By Bayo Ojo
Perhaps there is no better time than on the occasion of his 90th birthday to pay tribute to a man who has become a legendary tributary that has watered and nurtured the blossoming destinies of many young people and touched countless lives in very impactful ways – His Excellency, Ambassador (Chief) Arthur Christopher Izuegbunam Mbanefo, MFR, CON, FCA, Odu of Onitsha.
The Odu that I Know and whom I am very proud to be associated with is someone from whom I have derived much inspiration and mentorship. Perhaps, it could be safely said that there are very few men of his generation who not only made great impact in building and developing the Accountancy profession in Nigeria but also in building the nation’s economy and in shaping and influencing public policy and political directions of this era. He is so regarded on account of his admirable personal attributes of character nobility and refinement; unalloyed commitment and passion for the public good; forthrightness, integrity and courage of conviction. He is by every standard, one of the most respected and regarded public figures of his generation on the nation’s socio-economic and political canvass. Odu’s essence, is perhaps one that symbolizes the greatest measure of commitment to patriotic ideals, loyalty and commitment to the Nigerian dream and the good of mankind in general.
For me, I consider the values he espouses and his personal legacies as worthy reference and inspirational model of the highest ideals and impeccable service to his community, the country and the society in general; which should serve as a veritable guide and inspiration to this generation and the ones to come in living a life of positive impact that is steeped in uncompromising and deep-seated love for the good of the country and advancement of the society. Odu is a genial and jolly good fellow, a brilliant and greatly resourceful Nigerian statesman who excelled in the corporate world as a boardroom guru, in the political space and as a public intellectual whose philosophy and values border largely on a deep passion for the pursuit of an egalitarian Nigerian society, social order and wellbeing, human dignity and national integration.
The Odu that I know, is a recipient of the national honour of Member of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (MFR), Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), Commander of the Order of Merit, Republic of Italy and a Grand Officer, National Order of the Southern Cross of Brazil and Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations. The Odu of Onitsha and Oluwo Adimula of Ile-Ife, is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW), past president, gold medallist and fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN). He is a renowned Chartered Accountant who has served on the boards of many publicly quoted blue-chip companies in Nigeria. Odu holds the uncommon record of serving Nigeria for an unbroken period of nine years as a former pro-chancellor of my alma mater, the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife (OAU), and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (ABU). He is the proprietor of the Arthur Mbanefo Charitable Foundation that donated the Arthur Mbanefo Digital Research Centre to the University of Lagos.
Going down memory lane, I recall that my path providentially crossed that of 0du, for the first time over twenty five years ago. In the intervening years between then and now, the relationship has grown deeper and I have had the uncommon privilege of relating very closely and in practical terms with him in a sort of mentor/mentee relationship that has greatly impacted my life. Ever since I met him, he has always shown and taken keen interest in my career and general well-being. As such, I am very proud that Odu is one of the living great Nigerian elder statesmen who have had great impact on my life. True to his endowment of imposing physique, elite status and monumental private and career attainments, he eminently stands out as a colossus, a human diamond and a phenomenon of some sorts.
The Odu that I know has always stood admirably tall and true to his noble convictions amidst the discomfiting and chaotic Nigerian society. As a pan-Nigerian nationalist and proven detribalized patriot, he is one of the distinct personages on our national canvas who has the most uncommon record of patriotic exertions and extensive commitment to the betterment of the Nigeria’s social, economic and political milieu. A quintessential statesman with a noble philosophy and orientation that a man truly lives when the years he has spent are spent in the service of others, Odu has in all his adult life, demonstrated unalloyed passion, commitment and devotion to serving his fellow compatriots and humanity by extension, through service to country and the promotion of human capital, well-being and sustainable growth and development of our country.
For his enviable personal nobility and impeccable records of national service which earned him good measure of public esteem, he is considered by very many Nigerians, old and young, as an uncommon inspirational national figure and role model, as well as one of the most accomplished, distinguished and celebrated Nigerians of his generation and, indeed of this era. Of truth, the essence of Odu is far beyond what one could sufficiently capture in a few paragraphs, for he is indubitably a rare Nigerian and nay, African icon whose imprints are indelible and far-reaching. It is on account of his impeccable character, high refinement, quintessential leadership attributes, as well as his profound commitment to the good of Nigeria, advancement of the country and the human society in general, that Odu is highly regarded and admired by not a few Nigerians across the divide as a distinguished Nigerian in the true sense of the word. Even at his present considerable advanced age, Odu’s graceful elegant gaits, analytical and sound intellect as well as his cerebral acuity and the fecundity of the mind are great admirable attributes. His scholarly orientation and the depth of his creative mind are much reflected in his literary works. Reading through his autobiography ‘A fulfilled life of service’ which is masterly crafted in his characteristic sophistication, as well as the very colourful, well-written and illuminating treatise on Onitsha as a town that has lost its shine – his latest book which he published in January this year, is an enchanting voyage into the sociological dynamics, where in, he rightly observed that:
‘’history has thought us that no development in the world has succeeded in maintaining its purity over time without change… I do not claim to possess the solutions to the many complex issues that have brought Onitsha to its present state. Nevertheless, it is my belief that we cannot continue to drift like a rudderless ship without thought as to what legacy we are leaving to our children. It is important however that we draw to the various ills I have identified in the hope that some thought would be provoked in those with conscience, to start at least some conversations towards finding solutions to these challenges currently facing the town.’’
His highly sought-after compendium of art works is a treasure in itself. It becomes copiously clear that the Odu that I know is a quintessential ideas-merchant, a great thinker and a sort of philosopher-king, one who craves for societal order and a sane human society and living conditions for the people. The Odu that I know is a man who is also reputed to have played an eminent role as a Special Envoy in the defunct ‘Republic of Biafra’ and who, perhaps at that time, was the closest ally of the chief protagonist of the Biafran revolution, the then Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, and who reportedly referred to him fondly as his ‘’colleague and compatriot’’. This is a man who later went on to become a key figure in the administration of the national affairs of the Nigeria nation that he was at a point on the other side against. It is indeed instructive to note that in the post-Biafran era, he became a leading figure in the development of Nigeria’s education sector, private sector, and occupied very sensitive and strategic positions in our national life. He capped all that up with a sterling tour of duty as an ‘’ultimate diplomat’’ in the exalted capacity as Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of Nigeria at the United Nations for four years. Such is his demonstrable super-value as noble statesman and distinguished global citizen.
The Odu that I know is one who has aptly summarised the challenges facing Nigeria as a nation today as being largely engendered and firmly rooted and entrenched in the first republic. He posits that the first republic was bedevilled by an unwholesome loyalty of the political class to ethnic cleavages and that there was the concentration of efforts on gaining individual and group powers for themselves and for the sake of power attainment. He also submits that the seed of ethnic politics with its attendant destructive effects on our national life was sown by the avoidable errors of judgement of omission and commission on the part of the political gladiators of that era; that those crop of politicians were propelled by inordinate quest for power above true national interest and that they conducted their political enterprise in a manner that had great demonstrated disdain and intolerance for opposing views and dissenting public opinion – all of which according to him, ultimately provided the grounds for the first military putsch of 1966, the consequences of which we are still contending with today in our national life.
The Odu that I know is one great Nigerian patriot who has played remarkable roles at critical junctures and moments in the life of this great country, Nigeria. Roles and responsibilities that have placed him in higher national reckoning than many of his contemporaries. One of such was the strategic role he played in 1996 at the height of Nigeria’s darkest moments in international relations, a period of the country’s expulsion from the Commonwealth when he was on the entourage of the late Oni of Ife to London to plead the case of the country with the British government, as well as that of being the face of Nigeria at the United Nations for four years at the onset of this 4th Republic, during which he succeeded in helping to reposition the country into a respected continental voice at the global arena.
The Odu that I know is a committed Nigerian patriot who has served the country meritoriously on many strategic and sensitive beats, such as being Chairman of the States and Local Government Creation Committee which was set up by the late Gen. Sani Abacha’s military administration in 1995. It was the implementation of the recommendations of his Committee by the junta that brought to life the last set of six new states, namely – Bayelsa, Ebonyi, Ekiti, Gombe, Nasarawa and Zamfara which gave us to the present thirty six (36) states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). It is worth mentioning here that his committee underscored critical elements of development thus:
‘’…in this context therefore, the committee defines development as those efforts that directly impact positively on the lives of a people and human status. This will include the provision of social infrastructure as well as opportunities for economic activities, human and cultural development. Essentially, development efforts of a people must aim at copiously making available good health care delivery, sound educational facilities, a stable socio-political environment, etc., as salient preconditions for the genuine and full liberation of mankind from the grips of the forces of social degradation and its attendant consequences. When the basic essentials of life are within the reach of everybody……… it can be reasonably argued that rural development is firmly taking root in human society…’’.
The Odu that I know is a first-rate administrator and leader who has consistently argued and advocated that in order to build a robust Nigerian nation, developing effective and efficient public institutions is fundamental. As an advocate of the integrity of institutions and the integrity quotient of the drivers of public institutions as being vital to achieving national development, he is one public figure who has consistently called for the putting at the helms of our affairs and institutions, right and competent men and women whose minds are well attuned to integrity imperative; putting up deliberate policies and programs for national integration and the adoption of a liberal and nationalistic approach to public service by public officers, particularly in relating with a broad spectrum of Nigerian compatriots from the national divides, being guided by the ideals of equity, respect and fair play while at the same time mindful of their various interests and tendencies.
The Odu that I know is an accomplished and noble man who has always placed high premium on virtues of integrity and ethics as he endearingly demonstrated in 1977 when he surprisingly turned down an offer of a seat on the Board of Guinness Nigeria Ltd, on account that the accounting firm Akintola Williams which he was working for (as the Managing Director of AW Consultants Ltd, a subsidiary of Akintola Williams & Co) were the auditors of Guinness at that time. That singular act of high ethical disposition and integrity earned him admiration and increased his reputational rating amongst his colleagues as well as high consideration in the corridors of powers. This was what led to his being called upon for several special and important assignments by states and federal governments, and which culminated in his been recognized and honoured in 1981, with the exalted national honour of Member of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (MFR) for ‘’his services to the development of, and practice of Accounting profession in Nigeria’’ which made him become the record holder as the first Accountant in Nigeria’s private sector to be so honoured.
The virtues of integrity, humility, gentlemanliness and statesmanship of the Odu that I know were aptly corroborated by Mr. Charles Sankey, a retired Partner of Akintola Williams, who gave his impression about him thus:
‘’…there was no question with his efficiency. He is a brilliant man. If you look at Arthur Mbanefo, you look at a perfectionist; someone who wants to do things in the right way, in a particular way, and in his own way. No compromise! It could be quite challenging for that kind of person to work with people…’’.
Yes, Mr. Charles Sankey was right in his foregoing submission. The Odu that I know is an uncompromising stickler for form and protocol, for integrity of process and outcomes and he would always demand that you do not only do the right things, but do things right at all times. It is generally believed that politics in Nigeria is dirty, particularly for men who are high on integrity. Although it could be said that he became a remarkable political figure and an acclaimed public policy influencer within the government circle by way of political appointments, the Odu that I know is one man who never allowed the characteristic stains of the murky waters of Nigerian politics to mess his white robes. He conducted himself with admirable dignity all through his engagements within the nation’s political space. In the foregoing regard, I consider it worth mentioning here that even at the top echelon of the political space where he operated, he is held in high esteem by his associates and colleagues. For instance, at the end his tour of duty as Nigeria’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative at the United Nations, there were many encomia that were showered on Odu by his colleague envoys for what they considered the strength of his personality and reputational nobility. The following remark of Professor George Obiozor, who at the time was Nigeria’s Ambassador to Israel was one of such tributes:
‘’…for me and many others too numerous to mention, you (Arthur) represents the voice of reason, compassion and the most articulate analyst of our national conditions. That you do so with disarming humility in spite of your esteemed position in life equally amazes many of us and further enhances our propensity to come closer to drink from your fountain of wisdom and extraordinary statesmanship…’’.
By way of conclusion, it gives me great pleasure and honour to on behalf of my family and I, to give the foregoing tribute in celebrating a great Nigerian patriot and a truly distinguished gentleman, our own Chief Arthur Mbanefo, FCA, MFR, CON, Odu of Onistsha, proprietor of the Arthur Mbanefo Charitable Foundation, a committed Nigerian patriot and a highly esteemed first-rate technocrat and nation-builder whom I have and will always have tremendous regard and admiration for, on account of the greatness of his soul and persona as well as his immense contributions to the development of our country Nigeria.
The Odu that I know is a great man with cosmopolitan and broad worldview. To him, religion and other pedestrian considerations take back seat in his relationship with people. He is a liberal, generous, selfless, honest and dependable mentor, role model, friend, business associate and ally that anyone can ever ask for. One not to ever abandon his friends. He is a pathfinder and an illuminating figure whose life has been a light and illumination to the world around him. It must also be said that one of the endearing attributes of the Odu that I know, is his delightful endearing humility which he has always demonstrated over the years by not allowing the age differential between him and some of us his ‘friends’ and associates that are much younger to him to be a barrier in our friendship and relationship as we have always mingled and operated freely with him.
It is therefore with a high sense of honour, that I congratulate His Excellency, Ambassador (Chief) Arthur Christopher Izuegbunam Mbanefo, Odu of Onitsha for the uncommon grace of good and healthy life at the advanced age of 90, the great and extraordinary noble life he has lived, as well as the huge impact he has made in the lives of we his mentees, the countless lives of Nigerians that he has touched in our communities as well as those he has inspired to high attainments in his sojourn in the corporate world. Odu’s ideals and life-time career and public life accomplishments will continue to be a huge source of inspiration to generations to come for the building of the good Nigerian society of our dream – one that guarantees a future for the present and future generation of Nigerians. While praying that the tribe of the Odu of Onitsha that I know increases in our national life for our nation to continue to draw from his fountain of wisdom and experience, my special birthday wishes for him is the grace and blessings of God in length of days, good health, all-round fulfilment, peace and joy.
*Chief Bayo Ojo SAN, is former Attorney General of the Federation & Minister of Justice