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Special birthday shout-out to Prince Engr. Arthur Eze

By Anayo Ejem (Ichie Nnabuenyi)

25th November is an important date for many Nigerians, especially the indigenes of Ukpo, for one reason. It is the birthday of one of Nigeria’s eminent citizens and an illustrious son of Ukpo, Prince Engr Arthur Ikpechukwu Eze, OFR. For his friends and kinsmen Arthur’s birthday is always a joyful occasion, which paradoxically presents a nagging problem: how do you celebrate a man whose life is itself a celebration? And what material gift can you give to someone who has everything?

Perhaps the only way to honor Arthur on his birthday should be to thank him for a lifetime of enterprise and selflessness, which then makes it mandatory for us to understand his exemplary humanity. Because when you see beyond the sobriquets, appellations and the high-sounding epithets; when you cast aside the fame, pomp and pageantry, you will behold one of the finest human beings ever created. Frankly, birthday or not, I think Nigerians should occasionally just thank Arthur, for being Arthur.

Growing up in Ukpo, Arthur was the first real star I ever knew … and I don’t say this hyperbolically. Everybody knew him. Folks had cheerful countenances just for the mere mention of his name. For the old, the young, the rich, the poor, and the very poor (including Mgbeke Ejelue – for those old enough to know), Arthur’s name and his presence were like an elixir for high spiritedness which never failed to summon the best happiness in you. He was lionized throughout Ukpo and neighboring communities. Arthur himself returned the love in equal measure. His brain was like the encyclopedia; he never needed a diary or a journal. It was all in his head – names, telephone numbers, events, name it. He literally knew every human being in Ukpo by first name regardless of age, status or walk of life. He had an answer to every question, and a quip for every tease. He crafted pet names for scores of townfolks. The legendary musician Fela must have had Arthur Eze in mind when he penned the famous song: “water no get enemy”.

As a boy, Arthur was a benevolent kid – and many would argue it’s a massive understatement. But let’s put it this way: he would practically give a shirt off his own back as a gift; he would give anything within his reach, even if it wasn’t his own belonging! Arthur would give his own pocket allowance, he would give his meals, and he would borrow to give. As a secondary school kid, Arthur Eze was identifiable with two cars (a Volkswagen Beetle, and a 404 Peugeot wagon – each carried the number plate ECN 1000!). But the cars together with the petrol in their tanks were borrowed from his father, His Royal Highness, Igwe Michael Eze, Okofia IV. With the care of a guy who had no maintenance or fueling responsibility, Arthur was ubiquitous with the vehicles, ferrying old women to the market, lifting fatigued men home from farm, and frolicking with pals. Thus, Arthur Eze was a practicing philanthropist long before that word made it to the English dictionary!

I was one of those who thought he would inevitably end up a poor man. How could one with a penchant for giving out everything possibly end up anywhere else but a poorhouse? Turned out I was woefully wrong!!

Arthur had very special relationship with his father, Okofia IV. Father and son shared intense love and fondness for one another; Arthur did not stray outside of his dad’s sight for a prolonged time. He was his father’s poster child who could do no wrong, and he grew up as his father’s best friend, companion, confidant, soulmate and chauffeur. Back then, if you were a discernible observer, you could tell that His Royal Highness knew his son was special. He knew that this particular child would be his most enduring legacy. He knew that Arthur would become his golden gift to mankind!!

In those boyhood days, I observed some character traits which have served Arthur well. If you are familiar with the game of draught, you’ll of course know that boasting was the match before the game. Arthur Eze always won the boasting match. I once had a ringside seat when he challenged one of his friends to a game. He boastfully dismissed the guy as “iti” (a novice) and promised he would annihilate him with a score line of three zero. I watched as they sat down adversarially, face to face, on a wooden bench, the draught board balanced on their laps. Seeds set, Arthur yelled at his opponent “ngwa zua”! His friend coolly made his move, the battle was well and truly joined. Before long, Arthur’s opponent was jubilant: “tukwasaam eze okpu, iti mpataku”! The guy had taken an upper hand. It wasn’t long before his tormentor screamed at Arthur yet again: “game; one down 2 to go!” Within 30 minutes, the guy had handed Arthur a humiliating 3-zero defeat.

Arthur Eze gallantly and sportsmanly conceded defeat with no hint of frustration, but joked that his opponent was a living example of a good-for-nothing layabout, except In draught. And, in self-consolation, he claimed he had been distracted during the game by the thought of pounded yam and ofe onugbu waiting for him at home. They set up a date for rematch. To me, Arthur’s reaction and sportsmanship during that innocuous game of draught was an exposition of how he would handle life’s setbacks and adversities.

Arthur was a sit-down comedian long before stand-up comedy was to become the darling of entertainment. He thrived in boyhood verbal jabs, and was a master at poking fun. He told rib-cracking tales at the expense of his mates, had a wise cracker for every occasion, and was particularly adept at utilizing Ukpo folklores to create hilarious moments. In spite of vigorous objections by his friends, he bestowed pejorative nicknames: Okeke isi engine, Francis iyimpi; late Mika Anika was mbekwu. His bosom friend, late Chuma, was branded uyaneso.

None of his boyhood pals could have predicted that a guy who gave away so much would end up so rich. Except Chuma. Late Chuma Okeke was adamant that he had seen the handwriting on Arthur’s own palm. Now, Arthur and Chuma were very close pals (people felt that Arthur instinctively maintained strong and protective bond with Chuma because he, Chuma, had been orphaned early in life). During secondary school vacations, the pair was always found together, and when back in the boarding school, they constantly exchanged letters. Chuma went to Government College Umuahia, while Arthur schooled at St. Augustine’s Nkwerre. They had just finished West African School Certificate exams when the Nigerian civil war broke out. The two friends emerged from the war scrounging for daily bread. They found work as “motor boys” on 911 truck that hauled palm oil from Onitsha to northern Nigeria. On a fateful day, according to Chuma, the boys chanced upon a soothsayer, a palm reader.

To paraphrase Chuma, they instantaneously decided to take a peek into their individual futures and approached the palm reader. Chuma was the first to extend his right palm. The palm reader looked at it and was unimpressed. He told Chuma he saw poverty! The boys giggled. Then it was Arthur’s turn to offer his palm. The soothsayer took one look and exclaimed. He told them he saw a sea of gold, and declared that Arthur’s march to a stupendous wealth was inexorable. The two boys giggled again. The soothsayer’s foretelling has since proved truly prescient, hasn’t it! But at the time, the two boys quickly put the improbable prophecy out of their minds and went back to their penurious jobs. Until his painful death, Chuma Okeke proudly relished the recount of that portentous encounter.

In 1979, fresh out of NYSC and holding down my first job at the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), I was a house guest of Engr. Gibson Okeke (Ichie Ebekuedike n’Ukpo) – meaning I was a squatter in his flat. Sir Gibson worked at Shell Nigeria on Broad Street Lagos, and lived off Mercy Eneli at Alhaji Masha, Surulere. That he took a homeless kinsman like me under his wings without any hesitation whatsoever should tell you something about Ukpo kindred spirit! Sir Eric Okoye (Ichie Chinyelugo n’Ukpo), who worked in the upper echelon of Shell Marketing Plc, lived within close proximity. Nigeria was a sweet country.

On a certain Saturday, Gibson informed me that Arthur had returned from the United States after his studies; he would arrive Lagos, and would visit with us that day. I was personally excited because I hadn’t seen Arthur in years. By my calculation, his visit would entail the forfeiture of my squatter’s bed-space, which meant I would need a mattress to sleep on the floor.

Sure enough, Arthur bounced in late that afternoon. Gibson was clearly exuberant about the reunion. “You look real good man”, he enthusiastically complemented Arthur, who smiled broadly, patted his own stomach, and boasted that whenever he looked in the mirror, he saw the evidence of good living. Pleasantries shared, drinks served, I asked Arthur if perhaps I should go downstairs to fetch his luggage and dismiss the taxi. His response was no. He disclosed that the cab had been chartered for the duration of his Lagos visit, and that he was in fact staying at the Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island. Did you hear that? … boy, that was as upper crust as you could go!! And for a young unemployed graduate? Phew!! I let that sink in before asking the inevitable follow-up line for new graduates: did he plan to look for work in Lagos? (Instinctively I knew it was the wrong question, akin to minor blasphemy!).

“Do you think everybody will die a poor man”, Arthur shot back at me jokingly, in a manner that belied his seriousness. He told us he was going to be based in Enugu and that he had already secured three contracts! I nodded with belated wisdom, because only then did it become obvious to me that Arthur wasn’t an ordinary university graduate. Right there was the dawn, the beginning of the legend of Arthur Eze. You could easily see how he would deploy his sheer force of character – his magnetic personality, raw empathy and amazing human connection – to make a fabulous living.

Arthur subsequently settled in Enugu. And Enugu soon took notice. In less than three years, Arthur Eze became the most recognizable name in the Coal City – more so than the governor of the old Anambra State. His residence at No. 27 Mbanefo Street New Haven, became a site seeing destination – a more popular address than the government house. To the chagrin of neighbors, Mbanefo Street turned into a Mecca of sorts. During the course of a given day, Arthur would emerge from his house to greet the crowd that thronged his residence, and expectedly perform his storied cash handouts. Arthur didn’t just talk big, he was big. He was on first-name terms with governors, top military and police brass, ministers, monarchs, as well as movers and shakers of society and business. It appeared he also had a direct link to the president of Nigeria. In many ways, the essence of Arthur’s life and therefore his overarching goal, has always been displayed in plain sight: to make more money than he could give.

He mingles with the high society to accumulate wealth, and commingles with the low society in order to distribute it. That, in a nutshell, is the true Arthur.

Enugu residents christened him “Arthur 1000” partly because that was the inscription on his car number plate (and remember ECN 1000 was also the plate number of his father’s cars), and partly because he doled out the cash in bundles of N1000. (For the benefit of young people, N1000 of that era would convert to about N600000 in today’s money.) He later escalated the cash wraps, Enugu responded by raising the crescendo: they named him “Arthur One Million”. Nowadays, I guess no one can even count the money, as he has gone on to become a major player in the world of international business.

Today, Arthur Eze is in the frontlines of philanthropy, providing for the sick, the poor and the needy in the society. He has established lifelines for the down trodden and scholarship programs for thousands of poor students. At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Arthur dispatched truck loads, upon truck loads of palliative materials to communities in the south eastern and south south states and beyond.

Arthur is not a politician. He is a courageous business tycoon who frequently expresses political points of view. Perhaps owing to his extraordinary success in business, he finds himself at the crossroads of politics, where he is in a position to place a thumb on the metaphorical pulse of Nigerian politics. I have heard traduces accuse him of having Machiavellian tendencies, which is far off the mark, because Arthur is characteristically scrupulous, honest and plain-speaking. Even though he is a prince by birth, he is the antithesis of the teachings of Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. If anything, his political convictions are 60% Orwellian and 100% Zikist – in the sense that he is very proud of his friendship with former military rulers; and in a democratic Nigeria, he heavily favors an Igbo alliance with the north. Just like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Arthur believes that, in tribal Nigerian politics, the Igbo causes are better served by a cultivated Igbo friendship with northern Nigeria.

He deeply believes in the forthrightness, benevolence and the intrinsic goodness of northerners. Whether you agree with him or not, Arthur is comfortable and unflinching in his own belief.

Recently, I had dinner with Arthur at his mansion in Ukpo. On arrival, the immediate vicinity of his compound was a beehive of human activities. I was confronted by a gyration of bodies jostling for advantageous positions to receive handouts which the crowd expected from Arthur’s visitors. I heard so much cacophony of sounds and voices that I was tempted to check my Google map to make sure I had not somehow strayed into an IDP camp. Amid a scene of what seemed to me like a distorted reality, I inched my way up to his imposing gates.

An armed policeman approached, sized me up and told me to wait for my appointment to be confirmed. Rolling up my car window to shut out the ambient commotion, I reclined my head on the driver’s headrest, closed my eyes, allowed a sigh to escape, and waited. My mind shifted into nostalgia. How could this gun-totting policeman know that the grounds on which this magnificent mansion sits was once a bush where, as primary school pupils, we hunted rabbits and shot at birds on tree tops with our “dotty”! Who will tell the policeman that his duty post was once where we picked succulent udala fruits, and ripped mangoes with the precision-art of “ima mbulu”!! In short, how was the policeman to know that I am original son of soil!! Just then my reverie was snapped by a gentle rap on my car window, and the gates swung open. I had been cleared to proceed.

Compared with the free-for-all outside the gates, the compound was a sea of tranquility, the equivalent of jumping from a minor inferno into a pool of cold water. It was early evening. I stepped out of my car and was greeted by the incandescent Xmas decorations, exotic automobiles gleaming on my left and on my right, and a Hollywood-style red carpet rolled up to the front porch. I made my way through the giant entrance doors into the palatial building. Up ahead in one of the expansive living rooms, I could see the ornate white antique sofas, chairs and tables, illuminated by massive overhanging chandeliers. As I was escorted upstairs, loud gospel music wafted from the banquet hall below. Everywhere I looked, people gathered in groups, waiting their turns to recount their woes to Arthur. But I was on a fast-track, I had dinner appointment.

As always, Arthur greeted me with deep warmth. Seeing me reminds him of the only thing he is yet to accomplish in his very illustrious life: to stand taller than me! He glanced at me from head to toe, and quickly decided that the stats have not changed!! (I suppose at this stage he must pencil it down as the only ambition that went rogue!)

I sat across the table from him as we ate. Looking and listening intently to Arthur, it struck me that the man was somewhat in a different place now; he had changed in some significant respects, but his humanitarian priorities remained intact. Money or wealth, I thought, was still meaningful to him only to the extent that it provided the stimulus for his generosity. He had been so affluent most of his adult life that materiality and the prospects of adding to his accumulation no longer constituted a source of excitement. It seemed he no longer enjoyed the chase. The mansions, limousines, private jets, the chandeliers, the motorcades, had somehow become a necessary nuisance. I concluded that apart from charity, the only things that continue to give Arthur the pep, the kick, real pleasure and excitement, are the mundane stuff – gospel renditions, bouquets of hard-hitting humors and folksy jabs.

Arthur’s commitment to God and Ukpo runs deep. You can say without fear of contradiction that he has given his soul to Christ, and his life to Ndi Ukpo. Take the former, Arthur has been an extraordinary pillar (the corner-stone) of the Church of Christ, regardless of denomination. His transcendent assistance has enabled church and clergy to robustly continue to advance the Word.

As for the latter: Arthur has been phenomenal in all matters pertaining to Ukpo. Long ago, he fashioned the creation of Dunukofia Local Government, with headquarters in Ukpo, thereby bringing the entire Dunukofia Clan under one administrative structure. Through his instrumentality, the South Eastern Police Protection Unit, as well as a Police Secondary School were sited in Ukpo. Progressively, he is turning Ukpo into a work of fine art – refurbishing schools, market stalls, commercial buildings, roads and street lighting. Against significant odds, Arthur brought the headquarters of Zone 13 of the Nigerian Police to Ukpo, having command over all police formations in Anambra, Enugu and Ebonyi States.

Once a year, in the 12th month, Arthur’s brother, Okofia VI, Igwe RC Eze, celebrates Ofala. As one would expect, Arthur has molded the ceremony in his own image, leveraging the Ofala to entertain friends and dignitaries from Nigeria and globally. Ofala Ukpo is now famous as an annual extravaganza for world leaders, heads of government, governors, ministers, party leaders and business moguls. I can guarantee you won’t find any event more colorful or more glamorous east of the Niger! Is anyone brave enough to bet against Arthur bringing the Nigerian capital to Ukpo!!

I am a long time resident of Lagos. Twenty years ago, whenever I introduced myself as Ukpo man, friends will be like “I think I know your town, is it not near Ogoja in Cross River”? Crazy friends! But from the past 15 years or so, whenever and wherever I say I am from Ukpo, faces will light up: “Anambra man, Arthur Eze brother”. That’s better! Arthur has dragged Ukpo, willing or not, right onto the centre of the map!

Human beings, they say, are a complex, multi dimensional constructs. So, you would be right to ask if there are other sides to Arthur Eze not in the public view. For example, has he ever raised a voice in anger? After all, you don’t get to be a titan in the world of mining and big oil without going through exasperating experiences.

Well, to the best of my knowledge, I have only once seen Arthur provoked to the point of exasperation. However, it was not in the pursuit of big business. The malefactor was an obdurate neighbor community named Abba. Abba had sought to annex Ukpo land, but failed at the High Court, at the Appeal Court and at the Supreme Court. Roundly defeated in the courts, Abba changed tact.

Instead of the land, they made Arthur the issue. Abba took a sledge hammer to Arthur’s public image and banged away, without as much as a dent. They enlisted their favorite daughter, the novelist, Chimamanda Adichie (as if the land matter was somehow tethered to fiction). In her rantings and diatribe, Adichie claimed that Arthur was the bane of the Nigerian society, and described him as a billionaire who had pocketed the judges, pocketed the police, pocketed civil servants and pocketed government itself! She said he was a land grabber who would stop at nothing to seize Abba land, then accused Arthur of effectively laying a siege on her hometown. Elements in Abba invaded the social media space, using scurrilous postings to assault Arthur’s personality. Abandoning their farms and markets, the womenfolk bussed down to government house Awka in protest formations, singing songs and brandishing posters that demanded for Arthur’s death; crossing every line of decency.

To this day, I am not quite sure what Abba hoped to gain from their tyranny of absurdities. The strategy of targeting Arthur personally was obviously designed to cast Abba as an underdog rumbling against a modern day Goliath! Abba figured the public liked the underdog, and hoped to reap the reward of public opinion. But how in the world could that have helped them in a case that had been decided by the Supreme Court of Nigeria?

The entire charade is ironic, because in reality Arthur was by far the best advocate Abba could have hired in the land tussle. Long before the conclusion of the land matter at the Supreme Court, Arthur had made more than half a dozen peace overtures to the palace of Igwe Abba. In addition Arthur convened meetings with key Abba stakeholders in hotels in Awka, in an effort to bring about an overall lenient outcome for Abba. Doing so, Arthur was well aware that his Ukpo kinsmen vehemently objected to his detente or any favors to Abba, but he nonetheless went ahead. Needless to say, Abba spurned all of his magnanimity!!

Yes, for all his kindness, his ebullience and congeniality, Arthur was deeply irked by Abba’s egregious acts of mischief, their unyielding idiocy and insane quest for territorial expansion. Yes, Arthur was not amused; in other words he was not smiling!! And yes, he regrettably activated just a scintilla of his considerable might to put down Abba community’s mindless impunity. There is a cautionary cliche in Ukpo: “onye adona nwagu aka n’odu” (never tug the tail of a lion). I am sure the Homo Sapiens that inhabit Abba town could write a volume or two about their experience when they tried to push Ukpo and Arthur Eze against the wall.

Which brings me 360 degrees to where I started. TODAY is the birthday of a man who has earned a plethora of epithets (“Ozoigbondu”, “Authority”, “Eze n’Ukpo”, “Ozouwanine”, “King of Kings”), and TODAY we should peel back the sobriquets, appellations and the grandiosity in order to reveal the man, and his character. Because even though he has accumulated enormous wealth and influence, has a lifetime of mountainous achievements and possesses extensive world reach, Arthur Eze’s real assets – the ones he really cares to maintain – are his simplistic mien, and his great humanitarian propensity.

(This composition is published today to Mark Arthur’s birthday. So may we rise and propose a toast for Arthur: for his long life, good health and virility … Bearing in mind that prosperity has already been granted!)

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