Few people remind me of the proud, old generation of men and women of substance that is fast fading away in Nigeria as Chief (Ambassador) Arthur Mbanefo, widely known at home and abroad as “the Chief” or “Odu” (the traditional title he took in his hometown of Onitsha nearly 30 years ago). As he turns 90, I thought it appropriate to reflect not just on his accomplished life of impact and consequence in domains from the accountancy profession to top-tier corporate boardrooms, from independent government commissions and university councils to the world of international diplomacy, but, through that prism, on what he proudly and unapologetically represents. To see Arthur Mbanefo just as a leading “elder-stateman” personality is to miss the point. To my mind, he is, beyond himself as an individual, a symbol of a generational distinction between Nigeria’s hopeful contemporary past, a decidedly dreary present, and a future with several scenarios that some stakeholders remain unwilling to negotiate.
I first met Arthur Mbanefo in late 1999 or early 2000 in New York, not long after President Olusegun Obasanjo had appointed him (to the surprise of many, including perhaps Mbanefo himself) as Nigeria’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. The appointment was surprising – but impressive – to many in the diplomatic world in New York because Mbanefo was hitherto neither a politician nor a diplomat, but rather was an accomplished captain of an independent profession and the private sector. His was a rare CV at the UN Headquarters in New York. It was, however, the kind of insightful but out-of-the-box decision you could expect from a leader like OBJ.
As a senior official in the UN Secretariat on a posting in Tanzania/Rwanda at the time, work often brought me back to headquarters in New York. It was on one of those trips of a few, fast-paced days that, on a whim, I decided to pay the new Nigerian “PR” a visit at his office. On arrival at Nigeria House, getting past security, I announced myself to Mbanefo’s secretary in the full expectation that I would be ushered in to see him if he wasn’t in a meeting. The secretary went in to inform him and returned with disappointing news: “the Ambassador cannot see you because you did not make an appointment previously; he would be happy to meet you on your next visit to New York provided you book a meeting ahead of time.”
The message was clear: order and discipline above sentiments. Propriety. I met with the chief on my next visit, prior appointment duly made. We hit it off, and in the course of that relationship I since learned that behind the strict personality, and although some critics might consider him “difficult”, lies a very kind soul. Moreover, the versatile Mbanefo turned out a very successful ambassador of Nigeria, one who commanded the respect and personal friendship of the late UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and several other world leaders.
Arthur Christopher Izuegbunam Mbanefo was born in Onitsha into the famous Mbanefo family. His father Isaac Anieka Mbanefo was a successful manager in the United Africa Company (UAC) Ltd, who held the title of Odu II (later inherited by son Arthur as Odu III) and wrote an autobiography titled “A Friend of the Gods” at the age of 92. Arthur’s uncle, the illustrious Sir Louis Mbanefo, was the first Igbo lawyer who qualified in law at the University of London in 1935, took another degree in humanities at the University of Cambridge in 1937, and later became a justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria, and Judge Ad Hoc of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The iconic architect Frank Mbanefo, now deceased, was Arthur’s elder brother. Arthur Mbanefo thus hails from a distinguished family. Mbanefo married Jackie (nee Egbuna) daughter of the late Justice Egbuna, in 1965. They have one son, Arthur Mbanefo Jr, a former investment banker with Barclays International, and grandchildren.
Young Arthur Mbanefo qualified as a chartered accountant in the United Kingdom in the mid-1950s and worked with respected accounting firms in Brighton and London before returning to Nigeria after Independence in 1960 and joining the firm of Akintola Williams & Co as a partner. Requiring due care, diligence and fidelity to the values of integrity, accountancy was a profession that suited Mbanefo’s personality. He went on to become a senior partner in Akintola Williams before resigning from the firm in 1986 and setting up his own management consulting firm, Arthur Mbanefo and Associates. Mbanefo, a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, was President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria and played a key international leadership role in the establishment of accounting standards across Africa.
A renowned corporate boardroom guru and stickler for sound corporate governance, he has served on the boards of directors of numerous blue-chip companies including UAC of Nigeria Ltd., Mobil Oil Nigeria Plc, Reckitt & Coleman, Standard Flour Mills Ltd, and Standard Chartered Bank Nigeria Ltd. Alongside his leadership role in the private sector, Mbanefo has played key and decisive roles in Nigerian public life. He was a member a member of the Justice Irikefe Panel, the Judicial Commission of Inquiry on the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s Crude Oil Sales, popularly known as the N2.8 billion Loss Inquiry, in 1980. He made important contributions to the education sector as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of University of Lagos (1984-86), Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, (1986-1990) and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, (1990-93). Several years ago, he established the Arthur Mbanefo Digital Resource Centre at the University of Lagos as a philanthropic gesture.
Arthur Mbanefo was a key player in the Gen. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu-led government of the short-lived Republic of Biafra. He was Ojukwu’s envoy for the procurement of arms and fundraising in Europe and other parts of the world during the Nigerian civil war, events he recounts with detail in his excellent biography, “Arthur Mbanefo: A Fulfilled Life of Service” published (I am glad to say on my recommendation) by Bookcraft Africa Ltd. In Ibadan.
Arguably the most important contribution Mbanefo has made to Nigeria’s public life was his chairmanship of the Committee on State Creation appointed by the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, in 1996.
To say that this was a challenging and complex assignment in a country fraught with ethnic agitations would be an understatement. That committee, in the days in which military dictators created and reordered states and local government areas in an officially “Federal” Republic of Nigeria, received 72 requests for new states and more than 2,000 for new local governments. It undertook an extensive nationwide tour of Nigeria and met and interviewed citizens and stakeholders across the country. Based on the recommendations of the Mbanefo Committee, General Abacha announced the creation of six new states in Nigeria in his October 1, 1996, broadcast to the nation, as well as delineations that established 181 new local government areas. The six new states, one from each of the six geopolitical zones, proposed by late Vice-President Alex Ekwueme and adopted in the 1995 draft Constitution, were: Bayelsa State, Ebonyi State, Ekiti State, Gombe State, Nasarawa State, and Zamfara State.
I return to the matter of meaning, beyond merely being. Arthur Mbanefo represents the best of a bygone era in Nigeria. An era when integrity, hard work and high standards (simply put, substance) mattered and were the main determinants of progress and recognition in society. This symbolism comes through when you relate closely with him. You will observe his sense of personal fulfillment, but one mixed with deep regret at what Nigeria has become on the watch of contemporary political leaders and office-holders. An avid reader, the best present you can give the Chief is a good book. He devours several amid a mountain of books and papers in his comfortable flat in Ikoyi. Yes, independently wealthy though he is, this man does not dwell in an ostentatiously lavish home that he would consider unnecessary. From this abode he surveys the world, maintains his relationships, and keeps in touch with his son and grandchildren abroad. He does not bother to adapt and keep up with our latter-day Joneses, for he was born a Mr. Jones himself.
I was amused, but not surprised, when Mbanefo told me during one the occasional dinners he has treated me to in Lagos that he has not been to Abuja since 2013, when he attended a dinner to mark my 50th birthday. “Why?” I asked him. “What am I going there to do?” was his reply.
My mind goes back to December 30, 2005, when my family held a seven-year memorial service for my late father, Isaac Moghalu, in our hometown of Nnewi, followed by the launch of the Isaac Moghalu Foundation (IMoF) we established in his memory. Former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, was the chairman of the event. Former Vice President Ekwueme, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, and Chief Mbanefo were our special guests. Service was to start at 9.30am. To the utter surprise of our community and guests, all these four gentlemen arrived promptly between 9am and 9.15am and the event took off exactly on schedule. Punctuality. Discipline. A different era. A different order.
I had circled June 11 in my calendar, hoping to join Chief Mbanefo for an anticipated event in Lagos to mark his 90th birthday (as I had on his 80th). Alas, the COVID-19 pandemic intervened. The best I could do, in the alternative, was this reflection from a “social distance.” Cheers, Odu, an iroko @ 90. To long life.
•Dr. Moghalu, former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, is the president of Sogato Strategies LLC, Washington, DC.