Protégé of the late Gani Fawehinmi and President Muhammadu Buhari’s loyalist, Barrister Emmanuel Umohinyang is the convener of Re-elect Buhari Movement (RBM) and the President, Centre for Leadership and Justice. In this interview by SEGUN KASALI, he tells an emotive grass-to-grace story.
HOW challenging was growing up?
Growing up was very challenging, especially coming from the background of parents who were at the bottom of the ladder. You had to struggle to get to school and settling your school fees. At age 10, I lost my parents. So, taking off from there wasn’t easy when one looks at the family of eight and one is number three in line. So, one has a lot of responsibilities on one’s shoulders. Talking about struggling through secondary school and the university, and then coming out to face the reality of today’s world; it has not been easy.
How tough was it after the demise of your parents?
It was so bad, especially when one relied on family members’ support and woke up one morning to discover the pillar of support had been taken away by death. It wasn’t easy because we (children) did all manner of menial jobs. There was nothing we didn’t put on our head to sell in the market. In some cases, we had to go and buy bitter leaf and take it to the market and then come back and pay the owners. The profit was what we relied on to survive.
We also carried blocks on our heads and did menial jobs at construction sites. These were some of the things we did while we were in Calabar. We did that just to make ends meet and this was to generate income for feeding basically and then struggle to see that schooling continued.
In fact, I think that was in SSS 2; I had to approach one of my uncles who is now late. He was very wealthy so to say then, and I needed his assistance to offset my school fees. He continued to tell me ‘come today,’ ‘come tomorrow.’ I was going to his office almost every day. The school, at a point, had to tell me to stop coming because everyday excuses were no longer tenable.
On one occasion, I remember I went and he told me “young man! look! Is it not good you learn to be an auto mechanic instead of wasting your time in school?” I was surprised he was willing to give me N3,000 to be an apprentice mechanic, when all I needed from him was just N520. After that episode, I continued to appeal to him, and on another occasion, I remember going to his office and I sighted him but he didn’t know I had seen him.
So, by the time he saw me, he ran into his office. He left his beer, car key and two of his friends who sat down together drinking beer. He told the secretary to tell me he was not around. It was from there I said there was no need for me to continue on this trajectory. I had to go into all manner of menial jobs.
Were the proceeds enough to take care of your needs?
Yes, because that was all I needed to do then. But, I remember that I left school at a point in time because I couldn’t focus. These jobs were done in the morning and classes too were in the morning. So, there was a conflict of time. I therefore needed to stay off school for a period of time but I was reading at night and getting in touch with my colleagues at school. Some of them were very helpful with their notebooks. They would guide me on what they were taught. I was able to raise money to offset my school fees.
What about the shame of dropping out before returning to school?
School then was not as easy as one would think now because some of the challenges bordered on settling school fees. I can also recall that from my JSS 1 to SSS 2, I was walking barefooted to school because I was looking for school fees, not money for sandals. So, one needed to first and foremost pay the school fees in order to have access to the classroom and also enjoy the benefits others are enjoying.
Even the pair of knickers I wore when I joined the school in JSS 1 got torn, but I was still using it in SSS 2 because I just struggled to raise school fees and there was no money left for me to buy sandals or sew another uniform. Even for the exercise books, I had to buy forty or sixty leaves and divide them into three for different notes.
This uncertainty about school attendance must have hindered your academic performance.
Not at all, and I think that is where God played a critical role. Why I said so is that I had friends who were willing to go the extra mile for me when it comes to giving me materials mostly for those period that I was off school. There were friends whom whenever the school closed, they would come to my house to share with me what they were taught. So, by weekend, they would give me their notebooks to copy.
Even when we were about writing our WAEC exams, there were various lessons organised by different teachers in school. And this was somebody who had just struggled to pay his N520 school fees and now talking about looking for money for extra lessons. So, most times, at the extra mural classes, the coordinator would have to chase me out or I would run into a cassava farm nearby to listen to the lecture, because all I needed was the audio. I just had to make do with where the situation placed me then.
You must have been given a nickname at that time…
Why? What does it mean?
I got the nickname at the peak of these problems. It is translated as ‘what have I done’? You know coming to this world with so much expectations, only to be faced with things you never bargained for. So, it was a tedious journey to where we are today.
Would you say your parents’ death accounted for these challenges?
You know at times, I thank God that I lost my parents then, as unfortunate as that may sound. This is because I discovered that their death energised me at an early age to rise and be a man even when I was still a boy. The tribulation I went through in life keeps my faith in God. And the most beautiful thing in all these is that despite all the challenges I went through, I did not go off the path. I maintained my focus and relationship with God.
My father was a soldier and so, we lived a spartan lifestyle. He was very strict. My mum too was a disciplinarian. She was a petty trader. My dad taught us as if they knew they were going to die much earlier. We were given all the parental training we needed.
That it is against God’s law and government’s law to steal. In fact, I remember a case when I was in primary school when we had inter-house sports competition. I took part in the competition and won. I was given a plastic container and a packet of pencils. I was so happy rushing home to show my parents what I got. But when I got home, my father started beating me without him first asking where I got them from. I was beaten black and blue (laughs), as he kept saying ‘Did I not tell you not to pick what is not yours’? In fact, it took the intervention of the headmistress then.
She was coming to the house to congratulate my father with the certificate I was given as a result of my participation only for her to meet me in deep agony. After hearing the story, she had to tell him what happened; that I won those items as prizes. My father later begged me, but he still reminded me to stay with the advice not to go close to what isn’t your own and not receiving things from strangers. These are some of the things we were brought up with.
But how did you cope with the barracks lifestyle?
We lived a Spartan lifestyle even in the barracks. Our house was fenced round. We couldn’t go out. So, we rarely associated with people because my father was also careful. You know what a barracks is. It breeds corruption, indecency and immorality. So, we were properly checkmated by our parents. Whenever we were back from school, it was either we would be reading or be in the kitchen helping our mum for dinner in most cases. So, he did not give us the privilege of associating so much with other soldier’s children.
What are your unforgettable memories?
That will be while I was in secondary school because that was when I knew there was darkness at noon. It was then I knew that my hope in my relations was a disaster because when my parents died I had so much hope in my relatives that they would assist me based on their promises. But the event that really struck me was the desire of my uncle to give me N3,000 to be a roadside mechanic instead of N520 to pursue my dream. I am still wowed by that event but was salvaged by my friends who gave me a brand new uniform, a shirt and a pair of sandals. That was the greatest surprise I ever received in life when you consider these were also students.
They were Akanimo, Effiong James, Mercy Ebong, Udoh, Emem Lucky and we had a man who played that fatherly role but he is late now. These were the people who gave me the best and most surprising gifts I ever received in life. They were able to do what my uncle could not do.
Were you able to see your uncle after God changed your story?
Unfortunately if he could speak today, it would be from the grave. But one thing I have done in respect of that is ‘don’t have regrets when people fail you.’ You should know that if God did not design them to help you, they will not help you. So, the best is to forgive since the Lord has shown you His blessings.
When did your rag story end?
It was when I came to Lagos. I see my coming to Lagos as God’s plan and design. I left Calabar after my secondary education and got admission into the University of Lagos. So, I came to Lagos by road and I got to Ojuelegba. Meanwhile, I didn’t know anybody. But, before then, I had heard some of my cousins, about six of them, were in Lagos. So, I went to them after I wrote my JAMB that I chose University of Lagos and they were happy and told me not to worry. I pleaded with them that the assistance I needed from them was accommodation and they said no problem.
But, when the result came out, I started calling them and they were not there. So, when I was coming to Lagos, interesting things happened inside the bus because people were praising God, singing, discussing and at a point I told myself that all these people inside the bus had addresses they were going to, but I was a man without an address. So, when I got to Ojuelegba, I decided to remain at the back while their families were coming to pick them until it was dawn.
In the morning, I just heard Oshodi! Oshodi! and I jumped into a bus. In fact, that was the first time I saw people jump in and out of a bus (laughs). So, I told the conductor I was going to Oshodi. When we got to Oshodi I didn’t know but I saw people jumping down from the bus. So, they drove me up to Mile 2. It was when the bus drove me into the Mile 2 garage that I now asked the driver if we were at Oshodi. He said no, were at Mile 2, that we had passed Oshodi. He told me to cross the road to the other side and take a bus back to Oshodi. He then asked me where I planned to stop at Oshodi and I said he should mention places in Oshodi (laughs).
He said there is Charity Bus Stop. So, I said okay I would stop at Charity Bus Stop. I now asked him for the fare because I had just N5 left, he said N10 and in his kindness he brought out N5 from his takings, gave it to me and told the conductor to take me to the bus and instruct the driver to drop me at Charity Bus Stop.
What happened at Charity?
At Charity Bus Stop, I had no place to go. I looked round. It was a city that does not go to sleep. So, I saw the shoe mender that was sitting at the Army Resettlement Barracks and I sat beside him under the bridge. I pretended I was waiting for somebody. So when the man left, I slept under the bridge and spent a period of three years under that bridge. I still have the pictures of this event. It was then I started tracing my route to the University of Lagos. I would have to trek from Oshodi, use direction from people to Yaba and from Yaba to University road. I found my way to the place, ran those processes and returned in the same vein.
At a point I thought I might end up a dropout so I joined a car wash business and the number of cars washed would decide the earning. I tried washing as many cars as possible so I could raise enough money to go to school. I had three different menial jobs. There was a restaurant too around Oshodi road. When they finished in the night, I would wash plates from around 9 pm to about 1am. So, the remnants of food they had they would give me with a small pay and that was how I was surviving. At a point, it became a challenge because the restaurant wasn’t opening on Sundays. So, I had to rely on fried akara and yam in the evening for my meal.
How tough was living under the bridge for three years?
One thing I discovered was that even while I went through those things, God was still there for me. This is because on one occasion, police from Mushin were chasing armed robbers all the way from Ladipo area towards BOC Gas. I think they lost track of those robbers. So, when they were coming back, I was sleeping and it was raining. I thank that DPO who led that operation because if he was not a patient person who knows what would have happened? Maybe I would have been labelled an armed robber.
So, they pointed torchlight at me. I woke up and explained myself, brought out my ID card, showed them my letter of admission. He then asked why I had to stay under the bridge and I told him my story. He took me to his office in Mushin where he kept me and I think that was the first time I would sleep in a place with a roof for a week. The man’s wife would bring food and kola for him and me. But these didn’t last. It was just for a week and the man was posted out of Lagos.
Where did you go from there?
I had to go under the bridge again. So, while I was in that place, I saw a young man by name Ene, whom my father assisted to join the army. He was serving in that same barracks where I was sleeping under the bridge. When I saw him, it was as if I had seen an angel. But that is also a lesson that God who is ordering your footsteps knows who He will channel to you for help. When I saw the young man, I shed tears of joy and I was so happy thinking that at last this challenge of accommodation was over. He took me in and I slept again under a roof for the second time and that lasted for 10 days.
Because thereafter I had a piggy bank where every small money I made from my menial jobs was kept in preparation for school. So, one day I came back and met the piggy bank damaged and the money stolen. I now saw a letter where he wrote, “Sorry, I took the money and I am on my way to Calabar and promise to refund it when I come back.” Well, that was okay. After month end and I approached him for repayment, he drove me out of his house and said the money was for the rent of the ten days I spent in his house. But the luck I had was that the next door neighbour whose children I was teaching free in the compound said I could be coming to sleep in his living room.
I did that for three days before he went and reported the neighbour to the authorities that the man was harbouring a stranger in his house and collecting money. So, the neighbour called me and told me what her friend did and due to that, the military authorities had called to tell him to send me out. But he advised that instead of going back under the bridge, I should go to a place called D Company where soldiers were undergoing retirement courses. So, I went there and stayed there for about two nights. The same young man got the military police in the barracks drunk and asked them to beat me and I was beaten black and blue before they threw me out of the barracks.
For about three weeks, I couldn’t recover because I went to the hospital I could afford. Thereafter, I went back under the bridge. Fortunately, another incident happened. His elder brother whose business had crumbled in Calabar came to Lagos to seek his help, but he refused to help him. While there, I also loaned the brother some money which he never paid back. In fact, anytime he came to Lagos after taking the loan to restart his business, he would make sure I didn’t get to see him.
And you never thought of getting your own accommodation?
Although I had an option of saying let me go and get a room but the question was, did I have the capacity to sustain it? So, I considered myself not worthy of getting any apartment until I ran into one of my cousins who gave a promise in the village to accommodate me. When I saw him, it was also a glorious thing for me. He was working in an insurance company. He saw me at Marina one day; he was shocked and took me to his house in Oworonshoki. Thereafter, he told me to come back on Sunday when his brother would be around. So I trekked from Oshodi to Oworonshoki. When I got there and told them a lot of things, especially how mosquitoes had dealt with me under the bridge where I was sleeping, they said I should wait outside for them to deliberate. Later, they gave me a hundred and twenty naira (N120) and told me that was what they could do for me. But they didn’t oblige me the accommodation request. So, I had to go under the bridge again and I didn’t spend that N120. In fact the last time I met them when they came to visit me, they were all shedding tears in regret of what they did to me.
What eventually happened to your UNILAG admission?
I was not able to make payment anymore. So, I forfeited the admission. I later went to Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife. I also went to UI [University of Ibadan] all in an attempt to find out the school with affordable fees. By the time I went round, I still settled for UNILAG, considering all factors. So, I wrote the exams the second time and this time money was not necessarily a challenge because all I was saving for was for that purpose. I also discovered that after I returned from school, my things were missing.
On an occasion, I went to buy fried akara in the evening and it was one of my Geography notebooks they used to wrap the akara (laughs). I finished eating the akara and I was looking at the paper. I was reading it and it was flowing. I now went round and I saw that it was my handwriting. It was like a dream. I went back to check for my Geography notebook and I discovered it was not there (laughs). I eventually studied Political Science at UNILAG.
How did the turnaround happen?
It started when I met with the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi. I was writing articles and sending them to media houses and they were published. My good friend, Azubuike in Punch was very helpful. One day, I saw an advert that Gani was employing and I went. Fortunately, I had a one-on-one [chat] with Chief (Gani). I was employed. And it was from there he set up the famous Gani Fawehinmi Library and Gani Fawehinmi Biographical Centre was born. I cannot forget it. Gani saw to my well-being. My first accommodation in Lagos was made possible by Gani Fawehinmi.
Not only did he give me loan to get an apartment: he showed empathy not minding the tribe I belong to. He gave me loan despite the fact that I was very young. Gani gave me hope that was deprived by my cousins. Gani made it possible for me to rent an apartment. They were to be deducting it from my salary and the first two months, he came one morning and told them to wipe it off and it was wiped off. He went further to encourage me to read law. He gave me all the platforms to succeed and the resources to pursue the programme. He used to call me pastor then. He gave us that encouragement to enable us to challenge things that are not right in the society and we learnt a whole lot from the Fawehinmi of this world.
The additional upbringing came from Gani and we learnt that we must stand up for what is right even if it means standing alone because we will be vindicated at the end. So, Gani was not just the head of the Chambers, he was also a teacher. He was an adviser. He was what I always referred to as Counsellor-General. He was always there to give support mostly when it had to do with the poor. His passion for the poor was one of the things that drive my scholarship. I still remember when adverts would be placed for indigent students to come to Gani’s Chambers for scholarship on a yearly basis. I do not think Nigeria, even in the next century, will be able to have a man like that.
How did you meet your wife?
A man that is looking for daily bread does not think about a woman (laughs). In fact, women were far away from my plans and programmes. Even having a girlfriend; I had no business with that. My father used to tell us then that when you are in poverty, women will reject you. But, if you are in wealth, women will look for you. It was when I had a roof over my head that I began to moot the idea of marriage. But I was also not too lucky because the first lady I had as a friend came to me one day and said, “I cannot marry a man who lives in one room.” She said it was not her portion so she left. One day, I went to a colleague’s chambers at Anthony. I stepped out of his office to get a bottle of water. On getting there, I saw a damsel also coming in to buy something. Then, I turned and looked at her and the rapid connection was furious. When she left, I had to make inquiry about her from the sales representative who told me where she worked in the neighbourhood.
I went to my colleague discussing about her and it happened that he knew her. So, I asked him what he knew about her. He said she was a good girl but he didn’t think she would be my taste. He was trying to discourage me. I told him how do you mean? Who is talking about taste? God who led me from the murky waters can raise anyone. So, I side-tracked my friend who wasn’t encouraging me and approached the lady. She responded politely and I saw the divine connection. And then, we set out for a date. And the first date wasn’t pleasant at all.
Because I am a man of few words. I just got there and said look ‘I love you and I want you to be my wife.’ And she said ‘no.’ That is women’s style of saying ‘keep on pushing.’ So, I continued to call her and she would visit me. I kept appealing to her but she continued to tell me ‘no.’ At a point, it became very irritating but the deepest side of me was saying ‘go and see her, go and check her.’ One thing led to the other and she gave me her consent.
After years of marriage, anything she wants you to stop doing?
Getting angry easily.
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