I met Orji Uzor in the line of journalism duty. It was in 2000 he had just spent a year as Governor of Abia State.
It must have been around May because he was on a media tour to market his one year achievements.
He was a hot media property then, one of the youngest governors, the most controversial, was still yummy with President Obasanjo and enjoying the sobriquet “Action Governor” bestowed on him by Baba himself, based on his massive road interventions at that time.
I was moderating a special live interview programme on Africa Independent Television (AIT) designed for visiting personalities with three other colleagues of mine completing the panel.
Just before we went on air we shared the questions among us, with the burden of being moderator I was left with the “hard” questions that dug into some of the controversies swirling around him.
Why did he claim he was a graduate of University of Maiduguri when indeed he was not? Was he not a fraudster if he would make a public donation in “cash” only for half of the money to turn out to be worthless paper?” I fired.
Surprisingly Kalu though taken aback, answered my questions saying he never claimed he graduated from UNIMAID rather he was a student of the school but rusticated for student union activities. For the donation fiasco, he took time to explain and urged us to further investigate his culpability.
After the interview I made to get away believing I had ruffled the Governor’s feathers but ever large hearted, he sent for me, thanking me for the “hostile” questions which gave him opportunity to put his own side of the story in the public space. To my surprise he requested another appearance on my programme and that I visit Abia to see what he was doing. Thus began a relationship that is almost twenty years and counting.
More than ten interviews and many “hostile” questions after, I have come to know OUK better, his great sides and his weak sides.
Orji Kalu may not be an academic juggernaut but his native intelligence, sagacity, experience and intuitive disposition makes up for any deficit in the classroom.
Love him or hate him, one thing that is true is that Kalu is a hardworking entrepreneur and politician who is dedicated and committed to goals, objectives and causes he believes in.
He is an achiever with no half measures in his dictionary and gives every endeavour his best shot.
In the course of my job I meet the high and mighty, Kings, Presidents, the wealthy, the poor, celebrities, politicians within and outside Nigeria, sincerely I have never met a more down to earth public officer than Kalu.
I have been with him in many places where he is known and where he is not recognized but his empathy and connection to the challenges of others is so genuine, sincere and natural. His charisma is electrical.
I have been on trips with him to visit presidents and billionaires alike but there is no difference in how he treats the principal and his staff.
He would break protocol to inquire from a gateman about his family and a wife who delivered a year ago. How he remembers I do not know.
When he was Governor I remember a trip I made with him to Igbere his hometown. It was in an unmarked Peugeot 304. Just him, his Police orderly and another friend. I can never forget it.
How he ordered his driver to stop because he saw an old woman on the road and needed to reach out. How he hugged her like a lost aunt and listened to her.
Funny enough the old woman did not know he was her Governor. To my surprise I wanted to take pictures and Kalu will not let me. “Vin please this is not politics.”
Or is it how open his doors are in every of his residences and poor strangers will work in unhindered and he will insist he will personally attend to them. The guy is so large and yet so ordinary.
While he was Governor there was no day I visited him and did not meet an array of legendary Nigerians from diverse professions and tribes at his dining table. His dinning table more than ten years after he left office was still a mini Nigerian Assembly.
Before he went to prison every Sunday evening after mass in his residence in Abuja and the traditional dinner that always followed, the gathering transforms into a national discourse of varied and diverse issues with prominent Nigerians from every tribe and Ambassadors from Grade A countries in attendance.
Even when the conversation turns against his point of view he accepts the opposing position with equanimity and genuine interest in learning more from that different point of view.
His contacts and relationships across Nigeria and internationally is so deep and elastic. My visits to his home in Potomac, Maryland, USA was always an eye popping experience as I met serving and former top US government officials and celebrities, some he had been friends with for decades.
When he travels abroad he is recieved like a king. In Sierra Leone, Venezuela, South Africa, name it, he was given Presidential treatment.
I am a witness because I have been to some of these places with him. I dont know how many Nigerians that enjoy that privilege.
It is instructive that today Orji Uzor Kalu is in prison for his mistakes, found guilty by our courts and paying for those mistakes while fighting in superior courts to prove his innocence.That’s the way it should be for our country to get better.
Truth is he is still a scapegoat. The sacrificial lamb. Like the story of the prostitute in the Bible, which public officer in Nigeria can mount the pulpit and cast the first stone.
Many serving and former public servants stole quadruple of what Kalu was charged for and they still work our streets free and some shamelessly make laws in our parliaments.
The only reason Orji Kalu went down was because he never kept quite and will never keep quiet. May be too stubborn for his own good.
I have gone to see him in prison a few times and he bears no grudge, rather he is already looking beyond his travails and focusing on the great future he believes fervently Nigeria must attain.
Orji Uzor Kalu has been found guilty and I have no intention of holding brief for him but it is common knowledge that he was already a very wealthy young man before he became Governor in 1999 and for someone who could dole out Five Hundred Million Naira to a political party in 1999 and another Hundred Million to the Presidential campaign was definitely not a poor man.
Kalu left office thirteen years ago to be precise but I wonder how many of his contemporaries that served when be did, are still reckoned with or relevant in the scheme of things. Some we do not even remember their names.
In politics Orji Uzor Kalu is a giant who is among the elite group of Nigerians who founded political parties that won governorship seats. Actually with his PPA he won Abia and Imo. In Igboland he is next only to the great Zik.
In business Orji Kalu distinguished himself a long time ago. As a student entrepreneur at the University of Maiduguri, he was the guy to know to make things happen. At a tender age he became a bank Chairman.
A detribalized Nigerian, a list of his personal aides looks like a miniature Nigeria with every tribe prominent. In every company he owns, the story is the same.
A mentor who continues to invest in human capital, never scared by the growth of others and with strong belief in the Igbo spirit of “Onye aghana nwanne ya”
Look at what he did with Sun Newspapers in the media industry and the giant strides he has made taking his business to African countries in banking, shipping, insurance and aviation.
Orji Kalu is no doubt a man with capacity to make an impact as we all yearn for a better Nigeria. He may have made mistakes as a younger person running Abia State but he has also matured with age and experience.
He is a gaint player in the international scene not timid or intimidated by world leaders, a tested bridge builder, a man whose investment in relationships across Nigeria is unprecedented, an empathic, selfless, problem solving leader with a forgiving spirit. These are rare but needed attributes in this clime.
I think it was high time Nigerians paused, to take another look at the man Orji Uzor Kalu and interrogate the manipulated narrative being bandied by opponents and ungrateful benefactors perpetually threatened by his ever rising profile.
Orji Kalu may be in prison but like other great men before him, prison may be the burnishing that prepares him for tomorrow.