Herbert is Gone, Long Live Herbert

Benedict Okey Oramah

Benedict Okey Oramah

Benedict Okey ORAMAH

Ever since February 10, 2024, when I learnt of the tragic death of Herbert, his dear wife, Chizoba; his son, Chizi; and our mutual friend, Bimbo, I have been wanting to write to pay tribute to Herbert, eulogise and mourn him. Each time I picked up a pen to write, I found the journey from pen to paper too tortuous and arduous … until today! Just a few hours ago, Herbert was interred along with Chizoba and Chizi. A few days earlier, Bimbo was interred. My prayers are for a peaceful repose of their souls.

Since that tragic incident in the US during the night of February 9, 2024, many have written and spoken about Herbert: his life, business, and philanthropy. Many more have extolled his virtues and values— his fearlessness, courage, his love for family, compassion, entrepreneurial spirit, and professionalism. I am certain that, as a people’s man, there are certainly many who know him better than I do and have done justice to those sterling qualities that made him a darling of all those who knew him. Bearing this in mind, I have avoided delving much into those matters.

Accordingly, this article’s point of departure is the argument that Herbert’s death was a MOMENTOUS event, an event that has the potential of shaping the future of banking in Africa. While we must mourn and weep, we can pay Herbert no better tribute than to contemplate the message the tragedy intended to send to the world. The gravity, nature, and scope of the tragedy were intended to send a strong message to the world, and the World heard! I cannot recall any death of a banker that has evoked such a massive spontaneous outpouring of pain, heartbreak, and regrets from every corner of the world. 

We ignore the import of this story’s prominence to our peril. Other tragedies in history led to outcomes that have shaped our world today. The mass murder committed by Al Qaeda terrorists in the US on September 11, 2001, drastically changed the way we travel; the senseless assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr accelerated de-segregation and raised racial consciousness around the world; and the untimely death of Bob Marley helped move reggae music from the periphery to the mainstream. The purpose of this article is, therefore, not to mourn but to call attention to the immortality of Herbert.

What will Herbert’s tragic death unleash? To venture into that territory, I need to establish my credentials as they relate to Herbert.  Herbert and I met as young bankers and became friends around the late 1990s. He was at Guaranty Trust Bank in Lagos and I, at Afreximbank in Cairo. Herbert made frequent visits to Cairo with clients in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was as outgoing as I was, so we did what young ambitious bankers, with our profiles, would do, whenever they visited. We duelled during the day in meeting rooms and argued about deal structures, collaterals, and pricing. In the night, we would first dine at my home and then head to the African Diplomats Club for drinks and entertainment. I would bring him back to his hotel just in time to prepare for the next meeting in the morning or for him to catch his early morning flight, usually with British Airways.

As we grew in our respective careers and became executives, the relationship endured and even flourished, such that whenever business took him to Cairo, Herbert – until his death –, and his friend and partner, Mr Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, would make it a point of coming a day earlier to spend the evening with me at home prior to our formal meeting and their departure the following day. Through those years, we built trust and confidence, which enabled us to make compromises on thorny issues that would have otherwise constituted “deal breakers”.

And along that journey, and through our different experiences, we arrived at a convergence of views on many things that mattered. Herbert believed that as Africans, we must take our destinies into our own hands and was convinced that the colonial legacy which had so fragmented Africa into atomistic, weak states must be overcome in any way possible, especially through AfCFTA implementation, just as we did. Like us, Herbert was a champion of the concept of a “Global Africa” that aimed to integrate the Diaspora into the big picture; like us, his approach was entrepreneurial and there were no boundaries to imagining the future. He also had immense courage, loved the arts and the creatives, and supported the youth. Herbert lived the saying we subscribe to, that “those with the skills to move mountains do not need the faith that moves mountains”. Put simply, his banking and business careers were a story of moving mountains.

It was on account of these alignments that Access Bank became a very strong partner of Afreximbank, with Afreximbank supporting Access Bank’s African expansion strategy in various ways while developing a Joint Venture with Afreximbank’s Fund for Export Development in Africa (FEDA) for a foray into the Caribbean.

In Nigeria, among many other things, we worked closely to sort out the challenges that constrained Geometric Power and delivered it. And just before his death, we were working on a scheme that we believed, and I still believe, would bring a massive infrastructure and industrial uplift across Nigeria. With the possibility of Afreximbank delivering a Naira equivalent of about US$2 billion, a percentage of which would be matched by Access Bank, we agreed to select high-impact projects across 10 to 15 States of the Federation to be funded under a scheme we would supervise to guarantee timely and quality delivery. Herbert and his team, as well as ours at Afreximbank, had commenced developing project profiles and deal structures. We were scheduled to take stock at a meeting in London on February 13, alas, that was not to be.

The difference the death of Herbert would make to Africa derives from his unique banking skills and approach to banking. Herbert was a commercial banker with a strong developmental mindset. Crucially, he proved that it was possible – even preferable – to pursue commercial banking while delivering development. Herbert’s approach, perhaps his doctrine, was the mirror image of Afreximbank’s orientation, which is hinged on delivering development using commercial approaches. And because he was outstanding in proving this, so successful in delivering value to his shareholders and society, his tragic death offers the opportunity to unleash a new type of banking that Africa needs acutely at this time if it hopes to take itself out of poverty. He proved that those commercial bankers who exclude certain activities because they are deemed developmental may, in fact, be destroying shareholder value. His unique approach, which I would like to refer to as “Developmental Commercial Banking”, presents an opportunity for Africa to mobilise its scarce capital towards development work by crowding-in commercial banking resources and brain power. I define Development Commercial Banking as a careful blend of investment banking and commercial banking aimed at delivering three outcomes, namely positive socioeconomic impact to society, as well as solid financial returns and goodwill to the bank.

The outpouring of emotions around the world about this tragic event would probably not have happened if Access Bank was the largest and most profitable bank in Africa but had nothing to show in terms of its contributions to society. But today, the youth, women, entrepreneurs, governments, students, farmers, industrialists, traders, artists, and many others, see an organisation in Access Bank that answers to their needs. At the same time, Access Bank shareholders smile to their banks because of the immense goodwill and financial returns Access Bank delivers.

It is this new thinking, this new way of being, that I believe Herbert’s untimely death will inject in the long run. It may be the key that unlocks the scarce capital that Africa needs to develop. During the Annual Meeting of Afreximbank in 2019, I spoke about the essential elements of the struggle for economic independence that Africa must wage. I said:

A revolution is sweeping across the African continent without bloodshed or conflict. It is peaceful and will fundamentally alter our world, shatter old assumptions, and reshape our lives. It is easy to underestimate as it is not accompanied by banners or fanfare. The revolutionaries are of a different breed. Instead of being trained in military camps, the freedom fighters for this new battle are being trained in technical schools and universities; instead of fighting in trenches, this battle will be fought in factory floors and tech incubation centres; instead of guns, the battle will be fought with ideas, hard work, and investments. While bravery was required for the political struggle, courage was a necessity for the economic liberation struggle. Tech, and not armed guerrillas, ideas and not brute force, will represent the potent force for victory in this new struggle. …

As I framed this new struggle, I did not give it a motivating force, the “General” that the “fighters” must look up to. With Herbert’s death, his spirit has emerged as that immortal General around which this epic struggle must coalesce. We all now need to do what is necessary to move Developmental Commercial Banking to the mainstream. At Afreximbank, we aim to work with Access Bank and the Wigwe family to curate and exhibit in our corporate museum (the Museum of African Trade”) the subject matter of Developmental Commercial Banking, drawing from Herbert’s and related works. This will make it possible for visitors to our museum to be inspired. We also look forward to our Afreximbank Academy (AFRACAD) working with Wigwe University and perhaps the Africa Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) in Harare and others to develop a course content and programme that would enable the introduction of Developmental Commercial Banking in African Universities. I believe that a widespread adoption of Developmental commercial banking practices across Africa will enable the continent to move away from the colonial legacy of commercial banking practice that emphasises short-termism and consumption, instead of, investment financing. It is only fools who will sit on their palms and allow the message conveyed by such a tragic event to go to waste.

So, as we say bye to Herbert, we must quickly say “Long Live” the Future his sad death will reveal. Like the Egyptian bird, Phoenix, that died, got burnt and rose from its ashes, Herbert will rise again, for the good of mankind.

•Benedict Oramah is the President and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Afreximbank

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