with Eddy Odivwri
Back in the days, while growing up in Delta State, the Ibrus were generally a standing metaphor for wealth and fame. Their name only collocated with bottomless financial power. Matters were not helped by the length and width of myths woven around the Ibrus. All kinds of fables spread around them.
For the natives, the mystery around the Ibrus was further complicated with the story of a storey building “standing on one leg” in Agbarha-Otor, the homestead of the Ibrus. It was a display of financial power enough, to put up a storey building in those days, but to make such a building “stand on one leg” was the capping of the financial mystery.
And so, we grew up regarding the Ibrus with awe, especially as even white men served and obeyed them with observable fright.
Journeying from my village in Orogun Clan to Ughelli always made us pass through Agbarha-Otor where it was routine to take another curious look at the architectural wonder of “a storey building standing on one leg”.
Many of the mysteries around the Ibrus began to clear and wear when I got to Lagos in 1991 and began to work in The Guardian, as a reporter.
Sometime in 1993, my news source at the time, Hon Solomon Edojah, then a member of the Federal House of Representatives, in the course of our many interactions, took me, one evening, to Olorogun Felix Ibru’s residence, in GRA, Ikeja.
I was excited that I was going to meet my former state governor. He had invited Edojah for a discussion on politics. Even Edojah regarded it as a prized invitation as he hurriedly rushed into his room and soon appeared in very prized and princely outfit that suddenly transformed his status and value in my eyes. I cannot remember what I wore, but it could not be more than the usual modest apparel of a typical reporter.
In no time, we were at Ibru’s gate.
Typical of him, he had informed his security men of our coming. I was struck by the kind of lighting that beamed the house to every visitor.
The house itself was an architectural mystery. Dome-like, it’s entrance and general ambience, at the time, were rather exotic. When I returned to the Ibru home last Tuesday on a condolence visit, it was still as exotic as it was in 1993. The house was quiet. Very quiet. Almost with an official air hanging in the atmosphere.
There he was in the crescent-shaped family lounge, waiting to usher us in. He stood up with hands stretched forth as we shook the soft but firm hands.
Edojah introduced me to him and the discussion began amidst some soft drinks/tea.
Since it was largely on political developments both at the national level and in our home state, I was able to make meaningful contributions, which I think, he appreciated. And that was it. I became his friend and boy.
Many years after, we were either meeting in his private office, on the Opebi Link road, opposite Sheraton Hotel and Towers, or in The Club, right inside the Sheraton Hotels and Tower itself.
From the years of interaction, it was clear he was a man who had a passion for decency. That he was meticulous will be an understatement. He would say it is better not to make the mistake of the head, hence he is slow to acting, just to ensure he does not make the mistake of the head. Everything was calculatedly worked out. Even the setting of his office bore this mark. He was a stickler for time. But for me, he waived it a couple of times. In those days, his then vivacious secretary, one auntie Josephine (now late), an Igbo woman who could sustain a meaningful conversation in Urhobo language on account of working with Ibru for many years, would say, “your brother is busy now but if you wait for 30 minutes he can see you”.
He was an establishmentarian. Cautiously conservative and full of deep insight. We reflected on many national and local issues and his perspectives were usually rich. He told me many stories, some private, others of his experiences in politics and governance. There were many lessons to learn from his stories. Many of such lessons have remained helpful to me in latter years.
He was hardly in a hurry on any matter. He detested shortcuts. He insisted on doing just what is right, no matter the price. One little but evident way he proved this was, whenever we were leaving his office for the Sheraton premises, he would insist the driver drives down to do a U-turn at Eko Hospital (at the time) and drive properly to The Sheraton instead of just rushing (against traffic) through the less than 50 metres stretch between the Link road and the Sheraton gate
Many times, he expressed concern with how the nation was being run, and would say, ‘if we find that there is something wrong with the structure, as an architect, what we have to do is go back to the drawing board”.
Two things he never joked with at the time, was his playing Golf on Tuesdays at 2.00pm and his Igbobi College Old Boys’ meetings. No appointments could waive those meetings.
He was rather fanatical about his Igbobi College engagements. On one occasion, he chided me for not covering the launch of a book, which I think, was published by the wife of an ICY (Igbobi College, Yaba) old Boy and said he would manage to forgive me by giving me a copy of the book, Hallmarks of Labour, written by Patricia Dede Otuedon which he personally signed in a handwriting that looked like Technical Drawing lines: “To my Friend, E. J Odivwri—Felix Ibru, 15/06/01”. Same day, he gave me another book, Breaking New Grounds, Reflections on the Nigerian Capital Market, written by his younger brother, G.M Ibru.
Yes, the Ibrus are rich, but they never flaunt money. Once, he had made reference to how hard it was for them to make their money, suggesting that it is not like modern day wealth which many stumbled into.
It is not a surprise that when he served as a governor and other public service assignments either as senator, UPU President General etc, not for him, was the public treasury ever a temptation. There was never a scandal of any sort on him.
For many years, for instance, he drove mainly a Peugeot 505 Evolution, in an age where SUVs had become commonplace for even the less endowed persons.
Yet, he was quite caring. I recall how he was unable to attend my father’s funeral in 2009 because he was out of the country, yet sent a five-man delegation with cartons of drinks and “a purse” to the funeral ceremony.
He was not the typical politician. He was reticent and not loud. He didn’t quite have the gift of the garb, but he was deep and venerable. He was not everywhere. He carried himself with Victorian gait and dignity. He was a self-respecting gentleman. Yet he was deeply interested in politics. I understand his interest in politics dates back to his College days at Igbobi where he had served as the Head Boy in 1955, just as his elder brother, Michael did before him.
He was a progressive and had leaned strongly on the Awolowo political philosophy. And that explained why he sided with defunct Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), even when his elder brother and patriarch of the Ibru dynasty, Michael, had openly supported National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
That also explains why in the aborted Third Republic, Felix Ibru was elected the First Executive Governor of newly created Delta State on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1991.
He was a liberal Christian. An Anglican. He was not fanatical on religious matters. He was open and verily de-tribalised. Yet he loved his people. He was very concerned on how to move the Urhobo nation forward. He spoke the Urhobo language with rich linguistic tapestry flavoured by the Agbarha idiolect.
His middle name-Ovuodoroye, literally meaning “Everyman with his own greatness”, was indeed quite descriptive of his life. While he believed and manifested his own greatness, he also acknowledged the greatness of others.
He had submitted a powerful paper on the creation of Urhobo State during the 1991 constitution review exercise.
His love for the Urhobo nation, it must be, that also led him to become, the President General of the elite and influential Urhobo Progressive Union (UPU). Although his tenure was not crowned with great feats, Ibru yet remarked that he managed to pull UPU from the background and made it a national and even international organ
He boasted at the time, “With all sense of modesty, I wish to report that the UPU under my leadership has been transformed from a local union into a national/international organisation, which now is a reference point”
When he was going to run for the senate, he summoned me and we formed a small committee with late Justus Esiri, the Nollywood actor, as the head, to work out the election plans, especially in the media.
For him, nothing was ever left to chance. He planned every process to the last bit. And he won.
His humility is legendary. While in his office one day, he had placed a call to then Governor James Ibori to formally inform him that he would be travelling to England for his medicals. When he dropped the telephone, he explained that he usually takes “permission” from his state’s governor before leaving the country.
Always dressed in white outfits, the Ibrus, generally have made a myth of white clothings. His was no exception. Often clad in sartorial white Guinea Brocade, specially starched, Felix always looked very organized. Even his handkerchiefs, usually bigger than normal, are also starched and carefully ironed.
Although he may have been tamed by age and experience in latter years, Felix Ibru was said to have been the most rascally of the Ibru brothers.
He smoked, but decently and discreetly.
Yet, he was very intelligent and influential.
He had won the Elder Dempster Lines Scholarship to study Architecture in England on the instruction of his elder brother, Michael, whose foresight had indicated to him that the future of Nigeria will be in construction. He qualified as an architect in 1962.
He later went to Israel to have his Masters Degree in Architecture and that began his flourishing career in Architecture.
With several projects in Nigeria to his credit, it is noteworthy that he was behind the Sheraton Hotels design, UNILAG Sports centre, UNIBEN Sports Complex, Oguta Lake Resort, The Diette-Spiff Civic Centre, Port Harcourt, Office extension for Elf Nig. Ltd. Victoria Island, Lagos University master plan, Faculty of Science buildings, University of Benin & Ogun State and the Ogun State Polytechnic Master plan, amongst others.
His architectural adroitness is what explains the famous storey building “standing on one leg” in their Agbarha-Otor hometown, as well as his dome-shaped Lagos residence.
A few years ago, when THISDAY Newspaper gave him a life time achievement award, he was very happy. A week after the awards ceremony, he had called me from Paris, where he had gone for his medicals and asked how he could thank my publisher for considering him worthy of the award especially as it was neither asked for nor was there any price tag to it. We both considered a few ways of showing appreciation and settled for a well-worded “Thank You” letter to Mr Nduka Obaigbena, my Publisher.
Ibru had asked that we should meet on his return. But we never did.
As life rolls, living becomes the art of avoiding the unobtainable. And that was it.
Ibru ‘s health began to fail and his trips for medical treatment became a little more frequent.
But when last year, he marked his 80th birthday, I was happy that he was trudging on.
However, since all men are mortals, his journey here ended March 12, as his journey to eternity began. For Felix Ovuodoroye Ibru, his sun in eternity is just rising, because who is not forgotten is not dead