Austin Avuru: Safe Pair of Hands By Peju Akande, Toni Kan

Austin Avuru: Safe Pair of Hands By Peju Akande, Toni Kan

Austin Avuru: A Safe Pair of Hands, is a remarkable story about him told in sequential order, chronicling his time when he first set up Platform Petro

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Austin Avuru: A Safe Pair of Hands, is a remarkable story about him told in sequential order, chronicling his time when he first set up Platform Petroleum and then Seplat, which he co-founded with ABC Orjiako the former chairman of the company.

At every point, there is something to surprise, sadden or delight readers, the story of a complete man who experienced the rough patches of life as well as the sail overs.

From the portrait painted by the authors, Austin Avuru is clearly a dynamo of a man destined for greatness despite the odds stacked against him right from childhood.

He was only six-plus when his father, Stephen Chukwusa Avuru, died of peptic ulcer in their natal town, Abbi in Delta state.

Though a migrant farmer in faraway Ipetu-Ijesha in Ekiti/ Ondo state, Avuru Senior fell ill at his place of work, returned home to Abbi with a young wife and four children in tow. Operated on at Baptist Hospital Eku, a nearby town to Abbi, he was asked to come for post-surgery check-up. He died before the appointed day. Thus was Austin Avuru, not yet seven, denied paternal love and care most of his peers enjoyed.

Worse still, there was no photograph to remember his father by. The only memory of him, Austin Avuru narrated to his biographers, is sitting astride his shoulders and making the rounds at Ipetu-Ijesha, “the smell of the pomade his father applied generously to his dark, curly hair” filling his nostrils.

Nothing destabilizes a growing lad most than losing a parent as a child, no father out there to hug you, to playfully ruffle your hair, tickle you in the ribs or even regale you with nighttime tales. It is even worse if you don’t have any photograph of the deceased to jog your memory, at least what he looked like. Austin Avuru endured all that from very early on in life, having only uncles, aunts, mother and sisters to look up to as family.

Thus did his mother step in as a father, providing all her children’s needs, completing her husband’s nine-bedroom, unroofed building in Abbi. An uncommonly industrious woman and widowed at 32, Cecila Idodo Avuru had to remarry for obvious reasons: first of, she was too young to be a single parent. Second, she needed some possible assistance to take care of her growing brood, provide something like a father figure for them.

Enter a wealthy Abbi merchant, Aniujem Ifekam, who already had children of his own from a previous marriage to two wives. By the time Cecilia joined Ifekam in his home, she became the mother of the house caring for close to a dozen children: five males and six females.

Unlike a typical querulous and divisive stepmother, Cecilia treated all the children equally.

“She really took care of us,” Austin Avuru recalled of those growing up years in a stepfather’s home.

“Her children for the man, the man’s nephews, all 11 of us who lived in that house…there was no discrimination.”

True, Cecilia doted on all the children in the house, gave them equal opportunities to excel in life. Before her husband died prematurely at 51, he had promised to educate his children, especially his only son, Austin. Mrs. Cecilia Avuru made that possible.

The book is pretty much about the oil man himself but the authors show how much of his mother’s influence and guidance rubbed off on him. But it is Austin Avuru who took direct control of his academic life right from the onset.

Born with uncommon intelligence, Austin Avuru demonstrated his intellectual superiority early on in school, in primary school and then Orogun Grammar School, Orogun, an institution founded by Chief Demas Akpore, an institution he “conceived as a place of learning and sporting excellence devoid of religious ideology.”

It was at OGS that Austin Avuru would experience a defining moment in his life by way of a chain-smoking, Mathematics teacher, Solomon Abba who is now Professor emeritus at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. As a student at OGS Austin Avuru was drawn more to the social sciences. But once he and his townsman, Pius Opute met Abba as students, his destiny was shaped for good.

Son of a business woman, Austin Avuru had hoped to read Business Admin in university. But Abba persuaded the brilliant chap to study Geology.

Needless to say that by the time Austin Avuru got admission to read Geology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he continued his streak of academic excellence, graduating the top of his class and giving the valedictory address – mother, uncle, sister and wife-to-be present in the auditorium. “The first four years I spent at Nsukka have been the most interesting years of my life,” the subject told his biographers. Why not?

Apart from being a university valedictorian, he also broadened his social horizon for as the authors write, “it was in Nsukka that he came of age and discovered that there was a much wider world beyond the provincial locale of his beloved Abbi.”

Austin Avuru would also distinguish himself in his professional career, starting from his youth service with NNPC, subsequent employment there, his stint with Allied Energy founded by Kase Lawal, his mentor and former boss.

Like Abba the Mathematics instructor at OGS, Austin Avuru considers Lawal as the man that had the most influence in his life professionally. And the authors capture this larger-than-life entrepreneur deservingly: An entrepreneur, they write, “who brought Conoco into Nigeria;…is reputed to have facilitated the coming of MTN into the country, friend of presidents, confidant of princes and best friend of kings.”

Taking his early lessons from his mentor, Austin Avuru would make the best of the companies he himself set up, first Platform Petroleum and then Seplat, which he co-founded with ABC Orjiako. Of course, in no time, Austin Avuru made Seplat into one of the best O&G industries in the country, listed both on the NSE and LSE.

If his professional life ran smoothly, it was not exactly so with his personal life in the beginning. He was married for more than 24 years without a child because his first wife, Alice, suffered several miscarriages. As an only son and weighed down under an impossible culture where people frown on childless marriages, Austin Avuru could do nothing but bear the situation with the calmness worthy of a stoic philosopher. And then the same wife died due to a sudden asthma attack right in his hands.

In one of his numerous misadventures caused mostly by nature and sometimes his wanderlust, Sinbad of the Arabian tales was comforted with the immortal phrase: “Close thine eyes and whilst thou sleepest, heaven will change thine fortune from evil to good.”

It was so with the unruffled Austin Avuru. Before his wife died, he had met and fathered a child with another woman, a doctoral student at University of Ibadan. They both had a daughter. But the former CEO of Seplat is now happily married with children, all of them in a photo-ops with their parents in some of the pages in A Safe Hands.

Which brings up the title of the book. Any discerning reader will know why the authors chose it. It is the subject’s magnanimity in helping others – individuals, institutions, churches and just about whoever he deems fit to be assisted. Asked once what spurs his generosity, Austin Avuru replied thusly: “It gives me a lot of satisfaction, so much satisfaction, probably more than anything else. When you give and you see the satisfaction in the person you have given to , something beautiful happens.”

A Safe Pair of Hands is all of a piece, from what readers encounter in the book and the cover photograph itself. It is sometimes said you can judge the content of a book from its cover. That is completely true with A Safe pair of Hands. A medium shot of the subject smiling, in a three-quarter pose, hair sprinkled with sagely white, an angled visage with a direct gaze, it is a smile of confidence, a smile of one who has seen it all – the rugged terrain and the smooth rides – a sweet smile of success for sure.