Herbert Wigwe Always Wanted You To Consider It Done By Tolu Ogunlesi 🎊 The Scoper Media

 

 

Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe (15 August 1966 – 9 February 2024)

 

By Tolu Ogunlesi

 

 

      He made a living, and a fortune, pitching and being pitched to. In a viral video circulating in the wake of his passing, he’s captured pitching his latest project: a new University. “This is your project, and you will protect it with everything you have,” he says, in pidgin English. “There will be no University like this, no just in Nigeria, but even in Africa.” The crowd—young men from his ancestral home, where the University is sited—is fired up, and break into song and dance intermittently. This son-of-the-soil addressing them looks unsure whether to dance or not. He’s clearly far more at home in gilded boardrooms, speaking English, not pidgin. At the same time, venturing passionately into unfamiliar territory is how he’s managed to come this far.

Besides passionately sharing his many visions, Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe loved nothing more than closing deals, and executing projects. “His answer to me was always the same: my brother, done!” says someone who grew close to him in recent years. Over the course of two decades, Herbert, alongside his best friend and business partner, Aigboje (“Aig”) Aig-Imoukhede, whom he first met in 1989, built Africa’s biggest bank by customer base, and Nigeria’s largest by assets. At the time of his death, Access Bank Plc was settling nicely into a world-conquering phase, expanding aggressively in and beyond Africa.

His empire included his non-profit, The Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe (HOW) Foundation. (He signed-off social media posts with #HOW). Wigwe University, taking shape in Isiokpo, his bicycle-loving, masquerade-flaunting, oil-rich hometown, in Rivers State, to “raise the next generation of fearless leaders.” Craneburg, one of the most prominent construction businesses in Nigeria today, founded by his wife, Chizoba. And several other business ventures he personally founded or invested in, often quietly.

He was energetic, restless, ambitious. Executive Director at Guaranty Trust Bank at 33; Group Deputy Managing Director of Access Bank Plc at 36; Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at 47. He talked fast, moved even faster. Together, the pair of him and Aig formed one of the two most intriguing tag-teams in recent Nigerian banking history—the other pair being Fola Adeola and Tayo Aderinokun; the older-by-a-decade co-founders of GT Bank, from where Aig and Herbert resigned as Executive Directors in 2002 to buy and lead Access Bank. (Tragically, Tayo Aderinokun passed away in 2011—only a year younger than Herbert would be at his own death). 

In their days running Access Bank, Aig and Herbert earned reputations as taskmasters. (Aig describes it, in his 2021 memoir, as “our fabled work ethic”). Critics saw them as willing to go to any lengths to achieve whatever they sought. The landmark takeover of Intercontinental Bank in 2011—which tripled their customer base—was believed to be a hostile, even ruthless, one. Not uncommon allegations, admittedly, at that level of performance.  

 

“M&A MINDSET”

 

In the wake of his death, the tributes pouring in all point to a man who was incredibly kind and supportive to many, always looking out to offer a helping hand. There was always room in his circle for people he considered smart and ambitious. His Executive Assistant came from Diamond Bank, which Access acquired in 2019.

His “Mergers and Acquisition mindset” (as a tribute by Alex Otti, banker and current Governor of Abia State, described it), fueled much of what he accomplished. Never satisfied with the status quo, he was always nudging the people around him to dream and to do more. Gbenga “GB” Agboola, founder of Flutterwave, one of Nigeria’s fintech Unicorns, recalls the challenges Herbert regularly threw at him: “GB, what’s the size of your ambition?” “Why wait to invest back in Africa?” “Who is the next GB? Back them! Make the journey easier for the next guy!”

He’d earned the right to ask this of others. When he and Aig took over Access Bank in 2002, it was 65th in size, among Nigeria’s 89 banks at the time. Today, the bank is setting African records. When his tenure as CEO of Access Bank came to an end in 2022, he stepped up to become CEO of Access Corporation, the new Holding Company created for the financial services group. Not having to directly run the bank did not diminish his influence in any way. It allowed him to add more to his plate, in fact. He was named President of the influential France-Nigeria Business Council in May 2023. He began to devote more time to his University, for which he budgeted half a billion dollars in personal investment.

Not to forget the palatial new home in Ikoyi, Lagos—built by Craneburg—of which breathtaking video footage has emerged since his death. It is said that, till the end, he was still requesting additional work on the edifice.

Giving and collecting

He gave generously to countless causes, often quietly. His church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) City of David parish, in Lagos, was a big beneficiary, especially in its mission to help poor children. Under his leadership, Access Bank sponsored the annual Lagos City Marathon (he died on the day the 2024 edition held), as well as sporting events and arts festivals within and outside Nigeria.

It is hard to think of a more ambitious Nigerian art collector than Herbert. In his vast collection sit two iconic pieces: separate portraits of him and his wife, Chizoba, painted by Kehinde Wiley, whose most famous painting is an official portrait of President Barack Obama. (Another famous Wiley portraiture subject is former President Olusegun Obasanjo, painted as part of a project documenting African Heads of State).

His passion for art also included acquiring, at significant cost, iconic work of Nigerian origin from foreign owners. There was the long-lost-but-found “Tutu”, painted in 1974 by Ben Enwonwu—for whom Queen Elizabeth sat for a sculpture, a decade before Herbert’s birth)—which Access Bank acquired in 2018. Also in the Access Bank collection, a set of seven wooden Enwonwu sculptures, commissioned by the UK’s Daily Mirror in 1960, for its new London Headquarters.

A wingless end

On a helicopter flight in 2017, Herbert told a protégé, “When it’s your time, it’s your time.” He was not unfamiliar with the grief of bereavement. His older brother, Osita, died in a car accident in 1997. Three years later, his pregnant cousin and her husband were killed in another tragic car crash. Then there was his recent cancer scare. Even as he became more health-conscious, quitting alcohol and taking personal fitness seriously, the fragile-ness of life was never lost on him. One of his last posts on X ended with: “Let us number our days.”

The final day came most unexpectedly, on a “wintry” February night, in the United States of America. Aboard an Airbus H130 helicopter chartered to fly him, his wife, Chizoba; eldest son, Chizi; and friend, Bimbo Ogunbanjo, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, for the 2024 Superbowl, an annual fixture on his calendar. Exactly what happened to the chopper is still being pieced together by investigators. None of the four passengers and two crew members aboard survived.

He is survived by aged parents, three children, and siblings. And a sprawling business empire—including private investments in several businesses—the true size of which may never be fully known. “The scale of what he’s leaving behind, mostly uncompleted, is staggering,” says a friend.

In 1961, shortly after completing the Daily Mirror sculpture series, Enwonwu, the celebrated sculptor, said of the 7-piece collection: “I have tried to represent the wings of the Daily Mirror, flying news all over the world.” There is a 2017 photo of Herbert posing with the collection at an art exhibition in Lagos in 2017, a suited eighth figure amidst the ‘winged’ wooden posse. A fitting pose for a man who gave wings to every project he embarked on, and to many of the people he met on his life’s journey.

In an ironic twist of fate, the end came for him in the air, on a wingless aircraft—without a pitch persuasive enough to stave death off.

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