Herbert wigwe, departed in a blaze, mourned like a deity by presidents, monarchs, and masses.

The way in which the high and mighty in Nigeria were weeping during the nights of tribute for Dr. Herbert Wigwe, who, at the time of his demise, was the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Access Holdings, is reminiscent of how North Koreans openly wept when their leader Kim Jong-il passed away in 2011 and when his son, who took over from him as leader, Kim Jong Un, was ill, in 2020 having been infected by Covid-19.

The difference is that, unlike the fake tears that North Koreans are coerced into shedding by their hermit and oppressive rulers in the autocratic country that is in autarky, those weeping over the untimely passage of energetic Herbert Wigwe, his lovely wife Chizoba, and his dynamic first son, Chizi, in a horrific helicopter crash in the United States of America, USA, genuinely cried owing to their deep love for the Wigwes who lost their lives in the aviation tragedy that occurred on February 9.

In the course of the two (2) nights of tributes in Lagos on Monday 4th and Wednesday 6th, it was awe-inspiring to behold the richest man in Africa, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, and the 14th Emir of Kano, Khalifa Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, sob and cry while narrating their very fond memories of Herbert and the profound impact of his friendship on their businesses and lives.

According to a tearful Alhaji Aliko Dangote, “He was a pillar of support to me and my family.”
As proof that the bond with Herbert will remain indelible in his heart, the emotionally broken Dangote stated: “To immortalize my beloved friend, my brother, and my mentee, I have decided to designate one of the major roads leading to the Dangote Refinery and Petrochemical Complex after him.”

Khalifa Sanusi Lamido Sanusi also laid it all out in a manner unimagined: “About two years ago, I put all my savings into a trust for the education of my children. I have many, and my priority as a father is to make sure that when I pass away, they will have a good education. I told Herbert, ‘I am placing you in charge of this trust for the education of my children because I know that even if I die and do not leave any money, you will educate my children.’ I thought I would die before Herbert.”

Who could have thought that the ‘Herbie Boy’ who later transformed into ‘Herbie Man’ but remained the self-effacing Herbert that we have always known could be the wind beneath the sail of such ‘A-list’ personages.

Of course, Herbert Wigwe’s bosom friend, soul mate, and co-founder of the business empire known as Access Holdings, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, also cried while paying his tribute.

But one intentionally highlights the tears shed by Alhaji Dangote and Khalifa Sanusi over the late Herbert Wigwe because, in a country where tribe, tongue, and religion are strong defining factors of friendships and relationships, it is striking that while the Wigwes, who lost their lives, are lkwere from Rivers State and are of the Christian faith, the two highly respected personalities earlier referenced, openly weeping on the podium for Herbert and his wife and son, are from Kano, Fulani by tribe, and Muslims.

To me, such tearing down of barriers of tribe, tongue, and religion between Christian Wigwe and Muslim Dangote and Sanusi indicates that all Nigerians can actually coexist harmoniously irrespective of tribe and religious belief. The reality is that the divisions along religious and tribal fault lines are concoctions of desperate politicians and extremist religionists. They can be likened to the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany.
If the Berlin Wall can be brought down, upon the urging of former President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, who in 1990 during a visit to Berlin, Germany, toured the Berlin Wall where he famously stated, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, which is a request directed at then Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev who was fueling and fostering the Cold War between the Eastern Bloc and Western hemispheres of the world, there is no reason that the tribal and religious walls erected to perpetuate the division of Nigeria between north and south, Christian and Muslim that would remain in conflict, cannot be dismantled.

Given the quality of friendship shared between the late Herbert, Dangote, and Sanusi, like the Berlin Wall that had been brought down, the north-south divide in Nigeria, driven by those who have been fanning the embers of religion and tribal rivalry which have stymied national progress, should be eliminated by our generation and in our lifetime, because it has been proven that we all can be religion and tribe-neutral, as demonstrated and proven by the trio of Herbert, Dangote, and Sanusi.

Beyond the fiduciary relationship between the three—Herbert, Dangote, and Sanusi—there was also the kindred spirit that transcends the artificial barriers created by those who have been dividing us as a nation, a misnomer reinforced by our forbears.

Based on the positivity inherent in the attitude of Herbert, Dangote, and Sanusi in neutralizing their differences in tribe and creed to foster strong bonds, there should be more of such cross-cultural affinities reinforcing the truth that we are better together and we all, as Nigerians, share one destiny—as in one nation, one destiny!

In my reckoning, it is quite phenomenal that Herbert Wigwe, at a relatively tender age of 57 without occupying any public office as governor or president, was able to touch the lives of the richest man in Africa, an ex-governor of CBN, and the 14th emir of one of the foremost cities in Nigeria, Kano, amongst other high and mighty and lowly and downtrodden Nigerians, and indeed the world where the behemoth Access Holdings has spread its tentacles.

My friendship with Herbert Wigwe commenced when he had just resumed work at Guaranty Trust Bank, GTB. He and his wife, Chizoba, were living in a block of flats adjacent to Falomo police barracks and at the beginning of Bourdillon road in Ikoyi. In that same block of flats also lived a fellow Ikwerre man and banker with the defunct Merchant Bank of Africa, MBA, Mr. Ugo Beke, and his wife, Carol, who was also a banker.

It was during my friendship with Ugo that I met Herbert, who was famously known as ‘Herbie Boy’ at the time.Striking up a friendship with Herbert was easy, partly because his father, Pastor Shyngle Wigwe, was the Director General (DG) of Nigerian Television (NTA), where I worked as a news correspondent.

Mr. Kayode Ayeni, another banker at the time and a very good friend of Herbert’s, was also part of our circle.Herbert’s younger brother, Emeka, also joined our circle of friendship for a while, until he dropped out of the scene.

As Herbert rapidly climbed the ranks at GTBank, his vibrant but highly driven and competitive nature kept him busy. He relocated to a larger home in Victoria Island, Lagos, where other top executives of GTBank resided, and pursued further education in England.

Upon his return, ‘Herbie Boy’, the quintessential banker whom I am yet to fully grasp the reality that he is no longer with us, transformed into ‘Herbie Man’. This transformation mirrored the leaps Singapore made from third to first world, as chronicled in the famous tome titled “From Third To First World”, authored by the iconic leader of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew.

Although he did not lead a country or even a state, Herbert was larger than life. As his fortune grew, he commensurately grew in stature, influence, and philanthropy, as attested to by those who have paid tributes to him, ranging from those in the top echelon of government, presently and in the past, all the way from the 40th President of the US, Mr. Bill Clinton, to the ex-President of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.

Serving presidents that have eulogized Herbert Wigwe include President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria and Vice President Kashim Shettima. From foreign countries are Mr. Nana Akufo-Ado, President of Ghana, Mr. Cyril Rhamaphosa, President of South Africa, and Emmanuel Macron, President of France, to mention a few for lack of space.

When the French President, Mr. Macron, visited Nigeria in 2018 to confer France’s highest honor – Commander of the Legion of Honor – on Chief Mike Adenuga and also to declare open the state-of-the-art cultural center – Alliance Française/Mike Adenuga Centre on Alfred Rewane/Kingsway Road, Ikoyi, I was a few strides behind Herbert in the corridors of Eko Hotel as we all walked behind the French President when he was exiting the hotel.

Recognizing him from behind, I uttered his nickname ‘Herbie boy’. Clearly, he must have wondered who was still identifying him as ‘Herbie Boy’ after he had become ‘ Herbie man’.
But he quickly figured out that it must be from an old friend who knew him from his formative years. So, he turned and saw that the hailing was from me, then he acknowledged and moved on.

At that point in time, Herbert’s meteoric transformation from ‘Herbie boy’ of yore to ‘Herbie Man’ had come full circle. This was evident because he had succeeded his business partner, Mr. Aig-Imuokuede, as the Group Managing Director (GMD) of Access Bank PLC since 2014.

After transforming Access Bank PLC into Access Holdings, as evidenced by his establishment of the bank’s branches not just all over Nigeria, and Africa, but all over the world including Europe, the Middle East, and Far East Asia, in the manner that Leonardo Da Vinci might have envisioned his painting canvas before he painted the iconic Mona Lisa piece of artwork; Herbert poured all his extraordinary energy into setting up Wigwe University in his village, Isiokpo, in Rivers State.

It is a reflection of the vibrancy and boundless energy of Herbert that Wigwe University, which was yet to take off before his unfortunate demise, had become the reference point for setting up a world-class university in Nigeria. This initiative aims to help stem the financial hemorrhage that our country suffers due to the outflow of funds into institutions of higher learning, not only in Europe and North America but even to neighboring countries like Ghana and the Republic of Benin, where English language is not the lingua franca.

The culprit for the exodus of our wards to higher institutions abroad is the incessant strike actions often embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which kept students out of school for very long periods of time.

Remarkably, Wigwe University is not the first to be set up by a banker. There is the one founded by Mr Adedeji Adeleke, part owner of the defunct Pacific Merchant Bank. The university is named Adeleke University and it is located in Ede,Osun state. Prior to that, there is also the top-class school established by the late Mr. Oladele Olasore, an ex MD/CEO of First Bank, named Olasore International School. Mr. Jim Ovia, the founder/chairman of Zenith Bank, has also floated James Hope University located in Agbor, Delta State.

Additionally, Wigwe University is also not the first world-class university to be established in Nigeria with a similar vision to encourage our youths to pursue education domestically. Previously, there have been Bell University in Otta, Ogun State, owned by former President Obasanjo, and the American International University in Yola, founded by former Vice President Abubakar Atiku.

However, Wigwe University is the first to be explicitly branded as having been established to address the identified challenge of capital flight from Nigeria owing to the huge volume of hard currencies which our youths that seek education abroad pay in school fees out there , consequently draining our treasury and contributing to brain drain.

The powerful positioning enhanced by aggressive media blitz has made Wigwe University the benchmark for not only world class but superior university education in Nigeria, even before admission processes are finalized, let alone the commencement of lectures.
The acronyms of his name, Herbert Onyewembu Wigwe, H.O.W., could have been an ideal name for his university. However, seemingly anticipating his untimely demise, he audaciously chose to name it after himself—Wigwe University. Herbert thus, perhaps inadvertently, wittingly or unwittingly but boldly immortalized himself.

The spectacular birth and rise of Wigwe University in popularity is a testament to the power of publicity and a reflection of how competitive and aggressive Herbert Wigwe can be whenever he pursued a course.

Little wonder then that fittingly, Herbert Wigwe, who passed away in a blaze, has been honored by Presidents, Royalties, and the Masses because although he was a hyper-driven entrepreneur, he was equally a passionate philanthropist who spared no cost at giving succor to the less privileged as reflected by his involvement in the building of churches and awarding scholarships to indigent people in the church where he worshipped.

In fact, I was stunned by how influential Herbert Wigwe was across the country irrespective of creed or culture when in a conversation with the revered Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Saad Abubakar, about his planned trip to Ibadan, Niger Delta, and Kogi states to honor invitations to events in those locations, of which he invited me to join him, I was made aware that the private jet that would convey His Eminence the Sultan to those locations was to be provided by Herbert Wigwe.

On further inquiry, the sultan enlightened me that Herbert attended Federal Government College, Sokoto, and he referred to him as a friend. That was the first time that I was made aware of that leg of Herbert’s journey on mother earth.

Even as he was a mentee to Alh. Aliko Dangote, who acknowledged that in his tribute, Herbert had a couple of other mentors and mentees too. Mr. Henry Imasekha, an investment banker and former accountancy teacher who once taught him when he was preparing for the qualifying examinations to become a chartered accountant, is one of them.

In reciprocity, Herbert also became a mentor to Imasekha’s children. One of them, Amena, recently got married, and Herbert was like her godfather and served as what may be referred to as a ‘sponsor’ in a church wedding, especially in a Catholic setting.

Being that I am close to Mr. Imasekha, the father of the bride, Herbert and I sat next to each other behind the father and mother of the bride in a small pre-wedding ceremony held in the Wellness Centre, Alexander Avenue, Ikoyi.

I reckon that it must have been one of the few and rare occasions that Herbert’s mind was temporarily at rest as both of us sat quietly during the solemn and somber ceremony.

As the event was drawing to a close, I broke the silence by saying to him, “one does not get to see you anymore these days, apparently a lot has changed.” While I was expecting the usual ‘big man’ talk about being too busy, etc., but Herbert stunned me by turning to face me squarely and saying to me in a matter-of-fact manner, “Magnus, nothing has changed. You are the one that is not coming around.”

Because I was unprepared for his straight-up answer, all I could do was nod my head in agreement. Another significant encounter that I had with Herbert was at the birthday party of Mr. Osagie Okunbo, the country chairman of SHELL oil company in Nigeria. I was invited to the party at his residence by no less a personage than the man who doubles as my senior brother and friend, who appointed me into political office in 2003 as a commissioner in the Delta State government, Chief James Onanefe Ibori.

Apparently, Okunbo and Ibori were classmates in primary school. While we were in Okunbo’s house, sharing in his birthday joy and merriment, I was seated next to Alh. Aliko Dangote. Perhaps word went out to Herbert that Dangote was in the house, and probably because he had been trying to track him down, in a matter of moments, he arrived.

Since one of the most aggressive bankers of our time before his tragic death-Herbert had to have a conversation with the richest man in Africa and foremost industrialist,I had to yield my seat next to Alh. Dangote for Herbert to have his impromptu meeting. Typical of him, the meeting was over in a jiffy.

Then Herbert rose from the seat, offered it back to me, and before dashing out to chase his endless pursuits in the world of business and philanthropy, he placed his hands on my shoulder and whispered into my ears, “I owe you one.”

After uttering those words of appreciation, Herbert, who was visibly excited, bounced out of Okunbo’s house and into the night, chasing other yet to be harnessed opportunities that abound in our country and indeed the entire world that the fearless entrepreneur, Herbert Wigwe, had made his canvas for planting the imprimatur of Access bank branches and related entrepreneurial ventures beyond banking.

Herbert reminds of the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Willem van Gogh, who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art but lived for only 37 years. It is on record that in just over a decade, Van Gogh created approximately 2100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life.

Does the birth and demise of Herbert Wigwe in a relatively short period of 57 years not indicate that he was a Van Gogh equivalent in banking, as he had in a similar record short time, along with his partner Aigboje Aig-Imuokhuede, transformed a struggling mercantile bank from a back street institution into the global financial powerhouse that Access Holdings has become under the watch of the fearless one, Herbert Onyewembu Wigwe, CFR (15 August 1966 – 9 February 2024)?

As Aigboje would note in a conversation during those mournful nights of keeping vigil in the office that he and Herbert shared while waiting for the return of Herbert’s remains, it was revealed that he and Herbert actually engaged in scenario building wherein plans were made in the event that any of them – Aigboje or Herbert- passed away suddenly.

But they never thought of a situation whereby any of them would suffer the calamity of death along with wife, how much more a son. It was truly unimaginable, but that is the reality that we are all now being compelled to sadly live with by forces beyond our power.

I have an idea of exactly how Herbert’s parents are feeling right now. That’s because I suffered a similar fate to theirs when my adorable 18-year-old daughter, Kikaose, on track to become a law graduate from the University of Birmingham, England, passed away in 2017 due to a failed surgery for appendicitis due partly to lack of a ventilator at the then Gold Cross Hospital on Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi, now known as Lagoon Hospital.

It is needless to point out that the journey through life without my daugher kikaose has been a roller coaster of emotions since 2017 when we lost her.

So my advice to Herbert’s surviving children, siblings, and parents is to grieve gracefully. According to grief experts David Kessler and Elizabeth Kubler Ross, there are two types of grief: Good grief and Bad grief. Bad grief is dangerous. To survive or avoid it, one needs to find a coping mechanism.

It is a good thing that Herbert’s dad is already a pastor. If Herbert’s mum is not already a deacon, she should strive towards becoming one so that she can join Pastor Shyngle Wigwe, her husband, in immersing themselves in the service of God. That would be a great coping mechanism for them.

My coping mechanism is writing, and any other activities that can occupy my mind, including fond memories of my daughter in the short period of 18 years that she was with us.

Shortly after her sudden passage, I wrote a book in her memory titled: “Beyond Loss & Grief: The Story of Kikaose Ebiye-Onyibe. A Survivor’s Manual For Coping With Loss of Child”. It is still available in leading bookshops nationwide and can be found on Amazon/Kindle. The book contains the personal experience of my family and l ,as well as nuggets of wisdom from world-class grief experts earlier referenced, shedding light on the dark tunnel of grief that my family and l, particularly Kikaose’s siblings passed through in the early days of the tragedy.

Now, it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to the wise counsel contained in the book by the grief specialist, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, titled “Death And Dying”. In the book, she emphasizes that the pain of loss will always be there, and grief is a normal window into pain that should be allowed to ventilate our lives in positive ways. In other words, we can grieve, but we should not allow grief to steal our peace and happiness.

In conclusion, Herbert, Chizoba, and Chizi did their time here on earth and have departed.
Sooner or later,we all will also one day yield the ghost back to God who graciously lent it to us.
It is quite striking that as an exception to the popular marriage vow – till death do us part – which is to the effect that ideally only death can validly separate a wedded couple , Herbert and Chizoba surpassed that vow by not being separated by death, as both of them departed this world together without parting ways.
May the good Lord grant them eternal rest.

For the rest of us, while we are still here on Earth, let us do good so that we too may be celebrated like Herbert, his wife, and son who were so bonded by love that the trio departed Mother Earth together and have been mourned by presidents, monarchs, and the masses like deities.

On that note of finality, my fervent prayer is that the souls of the departed Herbert, Chizoba, and Chizi Wigwe rest in the bosom of their creator.

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