Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha spend an interesting evening with Chief Victor Mbadiwe, a burgherwho boasts of a proud heritage and pedigree
It is late afternoon on a Thursday. Homebound traffic was already building up on Adeola Odeku Street in Victroria Island, Lagos. On one of the side streets, a steady stream of people arrive at the black gate of an imposing building painted in white. The guests are gathering for a weekly routine family rendezvous with Chief Victor Mbadiwe. This has become the established tradition for some years now. As long as he is in town, all his siblings and members of the extended family in Lagos congregate at his residence for a session of bonding. This period of holding court goes back to the days of his late father, J. Green Mbadiwe, an affluent and influential businessman and philanthropist.
Reclining into a chair in his expansive living room, he spoke in impeccable Hausa to his cook, instructing him to get some food ready. To another staff, he spoke in Igbo. His fluency in both languages is rooted in his early childhood. Born in Minna, Niger State, Victor spent the first 14 years of his life in the northern Nigeria where he had his primary education. Back then in Minna, he recalled, the social scene was different and calmer.
“Growing up in the north really helped me a lot and changed my way of viewing things. I became immersed in the culture of that area. They were very respectful. People that were born in the north take things easy. They do not hustle too much. In those days, you can open your doors, go anywhere you like and return to find it there.”
With this tranquility experienced in the North, Victor was however disappointed when his family returned to eastern Nigeria during the Nigerian civil war. The environment was hostile. People picked on each other without a cause. It was nothing compared to the surroundings he grew up with. Perhaps, what baffled him the most was the outright aggression towards one another. He couldn’t comprehend their behaviour. Nevertheless, Victor managed to adapt to the lifestyle and moved on but never allowed the prevalent aggressive mannerisms to rub off the good-spirited and calmer attitude he grew up with. That peaceful demeanor is still seen in him today. Having arrived late for this interview, he modestly apologized for keeping us waiting. On this particular afternoon, he was in the company of his cousin Nath and a very good friend of his, an American Bob Thomas. Interestingly, Bob is a retiree of the famous Wahl Company which Victor is the sole distributor of their products in Nigeria and West Africa.
An encounter with Chief Victor Mbadiwe is likely to engender an intriguing tale about his father. There is no doubt that he holds his father’s memory in great esteem. This is evident in the way he preserved pictures of him taken in different places and in the company of founding leaders of Nigeria.
The Mbadiwe dynasty is arguably signposted by the late loquacious and flamboyant politician of the first and second republic, Chief Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe. The celebrated K.O had a larger than life image and strut the political landscape like Colossus. K.O. promoted the ideals of nationalism, celebrated African Arts and even earned the friendship of a prominent global figure like the then First Lady of United States of America, Eleanor Roosevelt while he studied in the U.S. A. His exploits in politics and arts during the pre and post independent era are in the public domain. Through him, the name Mbadiwe acquired a national status and legacy.
However, little is known of his older brother J. Green Mbadiwe who paved the way for him in politics. Acting on the wise counsel of Nigeria’s first ceremonial president, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, he facilitated K. O’s travel to the United States of America. Upon his return from the United States of America, J. Green Mbadiwe who enjoyed staying in his comfort zone and pulling the strings from the background smoothened the path for K.O’s grand entry into politics. Adorning the walls of Victor Mbadiwe’s home at Victoria Island are photos and other memes showing his father in the company of Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Dr. Azikiwe and the Queen of England. There was no denying the admiration in Victor’s eyes as he showed us the black and white images of his father.
From this standpoint, it was clear that there was no way we were going to have a conversation without frequent reference to his father. There are too many memories of him that Victor cherishes.
“My father was a hardworking man who started business in Enugu, but had to relocate to northern Nigeria. He started as a railway contractor, doing relay lines for the railway in Minna, Niger State. He found gold in a place in Niger state called Madaka. It was there that he had the mining prospective that enabled him to start mining gold. He made quite some money from mining gold. At a point, he became a board member of the Nigerian Railway Corporation. But the highest position he held there was the Deputy Chairman of the Corporation. Ibrahim Dasuki was the Chairman then. He was also in the distributive trade with Life Flour Mills Sapele, and had a big piggery in Chanchangan. He used to send pigs in wagons of trains to all parts of Nigeria. My father also had a big farm in a place called Isiokpo in Rivers state. It is a big palm plantation. We also have pineapple and all sorts of crops. You can categorize my father as a railway contractor, a farmer and a miner, and in the later years, he was in the distributive trade.”
This was just one part of his father. There are several aspects of his father’s personality that Victor is so proud of. One of them is his altruistic nature.
“My father was a very kind man. I consider him one of the greatest philanthropists of his time. In the early 30s, he was so affluent that he started helping other people. In those days, when we travelled by train; due to his status as a board member of the Railway Corporation, he was given a special coach that was like a house. Whenever we get to any railway station and he sees beggars, he will delay the train and make sure he gives alms to these beggars. He also helped widows and other less-privileged. He did not like to see others suffer. He trained his brothers and extended family members including people from other ethnic groups in Nigeria. He also helped the church. He was one of the pioneer members that started the centenary cathedral in Arondizuogu which the late Alex Ekwueme came to open after his death. He has a chapel named after him in that cathedral.”
Apparently, the late J.Green made a lot of friends in his lifetime. Most of them were influential natural rulers like the Emir of Katsina, Emir of Kano and others. In Minna where he was based, he was a very good friend of the Sarki of Chanchaga. His friends were not limited to the northerners. He also associated with the Ibos and Yorubas. Some of the notable people whose company he kept included the late Herbert Macaulay and Shehu Shagari.
Despite his close relationship with those in the corridors of power, J. Green never openly participated in the politics. Rather, he stayed behind the scenes and laid the political framework for his younger brother, K.O Mbadiwe.
“My father helped the pioneer nationalist of those days. He sponsored the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). Even the West African Pilot Newspaper that the late Nnamdi Azikiwe established was funded by him and Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu. When his late brother K.O. Mbadiwe finally came back in the 40s, my father made sure that his brother got into politics. He was much older than K.O. He didn’t have the strength to go into politics. But he wanted his brother to succeed.”
In order to entrench his father’s heritage of charity, he established the J. Green Mbadiwe Foundation in 1992. The foundation reaches out to many charity organisations orphanages across Nigeria, the Spinal Cord Injury Resource Centre, in Maryland-Lagos and other charitable homes. The foundation also award scholarships to secondary school and university students.
At a time when many were proud of their Nigerian names, how did Victor’s father end with two English names? “The J stands for James. Green was the name of his mentor, a Yoruba man ‘Mr Green’, whose name my father decided to adopt. His Ibo name was Ugboaja.”
As a way of keeping his father’s legacy, Victor has not only inherited his father’s company, J. Green Mbadiwe and Sons Limited, most of his businesses are named after his father. However, he is still uncertain if his seven children will toe the same path. So far, only one of his daughters and one other son have shown interest in his businesses. His entire family lives in the United States of America, compelling him to shuttle frequently between Nigeria and America.
The third son of his father, circumstances have thrust the headship of the family on Victor. He counts himself lucky for avoiding conscription into the Biafran army. This was largely due to the fact that the war did not come close to his village, Arondizuogu in Imo State. Moreover, he lost two older brothers to the war. He felt the battleground was not cut out for him despite the overriding believe then that it was ideal for young boys his age to join the army. In retrospect, he believes he did the right thing and admonishes the youths of today who are clamouring for war.
“I don’t think that war is what we should be thinking at this age and time. Have we finished managing what we have in Nigeria before talking about getting into another war? If they were born at that time and see what people went through, they wouldn’t even talk about another war. There was no food. People suffered from malnutrition, kwashiorkor and all kinds of diseases. There was no decent place to lay one’s head. It was a rough situation. Nigerian military jets were raining bullets and bombs on us. Is that the situation we want in this age and time? And I don’t see the need for that war. What are we fighting for? Let’s get ourselves together and see how Nigeria can move on. If there is any problem that the young ones or the elders see are not happy about, they can come to a table and talk things over. We are in a democratic set up; it’s not like a military rule where there are decrees. We have the senate, the judiciary, executives, for checks and balances. The press is there to give voice to grievances and see. Instead of causing confusion, let us help move the country forward.”
After the war, he travelled to the United States of America in 1972 to study Business Administration and Political Science at the City University of New York. He returned to Nigeria in 1980 at the death of his father. Done with the obsequises, he decided to live in Kaduna. Meanwhile, he registered with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) where he got a couple of contract jobs until 1987 when his cousin Nath, who incidentally was present at the interview, introduced him to Wahl Clippers. He flew back to America to meet with the leadership of the company. At the end of the conference, he returned to Nigeria with 12 sample clippers in his suitcase.
This would later multiply like the 12 Apostles with whom Jesus Christ spread the gospel around the world. His initial attempt to introduce to traders at Balogun Market in Central Lagos was rebuffed. Undaunted, he took his wares to Enugu, where recodred marginal success. By the time he returned to Lagos, the market was ready. Impressed with the quick successes, Wahl headquarters wasted no time in making him the sole distributor of the company’s products in Nigeria and West Africa in 1990. His new role informed his decision to move from Kaduna to Lagos where he believed the market was larger. As part of his promotional strategy for the product, he introduced an annual barbers’ competition where barbers are rewarded with cash prizes and various tools for their trade. It is easy to assume that the name Mbadiwe effortlessly opens doors of opportunities, particularly in high places but Victor thinks differently.
“If you are an Mbadiwe and you have nothing to show for it, then nobody will listen to you. You must prove that you are worth the name.”
“It comes with a sense of responsibility because the name has a legacy, so you must live up to it,” added Nath.
Victor may not have acquired as much as his father, but he is content with what he has achieved so far. Living in retirement at age 68, he takes life easy. His typical day includes waking up as early as 5:00am, going on the treadmill, lifting minimal dumbbell and barbells and checking up on his various businesses to offer advice when necessary. Today, he is into real estate, hospitality business and Wahl Clippers trade.