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Herbert Wigwe

A Weeklong Farewell To The Wigwes (1)

3 months ago
7 mins read

It was a week of raw emotions, tears and tributes as Nigerians and foreign dignitaries from all walks of life turned out in large numbers to celebrate the lives of Dr. Herbert Wigwe, his wife Doreen and Son, Chizi, in a series of weeklong funeral activities. While world leaders like former Presidents Bill Clinton, Olusegun Obasanjo and Emmanuel Macron sent in their video messages, Nigerians assembled at Eko Hotel and Isiokpo community to bid farewell to this icon. The week started on Sunday, March 3 with employees of the Access Bank Group (they call it ‘Access Nation’) assembling on the large grounds of their Lekki Head office to celebrate their late Group Chief Executive Officer and his family. Although the directors and leadership of the company were all present, they remained muted throughout the three hour-event as only employees were fully in charge. It was strictly an employee event.

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Prayers over, Bisola Oyelowo, Senior HR Business Partner, Employee Engagement & Culture, gave a resounding opening statement that set the tone for the night. ‘’Tonight, we gather under this canopy of stars to pay homage to a titan among us, a visionary whose daring and fearless spirit has shaped the very fabric of our institution and touched countless lives across continents’’, she said. Her remarks swept through every facet of Herbert’s life, evoking fond memories of him without offending the solemnity of the moment. She described the departed boss as ‘’the man who exemplified integrity, humility and generosity in every facet of his being’’. After her speech, Access Choir stepped up to the podium, resplendent in white, to render ‘’Blessed Assurance’’ and ‘’How Great Thou Art’’. Access Choir is the brainchild of Herbert. He was passionate about choral music, jazz and classical music. More tributes from employees and former staff members followed. Access has a large community of former employees, including this writer. They have come together to celebrate their former boss and are already raising money to honour his memory in an enduring manner.

A Weeklong Farewell To The Wigwes (1)

Monday, March 4 was tagged ‘Celebrating Professional Excellence’ and it was the turn of Corporate Nigeria to celebrate one of its own. Bankers, industry captains, public officials, other professionals and foreign dignitaries filled the big ballroom of Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos. In the audience were Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu; Ogun State governor, Dapo Abiodun; CBN Governor Yemi Cardoso; Finance Minister Wale Edun; AfDB President Akinwunmi Adesina; Aliko Dangote; GTB founder Fola Adeola; Senator Ibrahim Dankwambo (former governor of Gombe State), directors of Access Corporation and its subsidiaries, among hundreds of others. I can’t remember any other funeral event that has brought together such a plethora of dignitaries under one roof. The four-hour event was divided into six segments and speakers were accordingly grouped: The Young Herbert; Herbert the Banker; Herbert The Entrepreneur; Herbert The CEO; Herbert The Builder and Herbert the Ambassador.

At exactly 5.30 pm, we were all up for the National Anthem, after which Roosevelt Ogbonna, the bank’s managing director, gave Herbert’s citation. One of Herbert’s mentees from their GT days, Roosevelt was my first direct supervisor when I joined the bank 16 years ago. He’s now spotting a heavy white beard, which makes him look older than his age. He read the well-written citation calmly but soon was overwhelmed with emotions. He sobbed intermittently.

Then came the tributes and the first to speak was Senator Ibrahim Dankwambo, former governor of Gombe. He was a staff of Coopers & Lybrand in 1988 when Herbert arrived the firm, accompanied by his father, Pastor Shyngle Wigwe, to begin his NYSC primary assignment. Dankwambo recalled Herbert’s sense of duty even as an NYSC member. Cathy Echeazor; Segun Agbaje (CEO of GT Holdco) and Dolapo Ogundimu reminisced on Herbert’s early career at Kapital Merchant Bank and GT Bank. They spoke of Herbert’s energy, drive and passion for his job. Agbaje drew laughter when he described Herbert as a friend, colleague and competitor. ‘’Only Herbert would be all three to me’’, he said. He recalled that Herbert visited him two weeks before his death to talk about his university.

The chief executive of MTN Nigeria, Karl Toriola; Jamie Simmonds, chief executive of Access Bank, UK; Ken Okpara, President & Council Chairman of CIBN and Gbenga Oyebode, former Chairman of Access Bank also gave their tributes. Teriola eulogized Herbert for his generosity and spoke of the ‘’intensity and curiosity’’ with which he managed the bank. Simmonds recalled the first time he met Herbert at Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program when the two of them were in the same class in 2000 and how in 2008, he joined Access Bank as the MD of its UK subsidiary and reconnected with Herbert. ‘’Joining Access is the best decision I have ever made and working with Herbert is one of the best moments of my life’’, Simmonds said. Herbert was, until his death, the Chairman of Access UK, and presiding over its board meeting in London two days before his death was his last official duty.

Two of Herbert’s personal assistants, Efoli Ekot and Tunji also gave their tributes, recounting his generosity and compassion as a leader and boss. Tunji started working with Herbert as a chauffeur in 2004. Over time and with Herbert’s support, he’s acquired Bachelor and Masters degree and has since moved into administrative function in the bank, combining it with his PA duties. Efoli has worked with Herbert for 23 years and has benefitted enormously from his mentorship and kindness. In between, there were songs and performances. Darey Art Alade’s rendition of Frank Sinatra’s ‘’I did it my way’’, one of Herbert’s favourite songs, was splendid. Music is really a healing balm in times of grief. Bola Koko, CEO of FMDQ and Ruurd Brouwer, CEO of TC Investment, brought the segment to a close. Koko met Herbert at Coopers 38 years ago, while Brouwer met him 25 years ago when he was a representative of Deutsche Bank in Nigeria. Herbert values and nurtures relationships.

The next segment – Herbert the Builder – was taken up by Aliko Dangote; Gov. Dapo Abiodun; Gov. Sanwon-Olu; Wale Edun; Yemi Cardoso; Akinwunmi Adesina; Ronke Kuye and Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede. Dangote’s emotional statement was gripping and sent everybody sobbing with him. He described Herbert as his friend, brother and mentee, and spoke of Herbert’s unflinching support to the Dangote Group, especially his support for the completion of the gigantic Dangote Petrochemical complex. ‘’It will be difficult to find another Herbert’’, he said, describing him as unforgettable, a soldier of courage and distinction. Dangote announced that he would immortalize Herbert by naming the main road leading into the complex as Herbert Wigwe Way. Gov. Abiodun recalled that he knew Herbert some 30 years ago and described Herbert as daring, bold, diligent, compassionate, dependable and reliable. Under Herbert, the governor said, Access Bank has supported all his infrastructure projects in Ogun State.

Gov. Sanwo-Olu said he knew Herbert 34 years ago when he was working in the oil industry and Herbert was a young banker. They have remained friends since then. He said Herbert had supported his campaigns generously and was also very supportive of his administration. He mentioned the AFREXIM funding Access Bank had arranged for the Fourth Mainland bridge and other big projects in Lagos. The governor was excited to learn that Herbert was born at the Island Maternity Hospital in Lagos and exclaimed, ‘’So, he is an Isale Eko boy’’. The audience liked the humour and Sanwo-Olu promised to immortalize the late banker on Lagos Island. Wale Edun said Herbert was always briming with ideas and recalled his meeting with him in Abuja on February 1, while the AfDB President extolled Herbert for his ingenuity, leadership and creativity.

Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede’s highly anticipated remarks closed the segment. I had earlier in the week told him that Nigerians are eager to hear from him on the death of his friend and business partner. He did not disappoint. He described Herbert as a man with a mission who did so much and wanted to do so much more, but kept worrying ‘’about whether he would have sufficient time to realize his dream for a transformed Africa’’. ‘’February 9th 2024, the day Herbert, Chizoba, Chizi and Bimbo died along with the two pilots was a terrible and tragic day for all of us. But on that day, Herbert was honored in a way that happens to very, very few human beings in the annals of history. As the breaking news of this tragic accident reverberated across the world, time stood still in honor of Herbert Wigwe.’’

Aigboje recalled similar moments in the past when time stood still, like the Martin Luther King and his ‘’I have a dream moment’’ and Bob Geldof and the ‘’We are the world Moment’’. When Herbert died, Aigboje said, time stood still, enabling millions who already knew of him and then hundreds of millions more who had never heard of him pause in unison to learn and reflect about this iconic African leader and understand the full potential of what he was about to do for humanity.

A Weeklong Farewell To The Wigwes (1)

“And time stood still because God wanted the world to know and understand who his son Herbert Wigwe is and what he truly represents. And so, they learnt about his early life and formative years, they learnt about his family life and love of God, they learnt about his professional exploits and philanthropy, they even learnt that Aigboje the person referred to as his brother and partner was neither his spouse nor biologically related to him. Most importantly they learnt that this man, Herbert Wigwe, is a proof that Africa is still capable of producing outstanding men and women with a capacity to change the world in a good and positive way.

“Herbert was committed to building an African continent where men and women can aspire and live to their full potential. He isn’t the only person committed to this objective, but there are very few people in the world whose life and legacy illuminate this commitment the way Herbert Wigwe has. Some have told me that in the last few months, Herbert was very concerned about the state of our nation and continent. This is indeed true and Herbert knew that time was not on our side. Herbert’s purposeful legacy lies in what he was preparing to embark on, a collaborative commitment to building an African continent we will all be proud of. In memory of Herbert, let the work begin.’’

The night ended with a vote of thanks given by a tearful Bolaji Agbede, the Acting Group Chief Executive of Access Corporation.

 

 

Etim Etim
Etim Etim

ETIM ETIM is a journalist, banker and author. He has been a member of the Editorial Board of The Guardian, a Regional Manager in Access Bank and is currently a Columnist in Prime Business Africa, The Cable and Businessday newspapers.

He is also the Chief Executive of Stein Meyer Communications, a major media consultancy and the author of the best-selling book, "Akwa Ibom Heroes: Inside Story of the Fight for Abrogation of Onshore-Offshore Oil Dichotomy" and co-author of another book, "Osinbajo Strides: Defining Moments of an Innovative Leader".

ETIM ETIM is a journalist, banker and author. He has been a member of the Editorial Board of The Guardian, a Regional Manager in Access Bank and is currently a Columnist in Prime Business Africa, The Cable and Businessday newspapers.

He is also the Chief Executive of Stein Meyer Communications, a major media consultancy and the author of the best-selling book, "Akwa Ibom Heroes: Inside Story of the Fight for Abrogation of Onshore-Offshore Oil Dichotomy" and co-author of another book, "Osinbajo Strides: Defining Moments of an Innovative Leader".

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