March 16, 2024

Herbert Wigwe And the Tributes, by Ugoji Egbujo

Herbert Wigwe And the Tributes, by Ugoji Egbujo

Herbert Wigwe’s tributes were eye-opening. Sorrowfully told, sometimes punctuated by sobs, they were a rich lesson. The man was on a mission. He courted God and man. He helped build and fund churches. He helped construct schools in Makoko and other poor neighborhoods nationwide, including Kano. He spent hundreds of millions seeking to unearth talents in God’s children. Herbert adopted thousands of poor kids and shouldered the burden of their education. He was bold, discreet, and thoughtful. Fearless was only a slogan.

His elder sister’s tribute corrected an impression. The man didn’t start outstandingly brilliant at school. His father was all over him, shepherding, reining in. At the University of Nigeria, Hebert finally got his bearings right and acquired the self-regulation needed to maximise his potential. So his father, who had monitored him with surprise visits, was at ease. The boy started pushing for excellence. Perhaps it helped that he knew his destination. From the beginning, he had always known what he wanted to be: an accountant, multi-millionaire, and then a change agent.

At Capital Bank, he resigned because he didn’t want to be part of a bank run by the owner like a kindred soup kitchen. The perks and privileges didn’t obscure the importance of risk-consciousness, principles and decency. At the GTB, he showed his go-getter side. If it took clubbing and dining to meet a target, Herbert was fastidious; he wouldn’t spare personal expense. The tributes did more showing than telling.  When the GTB pulled in the account of a major oil-producing firm, Herbert received accolades for the exceptional feat. He blazed professional trails. 

Being an executive director in the country’s most polished and lucrative bank by 2000 was something, but Herbert was locked onto a bigger picture. He wanted to produce wealth, pull in resources and direct them to areas where society could be best impacted. So he had to own a bank. Contrary to widespread insinuations, none of the takeovers was malicious.

He followed the rules. The legacy owners got their due rewards. Aigboje and Herbert, partners forever, bought over and resuscitated a comatose Access Bank, which was a loss making machine. They injected into it a fresh breath of professionalism and optimism. The small bank with a new big engine soon started to dream. They played in the corporate game like GTB. They didn’t do indiscriminate things like other small banks of that  2002-2006 era. But they weren’t as aloof as the GTB and a few others to retail banking. They weren’t snobbish to small customers. 

When Lamido Sanusi’s Tsunami came, Access Bank stood firm. Because, comparatively, their books and fundamentals were neat and strong. So when some big banks flopped, they saw greater access into the markets and grabbed the opportunity.

Tributes often embellish the dead. So some folks have said they will swallow the Herbert tributes with a gulp of Dangote salt. Herbert couldn’t have been a saint. Yet, the idea that he was somehow responsible for the sins of the banking industry is unfair. In a country like Nigeria, such skepticism is healthy though. Still, to dismiss his successes as farcical and his wealth as ill-gotten, is a bit too indiscriminate a reductionism. Herbert became an executive director at arguably the country’s most professional bank at the time. When he became a founder of a bank, he showed the mettle. Granted bullshit thrives in Nigeria as industry and banks haven’t acquitted themselves creditably. Yet, the smart and hardworking, always prefer a clean and straight system, where effort and merit fetch the highest rewards. Herbert would have thrived best in a system that didn’t reward ineptitude and mediocrity and cronyism and corruption. Herbert was a warrior.

As he rose, he retained old friendships and cultivated new ones, including a friendship with God. At the City of David, he showed commitment in body, soul and spirit.  He was a community and church organiser.  The City of David parish of the RCCG which ought to have been at the centre of the funeral was conspicuously missing. That was another poignant lesson. The pastor and his wife had betrayed Herbert’s grieving family and the church. For the role Herbert played in church and society,  his death , even if tragic, should have won many souls to God. But the pastor’s wife inserted herself into it and manifested unspeakably callous indifference by throwing a most hedonistic party days after the helicopter crash, casting the parish as a hollow,  exhibitionistic and rudderless congregation. 

Most remarkable of the tributes was Emir Sanusi’s testimony. He said he used to visit Herbert’s sister at home when he was a middle-level officer at the UBA. But his general attitude towards Herbert was professional respect for a high-flying younger man. Herbert would later become his confidant. When the Emir of Kano was dethroned, it was to Herbert he ran. Herbert sent a jet to Kano to collect his wives and children and property. Herbert received them in Lagos and put them in a hotel. Herbert gave them cars, cash and security. Then, Herbert arranged a house and sheltered them. Then, Herbert told the Emir, “Whatever you want, my HRH, wherever you want to travel to in the world, just tell my special assistant and consider it done.” The Emir said he thought he would die before Herbert. So when he instituted a Trust for his children’s education, he appointed the person he trusted the most to be the protector of the Trust. That person was Herbert, an Igbo man from Rivers. The Emir sobbed away.

The tributes were poignant. Herbert’s father was a soldier in the Nigerian Army. At the break of the war, he fought for Biafra. After the war, he resigned from the Nigerian army, just like my late father-in-law, late Ben Iloabachie. At the highest levels in private life, Nigerians don’t do tribalism. The Nigerian elite are a tribe of their own. Outside of politics, Nigerians live as one people.

Professor Osinbajo’s tribute was startling. They had been friends for many years, Yemi Osinbajo and Herbert Wigwe. When prof became vice president, Herbert never went to him for help. Yet he called the vice president often to inquire about his well being. When the vice president was about to leave office, Herbert called him seeking to meet with him. The vice president thought Herbert finally needed something. Herbert came to ask the VP what he planned to do after leaving office and how he, Herbert, could help him settle into private life again. Surreal! At that meeting, Herbert took notes and followed Osinbajo up with more meetings. So having helped Emir Sanusi settle, he wanted to help Osinbajo bear his burden. 

Herbert was as compassionate as he was strategic in building and nurturing friendships. He helped the rich as he helped the poor. His driver gave a moving tribute. Herbert let him pursue a degree course. On completion, Herbert allowed him to move up into the Admin dept. Tributes came from the rich and poor, and they all spoke of empathy.

Dangote was his mentor. Aliko looked ghostly and sat out all the programmes in Lagos and Isiokpo. But the usually taciturn Aliko Dangote also said the Herbert helped him navigate troubled waters in his business. At some point, the phlegmatic Aliko, crumpled and wept. So for Herbert coming to the aid or rescue of his friends was a better mission than frolicking with them. Perhaps, that should, indeed, be the better definition of a true friend: a friend in need.

Herbert was from Isiokpo in Rivers state. Having lived most of his life outside the state, he could have moved on. But he didn’t. Many wealthy folks in Nigeria look across the desert and ocean to endow chairs in Cambridge and Oxford and Harvard. When Herbert sought to build a Harvard University, he chose West Africa. He took it to his village. Profit couldn’t have been the motive. He told the villagers that the university would belong to them. So, can a son of the soil ever be truer?

Rest in Peace Herbert, Chizoba and Chizzy Wigwe