Remembering Olorogun Michael C. O. Ibru
From the time the news broke out that Olorogun Michael Christopher O. Ibru, our friend Mike, had passed on, a lot had been said and written about his life while here on earth with us. These were reports and accounts of his enterprise, achievements and successes. When we consider these and all that he left behind after a lifetime of 85 years granted to him by the Almighty God, we cannot regard his passing away a case for mourning, but rather a celebration, and we thank God for his life.
Yet, there is the feeling of loss. I therefore extend my condolence to all members of the Ibru family, the friends and associates. I am happy that I am able to give this tribute, because Mike and I had been close friends most of our lives and had shared interesting moments together. Although he is gone, the memories are left behind, and some of these I will recount as Tributes to him to show that I have had as a friend, a diligent worker, a compassionate person and noble Nigerian.
Mike and I first met in January 1947 when we were admitted into Igbobi College, Yaba as boarders. We were among the few students that were to start in Form 2, instead of Form 1. We passed through College successfully, academically and otherwise. We did Latin and some Koine Greek. Mike excelled specifically at Sports. He was an all-rounder. At cricket, football and athletics, he was good at them all. He won the “Colours” at Cricket, which was typified by a school cap with more of the yellow on the sides than the blue. It made the wearer feel different and special. Others looked at him as such. Leadership was being made and identified. Confidence was being built. In athletics we shared the “Victor Ludorum” of 1950 together.
I would recall an incident at school during one of the football matches when Mike had his leg broken. This was a regular occurrence at the College. The bones were fragile. The games were rough. Luckily, the Orthopaedic Hospital was there adjacent to the football ground, separated only by a wire fence.
When this sort of accident occurred, the wires in the fence were pulled up and down and the hapless one carried through the gap to the Hospital. No formality. They knew us there. So Mike was carried across. Another friend, Ogunrinde, now of blessed memory, and I decided to go and see Mike at the Hospital. We knew that breaking bounds was a serious offence, but the teachers and House Masters were at a meeting. We thought that the coast was clear. We sneaked out to go to the hospital, but were spotted and reported. We owned up and were punished. I would not give the details of the punishment. I did not even tell Mike. It was nothing to brag about. Mike must have heard about it somehow, and why we got the punishment. He did not tell me or ask me about it, for he was not sure whether I wanted him to know. The respect and fondness for each other grew.
The year 1951 was a watershed in the lives of most of us in that set in Igbobi. We had reached Form 6. It was not a surprise that Mike was selected the Senior Prefect and the Head Boy of the College, a responsibility that he carried creditably. He was also the Captain of Townsend House, while I was the Captain of Aggrey House. However, we had been made to do our Senior Cambridge Certification Examinations while in Form 5. This was meant to be an experiment for it was the first time it would be done at Igbobi, or in any of the Colleges; but the results that now came out were very good with A’s and C’s and with exemptions from the London Matriculation.
This was to an extent to the credit of our teachers. As there were no more challenges for us, we started to be restless. The College authorities, therefore, decided to let us out in April, and not at the end of the year. This was why we called our set the “April 1951 Pioneers”. That we had to leave in April gave us some anxiety because employers did not expect school leavers in April, but in December, and we wondered what we would be doing.
Then we were told of a brand new University College in Ibadan for which we could prepare ourselves, and this we did seriously. This was how Ignatius Olisemeka, later to become an Ambassador and Minister of External Affairs, Kwaku Adadevoh later the Vice Chancellor University of Lagos, Kola Olafimihan, later to become a Medical Doctor, and Demola Smith also later to be a Medical Doctor and an Epidemiologist, and I later to be an Engineer on Federal Steel Projects, from the same Class at Igbobi, got into the University College Ibadan the following year for different courses.
Adadevoh, Olafimihan and Smith are now of blessed memory. Mike Ibru on the other hand did not show interest. He told me that his own University was there in the field. He would go into business. Apparently, he had heard of the training programme by the UAC (United Africa Company Plc) for Managers and that was where he wanted to go. At that early stage in his life, he knew that business was his line.
Truly, as April 1951 came, we were let out. To make the shock of the change less drastic for us, it was arranged for some of us to stay at the Bishop’s Court at 29 Marina where we could carry on with our studies quietly, and commune with one another as if we were still in the boarding house. With me there was Mike. Ignatius Olisemeka, and so were some others from Igbobi College and other schools even from outside Lagos.
The environment was congenial. We could take strolls on the Marina and go to the Cinema on Broad Street nearby. Life was easy then. There was a tennis table there to play on whenever we wanted to. We were all doing some temporary work here or there, I as a Clerk with the Administrator General then in Obalende, and Mike had started training as a Manager with the UAC. One day he came back from work to our admiration with a brand new bicycle. A Raleigh, I think, or a Rudge.
But one morning, the bicycle could not be found where it was left the previous evening. Who? Where? What? We could not guess who might have taken it. It had been stolen. We felt for Mike as we would nowadays feel for someone whose car is stolen. But he was unperturbed. He went to work and came back in the evening with another brand new bicycle. Yes, that should shame the thief – if thieves ever get shame. However this time, Mike did not only lock the bicycle, he also chained it to a post.
Soon, we left the Bishop’s Court, and stayed variously in town. Later in 1952 I went to the University College, Ibadan, and thereafter overseas for full Engineering Course. In 1960, eight years after when I came back to Nigeria, I met Mike again and it was as if it was only a few weeks that had passed when we last met; but a lot of water had passed under the bridge.
Having long ceased to be a Manager in training or even a Manager with UAC, Mike had been involved in Banking and Construction projects. Other enterprises came on. On Agricultural projects, he took me to see the Plantation on the way to Benin for Palm products. I knew he loved cars, and I was not surprised that he got into the car business. He was in the fishing business, and also in properties and with his family in the Hotel business.
He told me about the flying school at Kirikiri but I was not interested. The experience might have sparked up his interest in getting into an Airline business, or might have been the other way round that it was because he was going into Airline business that he went to the flying school, to get the feel at least. He thought big and the size of the projects did not intimidate him. In all these, he maintained quality and standard. Indeed, the walls of the University could not have contained him. Likewise, it is not possible to say all about Mike in this short Tribute.
It was for the fish business that he was most noted. I know that he liked water and, at weekends, we would both go motor-boating on the Lagoon even going towards Badagry, at times stopping at Ibeshe; but I do not know how the fish business started. This he did in a big way by importing frozen fish from ships or trawlers, usually Russian or Japan owned, that were plying the West Coast of the Atlantic Ocean, storing and getting the fish distributed through the shops and in the markets.
The traditional fish sellers did not like this and for Lagosians who liked fresh fish from the Lagoon, they labelled the frozen fish “Oku Eko” (meaning “Lagos Corpse”). Who would like to eat frozen corpse from the mortuary? Mike’s Company and the market women countered this with the rhythmic slogan: “S’oko yokoto Eja Ibru” (meaning “makes husband robust, Ibru Fish”). This was blared out repeatedly on radio advertisements. Ibru Fish soon made in-road with the refrigerating vans far inland thus expanding the market, even unto the neighbouring countries.
One other challenge at the beginning of the fish business that I witnessed was when the ship carrying tons of fish was coming to berth, the Company whose cold stores Mike usually used for storing his fish before distributing it told him that their cold store would not be available.
Mike had anticipated this possibility and had started building his own cold store, even of bigger capacity. This entailed the construction of a big hall, lagging it inside with cork or any other insulating material, welding or braising and fitting lengths and coils of tubes to carry the cooling gas, the refrigerant then being ammonia, and installing the refrigerating plant; in fact building a giant deep freezer.
The people working in the cold store to carry or arrange or carry out the fish must wear thick clothing as if in the Arctic Zone. The ship berthed, the Cold Store was just being completed, and the contractors said that they needed to test and check for and repair leakages to prevent the gas, which was toxic, from spoiling the fish. But Mike said that keeping the fish out would spoil it, keeping it in the cold store and there was leakage would spoil it, but there was the chance that there would not be a leakage, and that the fish should be carried into the untested Cold Store.
Mike went home and slept soundly. He was gifted with good sleep. I was not sure that others had good sleep. The Cold Store with the Refrigerating Plant was, therefore, tested with the tons of fish inside. As “luck” is at times in attendance at critical situations like this, there was no leakage of the gas. The fish was safe. So, more wives bought fish for more husbands to get robust.
Mike was much devoted to his family. I found this most evident with his brothers. For instance, having seen something good in Igbobi College which he attended, he encouraged, or rather made his brothers, in particular Felix and Alex, both now of blessed memory, to also attend the same school. I noticed his closeness to Bernard and Goody as well, though they did not go to Igbobi College. Noting my friendship with their brother, these brothers accorded me the respect as if I was another senior brother, which I cherished.
As time went on I noticed the love and concern that Mike had for his brothers were devolved to his children, of whom the closest I know is Oskar. Mike wanted everyone to have the best education possible and he afforded opportunities for them to develop their potentials. That he had built up his rear now makes it possible for those things that he started by himself or with others can continue to be carried on well.
His concern for his children was evidenced from an instance in 1966 when they were very young and were living in Ikeja, very close to the Army Cantonment on Mobolaji Bank-Anthony Way. There was a counter-coup exercise going on in the Cantonment and the soldiers trying to escape jumped into the compound where they were residing, shed off their uniforms there to escape. Mike saw the danger. In one swell swoop, he got the children moved to Apapa. That was the last time they stayed in Ikeja. That was the beginning of the “colonization” of the Creek-Marine Road section of Apapa by the Ibrus.
Mike worked hard. It was not unusual for him to stay till late in his office on Louis Solomon Close, Victoria Island. On one occasion when I was with him, he talked by radio to the ship bringing in fish. He prided himself being a fisherman, fisherman of a kind. On another occasion, as I was with him, he made appointment to be in Europe the following morning. All he had to do was to telephone his dutiful wife, then late Elsie, generally called “Auntie”, who packed everything ready for him, not forgetting the ground pepper, which Mike would simply collect at home in Apapa and then go straight to the Airport.
His achievement had therefore not been by chance. He appreciated those who had contributed positively to his life. I was impressed when he invited our Principal at Igbobi College, Reverend R. B. Parker, then retired, from the United Kingdom to Lagos to his home in Apapa. The old man must have been pleased to see that his old students were doing well, and to be able to see his College again. Mike made his facilities available to his friends, just as he appreciates the simple advices they give him. My family and I enjoy the fish packs and prawns he sent to us, not only at Christmas, and the palm oils and other products of his plantation that was on the way to Benin.
He was also alert to anything that might be a business opportunity or anything close to his interest. There was an instance when some His friends were joking about someone who was behaving funny as one “flying by night“ like a bat. Mike was not part of the discussion and did not know the gist, but on hearing this he turned and asked in an unrelated manner: “What Airline is that?” They laughed and said it was not an Airline, but did not tell him what they were talking about.
They of course did not know that he was then dealing on an Airline business and was sensitive to any development that might affect the business. There was the time when a foundry in Otta for making iron castings folded up and sought a buyer, my friend Mike sent people up there to see what could be done, Also when I retired from Federal Government service in 1980 and from the Iron and Steel projects, in particular the Ajaokuta Steel Project, and I told him, Mike who believed that I was on a good job asked: “Why? What are you going to do now?”
I said that I intended setting up a Consulting Firm which I would call MITECS. From the way I pronounced it, he said: “Good. Michael TECS” I told him that there was no Michael in this one. MITECS was the abbreviation for Metallurgical and Industrial Techniques and Engineering Consulting Services, which I considered would be too long as a name. But my friend showed that he was ready for business, any business.
Well, he has by now reported back to his Maker who sent him, and his report card would have read “Excellent”, because he had left a lot more behind than he found: a lot for which he will be remembered. We do not know exactly what he would have found on the other side, but my sneaking suspicion is that should there be any activity there, any business of whatever form, not to mention fish catching and selling, my friend will be up and doing.
But this is the time to rest, for after a worker’s labour comes rest, and we have been promised a place for this at the last. Therefore, it remains for me now only to say: Goodbye dear friend, till we meet again. May your loving soul rest in perfect peace. Amen.
• Akinwunmi Adegboye, a very close friend of late Olorogun Michael Ibru, wrote this tribute.