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Two Remarkable Urhobo Men By Sonala Olumhense

Sometime in June 1983, I found myself sitting next to Chief Michael Ibru at a company retreat.

Four months earlier, The Guardian on Sunday, a newspaper title under the signature of the chief’s younger brother, Alex, had debuted in Lagos.  I was on the staff. 

The Guardian on Sunday was a teaser.  The mother-title was to be known as The Guardian, a daily newspaper.  That evening, The Guardian team was commencing a weekend retreat in Ogogoro Island, a little distance by boat from Victoria Island.  Two of the older Ibru brothers arrived to support their brother.

There were a few female faces at that dinner table, but that was a departure from the masterplan.  We were supposed to have been able to bring our significant other, but only a day or two earlier, there was a misleading rumor we were going to the island for a far more nefarious pleasure purpose.

Quickly then, the original plan changed.  The female faces present that night were generally members of the staff.  Any others fell into the “less significant”—or subsidiary, or substitute—company of someone irresistibly powerful.  Mercifully, all of that was before social media and powerful cell phones.

Dinner was fascinating, and it was an education to observe the Ibrus together.  The engaging Chief Ibru told us about his business journey, particularly his fish enterprise.

Not once did he ever speak about selling fish; instead, it was about “meeting the protein needs” of the Nigerian people.

At one point, I said to him in a side exchange that merely sitting there, I could see why his family was successful.  Intrigued as intended, he asked me in his witty way: “And what is that?”

I told him it was because there were two conversations going on: the business of the table, and the one he was carrying on with his brothers without any of them uttering one word or even moving his lips.

The old man laughed, and towards the end of the evening, politely invited me to visit him.  That was an invitation I never honoured, but I did not need it to develop immense respect for him. 

I illustrate: Soon after that retreat, I met in Surulere another businessman who had once worked for Chief Ibru in London.  He confessed he had unduly attracted the man’s attention by skipping his end-of-year staff parties, despite the chief’s personal appeal to him.

And then, years later in Lagos, the younger man got into a minor accident on his way to work, and the car was taken to the motor company the chief owned.  As the service order was being written up, he told me, Chief Ibru himself arrived, and recognized the recalcitrant young man from London.

Those were the days of the Odd-Even car licence plate order in Lagos.  Your car ventured into Lagos Island on the days determined by its licence number.

As if the situation was not bad enough, the younger man discovered his car would not be repaired for several weeks.  To which Chief Ibru, with no anguish whatsoever, gave him the keys to a brand new car as a substitute.

A further surprise awaited him on the day he returned to pick up his own.  “How will you be getting to work on the days that your car is not on the road?” Chief Ibru asked. 

As then as he stuttered, the older man simply told him he could keep the new car.  He said he thought it was a joke, but Chief Ibru had just given him the gift of a new, fully-registered car.

The chief died this month at the age of 85.  By the early 1980s, he had nurtured a massive conglomerate of nearly 50 companies in every conceivable area of the Nigerian economy. 

As a person, I am sure he was not perfect, as perfection belongs only to God.   In nearly 40 years in the stadium of public life, however, I have encountered many so-called successful, rich or powerful Nigerians who are often defined by deep selfishness, deceitfulness, pretentiousness and wickedness. A ‘successful’ Nigerian businessman does not often think he is successful until he possesses the power to ration the very oxygen people breathe.

Chief Ibru was one of the warm and genuine ones.  Perhaps because he never stood on any government’s purse and pretend he was tall, he stayed true to his roots, and people mattered to him.  He knew the difference between opportunity and opportunism, and that helping another to stand up does not make one shorter.

I knew another man of similar humanity, another man who died two days before Chief Ibru. 

Isidore Okpewho was a brilliant intellectual and a lot of his admirers knew him as an award-winning writer.  He was.  He was also my teacher.  I was lucky to meet him at the University of Ibadan in 1976 when I took his creative writing class. 

He was a young and energetic man at the time, and he taught with passion and perceptiveness.  He was a writer with as much natural feel as flair, and a teacher who treated words with love and affection.  As a student, I learned he would challenge with intensity every word and every sentence to justify their existence or magnify their presence.

I stayed in touch with him through the early years of my career in journalism.  For me, he was such a key component of my alma mater that when he called me in New York in 1991, I was in shock.

“Prof, what are you doing here?” I asked. 

He turned the searchlight around.  “What are YOU doing here?” he asked me. 

He went on to teach in some of the best institutions in the US, including Binghamton University in New York where he also taught my daughter.  That was where I last saw him.  Although he had suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair, he retained his memory and intellectual heft, and we talked life, literature and Nigeria. 

It is significant to reflect on the point that in that wheelchair, he continued to write.  He continued to teach and touch students and readers, a feat made possible by a society which values intellect rather than patronize it.  I do not doubt that his life was extended because he was enabled to do the things he loved.  In the hands—better still, at the mercy—of Nigeria, thieving politicians and their contractor “businessmen” and university officials, his would have been a shorter story.    

Still, these two titans, both of them of Urhobo origin, are united in death not only because they died within two days of each other, but because each passage happened in the US: another reminder of the jungles in which Nigeria remains lost: one at home, and the other abroad.

I fully expect the Ibru family to ensure that the name of their patriarch lives forever.  He earned that.  I invite them to extend and broadcast the related Okpewho brand as well, by endowing a significant university chair or setting up an annual Isidore Okepho Writer Award. 

The effect will be to multiply the riches of two noble hearts, forever nurturing the seeds they have planted, and extending the Urhobo brand, and the Nigerian promise. 

God grant you rest, gentlemen.

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Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense


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