FOR THE JOHNSON ILUARIA IKPEAS RISING TO OVERCOME THE CHALLENGING CIRCUMSTANCES OF THEIR BIRTH IS A TESTAMENT TO THE FAMILY'S RESILIENCE. LAUNCHING A PROJECT DEDICATED TO CHARITY IS A FITTING END TO A TALE THAT HAD ALL BUT GONE AWRY.
Life deals some people hard punches and throws them off permanently, but some resist the fall and fight their way to win eventually. This is the story of the Johnson and Iluaria Ikpea family, which was heavily marked with penury, denigration but with diligence and hard work amid tough challenges. It is also a tale of resistance of tempting situations and bravery against odds.
Though the tough times stretched very long but it was eventually conquered like the narrative of the biblical Job's tale or something close.
Now successful adults and captains of industry with good grip in business, the three surviving children of the Johnson and Iluaria Ikpea out of initial four would look back to their late parents and recall how bad things were.
"It was really bad." And even the adults, who have come out as successful professionals, do not cast their views back and beat their chest to say: "It is Uhuru!" Rather, the modesty their 'denied' childhood imbued in them has left lasting impressions of the past.
In the words of the youngest of the Johnson Ikpea, Tony Ikpea, "I still remember our father and mother against the backdrop of out turbulent early days when our parents left us when we were very young, not having anything. We suffered, living in a zinc house with our father and mother".
In a separate interview, the second child of the family, Joe Ikpea had this to say: "Our parents were very poor. It was very difficult for us. But thank God today, after the death of my mother in 1973, we managed our lives to finish secondary school and go further. In 1985 we lost our father too. We were living in real ghetto at Okere in Warri."
While recalling all that they went through, the oldest of the Johnson and Iluaria Ikpea nuclear family, Leemon Agbongiagwe Ikpea did not forget their royal ancestry, the weighty impact of their parent's poverty which cloaked his memory of that noble lineage in a bitter palate. "We are from the royal family of Iragbonyughe of Ewatto, Esan South-East Local Government Area of Edo State," he said.
However, when asked to tell how he and his siblings grew up, the enthusiasm vanished to a countenance of deep contemplation and grief. And from talking about the family, he unconsciously became introspective and personal. He paused frequently, possibly to ensure that the flashbacks to episodes of grief, which the reminiscence necessitates do not derail his narrative. The feeling of a lost childhood was palpable and boldly embossed in every sentence he made: "Growing up was very rough; really rough. Coming into the world, I saw my parents and my parents embrace me as their child. But what was there, really that brought happiness? Nothing."
Reflecting further, he said, "All I could say is that my mother was a petty trader, my father was working with Warri Urban District Council as a casual worker. But the job could not feed him and his wife as well as myself and two of my brothers. At the end of the month, he earned very meagre salary. So my mother would go to the village where her elder brother had a farm and return with food stuff to sell in Warri to augment what my father was earning."
The eldest, Lee as he was fondly called, managed to finish secondary school in 1973 after the death of his their mother in 1973 before he was hired by Whessoe-Darlington, the construction company that built Warri Refinery and Petro-chemical Company.
But on September 11, 1985, tragedy struck again in the family as their father, Johnson Ikpea died after a battle with tuberculosis at the age of 52.
After the death of their parents, the Ikpeas refused to buckle and continued to do their bit and never lost hope in the efficacy of prayer, a legacy handed over to them by their parents to always look up to God and remain of good conduct.
In spite of this, the boys did not plunge into business to meet success. They crawled their way studiously and steadily through rattling stairs to climb up the ladder and, today they are known in the oil and gas sector as well as engineering construction through their major business, Lee Engineering and Construction Company Limited.
The story of the rise to reckoning, locally and internationally, of the Ikpea business empire is akin to a re-enactment of the phenomenal French general, Bonaparte's theory of winning a battle with tripodal strength.
Therefore, looking back now and seeing how things have turned around just when the worst was equally anticipated, the children of Johnson and Iluaria Ikpea are full of thanks to God for the journey so far that they now crave to share their blessing based on their belief that "success not shared is not really a success story."
Regardless of their early sufferings in life, the Ikpeas decided to give back to the society by instituting a foundation in memory of their late parents, Johnson and Iluaria Ikpea.
The foundation known as Agbonjagwe Leemon Ikpea Foundation on Saturday November 17 splashed N8.6 million worth of scholarship grants on 179 indigent people, including students and widows at Ewatto in Esan South-East Local Government Area of Edo State.
The beneficiaries comprised 26 University undergraduates, who received N100.000 each, 14 Polytechnic undergraduates students, N50, 000 each), 20 Colleges of Education undergraduates, N50,000 each), and 55 secondary schools students with each student receiving N20, 000. The foundation also gave out N50,000 each to 44 widows to start any small scale business of their choice.
Speaking at the ceremony, Chairman on the Agbonjagwe Leemon Ikpea Foundation and former Speaker, Edo State House of Assembly, Mr. Matthew Egbadon, disclosed that over 90 per cent of the student awardees were orphans, adding that 60 per cent of them were indigenes of Ewatto, the birth place of the sponsors of the foundation, while the remaining 40 per cent were from other parts of Edo State.
Egbadon condemned the state of insecurity and the high rate of unemployment in the country and described it as a time-bomb unless urgent steps were taken to arrest the situation. He said the Agbonjagwe Leemon Ikpea Foundation in the years ahead would focus on the provision of portable water for the rural communities, health facilities for rural dwellers.
He noted that between 2000 and 2011, over 800 manufacturing firms have closed down in the country, pointing out that of those industries still in existence; their capital utilisation was not more than 30 per cent, "which made the foundation to believe that the best way to stamp out criminalities in our society is to provide employment for the youth."
While speaking on behalf of his brothers, Joseph and Anthony, Chief Leemon Ikpea said the "Foundation is our little way of helping people who are really in need. And we do it with sincere hearts because everything we have belongs to God."
He said, "The foundation is aimed at identifying with the less privileged in the society, those who are walking on the same path that we walked many years ago. We know what it means to be hungry, and we know what it means to be well fed. We know how it feels to have a brilliant child who wants to go to school, but there is no money to send him or her to school. We have been through it all," he said.
In appreciation to what the Ikpeas did, a classmate of Leemon Ikpea at the Federal Government College, Warri, Capt Ohosa Okunbor graciously donated the sum of N10 million to complement the efforts of the foundation in reaching out to the less privilege.
Many important personalities within and outside the country graced the occasion. They included; Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Martins Uhonmonibhi, the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Ambassadors of Sweden, China, France, Norway and Uganda as well as the Group managing Director, NNPC, Dr. Andrew Yakubu.
Others include Chief Tom Ikimi, Group Managing Director of Shell, Mr. Mutiu Shomolu, Prince Tony Omoaghe, traditional rulers from Esan land, among others.