By Muyiwa Adetiba
I am told that Ovuodoroye translates roughly to mean ‘everyman with his own greatness’ in Urhobo language. If that is so, then Olorogun Felix Ibru who passed on last week certainly lived up to his name. Ovuodoroye is the native and middle name in Olorogun Felix O. Ibru.
Born into a middle class family, he was one of seven siblings which included five very illustrious brothers. His senior brother Michael was the Dangote of his time with fingers in many juicy pies. At a time, he was the Chairman of at least 46 companies. It seemed that Felix, his immediate younger brother, was destined to be in his shadow because by the time Felix entered Igbobi College, Mike was already the Head Boy with a towering personality. But somehow, Felix perhaps the most rascally of the Ibru brothers in their younger days, showed enough individuality to be given early leadership roles by the school and even his classmates. He became the class monitor and secretary of their prestigious social club. He also became the Head Boy in his final year shattering the convention then that no two brothers could be Head Boys in the same generation.
Prompted by his senior brother who felt the future lay in construction, young Felix who had initially planned to go into the Nigerian Army, went to the UK in search of the Golden Fleece and ended up studying Architecture. He was to emerge with the best Year Prize in his final year. His sojourn in the UK started a series of ‘Firsts’ quite apart from being the first Ibru to have travelled abroad when he represented the Western Region in a trip sponsored by Elder Dempster. He became the first African to be elected the President of the British Council with responsibility for Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. He became, on his return to Nigeria, the first Resident lecturer in Architecture at the Yaba College of Technology. He crowned it all by becoming the first Civilian Governor of the newly created Delta State.
He was among his brothers, perhaps the closest to Mike, the Ibru patriarch not only in age but in other areas as well and shared, upon his return, the vision of the Ibru dynasty with his already illustrious brother. Together, they worked assiduously to provide the building blocks to what later became a giant edifice. The decline of that edifice in later years was to make a philosopher out of him. It can be said that each of the Ibru brothers achieved his own greatness since each stood out individually but Felix probably had an edge in the sense that he made successful forays into different arears. By the time he died, he was a successful Architect who had pioneered the design of domes in Nigeria and had many architectural landmarks which included Sheraton Hotel and Tower, Port Harcourt Civic Center and Universities of Benin and Lagos Master-plans; a successful politician who became a Senator and Governor; a successful businessman who helped in building one of the biggest indigenous companies in Nigeria; and a successful cultural ambassador who became the President-General of the powerful Urhobo Progress Union UPU.
You would expect Felix ibru to be vain if not down- right proud given his achievements. But the reverse was the case. I once mentioned his humility to an older friend who asked rhetorically if I had ever met a proud Ibru. On reflection, all the Ibru brothers carried themselves with civility even at the height of their pomp and power. They were young, good looking, rich and very well connected; all the ingredients that could easily mix to produce arrogance, yet they were to a man, humble and refined. I had been around the Ibrus for a while albeit from a distance because we all shared the same Alma Mater with the exception of Goodie. I was also one of the very few, if not the only reporter to have done a full page interview with Mike, the oldest of the brothers. But I got close to Felix only last year when I was contacted to collaborate with him on his biography. We had several deep and sometimes private sessions during which, like all biographers know, you get to know the core of a person.
Felix Ibru was a man who was meticulous but extremely humble. He was also a firm person with a high sense of justice. His penchant for the truth would not allow him to be quiet in the face of injustice and he would invariably find a way to make his views known. It could be said that he respected but feared no one.
His mentor if any, would be the late Pa Awolowo with whom he shared the passion for truth and bluntness. If the sessions were warm and pleasant it was because he made them so. Not once was he late despite his failing health. I always found him seated with a file and his warm glass of water, and he would get up to usher me to my seat. He could be solicitous to a fault, always fussing over me with water, tea or even food.
He tried to make sure there were no interruptions during the sessions by way of visitors or calls. The height of his humility was when he asked for my permission to take a call that had become persistent! At the end of the sessions he always saw me to the door where we would talk about golf, the alma mater or some private stuff he did not want on tape. I found him a very decent man whose show of respect for people was genuine.
Another pointer to his person was how he chose to mark his 80th birthday last year. He could have chosen to worship at the Cathedral in Lagos because he was a member or at the Arch Bishop Vining in Ikeja because he was also a member. But he wanted a chapel worship. So he chose a small chapel inside the Lagos State Teaching Hospital Ikeja where he worshiped with close friends and family.
Olorogun Felix Ovuodoroye lived a good life; some would say a high life. I relived part of that life with him last year. It was a life with its ups and downs including when he was wrongly locked up for a coup he knew nothing about.
His legacies however, are all around in his designs and contributions to the society. For me, the only regret is that I did not get close to him earlier. I would have wanted to spend more time around him. He was my kind of person. And I don’t say that of many people.