For Nigerian immigrant, charity finally comes home

Oct 25th, 2009 | By | Category: Student Work

By Martin Ricard

FREMONT — In August, Usua Amanam strode into the spacious conference room like he knew what he was doing. He wore an expensive suit, fancy shoes, Rolex watch, and carried an elegant briefcase and shiny pen. He wanted to look the part, he recalled, to show he really meant business.

Amanam took his seat at the long end of the table with his lawyer sitting by his side, before him awaiting one of the biggest deals of his career.

But an official with the Nigerian Export-Import Bank, the Nigerian government’s financial arm to exporters, sitting on the other end of the table was his only stumbling block. The bank had been stalling for several years on its promise of a $5 million loan to Amanam’s company, which is pioneering Nigeria’s first private refinery.

None of that seemed to matter, though, when Amanam made it clear what he felt needed to happen.

“Hey, I can’t continue to have your name on our books so that you can continue to claim credit. And yet, you have not given us any money,” he recalled saying frankly. The loan was crucial, he said, for getting the project’s other investors on board. “So either you do it now or forget about it because I don’t have time.”

Two hours later, he walked out of the bank with the loan.

usua-profile

Usua Amanam, 56, a Nigerian immigrant who has become a successful entrepreneur, sits in his home office in Fremont.

The recent deal is an example of the business acumen of Amanam, 56, a Nigerian immigrant who came to the United States from the poor town of Eket in his home country to achieve the American dream as a successful entrepreneur.

In many ways, people say, his involvement in the refinery project, Amakpe Refinery Company—which he founded with his late business partner, Nsidibe Ikpe, who died in 2005—also represents something larger: how one of the country’s most profitable resources, for years controlled by and benefiting those outside of Nigeria, is finally bearing fruit on its own soil.

“It’s one thing for the project to find it’s way to Africa,” said Ekomabasi Essien-Ete, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Akwa Ibom State Association of Nigeria. “It’s a totally different thing for it to be situated in any one place like Eket. Because he’s involved, charity has somehow come home.”

The concept of oil in Africa has become synonymous with Nigeria. The country pumps out 1.94 million barrels per day from its vast oil reserves, the majority of which is found along the country’s Niger River Delta, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As the continent’s largest oil producer and the fifth largest oil exporter to the United States (more than half the country’s oil production is exported to the United States), Nigeria plays a major role in the world oil market.

Consequently, increasing disruptions to Nigeria’s oil production such as pipeline vandalism, kidnappings and militant takeovers of oil facilities in the Niger Delta also impact world production.

This makes the Niger Delta region, some say, appear as a hotbed of activity surrounding the oil industry.

However, in Eket, a city in the Akwa Ibom state in the southern Niger Delta region, oil was the last thing on the minds of Amanam and his childhood peers when they were growing up.

‘I had to go to school’

Amanam remembers studying in a classroom with no desks or textbooks and a lack of trained teachers, walking on faulty roads and lacking clean water pipes.

While most of the kids grew up poor, Amanam said, he was one of the few who was exposed to better opportunities. His father was the first in his community to get a formal education. His father later became a minister.

Nigeria was also one of the first African countries to be part of what was dubbed the “bold experiment,” the launching of the Peace Corps program by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

This event indirectly caused a huge wave of Nigerian immigration to the United States. Amanam, who was one of those immigrants, said he was so enamored by the teachings of the Peace Corps volunteers that he dreamed of going to the United States one day.

By the time oil was just being discovered in Nigeria, Amanam was a student at California State University, Hayward studying biological sciences.

“I really didn’t care what was happening around me,” he said. “I had to go to school. There was nothing to stop me from getting an education.”

He later got his master’s degree in epidemiology and worked for the U.S. government before going full-time into business for himself.

Right place, right time

At first he began exporting California wine and rice back to Nigeria.

His first big break came when a company he worked with in Texas asked him if he could take over a batch of deliveries another company was having trouble with.

Amanam convinced the company to transfer over a $2 million line of credit to export goods to Nigeria. About six weeks later, he completed the transaction.

Having no formal business degree, Amanam considered the deal a matter of being in the right place at the right time—and having enough foresight to see the opportunity.

“It was just a matter of luck,” Amanam said. “But you have to always be able to look for something so that when it comes along you can recognize it.”

He now runs a successful import-export business, Amtrat International Corp., which specializes in repackaging surplus footwear and clothing from department stores like Target and Nordstrom’s and shipping them overseas.

Refinery symbolic to community

Perhaps some of Amanam’s success can be attributed to luck. But, some say, it is also no surprise that someone from Eket, a poor city with a rich symbolic history, has accomplished so much.

With its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, Eket is a community where the people have thrived off the fish in the ocean for centuries, using the abundance of food crops around them to catch the fish.

To this day, agriculture remains the bedrock of the community. About 70 percent of the population works in agriculture, mostly through subsistence farming.

Eket also means “it has been found” or “people who see something ahead of time,” which is why some believe Amanam’s refinery project is so symbolic.

Since oil was discovered in the country, Nigerians, for the most part, have yet to reap any significant benefits from the growth.

However, many anticipate the Amakpe refinery, expected to pump out 12,000 barrels per day and employ thousands of local Nigerians, will serve as a springboard for a new industrial revolution in Nigeria.

With an expected launch in December, the refinery will be directly competing with the four government-run refineries and multinational corporations, including Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil, already established in the country.

Chief Usua

To other Nigerians living in the United States, that level of success has garnered Amanam much respect and honor.

When people talk about him, they refer to him as “chief.” It is more than an honorable gesture, though. He is considered a chief back in Eket, taking part in key decisions in the community whenever he returns.

“So don’t be surprised if the Queen of England comes and visits Chief,” joked Baba Adam, a close friend of Amanam who is an administrator at a local college and refers to Amanam with that title even though he is from a different ethnic group in Nigeria. “Seriously, how many people, even in the U.S. of A., have that distinction.”

Amanam, a man of short stature with a slight accent, often won’t speak publicly about his tall order of accolades.

The reason why, those close to Amanam say, is because, while he is deeply passionate about the oil refinery project, his true distinction shows in his children.

As a single father—his wife died of colon cancer in 1997—he has instilled in his three children the same values his father drove into him. The oldest son, Idoro, just graduated from Meharry Medical College, the oldest medical school in the country dedicated to educating African Americans. He is planning to be a surgeon. His daughter, Ekeeti, is a junior studying business at Santa Clara University. And his youngest son, Usua, is a freshman playing football at Stanford University.

“So maybe that’s why he put so much of a premium on (education),” Adam said, “knowing that most Nigerian families (back home) are just getting by to get their kids educated.”

For the most part, Amanam agrees with that assessment.

Draped across a recliner in his home in Fremont on a recent Sunday afternoon, Amanam explained that when he was growing up his father stressed to him the importance of an education and always doing his best at whatever he pursued.

“He would say, ‘Try as much as possible to take advantage of every opportunity,” Amanam said. “That, I have always tried to do.”

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