Ireukpen Stands Still for Abebe

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All roads today lead to Ireukpen, Esan West Local Government Area of Edo State for the funeral of one of Nigeria’s greatest boardroom gurus, Dr. Christopher Abebe. Davidson Iriekpen writes

The sleepy town of Iruekpen in Esan West Local Government Area of Edo State will come alive this weekend during the funeral of one of Nigeria’s greatest boardroom gurus, Dr. Christopher Ebhodaghe Abebe. Pa Abebe who died on March 22 at the age of 99 after a brief illness, was the father-in-law to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. He was the father of late First Lady, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo and the first indigenous Chairman and Managing Director of United Africa Company (UAC).

According to the burial arrangements released by the family, the funeral mass, interment and reception would take place today, May 18, the traditional village reception will take place on Saturday, May 19 at Late Abebe’s country home in Iruekpen, while the outing service takes place on Sunday, May 20.

Last Friday in Lagos, a night of tributes was held at the St. Gregory’s College in honour of the late Udionwere (community leader) of Iruekpen. The occasion was organised by UAC, Nigeria Employer’s Consultative Association (NECA), Nigeria Breweries Plc, Vitafoam and Nigerian Institute of Management.

The event attracted who’s who in the society, including captains of industry, boardroom gurus, professionals in various fields, retired and many others still serving, who poured encomiums on the great man who joined UAC on December 1, 1935 without shoes but rose through the ranks to become the chairman and managing director 45 years after.

The incumbent Managing Director of the company, Abdul Bello, simply described Abebe as one of Nigeria’s gifts to the world who was incorruptible and of high integrity.

“The story of Abebe’s life of hard work, humility, integrity, rising from lowly position of unpaid apprentice to the enviable position of Chairman and Managing Director inspires and will inspire generations of employees.”

From the Nigerian Breweries where he was once chairman from 1980 to I989, it was scintillating words from the incumbent Chairman, Chief Kola Jamodu, who described the late nonagenarian as a great manager made great contributions to the successes of the company in a difficult phase of the Nigerian economy. Jamodu said Abebe ensured that the business continuity of Nigerian Breweries Plc in the face of challenges in the foreign exchange regime to ease the liquidity problem it posed for Nigerian Breweries.

“His leadership as Chairman of the company at the time contributed hugely to the survival of the company during the tough era of import licensing that put a lot of pressure on the ease of acquiring raw materials and spare parts overseas. In his time as chairman, Nigerian Breweries was part of the representation from the manufacturing sector to government which led to several business-friendly economic policies, some of which still exist today.

“In our specific industry, Abebe’s time as chairman saw the beginning of the use of local raw materials as substitutes for barley as a response to government’s policy on the use of local raw materials for companies in the country. His tenure as chairman also saw an expansion in the company’s existing brewery footprints with the commissioning of Ibadan Brewery n 1982 following the Lagos, Aba and Kaduna Breweries. Significantly, the land where our flagship Ama Brewery currently sits was also acquired during Abebe’s time as Chairman of our Board.

“His example of hard work, patriotism, leadership and positive societal impact strongly reinforced our company’s philosophy of Winning with Nigeria, which still drives our operations till today.”
Vitafoam too paid glowing tribute to Abebe, saying the story of its transition to a truly Nigerian entity cannot be succinctly told without the mention of his name. The company said Abebe was appointed its Director on December 19, 1978 on advice from London and was instantly elected chairman by his colleagues in an exemplary demonstration of trust in his excellent and admirable leadership skill set thus etching his name in gold in the company’s history book as the first Nigerian Chairman.

“This is not surprising given his antecedent as a thoroughbred Unilever man and his previous record of accomplishment at UAC (a member of the Unilever family). His ascendancy occurred at a time when Vitafoam was in dire need of a new leadership in its quest for greater heights. He was indeed a trailblazer! Prior to his emergence, the post of Chairman and Managing Director was held by an expatriate whose overbearing influence on the Nigerian Executives of the company created frictions that almost rocked the system to its foundation. A consummate administrator with astounding people-management skills, Abebe succeeded in mending broken fences within the system and entrenching a tradition of peace, progress and stability. His debt handling of the fracture in the system set the foundation for the widely acclaimed and time-tested culture of seamless board and management succession that has become a hallmark of the Vitafoam system through the ages. The maturity and adroitness he exhibited in the handling of board affairs and overall governance of the company after the exit of the British ensured that Vitafoam flourished and became even more vibrant under a full Nigerian management. This is a remarkable accomplishment considering that most organisations hardly survive the exit of their expatriate leaders. He was indeed a bridge builder!”

Individuals who eulogised the late boardroom guru was the former Head of the Interim Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan, who despite his frail condition, came to honour the his late boss. Recall that Shonekan succeeded Abebe as Managing Director of UAC. The former Head of State described Abebe as a man of integrity who laid a solid foundation upon which the company flourished. He added that the late Abebe believed so much on developing human capacity which saw them taking the company to greater heights when he retired.

Also, former Managing Director of the Nigerian Breweries, Mr. Felix Ohiwerei, in his own tribute, said he does not think there was any great man in this part of the world like Abebe, adding he taught them how to be honest and humble. Ohiwerei who worked closely with Abebe, said he proved to everybody that hard work pays, noting that little wonder he rose from the lowest rank to the peak of his career.

“I don’t think there is any great man in our part of the world like Abebe. He was an epitome of humility. He was humble, humane and very understanding. He was blessed. Throughout the vicissitude of life, he demonstrated that in everything, hold on to Jesus. He went through challenges in life. In all of these, he held on to God. Only few men will survive the challenges he went through and still remain sane. He was one of the few. He showed us that hard work pays. He showed us to live and be honest. He rose from the lowest rank to the peak of his career.”

Pa Abebe was born on July 18, 1919. He shared the same birthday with former South African President, Nelson Mandela, who is older by a year. Abebe did not have the benefit of blue chip education that is available to younger generations of today. But that did not deter him from achieving the goals he set for himself which saw him rise from a position of relative obscurity to high flying attainments in top level corporate management and public administration.

On December 1, 1935, he was appointed as an unpaid apprentice in UAC, from where he rose through the ranks to becoming the Chairman and Managing Director from 1975 to 1980. He believed in the company he served so well and was deservedly encouraged by the expatriates of his days who saw in him attributes that, if nurtured, were capable of achieving the expectations of the British investors who believed that a time will come when they must hand over to local talents that will carry on with the building of a local business enterprise with international connections. That aspiration was realised when Abebe assumed the mantle of leadership of the company, the first Nigerian to do so. The story of Abebe in the UAC which we know today simply as UAC Plc, is a study in hard work, diligence, exemplary courage and proof that with determination as well as assiduous application of will power, it is possible for one to pull oneself up by the bootstrap to the commanding heights of power and affluence.

It was not only in UAC that Abebe performed excellently. He was at various times the Pro-chancellor and chairman of council of three Nigerian universities: the University of Benin, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the University of Calabar. It is on record that it was based on his advice that UNN was taken over by the federal government after the institution was massively destroyed as a result of the civil war.

He also served as Director in various companies including ICON Merchant Bank, Wiggins Teape, First Interstate Merchant Bank. For two years, he was Vice-President and five years President of Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA) (1963-1970). For nine years, he served as President of Nigeria Institute of Management.

As if they were not enough, he was co-founder and former Chairman COMET Merchant Bank Limited which later transformed into First Atlantic Bank Plc and later became part of FINBANK Plc. at consolidation. He was also former Chairman, Security Assurance Company Plc, Director West African Portland Cement Company Plc, served on the Constitution Review Committee 1987 to 1988.
The late nonagenarian was a member, National Universities Commission, President, Nigerian Chapter of African Association of Public Administration and Management, member of Bendel Development and Economic Recovery Council, among many other positions.

Abebe was a committed and devoted Catholic, a quality that was acknowledged by the Catholic Pontiff who conferred on him the highly sought after Papal Knighthood of the Order St. Gregory the Great, one of the highest honours in the Vatican City’s Honours Roll. Before this recognition by the Pope, he had been a member of the prestigious Order of the Knights of St. Mulumba. He rose from the rank of an initiate through the various Degrees to become a Fourth Degree Knight and was elected the Supreme Knight of the Order of St. Mulumba, the highest position in the Order.