Her persona is summed up in grace, glamour and goodness. Mrs. Beatrice Abel-Ubeku, wife of the first indigenous Managing Director of Guinness, the late Dr. Abel Ubeku, is a woman of substance and an enduring poster of capable wife. She has always been a rallying point for women and the downtrodden. Selfless and resilient, her humanitarian gestures have earned her regional and international recognition. Funke Olaode writes about the widow’s triumphs and travails; and her struggle living in the shadow of her husband following his demise
The late Dr. Abel Ubeku’s infectious smile, larger-than-life image and jovial nature could still be felt as his large portrait hung on the wall of the grand living room gazes endlessly at every visitor. He used to be a boardroom colossus becoming the first Nigerian managing director of Guinness Nigeria. It has been over four years since he passed on, his better half, Beatrice – fondly called Betty – has been holding forth for the man who showed her how to love.
Mrs. Beatrice Ubeku is an extraordinary woman in grace, goodness and godliness. In a flowing orange gown, she embodies passion and serenity –all this she attributes to God and the love of her life, Ubeku. In her various conversations, her late husband seems a permanent fixture.
“Well, if you have God and a husband like Abel Ubeku, who was a very handsome and disciplined man you would exude calmness. I lived with him for 45 years before he passed away in 2014. He gave me peace. Aside from that, I also enjoy abundant grace from God Almighty. All of this has given me that aura of calmness at all times,” she tells THISDAY.
Since the demise of her husband, Betty had withdrawn from active life, wearing a pall of bereavement in silence.
“I had a deep pain that I lost my husband suddenly when I was looking forward that we were going to live together till the end. So it was like a blow from nowhere. He was a good man that I can’t forget easily. He was good to me, tutored me and encouraged me. I may be out of public glare but I am still very much involved in philanthropy works,” she says.
“I once worked with UNICEF in the past on HIV/AIDS and exclusive breastfeeding. My state – Delta State – came sixth when it was rated by the Federal Ministry of Health at the time. I was a vocal person for West African Women Association (WAWA) which comprises of 16 African countries. I have a team of women and school children working with me. I played a key role with one the day governors under Lions Club. They were part of the international exchange programmes that involved 22 countries and Nigeria participated. This makes me happy that I am touching lives.”
This year something dramatic happened in her life. Her soul was lifted and her spirit came alive a week ago. She was the cynosure of all eyes on February 3 when her late husband was given a posthumous award alongside the late Alhaji Maitama Sule and the former Vice-President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, at the 2018 Silverbird Man of the Year Awards held at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos.
On that day, gorgeous in a forest green dinner gown, she walked majestically to the podium to collect the award.
Betty describes the moment: “I have been down because of the challenge life has thrown at me since my husband died but the grace of God is sufficient for me. This award has wiped away my tears. I am grateful to Silverbird for honouring this gentle and brilliant man who contributed his own quota to Nigeria. I got to know about the award through phone calls from family and friends that there is good news that I should tune in to Silverbird TV that my late husband was nominated for a posthumous award. I thought it was a joke. I waited patiently until I got an official letter from the management of Silverbird to receive the award on behalf of my husband. I was overwhelmed.”
The death of her husband remains a touchy issue as she feels the most important part of her has been taken away from her. His death must have shaken her to the core.
“I was devastated because he was a good man. Education is key and he encouraged me and some other women whom he came across through my networking. Some of these women are lawyers today because he spoke to their husbands that a woman’s place is not in the kitchen alone. He believed a woman who is empowered was invaluable. In my case, he pushed me and it came to a stage he said, ‘Betty you have to go to school’. When I married him I didn’t have a degree. It was a setback for me because I met him early when he came on a three-month holiday teaching job with the late Senator Chukwumerije in my school –City College Lagos in the 1960s,” Betty recollects.
Then, she adds: “His elder brother was our next-door neighbour. During our time, there was no girlfriend and boyfriend. Once you had a suitor your parents take a decision but my uncle insisted that I must go to the university. This uncle of mine was a lecturer in Ibadan and took me to live with him on holiday. From there, he took me to Adeola Odutola College in Ijebu-Ode as a boarder. So I forgot about my suitor, Ajegunle and Lagos.”
However, Betty and Ubeku’s path crossed again when she chose to work instead of going to a university to further her education.
“I was working at Pay and Record office in Apapa before I moved to UAC in Lagos. This man (Ubeku) was on my trail. To further solidify his intention when his company then, NTC wanted to send him abroad for training, he was ready to pay my dowry so I can accompany him as his wife. I still turned him down. He went abroad for the training and was writing letters. He eventually came back from abroad and showed up. He persisted and even came with his brother – Jeremiah – to ask for my hand in marriage.
“I even confronted him about his marital status. He said his marriage was over that it was well-publicized. Finally, my father was invited to Lagos by my uncle, Dr. Uzoro. The family persuaded me and a decision was taken. This was in 1969. After the traditional rites, we became husband and wife in 1970. When we came back to Lagos my husband threw a big party for me to celebrate our wedding that year. I was there in the bank working but the issue of pregnancy was a problem,” she reveals.
Betty thinks her husband was an unusual man who was always true to his words.
She says: “My inability to have children for him didn’t make his love for me wane for a moment. He was like, ‘my first marriage failed and this one must not fail’. He stood by me when I sought medical help in the best hospitals abroad trying to have a child. The late Prof. Bello Osagie and his wife who just passed on took up the challenge with me. Bello-Osagie came to my husband to move me to Crown-Well Hospital in the UK. My husband just got the Guinness job. The Bello-Osagies stood firmly by me. Hakeem, Sheri and others were in a boarding school in the UK.
“The Osagies housed me in their home in England and the children were wonderful. Then the challenge came: I was in and out of the hospital. The last outing for me in the UK in the 1980s was rough and I remember in the theatre my husband saying to me: ‘Beatrice, child or no child, you are my wife. He comforted with and sat me down and said I want you to agree with me that child or no child, you are my wife.’ He stood by those words even when I thought otherwise,” she recounts.
Eventually, Betty had to go back to school.
“He encouraged me to get a degree. So I gained admission to study Business Administration graduating in 1989. I was offered admission to study for my master’s which I had put on hold to date. Abel Ubeku was a loving, caring and adorable man. His words were his words. His integrity was unquestionable. He would tell me: ‘Beatrice, I don’t want you to go and start any property project behind me. We have two beautiful homes in the village and one in Victoria Island.
“Are you going to sleep in two rooms at a time?’ And if he knows any of his friends that wanted to help me, he would simply say: ’Do you want to take my wife?’ It was that kind of home and laughter that we built together. We settled our quarrel in our room. He said he would support my charity works. He was a kind man. If my path crossed his again 1,000 times I would marry him because he was a man of integrity who showed me how to love irrespective of life challenges,” Betty, in emotion-laden tone, says.
She also talks about the love and support she has received from friends since her husband’s death. But has the posthumous award wiped away her age-long tears?
In unmistakable words, she says, “His award has wiped away my tears. By virtue of his position in various places he had worked, I was exposed to the world. He became the first indigenous black man to head Guinness. When I left my banking career to focus on my charity works, he supported me. I was at Beijing ’95. I was one of the women who spoke on behalf of Nigeria on CNN. I am happy that he pushed and exposed me. This makes me very strong.
“Those are the legacies of Dr. Abel Ubeku for me. He wrote three books: dedicated one to his mum and dedicated the second one to me. Child or no child, he took me for who I am and he loved me to the end.”