As Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, CFR, Esama of Benin Kingdom turns 86, not a few people will call to mind, the fact that he is one of Nigeria’s most successful business leader who’s economic, social and cultural activities have touched many lives. He is a billionaire of many years standing and a notable philanthropist.
Born September 11, 1934 in Okada community, Ovia North-East Local Government Area of Edo State, Igbinedion is a frontline traditional title holder in the Benin Kingdom. At 40 in 1974, when he was conferred with the exalted chieftaincy title, Esama, by Uku Akpolokpolo, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Akenzua II, the Oba of Benin, he was said to be one of the youngest ever to be so honoured in the kingdom. However, he had long before then, acquired fame and wealth.
Among Nigeria’s business men of his generation, Igbinedion stands out as a man who has scored many firsts in his business life. In the aviation industry, his Okada Airline, established in 1983, was the first privately owned airline in the country with a large fleet of aircraft. His entry into the sector brought dramatic changes as most local travelers experienced for the first time, the practice of taking the next available flight. It became popular for that and consigned to history, the disgusting experience of waiting endlessly for government owned airline that was notorious for not adhering to schedule. That is why today, commercial motorcycles, a fallout of economic downturn and failure of successive governments to provide efficient transport system and road infrastructure, go by the name Okada particularly in the southern parts of Nigeria.
Igbinedion may have also been among the first few Nigerian to own an executive jet. Soon after the establishment of his Okada Airline, the Benin chief purchased a BAC 1-11 executive jet that was originally owned by Ferdinand Marcos, the deposed president of the Philippines. In 1999, he established Igbinedion University, Okada, the first private university in the country.
One of the landmark achievements of the university is that it is the first private university in sub Saharan Africa to produce Medical Doctors. The university also prides itself with producing the first graduate from a private university to earn a first class at the Nigeria Law School. That is one of Igbinedion’s valuable contributions to the development of the education sector in Nigeria.
Way back in 1968, he established Mid Motors Nigeria Limited, the first indigenous motor assembly plant in the country. His expansive business empire also covers petroleum and gas marketing, shipping, haulage, road transport, confectionery and hospitality, radio and television broadcasting, banking, salt manufacturing, crude oil exploration, solid minerals, soft drinks bottling, real estate, fruit and fish farming, palm oil production among others. Through his numerous business interests, Chief Gabriel Igbinedion became one of the major employers of labour in Nigeria. His philanthropic gestures have equally changed lives across the country.
Across the country, the Esama of Benin has taken many well deserved traditional titles largely as a result of his philanthropic gestures. “The Esama, by his display of philanthropy and goodwill to mankind, whether in his birthplace, in the Eastern, Western or Northern part of the country or across the seas, has today, graduated to the status of Esama of the world,” said the Alafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi.
Among his philanthropic gestures is the transformation of his native Okada land to a modern and thriving community. To illustrate his passion for educational advancement, Igbinedion instituted in Jamaica, African Language Trust Fund and the Montego Bay Exchange Visit Programme to Nigeria for students. When he was awarded honourary degree in Doctor of Philosophy in Law, from the Rust College in the United State, Dr. William MacMillan, president of the college said the degree was in recognition of his “humanitarian contribution to society, especially in the areas of education, health and world peace.” He is believed to be a global citizen who has lent himself, his resources, his encouragement and his talent to the development of all segments of our world.
Igbinedion is by all standards, a blessing to his native Okada community.
Way back in 1972, he donated the Okada Grammar School to then Government of Bendel State. He then single handedly rehabilitated the Okada Primary School. By early 1974, he donated a school bus to the secondary school to ease the transportation challenges of the school faced at the time. That was rare.
To ensure that the people of Okada had a taste of good life he, in 1984, financed a pipe-borne water scheme in the community. He also built the Okada Village Trado Medical Centre and subsequently launched a N50,000 Trust Fund, which proceeds are utilised in the award of university scholarships to deserving students of Okada Grammar School. Not done yet, Igbinedion set up a Trust Fund for the best student at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital, School of Midwifery in memory of Okunozee Igbinedion, his late mother.
For Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, life has been good for the greater part of his life. At 82, he may have lost count of his many blessings. In 1977, he married Lady Cherry Igbinedion. The Esama is blessed with many successful children, among them, Lucky Igbinedion, a former governor of Edo State (1999 – 2007). His daughter, Omosede was elected into the House of Representatives in 2015, a time she was said to be the youngest member of the lower chamber.
He has passion for helping the needy and uplifting his community. At the peak of his business career, the Esama of Benin Kingdom assisted households in Okada to rehabilitate and give their buildings a facelift by supplying cement to all house owners in the land. That was aimed at beautifying the entire Okada community. Beyond that he, for the first time in the history of this part of the world, he provided and maintained a point-to-multi-point microwave telephone system to connect his hometown and the rest of the world. All this were efforts of the philanthropist were to complement the allure of Okada Wonderland, which has about 1, 800 chalets of a standard housing estate. It has a classy lawn tennis courts, an amusement park, and shopping centre among other facilities.
With his fame, Igbinedion is a strong voice in the politics of Edo State. Last year Governor Godwin Obaseki’s ambition for a second term in office received a boost when the Esama endorsed him. At a lecture he delivered at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1989, Chief Igbinedion gave a hint on why he has undying appetite for social development particularly of rural communities. As he marks his 86th birthday, Nigeria and indeed, the entire world can only wish him more grace for all that he has done for humanity.