Wigwe was here!, By Wole Olaoye

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Reading Time: 5 mins read

The celebrations last week of the life and times of Herbert Wigwe sent me retrieving some Philosophy books from my study. There had to be a philosophical meaning to it all. How could a man at the peak of his professional career, with a network of friends and associates spread over all the continents, literally vaporise from our midst with his wife and first son in tow? 

But the more I combed philosophy, the more fuzzy I was. We are made up of body and soul, right? We leave the body behind when we expire and the soul rises to the afterlife, where we are no longer constrained by the limitations of the physical world. Death, says Seneca, is a release from all suffering, and a boundary beyond which our ills cannot pass.

But this is little comfort. Based on the assumption that God is all good and all merciful, man continues to wonder why He would allow evil in the world. For, stripped of all niceties, as we say in Africa, there are very few happenings in the world that could be more horrendous than people predeceasing their fathers and mothers and uncles and aunts…

Philosophy of Death

Even nature mourns when a green leaf falls from the Iroko tree, while its withered, yellowed neighbours hang on as the fresher, healthier leaf falls to the earth. How cruel!

One of the few consolations I got from my philosophical foray was provided by the German, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who encouraged us to strive for greatness. He said the fear that we might die young should not deter us from striving to be great. The influence of great people lasts longer than their earthly lives — and that is good for society. 

Therefore, he contends, death is not a misfortune. He emphasises the importance of “dying at the right time,” while our lives still call for celebration, and before we risk undermining the legacy we otherwise would leave others. “In your dying, your spirit and virtue should still glow like a sunset around the earth….”

Donald Robertson, in a piece titled “The Philosophy of death”, tries to soften the blow of death’s rude intervention. As everything has a season, so does the individual, he says. Your season, in the macro, is your life, and as the seasons pass, so too will you. In a paraphrasing of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, don’t ask yourself how long you’ll live, but rather, how you’ll live… In so doing, death may not be something terrible, but rather, a natural end to a life well-ordered. 

Little comfort to grieving families, friends and associates! 

The Real Wigwe 

It is said that a corpse being ferried to its final resting place by pall bearers across the neighbourhood might as well have been a log of wood, because it does not exact any emotional toll on passersby. He who feels it, knows it. In the case of Herbert Wigwe, however, even those not connected with him in any way found out that he shared the same humanity with them in many profound ways, to such an extent that a colleague asked me how the 57-year-old banker and entrepreneur could have been such a well kept secret all these years!

Many people found out the real essence of the relatively young man after his death. Nigeria may be a country of 200 naira-trillionaires and 200 million beggars, but there is still so much unsung goodness in the land, as evidenced by tributes paid to Herbert last week. 

Herbert Wigwe’s paths and mine never crossed. I have no reason whatsoever to be partial, one way or the other, in my assessment of his life and times. Unbelievably, despite being in the public eye everyday for the past quarter of a century, the real Herbert was largely unknown. The revelations made at the events organised by his family, friends and associates, and broadcast live on national and international networks, etched out the portrait of Herbert the humanist.

The cumulative effect of the tributes was that they painted a portrait of a human being with a heart of gold behind the name. Operating in the shark-infested waters of the Nigerian banking industry, was it realistic to expect operatives to conduct their affairs with a different set of rules, especially realising that the graveyard of Nigerian banking had many headstones of erstwhile top dogs? How did Jesus Christ handle that kind of ‘holier-than-thou’ situation? “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”! (John 8:7).

Speakers at the event told stories of how the 57-year-old banker and corporate player became their friend and earned the respect of  the high and mighty around the world: from former President Bill Clinton of the US, to Emmanuel Macron of France, Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, Ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, former Vice-President Osinbajo, a bagful of European and African presidents and prime ministers, top diplomats and the cream of the business and political leadership in Nigeria. He had something special going with each and every one of those whose paths crossed his.

Number Your Days

On 19 January, Wigwe had shared his thoughts on his X (formerly Twitter) handle: “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.”

He apparently took his own advice.

Spellbinding narratives were shared, of how this unassuming banker carried out his philanthropy without fanfare and how his life positively affected those who knew him. There were so many stories of man’s humanity to fellow man to cement a legacy of giving, of lifting other people up, of being the candle whose light was not diminished by lighting other candles. There were very few dry eyes when the leader of the Tijaniyya movement and 14th Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, finished his testimony.

Governors, senators, rolled over each other to share their attestations. Also in attendance was the President of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwumi Adesina; President of the Dangote Group, Aliko Dangote; Nigeria’s Finance Minister Wale Edun; and the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Olayemi Cardoso. It couldn’t have been stage-managed. Without being so tagged, this was virtually a state burial.

Nigeria’s Vice-President Kashim Shettima, in his speech titled, “Herbert Wigwe: The Flower That Bloomed Before Spring,” waxed lyrical: “Herbert left us in winter before the season of bloom. Spring was just about to arrive at his last location, the United States when the Lord called for him.

Spring is not the symbol of Herbert’s bloom; his journey was defined by peculiar seasons. He loomed long before his co-travellers. This spring, for us, isn’t the season of festive flowers; it’s the season of wreaths….”

Legacy 

Wigwe’s legacy is assured. That much was evidenced by the pan-Nigerian, pan-African, even global outpouring of love on his demise. His family and friends have pledged to ensure the completion and sustenance of his Wigwe university project.  

Posterity will not have cause to ask, “Who was Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe?” They will encounter him in his contributions to a future that he wasn’t privileged to see. There will not be any iota of doubt that Herbert passed through these mortal shores. 

To his family and friends, I commend you to the soothing lyrics of Lynda Randle:

The God on the mountain is still God in the valley

When things go wrong, He’ll make them right

And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times

The God of the day is still God in the night.

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