An elderly retired businessman has opened up on how he had to flee for his dear life, abandoning his property during the Biafran war.
A retired business man and farmer, Ikeme Alphonsus, 81, talks about his life and career with MOTUNRAYO JOEL
Tell us about yourself.
I was born on April 5, 1936 in Onitsha in the old eastern Nigeria. I am the second of 11 children and the first son of my parents.
How are you able to recollect your year of birth vividly?
It is because at the time of my birth in 1936, Adolf Hitler was getting ready to invade Poland and other countries in continental Europe and the events leading to World War II were well on course. I was only three years old when the war eventually began in 1939. My father left soon after to fight in the war, a journey that took him around the world, with the bulk of his time spent in Myanmar (Burma) in Asia and India. The stories he told me about his trips helped to shape my childhood and youth.
Tell us the schools you attended.
I attended St. Thomas Primary School, Oraukwu in Anambra State. I lived with my parents in Oraukwu throughout my schooling days. But like the close family we were, holidays were spent in my uncle’s house at Onitsha. My admission to Washington Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha, was never honoured because as the first son, the responsibility of taking care of my younger siblings required that I get a job. I took up employment first as a hotel manager, then a carpenter, transporter, and eventually an agricultural officer and a cloth merchant. My entrepreneurial spirit was such that I was restless and was always seeking to improve my circumstance hence the need to move from one profession to another until I settled on dealing in clothing.
In your days, the desire to travel abroad to better one’s life was common. Was that the same for you?
I felt no desire to travel abroad. I was one of those that saw the opportunities in agriculture very early and so rather than travel abroad, I went to secure a slot in the eastern Nigerian farm settlement scheme where I acquired a large portion of land for raising both cash and food crops.
Did you establish a company from the proceeds you made?
Yes, in fact, I have set up multiple businesses in my life time. The first was a carpentry workshop I started soon after I left school. Then my interest in agriculture led me to apply and obtain a piece of farmland through the Eastern Nigeria Farm Settlement Scheme with which I planted and sold food and cash crops. Finally, I set up AlphPat Fancy Goods Store, which sold items of clothing in 1970. It was the business I ran for 45 years till I retired from active service in 2015.
How did you meet your wife?
I met her during the civil war in 1969. Our meeting was the handiwork of my late sister, Mrs. Lucy Okeke. Like all sisters, my sisters were very protective of me and worked to have a say in who would become my wife. They felt that being the first son, I would need a good, God-fearing wife that would help hold the family, set good example for the younger wives of my brothers as well as serve as a mentor to them.
How did you feel when you first met her?
The minute I set my eyes on my wife, I fell in love with her. And 48 years later, we have built a strong and closely knit family of two sons and two daughters, two sons-in-law, a daughter-in-law, nine grandchildren and counting.
What attracted you to her?
My wife has the most desirable qualities any man would want in a wife. She is beautiful both on the outside and inside. I remember the first time I was introduced to her by my sister. I remember how self-assured and humble she was. A conversation with her revealed a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. Her God-focused view of life quickly drew me to her and I knew I was in love.
Didn’t you have other female admirers before meeting her?
I did. You are right. Quite a few women took notice of me, but I have always been a focused and disciplined man. In my youthful days, I took no interest in playing around. As the first son, I had to bear the responsibility of contributing to the upkeep of my younger siblings very early in my youth and so there was no time for frivolous activities.
What has kept your marriage going?
My marriage is strong and I have faith that it will remain strong till death do us part. Our marriage was founded on God’s words; He is our Rock. My wife and I are God-fearing and we share similar values about life and family. We have learnt that marriage requires patience, which happens to be my wife’s name. We both understand that marriage is about sacrifice, compromise, and forgiveness. These principles have helped us weather all storms and come out stronger each time.
We both also share family-oriented values and believe that families should strive to forge unbreakable bonds by emphasising collective similarities and de-emphasising areas of disagreement. I always illustrate this concept to my children by using the parable of the broom and a broomstick. A broomstick is easy to break, but a broom is unbreakable. The anger of a family member is not bone deep, and as such, forgiveness should be a readily available and utilised currency in transacting relationships within families.
Would you say you achieved all your goals during your youthful days?
As a man who believes in God’s divine plan for our individual lives, I leave no room for regret of the past. I believe that I accomplished all that God wanted me to accomplish in my youth because I have always trusted Him to order my life according to His will.
How do you feel at 81?
I feel fulfilled. God has been kind enough to bless me with an eventful life filled with His abundant grace and kindness. In the course of my life, I had a few near-death experiences which I miraculously survived. Two examples, as a child, a spear hurled playfully by a cousin hit me squarely in the face and could have pierced my skull but miraculously, the damage to my eye was only partial and I lived to tell the story. Also, as a young man, I had to abandon all my life investments, houses and property in Boki, Cross River, during the civil war after federal soldiers invaded the area. I trekked half the distance from Boki in the now Cross River State to Abakaliki, now Ebonyi State, to save my life.
But despite all these, I see my life today as a testimony of God’s grace. I have the most beautiful and amazing wife. I am alive and healthy. Life is awesome and I am thankful.
What is your life’s philosophy?
I put God first in all I do. I have discovered that if God is first in your life, one would have a balanced life. Looking at life through God’s perspective allows you to be focused and not swayed by various storms of life. In marriage, family, interpersonal relations and business dealings, a God-first approach to life allows you to be consistent, fair and confident of your actions at all times.
Would you love to live up to 100 or more?
As a Christian, I totally submit to the will of God. Every day to me is a gift and if it is God’s will that I live to be a 100, I will consider it a blessing. My responsibility is to live for Him and ensure that each day of my life is lived in a way that glorifies His name.
What is the secret of your good looks at 81?
You look your best when you are at peace with God and with man. If you think I look good, then it means that my innermost peace is reflected in my looks.
What is your favourite food?
I am a typical Igbo man; I like fufu and Onugbu (bitter leaf) soup.
What did you learn as an entrepreneur?
As a entrepreneur, the number one lesson I learnt is that you have to be bold and make forays into new territories. The first mover advantage is the weapon of successful entrepreneurs. You have to read the mood of the market and identify a need that has not been fulfilled. This allows the entrepreneur to dominate and profit while satisfying the need of the customers.
How can Nigeria’s economy be better?
The same thing that applies to individuals apply to nations. You reap what you sow. I learnt that as a businessman, you have to be prudent, and nurture your investment to grow. You live off of your profit and not your capital. You seek the most efficient way to run your business. You hire the best hands to run your business and not mediocre persons. Those are the rules for economic success. As a nation, Nigeria violates all these rules. Our affairs are often managed by mediocre individuals. Our rulers are corrupt and steal from the coffers of the state. Nepotism allows for mediocrity in the management of the economy. Until Nigeria embraces the foundational principles of economic success, our economy will remain in shambles.