A line in the song, The Harder They Come, by Jimmy Cliff, the Jamaican reggae superstar who had the world of reggae music under his feet in the 1970s, says, As long as the sun will shine, I’m gonna get my share. He was referring to the challenges that life throws up, but with self assurance that he would get his own share of the good things as long as he lived to see the rising and setting of the sun.
Samuel Onyishi, 52, learnt the ropes of life the hard way, and like Jimmy Cliff, refused to be daunted by the difficult life he tasted on one side of the street at an early age, but determined to forge ahead with the assurance that as long as he breathed, he would overcome the challenges and cross to the other side.
String of setbacks
A lot of untoward developments that could have made any child of his age have a negative view of life took place during Onyishi’s childhood. He lost his father in his first year in secondary school, an incidence that forced him to assume the role of breadwinner to a family that included his mother and siblings. And when he managed to struggle his way through secondary school, he lost an opportunity to secure a job because he couldn’t afford two naira to bribe a messenger to allow him enter an office to pick up his appointment letter, while those without the basic qualification got jobs because they could bribe their way through. He came close to tearing his certificate, since education seemed to mean nothing then. But an encounter with somebody who was below him in primary school a few years later would make him change his view about education.
Having failed to secure paid employment, Onyishi handed his certificate to his mother for safe keeping, and decided to explore the world of business. With N200 which somebody paid as bride price on his sister, he set out from home in Nsukka for Enugu, but had to return shortly when he could not find his bearing. One after the other, he tried his hands on some menial jobs, and one after the other, he failed. In quick succession, he was a wheel barrow pusher, bus conductor and trader, with one failure trailing the other.
He went into music and actually wrote and had his song recorded. But before the song could be released, his producer was arrested and detained over political issues. In frustration, he abandoned music and travelled up north to Kaduna, where he worked as a labourer at a remote place called Ikara. Along the line, he left his employers in 1984 when his salary started coming in bits and returned to Nsukka, luckily, at a time the University of Nigeria was paying compensation for lands it acquired for developmental purposes.
Onyishi’s mother collected N1, 200 for the family land and handed the whole money to him. With the money in his pocket, he returned to Ikara to venture into sale of second hand cloths, moving to Kano in 1987. By 1989, he had saved up to N12, 000, enough to enable him to go into apprenticeship for spare parts business, and within five years, the newest businessman in town could boast of N260,000 in his bank account.
The allure of money that was coming in quantum could have made Onyishi continue in his spare parts business if not for a public disgrace by a boy who was two years his junior in primary school. It was an occasion at which Onyishi and the boy were engaged in an argument. The boy had become a university graduate over time, while Onyishi could boast of only the West African School Certificate that was in his mother’s care. In the course of the argument, his former primary school mate told him pointedly to keep quite because he, a school certificate holder, was not qualified to speak where a university graduate spoke. It was a statement that pierced through Onyishi’s heart, destroying any measure of self esteem he had as a man.
Like a wounded lion, Onyishi closed down his business in Kano and returned to Nsukka to pursue university education. He secured admission to do a diploma programme between 1993, and a degree programme in 1996, graduating in 1999 with a second class upper in Social Work and Community Development. He would later earn an MBA in Entrepreneurship from the Institute for Transformative Thought and Learning in the Doctoral Research Centre of the University of Arizona, Phoenix, in the United States.
Road to success
Onyishi’s interest in business did not wane with his admission into university. He discovered, in school, that he could utilize his spare time when he wasn’t busy with academic work to earn some income. He went back to Kano in 1994, closed his bank account and used the entire N260, 000 to purchase two commercial buses. He hired a driver for one of the buses and drove one himself, working part time during lecture-free periods and full time on weekends and public holidays.
The two vehicles were meant to assist with his financial needs as a student. But when the number grew to eight buses, the university undergraduate realized he had potential to become a transporter. He formed a transport company named Nsukka Mass Transit, and entered into a contract with Nsukka Local Government Council to use its name. Onyishi became a successful transporter even as a student, such that by the time he graduated, the number of buses in the company’s fleet had grown to 45.
But the relationship with the local government council did not last long, as Onyishi fell out with the council for contract breach in allowing a competitor use a similar same – Nsukka Urban Mass Transit. Every disadvantage, as the saying goes, is a blessing. He changed the name of his company to Peace Mass Transit Limited (PMT) in 1996, formally registering it as a limited liability company with a paid up capital of N100, 000. He applied for and was granted use of a private park, thus becoming the first transporter to own a mini bus private park in Nsukka, Enugu, Onitsha, Abakaliki, Aba, Owerri, Njuba and Abuja.
Running a mass transit business in Nigeria is not a tea party, as Onyishi found out. He had to cope with numerous challenges that included dishonesty by managers and accounting staff, especially dubious drivers who would explain away low daily returns with stories of mechanical breakdowns that needed to be sorted out – the same story that has run many transport companies out of business in Nigeria.
But Onyishi could not be fooled. Somebody who learned the hard way would naturally be expected to be street-wise. He devised a strategy to verify drivers’ claims each day they came back with stories of mechanical repairs on buses. He would calmly listen to such stories and, after the driver had gone home convinced that he had sold him a dummy, go under the buses to check for proof of repairs, with the aid of a mat and torchlight, regardless of whether or not the ground was wet. He could determine, for instance, if a ball joint was repaired, since it must have fresh grease on it. The effortless manner in which Onyishi always punctured the lies of his drivers made them to conclude that he must possess some magical powers. He had regular fights with his drivers, mostly those who were brazen enough to attempt to shortchange him, but curiously, would not sack them.
The single business Onyishi started as a transport company while in school has today grown into an octopus known as Peace Group of Companies, with PMT as the flagship having over 2,000 mini buses in its fleet. The company is arguably the biggest mass transit company in Nigeria operating from 32 terminals in 26 states of the federation and the federal capital territory and moving over 66, 000 passengers daily across the country through 65 routes, with over 4, 000 staff.
The transport company that started with what would today not be worth more than N5, 000 now has fully paid up capital in excess of four billion naira, with asset base of over N20 billion.
Onyishi applied a combination of native intelligence, business acumen and the hard lessons he needed to learn early in life to achieve phenomenal success in an industry that parades people who had been in the business from when he was an infant. For travelers on interstate routes in different parts of the country, white mini buses with the inscription, Peace Mass Transit, are a common site.
Other companies in the Peace Group are Peace Quick Response Insurance Brokers, Peace Petroleum Limited, Peace Microfinance Bank, Peace Express Services Limited and Peace Capital Market Limited (Stock Brokers). Others are PMT Aviation Services, Peace Bureau de Change, PMT Beijing Trade Limited, China and Maduka Commercial and Futon International Nigeria Limited, sole importer of Hiace brand of vehicles into Nigeria.
Onyishi does not believe that every youth should tread the same difficult path he took to be able to realize his potential. Having risen above his circumstance to attain an enviable height, he has channeled resources into uplifting the standard of living of as many people as he can touch.
He has used the Onyishi Peace Foundation that he set up in 1998 to empower over 640 young men and women in form of start-up capitals for small businesses. Hundreds of students in institutions of higher learning in different parts of the country are beneficiaries of his scholarship programme. And for his Alma Mata, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), a 16-room office block for the Faculty of Social Sciences stands to his credit. The Institute of African Studies at the university is also the home of the Samuel Maduka Onyishi Africa Entrepreneurship Foundation, which awards scholarships to a minimum of 100 undergraduate and post graduate students in Nigerian and foreign institutions every year. Some of the beneficiaries of the scholarship who studied Chinese have been employed to teach the language in UNN and Afe Babalola University in Ado Ekiti, in Ekiti State.
For his humanitarian gestures, Onyishi has been honoured in different ways by appreciative publics that include his community, the academia, the business community and government.
In May, 2013, the Enugu State University of Science and Technology awarded him an honorary Doctor of Business Administration. This was followed in September of the same year with the award of Pillar of Community Service Development by the South East Network of Professionals. In February, 2014, the Enugu Chamber of Commerce honoured him with the prestigious Keyman Award for Business Excellence and Integrity. His Alma Mata, UNN, was not left out in the list of institutions that showed appreciation to Onyishi for his contributions to the advancement of education. The university awarded him another Doctor of Business Administration honoris causa.
Other awards that came the way of the transport magnate include an honorary doctorate degree in Communication Arts and Public Administration from the Institute of Journalsim, Management and Continuing Education, Enugu; African International Fellowship Award from the African Biographic Centre; Fellow of the Institute of African Studies, UNN and Service Recognition Award by the Association of Heads of Federal Establishments in Enugu.
Onyishi’s contributions to national development did not escape the attention of the federal government. And on September 17, 2012, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan honoured him with the award of Member of the Order of the Niger (MON).
Not being the biblical prophet that was without honour at home, Onyishi got recognition by his people with the chieftaincy titles of Onwa, by the Amukwa community and Onwu Nsukka, by the Nsukka Town General Assembly