Ogwu James Onoja a seasoned lawyer, who despite all odds became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, (SAN) at a very tender age. He is the Agenyi Attah of Igala kingdom. His passion for the development of his community , Ofante, Ogugu in Olamaboro Local Government Area of kogi state knows no bound. A giver per excellence and builder of destinies. He recently constructed a 10 km road to his village Ofante. In this Interview with our correspondent Ibrahim Obansa he bares his mind on the motivation for his philanthropic gestures and other contemporary challenges. He his gesture is not politically driven. Except.
My name is Ogwu James Onoja. By the grace of God I’m a Senior Advocate of Nigeria ( SAN) . I am the Agenyi Attah of Igala kingdom. I hail from Ofante Ogugu in Olamaboro Local Government Area ( LGA) of kogi state .I’m proud to be an Igala man. I’m also proud to acknowledge that my community where i was raised impacted positively on me, because whatever we are, is a function of where we came from and the people we associate with. I’m proud to be a kogite based in Abuja.
Giving back to the community that you were raised from. What is the motivation?
Number one, I have to start from my community in Ofante. My father was a civil servant and a farmer . In those days one could be a civil servant and also ventured into farming. My father in those days used to be on transfer from community to community, and I learnt Service from him. Apart from serving my father, uncles, relatives , I served other people in the community.
Whatever I am doing now , I have been doing it from my infancy.I have been giving scholarship and prizes to students in my community where I finished from for more than 20 years.I have been doing that for many years in collaboration with Dr.Simon Akogwu , we have been doing that consistently, helping people without publicity . And then, recently, we decided that some of these things that we are doing , people needs to know just as you say to encourage others, to let people know that good things can be done to ones community, society on non political platform.
Everybody cannot be in politics , the implication is to serve and to give back to the community where I finished from, Ofante Community High School where many people will not give us a chance that we we can make it from there. Dr. Akogwu also from there and we were able to come out of an institution established by the community. The elders who sold kola nuts, palm kernel, palm oil and Yams were able to contribute their money to establish an institution that produced me and many other influential persons.
You now have a concept that you have to give back to your community, because , I am a beneficiary of a community efforts and that was how it started , and you look at the issue of Ogugu Community High School which was the first Community secondary school in the whole Northern Nigeria. Look at so many great people the school has produced and you have to look for the foundation of things, and then, I also know as a fact , I came to witness it, my Uncle , Gen. Onoja, an educationist, he used to be the chairman of Ogugu scholarship board that gives scholarships to many indigent students. You know Ogugu has many graduates , because there was a scholarship scheme by the Ogugu Development Union ,(ODU)
So, I sat down , my father was also the chairman of Parents Teachers Association ( PTA) of the School at a point. I looked at that and so many people that have benefited from the school that are doing well in their chosen vocations and I realized that, our generations are not doing anything to augment what our fathers have done , instead we are destroying them.
We are not even talking of many secondary schools in our communities that have been overgrown by weeds. Now , we have generation of leaders that doesn’t pay attention to communities in which they came from.
As a man with conscience and in-depth thinking , if am able to do something for my community to motivate others, there would be a change , for we are not happy with where we are right now.
And also Brig. Gen .Onoja , who is my uncle was involved in giving prizes and I was winning those prizes as one of the best students in the class. In those days, I could remember , severally , I have come to shake hands with him.
Then , when I finished my secondary school, I realized that there was no such things and that was why we have to start giving prizes every year to encourage the younger ones which became a positive motivation for them to study hard. Those things were no longer there . Not long that we left school we started hearing miracle centres. In those days you need to read to win prizes and not to copy or teachers to write for you. We began to see ourselves as stakeholders in the communities where we lived. People that does not go home have big problems. So many people decided to make villages a graveyard, that is , when they died they bring their corpse home for burial. We shouldn’t do so, because of this , our communities are not developed, reformed , enlightened, our children will have no place to call their homes.
Everybody has a community, everybody comes from a village even Idumota in lagos is a village. Those are motivations for me to realize that I’m a village man. I go to my village every time., I feel comfortable at home in the village. You see wants, penury and deprivation everywhere. Somebody could die because of N200,00 . They need to go and meet an ibo man selling patent medicine to give them malaria injections, and for lack of money one could die.
So , there is what I called a gap between leadership and the led. Wether you like it or not the biggest enterprise is the government. Virtually, every billionaire is through government either they give him waivers or something else. Everybody want to be in government and at the end of the day , the stakes to be in government becomes competitive and in Nigeria being what it is with our foundation in coming into one , nobody care about the stake as his responsibility, but to go there , and all of us cannot be in government at the same time.
I came to realise that there is a way to reach to those communities , for instance, in a church , one pays his tithe in Abuja here, and if you take some of these tithes to your community it shall better for the people. If you are doing charity, many of them with the so called NGOs , used to come here . The NGO you are collecting millions of naira and spending some here and they are clapping hands for you , you will be surprised with what N100,000 can do in the village. And we have these experience because we have connection with them in the village. We go to the village, we see their needs , what they are looking for. I am a product of a community efforts. Why not give to the community. We are deceiving ourselves that at 50 years you say you a young man. The people we are talking about, Gen. Onoja and some of my uncles , when they were wonderfully affecting lives , they were not up to 30 years, they were just a captain in the Army. They did so much for the community and you are 50years and you want to be of Facebook insulting people, wailing and hailing. We are doing this apart from the pity and sympathy for our people. We want to let them know that you can change things not necessarily when you are in government.
I give you an example, I told some people that im not going into politics, they have abandoned me. They ran away from me. The issue now is very clear. I lost my mother -in – law , I went to the village, all the sirens, all the big men that came for the burial stopped at Ogugu . They could not access my village Ofante. My Lexus Jeep cannot go to the village. Infact we have to lift the car, some of them said Onoja where is your house and I say it is still far and I need to go there. I refused to call my friends , some of them have to use Google maps , those that were stubborn to follow me with their cars got stucked ,In fact I have to buy a car for somebody. I then say, it can never continue to be like this forever. My father as a sanitary inspector , they constructed roads, people of nowadays have no responsibility to their communities . My dad used to hire foremen to oversee road construction. They go round the communities mending gutters for water to flow. In those days, you can drive your car on high speed through out the village without potholes, but go to communities, everywhere is potholes.
I then said to myself , this is too much and I have to inquire how much does it cost to grade the road. I went to Enugu Ejike and I brought the grader. The next thing politicians told me ” eeh , you want to do politics , if you bring the grader we will burn it. A man want to do road to his father’s house and some people say he is doing politics.The question then is , you are a politician which road have you constructed, did you do it to become a politician, and now that you are a politician which one have you done. They wrote a letter from the Local Government Council insulting and threatening my lives. They said I should ask people who have done roads in before me and those who did not do before me . My community is a rejected community and I come home very often with big cars , they look up to me , because, they cannot differentiate between a man in government and a man in private businesses. So they look up to you. I was moved to do it not minding the threats. Im happy that I have constructed the road, however some people are going about saying I didnt do it, but the joy is that, I have letters, prayers and commendation and now I can travel to my village with minimum comfort.
How can a man serve his people and you are saying he is doing politics. They have equated politics with service and if politics is service why then, they are in government and not providing service to the people.
Ofante is a rejected community, we have boundary with the Ibos, we farm together, we are a rejected people . Nobody is in politics from my village and that is why somebody like my cousin Dr. Alih Onoja, I have to support him and that is how to get things done in this country. It is most unfortunate that there must be a politician from a community before they can experience development. We want to disabuse that , and if I have the grace and the capacity , I will do more and it is not just about roads . I have a scholarship fund in the name of my father. I just put #10M , we are going to start the disbursement by November. We have just inaugurated the committee with the aim of doubling the fund to #20m , because they are telling me that the school fees of some government schools have gone up . Dan Itodo is the chairman of the implementation committee.
This will help those who could not afford to pay school fees.the fund is on for the indigent students of my community. This is my modest contribution to my community and I’m happy doing that . At the end of the day we have responsibility to our community and the people, the little you can do which you think is small will go along way to help the people in the village. You may be surprised that what You used to host a party here as little as #500,000 to #1m that you think it is small can positively impact lives.
It is a fact that most Igala sons and daughters are not used to giving back to their communities, the way you are doing , what measures are you making to making community service their lifestyles.
When they gave me the title Agenyi Attah of Igala kingdom, that was in 2009 , I have 250 staff and 41 of them were of Igala origin. Because I worked with Engineer Makoju , he is like a father to me , I virtually run most of his businesses. We used the template to employ our people. And because i sat on the board of many companies, it was an avenue for me to help our people. I came to realized that our people were unable to achieve much because of lack of opportunities and needed platform . I was able to get to were I am now because somebody gave me a platform which I used to express myself. Until one is given a platform you cant judge him. We started given people platform and we ran into problems, however , at the end of the day we were able to overcome , because we have a mission.
We started to organise Igala people by forming Igala Heritage Foundation.( IHF) We asked ourselves why are we so great before , so fiercely independent, educated and being number nine most populous tribe in Nigeria . There could be some hidden potentials associated with the Igalas , something good in the cultures which made us to do those things which we could use as a rallying point to mobilize our youths for community services.
We have survived many wars, afflictions both physical and spiritual and we are still working hard to tame our challenges. We do have Eroli festival, we found out that cashew is a big business in Igalaland. The inaugural one i was the chairman and we are using it as a window to tell government that farming holds the key to development. We are asking the government to give the farmers tax holidays and how to link them with relevant government agencies. If our people are empowered to be able to feed themselves, I think what we are seeing with politics will be a thing of the past because hunger and ignorance are the major cause of our problems.
A man will become a man of all weather , without principles, because of lack of education. There will be no thuggery if our youths are educated . We need to go back to the basics which is agriculture. There was a saying that everybody takes positive action by staying in ones compound watching the moon because they were farmers. We can’t say so now, because our people are jobless , they are no longer farming, but they need to feed .
If you have what to eat, do you care about salaries. Why do you have to sell your birthright for a porridge.. That igala pride anchored on creativity and hardwork is no longer there, everybody want to make it fast.
Our people have nothing to do and that is why they are running to government which made them vulnerable to manipulation. They can’t stand on their own , so this community efforts we are talking about, brings cohesion and unity. For example, if the youths enters my chamber , they will be encouraged to work to be like me. I have not gone home to initiate them into cultism , they now know that hardwork pays.
I wouldn’t lie, initially , we would say all the youths in the village are the same, but I ‘m beginning to identify the good ones among them. I am a product of this community which I believed anybody can rise from here and I wouldnt want anybody from my community to suffer the kind of deprivation I suffered.
It is my belief that my village can have flyovers, airports and what have you. I am not waiting to die to be buried there and that is why I said some people turned their villages to graveyards, they wouldn’t go to the village only their corpses for burial.
I am working on putting solar lights and so many good things of lives there. This country has gone so bad that a man is serving his community and someone will say, he is doing politics, this is my community, the home I go to everytime , the road I use often, that is an insult.
With the threats and condemnation, have you got to a point that you would say let me just abandon this philanthropic gestures and rest.
We have a big problem . People thought you have so much and that is why you are giving . I kept telling them that any gift that does not cost you anything is not a gift, it is just your crumbs. Whatever you give is your life. There is always an opportunity cost for any gift. People who appreciates your givings are themselves of generous minds. If a man has no gift of generosity, he can’t appreciate those who gives. Yes, there is alot of discouragement, because , you learnt that I went to a church to give one million naira and you then come to me to come and give you.I dont know where you are coming from and what are your principles. What did you establish your church for , what have you done as a church for your members. Somebody will say , I asked for N20,000 and you refused to give me and you are constructing road to your village and we are all from the same village.
Another one will say I asked for N100,000 and you say, you don’t have and you went home to establish N20M scholarship and I said your children could benefit from it . It is so bad that some will corner you on facebook to beg for money and you find out many of them are not students. There is alot of decadence in our society.Those who have wouldn’t help except they want to oppress the people, to collect their lands, and to get traditional titles..When you give without strings attached, they will read meanings to it. I can’t be discouraged because of my background, I experienced deprivation and rejection and I am where I am now , why should I be happy for anybody to experience the same bitter treatment.
I used to tell people, the man you locked out today , may be your savior tomorrow. You are where you are now not because you work harder than others , not that you pray more, infact some sleep in churches and mosques praying everyday and still look up to you who pray a little , the difference is the grace. I just realised that for me to multiply I must keep giving.
The younger generation want to know what you have done differently considering your harsh background to beome successful and being crown with a SAN at a tender age .
One of those things we discuss , is that we have problems with legal practice like other profession. What we called mentorship and tutelage are no longer there.Before we used to have five years tutelege for you to set up your firm. This days after law school , the next thing is to set up a law firm. No more mentorship and what I called mentor and mentee. What we have now is people who are not guided.some of us started by learning the rope . I started with Humphrey Abah in 1993 in Lagos and from there , I worked with many senior lawyers..When Bello Okpoko was the NBA president I was with him. I went through the rudiments of legal practice. I learned alot to come to this stage, and in all these I worked hard for it, I burnt the proverbial midnight oil” .
I have the commitment and focus inspite of the distractions of poverty. Being a responsible child is very important. From the beginning you know the pains of your parents.And because of that when others are doing something funny, you dont need to join them.you know the son of whom you are, and knowing this, the crisis of peer group will not affect you. Some youths thought they can use cultism to break barriers of their family background.This is what is happening, you are a cult member and whatever your parents are does not matter. It is what is killing effectiveness of youth development. Now I am a SAN , God has bless an effort at 44 . I am a member of Legal Practice Privileges Committee, it is by the grace of God. We are talking about standards in legal practice, charter of Legal behaviour and integrity of lawyers. We are working hard to making law an asset to the people instead of liabilities.
I am proud to be a lawyer and also proud to mentor young ones that are willing to be mentored. I have 22 lawyers working with me. I write books on law, I have a printing press, a bookshop and we try to do things that enhances quality of legal practice.