By KENNY ASHAKA
Years of death came to a head in one of Nigeria’s most successful and flourishing families last Tuesday when the patriarch of the Ibru family passed on, aged 85. Before his death, Felix and Alex, his siblings had died in the reverse order of their births. When the news of Olorogun Michael Christopher Onajirevbe Ibru hit the streets, Nigerians, especially associates and business colleagues were gripped with shock. The initial news that he was in critical state heightened the anxiety. Public sympathy came in thick floods. Then came a piece of cheery news: he was recovering faster than expected and would soon be back.
But on Tuesday, September 6, some days after this news, all hopes of seeing him up on his feet were dashed when his death was announced. “He died early this morning in Maryland, United States of America. He had been sick for a while. And just when we thought he was recovering, he died,” Cecilia, his wife of 50 years said at their Queens Drive, Ikoyi home in Lagos. She said there was nothing to suggest that death was lurking around the corner for her husband. “We always communicated on Skype. He was looking much better and I was expecting his return. To hear that he passed on was a shocker to me,” she remarked.
Cecilia has every reason to be sad because Olorogun Michael Ibru would no longer be there to light up the home with his affectionate smile. She is not the only one who will miss him. Olorogun Oskar and Oboden Ibru and indeed the other 15 children would also miss him. The grief spread widely and was present throughout the condolence visits at the weekend.
Born on December 25, 1932 in Warri, Delta State, Olorogun Michael Ibru was a most fitting Christmas gift from God to the Ibru family of Agbarha-Otor in Ughelli North Local Council of Delta State. He was a top industrialist and the patriarch of the Ibru family. First among seven children of the late Pa Peter Epete Ibru, a lover of knowledge and religion who sojourned extensively, ending up as a Nursing Superintendent at the Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital, Olorogun Michael showed exceptional skills of a leader and one with business acumen at a tender age. His grandfather was Chief Ibru, the Olotu-rode of Awrihe – protector of the clan, whose name Ibru in its study of the history of families and line of descent from their ancestors means “a large wide cloth used for covering one-self and others,” was a great source of inspiration to the younger Ibrus. His late mother, Chief (Mrs.) Janet Omotogor Ibru, was the daughter of Chief Osadjere of the long line of wealthy merchants and political leaders in Olomu Kingdom in Ughelli South Local Council of Delta State.
With a background that encouraged faith in God, time-honoured tradition, intellectual quest and hard work, Olorogun Michael possessed a trait of life characterized by the exercise of a genius and right motivation. Thus, in the famous Igbobi College, Lagos (1948-51) where he was the Senior Prefect during his final year, his rise was characterized with great speed and brilliance, moving from secondary Class-2 straight from Elementary school without the usual preamble of having to go through the first form. That rise was instructive to his mates in the school. With Division One to the bargain, Olorogun Michael Ibru followed a privileged path reserved for students who had excelled by securing a job with the United African Company of Nigeria, UACN as a Manager-in-Training.
Olorogun Michael Ibru worked in UACN for five years (1951-56) and within the period he established LAIBRU, a corporate entity with an expatriate, Jimmy Large. After this, he recognized that his dream could not be met in a flash and reckoned that his next step would be to identify a more proficient entity targeted at providing proteinic products to Nigerians. He communicated with general traders who played the roles in product acceptance.
To trade in seafood and in order to achieve his aim, he established an importing company, rented and built cold storage facilities across the country. By the mid 1960s, trading in fish had become the traditional money-spinner for the Ibru Organisation. There are other profitable interests like transportation and construction to complement. But it was fish trading that helped him secure financing and other forms of capital to engage in large scale trading. He established a partnership with a Taiwanese company. This company named after his maternal family, Osadjere Fishing Company, provided trawlers and other accessories for trading.
However, Olorogun Michael branched out of the business into other areas of the economy, setting up a transportation company called Rutam Motors. He also invested in palm oil production and expanded into other areas like tourism, brewery, timber and poultry. With personalities like Bode Akindele, he created one of the largest modern Nigerian owned groups.
In 1983, the patriarch of the Ibru family veered into politics and became a gubernatorial candidate, but lost to Samuel Ogbemudia, former governor of old Mid-West region. He was a member of the Liberal Convention, LC and the New Movement, which underwent a marked change to become the now defunct National Republican Convention, NRC.
A member of the Nigerian-US Business Council; Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Economic Cabinet Committee, former Mid-West region; Provisional Council, University of Benin, 1975; Federal Advisory Committee, Fisheries Research, 1978-79; Governing Board, Nigerian Institute of Oceanography and Marine Research; US-Nigeria Joint Agricultural Consultative Committee and Board of Trustees, National Science and Technology Fund, Olorogun Michael’s exploits in business also earned him membership of the African Development Bank President’s Roundtable of Businessmen in Africa and member, Business Advisory Council of the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
For his developmental efforts at the home front his recognition and Awards came in deluge: Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR); Outstanding Businessman Award of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 1983; Honorary Doctor of Laws (Hon. LL. D.), University of Benin, (1978) and University of Ibadan (1978); Doctor of Agriculture (Honoraris Causa), University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (2004). He also won the Zik Price in Leadership in 2003 and the received the prestigious Dr. Kwame Nkrumah Excellence in Enterprise Award, among others.
As his health began to fail, Olorogun Michael Ibru jetted out of the country for full medical treatment. But his farewell to family members at the airport turned out to be his last public appearance on the shores of Nigeria. Since his exit, Nigerians have been speaking on the life and times of Olorogun Michael. His wife, Cecilia said: “He was a great man. For him to have passed on now, we believe it is God’s time. He was a genius and a pioneer in many fields. That is why he was known as Fisherman of Nigeria. He knew fish was so much needed and he made it available to the ordinary man. He was the pioneer for 20 years in the fishing business before unscrupulous people crowded into it. We have lost our father, mentor, patriarch and the person who saw possibility in us all.
Eminent Nigerians, including President Muhammadu Buhari, Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, former Senate President, David Mark, former Delta State governor James Ibori and groups like the Urhobo Progress Union, UPU, have all described Olorogun Michael Ibru as “a fish magnate, business guru and a colossus who bestrode the length and breath of our nation in all its ramifications; be it business, education, health or housing.