He is restively ingenious, irretrievably obsessed with machines and puts his life savings on them. The greatest surprise is that this lawyer and environmental rights activist is a master of all the highly specialised machines in his innovative mechanical engineering hub, a fulfilment of his childhood ambition before he capitulated to his mother’s wish to study law. Azibaola Roberts, Chairman of Abuja-based Kakatar Construction Engineering, has proved to be a man of many parts with a finger in almost all pies of human endeavours. He shares the story of his life with Ahamefula Ogbu, emphasising his desire to leave a lasting technological legacy that would free Nigeria from the dependency on foreign products…excerpts
What was your childhood experience growing up?
Well, I come from a polygamous home and my upbringing was not a very pleasant one when it comes to conflict of marriages and I was brought up by a single mother, a separated mother and there were challenges in bringing us up and at a time I didn’t know that I was going to be a graduate or even attend primary and secondary school but I am here, I attended primary, secondary and I went to the university to read law. It was not a very pleasant thing, that memory of my childhood still lingers in my brain up till today and that is why I try to do things differently and I try not to give the same memory to my kids especially when it comes to marriage of more than one wife.
What indelible experience of your childhood can you remember?
I experienced the pangs of hunger that was so devastating that it will sometimes lead you to a state of coma and when you see a child who has not eaten for like two days, three days, a sip of garri would be like going to the biggest restaurant in the world; then you will know what it means to come from a family that was broken. I learnt a lot from my maternal grandfather who took me on fishing voyages. He was also was a canoe carver and a great medicine man. I think that some of my intuitive reasoning and values today were inculcated in me by that great man. So I am really so grateful to him for putting me through some of the rudiments of life.
Coming from such background, did you desire to be a lawyer, scientist or just to take life as it comes?
Nobody ever thought that I would be a lawyer up till the time I left secondary school. Nobody thought I was going to be a graduate, I was not the brightest of kids in primary school but I was the brightest of kids in my secondary school and in that secondary school level, yes, people knew that I was bright and had a future but how would I have managed to go to school was still a question that remains unanswered because there was nobody who was responsible for my education at that stage who had the capacity to do it except my mom who was in a menial job and had little or nothing to train someone to university.
That would mean that as a child you were preoccupied by how to feed and not even thinking of receiving gifts like other children?
No, I never received any gift and never knew what Christmas is all about. I know that the first time I wore a Christmas cloth was when I was almost like eight years old, consciously for the first time I knew I had Christmas cloth and even that Christmas cloth, I wore it far ahead of Christmas because I didn’t really know when Christmas was. So probably I wore it far head like in November thinking that Christmas was the next day or two days and I walked round the community, I and my little brother , Faith, we walked round the community with that Christmas cloth and everybody made mockery of us but the old people were praising us but deep down, they knew we wore the Christmas cloth earlier than usual probably because it was the first time. Shoe and shirts were scarce commodities. If you read my Facebook (Meta) posts you will see we tie akamba, a native cloth. That cloth was a sleeping cloth and it was for play and the same cloth that you use for everything and I wore pants the first time probably around four or six years and I still remember it was a pant sown from salt bag by my mom. So, when you say Dolly Parton sang the song, coat of many colours, she had a coat of many colours but I had a coat of salt bag.
What has been the most painful experience in your life?
I lost my mom and it still pains me up till today. She was my hero, she fought for me and she was everything to me and she would prefer to die than for me to die and she left by accident. The most painful thing was that I was unable to pinpoint the person that killed her by accident because he ran away and the police was unable to apprehend the person; so that was the most painful thing that has happened to me.
When you look at life from where you are coming from and where you are today, what would you say is the happiest moment of your life?
The happiest moment in my life was probably when I graduated and got my degree as a lawyer and was called to the Bar. I was excited and very happy about it because it was a dream I never had and it came to reality and then probably when Goodluck Jonathan became President of Nigeria. It was difficult to imagine that a minority from a minority of a minority would one day become the President of Nigeria.
How did your mom react when you qualified as a lawyer?
She was overwhelmed by the fact that I became a lawyer because she actually desired that I become a lawyer, it was not my making I just followed her way. She was like you must go to the university and I really wanted to be a carpenter and she wanted me to go to the university and anytime I say I want to become a carpenter she will rebuke me. It came to a point it was like okay can we do a ballot, among the courses you can read which one will you read and it was my mom that chose law because the ballot was between Medicine, Law and Engineering. Papers were folded and thrown on the floor and my mom chose law and I obeyed her and I went to read law but I knew that the Law will not take me to where I wanted to go.
Trace the transition from human rights and environmental activist to a lawyer and now Precision Engineer?
Well, there was no transition actually; both of them were passions that I held dear as a youth. I was in secondary school and majorly a science student up to my WAEC and the only thing that made me not to read engineering or medicine is because my Chemistry was seized when I finished in 1987 and then the combination had an issue because you cannot do any science course without Chemistry and then my mother was agitating for me to enter into the university by all means and the only way of pleasing her was study anything my credit would allow me and that was Law; so I read law as a way of making my mom happy but my passion was in engineering and sciences.
I remember when I left secondary school, I was still seeking for scholarships to places like Ukraine and Russia to read Aeronautic engineering or any of those courses that has to do with that, so I was a very good science student; I think if I am not being immodest, I was the best of the best science student. Talk about Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Statistics and Additional Mathematics and then when men were men, I had so many girls who wanted to fall in love with me because I was brainy in the sciences and you know when you can calculate and solve mathematical equations, you will surely have several people who will fall along with you. I was a child then and I really didn’t know but if it was now, probably I would have been very rich in women.
Seeing the quality of machines here and how much they would, cost means you are not lacking and these women that use to flock around you because of your intelligence are flocking more now due to money. How do you manage the traffic?
No, you cannot compare that now… you know recently, last month I was given a chieftaincy title as Dikeogu 1 of Etche, and in that ceremony, I was told that I was entitled to 17 wives but there and then I told them that when it comes to the women I will not do but when it comes to the other social requirements I will gladly help. First of all, I came from a polygamous home and I know how challenging it is and I do not want to disappoint my mother, she warned me against it. One of the things I hold dear is the voice of my mom that please do not engage yourself in polygamy. In any case, my passion keep me away from anything that is socially inclined and I am really somehow anti-social, I don’t do parties, club, I don’t do political appearances or discussions or engagements. I don’t have many friends and in fact, I don’t visit a lot. I even find it difficult to visit myself; at times when I have more than one room in the house, I find it difficult to visit the next room because I can stay up to one year in the house without visiting the other room and that’s bad attribute for me but it helps that I don’t do some of those things including smoking and drinking.
Probably, I’ve not tasted alcohol for about 40 years or more now; I tasted alcohol when I was a child. I have not smoked since I was in primary six when I tasted it, so those are some of the things that are no go areas for me. You must dissipate energy and that energy I dissipate it in trying to solve issues that has to do with our communities and our country, so I do what a lot of people think is impossible to do, those are the things I think about.
Now coming back to precision engineering, what do you aim to achieve with that effort?
This is not a venture for economic gains but it is actually a venture of passion and you know ventures of passion are more fruitful and leaves a lasting legacy so I aim to achieve to revolutionalise mechanical engineering especially in Nigeria, to be able to create the things a lot of us think is impossible to create and also to advance technology for my country. I have already told you that I cannot do politics, I don’t like the game and I am not made for the game so I cannot be a political figure but I can leave a legacy that can last me for 200 to 300 years or more after I might have left the earth and that’s what everybody is craving for. I have looked round and I am of the opinion that it is in few cases where people hold political office that left legacies that last 50 years but you can be an inventor and make a little thing that will leave your name in the sands of time for the rest of humanity.
For instance, you cannot compare a President with the person who invented a light bulb; you cannot compare the President of even United States with the person who invented electricity and those who went to the moon and came back so there are several ways of leaving legacies but unfortunately in our own environment we have this mental belief that except you hold a political position where you direct how public funds are spent, that you are not leaving or impacting on rest of society. I can stay here and make the first Nigerian car, make the first excavator for Nigeria, make the first bulldozer for Nigeria and in fact I even could possibly in the next 20 years make the first rocket that Nigeria could launch to the moon and then I would have left my name in the sands of time more than a president would have left; so it is not about money or political patronage, it is about what are you looking at, what are you aiming at in the next 20 or 30 years and for me I think in decades I don’t think in four or five years.
What informed your location?
Well, I have been bombarded by my people, I come from Bayelsa in the Niger Delta and there have been protests that why did I set up factory in Abuja instead of setting up in the Niger Delta and my answer is that you don’t set up a factory on the basis of sympathy; you don’t go and set up a factory because I sympathise with my people and I give them jobs and at the end of the day the factory will die. You don’t set up a factory, especially business of passion; when you set up a business of passion you must set it up where you will be able to go and manage it by yourself. I am living in Abuja and it is easier to wake up and come here; so going to Lagos or Port Harcourt which though coastal areas have their advantages because most of the metals you bring in you can offload and send to location; Abuja is far flung but then Abuja is the center of Nigeria and it is the pride of Nigeria.
How did you meet your wife?
My wife met me. She heard about my little intelligence then in sciences and in any case, when I was in secondary school I was the Laboratory prefect of the school so I could teach two classes ahead of me; in fact I was in class three and I was able to teach class five mathematics so I was always studying the syllabus ahead so I had this little fame around the area that there was this boy who was proficient in mathematics and sciences and she desired to meet me and then the first time I met her was when I had become a university student, we met and fell in love and we got married. I don’t know who said I love you and all those but we got married.
What legacy would you want to leave?
I really want to advance Nigeria technologically and to create thousands of jobs by my activities. I really would want to see that I’m able to build something that will serve as a catalyst to the next generation of Nigerians to say if a lawyer could do it we can also do it. If I’m able to do that I won’t care how much money comes from it because money doesn’t leave a legacy, I’ve not heard in history where they teach people on the basis of money they have; people are taught on the basis of the creative abilities they have. I look around and see the billionaires across the world the Bill Gates, Elon Musk who is trying to go to the moon that is his legacy, they are not looking at the richest person in the world, and tomorrow someone else will be richer than you. I don’t want to leave a legacy that I own the biggest hotel in Abuja, tomorrow someone will build something bigger, I don’t want to leave a legacy that I have five private jets in 10, 20 30 years those your private jets will become things of the past and don’t leave a legacy, such don’t give me pleasure, I look at those things that will endure, that people will say this man started it and we took it further.
Any word for the Nigerian youth?
Yes, I think that the Nigerian youth need to change their orientation. We are too political. I am not saying they should not participate in politics but they have to be more creative in the way that they do things. I give you one instance, each time I look at the social media I am sad about it because it is possible that we are the most active social media users in the world but we are the most unproductive social media users in the world as well because you hardly see a Nigerian who is in a garage trying to make a kettle or something, filming it and posting it on the social media. You can hardly see someone knitting or doing painting and filming and sending it on social media. Most of those thing we watch and 90 per cent of what we watch about creativity comes from abroad and it is a negative story about us. I think the youths, those who read sciences for example should not really wait for someone to employ you. You can start from your garage, do something and start to create things, use your social media to create things instead of to use it to gossip.
Where can you be caught on the wrong side of life in terms of enjoyment?
I overindulge myself in solitary confinement and I’m very guilty about that so when you have programmes, invitation for parties, I hardly find time to go and it is a negative side.
As a traditional title holder who hearkens to the yearnings of his subjects, assuming you are asked to go for a political office by your people what will be your response?
Which offices are you talking about because the only office that can attract me is the president of Nigeria and my brother has become the president of Nigeria and the chances of giving another person from the same family is remote.
The Bush family did it in America and you can replicate it here…
Yes but this is Nigeria. Goodluck Jonathan ascended to be the President of Nigeria not because he was the best but because but the opportunity came as a minority and it is difficult to have another minority of the minority to rule this country.
What is your dress sense like, do you wear designers?
I use to wear lots of good suits but now it is becoming difficult wearing them so I am now better off on jeans and T shirts with my cap. I use to wear Pazzoleri from Italy but at a time I feel like if I have an alternative in Nigeria as a conglomerate not individuals, then I can say yes but I am looking forward to getting shoes and suits from the East once it is made well
What’s the costliest life possession you have?
I don’t have much possessions but I have plenty machines. In any case I don’t have properties but I have companies that have properties. I am the owner of Kakatar, I have shares in Kakata but I can’t say the caterpillars in Kakata are mine they are separate. Zeetin owns this land and I can’t say they belong to me I have shares in my companies but when it comes to physical properties, I don’t have.
Source: THISDAY Newspaper.
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