From a poor student who eventually had to quit school for want of money, to a labourer, a bus conductor, a driver, to founding Peace Mass Transit Limited, the story of Dr. Sam Maduka Onyishi (MON) is testimony to the fact that ultimately, the road to success is hard work, resilience and focus.
“Success does not come by wishful thinking but through hard work, dedication and constant prayer to God,” he observed in an update. “For you to succeed you must work hard, deny yourself of pleasures, work while others are sleeping.”
Sam is determination personified; a living proof that despite all the odds, success can be achieved outside of government. And more than anyone else, he understands that success has little or nothing to do with family background.
“One lesson I want the young generation to learn is that there is nothing like carry-over in success. Success does not necessarily come from one’s background,” he noted. “Anybody can be successful.”
Sam was only a little boy in JSS 1 at Bubendorf Grammar School, Adazi, Anambra State in 1977, when his bricklayer father slumped and died in his home town of Nsukka, ending his dreams of higher education and hope of a better life. He had nursed hopes of proceeding to the university to study law.
The death, however, changed the trajectory of his young life. All he ever knew in the aftermath was strive, left under the care of a widowed mother who had not much beyond few farmlands to cater for her seven children, in a family of nine, of which he was first.
Sam’s mother withdrew him from Adazi for financial reasons, to a school closer home in Community Secondary School, Mbu, Isi Uzo Local Government, Enugu. But even there, life hardly felt better.
“Then I had only one pair of khaki shorts and one white shirt against the recommended two pairs,” he narrated in an interview. “I would wash the uniform on Saturdays, wear it clean from Monday to Wednesday and avoid morning assembly on Thursday and Friday because my uniform was too dirty.
“Those two days, I went to school early and hid somewhere. But of course I was always punished for coming late. I climbed all the mango trees in the school to pluck their fruits for food and to sell for money.”
Upon finishing JSS 3, Sam was withdrawn once again from Isi Uzo, this time to St. Theresa’s college in his home town of Nsukka, where he managed to complete his secondary school education. Life after school was tough. Sam took to menial jobs to earn some income to support his mother.
But by sheer determination, he battled life’s vicissitude so to lead a revolution in the country’s transport business where he has become a household name – ironically with only a few people actually knowing his name. He founded Peace Mass Transit in 1995, aged 31.
Before he came on board long distance travel was dominated by luxury buses, which was the preserve of a few wealth people. But he saw that future belongs to small buses and carved a niche for himself. The company presently has the highest number of mini bus fleet in the country,
“I started as a bus conductor, bus driver, a labourer in a company and a motor spare parts dealer. Today, I am a bus operator by God’s grace.”
Between those periods, a lot transpired. Sam made attempts to find a job with his senior school certificate. The government was recruiting auxiliary teachers. The requirement was five credits in SSCE. Sam was qualified and duly applied. But he lost the opportunity ultimately because he could not afford N2 to bribe a messenger to allow him enter the zonal commissioner’s office to collect his appointment letter.
He recalled that what hurt him most about the experience was that some applicants, who did not have up to five credits at one sitting, got the job because they could afford N2. It was, he noted, his “first experience with the Nigerian factor.”
The experience caused him to leave his certificate with his mother in Nsukka to migrate to Enugu in search of business opportunities, armed with N200 paid as her sister’s bride price. But he was soon back home with his mother, unable to sustain life in Enugu.
He took to menial jobs: barrow pushing, bus conductor and just anything one could do to earn money, he did.
He attempted music, too. And had few songs recorded. But before their release, his producer was arrested. Again, the dream of music died.
Sam travelled to Ikara, a remote village in Kaduna where he worked as a labourer. But soon again, back to Nsukka for being short-changed by his employers.
“I traveled to the North, Kaduna state, to serve as a laborer at a place called Ikara. I left my employers in1984 because my salary wasn’t paid in full. I returned to Nsukka, fortunately for me, that was when UNN was paying my people some money for our land which was sold to them,” he said.
“My mother received N1200 as her own share and she handed over the whole money to me because she trusted me. With that money, I returned to Ikara and went into second hand clothe business. I later moved to Kano in 1987 and by 1989, I had saved up to N12,000. With that, I went to learn motor spare parts business for 24 days and then, set up my own. With the spare parts business, I saved up to N260,000 in my bank account.”
With N260,000 in his bank account in the early 90s, Sam felt he had arrived and had travelled home, perhaps expecting respect from peers and family. He was to get a rude shock, however. At a village meeting, he was ordered to keep quiet and should not talk when graduates were talking because he had only SSCE by a bloke who was his junior in secondary school.
“This guy was my junior in primary school,” he recalled in an interview. “In fact, he was two years behind me; even though he was older than me, but he had become a graduate. He told me in public that I should not argue with him because I was only a WASC holder.”
After the experience, Sam abandoned his business in Kano to return to school. He got admission to enroll in a diploma programme at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) in 1993. He finished the programme in 1996, the same year he continued with a degree programme in Social Work and Community Development, and graduated in 1999 with Second Class Honours, Upper Division.
When he started his lectures as a student, he discovered he had plenty of idle time. To fill that space, he went back to Kano and withdrew the N260, 000 in his account and used it to purchase two buses. He gave one out to another driver and drove one himself at his spare time, using it to convey passengers after lectures on week days and full time one Saturdays. That was the beginning of what would become Peace Mass Transit.
“My going into transport business was like a film. At a time, I was only doing it to support myself in school,” he noted. But before I knew it, I had moved from the initial two buses to eight.”
With eight buses, Sam went into a an agreement with the Nsukka Local Government to use its name to run his transport business. The agreement birthed Nsukka Mass Transit, the original name of his transport company.
With the partnership, Sam’s business grew. By the time he finished school in 1999, he had 45 buses in his fleet. But then, he fell out with the local government over what he called contract breach. He pulled out of the agreement and formed Peace Mass Transit. The rest, they say is history.
“I fell out with the local Government because they violated our agreement by allowing another operator to use a similar name as mine,” he recalled.
“The new person called his Nsukka Urban Mass Transit. I had to change my name to Peace Mass Transit. I applied for a private park and it was granted. So, I owned the first mini-bus private park in Nsukka, Enugu, Onitsha, Aba, Abakaliki, Owerri, Njuba Abuja. Then, it was almost impossible, but God was with me.”
Sam is no ordinary bus operator. With nearly 4000 mini buses in his fleet, more than 32 bus terminals in 26 states of the federation, and with well over 4000 people employed, Sam has perhaps the largest of any transport company in the country, he is a trail blazer who redefined commercial transportation.
Before Sam, long distance journeys was only undertaken in long buses, mini buses were a rare feature of the industry. But with Sam’s mini bus success, other companies have followed his trail. Mini buses have become dominant in the industry, for both short and long distance journeys.
“We are the largest fleet operator in Nigeria,” he noted. “This can be investigated. By the time you check Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Onitsha, Kano, Kaduna, Abuja, then you know who is who in Nigeria.”
The key factor in the success of his company he says, is, “we take safety very seriously and I am proud of what I am doing. I am an ethical operator in the sense that I mind my business. I don’t do anything to undermine other people’s businesses.
“I do my competition by working on the road worthiness of my vehicles by making my firm friendly and I believe in making money through turnover. That is when my profit is low and my turnover is high. I do my competition on the road while some people do theirs on the social media.”
But Sam has had setbacks, this mostly in the form of negative publicity. For a season, there was a campaign that tended to target his company and portray it as too accident prone. This, he blamed on competitors.
“When your vehicle is involved in an accident, they edit it ten times and use it as breaking news,” he said. “I didn’t know that was happening all along. I saw our bus that had a eight months earlier posted again as breaking news.
“A vehicle owned by a different company had an accident in Enugu and another person blotted out the name of the company, put Peace Mass Transit in its place and posted it on social media. Luckily for us, somebody who saw that accident replied that the accident was not Peace Mass Transit and people followed up from there. We have suffered from such things.”
Few days ago, Sam made the headlines for returning N2billion ($7m) wrongly paid into his account into by First Bank. He had requested the bank to pay N1billion ($3m) into his Unity Bank account, only to discover that N3billion had been paid instead.
“The amount they paid in was N3,219,500,000 but my own money there is N1,000,000,000 so the balance is not my money,” Sam told reporters in Enugu. “I said that I cannot invest this money and be gaining from another person’s money and I can’t also keep it. I can’t keep $7m that doesn’t belong to me.”
He received praises for the gesture. But Sam has always been a patriot, a true believer in the Nigerian project, and above all, an embodiment of the Nigerian possibility.
“I believe in Nigeria, I believe in spending my money here in Nigeria and I don’t own any house elsewhere, apart from Nigeria. Everything I have is in Nigeria,” he noted in an interview.
“I believe in using my money here to develop my country. I believe in creating jobs and by the grace of God, I employed over 4,000 people in my different businesses. It is not because Nigeria is the safest place to invest but because this is my country and if I can’t use my money to develop Nigeria, who am I expecting to do that for me?”
A philanthropist, Sam understands the concept of giving back. With his Peace Foundation, he has empowered over 640 youths by giving them start-up capital, and has awarded scholarships to many students in different higher institutions of learning in Nigeria.
In his Alma mater, UNN, Sam has built a 16-room office block for the Faculty of Social Sciences, while the Samuel Maduka Onyishi African Entrepreneurship Foundation (SAMOAEF) domiciled at Institute of African Studies, he has given scholarship to undergraduates and postgraduates students both in Nigeria and overseas.
Elsewhere in Nsukka, he built a 10-room administrative block for the Nigerian Police, Nsukka Division; built a hostel block for St. Theresa’s College, Nsukka and completed the Nsukka Town Hall which was named after him.