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I relax drinking palm wine, eating dog meat – 80-year-old ex-NNPC staff, Ogbuehi

Eighty-year-old Chief Matthew Ogbuehi, an ex-staff member of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, speaks to RAPHAL EDE about the good old days and his regrets about the current state of the nation

When and where were you born?

I was born in 1942 at Obokwu-Obizi autonomous community in Mbaise, Ezinihitte Local Government Area of Imo State.

Was your birthday recorded or how did you know your birth date?

My birth was recorded. My parents were educated, so they recorded it. I have a birth certificate. It was also recorded in my baptismal certificate. I had infant baptism.

What was your father’s occupation?

My father was a businessman. He traded in palm kernel; he would buy from the villages and transport to the beach in Umuahia where they sold the products to foreigners.

How will you describe your family while growing up?

My father was the first literate person in my community, Obukwu-Obizi autonomous community. In my family I am the last child. We were five boys and a girl that my mother had for my father. My father married three wives at different times. My father sent her first wife away because she didn’t want to go to church. My father said he didn’t want to marry someone who wouldn’t go to church.  But before sending her back to her family she had a child for my father. After that, he married my mother. Unfortunately, she died when I was still so young. It was my elder brothers that raised me. All of them, unfortunately, have died, leaving me as the only surviving family member.

As a child, I was highly pampered. I didn’t lack anything. They made sure I went to school and dressed well. On return from school they would wash my clothes and iron them, so, I was always neat. Whenever we didn’t have money, we would go to the farm, harvest cassava and sell to make money.

Would you say you had a richer or better childhood compared to children of today?

The difference is too much; I pity children of these days because they are suffering a lot. Today after graduating from the university, they are jobless. Parents are suffering too much. Training a child back then was not as costly as it is now. Common Entrance Examination at that time was as good as free, but now government charges students exorbitant fees, making profit off pupils.

Do you see Nigeria witnessing a turnaround eventually?

There was a question we were asked those days during History classes – ‘Why did the British Empire fail?’ They told us it failed because barbarians were admitted in the Roman forces. Now in Nigeria, politics has destroyed everything. It will only take the special grace of God to save Nigeria from total ruins. Unfortunately, instead of a politician to work for the benefit of his constituency he will only be concerned about his own children and children’s children and those yet unborn. They will be accumulating wealth immorally and then hire thugs and criminal elements to intimidate anyone who dares to challenge them. In those days, there were no such things.

These days, lawmakers and ministers are also government contractors. That is why all the government projects are shoddily done. Worse still, government doesn’t monitor the projects to ensure quality and standard. In those days even when a government official was given a project to execute, it must be executed according to specification and standard.

Can you give some insight into your career trajectory?

I attended primary school in my community, Obizi-Ezinihitte Mbaise. In those days teachers were very scarce and teaching was a prestigious profession. If you were a teacher and were posted to a village all the young boys and girls would be fetching water and firewood for you on a weekly basis because water was very scarce in those days.

In those days there was no examination malpractice unlike what we have today. If you took an exam and passed the exam you would know that you passed and if you failed, you would know that you failed.

Did you proceed to secondary school on completing primary school?

After my Standard Six I left for Ibadan where I was apprenticed to a draftsman and quantity surveyor. I didn’t go to secondary school because at that time when you passed Standard Six, you would either go to secondary school or learn a vocation.

You worked and retired from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.  How did you join the NNPC?

When I left Ibadan, I came back to my village and later followed my elder brother who was trading in Enugu. He was living close to Enugu Sports Club, so he brought me to join him. Before I got a job I was playing football with Antelope of Enugu, now Rangers FC. That time, I used to go to Emene to practise with the team. I later got a job with a company called Tinass Asbestos, which is now called Emenit. From that place I continued playing football. Every evening I would go to St. Patrick Secondary School to play. One evening, the NNPC team was playing at one side while we were playing at another side. As we were playing I didn’t know that they were watching us. On one occasion, their coach called me and asked if I could come and practise with them. I said no, that I was playing with Tinass Asbestos. However, I later considered the invitation and went to practise with them. They said I was a very good player and asked that I should continue to play with them. On the second occasion that I played with the NNPC team, I joined them in an air-conditioned bus and it was the first time I would ever be in a vehicle that has AC. I was excited; they took me to their camp and gave me one room to stay. After some minutes two ladies came in and asked me if I wanted tea or coffee? It was afternoon and I was wondering why one would take tea in the middle of the day. Anyway, I chose coffee. Later in the evening, we went to the field for training and they asked me if I would like to work with them. There and then, I accepted the offer. And that was how I got a job at the NNPC.

What was the experience at NNPC like for you?

I was employed as a loader. After some time I was deployed to the tank farm as an operator. Our job was to determine the level of product in tanks and then load the product into tankers. At that time, things were very sweet. During the break time, we were served different kinds of food. You could have just about anything you felt like eating; just place an order at the canteen and you would have it.

At the end of every month, we got cantons of milk, which we drank every day to reduce the effect of the fuel we inhaled in the line of work.

After some time, I became a unionist. I joined the NNPC workers’ union and rose to become the chairman about three years later. At the time, we would go to Port Harcourt, Aba, Markurdi and so many other places to hold our meetings. Today, unfortunately, the NNPC has changed because of what is happening in the country.

Back then, there were pipelines for conveying products, running from Port Harcourt to Aba to Enugu. All the traditional rulers through whose communities the pipelines passed were engaged to secure or watch over the pipelines and guard them against vandalism. The monarchs, in turn, usually engaged boys from their communities to do the job. The NNPC paid them. Products flowed freely and there were no issues of vandalism until when there was scarcity of fuel in the country and people began to vandalise the pipes. Then government refused to pay the communities engaged to man the pipelines and for the non-payment of the community leaders, pipeline vandalism increased to uncontrollable proportions and the products were no longer coming.

Normally, when Port Harcourt pumps products to Enugu, Enugu would pump to Markurdi to Auchi and Suleja, for them to get plenty supply of fuel and other products but such a thing is no more because they have vandalised the pipelines. Now Nigerians are paying dearly for it. Every now and then, tankers will fall, kill and destroy properties worth millions of naira. That is the cost of destroying pipelines. The destruction of pipelines has also fuelled smuggling and increased fraudulent subsidy regime. If products were pumped to depots and distributed to tankers within their locations the cost of transportation of the products will reduce and smuggling will be curtailed. It is because of vandalism that Enugu stopped receiving products from Port Harcourt.

What do you think it will take for the country to return to the era when petroleum products were transported in pipelines, as opposed to tankers as we have today?

There was a time they suggested that the pipeline should be laid along major highways so that it will be constantly monitored because there is no way vandals will start digging the ground to break the pipe without being noticed but you know the Nigerian way. The elites and political class will always exploit every situation to their advantage. You know that the safer way to distribute petrol product is through the pipeline, more so we don’t have good roads. Carrying fuel from Port Harcourt to the East or to the North, NNPC is spending a lot of money because the price they are selling fuel in Port Harcourt is the price they are selling in the North. It is safe and economically better to distribute petrol through pipelines but when they distribute it through tankers with our bad roads that is why tankers are falling on the roads daily. Sometimes wicked drivers sell the product and burn the truck and tell their employers that the tanker fell down whereas it is a lie.

At what age did you get married?

I was 32 years old when I met my wife. I met her in Enugu. I lived in Onitsha Street. She used to come to Owerri Road to watch people playing Ludo game. She was working at the Ministry of Justice, directly with the Director Public Prosecutions. She was a typist at the DPP’s office. They called them stenographers then. I went to her office one day and saw her typing. I said to myself: ‘This is the girl I will marry’. When I looked at her, she had a very attractive body and she was also a born again Christian. I approached her and she accepted my proposal.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learnt in your eight decades of existence?

I have learnt a lot of things. If you are going to succeed in life you must be honest in whatever you do. Honesty is the best policy.  You shouldn’t cheat anybody and where you work you must work with dedication and sincerity of heart. You should not be greedy or covet other people’s wealth and things you don’t have the means to get should not entice you.

Do you still go out to vote during elections?

Yes, I do go to exercise my franchise. Although, our votes don’t count these days, we must keep hope alive.

What do you make of the agitation for the independent state of Biafra?

I have been hearing of Biafra for a long time. Even in the map of the world there is a place where they call “Bight of Biafra” and Benin; it has been there for a long time. When we started hearing about Biafra, I said, “Is that the Biafra we saw in the map of the world and that of Nigeria then?” So, that name has been in existence for ages. People are clamouring now to have the independent state of Biafra; it is not a bad thing, it is a sort of development. And for me, they should allow those people to go peacefully. In some other countries of the world, at times they divide. It is a good development but it must be done peacefully without bloodshed. After all, Southern Cameron was previously part of Nigeria but they voted in a referendum to join Cameroon.

Looking back do you have any regrets or do you feel totally fulfilled in life?

Oh God! I am totally fulfilled in life and I give God all the glory. I have children who are doing well. I can only continue to thank God for his mercies. God has blessed so much that when I look around, I see the goodness of God. God has shown me mercy. I have seen my grandchildren. I am highly contented with what I have.

As an octogenarian, how is a typical day for you like?

I don’t have anything bothering me. I wake up in the morning, do some exercise in my room. In my leisure time, I dress in my best attire and head for a place where retirees normally come together to socialise. When we get there, we will be drinking and “blowing grammar”, while remembering the good old days when we were young and active.

Do you have any favourite food and drink?

 I married a very special woman who lived in Calabar for many years; she would cook very nice meals with lots of vegetables for me. She also made pounded yam. At weekends she would cook coconut or fried rice with chicken. I drink palm wine and snack on dog meat whenever I go to the village. That’s how I enjoy life.

 

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