Wiebe Boer: A Black Man in White Skin

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Wiebe Boer

When you see him, you think of a European. His skin colour betrays him. His big smile, calm countenance and simplicity are endearing. He understands the humanity of being an African. He shares the plight of poverty ravaging many Nigerians. Sitting down across him in his office and listening to him talk, you think he is a Nigerian. He wears a badge of pride, passion and promise for the country and the African continent. He has always been that way. The trajectory of his life is like the ever-flowing River Niger. His story may yet be one fit for the silver screen. Like many things, his life and narrative have a beginning, writes Funke Olaode about the Chief Executive Officer of ‘All On’, Dr. Wiebe Boer

Born in the northern part of Nigeria, he grew up to become a global citizen. Though of Dutch parentage, his deep roots are found in Nigeria in a profound sense. From Rockefeller and Tony Elumelu Foundation, his vision and passion to impact positively on lives know no bounds. When you see him, you think of a European. His skin colour betrays him. His big smile, calming countenance and simplicity are endearing. He understands the humanity of being an African. He shares the plight of poverty ravaging many Nigerians. Sitting down across him in his office and listening to him talk, you think he is a Nigerian. He wears a badge of pride, passion and promise for the country and the African continent. He has always been that way. The trajectory of his life is like the ever-flowing River Niger. His story may yet be one fit for the silver screen. Like many things, his life and narrative have a beginning.

For the Boer family, a young couple from the Netherlands who arrived in Nigeria in 1966 to spread the word of salvation in Taraba (then part of Plateau State) little did they know that they would not only have succeeded in impacting on the lives of many Nigerians. They might never have imagined how much they would have changed the life of man: Wiebe Boer.

Wiebe given birth to in Nigeria by the couple was raised in Jos. Years after the missionary work of his parents ended in Nigeria, he has continued to impact on lives in Nigeria beyond the pulpit. As he rode his bicycle in Baissa, a tiny village in Taraba as a one-year-old, Wiebe was not conscious of his environment or who he was. He spoke the language of the natives.

Today, Wiebe has since grown beyond Jos where he was raised to conquer the world in history, science and humanity. After his secondary education at Hillcrest in Jos, he proceeded to Calvin College in Michigan, United States for a degree in history. He had his masters in history and philosophy and obtained his PhD at the Yale University.

Wiebe recalls with nostalgia his days in Jos where he spent the first 18 years of his life: “My parents were missionaries when I was born in Jos. They were living in small village called Bassa in Taraba State. I actually learnt how to speak Hausa before I spoke English. Today, I can go to Kano and spend a week without speaking English. My first word that my parents recognized was when I saw a snake and said, ‘Tsoro’ – that in Hausa means fear.

“My parents as missionaries were engaged with the Nigerian church and leadership. They consciously taught us Hausa and not Dutch because they wanted us to connect with Nigeria. The first thing I got from my parents from my upbringing was there is no discrimination. My older sister (Jude Abaga, MI’s mum) was a Nigerian. My parents adopted her when they first came to Nigeria in 1966. Even though I look very different, it never dawned on me that she wasn’t my biological sibling. That is the kind of upbringing we had. They (my parents) were also always focusing on addressing poverty or what the church could do to alleviate it – that it wasn’t enough to convert and they are still suffering. This has had a positive impact on my career which has always been focused on ways to improve the lives of the people.”

“When I was five, my parents moved to Jos – a cosmopolitan city where people speak English and all that. I spent my first 18 years in Nigeria before I travelled abroad for educational pursuit. I grew up in Jos and Jos at that time was a peaceful place. If you ask anyone with a connection with Jos in the 1980s and 1990s would tell you it was like a paradise. It is a unique place, not only in Nigeria but in the world. It is a city in the middle of Nigeria with beautiful weather, amazing environment, outdoor culture freedom and safety. And regardless of someone’s religion or ethnicity everybody was the same. There were no issues. I mixed with Lebanese and the Hausa. There were no ethnic or religious problems. I played with everybody both Muslims and Christians and there was no issue. We all spoke each other’s languages. It was an amazing experience growing up in Jos and I wish I can give the same to my children but Jos has changed.”

Wiebe is saddened that the Jos of old where he grew up has become a battleground. “I don’t recognize the Jos of old anymore. The beauty is not there anymore. That togetherness is not there anymore. It is now a divided place. I remember four days before the September 11 attack in America in 2001 was when the first Jos crisis happened where over 3,000 people died more than the number of people that died in 9/11. But because it was Nigeria, the news didn’t pick it up. That was when I was back in Nigeria to do my doctoral dissertation research. The killings were really scary. There was one point a group of vigilante was coming to our neighbourhood. I lived in the GRA then,” Wiebe narrates.

“This local group were destroying houses in the neighbourhood. Some people came to our compound and we hid them. Then the vigilante came and said we know that you are hiding our enemies and we are going to get you also. They were busy breaking down the gates and I was like let me say my last prayers that this is the end of my journey in Nigeria which started and ended in Jos. And from nowhere it started raining I mean heavy down pour and they left. That was my close shave with death. That was when my romantic love of Jos changed because I saw a new side of Jos. The memory is still there and it is still a beautiful place.”

With a Nigerian mentality, Wiebe experienced a culture shock during his academic exploits after spending 18 years in Nigeria. He said: “I went to Calving College in Michigan for my first degree. It was a culture shock because growing up in Nigeria. I am not just an Oyinbo but the pure one: blonde hair, blue eyes very pale. All my life I always stand out and anytime I am in a crowd you can see me. When we were travelling and stopped on the road people would run to touch my hair, skin.

“So I am used to that and while I went for an undergraduate in a university where most of the students were children of Dutch immigrants they all looked exactly like me and I hated it. And so from the day I started I wore something that was made with Nigerian fabrics and I would stand out. So I was a bit different; the identity issue was a bit extreme. When I look back I think I overdid it but at that time I didn’t want anyone to think I was part of them even to a point that I had a jacket covered up with jukun – a fabric from Taraba – so that even in Winter I always looked different.”

Wiebe though a European will pass for as an African. The reason is simple. He has always been drawn to African. At Yale University, he was Graduate President of the Yale African Student Association. His career exploits have also revolved around Africa. In 2012, the Tony Elumelu Foundation selected him as its inaugural CEO following his recruitment from the Rockefeller Foundation – one of the world’s leading charitable foundations with over 90 years of commitment to Africa. Wiebe’s previous experience includes working at McKinsey.

Wiebe studied history up to a doctorate and has written more than three books including ‘Invest in Africa: Unlocking the Potential’ his latest work, ‘A Story of Heroes and Epics: The History of Football in Nigeria (1904-1960)’. He said studying history has to do with an identity issue. When Wiebe was 16, he went to an immigration office to apply for Nigerian citizenship. He was born to missionaries in Jos and had lived all his life in Nigeria – moving between towns and cities in the north. So, he had nominally fulfilled the conditions of naturalization – which says you must have resided in Nigeria for a continuous period of 15 years. But he was denied the citizenship he craved.

“It was the first time in my life that I actually knew I was not a Nigerian. I studied African history because I wanted to know about Africa more than anybody. In addition, getting a doctorate is a good credential to have,” Wiebe recalls with a sense of dashed expectations.

The pioneer CEO of Shell’s ‘All On’ has big dreams for Nigeria. His firm is noted for making the first investments in Nigeria’s off-grid power market, aimed at facilitating increased access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy sources for low income households, small scale enterprises, and communities in the country.

He adds: “What ‘All On’ is doing is going step further to solve the electricity problem with more efficient energy source. And that is what we are trying to do using solar, hydro, gas etc. We have an investment company that invests in companies that provide the services. The industry is new and it takes time but based on what I have seen we can be optimistic that there would be a revolution in power in Nigeria just like we experienced in telecoms.”

For Wiebe, it has been an amazing journey. “I have spent almost 30 years of my life in Nigeria. Every Nigerian that I have met is friendly, welcoming and amazing. Nigeria is interesting; living in Nigeria is an adventure,” he says with pride.