Salami Odeh, first Ebira millionaire business man
By YJ Itopa
The story of Salami Odeh should be inspirational to those who feel unease or those who think they should feel so because of real or perceived ill treatment of them by their society .
People of this generation and even the ones before this just hear and think of Salami Odeh as an Ebira millionaire who was born, brought up and lived his entire life in Ibadan and died there at a ripe age.
No! His living in Ibadan has its history. Salami was born and bred at Ihima before a sad circumstance forced him to relocate to Ibadan as a young adult. He had lived in Ohueta with his parents before he moved to Obeiba where his own Ebira family compound, an architectural master piece in its time, stands even today, in some conspicuous presence.
His parent did not sit on a royal stool as benevolence from Colonial Government of Indirect Rule System to give him power and splendour as children of many African monarchs did in Odeh’s colonial time.
Yet he became, arguably however, and most people would say unarguably, the first Ebira millionaire business man. If he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the question is ‘How did he find the smithery for the anvil with which he forged his own silver spoon?’
Salami’s father, Odeh, was a reputable hunter. But wealth and hunting were not synonymous in the communal Ebira. Hunters only had fame from hunting feats. Toothsome parts of their game usually went in homage to the eldest man in the clan before the hunter’s relatives would share the rest for free to his kinsmen. It was repute without riches for the hunters of Salami’s father’s time.
Would Salami take after his father and make hunting a tradition in that family? The old man had a different plan for his son. Instead of asking the handsome Salami to hold guns, quiverfull of arrows, bows and guns for him as a beginner hunter he would groom as a replacement in his old age, the old man enlisted him in an Islamic school after which he took his son to Salawu Nwaha-Ezuha in Obeiba to make him a professional tailor. Nwaha-Ezuha was one of the earliest and foremost Ebira tailors when Salami was taken to him.
Cloth designing was a profession in vogue and Salami learnt it fast under the tutelage of Ezuha. Upon completion of his apprenticeship under the seasoned tailor, Salami quickly set up a shop at Ohueta to ply his trade.
He didn’t do badly as a tailor. But he had always nursed a life long dream of becoming a big time trader. To realise his dream, he began in earnest to save money from his cloth sewing. And before long, he was able to have enough money to enable him start some retail trading. First, he combined sowing with retail merchandise .
And in order not to be Jack of all Trades and Master of none, Salami left tailoring entirely, began small scale business from the gains he made from tailoring work, and then went full blast into the sales of different goods, blazing the trail in business firmament of the land. It fetched more lucre for him than the gain he made from the sewing of cloth.
Soon, he became a successful business man in the real sense of the description. And he climaxed the claim with the buying of John Holt as the first real company in the land. John Holt is the eponymous name of the white man who set it up as a conglomerate of business ventures during the colonial era.
John Holt had a filling station. It was into wholesale of different types of drinks. It was at John Holt that most Ebira weavers were buying cottons for their textile businesses. It was also selling motor bikes to the affluent of the period and this included the colonial masters themselves.
John Holt had no rival. But when Independence of 1960 joyfully came for Nigeria to be free from the shackles of colonialism and it became obvious to Mr. John Holt that he must go back to England with his colleague imperialists, he willingly or unwillingly had to put his John Holt on sale. This will take a Blackman of enormous means to buy it. But which Ebira man could afford to buy the vast John Holt then?
When no Ebira man confidently and quickly came out, a rich Igbo man who people described as tall and huge came forth. He bought the company from John Holt. That John Holt went to an Igbo resident, according to the people who told the Salami story, Ebira people saw it as a chunk off their pride. But what could they do?
Respite however came with the sound and fury of the Nigerian-Biafran war of between 1960-1970. The war became unavoidable. And like the original owner of John Holt who sold it at independence, the seceding Igbo owner of John Holt must willingly or willingly sell his company which had given him fame and influence in Ebiraland and even beyond its shores. How sad! But his secession is an opportunity for Ebira to fill the hollow in their pride skin.
John Holt was again put up for sale, And with great haste, Salami Odeh bided for it. John Holt, located at Lafia street, Okene, became his own or should I say it became the prized property of Ebira people?
At this time, Salami Odeh became a house hold name in Ebiraland as a business mogul and idol for obvious reason. His business began to thrive with additional merchandise. It was at this time he collaborated with other business men and women in the land to take Ebira trading effort to higher heights. He deserveably became the leaders of the group. Series of meetings were being held to find ways of expanding the Ebira business horizon.
Salami’s patriotism was praiseworthy. But a mysterious and controversial set back which never fully relieved him till he died happened in the Okene house of one of the earliest Ebira parliamentarians, His Eminence, Alhaji Ahmed Badamasuiyi.
Salami Odeh and Badamasuiyi were close friends and collaborators in Islamic and business areas. On this fateful day, the duo were said to have consulted with other relevant stakeholders to hold business meeting usually at Badams’ house when he had what the people believed was a mysterious Hypertension attack.
Recounting this sad occurrence years after, one of Salami’s son, Isah Salami said inter alia:
“My father was the head of that Business meeting that was held in the house of Alh. Badamasuiyi. He was a bit late to the meeting because of crowded schedules. Getting to the meeting, he pulled of his shoes, left them at the door mouth and entered to begin the meeting with other members. They discussed plans that could help to put Ebira business men and women on a higher pedestals.
At the close of the meeting, my father came out like others, bent down to put his feet into the shoes he had earlier pulled off. As one of his feet got into one pair of the shoes, my father, in an excruciating pain let out a cry like somebody that was bitten by a savage snake, collapsing and instantly losing one side of his body completely. The man who entered the meeting place, strong as a spindle, was taken away as a cripple.”
A man of enormous means, Salami was rushed to the University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan as the best medical facility in the country as at that time. He got some treatment, the ailment did not entirely go. He returned home, went back and it became for him a routine checkup. Because the going and coming had became stressful , he decided to stay close to his place of healing. He built his house, which many years after became a sprawling and bubbling Salami Odeh Business empire in Ibadan.
How did he start a new business life in Ibadan? Isah told this writer that his father, not a man to be easily hindered, continued with his cotton business. For him, his going to Ibadan was like duplicating the business he was doing at home . Textile companies, Isah said were supplying cottons to him in Ibadan and he in turn would send part of it to his Ebira markets for both retail and whole sale selling.” It was clearly an expansion of business, he informed.
There in Ibadan, Salami made sure he added the sale of roofing sheets to his trade holdings. It was like venturing into one business after the other. A motor company known as RT Brisco was supplying vehicles to him from its base in Lagos.
RT Brisco was not the only motor company that Salami did vehicular business with. There was another company in Kaduna from which the business tycon was distributing Peugeot cars. The whole of Ibadan, Oyo State and some parts of Ebira were a big market for him. Apart from cars, he had many shops of cotton from the Northspin company from Kaduna and roofing sheets in the areas.
Appreciating his courage and wealth which was purely by dint of hard work, a seasoned Ebira Ikede singer, Alh. Isa Eromi said: Salami was making great effort in wealth creation in Ebira land when sickness vowed to overwhelm him. But it was gladdening to know that after he went to Ibadan for treatment, Ihineba, the God of mercies decided to widen his wealth bigger than it was at home. In an advertorial tone, Eromi announced that who ever wanted to buy roofing and vehicles of different brands would readily find them in Salami Odeh’s companies in Ibadan. The patriot singer sang the song at the climax of Salami’s enormous wealth.
Unknown to many, unlike many modern Ebira rich men who use their wealth to sponsor clanish wars, political thuggery and all sorts of retrogressive activities for personal gains, Salami was a sports loving man. He had a foresight that if the youths were engaged in sporting activities, talents could be discovered for the good of the society. Before his Ibadan travel, he had sponsored a football team in Ihima and the team did quite well.
Remembering him for this, one time Sole Administrator of Okehi LGA and retired Director of Kogi State Stella Obasanjo Library, Alh. Abdulkareem Umar, praised Salami as the first Ihima rich man who invested part of his money in sporting activities especially in the game of football.
” I was very close to him to the extent that I became his secretary. Salami loved the youths. He did not want us to roam the streets. He knew that idle mind would be the devils’ workshop. He therefore sponsored a football team for us. We called the team Pepper. And indeed, we squeezed pepper juice in the eyes of other football teams in Ebiraland at the time. Salami’s investment helped a great deal. Very generous a man,” Umar revealed.
Salami was never known to be sentimental about clan or part of Ebiraland from which any of his workers should come as is the condition for job placement in Ebira today. Like clan, one’s tribe as a decider for employing his workers also meant nothing to him. After his relocation to Ibadan, his workers were Ebira, Yoruba and other tribes. And his kindness to them was of equal measure.
Not the one to lose his friends quickly. Even in sickness, his friendship with Alhaji Badamasuiyi still continued. M O Atta was frequently visiting him. Prince Ado Ibrahim as he was then called before he became the Ohinoyi of Ebira was a good friend of Salami. His Son, Isah vividly recalled how his father used to send them to Lagos and other places to visit his friends like the present Ohinoyi of Ebiraland.
The late Ohinoyi, HRH. Sani Omolori used to visit my father in Ibadan. They would discuss many issues bordering on the development of the land. A lover of his people, Salami was like a father figure to Ebira people residing in Oyo State. They would travel from far and wide to seek for help from him. He never hesitated to answer them. His wealth was a relief to the people.
The man, apart from being generous was also widely known as trusting and trustworthy. He never betrayed any trust reposed in him. There was this story of how the good man was swindled by one of his pretended boys. The story went thus:
Salami used to buy a lot of goods from Kano State. So, he gave a huge sum of money to one of his workers whose name was given simply as Usman to go to Kano to buy the goods. The worker as the story went lodged with the Salami’s con boy in Kano as he was instructed and kept the money in their room with the certainty that both of them would together enter the Kano market the next day for their merchandise.
The fraudster persuaded the unsuspected Usman to go out briefly for sight seeing around the city. Usman did and returned only to discover that the money had disappeared from the room where he slept with the con boy. Usman cried, begged him to return the money to no avail. Interventions by some elders to collect the money from the thief yielded no result.
The forgiving Salami did not sack Usman upon his return from Kano. He trusted him and kept his swindler aloof forever, though he harboured no ill will against him. That was how the boy made his money in a filthy way from Salami’s wealth.
He set up his own businesses, Dabbled into politics and became a prominent Ebira man. But trust Ebira people of the old who seldom celebrated ill gotten money. Any time he flapped his wing of stolen wealth, now a personality, people would clip his wings, saying, “You are not even ashamed of yourself, what you are bragging about we know is Ihima’s money.” Ekehi vi ekehi Anihima! Just let us hear word”. The evil that men do lives after them (Apologies to Shakespear). Now we remember even after many years.
How did he relate with his immediate family? Salami as a father, husband, brother and uncle was a quintessential family man. His businesses did not take his attention away from his family. Asked to shed light on how his father related with him and other family members, Isah had this to say:
“Our father married four wives with children. He gave us the best of education. We all attended both nursery and primary schools. He educated us to higher institutions of learning. But he was a disciplinarian. We were not allowed to leave the house without his knowledge or without informing his business partners. This, as he told us, was because the child belonged also to the community.
“He had often advised us to love our society. He would settle quarrel between people in Ibadan despite his busy time and ill health. Our father loved everybody and advised that people should not love their children alone. And he would also counsel us that “Ehe e nyi eyiha” which means that we should be patient with life that God by His grace would still help enjoy the eventual success. One of his wives, Salamotu participated actively in his business. He was survived by Sidikatu, his wife, and at an advanced age.
“Salami lived a fulfilled life, no doubt. But no one can deny the fact that his paralysis which many believed was mysterious, as a result of devilish envy and jealousy by those who were not happy that he had taken the lead in the business climate of the land really slowed him down.
“The people who believed that the Ihima-born business man was attacked by evil forces attributed the attack to what they called “the primordial and misconceived hatred the other Ebira had always harboured against the Ihima people over the old quarrel about the burial of the matronly mother of Ebira Opete people.”
Discussing the Salami paralysis, Salami’s erstwhile Secretary, Alhaji Umar said that it was hard to convince many people that the disease was natural. “Salami was became lame in Okene” which was what was on the lips of the people, and they were serious about it.
Another witness, Oneta Salami, a retired Permanent Secretary in Kogi State Government added that since:
“Our people believe that there is no disease that cannot be caused by mystical power, to tell them that his paralysis was not strange and that it just happened was a waste of time. Left to grow and be mature with his business, people think, he would have become a multi billionaire a long time ago. That belief subsists till today.
In fact, that marked the beginning of the practice of Adava oyi tu ruvo in Ebiraland. People would pull off their shoes, hold them tightly in their hand and after whatever activities they were involved in, come out, look carefully into it to ensure there is no mysterious charm inserted inside their shoes, put the shoes down carefully and wear them . They would do that against occurrence of what was a popular phrase then in the whole of Ebira, “the Salami Odeh mistake.”
The story before this one, “Irikidi: Mother of Ozuda and priestess of OriIhima” drew honeyed comments unto itself. Very grateful to the reading public. Only one odd voice from one self deluding man who called himself ‘Ohi-Erimi,’ a non existing title.
He tried to cast his stinking flopping at Irikidi. He through mischief but soft sling at Ozuda, the only truly Ebira godlike masquerade. Irikidi already belongs to the pantheon of mythological characters and now she as culture story fits as a research material for literary masterpiece. Who is this fiction called Ohi-Erimi? Where does he life? Why is he faceless? For the Irikidi story, let the so called ‘Ohi-Erimi’ moan in endless envy. His tears of jealousy can continue to flow.
Who will help ‘Ohi-Erimi’ from mischievously telling the history of Ihima masquerade fights? Many fights. Yes, Anogidi Obokehi, Anakunu and Anibaba did dare Ura. In fact, there were Umajabo and Otumakere masquerades who also tasted the Ozuda hemlock like the Anogidi, Anakunu and Anibaba.
Fighting Ura by any masquerade, no matter how festooned it is with amulets, like a rash and muscular uninitiate who, against wise counseling, goes to pull his ancestors’ shrine to the ground. Let ‘Ohi- Erimi’ tell the world which of the masquerades that ever foolhardily challenged Ura without bringing untold ruins upon their compounds? It is not good to commit suicide. But if any masquerade chooses to drink the Ura poison, as ‘Ohi- Erimi’ suggested in his needless attack on the Irikidi story, they are just free to do so. Who has ever done and live to tell the story? Fight Ozuda and increase its awesomeness and mysticism the more.
As for the ‘proprietorship’ of OriIhima which ‘Ohi-Erimi’ lays fraudulent and preposterous claim to, we leave it to the six autochtnous clans of Ihima to which everything there in including all the gods and goddesses belong to handle the correction.
For Ura and Irikidi, no, it falls within our domain, which is why we play the guard, and now, see how ‘Ohi- Erimi’ and his blank argument fall, scattering aimlessly like some hollow sacrifices. We will fight every weevil coming for the corn of our story any time any day. Let the vermin stay clear of the barn for the seed will be sowed for generations yet unborn.