Raphael Anowe Agbogu, businessman, pastor and chairman, Sovereign Gate International Limited, is the national Public Relations Officer of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents. He told his life story to TUNDE ADELEKE.
WHO is Raphael Agbogu?
My name is Raphael Anowe Agbogu. I was born in Ogidi in Idemilli, now Idemilli North Local Government Area of Anambra State. I had part of my primary education in Ogidi and then finished it in Enugu. I belong to a family of nine and second to the last child of my parents. Due to the ugly experiences of the Civil War where I lost my father, we were the only ones left with my mother who herself struggled as a widow to take care of seven children.
How was the experience growing up?
It wasn’t a pleasant experience. However, it made us to embrace life, the realities of life and to work hard. Despite being a widow, she set target for us based on most things our father would have done because she said she had a covenant with my father that she must bring us up with very good background. So we tried, our fall back was menial jobs. We would fetch water and go to farm in those days. But there was one mystery in the whole thing, the harder our experience, the more things were more difficult and the stronger our bond became. At the time of school fees, we would pay for the first three, some of us would go to school, we would be driven out of school over fees. But we kept working hard. There was one covenant we had with God that none of us would die young. We are all alive today except mum who has gone.
You appear to have deep feelings for her
I have. She died at the age of 84. I have done several things. There was the agreement that once you get to school certificate level, you are on your own; but the minimum you must attempt was school certificate. For all of us, then you can be on your own, but the basic foundation is school certificate for all of us.
Did you stop at school certificate level?
Along with my immediate younger brother, we were admitted into Orauku High School and we spent five years there. When I left there, I went to the Federal School of Arts and Science, Ogoja, from where I gained admission into the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, to study Mass Communication. I started my career with Satellite Group of Newspapers in Enugu. From there, I was employed by African Insurance Company. Later, I was employed by Transport Company of Anambra State (TRACAS). I was one of the pioneer members of staff. It later became Anambra Motor Manufacturing Company (ANAMMCO). I was made a supervisor; then, it was called routes development officer. So, we drew the maps, we developed routes. I became sad the day I collected my first salary then, because the moment I sent money to my mother and did a few other things, the money would have gone! I always wanted to venture into business. So, I left TRACAS and established my own trading business in Nnewi. But Nnewi was not conducive for a beginner as there was much competition.
What option was then left?
Unknown to me that destiny was playing its part, I headed for Lagos. One of my school mates was in Lagos and I decided to come and meet him. But he was to travel outside the country the day I arrived Lagos. He travelled to France and couldn’t come back again. So, I was stranded and began to look for ways to go back to the East. It was then I ran into another classmate friend of mine who took me to Tin Can. At that time, things were very bad. But by divine direction and design, I met a man who took me in and I became an apprentice in his office. So, I became a trainee and administrative officer. And from there, we were moving and Lagos has always been a centre of excellence. I stayed and I had to go through the four-year training and somehow, along the line, I was employed.
So, how has it been now that you’re on your own?
It has not been easy, but one thing about life is that I have always believed in slow and steady because slow and steady, they say, win the race. I have seen many people whose hands were burnt. So, with the experience I have got with my background, my beginning, my upbringing, it’s better to take it easy. At a stage, I said I still needed to look more into the books. I went to a theological college. I was a pastor in a ministry until I came back to my business. Today, I am the National Public Relations Officer of National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents, an association I love with a passion because it’s a bridge builder. Initially, I saw clearing as gambling, a job for people without hope; but I later I saw that this is a profession. The basic essence of life is service, service to humanity. Now, we can serve people in whatever capacity, people coming to seek advice, consultation. A lot of people have issues with their cargo, they come to us and get help, solution and that’s the real essence of life. There are a lot of consignments in the ports that are handled with wrong approach, carelessness, recklessness. So, it makes us to go deeper into the books, go through certain orientation, training, which I received batch by batch. Today, I have this office. We didn’t have it before, we just roamed about. But today, we have channels, we have focus, participating in building and nurturing the economy.
You mentioned your classmate friend who housed you. What’s the name and how was your experience living together?
It was a very awesome experience. My friend was a squatter. He’s Kenneth Anunobi; his grandmother was our landlady in Enugu in those days. So, we were all belong to the same age group. During that time, Ken was an exporter, he was in a one-room apartment inside Ajegunle and one night, the owner of the room did not allow us in. That room had no window, it was very stinking, but the owner was very proud of it. We had to beg befor he could allow us in. So, early in the morning, they would wake me up to go and fetch water. Ken would follow me to the tap and I discovered that he was under pressure because of my presence. At that point, I had to leave. During the few days that I came to Tin Can with him, I met a friend, from my home town who did not know was in Lagos. I told him my experience and he now took me to Wilmer. It was a one-room apartment, but I had to live with them.
What about your experience at Wilmer?
At this point, my experience didn’t matter to me because I saw myself as being between the devil and the deep blue sea. So, there was a woman that was operating a joint. Most times, I slept there, packed chairs and slept. In the morning, I would soak a handkerchief in water, clean my face and head to Tin Can. So, I was lucky when I met my mentor, my elder brother’s friend, he was then second-in-command to the AIG, Zone 2. He had some consignments for clearance. Before then, everybody saw me as a miscreant in Tin Can because I didn’t have an office; the one I tried to come into, the owners refused. One important thing was that I was being mindful of friends. I know where I came from, my mother would not forgive me if I did anything stupid. One thing I told God, if I went through this experience in Lagos, one thing I will do to appreciate is to accommodate people.
What philosophy of life drives you?
My philosophy of life is diligence and hard work. I have told you a little about my background. We started very early, as early as six or seven years, going to the farm. At that time, we would go to the farm at 4:00 a.m. with my mother. Around 7:00am, we would leave the farm to prepare for school and we would leave the school to go back and meet her in the farm. My mother had one secret, she often started her farming during dry season planting vegetables and tomato. So, we would go early in the morning, start planting and in the evening, go to the nearby stream to get water for those things. She would start mid-November, and by first and second week of December, they would be due for harvest. Then, if you were building, we would come and fetch water. If you go to my village, there is no building that was built there between 1978 and 1981 that I didn’t work there. That was how I sustained myself in the secondary school. That’s where I learnt the lesson of determination. You can be whatever you want to be with God on your side. That’s the thing I do here. There’s no day we don’t go into worship. Before we close, we pray together because my staff are not working for me, they are working with me. If you’re working for me, I see you as a mere labour, but if you are working with me, I see you as a stakeholder.
How and where did you meet your wife?
A man’s journey in life starts with marriage. My blessing started when I met my wife in 1996. I went to a function in FESTAC Town. I wasn’t willing to go because at that particular period, I was low in spirit, I didn’t have any money, but my cousin I was staying with insisted we should go together. So, we went and I met her. She came with her aunt to the same event. When I was trying to approach her, the aunt became nasty, but the driving force I had said I should go ahead. There was no phone then, I wrote my address, gave her and I forgot about the whole thing. Two weeks after, she came to my house at Okota. It was raining one Saturday morning. She was on the balcony, knocking. I opened the door, she came in, we discussed. I later saw her off. About one month after, she came and I proposed to her. She was 18 then, she’s from Umuahia. I later went to see her father and the man was laughing. He is a cleric. I told him my mission, he gave me a note and I came back to Lagos. I also went to tell my mother and she was laughing. She gave me the go-ahead. Then she was in school. To the glory of God, we now have children.
How is your social life?
I am a very good sportsman. In the school, I was a goalkeeper and a sprinter. In those days, we had provinces. In Onitsha Province, I was the best in 200 metres and 400 metres, but as we grew, we dropped all these things. My main hobby now is playing lawn tennis. With the pressure of work, I no longer have time. I also like meeting people. That’s the only area you nurture your intelligence, your knowledge.
How do you relax?
If you look behind you, you see my shelf. I read a lot. I can read in the bed, but I choose the books that I read. A book is a permanent knowledge. Some are inspirational and some professional. Of course, I like music.
If you meet someone in the kind of condition you found yourself when you came to Lagos, what are you likely to tell him or her?
At the risk of sounding immodest, there are certain things I tell people. If you can look at and learn from me, God has used me for certain ends. I have had several experiences, that’s why part of the gift God gave me is counselling. I have not seen anybody who comes to me and I don’t solve his problems. Most of the things are emotional, sentimental things. But you have to come to the basics, you understand every situation has a reason. Once you know the reason, you come into it and solve it. But the problem is that people build their castle in the air and when it collapses, it crashes on earth. But start building on the earth and begin to look into the sky. Most things people consider as problems are due to deception. If you don’t tell yourself the truth, nobody will tell you.
What events of your life, both ugly and pleasant, would you count as unforgettable?
The beauty of the whole thing is that I have several pleasant and ugly experiences in business, life and others. The only hard knock I have had in my life was the day my mother died.
But you said she died at 84?
Yes, but I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t feel her and she needed me. She was calling, but I was sick and they didn’t want to let her know that I was sick and she was calling and the thing happened. So, when I had to go and see her in the mortuary, I was just looking. I felt bad and remembered how we started and I knew we would never see her again. Another day I will never forget was the day I had my first child. It was very hard, my wife couldn’t go for ante-natal because there was no money. Even the day she was in labour, I came to work, but at the end of the day, she delivered safely and it was a boy. That was the day I will never forget in my life. I couldn’t believe. It was God. That’s the day I can say I have really come into the world.