Saturday, 5 October 2013

Ihenacho: Most things of life are illusion
The part to greatness begins with a realization that you can do it. This is akin to the experience of the former Minister of Interior, Captain Emmanuel Ihenacho, who made history at 32 as a ship captain sailing across continents by dint of hard work. For sure, his resume teems with lofty heights. Among others, he worked with Nigeria National Shipping Lines (NNSL) for many years rising to the rank of a Ships Master in 1983. Besides, he attained the rank of a Ships Master, the highest rank in the Merchant Navy. Sequel to his shipboard service for a number of years, Ihenacho decided to go ashore in the early 1990s and took a job with NNSL’s office in Liverpool, working in the Conference office. Today, he chairs Integrated Oil and Gas. Recalling his past attainments with nostalgia, Captain Ihenacho told VINCENT KALU his dogged life that saw him competing to be the best everywhere he has found himself.
How was your growing up?
My growing up was like that of any young person who grew up in Nigeria in the early 1960s. I was born in Apapa, Lagos, and grew up there. I have been living in proximity to the sea and ocean for a long time, and it wasn’t a surprise that I ended up having a career at sea.
When I left secondary school, I got the first job as a clerk in the Flour Mills, Apapa. In those days, it was so easy to get a job, unlike what young people are now experiencing that they have to wait for so many years after qualifying to get a job. I recall that I got a job as a clerk the first day I went to Flour Mills and, in the afternoon of the same day, I decided to go down to Lagos to see what was available on that side. I went to Customs head office and got a job the same day as Customs officer. Eventually, I had to drop the option of working in Floor Mill for a Customs officer. That was how easy it was for young people getting jobs.

How did you get into marine?
After my training as a Customs Officer, I was posted to Apapa and I was in the boarding squad. This posting gave me the opportunity to become more familiar with the marine environment, as we regularly boarded calling merchant ships to inspect their papers and clear them. Every time a ship came in to port, we boarded to clear it. I became familiar with the people who worked on board ships and how they lived their lives. They lived in a very structured environment; they wore uniforms, very disciplined and lived in an insular environment very different from how we lived ashore.
Then I found that the more I boarded a ship the more I loved what I saw. I loved the regimentation, the uniform, discipline, and I eventually made my way to the office of the NNSL, where I sought an opportunity to become a cadet. I was in the Customs for about two years and then carried on to the NNSL, where I secured the opportunity to become a cadet. In 1972, I was sent to England to train as Merchant Marine Officer. That is how I went to the sea.

What have been your challenges in life?
I don’t really see that I have extra-ordinary challenges in life. I face any challenge as any young man would while growing up wherever you are with your peers and constantly competing to be the best. When I was in school, I was very competitive; I always wanted to be the very best in exams. I was always in a hurry to finish from any institution that I went to.
In the early 1960s, you had a choice if you were in elementary school to got through Standard One up to Standard Six or go to secondary school from Standard Five. I was in secondary school in 1966 when the war broke out, and we all had to go back to the East. One of the unique things about my secondary education is that people normally spent five years in secondary school, but I spent four years. I was in class three in 1966 when the war broke out, so we went to war and, when it ended, I was a grown up man. The arrangement in the East in those days was that, if you were in a certain Class before the war, you would move to the next class after the war. I was already a grown up man in that setting being in the army, so I couldn’t go to class four, because I was too old in my mind to be with those people. What I did was to simply go to class five and did my school certificate and passed. So, I never ever read class four. That initial achievement ultimately set the tone for my ambition and aspiration thereafter. Ultimately, I always tried to be the first in everything I did.
I became a ship captain when I was 32 years old, when I took command. It was very rare for somebody at that age to be in full command of an international trading ship. I went sailing with the ship everywhere, had full responsibility for the lives of people who worked on board and for the millions of dollars in the value of the goods carried onboard. In those days, it was unheard of to see somebody at 32 commanding ship. That was what I was. I remember clearly the reception I would get in some ports in West Africa, where a ship would dock. In one occasion in Freetown, Sierra Leone, when our ship docked and I was the captain –but the Chief Officer was well known to the locales –and when they saw me, they didn’t know that I was the captain. They would always go to him to ask for things and, one day, they went to him to find out, ‘This you man, the way he was posing, is he your third officer?’ He said no, and told them I was actually the ‘Old Man’. That’s how captains were addressed in those days. The poor chaps were really amazed. I worked very hard and achieved so much very early in life.
I was a captain till 1984, when I decided that I had seen it all and needed to go ashore to do other things. So, I came ashore and went to study in the University of Cardiff to do an MSc programme in International Transport. I got my MSc and then carried on subsequently to work in UK offices of the UK West Africa Conference. I was there in 1988 through 1991.Later on in my career in the Nigerian National Shipping lines, I haboured the ambition of becoming the managing director of NNSL, but the politics of those days was such that it was nearly impossible to achieve such an appointment based on merit. There were always political considerations intervening and, as such, most of the people who were eventually appointed to head the parastatal were appointed by military fiat.

How was life on the sea?
It was very exciting and the best that could happen to any young man. Imagine if you have the opportunity to travel constantly, experiencing an ever changing environment, you had a job that paid more than what most people earned ashore. It was very exciting life. Take the structured ranking of the shipboard arrangement. For instance, if you worked very hard, you got promoted and made progress. If you didn’t work hard, you didn’t go anywhere.  It was as simple as that. It was nothing like what you have these days ashore where people can and are frequently promoted far beyond their capacity and qualification. If you didn’t have the qualification, you were not promoted.
I can also remember the experience I passed through when I was a cadet. There was this general perception that to pass the cadet examination was so difficult. I remember particularly being told by a Third Officer, ‘I know you young cadets you are strutting around, and when you come to our position, you can’t pass this exam.’ That was itself being defeatist, and it didn’t stop me as I passed the exams at every stage. In those days, to become a master mariner was not easy, but I recall that I passed the Master Mariners exam in 1982 at the first sitting. It was on the strength of this achievement that I was appointed to and took command of a ship in 1984.
There was certainly no fear of being on water. I was very familiar with life on the sea by virtue of my early life in Apapa and my service as a preventive officer in the Nigerian Customs Service. The only thing that was a bit out of place was after I left as a customs officer, I became a cadet. A cadet officer was the lowest officer rank and, since I was in a ship that traded all the way back to Nigeria, people would come see me on my transition from a full-fledged customs officer to a cadet. So, I wore a different uniform and did a different job. In those days as a cadet, you were trained to do the same thing that sailors did, because you would eventually be an officer instructing them. You have to be proficient in these things, so people saw me doing these manual things, but, ultimately, I enjoyed doing them and, at the end of the day, you were paid well, and you had the opportunity of seeing different parts of the world, meeting different people and experiencing how they lived.

What is the highest moment of your life?
I can’t find any particular occasion or thing that happened that I would say is my highest or greatest moment in my life. I can tell you series of things: On the day I became master mariner; on the day I took command, I was very proud. The day I became honourable minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that was a very wonderful day, indeed. There are so many things I have done in life that am very proud of; however, I can’t say this is the greatest, because I am still alive. Who knows, the greatest achievement might still lie ahead. I have, however, had a lot of high points significantly when I achieved successes greater than what was expected of me. At the time, passing my master marine exam at the first sitting, being appointed to a command position, eventually when I left and established a company on my own, and the day I bought my first ship attended by a ceremony in Apapa, which was chaired by Admiral Mike Akhigbe.
It was an old ship, but I was so proud that I had made a transition from captain to becoming a ship owner and employing many people and having the opportunity to pass on some expertise that we had to younger ones. When I was in the NNSL, as well as before I became a master, they had instituted a prize for who was the best chief officer on annual basis, which I won it for two years in a row. In those days, I had a ship that ran very well and well maintained, and there was discipline. I was very proud to have won those laurels for two years in a row. So, if you look back at those things all my life, I have been very competitive. I always wanted to excel and achieve. By and large, I have always achieved all the targets that I have set for myself.

How was your parents’ background?
My parent’s background was just like any average family. My father was an accountant in the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). We would always go to his office in the afternoon to collect money from him. His office was where you now have the Customs Area Command. My mother was a petty trader; she had a shop where she sold provisions. It was the life of every Nigerian family.

You have been to several countries and met a lot of people, what has life taught you, having been to many countries?
Life has taught me so much. I have learnt so much about the paradox of being personally ambitious and competitive in life. In my private life in the places I have worked, I was always very competitive, but one of the greatest things I discovered and, nobody taught me this lesson specifically, is that most of the things you see in life are really an illusion. There is a great illusion about riches and poverty. People think that it is a great idea to be rich; people want to have several houses and possibly so much money. At some point in life it occurred to me that, if you have money, properties, possessions over and above what one man required, be it food or house or anything, all those extras become problems which you will be constrained to manage. They do not make you to be socially or, otherwise, place you at a real advantage over your peers.
If you take that into account, you will live your life with moderation, you would have greater consideration, respect, and compassion for people. So, these are the things I have learnt over time to cherish, to listen more to people and, if I’m competing and I won any laurel, it is not for my self, but for people all the people whose hope I am carrying at the time.
Humility is very important. People say to me, ‘You have achieved so much in life but you are so humble’. What am I to do?  To walk with a notice on my back announcing, ‘These are my achievements.’ You do not do those things; you could be an example to the youths and how they carry themselves, if they achieve success in life, particularly in respect of the requirement to eschew conceit or arrogance. To have the right amount of pride on what you have achieved and who you are, but ultimately to have compassion and consideration for others. There are many people not as fortunate as you are and, if you can share with them, wouldn’t it be simply wonderful?

What is the lowest point in your life?
There are so many high points, and I also have some low points.
It was very nice to be an honourable minister of the Federal Republic. I was very grateful for that opportunity, and I worked very had for that short time. I regretted and I still regret the fact that I did not have time to implement the changes that I thought would be necessary, particularly with regards to changes in the Nigerian Prison Service so that we do not continue to have people who are awaiting trials spent so much time that, if you had convicted, they would have even been released.
Others include changes relating to the quality and service in the squalid and inhumane conditions; changes in terms to what needed to be done with the Civil Defence to be properly focused into a role. I saw there was duplication of roles among the security and safety agencies and, if I had my way and time, I would have so rationalized it that Civil Defence and Fire Service and some of the national emergency services be rationalized so that you wouldn’t have several agencies doing the same work, and that really would lead to cost savings. These are some of the things that I really had to do, but, unfortunately, I never had the time out, but I am grateful for the opportunity to serve.

You really highlighted the opportunities you had as a youth, but, today, these opportunities are no more leading to youth restiveness. What advice do you have for the young ones?
It is easy to label the youths as lay-abouts or vicious generation. I told you how easy it was for me to get not just one job but two in one day. This is just at the level of school certificate holder, but, these days, there are youths who have degrees and cannot find a job, and they are waiting in the queue for five years. This is a very frustrating situation.  One of the things that you cannot do is to blame the youths for their predicaments. We really have to place adequate emphasis on the requirements for jobs to be available, jobs through the initiative of the private sectors or through the programmes of government so that all the youths who are graduating at all levels have enough opportunities within a very reasonable time experience once it is time to work. It is not too late for us to do it; it is something that we have to consciously embrace. Joblessness breeds all kinds of vice. It creates a situation where the youths are susceptible to temptation to become kidnappers, 419ners, etc. So, for those of us are in a position to do so, we must constantly and continuously work towards creating job opportunities to   the battalion and millions of the youths who are walking around without jobs.

From you story, while growing up, you seemed to be restless trying to make impact, what were the pranks you usually played on your parents?
I never played pranks on my parents we had that relationship. I was in general, always serious and intense. I was very restless, and this can be exemplified by this story. I was very religious when I was young and was Mass server. I used to serve mass at St Theresa Catholic Church, Marine Beach, Apapa, Lagos. I also used to go to catechism on a regular basis. I have an elder brother who never went to catechism. One of the things I used to do when it was time for catechism every day was to go and look for him around 4 pm and physically wrestle and dragged him for more than two miles to go to catechism. People used to see us regularly fighting along the road and they would say, ‘Aha, these two boys again fighting’; I would say, ‘No, I am not fighting with my brother; I am taking him to catechism class, and he must go there!’

 How do you relax?
I really like doing business; it gives me an opportunity to create value. Business is an input-output mechanism. You put in so much and, at the end of the day, you see what really comes out of it. When I am not busy cutting deals in business, I go to the gym; but now, I’m getting old, I can’t bend. My joints are stiff, but when I was younger, I did aerobics and other exercises. I think that accounts for my look. People would see me and say; ‘You look younger than you are in photograph.’ it is because of those active things I did in those days.

How did you meet your wife?
I met her when I was in Cardiff.  In 1984, I went ashore. I hadn’t been on leave for a very long time. There is a story of not going on leave for a long time. When I was chief officer, I was waiting to be promoted to a captain, and it wasn’t forthcoming. I decided that I wasn’t going on leave until I was promoted to a captain.  In those days, if you were an old chief officer, properly qualified, nobody could be promoted ahead of you unless something happened. So, I didn’t go on leave for three years, and the politics was being played that ‘Captain Ihenacho, it is your turn’; I agreed it was my turn, but, if I wasn’t promoted, no one was going to go anywhere. When the promotion came, I had promotion and had amassed plenty leave. I had about one and half years leave and, so, went to Cardiff to do MSc programme in International Transport.
I met my wife when I was in Cardiff studying. I left Cardiff in 1985 or 1986 and went to work in UKWAL in Liverpool. My wife followed me there, and we eventually got engaged and married not too long after.
While I was working in Liverpool, I was also studying. I started doing a PhD in Liverpool University, but half way, I could not cope with working full time and doing a research PhD programme. I eventually had to deregister from the University of Liverpool and discontinue the Doctoral Research work when I secured a scholarship from UKWAL to do an MBA programme full time at University of Bradform Management School at Emm Lane.

How did your wife’s parents react to your marriage, a blackman married to a white lady?
In the UK, you have people who are racists and prejudice, and you have people who are not. She is not from a prejudiced background. She and her parents accepted me fully. You know it is a two-way thing. We also accepted her fully, because I had to bring her first to Nigeria before I married her so that people would see her and know her and know if she would be able to live with them.
I didn’t just marry her over there. We mutually evaluated each other, and there was a general acceptance between the two families, and we married. We have three children, two boys and a girl.


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