Chris Agara, one of the aspirants seeking to occupy the office of governor, Cross River State from May 29, 2023 had a very humble beginning. The story of his growing up days can melt your heart. The experience of not knowing where his next meal would come, or at some point, where he would lay his head, appear to have contributed to his life of philanthropy. He told TNN in this interview about some of the odd experiences he went through. He also spoke about his plans for the people of the state if they support him to become governor.
Let’s talk about the early days of your life, your growing up days
I’ve answered this question quite a couple of times, I am even putting it in the book that I am writing about myself.
I had a humble beginning, a humble background as well. That humble background has been what has shaped my life to this day. My modest approach to life is largely influenced by my background.
I started life very early. What I mean is that I started working at the age of 16, shortly after my school certificate. I have been working from that period till date. Precisely, I have been working for almost 43 to 44 years and without any break. Even my academic life, my academic pursuit was done while running my business.
I did part time in most of my academic programmes and even up to my master’s degree. I have two master’s degree by the way; master’s in law and master’s in business administration and in addition to my business pursuit. So, in all honesty, not boring you with the trajectory of my life and the ups and downs of life, but I want to say those are all part of growing up and the development of man.
Let’s talk about the ups and downs of your early life.
Ups and downs in life are like day and night in the first place, it’s all part of life pursuit, so where would you want me to start from?
From growing up….
Well, like I said, I started growing up from a modest background. I had to leave my parents at the age of 16 to start fending for myself, after my secondary school certificate and it has been that way from that period till date.
In the course of trying to fend for yourself, let’s talk about the odd experiences you had at that early stage in life.
I can say for instance, like my early four years in Port Harcourt. I got into Port Harcourt in 1985 and I was in Port Harcourt for about a year without a job, but I was doing some menial jobs, like been a mason helper, to be able to take care of my immediate needs like feeding, before I got a job and then stabilized myself, then worked for a number of years and then started my business life in 1991. Of course, that’s how it’s been, and I am here, and I am still here.
There were days you had to stay without food I guess, how did you cope?
Yeah! Those were the humble days of my beginning. For instance, if you are a casual worker, or if you are a menial worker where you have to mix concretes for mason, the day you don’t work, there is no cash anywhere. So you contend with the hunger until you are able to work to earn another day’s earning to feed yourself. I have no regrets, they all helped to shape my today. I am very proud that I went through that.
You once said that you got into Port Harcourt with a polythene bag;
So, between that time that you got into Port Harcourt with a polythene bag and the time that you changed that polythene bag to a portmanteau, let’s talk about those phases, especially the gory experiences you had.
Not a polythene bag per se, but I had a hand bag and I just had that one hand bag that I came with into Port Harcourt in 1985. Yes, there were moments when you were not even sure where you can even lay your head to sleep. There were moments one wasn’t sure when the next meal was going to come. And sometimes the fear was, should anything happen to one, where will you run to and who will you run to? Because it was so bleak at a time. But like I said, it’s all part of the trajectory of life, it’s all part of what has shaped my today that it is all part of the journey of life.
Was there any time you had to sleep on the street, or you had to squat with a friend, or you were just walking aimlessly not knowing where you were going?
(Laughs) I wasn’t a mad man to walk aimlessly. I had a friend, with due respect to him, who was living in just a room with his family and he accommodated me and I had to show understanding by ensuring that I kept late night to ensure that at least he has time with his family.
How large was this family you were squatting with?
I think I will like to, it’s a family, it’s a young family, just a room, a family of a wife and kid. They were just people starting their lives and I just appeared in their life. I’m grateful to them. That is all I can say about that.
When you left Ikom to Port Harcourt, did you have a particular place in mind that you said, okay, this is where I am going to.
I never left Ikom to Port Harcourt, I was in Lagos.
My life sojourn has been Ikom. I worked as a civil servant. I was a teacher after secondary school and then I worked with Cross River State Water Board as well, for about two years, then left and worked with a French company that was building the Obudu Ranch and the Obudu-Ikom Road. When the contract was over, I started following them from one point to the other, like I went to Bauchi, I went to Enugu with them, and then Enugu to Lagos, before I now got into Port Harcourt. I came to Port Harcourt from Lagos, not from Ikom.
Did you have a particular place that you told yourself this is where I am going to in Port Harcourt?
I never had, but I only knew of a friend, but somehow I was able to run into that friend. I went into that friend whom I said has just a young family, in one room, and that’s how I started my journey in Port Harcourt.
Let’s talk about your first night in Port Harcourt. How was it?
Well, I think this is self-explanatory, if you have to go into a family that has just a room and has a family, I’m sure that explains itself. I don’t have to tell whether I slept on the bare floor and all that. I am sure that’s what you want to hear, but I think that explains itself.
What lessons have you learnt from life?
Well, what I have learnt from life is that when you are persistent, when you are very determined and believe in yourself, I’m sure the grace of God will follow. I think I am a very raw example of that. I was very determined, it’s not that I never had a home back in Ikom or my own village where if I had stayed, they will even give me food to eat. Of course, I will had food to eat but I went out there because of that determination, in spite of the obvious challenges and setbacks. But I was determined to stay back and today the result of who I am today is that determination to stay back.
Was there any time in your life that you were discouraged?
Yeah! Definitely. There were some periods you just ask yourself, what is really going on? For instance, there were some periods you will stay and you are not sure where the next meal was going to come from and meanwhile, you have a village where you can get into the forest or even go to farm and you still have something to eat. But there you are, you are in a strange land where you know nobody and nobody knows you. Temptation to want to go back to your home, to your village was very high but somehow I was able to overcome them.
So, if you were to talk to younger people about life, about perseverance, about doggedness, about resilience, what will you tell them?
I will tell them that for you to carve a niche for yourself, you must go through this journey of life. I just noticed younger generation, they are too dependent, and they fail to narrow themselves to certain possibilities of life. But what I have noticed about them too is that they are a very intelligent set of people. I believe that if they can create a bit of independence in their mind and try to be a bit adventurous about life… life is all about adventure; if you are not adventurous in life you can’t get it.
Can you remember one thing that your father or mother told you, that also helped in grooming you to who you are today?
I grew up to meet my great grandmother. She made quite an impact in my life. She told me about certain aspects of life. I was very young then, I am not sure I was even up to 10 years then. She told me that I should avoid fighting over land and that land comes from God not man and that if you fight too much over land, it could consume you.
She also advised me against getting into controversy about money, that one thing that can help ruin your life short is when you fight and struggle over money, even when you are convinced within you that the money belongs to you, somebody deliberately says hey, that money is not yours, and wants to take it forcefully from you, give it up, and somehow nature has a way of playing around; that definitely, you will recover from that and it has honestly happened a lot in my private and business life. So, that advice has come to pass in several, several moments. Also, she told me that look, it is always important to look after your neighbour’s back, love the next person even if he doesn’t sit well with you. Try to show love, try to show concern and more importantly, learn to share what God has given to you to whoever needs it, irrespective of who that person is, whether you know the person or you don’t know the person. So those things have guided my life and they are a strong part of my principles in life.
How have you been able to obey her, sharing whatever you have even though you don’t know the people?
I do that a lot. Most of my giving are to people who I don’t even know because I’ve been carrying people. For instance, in my business life, it’s not my relations, or brothers or sisters that made it possible for me to be successful in what I do and so if those people did not extend their hands, I wouldn’t have been successful. So, why must I insist that the extension of my hands must be to my relation? The bulk of my assistance, I mean if you call it assistance, because you can only be a source through from God to others, I do it to people that I don’t even know.
Could that be why you floated the scholarship scheme?
Obviously. I didn’t go to the university immediately because I had no means of going. When I started life, it wasn’t the right choice, if I had the choice I would have loved to go to university immediately after my secondary school, but the means wasn’t there, and so whenever I remember that and I know that there are people who are also going through similar situation today, I decided to float it and I can tell you I don’t even know anybody that, one on one, that is a beneficiary of my scholarship scheme. What I do under that scheme is that we go to the university department to find out about those students who are unable to pay their fees, that’s how we generate the list of those people that we take care of in our scholarship. From the school, we go there, we find out, it doesn’t matter where the person comes from, as long as you are one of those so vulnerable, and unable to pay your fees.
And you’ve done this for how long?
I’ve done this for about 12 to 15 years now.
Do you have an idea of an average number of people that have benefited so far?
I can’t. But I know we do carry about 200 students a year.
So, that gives us an idea of the number of people. Okay…
(cuts in) Some we carry to their graduation and so when they graduate and God will bless them. So, we carry an average of 200 students a year.
Have you ever felt like shedding tears when you see the poorest of the poor in the society, when you see them, what they go through?
Yeah! Even, anybody that has a soul will definitely feel terrible when you see people who are not even sure of where to sleep, like there was one day I was driving in the streets of Abuja and I saw a woman with two kids, they just wrapped themselves and they were sleeping.
On the road?
On the road, very cold night. That was their bed. So, I stopped and I went there and woke them up and I was trying to talk with her but she were speaking a northern language, I don’t know if it was Hausa or Fulani. I couldn’t understand it, I didn’t understand it and so I gave them what I could give, what I had then, but I wished I could exchange numbers or whatever, but I couldn’t because of communication. Communication was the problem.
I felt so bad because what I had with me then was a little above N50,000 and I just wished I was where there were people I could communicate with, maybe I would have asked to see them the next day. But that is a true example of what life is. Those people who are there didn’t think in anyway, we will ever want to sleep on the street, they just covered themselves with some clothes and they were sleeping.
What did that picture remind you of?
It did reminded me a bit of my early days, particularly my early moments in Port Harcourt. But I never slept out, but there was some bit of similarities. I just see that too as a journey of life. If you want to bolt out of it, you could start your life from any modest beginning and build up and God has a way of helping those who are prepared to be helped.
Now, people have said you are nursing the ambition to contest for governorship of Cross River State. If that happens, are you thinking of taking this character of sharing what you have with others into government?
I have said this severally, in different fora. I think God has been very fair to me, God has really blessed me and I promise myself that I will be so transparent, that I will make sure if I am governor, I will follow the principle of embarking on projects that will help both those you know and those you don’t know and I believe that there are several ways that can be done. I have said it severally that one of the things that has always come to mind is the fact that we the black race, particularly, African continent has been very backward when it comes to advancement, maybe that should be another topic. While the rest of the world is advancing technologically, we are not, but there is something God gave to us that we are not using and that is our natural resource and another thing that we know is how to farm. I believe that if we can develop our potentials in the Agric sub-sector, we can feed the rest of the world. The world can be advancing but we will sit close to them while feeding them, and maybe nature one way or the other will come to our aid so that we can start advancing technologically thereafter.
So, back to your question, yes, considering the fact that I know it, because it is only when you know it that you feel it. I know what it means to be poor and I know how it feels to be poor. I will definitely come up with programme and project that will affect the unknown poor positively.
The unknown poor?
Yes. And there are several of them and there are different ways I can do that.
You’ve talked about agriculture. So, how will you use agriculture to affect the lives of the unknown poor?
Fortunately, I am into agriculture now, you know my business background is oil and gas, but it happens that I am into agric now and I have known so much about agriculture in addition to my growing days as a child, because, don’t forget that I grew up from the village so we are all farmers, but now I know better.
I used an example. I said we have so much land, if you take a crop like cassava for instance and you have like a thousand hectares of cassava, and you decide to say like one thousand hectares of land and you do mechanized farm there and when you farm that one thousand hectares, you decide to divide those hectares into blocs, don’t forget the new specie of cassava you can harvest about 30 tons of cassava per hectare, and the minimum sale value for a ton of cassava is about N30,000, sometimes it goes as high as N70,000.
So one hectare of cassava can generate a minimum of N900,000 perhaps and the new species of cassava, you can harvest twice a year. So, if you give somebody one hectare of cassava to manage, you will be making somebody earn about N900,000 per harvest and if it is per year, it’s about N1.8 million minimum for one hectare. If you have two, two hectares allocated to you is times two, if you have three, it’s times three. So that’s how to create wealth, create comfort, and the important thing too is that we are also going to have a special agro industrial processing zone that is being funded by the African Development Bank and federal government, sited in Cross River and the hub will be in Ikom in Cross River. Ikom is so central to both the north and the south, so that these crops can be taken there for further processing into different species or different end products of cassava. Cassava, you know, can be processed into between eight to 10 finished products.
Even the indomie you eat is about 70 per cent cassava, we have cassava starch. And then we have cassava tapioca, we have cassava bread, we have cassava sweetner. So many things. So, that special agro industrial processing zone provides the market for these raw materials; raw cassava tubers that is going to be harvested from these farms. I am just giving an example of one, so if you have about a thousand hectares, you are creating about a thousand farmers ownership, how many farmers earn N1.8 million annually in Cross River? Even the government appointees, I’m sure cannot boast of that. But this is the situation where a farmer can earn that and it is very realistic. I will call it back to land, I will call it the green revolution, okay? In those days we called it green revolution, we called it back to land, even past governments called it operation feed the nation, but me I will call it operation feed people today and feed the future. You are providing food for populace today and you are also providing the assurance of tomorrow.
But there is one thing that may stand against this tall dream, this lofty dream and that is the issue of zoning. The clamour is that power should go back to the south. You are not from the South. How are you going to do this?
Well, I have always said that we should go for what we call competence and winning mentality. But have we actually or honestly respected this zoning in the past? When even the governor ran, there was somebody from the south that ran against him. Even when Liyel ran. there was somebody from the south that ran against him. So, was there zoning per se? Was there zoning respected per se? So I think we should talk about who will salvage the state.
I am not a believer in zoning. Zoning to me discourages competence and it doesn’t allow the best to be given the opportunity to show-case the best of their abilities. So, I appreciate those who are clamouring for it but they should also know too that zoning is not a right but a privilege. I don’t know how to put it, with due respect to my brothers from the south, who are relying on zoning rather than relying on whether they have something to offer, or relying on the fact too that they have to be persuasive to people, having developed that mentality that it’s a right clouds their sense of judgment to know that we are in democracy, where one man one vote matters, you need to persuade the people to vote for you.
Ironically, the governor has said he believes power should go back to the south.
With due respect to him as my friend, very bosom friend and brother, has said so. You know he is also entitled to his opinion, it’s his right as an individual to say so because probably that is his conviction. It doesn’t imply too that that is the feeling of the rest of Cross Riverians. Other Cross Riverians have the right from the laws of the land to aspire, to support and be supported.
So, in the south, they have the numbers, and democracy is all about numbers, so, if the south stays with their own position that power must return to their region, don’t you think that will work against you?
The south is just one out of three zones, right?
So, when you say the south has numbers, other zones also have their numbers. What I am saying is that you have to be able to have the instrument of persuasion backed by what you have to offer, perhaps if you do that even those who you think are in the south will see you that you have something better to offer than even those that are in the south that are clamouring for it. So to me, being able to tell the people what you have and what you can offer to better their lives, than just relying on the sentiments of zoning, I’ve told my party which is the APC, we must adopt the winning strategy, than adopt zoning strategy.
What is it that gives you hope about 2023 governorship race in Cross River State?
Well, what gives me hope is that one, I have a lot to offer; my exposure, my experience, my obvious and practical approach to things, my passion, my determination based on my background and based on what I know is possible to do, is giving me that conviction for 2023 and I believe at the end of the day, we will come out stronger and that democracy will be better for us.
People say you don’t have structure in the APC.
I don’t know what people mean by structures, what are structures? Structures are human beings, right? If I am able to convince you about what I can do, is it structures that matter or your feelings and conviction about what I can do for the people? People shouldn’t forget too that we have two strong parties in this state now. What used to be applicable before now is no longer what is applicable today. So, that must guide us very seriously. I have been part of the party for long, I decamped from PDP to APC long ago. So what structures are we talking about? Is it a structure of the new APC or the structure of the old APC?
I ran a senate election where, if it wasn’t for what happened, I had about 90 per cent of the structures with me, when I ran my senate primaries, I had about 80 to 90 per cent of the structures, and those structures have not disappeared from me. So you know that I had that, everybody knows that I had that, apart from probably how my name was taken out just because of their fear of my person. So to me, structure is just people’s imagination. I have been part of the family for long, I have been part of the structure. So, which structure are we talking about?