| THE GUARDIAN
CONSCIENCE, NURTURED BY TRUTH
LAGOS, NIGERIA. Monday, May 17, 2003
|Subject:||I am A Marvel Of God's Grace|
|Date:||Sat, 17 May 2003 19:37:20 -0400|
|From:||Urhobo Historical Society <Urhobo@KinsFolk.com>|
Mr. Gamaliel Onosode may be better known as Nigeria's easily most sophisticated boardroom grandmaster. But in this interview to mark his 70th birthday which comes up on Wednesday, May 21, Onosode, one of the few men his age in this country to insist on "simply Mr" for title, reveals a deep attachment to God that can only come as pleasant surprise to those who cling tenaciously to the long-held belief that the rich and famous can hardly be candidates for heaven, that the church is for the poor and deprived and that indeed, it would be easier for the head of a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to see God, no matter his effort. He speaks on life, economy and religion. It is vintage Onosode, the man with the famous central part on the head who has a reputation as a perfectionist in speech and everything other thing he does.
How does it feel like to be 70 years, the biblical three scores plus half? For me it is the marvel of God's grace that I should live to be 70 years. God is the author of life. So, for everybody, one should say thank God that I have been spared this long, if you realize what the average lifetime is especially in our own environment. But when it is the marvel of God's grace, I am looking slightly beyond that to the specifics of my own existence.
I was once put to sleep by medical people at the tender age of under-three. That was when I was totally and completely anaesthetized for the purpose of surgery for the first time. I have been put to sleep for at least nine more times between then and now.
You know, in those days when you lay on the surgical table and you were given anesthesia, it was the same doctor who treated your cold and headache that was the surgeon. There were no surgeons in most hospitals then. So, in those early days, going for surgery was a life and death thing-the chances of survival were 50/50. Usually, the first question to ask after the surgery's was, is he awake, is he out of the effect of the anesthesia? So, if you have been through that 10 times in just under 70 years- yeah I would be 70 next week-you can then understand what I mean by being a marvel of God's grace, God's mercies, God's kindness. So, that survival makes me feel that it is true God has a purpose for everybody, but given this particular fact, God must have had a specific purpose why he kept me here this long. I cheated death several times during that period.
Who is Mr. Gamaliel Offoritsemere Onosode?
Okay, my first name is Gamaliel which in Hebrew means God is a rewarder, God is a recompenser. My second name Offoritsenere is Itsekiri and it means God's word is rewarding' and my surname Onosode is Urhobo, so I bear Hebrew, Itsekiri and Urhobo names. Maybe, if you read my biography you will get the full details how this phenomenon came about. I was born at Sapele in Delta State, and I was called Sapele by people of my father's generation, even though I did not adopt that name 'Sapele'. The reason why I was given the name was that my father, having spent several years in Ogbomosho in what was called Baptist College Seminary where Pastors and teachers were trained, where he had his first son my late elder brother who died at the age of 23 in 1953. When my parents returned to Delta, they had a child and that child was yours sincerely. It was a watershed, the first child to arrive since they returned to Delta and I was I born in Sapele. My second name Offoritsenere - you can again understand. My father had spent many years studying God's word, so that when he came back home, he could preach iand teach it. He went and returned better equipped for the work of the ministry in which he was involved before he left, and he came back with a son and on returning he had another son. Who can controvert the fact that God's word was profitable?
Again, even though Sapele compared to Warri is an Urhobo town, Itsekiri is very widely spoken with pidgin English and my father grew up at Igun then called Kokori waterside. My grandfather moved there, from our home in Ekugbo, to trade. Meanwhile, trade on Ethiope River was controlled by agents of the colonial masters people like the Nana of Itsekiri. So the language of commerce along that creek was Itsekiri because they were the middlemen between the Urhobos in the hinterland and the whites (as this my white brocade Kaftan and Sokoto clothes that I am wearing). So, that is how I was given an Itsekiri name.
For the same reason that the so-called Christian names or Anglo-Saxon names were given by those who were exposed to the Bible, I was given my first name, which was mentioned in the Bible in the Old Testament. And I think it is a great name given to me by my father who was a Baptist minister.
What was growing up like, as the son of a Baptist minister at a time Christianity had not gained the kind of spread it has attained globally? what were the peculiar experiences?
I think you will understand perhaps a little better why I speak about discipline the way I do because when God created the world, discipline was evident in everything he did. There was a system put in place. You do not wake up one morning to see the sun rising at 6.00 o'clock and the next day at 11.00 o'clock. There was chaos before God said let there be and there was and he brought system and you cannot have a system if there is no discipline. It is the fact that there is intrinsic discipline that is why we have a system.
Now, with specific reference to my growing up, it was in an atmosphere that was disciplined yet loving. Love and discipline are not antithetical. My father was tough, my mother was tough we were brought up to render service cheerfully as part of our contribution to the well being of the family. For example, we took turns to boil water for drinking. Since I was born, I have never had water that was not boiled-except in more recent times that I drink bottled water because I believe that it has gone though processes that make it safe for drinking-we took it turns to do the sweeping. So, we were brought up in a disciplined environment but we were not compelled to believe what we chose not to believe.
When I professed the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal lord and saviour, I did it on my own prompting. My father did not say to me now you have grown up and next Sunday you have to go forward and profess neither did my mum. So, I just did it when I felt I understood enough to take the step at the tender age of 10. But, a little later in life, I realized that there was more to it than I knew at that point in time. That was when I was teaching at Baptist Girls High School at Agbor in 1955 and 1956. I was still an undergraduate at the University College Ibadan. In 1955 I went there, (BGHS Agbor), to look for a job and I was given a job. I taught the first class that graduated from that school which happened to include my immediate younger sister. I taught them history and geography and I introduced the teaching of Latin in class one. Then the following year, in 1956 I was invited by the school during the long vacation to carry on evidently with the work I had done there. It was during that period in 1955 that there was a yearly revival, which included an every evening assembly. It was at one of those evenings early in that week with the teaching staff at the back of the assembly hall, that I myself got up and walked down the aisle-it was quite extraordinary experience, it could not have been something I did under my own steam. The spirit just moved me and the text that gave me a clearer understanding of human life, was that Jesus died not just for the sin of the world, but for my own sin.
The relevance of this is this: if you were brought up in a disciplined environment like I was, you behave well, you did not go out fighting, abusing people, misbehaving or having girlfriends with whom you did all kinds of acceptable things. You are bound to feel that you are a nice guy, you are a good guy. But First John Chapter one says: "If we say we have not sinned we deceive ourselves and the truth's not in us, but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
In other words, he is reminding us of what Psalm 51 says: "Behold, I was shaped in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me. That is why you did not have to teach a child how to lie. But you have to teach a child how to say thank you. So that fact sort of brought home to me that no matter how nice I think I am, Jesus died for my sin for I am a sinner and not just a sinner because I am one of the human beings but in a very personal way. So that was the reason why I changed gear on that particular occasion towards the right direction.
What were those attributes, qualities or things you learnt early in life that have largely influenced your principles in life?
Say very simply, discipline and the fear of God, as expressed through faith in Christ. That is the best summary I can give. Jesus said 'I am the way, the truth and the light, no one comes to the father except by me.' So, whenever I use God in my conversation with you or anybody else, I am talking about the God whom you cannot get to know other than through Christ. Now, if you break that down to specifics, my attitude towards the physical environment today, is directly attributable to what my father did rather than what he said. For example, my father could be caught several times a day sweeping the floor of the sitting room and it was not just a first thing in the morning affair, because sweeping is meant to keep the floor clean. It means that anytime the floor is not clean, resort should be made to the broom. And quite often when he did that, when you tried to take the broom from him he never agreed, he just said thank you.
Though he never explained why, but I think in retrospect he meant two things: one, there is dignity in labour-no one is too important to handle a broom. Secondly, why must you wait to see me do it, do you not have eyes to see the floor dirty and do you not know where the broom is? Those two lessons were clearly implicit in whatever he did and today in this home, it is anathema for you to touch the wall. Whoever you are, you will be told. If you go to our home we have lots of grandchildren; they come they know that they are not allowed to touch the wall because it shows lack of discipline and if you touch the wall unknowingly, you leave a mark. So, I can tell you that any mark you see on my wall is evidence that someone who is not exactly under my influence has been here. Again, that is part of general tidiness.
Now, I think I must be a very difficult person to live and work with because I make on you the demands I make on myself. That eases my conscience of course but it can be pretty oppressive.
Now, I have not told you about my mother. One thing that I am truly grateful to my mother for is my mother really taught me how to identify with my roots. She was very committed to that in a positive way, whether on her side or on my father's side. For instance, when I decided to go back to Ekugbo, our home which we abandoned for more than two generations to build a house, she was excited that I was trying to take the family back to Ekugbo rather than Eku her home town. She also taught me and reinforced my belief in not yielding to intellectual blackmail. You cannot force me to say what I do not believe in, no matter the price to pay. My mother would rather I stood and fight than give in to oppression but she was a non-violent woman.
Given the kind of strict Christian upbringing you had, how did you meet your wife? Was it the usual arranged relationship of those days and was she the first woman you came in contact with at the level?
No, she was not my first girlfriend. Before I left UC, Ibadan, I had had a girlfriend whom I was expected to marry. It was no secret and she is still alive. But it did not work out that way, not through her fault but through mine. But that is all history. There were a few accidents and incidents. When that particular incident was over, she was still willing to accept me but I said no, I let you down very badly. I appreciate your willingness to forgive and forget, but I do not think you will even trust me. That was the reason I had, otherwise we could have made up and gone ahead with our original plan.
But as one newspaper screamed two Saturdays ago in a headline Onosode Courted His Wife For 28 Days, that is the truth. I met my wife Susan through a male friend of mine who introduced her to me as one of his friends and there was nothing between them at all. Of course I discovered later that she had a friend-her family and his family were expecting them to come together as husband and wife.
We got to know that we existed, but we were not even friends until when our church was sending us on street to street and house to house ministrations. I chose a street where I knew she lived with her brothers becaue one her brothers was already working in my organisation. I discovered during discussions when we went ministering in her home that day that she attended our church and I said to her, 'I have never seen you there' and she said to me, 'you know I am a nurse, it is either I am on duty or I am tired. So I said to myself, just at the back of my mind with nothing specific about it, that she is a Christian and also a Baptist. On the run up to 30th of September 1960, I decided to have a private party to celebrate Nigeria's independence at what is now 113 Ogunlana Drive Surulere, where I was living as a bachelor. So, I asked a number of my friends who were girls to please come and assist with the physical aspects of the preparation-cooking of food and all that and she was one of them. She knew some of the others and there was nothing secret of sinister about it.
Though she already had her plans with her brothers for that evening, she had her elder brother's permission to come and help with the cooking and leave us to enjoy the party. But in the event, to cut a long story short, she did not leave. She stayed with us for the entire evening and at some point in the evening, even though this was totally unpremeditated, both on my part and hers, I popped the question: 'will you marry me? This was some point around midnight of October 1 1960 and we got married the 29th of October 1960.
So all that you normally do before you get married, happened during those 28 days, that is to say getting her consent because she did not immediately say yes, I guess she was as shocked as I was surprised myself. So, almost 43 years after, we are still happy together, we are not planning a divorce and we are blessed with seven children-four male and three female. My first son Gamaliel Onosode junior is a stock broker.
What has your family life been like? What kind of relationship do you have with your wife and children? The discipline you speak so much about, are you able to impart in them and are they all Baptist or did you allow them liberty to choose what religion to profess?
First let me start from the tail end. They were all baptized in the Baptist Church but today they do not all worship in the Baptist Church. I think the two girls who are in the United States are still worshipping in the Baptist Church. The two sons in the United Kingdom used to worship at the West Minster Chapel where a Baptist minister who, for many years had been the pastor in charge, is recently retired and serving for 25 years. He still goes there to worship but West Minister chapel is a sort of inter-denomination. We have three children in town in Lagos-two boys and a girl. My eldest son now worships at the House on the Rock. The second boy Spencer-he acquired that name himself, the girl Osamode but I gave her Current and Olukere worship in the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
This phenomenon occurred only in recent times, about seven years ago when there was some incident in our church. The children couldn't take it or wouldn't take it, so they left. I am now there with my wife in an environment of absolute normalcy, because that particular incident has been put behind us, both socially and spiritually. In fact, I raised the issue in person but I cannot compel them because God wouldn't ask you what church you attended; what he will ask you is what did you do with Christ theoritically? That is the question he will ask you: what did you do with Christ? So, as long as they are Christians, serving the Lord faithfully, I am relaxed but I wouldstill have preferred if they are still with me in my own denomination. They are aware of the way I feel.
How do you relate with them? Are they all married?
I relate very well with them. They are not all married. I have a son, the most learned of all of us. He has a doctorate degree and he is due back this weekend or early next week in commemoration of my 70th birthday. I mean the one that is in United Kingdom; he is the most learned. He has resident rights in the U.K. He is the only one who is not yet married.
No. No. I am not worried about that. I am not scared. It is his sense of responsibility that has prevented him, that has restrained him from getting married. He just feels that when he marries he must be a responsible husband in every sense of the word. The Bible says that he who does not provide for his family is worse than an infidel. He wants to be sure...I guess I got married at the tender age of 27 but I think that I was already due to be a successful person.
Can you just tell us how you started working?
When I left school, I didn't work anywhere. Maybe you didn't believe what I said. I am a marvel of God's grace not only in respect of the health issue I raised, but with regard to what I have done in life. Things have always been presented to me on a platter of gold. All I had to do was to position myself, if you like to recognize that it was gold. God positioned me in such a way that I could receive whatever he wanted to offer to me.
Straight from the primary school, in fact I didn't finish my primary school. At the end of my 5th year, I was offered admission. So, I did not have to complete my standard Six. So I went straight to Government College, what is now Government College, Ughelli. We started in Warri then we moved to Ughelli. I went straight from Government College to University College Ibadan Before I finished from the University College, I was offered a job by CAC so I went straight to what is now Commonwealth Development Corporation here in Lagos.
The regional office was in Lagos. Its operation then was in British West Africa. That is Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and based in Lagos. I was recruited with two English boys and we started as management trainees. We constituted the first set to be recruited as management trainees. Hitherto they had employed ready-made managers. So that job took me to the U.K in November 1967 where we did the programme until the end of February. I arrived back in Nigeria in March 1959. I stayed with the corporation altogether for five years-from 1957-1962 when I left and joined what was then known as Investment Company of Nigeria Limited. Its name was changed in January 1964 to NIDB-Nigeria Investment Development Bank. I was the first secretary when that reconstruction took place. The reconstruction brought the World Bank and the Federal Government into it. I called them originally a purely private sector affair. Then I had to resign. I left there end of September 1965 and joined what was then known as Philip Hill Nigeria Limited which has now become NAL Bank PLC.
I was Chairman and Chief Executive of the outfit, the only person to have held the two positions together for six years until I left by own accord. Everything was going right when I decided to leave at the end of March 1979 and I have been unemployed since then. Retired without a pension. I was on the pay roll of NAL until December 1979. There was a lot of accumulate leave, which took from 1st April to December 1979.
As the Christian, how were you able to leave above board in all places you worked without necessarily compromising your beliefs?
Well in my place of work I didn't compromise. Wherever I worked, there are two strands, two stands that came together emanating from the same source: right. If you are truly a Christian that fact will influence everything you do, anything you do that is not consistent with that fact can only represent an expression of your moment of weakness but cannot be your life style. In each and every situation therefore my commitment with Christ which is salvation expresses itself in the market place. I don't think you will go to any place where I have worked and search the record and they will say this man was messing around with the women there or this man was messing around with our money. Those are basically the two things that will need to talk about in the work situation.
By the grace of God, I have been reinforced sufficiently to express the mind of Christ wherever I have gone. That is not to say I don't have disagreement. For example, I recall being taken on by my staff may be 1974 or 1975. The staff said we used to have Christmas package here before ... they were asking for more pay. So I said, no, here are the books of the company you are sufficiently exposed and knowledgeable to see our strength so I am not paying you more than we can afford at this point in time. That was how the strike started. It was not really a strike it was an industrial action. I arrived one morning and they were carrying placard saying oh pastor in a derogatory sense, man of God, please give us our entitlement.
It was just a single day affair. They are two strands having their roots in the salvation experience and that one I pay tribute to my parents. You see if you read and you experience salvation, it is helpful if you also have physical human beings whose lives you can emulate. So you don't copy everything. For example I am very quick tempered. I think there is something genetic about it. My father was a very quick tempered person but he was also a very good natured person. I grew up with the determination not to be very quick tempered, but I don't know whether I have succeeded.
I believe that people see you as a very successful person. What can you say about yourself? Do you think you have realized God's purpose for your life? To what extent do you think you have lived up to expectations?
It is a very difficult question but a very important question. It will be very arrogant of me to say that yes I have done everything God expected of one. But I have a conviction similar to what Paul had. I can say, if Jesus is sitting in that chair now and I can see him face to face, 'You know Lord I have really tried my very best. I know I haven't done everything I should have done but you know I am handy and just waiting for you to call me home so as to take my home in those mansions above but I will prefer not to die now.
By now I mean now, because if I die, it might create a kind of problem for those who are not as strong as I am they will say look at this man of God, after all everyone knew that he is going to be 70 and he just dropped dead. It might scandalize them, even though they might know that where I am going is much better than where I am right now. And God is a very gracious God. I am sure he will not do a thing like that.
But having said that, from the unsolicited testimonies that come to me, I have a conviction that my life has impacted on many lives quite positively. In other words, they can say yes, that man for all his weaknesses in life has had a positive influence on my life and our lives
You know what I think, my reputation is positive rather than negative. In other words, people are likely to say, oh yes, this man has been with Jesus. Let me give you an example. When I want into the political arena, in obedience to God's command, God didn't say seek this or that office. It was during the interaction with the people who were there before me that we produced, if you like, a specific action plan and then the right office that I could seek. They say look before you can't just be in the party and not seek any office, some one of your background or whatever. Suggestions were made. They said run for Governor. I said forget it, how can I at this level? I turned that down. Then they said Senate, I said well okay but not really. Until someone came-I never met him before but he comes from my side of the country-and said he would like us to meet. So, we met and he said yes, I think you can vie for the presidency.
I went in with the conviction that if I got in, I would be rendering service. I didn't go in with any idea of what I would get out of the office, the importance it would bring to me.
As a result of my being there, you might not find a single Christian leader today who will tell his flock, please avoid involvement in partisan politics. You will not. I think you can conclude that God has used the area to accomplish that purpose. Because there is something unhelpful if not totally intellectually disingenuous for you to say good men should stay out of politcs so that the less good should deliver good governance to you. That doesn't make sense.
Finally one more point, purely political point. At the time I went into politics, there was a very strong argument against proceeding with the Abubakar transition. Some strong political views were expressed to the effect that the national question should be addressed before proceeding with the transition. But I expressed a view, which was carried front page in some national newspapers. I raised the point that if the national question must be addressed first by the soldiers because we believed them to be good problem solvers, why do we want them to go at all if they are such a great problem solver. Let them stay on forever. No one had an answer to that.
So I think to the best of my knowledge the purpose for which God sent me into the political arena may well have already been achieved.
At this age, at 70, what are you still doing in Lagos? Do you consider retiring fully and turning back to your village?
Left to me alone, I would have retired to Ekugbo by now, certainly any moment from now. But I met my wife in Lagos, so understandably, she is more attached to Lagos than I am. Although we have a small places at Ekugbo, I don't think she sees relocating there exactly an attractive proposition.
What is more likely to happen is that when the roads are put in better condition, we will be spending more time there but for now, we have been spending Christmas at home in Ekugbo. We spend the last two weeks of the whole year and the first two weeks of the New Year there. So, the only thing that is more likely to happen is spending more time there because we enjoy being there. It is more peaceful being there. The environment is cleaner, more civilized. To me, living in Lagos today is a great pain.