to permanently be with my family.
What advice will you give to those who desire to live long?
I think God determines who lives long but also you have a role to play by dedicating yourself to God; you should also obey and fear him. Putting God first in everything you do is important. Giving also leads to longevity and it has been part of me to care for other people’s children.
Asaba was one of the cities adversely affected by the Nigerian Civil War; what was your experience at that time?
Oh! It was an ugly experience. I was in Zaria when the pogrom started but by God grace, I escaped and went to Enugu where one of my elder brothers was. Then I came to Asaba and three days later, the federal troops came. I was even the person who carried the typewriter that my father used to write the welcome address (to him). After that, we were asked to assemble at a place. When I got there, my father told me to go and look after my mother because she was ill at that time. That night, we heard that they shot everybody and my father escaped, but as he was coming to join us, he was intercepted by some troops and they shot him down.
The soldiers had their headquarters close to our house and one day, a soldier called Mathias saw me and asked me to come. During that period, if a soldier asked you to come, you would be afraid. But I couldn’t run because I didn’t know why he was calling me. I went to meet him and he asked me why I was still in Asaba. I told him I was looking for a way to join my people in Lagos. He followed me to my father’s house and I was afraid. When he entered the house, he saw a picture of my father’s while his hand was raised in salute at the 1960 Independence Day celebration and he asked if that was my father. I said yes sir, and he asked me where I worked and I told him I was working with the railway service. He checked my hands and feet and said he was checking to see if I was a Biafran soldier. So I said no; I was surprised on that day. They cooked in the barracks and brought food to me. Then they asked me if I wanted to join my people in Lagos, and I said yes. Then he gave me a permit to follow a military vehicle to Lagos; that was how I escaped and joined my people in Lagos.
People say you always care for other people’s children even when you don’t have much, why do you do that?
You don’t have to be rich before you help others. I believe that if you help humanity, God will help you and bless you more. I can’t turn my back on someone crying for help and God has a way of bringing them close. One of the first sets of people I remember helping was my driver’s children. The driver was so humble but at a stage, there was a problem between him and his wife so I intervened. They had three children at that time; they were aged two, three and five. The driver could not cope with taking care of the three children, so I took the children to my house and they started attending school from my house and finished there. That driver is a very rich man today; he has not forgotten me. He brings me food items every month. When I celebrated my 80th birthday last year, he bought me a big cow and came here and spray me with money. One of his daughters, the one that was three years when I took them in, read Accountancy. One of my daughters gave her a job in Lagos and today, the young lady is a chartered accountant. This lady also sends me money regularly. Today, people see me as a gentleman dressing well and looking good every day. God has blessed me through these children.
You worked in the newspaper industry, how long were you there?
Yes, I have worked for 29 years in the newspaper industry. After the war, my elder brother got me into NTC and I was there for a year and two months. Then I joined Daily Times Nigeria Limited that time. There, they took care of us. We were going for courses in various places; the University of Ibadan, University of Lagos, and many more. We were okay but when The Guardian came, we needed money that time because I had children so I moved to The Guardian.
I worked with The Guardian till in the 90s when it was proscribed by the government but then, they retained us. It was when they said I should go on transfer to Lagos that I said no, at my age, I felt it was time to allow younger ones to come in. And Lagos would be too far for me to attend to my children. But I did not leave the newspaper business completely as I set up a distribution centre here in Asaba and it helped me tremendously because that time my children were getting into university. By God’s Grace, it is from the proceeds from the newspaper business that I trained them; seven children of my own and five children from others. They are all graduates.
As a chief newspaper vendor in Asaba, what has been your experience?
You can’t compare those days with today. Selling newspapers is not what it used to be today. Today, younger ones come to me for advice but the issue is that sales have reduced drastically. The economy of the country is affecting the industry. Many people don’t buy newspapers as they used to because of the economy and many people go on the Internet to read news with the advent of social media. I told you that I trained all my children and others with the proceeds from selling newspapers but how many vendors can do that now? I supply Government House and ministries with newspapers but now they cannot buy as many as they used to buy. Despite that, I cannot leave the industry because I derive joy from selling newspapers and I have the opportunity to read newspapers every day.
One of our challenges came when the Delta State Government banned the use of ‘okada’ (commercial motorcycles) in Asaba; that seriously affected us because you cannot distribute newspapers with ‘Keke’ (commercial tricycles).
But I must say the media industry has contributed immensely to Nigeria, not only to the democratic system but also to the growth of the economy. Imagine walking to the newspaper stands in the morning and you find no newspapers there, what would first come to your mind? You would think there was a coup d’état, war or that something serious had happened. So our presence here every morning shows that there is life in the country.
How did you meet your wife?
Oh! Glory be to God and my mother. My mother found the woman I married. It is believed that if you marry a teacher, your children will have a good education; it worked for me. My wife was a teacher and she usually followed her mother to the market and the farm. My mother saw her as a good and humble woman and chose her for me. All the things my mother told me about my wife were true.
How do you relax?
In the past 12 years, I have been going to London, UK and the US to relax and sometimes, I ask my driver to drive me around. But most often, I read newspapers.