By Etim Etim
How could such a fine gentleman, so generous, warm, humble and respectful die so violently with his wife, son and a friend? Why would such a visionary business leader, Godfearing and kindhearted human being perish so tragically? The United States aviation authorities should conduct full and detailed investigations into the helicopter crash that took away Dr. Herbert Wigwe, one of our finest and most industrious bankers and business icons, and his family. The callousness of the operators of that aircraft borders on criminal negligence. It is notable that Nigerian air accident investigators are collaborating with NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), the agency that investigates air and road accidents in the US, to unearth the causes of this crash. It was in January 2020 that Kobe Bryant, an American basketball star, died in a similar chopper crash with his daughter also in California. If those helicopters in the US are not well maintained, they should not be put up for charter. If the Californian weather is too treacherous in winters, those choppers should be grounded till the conditions improve. It is unconscionable wickedness to carry innocent people to their deaths.
I am so sad, pained and devastated. This is one loss too much. The outpouring of griefs and the floods of messages from across Africa and around the world; from world leaders, colleagues and ordinary folks testify to Herbert’s extraordinary qualities and outstanding contributions. Millions of Nigerians from all walks of life, including millions of Access Bank’s customers, shareholders and employees, as well as the thousands of workers who are toiling to build Wigwe University are benumbed, stunned and pained by Herbert’s sudden death. To die at such a relatively young age with one’s wife and son is numbing, and, to say the least, disorienting. How is such a catastrophic calamity explained in the Bible? What does God say about good people dying so painfully and suddenly? Why did this happen, for goodness’ sake? The last time a young Nigerian’s violent and sudden death gripped the nation so painfully was on Sunday, October 19, 1986. If Dele Giwa’s death through a parcel bomb from some military evil planners had frightened the nation, Herbert Wigwe’s death in a helicopter crash in California has transfixed us all.
From all indications, I was chatting with Herbert some hours before his death. It was his habit to read his messages and respond promptly despite his grueling schedule. But when I noticed that he had not opened his phone for close to 15 hours on Saturday, I started developing a dreadful sense of foreboding, and I made a mental note to call him soon after the meeting I was attending that afternoon. But as soon as the meeting ended around 5pm, a call from a friend I haven’t heard from for long confirmed my fears. My hunch hardly goes wrong.
Herbert was an extraordinary human being who did not allow his outstanding attainments to dwindle his humanity. Some people disconnect completely from their roots when they get to the top. Not Herbert. He related well with the high and mighty as well as the low and forgotten. He kept in touch with his secondary school classmates; church members; village chiefs; community leaders as well as former staffs like me and other bank CEOs and Heads of governments. From one end of the spectrum to the other, he remains his witty, kind, humorous and amiable self. He was passionate about our youths and he created several mentorship programs for them. His philanthropic activities through his foundation are well known, but I guess, establishing a university for those he referred to as the ‘fearless’ generation will forever remain a timeless legacy. I am grateful that the people he assembled to midwife the institution have vowed to carry on the dream.
Working with Herbert in Access Bank, I realized early on that he was imbued with courage, boldness, determination and all the epithets that define fearlessness. The vision, mission and values of the bank were underpinned by the drive to conquer all obstacles and excel. It was for nothing that we called ourselves ‘’Access Warriors’’. I first met him on a Sunday afternoon in March 2008 when I appeared before him for an interview to join the bank. I was already used to his chubby face in the press, but in real life, Herbert looked serious, businesslike and his beady eyes were penetrating. I was slightly uncomfortable, but I was determined not to be intimidated. He asked just a few questions. My five years in the bank turned out to be some of the most rewarding.
The bank’s meteoric growth in the over 21 years he and his friend and partner, Aigboje, have been in charge reflects their collective business acumen. Herbert took over from Aig in January 2014, leading the bank through various growth phases till 2022 when it was restructured into a holding company structure. As the Group CEO of Access Corporation, the holding company, Herbert added economic diplomacy to his huge responsibilities. He visited foreign leaders, spoke about Africa renaissance, the climate crisis, green energy, the roles of tech in finance and the importance of giving our youths the opportunities they deserve as the bank expanded across Africa into Europe and Asia. The bank has invested billions of dollars in the 15 African economies it has operations in. The messages from Presidents Emmanuel Macron of France and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa say it all.
I have reached out to Aig and a few other members of the Access family. The Group has lost three members in as many months. This must be the most difficult moment in the life of the institution, but I’m heartened to note that Aig has pledged to ensure that Herbert’s personal dreams, including the university, are not aborted. Now Herbert’s children are orphans. Losing their parents in such a circumstance could be traumatic. I trust that Aig will now step in to play a fatherly role to them (Proverbs 18:24).
I am told that we should not or cannot question the decisions of the Almighty God. I have also been told that God is not capable of doing bad things. But the mysteries of this life continue to confound me. Why are the good ones dying off so suddenly? While those who have stolen from this country and mismanaged it continue to flourish, others who worked hard to contribute to its development are quickly taken from us, some so violently.
The last message Herbert sent to me was that he would never be discouraged from working to change Nigeria positively. The development of this country was his obsession. May his aged parents, siblings, friends and colleagues be consoled.
Etim is a Journalist and a Political Analyst based in Abuja