The Life and Times of Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe

The Life and Times of Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe

Obinna Chima

It was feelings of shock and numbness across the country yesterday, when the news of the demise of the Group Managing Director of Access Holdings Plc, Mr. Herbert Wigwe; his wife, Chizoba, and his son in a helicopter crash in the United States, on Friday, spread like a wild fire. The accident also killed three others, including a former Group Chairman of Nigerian Exchange Group Plc (NGX Group), Abimbola Ogunbanjo in California.

This tragedy left so many in mourning mood as they continued to ponder what caused the sad disaster. Death is cruel, especially when it happens to someone who has big dreams, a builder of men, someone who loves humanity, and is relentless, audacious and fearless, which were the attributes of the late banking icon.

 His passion is infectious and electrifying. His energy unmatched and the result has been the rise of Access Holdings as well as his recently launched Wigwe University, which was being positioned to compete with any ivy-league institution across the world.

Wigwe, who was born on August 15, 1966, started his professional career with Coopers & Lybrand Associates, an international firm of Chartered Accountants. He spent over 10 years at Guaranty Trust Bank Plc where he managed several portfolios, including financial institutions, large corporates and multinationals.
He left Guaranty Trust Bank as an Executive Director to co-lead the transformation of Access Bank Plc in March 2002 as Deputy Managing Director. He was appointed Group Managing Director/CEO effective January 1, 2014 and served in that capacity till May 2022. He was subsequently appointed a Non-Executive Director of the Bank effective May 2022.

Wigwe was an alumnus of the Harvard Business School Executive Management Programme. He held master’s degree in Banking and International Finance from the University College of North Wales, a master’s degree in Financial Economics from the University of London and a B.Sc. degree in Accounting from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).

He was also a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN). He was the Chairman of Access Bank (UK) Ltd and a Non-Executive Director of Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Company Plc; FMDQ OTC Securities Exchange; Shared Agents Network Expansion Facilities Ltd and Agri-Business/ SME Enterprises Investment Scheme. He is also a member of the Governing Council of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria.

Wigwe was one of the most respected bankers on the continent, without a shadow of a doubt. He clearly understood that without embracing change and having foresights, banks would not be able to compete and would be left behind by their peers, which would definitely impact customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, and revenue growth negatively. This was why he continuously ensured that Access Holdings under his watch emerged as one of Africa’s leading financial services groups. He showed relentless pursuit for growth, but in a measured and calculated manner.

From a small bank in 2002, the late Wigwe who took over from his close friend and business partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, in 2014, completely transformed the bank which at some point was ranked 65th among 89 banks operating in the country. Access Bank under Wigwe, evolved from an obscure bank into a world-class African financial institution.

Today, the financial institution, which is a subsidiary of the holding company, is one of the five largest banks in Nigeria in terms of assets, loans, deposits and branch network; a feat which was achieved through a robust long-term approach to client solutions – providing committed and innovative advice.
Access Bank has built its strength and success in corporate banking and is now applying that expertise to personal and business banking platforms it acquired from Nigeria’s international commercial bank in 2012. Wigwe has helped to develop some of Africa’s biggest companies in the construction, telecommunications, energy, oil and gas sectors through Access Bank.

Immediately the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was established in 2018, Wigwe saw it as an opportunity to position Access Bank and the parent company for the continental benefits. This saw him aggressively drive the expansion of the institution.
To him, AfCFTA, among other benefits, was expected to expand intra-Africa trade and provide real opportunities for the continent. His belief was that Africa has enormous potential and that there are opportunities for an African bank that is well run – that understands compliance and has the capacity to support trade and the right technology infrastructure to support payments and remittances, without taking incremental risks.

“We are building a strong and sustainable franchise to support economic prosperity, encourage Africa trade, advance financial inclusion thereby empowering many to achieve their financial dreams. We believe that we are best positioned to basically do all of that. Our focus is to become an aggregator in Africa and we are building a global payment gateway and providing trade finance support and correspondent banking across the continent. We are focusing on the key markets.

“The approach would always be that in the country we wish to go to, that we have the right skills. We would not just be a drop in the country in which we are present, we would make sure that we have an impactful presence in each of the major countries in which we are present.
“In doing this, we are also mindful of the country we are going to so as to make sure that it is of benefit to the bank. As we do this, we are working with our friends and partners,” he had said while speaking about his big dream for the financial institution.

Today, Access Holdings has spread from Nigeria to Rwanda, Ghana, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Zambia, Angola, France, United Kingdom, Botswana, Guinea, R.D. Congo, Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda, among several other countries.
His latest aggressive expansionist drive was in Zambia, where Access Bank Zambia Limited last month announced the completion of its acquisition of African Banking Corporation Zambia Limited (also known as Atlas Mara Zambia), after obtaining all requisite regulatory approvals.
In May last year, Wigwe emerged as President of the France-Nigeria Business Council, a platform that was established to strengthen business ties between France and Nigeria, and promote mutual growth and prosperity. Under his leadership, the council has held several fruitful engagements between French and Nigerian businesses.

His Wigwe University, which is presently admitting its first set of students was expected to play a pivotal role in bridging the skills’ gaps in the continent and ensure that the right manpower is developed for African businesses and for the rest of the world. The ivy-league institution is based on high-standard teaching quality, established to build a new generation of leaders, entrepreneurs and scientists. It is Africa’s gateway to the world of entrepreneurship, technology, innovation, and impact. Wigwe’s mission, through the Wigwe University, was to change the course of Nigeria’s future through committed and world-class faculty and globally relevant and locally impactful curricula taught through novel methods to rival the globe’s most respected universities.

The Wigwe University is dedicated to fostering a global learning environment with a focus on excellence, innovation, and inclusivity.
To bridge the gap in manpower, Wigwe had planned to recruit 30 per cent of the teaching staff from the UK and the US. He was to play an active role in teaching and mentoring, engaging prominent entrepreneurs like his friend Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man. The university aims to enroll 1,400 students in its inaugural year, with a projected increase to 10,000 within the next five years.

To Wigwe, education is expected to make one fearless. It should help students remain focused, unwavering, and fixed firmly on the exhilaration of victory rather than the fear of defeat. He said this was why Wigwe University was focused on delivering education, cultivating Africa’s bold and fearless generation of leaders, innovative thinkers and entrepreneurial sons and daughters.

“I cannot change the world overnight. But if I can empower even one youth today, tomorrow, they could join me in empowering others. With time, we could change the world. The truth is that the end to the good we can achieve is nowhere in sight. There’s so much more to conquer. There are more lives to impact and generations to uplift to achieve their full potential,” Wigwe said recently.

In addition, his philanthropic gesture saw him set up the HOW Foundation (Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe), which is focused on education, health, youth empowerment and sustainability. The Foundation has over the years committed several billions of naira to upgrade and support 23 Primary Health Care Centres across Rivers State in five years, to train 75 doctors (in Israel and the USA) over the course of five years, among several interventions. Its achievements are evidenced in its commitment to change the future through the upliftment in education, health and youth empowerment. Also, the HOW Foundation supports the education of 13 000 Almajiri children in Kaduna State.

Indeed, Herbert Wigwe, his wife, his son, Ogunbajo and others that died in the accident would be dearly missed by all their admirers and family members. But they must all be encouraged by the words of Wigwe who on January 19, 2024 tweeted: “Today and always, let us remember that life is a precious gift – a chance to breathe, feel, love, experience and connect. Let’s honour this gift by living with purpose, kindness, and gratitude, making every moment count. Let us number our days.”

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