|Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh|
My younger brother had just woken up. He was dragging his wrapper after him. “Are you Okotie-Eboh?” Ikuologun asked him, making a sweep of his old hands to demonstrate the flowing wrapper. My brother shook his head. He was not Okotie-Eboh. I wondered what Okotie-Eboh had to do with flowing wrapper. Perhaps Okotie-Eboh was a textile merchant, I thought. I was in primary five.
Mention his name and the mental image that comes to the mind of an average young Nigerian is that of a flamboyant politician. Google his name and the picture you are likely to see is that of a colourful minister with miles and miles of African wrapper carried by two youngsters. But who really was the man behind the image?
“You mean Okotie-Eboh is not just the name of a street in Victoria Island?” The young interviewee asked me with an incredulous frown. He was brilliant and smart. The address on his résumé indicated that he lived on Okotie-Eboh Street. So I asked him to tell me something about the person the street was named after. “It is just the name of a street”. I shook my head.
Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh was like the proverbial elephant. He was a man of many parts. He was a self-taught man who became the owner of many schools. He was a clerk who became an entrepreneur. He was a layman who became an economist. He was a sportsman. He was a parliamentarian. He was a bridge-builder. He was a patriot. He was a pacesetter. He was a politician.
FS was born on July 18, 1912 in Bateren, Warri North Local Government Area. From available records, it appeared that he was already a young man before he went to school. He had his elementary education at Sapele Baptist Primary School between 1932 and 1936. In 1937, he became a teacher in the same school.
Okotie-Eboh was the first Nigerian manager of Bata Shoe Company, a company he joined as an accounting clerk. At least you know Bata now? The company saw in Festus a brilliant and diligent worker. He was therefore sent to Prague for further training. In Czechoslovakia, he obtained a Diploma in Business Administration and Chiropody. Yes, Chiropody.
Festus was however not content to be a salary earner. His vision was to establish his own company and become an employer of labour. He therefore resigned from Bata and established his own company, Afro-Nigerian Export and Import Company. The company was involved in rubber exporting business.
|FS with Chief Kolawole Balogun, Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu and wives|
Following the success of his first company, Okotie-Eboh opened a rubber crepe factory and later a canvas shoe factory. His companies provided employment for hundreds of Nigerians.
Okotie-Eboh also recognized the importance of sport as a unifying factor as well as a means of engaging the boundless energy of the teeming youth population of his generation. Years before Manchester United and Chelsea became a household name in Nigeria, he established a football team that became the darling team of the entire Warri Division.
Okotie-Eboh saw that there was a need for quality educational institutions in the Warri Division. With his wife, he established Sapele Boys Academy. This was followed by Zik College of Commerce and Sapele Academy Secondary School.
However being a businessman and a school owner was not enough for him. He needed a wider canvass to paint his dream. He joined politics and became a financial member of the NCNC.
In 1951, he won election into the Western House of Assembly in Ibadan. One of his close associates in the House was Adegoke Adelabu (Penkelemesi). In 1954, he moved to Lagos when he became a member of the Federal Parliament.
Okotie-Eboh became a national figure when he was appointed as the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare. In 1957, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh became the Minister of Finance. Till date, he remained the only person to hold that portfolio for a record period of 9 years!
It was as Minister of Finance that Okotie-Eboh truly excelled as a financial wizard. His budget speeches were always a combination of the best of economics, finance, fiscal policies, and literature.
By the way, Festus Okotie-Eboh was the first Nigerian Minister to present a Federal Budget!
Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe was so impressed with one of Okotie-Eboh’s national budget speeches that he (Zik) wrote him a letter saying:
“Since you introduced your first Budget six years ago, you have gradually mastered the Sanctum Sanctorum of public finance in such a way that you may now be regarded as a past master in this esoteric cult.!”
And that was no flattery. In the words of the foremost historian, Professor Akinjide Osuntokun, “I have no doubt that a serious scholar will find in these budgets the foundation of the economic infrastructure of Nigeria”. Okotie-Eboh himself admitted that as a Minister of Finance, he was guided by two axioms he learnt as a businessman. The first was ‘value for money’ and the second was ‘as ye sow even shall ye reap.’
|FS with British officials|
As Minister of Finance, Okotie-Eboh was instrumental in the establishment of the Central Bank of Nigeria in 1958. He was also credited with seeing to the introduction of the Nigerian national currency following the withdrawal of Ghana from the West African pound sterling.
Chief Okotie-Eboh played a prominent role in the creation of the Mid-West State in 1963. It was assumed that he would become the first premier of the state but he deferred to Chief Dennis Osadebey.
Okotie-Eboh was a visionary and a pan-Africanist. Long before the Organisation of African Unity was formed, he had seen the need for such a continental institution. In 1961 he called on the emerging countries of Africa to form a union. He said: “I want to say a little about the possibility of achieving some form of union among the countries of Africa. In the fast-shrinking world of today, it is obviously a good sense for us to work for cooperation among the countries of Africa rather than to exaggerate their difference.” Two years later, OAU was established.
His budget speeches were always detailed, pragmatic, functional and prescient. One unique thing I found about his budget speeches is that he ended them with an apt quotation that underscored the central economic thread of each budget.
|FS with Sir Usman Katsina|
In his maiden budget speech which he christened ‘the People’s Budget’, he ended it on this note:
“We are on the threshold of great and far reaching changes and we must seize our opportunities as they are offered. Sir, I am no poet, but I can best express my feelings and at the same time wind up my speech by quoting the words of the greatest playwright of Elizabethan England written at a time when England herself was about to embark on that great expansion which made her the envy of the world:
‘There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
Okotie-Eboh’s vision was bold and as large as his physical frame. In 1959, after reviewing the Economic Programme for the country with his colleagues, this is what he said:
“We have not removed any item from the Programme…We have in fact increased the allocation for some of the projects which we regard as of the highest importance for the social welfare of our people and the economic development of our resources.”
In concluding his Budget of Stability in 1960, he passionately appealed to all Nigerians. He said:
“Let us, therefore, build a society free from oppression, victimization, discrimination, free from want and poverty, and free from the fears of disease. In such a free and happy country the words of Sir Walter Scott come readily to my mind. ‘Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, this is my own, my native land!”
For his 1964 Budget Speech, Okotie-Eboh adopted the famous statement of James, Duke of Monmouth to Nigeria:
“I see in my mind a noble and puissant Nigeria rousing herself like a strong man after sleep and shaking her invincible locks. I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full mid-day beam.”
|FS with Raymond Nijoku and foreign officials|
In concluding his Rededication Budget Speech of 1965, Omimi Ejo could have been addressing Nigerians of today when he said:
“Let us now, everyone of us, re-dedicate ourselves to the task ahead, let us resolve in the year ahead to work harder, to save more, to be less self-indulgent, to devote our energies to the progress of the Nation as a whole rather than to our own personal advantage, each filling his appointed place in a stable and well-ordered society.”
That's Okotie-Eboh! That's Omimi Ejo!
I thank you for your time.