Ekwegbalu raises a toast to Chris Okoye, one of Nigeria’s most creative engineers who performed scientific innovations that sustained the defunct Biafra.

By Ejike Ekwegbalu

Happy 90th Birthday to a Hero and my Uncle.

Oftentimes, our popular conception of the war hero is the fire-spitting, battlefront personality who obliterates the enemy at the warfront. Aside from Florence Nightingale whose nursing exploits at the Crimean warfront set the tone for the profession, most other heroes in wartime remain unsung.

My Uncle, Engr. Christian Okoye, who celebrates his 90th birthday today, is one of those unsung heroes and I’ll tell you why. You see, at the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil Warin 1967, the country’s Oil and Gas industry was still at its nascent stage, with zero local refining capacity and mainly foreign technical knowhow. War came and the expatriates working in the oilfields were hurriedly evacuated to safety. The hostilities equally caused massive disruptions to the importation of refined fuel into the embattled South East region.

That was when the ingenuity and heroics of my uncle, a British-trained Engineer working with Shell-BP then and a crop of fellow young engineers of Southeastern extraction, kicked in. With no foreign technical expertise to lean on, my uncle and his colleagues managed to set up local refining operations that ensured the supply of gasoline across the region in wartime. Think of modular refineries without any foreign input!

They did this against immense odds, including frequent harassment from their counterparts in the military who felt the non-combatants had the easier task. On one of those occasions, he was forcibly dispossessed of his car by some overzealous soldiers and only got it back when one of their superior officers, knowing the dire implications, returned it with profuse apologies.

While he and his team helped facilitate movement with indigenous knowhow, his wife, my Aunt, a nurse/midwife, did the classic Nightingale role, offering her professional services to beleaguered compatriots and ensuring babies born during the war were spared of some of its harshest realities by the skilled care she brought to bear.

Post-war, he teamed up with another Engineer, Sir Roy Umenyi (who later became the Deputy Governor of old Anambra State in 1979), to found Naupan Engineering Ltd, Aba. It was one of the leading Engineering firms in the Southeast in the 1970s/80s.

He is an especially loving husband to my Aunt, Lady Chinwe Okoye and a great Dad to my Cousins, the late Chiemezue (a very promising Medical Doctor we lost in his prime), Ifeatu, Chinwe, Uzoma, Chiazokam and Osinachi. The children are all successful professionals in their individual rights; along with their husbands, wives and amazing grandchildren.

I’d like you to join me to raise a toast to celebrate Engr Chris Okoye, this exceptionally accomplished gentleman and unsung hero as he becomes a distinguished nonagenarian.

Happy Birthday Uncle.

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