Herbert Wigwe: Of Human Bias And The Verdict Of History


By Felix Oguejiofor Abugu 

TO not speak ill of the dead is not just a moral obligation but also, even more importantly, a simple, even logical, social demand. And I am not, as yet, talking about the obvious portrayal of the one speaking ill of the dead as cowardly.

It is, to begin with, a simple common sense thing: or can one exult, without censure, in one’s victory in a boxing match in which the opponent’s hands were tied to the back all through? No, right? Now, that is the point, namely, that no one is going to deliver a bouquet of Damascus Rose (Rosa damascene) to the one who takes the floor to shout the most obscenities at the dead who cannot defend himself. Because such a person would only be wasting his or her time and, certainly, that of the rest of us!

The deluge of toxic comments that have been heaped on the person and career of Mr Herbert Wigwe, the late Group Chief Executive of Access Holding, since he died in a chopper crash in the United States, is as scandalous as it is scandalizing, to say the least. Wigwe, one of the major investors in Access Bank, one of the largest banks in Nigeria, along with his wife and son, was among six people killed in a helicopter crash in California, the United States, on Friday, the 9th of this month (February 2024). Former Chairman of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Abimbola Ogunbanjo, also perished in the crash.

Sadly, this tragic incident has become a ground for many persons, among them some elder statesmen and people hitherto viewed as well-educated, exposed and cultured, to pour scorn on, and make unsubstantiated claims against the person and career of one of the nation’s top five bank executives.

It is scandalizing to witness people demonstrate, in words and actions, that ours is a society where human beings have scant regard for the dead, especially for the pains and sorrows of the bereaved. It is as if we are only too happy to celebrate the death of a business or industry rival, our competitor or out-competitor or just plain professional good at what he does and the work of whose hands the Lord has abundantly blessed and whom, inexplicably, we envy as our better. Were we this unfeeling in these parts?

And pettily, insouciantly jealous? To tell the truth, I was particularly scandalized by the rather scornful comment of an elder statesman, Chief Bode George on the tragic passing of Herbert Wigwe. George’s own condolences to his fellow elder statesman and Lagos boy, Engr. Shyngle Wigwe, a former Director General of the National Television Authority (NTA), on the tragic passing of his illustrious son, Herbert, was to excoriate the notion that Herbert was a great banker. Who the heck said that the jnr Wigwe and several other youthful chief executives and promoters of some of the new generation banks in Nigeria deserved to be called banking whizz-kids? After all, they contributed nothing to the sector except to reap where they did not sow, George swore.

“Who is (that guy – he actually mentioned a name)?” George fumed in a recent video interview that went viral online. With Wigwe’s photo in the background, George lampooned the idea that the person he described in that video interviewed as an ordinary “shop-floor” banker when he started not too long ago, could have had his small, insignificant bank buy over a bigger bank, becoming very rich in the process if not for systemic corruption. In effect, George was questioning the concept of small beginnings or the rags-to-riches stories of many of Nigeria’s persons of means. The late MKO Abiola hawked stuff on the streets to make a living; Glo owner Chief Mike Adenuga reportedly drove taxi in America to make ends meet; oil magnate, Mrs Folorunsho Alakija started life as a seamstress; Innoson took off as a spare-parts dealer; Elizade started as a ‘shop-floor’ Toyota sales executive, etc. So, whether it’s Aig-Imoukuede, Herbert Wigwe, Tony Elumelu or the Oando boys, the small-beginning success stories of Nigeria’s better-known business whizz-aren’t narratives to be scoffed at by any snorty elder, because these are stories many of us can relate to. And so, to use Wigwe’s sad demise as a launch-pad for scurrilous attacks on the nation’s nouveau riche – on their persons, business careers and ethics – is not only morbidly distasteful but also cowardly mischievous and callously libellous. Just what was Chief George’s point? A call on the regulatory authorities to go after Access Bank now that Wigwe is dead? I don’t get it.

It is for that same reason – inappropriateness of the timing and its lack of substantiality – that I consider as disingenuous the argument by Muiz Banire, a Lagos lawyer and political activist, that, in relation to mergers and acquisitions in the Nigerian banking sector, it couldn’t have been possible for ‘the tilapia to swallow the whale’ but for some underhand dealings. He was referring to the acquisition of the former Intercontinental Bank by the Access Bank in 2012. Instructively, Banire’s article, coming 12 years after the Access –Intercontinental deal, was also sparked by Wigwe’s passing. Didn’t Banire have this to say while Wigwe was alive? Or he didn’t have the courage to say it, knowing that he was trading in drivel? Taken in its real context, Banire couldn’t but have intended his article as an epitaph of shame on Wigwe’s memory for his and his Access co-investor, Aig-Imoukuede’s dare to acquire the then Intercontinental Bank, an object of cultural pride.

The argument is that Intercontinental Bank was ‘deliberately killed’ by the regulatory authorities for their friends in the young and upcoming Access Bank to buy it. Now, even if there weren’t enough court rulings (and there are, to be sure, indeed up to the Supreme Court) to validate Intercontinental Bank’s sale by the regulatory authorities, the view of “killing” Intercontinental Bank for Access Bank would still have been a far-fetched proposition. The reason is that between 2009 when the Board of Intercontinental was sacked and an interim board appointed as part of its rescue plan, and 2012 when the defunct bank was eventually sold (and given that the sale of a bank isn’t often an off-the-shelf transaction), enough negotiation and wheeling-deal could have been done to enable a ‘whale’ emerge from Intercontinental Bank’s cultural milieu to swallow the ‘tilapia’ as the preferred bidder to buy the defunct bank. To now argue, some 12 years after, that a financial tilapia improbably swallowed a financial whale in the contest for size and output, allegedly because one or two members of the regulatory authorities swore to cut a pound of Intercontinental Bank’s flesh to avenge a hurt or two in the past, is to yarn an implausible conspiracy theory at best. The question would, then, be, within the latitude of time and space allowed before the final sale, couldn’t the ‘whale’ have arranged itself to swallow the ‘tilapia’ as a natural course of events in this game of survival?

Nor is one edified by the vituperations on Wigwe and Access Bank by Chief Tony Okoroji, a musician, music promoter and President of the Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON). A feisty former President of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN), Okoroji claimed, in a recent lengthy, self-righteous online article, that Access Bank under Wigwe inexplicably restricted his access to COSON’s accounts for months on end while playing snooker with Society’s money in those accounts. The claim flies in the face of common sense, of course, and has since been countered in an informed article by a veteran financial journalist and former employee of the bank, who revealed in the widely circulated article online, that the problem COSON’s Access Bank accounts had was legal not a unilateral decision by the bank to deny authorized signatories access to those accounts for whatever reasons. But even if there was no such counterargument, I am sure the public would still have accepted Okoroji’s shot at the reputation of the bank and its late MD/CEO as one of those angry outbursts that banks routinely encounter from aggrieved customers over troubled accounts. But, Okoroji shot himself in the foot and made his argument look more like a sour grape when he began to gripe about such mundane matters as Wigwe’s mansion, the name of his private university and ‘expensive’ chopper rides, etc.

I do not know where Chief Okoroji got the impression that a ‘great banker’ is not supposed to use his legitimately earned income to build himself a mansion, invest in a private university and name it after himself or his father and or buy himself the luxury of a chopper ride (big deal, really?) while on a holiday, business or private visit outside the country. Because of his seemingly righteous angst over the lingering issue with COSON’s Access Bank accounts (no thanks to the suits against COSON and the bank by some members of COSON, including Premier Music, Ivory Music and PMAN president, Pretty Okafor, seeking a restriction on those accounts), the former PMAN president would appear to have lost sight of the fact that Wigwe was the CEO of, and a major shareholder in, one of the top five banks in Nigeria, with total assets, deposits and annual trading profits running into trillions of naira. What could such a person not buy himself with money? Did Wigwe need to steal depositors’ money to be able to live a luxurious life, given the level of his own personal earnings? Or could Okoroji have meant that Wigwe’s Access Bank had restricted Okoroji’s access to COSON’s accounts just so the late banker would use the money therein to fund his lifestyle? Nonsense, right? Yes.

All over the capitalist world, I know that a man or woman is free to spend their money however they choose, provided that the money is not the proceeds of crime. In the same vein, what would inspire confidence in the banking public aren’t the bank managers’ poor or, well, so-called conservative lifestyles, but a strong regulatory framework that guarantees the safety of depositors’ funds, and the bank’s profitability.

Obviously, COSON’s funds are safe in the vaults of Access Bank. To have used his failure to discharge the legal restrictions on the accounts as an excuse to disparage the dead as Okoroji tried doing to the image of the late Wigwe is not only lamentable but also completely churlish on his part.

The simple truth is that despite their protestations to the contrary, neither Tony Okoroji, Muiz Banire nor Chief Bode George can creditably deny that Herbert Wigwe was a great banker and patriot who worked hard – and smart – enough, I dare say, to attain the heights he did before his tragic death in a helicopter crash. Such a person should be celebrated in death, as he was in life, and not be disparaged for infractions that he as a person or the bank he ran for many years did not commit against individuals, groups or the general public.

  • Felix Oguejiofor Abugu works with the Guardian Newspapers Limited.  


Eighteen-Eleven Media 


About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *