Michael Ibru: The Urhobo Jesus of honour and prosperity
In this month of December millions of Urhobo people across the world will give a final salute to Chief Michael Christopher Onajirhevbe Ibru, the greatest ever of their kin in the past half a century. From the humble beginnings of a clerical staff in a European firm in Lagos, Michael Ibru crashed all records of daring and innovative enterprise to emerge as the head of one of the wealthiest family dynasties in Africa of the 20th century. His heroic grandeur is burnished by the fact that he did not hail from one of the populous ethno-linguistic groups of Nigeria favoured by politics and geography. Chief Michael Ibru is Urhobo, the most populous group in Delta State, but usually classified as a “minority” by social anthropologists. As is typical of epic heroes, the handicaps of place of nativity could not hold back the glow of his manifest destiny. In endeavour, accomplishment, moral hygiene, and longevity, Chief Ibru earned his Urhobo sobriquet of “Omiragua”, meaning a distinguished, prosperous, and respected personality. In traditional Urhobo calendrical calculus, Ibru’s lifespan of 86 years eminently qualifies him for automatic entry into Erivwin, the Urhobo Elysium or ancestral paradise. Throughout his funeral events this week, these Urhobo rituals of passage will be enacted in serene and sublime dramas and incantations.
Let me quickly explain the metaphor of Jesus, lest Christian fanatics accuse me of blasphemy. Michael Ibru was born on Christmas Day, December 25, 1930. Surely, it is not everyone who shares this birthday with Jesus Christ that attains greatness. Michael Ibru was a baptised Christian but I have no information that he was a dogmatic and maniacal follower of the Christian faith. He steered his life diligently along the path of moral rectitude, always sympathetic, compassionate, helpful, and generous. The thousands of people whose lives were transformed by association with him will always testify to these sterling qualities of his character. But even in his beatific face and looks, the analogy with Jesus radiates its sparks. Every photograph of Michael Ibru reflects this aesthetic of a soul at peace and harmony with the world. Those who knew their father, Epete, testify to how genetic engineering has a way of replicating essential physical and biological features.
But the Jesus analogy is not used in vain. In the 1970s, Chief Ogute Ottan, a famous Urhobo popular musician produced a song in which Chief Michael Ibru is portrayed in the image of Jesus on account of his extraordinary achievements. The epithets employed in the song relate to the ideas of saviour, redeemer, benefactor, and a generous and humane personality. The musician recounts the fields of business in which Ibru excelled others. In the song’s panegyric idiom, Ibru’s mother, Omotogor, is depicted in the grand image of Virgin Mary (Omotobe in Urhobo). In the same song, Ogute stretches the allegorical references further by likening Ibru’s adventures in business and investment to the risk Dr. Mungo Park took in his efforts to discover the route of the River Niger in the 18th century. Mungo Park was a jobless medical doctor of Scotland who was hired by British businessmen about 200 years ago to trace the Niger from its source in the Futa Djallon mountain in Guinea to its final destination then suspected to be somewhere inside the Sahara Desert. In one of his journeys, Mungo Park drowned in the Bussa rapids in present-day Nigeria. The musician’s interest in the Ibru-Park anecdote is to underscore the spirit of bravery in opening up unmapped routes for others to follow and profit from. Chief Ibru’s legendary profile is enriched by his pathfinder roles in helping others with talent and aspiration to succeed.
There is a third metaphorical strand in the song under reference. In another verse of the song the poet-musician observes that even Europeans who “civilized Africans” were employed as workers by Ibru. In the folk imagination of the Urhobo people and other Nigerians, a Black African employing white workers appeared like an impossible feat. This thinking arose from the history of Africa-European relations during the colonial era. In that colonial milieu the white person was always the boss, sometimes carried in hammocks by African servants. An Urhobo adage says that it is the privilege of the colonial officer to be carried by slaves/servants (Eghweghwa a ghwe oyibo). In this song venerating Ibru, the musician reverses the master-servant equation: now it is Michael Ibru, and African business tycoon who employs and pays white people wages.
The portrait of Ibru in the Ogute song accords perfectly with the image of the Ibru family in Urhobo popular consciousness. Millions of Urhobo and other people in the old Midwest and the western Niger Delta region never saw Ibru “live”. All they have as reference are those iconic photos of his idyllic face, always aglow with the smile of peace, fulfilment and benevolence. But if you ask an average Urhobo person to describe Michael, he or she would wax eloquent and effusive with positive adjectives. Some would tell you tall tales about the Ibru family owning half the properties in Lagos! Hyperbolic expressions are essential elements of heroic narratives. Another Urhobo musical group, the Sir Juju/Udjabor of Aladja expressed a similar view in one of their songs on the Ibru legend. In salute to Ibru’s venturesome efforts, these poet-musicians celebrate how the dreaded swamps of iganmu area in Lagos were tamed and transformed into a commercial haven by Ibru (Ekpara Iganmu ihwo na mre dje/Ibru vwiro kpe ophori).
The story of the Ibrus is a sublime blend of auspicious destiny (otarhe) and industry (egba-ugbobo). God in His infinite mercies might endow one with good fortune but, in life, it is the responsibility of the individual to exert himself or herself to prove the manifest destiny. The materialisation of these philosophic elements is usually exemplified in both tangible and intangible achievements. In this case, the full epic narrative is writ large in the sheer number of enterprises in The Ibru Organisation. I recall the Organisation’s diary of the 1980s that listed about 25 companies. At that time The Ibru Organisation ranked as the largest indigenous African business conglomerate.
Many still have nostalgic memory of how Michael Ibru turned trading in frozen fish into a capitalist empire of diverse investments. One of the companies was Sadjere Fisheries, apparently named in honour of Chief Ovedje Sadjere, the first Urhobo multi-millionaire, King (Ohworode) of Olomu Kingdom and President of Eastern Urhobo Native Authority. Sadjere fathered Omotogor, the “Virgin Mary” mother of the Ibru family of Agbarha-Otor in Ughelli local council area of Delta State. The Ibru trawlers of deep sea fishing explore the West African waters from Mauritania to Angola and Namibia. The Ibrus are the first Nigerians, nay Africans, to achieve this in maritime investment. The modest jetties of the 1980s for berthing imported goods have been expanded into huge dockyards and oil tank farms in Ibafon area of Apapa.
The agro-industrial fields include vast oil palm plantations and oil mills in Edo and Delta States. The oil palm is the plant that has proved the native ingenuity of the Urhobo and Isoko people. With a climbing rig (efi) made by them, the oil palm technologist (oberokpa) scales tall oil palm trees to harvest bunches of palm fruits. These are processed into over a dozen products. The local industry has thrived for centuries, particularly after the end of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 1850s. Foreign investors from Europe started large-scale farms in Nigeria from the 1920s. The science core for the industry was the Benin-based Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR). The Ibru family were the first in Urhobo to be involved at a scale level that matched that of foreigners. Other tangible holdings in The Ibru Organisation are the hospitality facilities of the Federal Palace Hotels in Lagos, and the Sheraton in Lagos and Abuja. The Aero airlines dominated the West African skies and Niger Delta oil fields before other aviation bodies entered the business.
There was the Rutam Motors in Isolo, Lagos, whose yard yielded place to The Guardian newspapers, one of Africa’s foremost tabloids. It is difficult to measure how Nigerian democrats could have wrestled power from military dictators if there had been no Guardian flagship in the 1990s. The newspaper served as the mass media vanguard of the popular uprising against military terrorists, particularly in the advocacy for the June 12 electoral mandate of 1993 spearheaded by the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). Nigerians and Africans have Michael Ibru to thank for having the foresight to establish the media house in the 1980s. “Sooner or later, you will read The Guardian” used to be the daring slogan. And verily, verily, it came to pass.
The great hand of fortune, what the Urhobo call “Obo-Ode”, always has a Midas touch. The proof of this was evident in the heft of the portfolio of the Oceanic Bank of then-years. Within a decade the bank had the widest branch spread across Nigeria. Its success story reminded us of the slogan of the now defunct African Continental Bank (ACB) initiated by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and his nationalist peers many decades ago. The ACB advert in Pidgin English used to propagate the ubiquity of the bank thus: “In this corner, i dey there; in that corner, i dey there”. This comprehensive branch structure was inherited by Ecobank, the successor organisation. At a time the high profile academics in the editorial departments gave the impression that The Guardian was a media university. It was expected that the Ibru family would eventually set up a private university. This expectation has come to pass with the opening of the Michael and Cecilia Ibru University in Agbarha-Otor and Oghwrode.
Olorogun Michael Ibru is an adorable example of a statesman who was not a politician. It is apt to make an analogy with Imhotep, a Black African Egyptian multi-genius whose inventions in architecture and medicine have enriched humanity over the millennia. The American, Professor Will Durant observed in 1954 that Imhotep, the greatest Egyptian of ancient times, was neither a soldier nor political ruler. As an architect, Imhotep designed some of the pyramids that have survived in solid state for over 4,000 years. He was gifted in medicine and could heal 200 diseases. The Greek man, Hypocrites wrongly venerated as the “father” of orthodox medicine was trained in Imhotep’s temple about 700 years after his death. Imhotep added so much value to humanity that after he had died, he was worshipped like a god in Europe, Africa, and Asia for several thousand years.
Like Imhotep, Michael Ibru is best known as the “humble fisherman” and peacemaker. He was neither an elected governor nor a head of state. He never bore the bombastic title of “His Excellency”. Yet Michael Ibru’s aura of goodwill and generosity overshadowed that of “bloody” generals and billionaires in politics. It is not that he did not aspire to the halcyon position in politics. There were moments when he felt that he could use the platform of electoral politics to bring justice and benevolence to the broad masses. He was active in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) during the Second Republic (1979-1983). In the late 1980s he was persuaded to seek presidential nomination in the treacherous “transition” schemes of General Ibrahim Babangida. This aspiration did not fructify but he did not have his fame and integrity blemished or polluted in the process.
Urhobo folklore has a proverbial remark that even when the antelope is unable to attend a festival, it would be well represented in the form of the drums made from its skin. In the 1991-92 governorship contest in Delta State, Michael’s younger brother, Felix Ovuodoroye, won as the first governor. In all likelihood, many of those who voted for Olorogun Felix in that election did so because they cherished the grand name of Michael, the patriarch of the richest family in Urhobo history.
Truly, Lagos, the former capital city of Nigeria, was the cradle of the Ibru prosperity. His father, Epete, came to Lagos as a nurse/civil servant in Igbobi hospital. Michael, with the mentorship of the mother, Omotogor, took advantage of the vast opportunities in Lagos. At the time he passed away in 2016, there was hardly any rival to him in the legend of finding gold in every enterprise. Olorogun Michael’s pedigree is comparable to that of other merchant nationalists in Nigeria from the 19th century. The list includes King Perekule (Pepple) of Bonny, Jaja of Opobo, Nana Olomu of Itsekiri, Madam Tinubu of Lagos/Egba, and Ambakederemo of Kiagbodo/Ijaw. Other luminaries are Ovedje Sadjere and Mukoro Mowoe of Urhobo, Odumegwu-Okukwu of Nnewi/Anambra, Odutola of Ijebu, Dantatta and Aliko Dangote of Kano, M. K. O. Abiola of Abeokuta, Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion of Edo/Bini, and the Bruce Family of Bayelsa.
Michael Ibru is celebrated as an epic hero not just because of the volume of his monetary wealth. He is venerated and serenated primarily because of his patriotic decision to develop his native lands of Agbarha, Urhobo, Delta, and Edo States. His economic ventures are in all these places; through them he extended jobs, assistance, and inspiration to hundreds of people. In Agbarha-Otor, the Ibru symbols are everywhere. The Superbru factory for beer and beverages is the most gigantic. There are also oil palm estates, exquisite villas of the brothers, the Ibru College, the Ibru Ecumenical Centre, a private airstrip for their flights to and from Lagos, the “one-legged” storey building for their father, the temporary facilities for the new University, and the Basilica-shaped mansion for Olorogun Michael Ibru that overlooks the horizon like a castle of an ancient empire. As the Urhobo say, when luminaries like Michael Ibru “return home” to their maker (Oghene), they are received with pomp and pageantry at heaven’s gate (“Urhoro”) and ushered gregariously into the angelic chambers of ancestors. So shall it be with Olorogun Michael Christopher Onajirhevbe Ibru (1930-2016).
* Professor Darah of Delta State University, Abraka, was former chairman of The Guardian Editorial Board