Sunset at Noon: Herbert Wigwe (1966 – 2024)

BY Kashim Ibrahim-Imam

If life be long, I will be glad
That I may long obey;
If short, then why should I be sad
To soar to endless day?

And so it was for Herbert, the sun set at noon.

I wrote most of this tribute while on the flight back from China to attend Herbert’s funeral.  My mood had shifted from the initial shock and devastation to that of grieving and a deep sense of loss of a friend who had become my brother.  To that of thanksgiving to the Almighty, for the gift of Herbert in the first instance to his family and friends, his staff at Access Holdings and for his extraordinary accomplishments, for his energy and drive, his vision and mission, passion and compassion, his industry, and his humanity.

Yet the tributes have hardly relented and have only grown more intense as time has passed. It is almost like the kind of treatment reserved for kings and statesmen. Except, one can say that, for Herbert, the subject of our grief was the de-facto Prince of the banking industry, and he was a man who did extraordinary things with the ordinary things that he found in his life’s path.

Herbert had the audacity to dream. He dreamt big and made it happen.
Herbert and I were friends but not particularly close until he decided it was time to conquer the Pensions Industry. He reached out to me through our mutual friend – Nduka Obaigbena with the intention of acquiring my PFA. What started as a pure business relationship, deepened into a close friendship. He was regularly in my house, if I was in Lagos, I would call him and his response was “you dey house, I dey come”, and he would always be coming from Aliko’s house (so I can understand Aliko’s tears and deep sense of loss).

He was a financial whiz kid, indeed a colossus, who straddled the financial services industry, redefining it in his own unique way. Herbert has been described as a “visionary”. Literally, he and Aigboje set out with a vision to make Access Bank one of the top banks in Nigeria. They took over a bank of very modest reputation and swiftly turned it into a formidable national financial services behemoth and is now transforming into a global conglomerate. Not satisfied with turning Access Bank into one of the top five banks in the country, they then set out to make the bank one of the top banks in Africa by 2027. Already, by January 2024, Access Bank had acquired six banks across western, southern, and central African regions.

In their days running Access Bank, Aigboje and Herbert earned reputations as taskmasters. (Aigboje describes it, in his 2021 memoir, as “our fabled work ethic”). Critics saw them as willing to go to any lengths to achieve whatever they sought. The landmark takeover of Intercontinental Bank in 2011 — which tripled their customer base — was believed to be a hostile, even ruthless, one. Not uncommon allegations, admittedly, at that level of performance. Similarly, the merger repositioned the Nigerian banking sector on the African continent as the combined entity had the potential of ranking amongst Africa’s top 10 banks according to The Bankers’ Magazine’s review of top African banks.

Ironically, Herbert’s most telling impact was not just about the mergers and acquisitions or about his corporate conquests. It was not in the number of businesses or branches in his fledging conglomerate. When Access Bank bought Diamond Bank in 2018, the resulting entity became the biggest lender in Africa by customer base. It means that the bank lent to more people and entities than any other financial institution on the continent. It also meant that the bank became a leading provider of capital to the private sector, particularly MSMEs in the continent.

Selling the PFA to Herbert was an easy decision for me. We had grown it to the point where I was convinced that we needed an institutional investor that could drive the business effectively to compete against Stanbic IBTC. There were more than 10 suitors out of which I zeroed down to only 2, Access and GTB. During his tribute on Wednesday night, Segun Agbaje mentioned that Herbert was his friend and at the same time, his competitor, he meant every word of that. Segun also wanted to buy the same PFA. He pleaded with me not to sell to Herbert, but Herbert won at the end. Herbert assured me that he could compete against Stanbic. He was emphatic that he would enter the market with at least N1 trillion assets under management. He was able to quickly achieve this by acquiring First Guarantee Pensions and Sigma Pensions in quick succession, Herbert was in too much of a hurry to grow any business organically, his preference was for mergers and acquisitions (Buy then Build). He then set his sights on Premium Pensions, the second largest in the industry. We both worked relentlessly on this, my assignment was to engage the two major blocks in Premium Pensions. When the infighting in Premium got messy, Herbert quickly turned his sights in the direction of ARM Pensions and engaged his friend Deji Alli and the rest is history. In a couple of months, he was able to enter the industry with assets under management of over N2 trillion. Vintage Herbert.

Much has also been said about Herbert’s state-of-the-art university in his Isiokpo hometown. In truth, the university is no ordinary one. Like all things Herbert, the institution has grand visions to close Africa’s skills gap in finance and technology, and ultimately to help shape Africa’s future.

Again, just like everything else that Herbert conceived and executed, the University was neither a whim nor a product of purposeless ambition. He got me involved in this project as well, my specific assignment was to get the license out from the National Universities Commission (NUC). The executive secretary of the NUC, Prof. Abubakar Rasheed was a member of the board of trustees of The Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) which I chaired. The university bears the mark of an important part of Herbert’s bigger vision. The institution is a product of the HOW (Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe) Foundation, which he founded in 2016 to support health, education, and capacities of young people. The university, billed as the first Ivy League institution in Africa, came straight out of the foundation’s five-year strategic plan to provide quality education and shape the future of education in the continent. This may sound very idealistic. But then who would have put their money on Herbert and his partner taking a small bank that ranked outside the top fifty in the country and turned it into the biggest lender on the continent?

The objective of the university, not surprisingly, is to build expertise of Africans in finance and technology. It is very obvious, therefore, that the university’s goal and outlook synch almost seamlessly with Herbert’s triple passions in finance, technology and human capacity.

In itself, The Wigwe Foundation is another testimonial of a life driven by not one, but multiple visions, each amplifying the essence of the other. In just five years, the foundation had trained dozens of Nigerian doctors abroad, funded the education of thousands of out-of-school children in northern Nigeria, and supported the operations of health facilities.

From his banking legend to the other sectors in which he has affected society and broken the boundaries of possibilities, Herbert has operated like a human force perpetually on the move, pausing only to conceive another vision after attaining the last one. It is almost inevitable that only death would have placed a limit on the heights that Herbert was bound to attain. He was in a hurry to get so many things done, like he knew he had limited time on this earth.

Up to the time of his death, Herbert was still very actively pursuing his visions, doing deals, and setting personal targets. In January, just weeks before his death, Herbert’s Access Bank announced a deal to acquire Uganda-based Finance Trust Bank, the seventh bank it would be acquiring within a short time. The full take-over was scheduled to happen in June, just four months from the time of his death. Earlier in the year, he had wanted to put ATMs at a chain of filling stations in Cameroon, but the owner had refused. In her tribute, Iyabo Soji-Okusanya said that shortly after Herbert’s death, she told her colleagues that instead of sitting down to mourn, Herbert would wish them to keep working, cutting deals. They went back to work and tried to revive the deal, this time, the owner accepted, he said he could not deny Access Bank this after the tragic occurrence of Herbert’s death. In death, Herbert was still closing deals for the bank. He had also planned to take up mentoring of the students at the Wigwe University, scheduled to start operation in September this year.

Herbert was a very generous man, HRH Khalifa Sanusi in his tribute on Wednesday spoke glowingly about his generosity, Pastor Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) also spoke of his immense generosity during his tribute. He supported several worthy causes at home and abroad.

Given the timing of his death, one would be tempted to say that these plans belonged on the list of his unfinished business. But knowing him as we do, it is hard to imagine that Herbert envisioned and planned for everything except the fate of his legacy.

It is also hard to mourn Herbert like we do regular people, however tragic his death was. There is just too much to celebrate and reflect, even for someone who died at such a relatively young and vibrant age. The only service we can do to his memory is to continue to reflect on what we can learn from his life of relentless aspirations and serial triumphs.

After listening to all the tributes, I would like us to emulate that of his friend, partner, and brother Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, who asked us to clap for Herbert for 10 minutes during the evening of tributes.

I hereby call on all Nigerians to pause and clap for Herbert Wigwe for an extraordinary life of remarkable achievements,

Adios, Dear Friend and Brother.

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