The Editor of the Guardian, Mr. Abraham Ogbodo
It was Mrs. Cecilia Ibru calling. “Hello ma!” The voice at the other end was subdued, actually struggling to lay the message across. Amid sobs, she let go: “My husband passed on this morning.” I knew whom she was talking about. She called him “my husband” which at any rate remains the case till the end of time, but the man so described, is the one and only Olorogun Michael Christopher Onajirivbe (MCO) Ibru, the Otota (Prime Minister) of Agbarha-Otor Kingdom. He was 85 and would have been 86 years old by next Christmas day, December 25, 2016.
I share the same cultural and cartographic space with Olorogun MCO Ibru and so he was so much part of my consciousness as a growing child in the 60s and 70s. Then, he was in his late 30s to early 40s but we saw him as the ultimate in aspiration. To aspire beyond him was something close to a taboo or at best wishful thinking. We did not know or hear of any man on earth that was wealthier. He approximated the best in everything positive. He was the wealthiest, brightest, strongest, most charitable, best-behaved odafe on earth, most handsome and many more.
There were other wealthy men in Urhobo land but none got close to Michael Ibru in overall estimation. The tyranny that comes with capital accumulation escaped him completely and perhaps for the first time, in Urhobo land, there was an okpo odafe (a very wealthy man) who did not threaten to Kaaren (lock up in prison) every poor man in town. The Olorogun bore till death a permanent mark of nobility, which forbade him from using power offensively, even in his telling magnificence.
His was a rare combination of wealth, competence and character. And so, what defined him till death in Urhobo land and everywhere was not so much his wealth as his character, which found accommodation with all classes. The poor loved him much as the rich and his enemies, if there were any, might as well qualify as public enemies.
Early enough, the Olorogun understood his role as a mere custodian of the goodness of God. He understood for instance that His acquired and endowed strengths would only be meaningful if deployed at all times in the defence of common good. When the wealth started manifesting, he saw the need to manifest same in all quarters. He became a friend of humanity, recreating where he could, the natural and sociological circumstances, to deliver greater good for mankind. His factor alone reworked the Ibru name into a dynasty of wealth creators even as he unleashed a range of socio-economic land marks – a secondary school, airstrip, a brewery, electricity, university and roads – on his native Agbarha-Otor Kingdom.
As he expanded in time and space, the Olorogun became increasingly unmatchable in many regards. He was also becoming more mythical than real. People just said things to capture his essence. For instance, as the founder, he was the MD of the Ibru Organisation but that was not enough to discharge the myth around his being called MD.
Instead, there was this story told by a local opinion leader to explain the sobriquet: Former military head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo had signed the Indigenization Decree when he suddenly realized government didn’t have the money to pay for the Oyibo’s companies that would be acquired. Obasanjo was already contemplating rescinding the historic decree when Theophilus Danjuma walked into his office brandishing a solution. Danjuma said one man called Michael Ibru could provide the whole money needed to pay for the companies. On the appointed day, Olorongun loaded two personal helicopters with cash and flew into Dodan Barracks to meet Obasanjo. About 10 soldiers were detailed to off load the money and it took them three hours to finish. Olorogun saved the country and in appreciation of his great intervention, Obasanjo appointed him a permanent Managing Director (MD) of Nigeria!
Also, persons who claimed to have visited his business frontlines in Lagos returned with fantabulous descriptions. They said Olorogun owned about one half of Lagos City. This was the position until one adventurer who wanted to establish the truth beyond all reasonable doubts visited to see things for himself. The fellow could only communicate in the Urhobo language and upon enquiries about the ownership of the many beautiful landmarks in Lagos including the expansive Ibafon Jetty Yard in Apapa, he was told Mi o gbo. Disappointed, he returned to break the sad news that contrary to the widely held belief at home that Eko belonged to Ibru, a far wealthier man called Mi o gbo owned the place.
Poets, minstrels and musicians offered generous renditions to underscore the economic profundity of the Olorogun. One said God created Ibru on the eve of the Sabbath and kept him in the ship of life with enough provisions for a lifetime for an entire race. As it were, God had planned to create more people the following day to join Ibru in the ship before the commencement of the great voyage to earth. At dawn however, God realized it was a Sabbath, His work free day and not willing to delay the voyage for another full day, He let go the ship and that was how it became the big fortune of Michael Ibru to arrive earth on December 25, 1930 through Chief Peter Epete Ibru and Madam Omotogor Ibru with provisions made for a whole race.
Meanwhile, these wild stories festered because the folks back home just did not know how to situate the profundity of Olorogun in all ramifications within realistic descriptions. It thus helped to let the imagination grow fertile and wild to invent imageries that gave idea of him in the context of what we understood. Any concept or physical achievement that tasked realism was ascribed to him because after God, it was he alone that could perform wonders. Another poet said he built a house that stood on one ‘leg.’ He was referring to the angular base of the Ibru family house in Agbarha-Otor built in 1970.
The Olorogun could almost always meet his purpose. He built an air strip in Agbarha-Otor and as far back as 1972 when aviation and associated concepts were not part of everyday discussions in much of Urhobo land and elsewhere, Olorogun was coming to and going from Agbarha-Otor in a private jet the same way we rode bicycles to and from Ughelli, the then divisional headquarters of Eastern Urhobo, to participate in match past to mark special days.
In 1972 when his father died, the community had more than a burial ceremony. They had a festival actually for a whole month. While it lasted, it was as simple as waking up in the morning and going to the ceremony grounds to be fed for the whole day. At a time when the rental business was still a very distant concept even nationwide, items including the chairs and canopies were specially created with the Ibru fish insignia on them for the ceremony. Long after the burial and up till about 1980 when I left secondary school, the event sustained discussions in the locality.
On one occasion, the coming of Olorogun to Agbarha-Otor was not too smooth. On sighting the approaching jet, the community rose in frenzy. Spontaneously, everybody drifted in the direction of the airstrip to perhaps witness how and where the iron bird would perch. There was no form of control on ground. The surging crowd overran the tarmac and runway, and our Olorogun could not touch down.
Fortunately and unfortunately, it is not going to be so the next time he will be coming home. His body that will be coming to Agbarha-Otor must touchdown anyhow for a befitting burial by the entire Urhobo nation, to say the least. He has just finished his race and everybody agrees he ran a good race. Nothing more is required on his part. The living shall do well to commend him in most glorious circumstances on the appointed day for his final flight to a location much better than earth. Adieu Olorogun!