Wigwe, Power, Wealth and Mortality, By Dare Babarinsa

Herbert Wigwe, the CEO of Access Holdings
Herbert Wigwe, the CEO of Access Holdings

Wigwe, Power, Wealth and Mortality

By Dare Babarinsa

So, Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe would be carried home like a man who has fallen at the war front. He was a different kind of hero, with a lot of medals and a lot of scars. He won many battles. He, like Admiral Horatio Nelson of Trafalgar, won his last battle, but still fell. He could not have believed that his story would end so soon. He had dashed out to the United States with his wife Chizoba and his son, Chizi. They were to watch the super bowl of American football and then dashed home to resume the fast life and good money they were used to. Now, they are coming home for the final time to join the company of the ancestors.

The death of Wigwe on February 9 is a tragedy. He perished with his wife and son and his bosom friend, Mr Abimbola Ogunbanjo, former Group Chairman of the Nigerian Exchange Group Plc. Abimbola was the son of iconic lawyer and businessman, the late Chief Chris Ogunbanjo. The younger Ogunbanjo was a big man whose death would have been regarded as a national tragedy. But Wigwe was a bigger man and he lost more. Ogunbanjo’s wife and children are still around to mourn him.
Wigwe was a phenomenon in the Nigerian banking industry. In truth, his exploits were controversial, but he made good and lasting impacts. He was a goal-getter and a warrior of uncommon prowess who was not in the habit of capturing prisoners. He loved to win. His exploits connected many major institutions in the contemporary Nigerian banking history. Now he is history.

He was a man on fire. He was born in 1966 in Ibadan and attended the University of Nigeria Nsukka, graduating with a degree in accountancy in 1987 and became a chartered accountant in 1989. He worked for two years with Cooper and Lybrand before he got employed with the Guarantee Trust Bank, GTB, coming under the leadership of iconic banker, Fola Adeola. It was at GTB that he met his destiny and learnt the esoteric trade of making money. In that field, he soon became an alchemist with the special skill of turning anything into gold. He was young, relentless, brilliant, daring and tireless. He got things done.
His bosses quickly recognised his appetite for the big game and they thrusted him forward. By 1998, he was already a management staff of the bank and yet wanted more. He was just 32 and the fire in his belly was roaring at full force. No promotion could satisfy him. He was an alpha male and wanted his own territory.

It was at this period that he and Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede forged their impressive friendship. Both of them have ferocious appetite for success. They loved to make deals and they were the new carpetbaggers in town. They did not have the kind of scruple that would worry the traditional bankers or restrain the old generation. They were the kind of men that build empires when the rules are fluid and the prospects great. To them what was important was victory. They were fiercely loyal to each other. They were each other.
Around 2010, I had wanted to meet Imoukhuede, then the Managing Director of Access Bank, for an important discussion. The meeting was arranged by a mutual friend. I could not meet him but met instead Wigwe, then the deputy M.D of Access Bank. I complained to my friend that I could not meet the M.D, but met Wigwe, his deputy, instead.
“What is the difference?” my friend asked. “They are the same! Whatever Wigwe tells you is what Imoukhuede would say!”

Wigwe and Imoukhuede became twins of the same soul. So, the sudden death of Wigwe must have left his twin brother in deep mourning. Access Bank provided for them their first operational field.

The bank was originally owned by a group of investors led by Chief Abiodun Omole, a wealthy entrepreneur and son of the legendary late Chief Lawrence Omole of Ilesha. Omole also brought in some of his friends, including Prince Tokunbo Aromolaran, to be part of the dream when the bank obtained its licence in 1988. Access Bank was listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 1998.

In 2002, Wigwe and Imoukhuede were able to buy out Omole and his team. How they did it is not clear till today. Chief Omole is alive, but has kept mum about his lost jewel. The take-over only whetted their appetite for bigger and better targets. They would not relent. They were soon to have on their menu lists banks like Diamond Bank and Intercontinental Bank. Wigwe and Imoukhuede were two sharks hunting in the deep.
One leviathan in the deep was the Intercontinental Bank founded by Erastus Akingbola, a swashbuckling corporate raider. It was a bitter fight and the ocean was full of blood and Access Bank gobbled the giant Intercontinental Bank which for years had been weakened by internal dealings and corruption until the Central Bank waded in to save it from collapse. It was then the CBN sold the bank to Access. Akingbola became a king in exile attended by memories of past glory and the memorabilia of a lost court.

The battlefield is silent now, but the echo of the struggle is still ringing in our ears while the moaning of old ghosts occasionally rent the air. But Wigwe was determined to live life to the fullest. He bought a jet. He built a palace in Lagos. He went to his ancestral home to make peace with his ancestors and give a gift to the generations. He was determined to give back to the land where his progenitors were buried in ancient graves and where his panegyrics still recount the lore of old battles. The Wigwe University, Isiokpo, Rivers State, he told his people, would be one of the best in the world. They knew he was right because Wigwe would never do anything in half-measure. He said it was his gift to them and to generations yet unborn and he was determined to poured his resources into it. They never reckoned that in few weeks ahead, their hero would be claimed by the deities like a burnt offering.

Wigwe’s wife, the formidable Chichi, was the Managing Director of Craneburg, the first-class construction company. The Lekki-Epe Express Road remains a testimony to Craneburg’s political muscle and competence. Chizi, the 29-year-old son, was the crown-prince of a financial empire of Catholic relevance.
It seems those who were closest to Wigwe were eager to confirm that he would never return.

Few days after the crash in the United States, Access Bank announced Bolaji Agbede as the new Group M.D to replace Wigwe in acting capacity pending confirmation by the CBN. They could not even wait for the terrible news to be fully absorbed by Wigwe’s aged parents, Engineer Shyngle Wigwe and his wife Stella. Few years ago, the Wigwes had lost their eldest son, Osita. Now this.
Few days later on February 25, Siju, the socialite wife of Pastor Idowu Iluyomade of the Redeem Christian Church of God, RCCG, City of David parish, Lagos, gave a talk-of-the town 60th birthday party.

The irony was that the Wigwes were perhaps the greatest donor to the church and they pay tithes in millions. Siju’s party was hot and the glitterati of Lagos illuminated the place. It was only just 16 days after the Wigwes perished in the United States. The Italians would say, “You need the loots of the soldiers to keep the priests at the temple!” Now the priests are dancing and making merry.

There is no need to pass judgement on the Wigwe’s friends and colleagues at the bank or the merry-makers of the RCCG. Let the grieving families endure their moment of profound sorrow. Wigwe lived a remarkable and impactful life. He was not perfect, but he was great.

For the surviving children, who became orphans suddenly, and the rest of the family, something truly big has struck them. Their hero had gone to battle; never to return. Let the dead, the valiant Wigwe, his beloved wife and son and his great friend, Ogunbanjo, depart in peace!