The following commentary was published on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 in ThisDay Live. To see the original commentary, click here

Emeka Offor’s Metamorphosis

Edifying Elucidations By Okey Ikechukwu.

Late last year, Sir Emeka Offor supported Rotary’s international network of Peace Centres with$250,000 for fellowships in peace and conflict resolution. The preference and focus, in terms of beneficiaries of the programme, are qualified applicants from Nigeria and other African countries.  Part of the aim is to promote peace in Nigeria, with its ethno-religious and regional diversity, wherein the beneficiaries are to become mediators of better peace management and transmitters of contemporary conflict resolution paradigms in their various spheres of influence. That is why the programme offers professional development certificate in peace and conflict studies to mid-level professionals from related fields, such as public health, education, international law, economic development, journalism, rule of law and social justice. The endowment is for practitioners and activists from sub-Sahara Africa and the dual purposes of the fellowship is to enhance future recipients’ substantive knowledge in their respective disciplines and encourage them to adapt this enhanced knowledge to promote social harmony and conflict resolution in their places of work, communities and nations.

The first time I heard of Offor was in connection with Anambra politics, at the dawn of the current democratic dispensation, when someone described him as ‘a terrible trouble maker’. The first time I saw him was in Lagos, at the airport and he did not quite look the ‘demon’ I had expected. His personal energy was evident but he was not trying to be noticed unduly, yet he had full control of his space and of what was going on within that space.  The man I saw is the type of person who can easily understand a situation and who can also take quick and far-reaching decisions without any fears. But he was no troublemaker in the conventional sense of the term but seemed, instead, the type of person who will boldly pick his fights, tell you that you are in the line of fire and throw his punches without subterfuge.

But he also looked like one who will abandon a fight if he sees that there is some higher purpose to be served. He also did not look like the type of person who will kick somebody who is down. This was a most contradictory combination of personal qualities, which actually became a matter of more than passing interest to me because it differed too much from what I had been told about the man. There was also the surprising fact that there was something like kindness peeping out from behind the exterior.This only accentuated my interest, because it was either that the man is travelling on the wrong road or he is misunderstood – or both. He did not exude condescending airs in his interaction with those around him, including some that looked like his aides.

Surely this is a man who would like to make an impact on his environment with his contacts and his wealth. But such a man must also find the right type of impact and sphere of activity, or his energy and resources will be wasted on nothing. Offor, at that first encounter, did not look like the type of person who will ultimately be satisfied with empty swagger and public attention. Yes, this man would like to smile at a baby, or occasionally sit and watch happy children at play, but not as a weak, dreamy man. He must channel his energies to what will make him feel happy and fulfilled before God and man – or remain unfulfilled.

I recall taking up this matter with the very gifted current Corps Marshal of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), Osita Chidoka, who knew the man well enough; and who was personal assistant to former Minister of Transport, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, to whom I was Special Assistant at the time. Someone needed to tell Offor that he should face his business and find more rewarding means of impacting his world, instead of fuelling the wrong vehicles for public good. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today Offor is still in the news within and outside Nigeria but for very different and very commendable reasons. His Foundation, the Sir Emeka Ofor Foundation (SEOF), recently made some interventions in an effort to help eradicate Onchocerciasis, or river blindness. Besides trachoma, this is the only other infectious cause of blindness. It is caused by Onchocerca volvulus, a nematode (roundworm), which is transmitted to humans by the black fly of the genus Simulium. The worms enter and spread all over the body and, after they die, release their Wolbachia symbionts, which triggers a host immune system response that can cause severe itching, and can destroy optical tissue in the eye - hence the resultant blindness. The Carter Centre, with headquarters in Plateau State, to which Offor donated $250,000 to fight river blindness, joined hands with SEOF to beam a spotlight on the silent menace that had ravaged the region unnoticed.

Instead of the noisy power play, which is still the preoccupation of many wealthy Anambra sons and daughters who have done their level best to ruin the state, Offor is using his Foundation to help those in need become independent and self-sufficient in more ways than one.  Through a variety of creative programmes, the Foundation strives to become a model for development efforts across Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa. The impact of this partnership is already being felt.

The philanthropy has not diminished Ofor’s profile within the business and political circles in Nigeria. It has enhanced it, instead, through changed lives of the poor and the prayers of many who can speak of a better future today because of him. He acknowledges his humble beginnings and bodies for the typical story of man who made it in life by sweat and toil. It is therefore no surprise that his Foundation is focused on poverty alleviation for the less privileged in society and providing support in the areas of human capacity development, skills acquisition and the establishment of small and medium enterprises (SME’s) and cooperative societies. Today the Foundation has its hands in youth empowerment programmes, widows cooperative programmes, education programmes, health service programmes and infrastructure development programmes. It has also established important partnerships with international organisations in the areas of (1) Books for Africaand (2) Rotary International, among other initiatives.

Offor was recently honoured by Rotary Foundation at a convention in Lisbon, Portugal, where
he got a special recognition during the Arch C. Klumph (AKS) dinner for being the highest donor from Africa. The AKS is the highest echelon of Rotary Foundation, attained only by those who have donated a minimum of $250,000 to its causes. But Offor has donated over $1 million to the Foundation, which included $250,000 to PolioPlus, its polio eradication campaign.
The donor captured his motivation for the interventions thus: "In Nigeria, many of us have lost friends to polio, but polio should have no place in our world... It is my deepest hope that my financial contribution and work with the Rotary leadership in Nigeria can bring about the final, permanent and irreversible eradication of polio. Together we can make this happen, and we will do so."

The fight against glaucoma is another important health care initiative of the Foundation. Offor established a $100,000 glaucoma research grant at the Department of Ophthalmology, University of Mainz, Germany, and has established a Nigerian fellowship for Cataract Surgery and Glaucoma Management at the same university.   

Back home, SEOF has supplied free books, computers and other educational materials to students at various levels. The books and computers were not limited to select students at a few choice schools, as over 400,000 books were disturbed to primary and secondary schools as well as universities throughout Nigeria. This is also duplicated in several West and East African countries. His hometown in Anambra State also has a joyful story to tell, as many otherwise helpless people are now able to participate in the local economy through skills that SEOF helped them to acquire and funds the Foundation provided. Ofor insists: “People are not poor because they choose to be. There are many able and creative people who could be making important contributions to society if they were not mired in poverty. In other words, God plants precious seedlings in the most unlikely places. He asks that we water these seedlings so that they can grow into the fruit-bearing trees he intended. Those of us who have received fortune’s blessings have a moral duty and civic responsibility to help the poor and vulnerable. For this reason, I established the Foundation.”

Widows are being helped by SEOF by forming women’s cooperatives, which train participants to be economically self-sufficient by teaching various moneymaking skills and trades. There is also the initiative through which the Foundation provides micro-financing grants and loans to industrious youth who want to start their own small transportation business. The Foundation helps participants plan and manage their businesses under this successful programme. Several participants have been able to expand their transportation enterprises to include commercial buses and additional employees. And Offor is not doing this unconsciously, no. Hear him: “I want to make my mark. Actually, I want to make two marks. One is that I have been an excellent businessman who built a group of companies that will stand the test of time. Two, that I have been as good at giving as I was in turning a profit. In my own way, I hope to set an example for the next generation of successful Nigerian businessmen. I want them to know that they can make money while also making a difference.”

This is true. It should also be of interest to many activists, political heavyweights and sundry misguided persons who are running from pillar to post under the delusion that they are making positive impact in the world around them. Some need not impact on no more than a hundred people for the change they desire to happen – over time. Let Offor’s metamorphosis speak to those who have ears to hear. As the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Satre, said: “The individual, in the isolation imposed on him by his freedom, must make his moral choices and accept responsibility for them.”