Age has not withered her. She is still as radiant as ever, wearing the kind of smile that would rival Mona Lisa as captured by Leonardo Da Vinci. She is one woman who has seen a lot, but agony, grief and tribulations of this world have not taken their toll, even as she marks her 70th birthday next week.
Let me be the first journalist to celebrate this woman of substance, the most powerful media woman in Nigeria, if not the whole of Africa, a woman with a unique name: Maiden! I am talking about Lady Maiden Ibru, the woman who is Nigeria’s answer to Katherine Graham who in her lifetime was the publisher of Washington Post, an institution she inherited after the death of her husband, just like Maiden Ibru also inherited her husband’s newspaper, The Guardian to become the publisher of Nigeria’s first quality newspaper.
Why did your husband found The Guardian? I asked. “He wanted a different newspaper,” she replied. “An intellectual newspaper which through their writings would be able to influence the way government should be run to bring about good governance in the interest of the masses. And that’s why he put all the best brains together. Dr. Stanley Macebuh, Dr. Dele Cole, all the good hands from the then Daily Times. He just wanted something different, something intellectual. And don’t forget Lagos was then the seat of government. It hadn’t moved to Abuja. And he didn’t want a national paper. Being in Lagos was enough for him. In fact, he said it was his gift to the masses. He didn’t set it up as a commercial enterprise. I think they had their first breakthrough maybe around 1999 or thereabout, since 1983. So it didn’t matter because he had the property. It wasn’t as if he was paying rent, he used his money abroad to bring in printing machine which was among the finest machines in the world.”
We were meeting for the first time and it was as if she had known me all her life. How can one forget her conviviality? Her eloquence in Yoruba and English. And the tendency to mix the two, seamlessly jumping from one to another. She even speaks Yoruba better than her native Itsekiri. That’s because she grew up in Ibadan. Yoruba proverbs spew easily from her mouth. A column like this is not enough to contain her life story. She needs a whole book like Katherine Graham’s bestselling memoir, Personal History. In a way, Maiden Ibru even looks like Katherine Graham in her younger days.
For three hours or so, we sat as she poured out the story of her life. It’s a great story by any standard. What took me there was the biography of a great businessman I was researching and she gave me her beautiful perspective about the man she knows and the mentorship role he plays in the life of her tall, handsome son who has been brought up to be humble. She shows me a letter of gratitude written to her by her son. I don’t think I have the permission to share the letter. But it’s the kind of letter that would make any mother proud.
Maiden Ibru was born 70 years ago to a Greek Adonis father from Salonika who came to Nigeria in search of business opportunities and a beautiful damsel from Koko, “the great, great granddaughter of the governor-general the oyinbos handed over to in Koko.” How he met the damsel is the stuff of movies. He was sitting in his balcony, drinking afternoon tea when he saw a herd of schoolgirls walking by led by a Catholic Convent Sister Hayden. He spotted one particular girl who mesmerized him. He instantly knew this was his destiny girl. The next day, he rushed to the school and begged Sister Hayden to parade all the schoolgirls. Like Romeo, he spotted his Juliet, the young Hannah Omowumi and created a scene: “Yes, this is the girl! I have found her! I want to marry her now!” They got married and lived happily after.
Their daughter Maiden grew up in Ibadan and was educated in the University of Ibadan where she studied English combined with theatre arts. Her classmate was the famous poet Niyi Osundare whom she describes as a first-class brain—the only student whose notes she will copy when she misses class. She left for the United States to do her Masters. On coming back home, she got a job with the Ibru Organisation with an impressive dossier. Don’t ask me how she got to meet Alex, one of the Ibru brothers who got wind of the news that a beautiful lady with brains had just joined the organisation and was at the headquarters in Apapa. Alex did his checks and found that none of his brothers was involved with her, so he planned his strategy and executed it triumphantly. You will probably read about the remaining part of their romantic story in the Memoirs of a Maiden.
Anyone writing the biography of a Maiden Ibru would find so much to write. Being a student of theatre and English literature, she is a storyteller par excellence. But every story has its tragic side. I asked her about the day Abacha goons shot her husband. Brave Maiden gave graphic details of that day of infamy and at a point broke down in tears as she recollected her hero husband, a man whom Abacha could not kill but cancer did. I joined in crying and at the same consoling her.
Through her eyes, I could see the portrait of Alex Ibru as a quintessential business analyst—his area of specialization. A man with a Midas touch, a seer who would look at a project and tell whether it would work or not. A man who created a sustainable business which runs itself when the owners are not around. A man who never borrowed a dime in his life to do business. A man who brought a paradigm shift in the Nigerian newspaper market, creating a world-class quality newspaper from the start. A man who sums business as “just about planning, implementation, monitoring and control.” One thing he tells his wife who is now the guardian of his legacy.
I can go on and on but, let me end here with an interesting irony. As a fresher in the University of Ibadan, Maiden saw her matriculation picture published in the Sketch and she angrily stormed the newspaper house demanding who authorized her picture in their newspaper. Little did she know she would be the publisher of Nigeria’s most influential quality newspaper. Happy 70th birthday to Mrs. Maiden Ibru, the generous woman who insisted I must carry a bag of a special rice home to my wife. Happy birthday to the caring woman who calls to ask how I am doing in my chosen path of writing legacy books such as my latest work: “50 NIGERIA’S BOARDROOM LEADERS—LESSONS ON CORPORATE GOVERNANCE AND STRATEGY.”