A Tribute to an Uncommon Pioneer and Genius

Urhobo Historical Society
A Tribute to an Uncommon Pioneer and Genius:
Michael Ibru at 80
By Peter Ekeh
Chairman, Urhobo Historical Society
Michael Ibru
at his prime
In the year of Michael Ibru’s birth in 1930, Nigeria’s future prospects were still largely undefined and uncertain. In the years in which Ibru grew up in the 1930s, the image and confidence of his own Urhobo people were badly shaken as they desperately struggled to understand the new colonial world and to regain their balance in the Nigerian community of ethnic nationalities. What is historically remarkable about Michael Ibru is that, as he matured into a dominant businessman, he helped to shape the commercial and economic frontiers of the young Nigerian nation; moreover, he played a major role in steadying the fortunes of the Urhobo people in a nation in which the identities of men and women were tied to the moral perception of their ethnic groups by their fellow citizens.

There will be future debates about the sources of Michael Ibru’s exceptional personality. The Urhobo are quick to relate such gigantic achievements as Michael Ibru has been able to assemble to one’s sub-ethnic origins. Culturally, the Agbarha sub-culture of Urhoboland, to which the Ibrus owe their paternity, has a huge reputation for innovative adventures. It is such venturesome tendencies in pre-historic times that led fractions of the Agbarha people to the founding of Agbarha-Ame on the banks of Warri River and the daring establishment of Idjerhe and Oghara across the Ethiope River. Clearly, certain elements of Michael Ibru’s daring ventures have the markings of his native Agbarha. But that cannot explain it all. The truth of the matter is that the genius of men like Ibru is rare and unique. Some might even be tempted to label it as a gift from God.

A boyhood story about Michael Ibru might provide a window to understanding his genius. It is a story that his immediate younger brother, Felix Ibru, told of their youth. Their mother was the last child of Chief Osadjere of Olomu, a trader of enormous influence in eastern Urhobo affairs in early colonial times. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Ovedje Osadjere, who became a dominant political force in eastern Urhobo in the late 1930s when Michael and Felix were little boys. Ovedje travelled in a carriage that was drawn by cyclists – obviously an uncommon indication of power and wealth at a time and in a region in which there were no motorable roads. One afternoon, the great Chief Ovedje was passing by at Oteri in Ughelli when Michael and Felix accompanied their mother to pay homage to her famous eldest sibling. On seeing her, Ovedje ordered the carriage to stop and he had a conversation with his father’s youngest child, a significant relationship in Urhobo culture. As he prepared to depart, he asked whether there was anything his young nephews needed from him. Michael rushed forth, requesting that he wanted to pluck cocoa pods from his farm. Ovedje was amused and told Michael to go ahead and do so. Michael’s mother was not amused. What was he going to do with cocoa pods? Young Michael wanted to experiment with the liquid from the pods to see if he could brew some drink from them!

Such curiosity pushed Michael Ibru to uncommon heights. He settled at an early age in Lagos, colonial Nigeria’s headquarters, to which his parents migrated. Here, he was able to enter Igbobi College, Yaba, a top secondary school in colonial times. Michael Ibru blossomed at Igbobi College. In an age in which character earned enormous credit in a young person’s life, Michael Ibru’s leadership qualities soon became apparent. He completed his secondary school education in 1951 in the envied position of Senior Prefect. Significantly, he was followed to Igbobi College by three of his younger brothers: Felix (also Senior Prefect), Bernard, and Alex. A fourth younger brother, Goodie, was educated at Ibadan Grammar School.

Michael Ibru briefly worked (1951-56) as an employee of United Africa Company, a trading consortium that once bore the lofty name of Royal Niger Company. This short period of work experience, including a stint in Japan, was apparently an intense internship for young Michael Ibru. He plunged into the world of commerce in his mid-twenties, using personnel resources from his close-knit family but initially relying on African Continental Bank for capital. Where other older Nigerian commercial capitalists were faithful to ready-made products, principally importing industrial goods from the United Kingdom, Ibru was far more daring in prospecting for new products to sell. His greatest commercial innovation was the production and marketing of frozen fish. Ibru ventured where no other Nigerian had dared. In the 1950s, frozen fish (once unsuccessfully pushed by the foreign-owned West African Fisheries and Cold Stores) had a poor reputation in Nigeria. When Ibru introduced frozen fish in 1957, its detractors — including meat sellers — labeled it “mortuary” fish. He waged a vigorous campaign that successfully persuaded a whole nation that frozen fish was good, establishing distribution depots throughout Nigeria. Felix Ibru attributes some of Michael’s early success to assistance from his family. Felix himself served as part-time clerk for Laibru, a trading company that Michael Ibru formed with an Englishman Jimmy Large. Michael’s mother in her early life was a long-distance trader in the creeks of the Niger Delta where familiarity with fish was a necessity. Her prowess in the pricing of the new “Ibru” frozen fish was invaluable. Felix Ibru tells us that unsung in this initial push to huge success by the eldest of the Ibru siblings was the role that their austere father, Peter Ibru, played in ensuring that Michael’s monies were safeguarded in a vault over which this patriarch kept watch.

No matter in whatever ways one accounts for Michael Ibru’s huge success in his premier ventures, his overall achievements are phenomenal. In The Advance of African Capital: The Growth of Nigerian Private Enterprise, Tom G. Forrest correctly singled out the Ibru Organization (along with the Ibadan-based Modandola Group of Chief Bode Akindele) as a prime exemplar of pioneering capitalism in Africa and Nigeria. The lessons of the early enterprises were leveraged into a huge expansion that ranged well beyond the original frozen fish venture into Construction, Petroleum Oil Storage and Marketing ,aviation (Aero Contractors), banking (Oceanic Bank), agriculture (Mitchell Farms, palm oil production, pineapple production), publishing (The Nigerian Guardian), beer brewing (in his hometown of Agbarha-Otor), etc, etc. Today, the Ibru Organization, a pool of continuing companies initiated by Michael Ibru, remains unequalled in the quality and types of products that it offers to the public. “Ibru” has become a brand name that connotes genuine quality. The Ibru coinage has survived because it is based on genuine products that the people need. The Ibru genius has been Michael Ibru’s brilliant ability to fathom the unmet needs of the Nigerian population and to find ways to meet those needs.

Michael Ibru’s multifarious successes could be attributed to another human value. It is the abundance of Ibru’s trust in his parents, siblings, children, wives, fellow Urhobo men and women, and indeed fellow Nigerians. Many successful businessmen and women are self-centred and are fearful of including others – even in their families – in their business plans. What is fascinating and remarkable about Michael Ibru is that he was never afraid to share successes with others. His faith in others enabled him to bring in trusted siblings and others to share in running major segments of the Ibru organization. In the end, the inclusion of Michael Ibru’s siblings, wives, children and associates in the management of the companies of the Ibru organization has greatly enriched the totality of the Ibru clan.

No group of Nigerians has benefited more from Michael Ibru’s fountain of trust than the Urhobo people. Urhobo men and women have profited at many levels since the rise of the Ibru brand in the second half of the 1950s. First, Urhobo market women were among the first batch of Nigerians to embrace the “Ibru” frozen fish. Many of them rose from relative poverty to higher economic brackets because they participated in the new Ibru ventures from market stalls. There were more direct beneficiaries from Michael Ibru’s openness to his Urhobo people. These were the many Urhobo professionals who joined the Ibru organization. Many of them left the Ibru organization to pursue their own independent dreams constructed with the aid of ambitions conceived in the Ibru organization. A full list of Urhobo professionals who worked and prospered in the Ibru organization will fill many pages. Notable among them are Robin Imishue, Sam Okudu (half-Ijaw, half-Urhobo), Albert Egoh, Patrick Okitiakpe, Wilson Nakpodia, etc, etc. Perhaps another effective way of representing the scope of these benefits is to say that all twenty-two sub-cultures of Urhoboland were (and still are) represented in the Ibru organization.

The Urhobo have a more particular reason for admiring Michael Ibru. Well up to the 1950s, the image of the Urhobo was not among the best in the Nigerian nation. With the accomplishments and competence of Michael Ibru especially, as well as the achievements of other giants of Nigerian commerce and economics as David Dafinone and Gamaliel Onosode, the Urhobo image has been strengthened in major ways. For that, the Urhobo have embraced Michael Ibru as an historic figure. There is more in the love bonds between the Urhobo people and Michael Ibru. Michael Ibru has embraced Urhobo culture and Urhobo cultural organizations, especially Urhobo Progress Union, in a manner that pleases the Urhobo people. It is Michael Ibru who popularized the use of the title “Olorogun” in place of “Chief.”

As illness compels Olorogun Michael Ibru to sojourn into the sunset of his life, his admirers can rest assured that his legacy is secure in Nigeria’s history of mercantile capitalism. As for the Urhobo, it is fair to say that in their cultural imagination, Olorogun Michael Ibru stands alongside Chief Mukoro Mowoe in the pantheon of Urhobo heroes.

Urhobo Historical Society wishes Olorogun Michael Ibru a Happy 80th Birth-Day on that merriest of days, December 25, 2010.


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