Austin Avuru, co-founder and CEO of Nigeria’s pre-eminent oil and gas company will be 62 tomorrow Augsut 17, 2020. In this Excerpt from his forthcoming biography, A Safe Pair of Hands by Peju Akande and Toni Kan, they detail the modest beginnings that presaged his rise to the pinnacle of corporate Nigeria
When Austin Avuru thinks about his father, he does not remember his face.
He remembers riding on his father’s shoulders, his small ankles firm in his father’s hands. He remembers being tickled, his laughter ringing loud and carefree in their rustic Ipetu Ijesa compound. He even remembers the smell of the pomade his father applied generously to his dark, curly hair.
But what he does not remember, cannot remember, is his father’s face.
Avuru, who is now over 60 years old was just on the cusp of seven when his father passed away in June 1965.
“My father was acocoa farmer in Ipetu Ijesa, in present day Osun state. His name was Stephen Chukwusa Avuru,” he says.
There are no photographs of Stephen Avuru, but his son says people described him as tall and dark, a man who was a born leader and someone whom people rallied around.
Though he was an Ndokwa man from Abbi, in the Kwale area of Delta state, Stephen Chukwusa Avuru lived and worked in Ipetu Ijesa with his young wife, Cecilia, and their growing brood.
There was Florence, the first child, Austin, his second child and only son, and then two others – Beatrice and Comfort. Austin recalls of his father: “He was very fond of me because, as you would imagine, I was the only son.”
Florence was 13 when their father died and she, on the other hand, remembers what he looked like. She describes him as “dark, almost with the same face as Comfort, my sister, and the same curly hair. He was soft spoken.”
What took a young man from Abbi all the way to Ipetu Ijesa in an era when the next village often seemed like a world away?
Cocoa was big in the ’50s and ’60s and, while many may not remember it now, there was a fairly large migration of people from the Mid-west to the Western region. They were mostly young men seeking greener pastures as farmers, albeit modern farmers growing cash crops instead of toiling away as subsistence farmers in their familiar locales.
So people migrated from as far afield as Abbi all the way to fertile farmlands in the then Western region. To this day, there is a fairly large population of Ndokwa people in Akure, in Owo, in Idanre, in the present-day Ondo and Ekiti states. Most of them left hearth and home to earn a living as cocoa farmers.
Austin Avuru’s father was in that league. Somebody from Abbi must have made the first trip then came home, shared the story of imminent affluence and taken more of his people along and in time, a pipeline of young able bodied men was opened and so instead of peasant farming at home, they went into larger-scale farming in those areas.
That’s where Stephen Chukwusa Avuru found his niche and it was to Ipetu Ijesa that he brought his young bride and started a family.
Now, in those days, no matter how far away you were in the diaspora, you returned home to the village to take a wife. That was what happened with Stephen Avuru and Cecilia Idodo. When it was time to get married, Stephen sent word home that he needed a wife and so the search commenced for a decent girl from a good family. The wife they found for him was the daughter of Idodo and it was fortuitous because the Avurus and Idodos lived close to each other. So, it was an easy match.
Florence Ibini, née Avuru, was born in 1952 to a 19-year-old Cecilia Avuru. Cecilia had been married for four years before her daughter was born. As those who know her tell it, she was married to Stephen Avuru at age 15 but, as she was considered still too young, her husband was persuaded not to get her pregnant.
Stephen and Cecilia were illiterate farmers but that did not dampen their high level of educational awareness. Back then, when you came over to farm, you realized almost immediately the primacy of education. So, many of these farmers were quick to send their children to school because chances were that their landlord – the one who gave them the piece of land they were farming and to whom they paid royalty – was applying that royalty to sending his own children to school.
Florence remembers her father’s love for education and how he encouraged other Abbi
He was the leader of all the camps. If there was an issue between two people, they would come to him and he would settle whatever misunderstanding there was between the Abbi people working in those camps. He spoke the language and related with Yorubas well because he had been there for a long time, even before he married my mother. He had Yoruba friends and that is where the love of education came from. The Yorubas were more educated than those of us from Abbi and all his friends had children in universities. Because of that, he vowed to himself that having been denied education, his children would get that education to whatever level, even abroad.
So, it quickly became the practice to send your children to school even though you were just an illiterate farmer. Most of the Ndokwa farmers who settled in present-day Ekiti sent their children to school, and these children became the first generation to get educated, especially those whose parents were in the diaspora.
Stephen Avuru died relatively young, at about 51. His wife was 32, their first child, Florence, had just finished primary school and was starting Modern school, and their son, Austin, had just started Primary 1.
Stephen had made a trip home to Abbi, most likely to assess progress on the nine-bedroom bungalow he was building. He took ill during that trip and was taken to the very popular Eku Baptist Hospital, which was a while away from Abbi.
He was diagnosed with peptic ulcer, according to what Austin’s uncle told him at the time. Surgery was recommended and he underwent what appeared to be a successful operation.
“The last piece of him that my uncle showed me was a referral paper given to him after the surgery,” Austin Avuru says. “They had instructed him to come back for post-surgery check on a certain date towards the end of June. But he died before that day.”
At six, going on seven when his father passed away, Austin was still too young to fully understand what had just happened to him, his mother and three sisters. That sense of incomprehension still comes through as he recalls those days:
Till this day, the only thing I remember vividly was my father carrying me on his shoulders in Ipetu Ijesa. When I close my eyes, that’s all I can remember. The next picture that is very clear in mind was the very day we were brought to Abbi from Ipetu Ijesa, and as soon as we alighted from the vehicle everybody started weeping, including my mum who was rolling on the ground. I still remember it like yesterday. It was only then that it occurred to me that something seriously wrong must have happened. So we stayed back, naturally, after my father’s burial.
While he did not appreciate the full extent of the cataclysmic event at the time, his father’s early death would have a profound effect on Austin Avuru’s disposition to health and general well-being.
With her husband dead, Cecilia was forced to move her children back home to Abbi. The funeral over, life stared her in the face. There were four mouths to feed and a nine-bedroom house to finish. She rented an apartment on Edemgbu Street, almost across from her brother’s house in Abbi.
Cecilia Avuru, née Idodo, had suddenly become both mother and father, as well as breadwinner, to her four children. Though young, she was an industrious woman who was not content to remain a stay-at-home housewife.
While her husband was still alive, Cecilia had kept herself occupied by trading grains and produce, and by the time her husband died she had become fairly well-known and well-regarded in Ipetu Ijesa.
Florence remembers her mother’s industry, which was cultivated while her father was still alive and they lived in a farmer’s camp at Ipetu Ijesa.
“My father was a cocoa farmer, but he was mainly into palm oil milling. Cocoa was an addition. While father was the milling man, mother focused on another aspect of the business, bagging and selling palm kernels,” she says. “After extracting the oil, my mother would collect the kernels and even buy more from other camps to sell. That was the beginning of her resourcefulness.”
In addition to the kernel she got from her husband, their mother would buy, break the nuts, bag and then sell.
This came in handy because, as soon as the funeral was over and she had settled her children in her rented apartment, Cecilia made a trip back to Ipetu Ijesa. She sold off all her wares then, returning home to Abbi, used the proceeds to put a roof over her late husband’s nine-bedroom bungalow.
Even with the roof, the house was by no means finished, but Cecilia did not want to leave it to the mercy of the elements. By putting a roof over it, she was making an unequivocal declaration – my husband may be dead, but his house is not abandoned. It is a work in progress.