Today, His Royal Majesty, Igwe Kenneth Onyemaeke Nnaji (K.O.N) Orizu III, CON, JP, begins three-day celebrations to mark his 90th birthday and 52 years on the throne of his forefathers. He told The Authority team in his palace in Nnewi that the secret of his kingdom’s success is the peace that has reigned supreme in Nnewi since he mounted the throne in 1963. He spoke with FELIX OGUEJIOFOR ABUGU, NOSIKE OKERE, ANDREW UDEH, OBIANUJU ORAKWE AND NKIRU AKPAKA
We were ushered into a living room filled with artefacts and plaques. The throne sat to the right of visitors’ seats arranged in a row perpendicular to it. And it isn’t exactly a gold-plated throne. To be sure, it lacks the frills and flamboyance of the throne of a typical nouveau riche, whose money may have bought both the throne and its decorations to speak metaphorically. But, what it lacks in flamboyance and grandeur, it has 10 times over in its rich history: it’s a 101 royal chair, made of solid wood, with God-knows-how-old leopard skin or so tied its back, as the only decoration.
The artefacts consist of carvings that depict the history of this 100-year kingdom in the heart of the Igbo nation while the plaques, too numerous, indeed, to count, tell the story of a king loved and appreciated not only by his people but also by all, irrespective of place of origin, who have come across him in life.
By today’s standards, the living room is small. But, again it comes with a rich history: it was built in 1904 as a one-storey, wood-decked palace by the British when they ‘conquered’ the perennially warring community and made it embrace peace and good neighbourliness. Behind the main palace buildings is another concrete and wooden essence, a penthouse of sorts, which, The Authority was told, served as an observation post from which the occupying British could see practically every part of the town and in that position, be able to detect whenever and wherever there was trouble.
The palace compound itself is a sprawling stadium-like arena. In fact, to one’s right as you step into the compound is a ‘plebiscite corner’, which comes with a stadium-like elevation with stadium seats, where the people sit to listen to their king on special occasions or whenever the need arises for them to be at the palace. To the left is a modern duplex where the Crown Prince, Obianefo Orizu, a lawyer and Ph.D student, lives. At the centre is the council Chambers, where the Igwe-in-Council holds meetings. The Igwe’s living quarters is separated from the rest of the compound by a mud wall on which leans a squat mud Obi surrounded by shrines (now disused) where medicine men used to stand and invoke the spirits to protect the king from the machinations of men, as he prepared to step out for the day’s functions…
Welcome to the palace of Igwe Kenneth Orizu III, CON, JP, and the revered Igwe of Nnewi Kingdom.
Igwee!...Andrew Udeh, a proud son of Nnewi who secured the appointment with the Palace for The Authority hailed as a trim, spritely walking old man stepped into the room where all of us The Authority team, Crown Prince Obianefo and Prince Emmanuel Iwuchukwu, the Igwe’s half-brother and Egbodike Nnewi, were seated.
Is this the 90-year old man? Is this
The man who has ruled for 52 years as king over the entrepreneurial, immensely successful Nnewi people? Is he really 90? These were not just questions agitating our minds; we were actually putting them to Andrew Udeh, an active journalist and author who knows, understands, and relates with, his people very well. “Yes,” said Mr. Udeh who quickly introduced The Authority team, “seated before all of us is the one and only His Royal Majesty, Igwe Kenneth Orizu III, CON, JP, the Igwe of Nnewi. He is all yours, editor.”
“Your Majesty, how do you feel at 90?” we asked him, going straight to the point. “We are pleasantly surprised to see you so agile, but truth is we didn’t expect to see a 90-year old man practically run into the room like you did, sir. What is the secret?”
“I thank God for life and good health; it is all by His grace,” he answered. He spoke clearly. His memory is still sharp, his recollections infallible. “As for what I do myself, the secret is moderation. If you must drink (I don’t drink), drink moderately, eat moderately; even womanizing, you do that moderately after I got married, I turned my back on other women though. In fact, in life we must do everything in moderation. That is my own secret moderation.”
Which may well be so but as he was to tell us subsequently, the Igwe also eats early, retires around 11pm and wakes up at 6am. Every two days in a week Monday and Thursday, he wakes up at 3 am to exercise (cycling in his room) for one hour and goes back to sleep at 4 am and wakes up at 6. Quite a hectic exercise regimen for an old man, you would say but that is certainly one of the other secrets of the lithe body and sharp mind that the 90-year old man parades.
Just then, he looked up. “He was my mate and friend; we were crowned the same year 1963,” he said, using his eyes to direct ours to a framed group photograph hanging on the wall directly opposite him. It’s a photograph in which he posed with the late Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero when both of them were still young traditional rulers in their kingdoms. As a young man, Orizu lived and worked in Kano (he was also Eastern Nigeria Outlook sales rep in Asaba, Benin, Sapele and Warri and to great accomplishments on that turf) where he became friends with the late Ado Bayero and they kept in touch until the tragic passing on in June last year of the Kano monarch who reportedly died from the shock of the attack on his convoy in Kano in January 2013, by unidentified gunmen who operated on motorcycles.
Without doubt, moderation is a defining character trait of Igwe Orizu’s. And concomitant with moderation is humility or modesty. For, really, a man who does most things moderately, even when he has more than enough, possesses the virtue of humility. More than half of the innumerable awards captured in plaques on display in Igwe Orizu’s Obi tell the story of the Igwe: a man who is king over easily the richest, most successful group of people in Africa yet is so modest, even self-effacing. This is the man to whom the Ibetos, Coscharis, Ojukwus, Chikasons, Innosons, Ifeanyi Ubahs, Ajulu Uzodikes, Louis Caters, Edokwes, Tony Okolis and many more of this world pay homage, for Christ sakes!
As the bible says, when a good man is in power a nation (community) rejoices. This biblical expression is true of Nnewi under Igwe Orizu, a man revered by his people for the peace dividends he has brought to this thriving community of manufacturers and great merchants. And this is what often happens when a king comes equipped with celestial benignity or, if you will, when the gods themselves choose a king for the people. The story is told of how Igwe Orizu’s father could not father a son with any Nnewi woman until, through divination, he was advised to go to Umuchu in Aguata Local Government Area to marry a woman who would bear him a son. And true to that divination, the Umuchu woman came and bore Igwe Orizu II a son but, like other women before her, she too died, in her own case, just seven days after putting to bed the beloved Prince Kenneth. Just imagine it: a boy orphaned at birth, growing up, rounded and well-formed, to become the king whose reign was to bring the unprecedented peace and prosperity that Nnewi community has witnessed under Igwe Kenneth Orizu III in the past 52 years.
Ok, but, just what would Igwe Orizu himself like to be remembered for? Whenever it pleases his creator to call him back home, what would he like to be his epitaph? Here lies Igwe Orizu who…?
“Obu peace nu,” he replied in Igbo meaning, it is peace, and of course (the language of the interview actually oscillated between Igbo and English and the Igwe speaks both very well). “Whatever we do, however industrious we may be, once there is no peace in the community, you can’t achieve anything. So, I thank God that my reign has brought peace in the community. But, don’t forget, leadership is a collective responsibility. So, whatever you may consider as my achievement is also largely due to the cooperation and support of my chiefs and the people.”
Nnewi comprises four communities named after the four sons of the town’s progenitor. The four communities are Otolo, Umudim, Uruagu and Nnewichi and they are equal partners in, or equal owners of, of the Nnewi Project. However, being the eldest of the four, Otolo has the privilege of producing the overall king of the town. Within Otolo itself, it falls on the Orizu family to produce the Igwe and this is by inheritance and is hierarchical. Unlike Egbu, Owerri North Local Council of Imo State, for instance, where it is not necessarily the eldest son that succeeds his father as the Egbukole, the next Igwe of Nnewi after one has joined his forefathers must be the first son.
But, as it is in every social setting, sibling rivalry does exist even in an otherwise peaceful and orderly community like Nnewi. For instance, The Authority was told, the other three communities would not accept Obi (like the Obi of Onitsha) as the title to be adopted by the overall leader of the community because they felt that that would imply too much authority over the rest of them; they insisted he must instead answer Igwe, which they felt was a ‘milder’ title while they themselves would each would go by the title Obi. So, there are Obi of Umudim, Obi of Uruagu and Obi of Nnewichi and then the Igwe of Nnewi.
The peace-loving nature of the Igwe came into play at the height of that crisis. “Is it title that would bring crisis here? I said to them, if answering Igwe would bring peace, so be it. And I am answering Igwe; the title does not change anything,” he quipped when The Authority asked him about that controversy. “But, what I would not tolerate is any one of them addressing himself as His Royal Majesty, as I understand one is already doing, because that address is reserved only for the Igwe.”
Title or no title, Igwe Orizu’s reign is remarkable for the peace and unity it has ushered in Nnewi. To outsiders, Nnewi is like a cult where every member looks out for the other. It is unlikely, for instance, for a misunderstanding between one Nnewi man and the other to end up at the police station. If you are not from Nnewi or doing a research on the town (as many across the world have done), you are not likely to know about the four quarters because it is unlikely that any Nnewi person would introduce himself as coming from say Otolo unless you ask. Neither would one in London or Dubai hesitate to assist another in distress for the simple reason that the one in distress is not from the same quarter as he who can render such assistance.
This filial bond can be seen in the way Nnewi businessmen deal with their kith and kin many of whom they routinely bring into their lines of business, teach them the tricks of the business and help them establish in such lines of business. Or how else could they have dominated the motor-related business in Africa and possibly the Middle East for as long as they have done? (On this score, however, it can be said that Nnewi people have demonstrated large heartedness because they helped establish an apprenticeship system in Igbo-land that obtains nowhere else in the world and by which means thousands of Igbo youths from other parts of Igboland were taught, and set up in, businesses that transformed lives even in remote parts of the Igbo nation).
What would His Royal Majesty describe as his concrete achievements, besides the dividends of peace? (His brother, Prince Emmanuel Iwuchukwu chips in). Before Igwe Orizu, he said, Nnewi was a big village. But, when he came in, he started talking to the people of Nnewi, appealing to their spirit of self-help and sooner than later it started yielding fruits. “Everything you see here was done by Nnewi people by themselves,” Iwuchukwu, Egbodike Nnewi said. “Government presence here is zero, zero o.”
Igwe Orizu said he was largely instrumental to getting Nnewi businessmen to diversify into manufacturing. “I was going to them personally…they would say, ‘Igwe let me come and I would say no, I am coming to see you myself.’ This was to underscore the importance of what I wanted to discuss with them. So, I was going to them and telling them to diversify into manufacturing because that would be more profitable and enduring in the long run than importing 40 containers of goods and the next day one government policy would wipe out your business. And they listened to me.”
Today, there are over 30 functional industries in Nnewi, manufacturing goods from motor cars and trucks to noodles, vegetable oil, pampers, motorcycles, premium motor oils, enamel wares, plastics to cables and switch gears. There are also as many moribund factories whose owners couldn’t cope with the challenge of power and other infrastructure deficits in the town, no thanks to government neglect of an industrial town that should otherwise be provided with all the necessary amenities to enable its enterprising sons and daughters build more factories and lift many more people out of poverty. There is, in particular, the pathetic story of an N10b rice mill that was abandoned because the owners couldn’t cope with the huge running costs from the constant use of generators.
“After Obasanjo visited when he was President and saw what was going on here, he decided that Nnewi deserved a substation to boost power supply in the town and they started building it,” explained Prince Iwuchukwu. “But, go there now and you will weep; nothing is going on there. You can imagine how important that project would be to this town. Give this town good power supply and you will be surprised at what you will find when you come back after five years. We have people who are willing to come home and build more factories here but they are scared of running costs. Those who are still hanging in there don’t have too many good stories to tell about their experiences.”
The biggest government presence in Nnewi is the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital (NAUTH), formerly the medical school of the Anambra State University of Science and Technology established by the government of Jim Nwobodo in old Anambra State. Igwe Orizu is personally credited with attracting it to Nnewi. The story is that the medical school of the multi-campus university was zoned to then Anambra South (present day Anambra State) and the government said that any community that would donate land and N2m would have the medical school sited in that community. Igwe Orizu came back to Nnewi after the meeting with the government where the announcement was made and began consultation with his people who soon enough provided the land and fund. Not only that, many people started building houses halls of residence, classrooms, dining halls and the like, on the campus and donating to the medical school. The NAUTH had become reality. However, Orizu is unhappy that not much has been done in the school by way of infrastructural development since the initial investment by the indigenes.
“And to make matters worse, no Nnewi man has had the privilege of heading the medical school as CMD,” agonized one indigene who would not want to be identified because he is close to the corridors of power. “That is tragic, if you ask me. Our people did all that and yet they wouldn’t appoint any of them CMD, with all the qualified medical academics that abound here. It is not right at all.”
Iwuchukwu wants both the state and federal governments to give Nnewi priority attention in the distribution of social amenities “because this town can help the government a lot to fight unemployment.”
“If industries in Nnewi alone could work at full capacities, there would not be too many idle youths causing trouble out there for government and society generally, because most of them would be gainfully employed,” he stressed.
True, Nnewi is choked up. Although one of the biggest towns in Anambra State, it is home to too many businesses and, by extension, people jostling to lick from its honey pot and too important a town to be left the way it is: choked up. Thus, government must pay special attention to Nnewi by providing first class infrastructure fit only for an industrial town like Nnewi so that as people strive to create wealth in pursuit of happiness, businesses and people can co-exist conveniently in this land of creativity and enterprise. This may well be the greatest birthday gift that the government could give to Igwe Orizu, a great man of peace with abiding faith in God, community and country.
His Majesty’s message to his people on this special occasion of Ofala and birthday? “Udo, udo, udo,” he prayed. “Ebe udo adiro, oganiru agaghi adi (peace…without peace there can’t be progress). That is my message to people of Nnewi.”And we chorused ‘Igweeee!’