Ireukpen Stands Still for Abebe

All roads to­day lead to Ireukpen, Esan West Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Area of Edo State for the fu­neral of one of Nige­ria’s great­est board­room gu­rus, Dr. Christo­pher Abebe. David­son Iriekpen writes

THISDAY - - COLLAGE -

The sleepy town of Iruekpen in Esan West Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Area of Edo State will come alive this week­end dur­ing the fu­neral of one of Nige­ria’s great­est board­room gu­rus, Dr. Christo­pher Eb­hodaghe Abebe. Pa Abebe who died on March 22 at the age of 99 af­ter a brief ill­ness, was the fa­ther-in-law to ex-Pres­i­dent Oluse­gun Obasanjo. He was the fa­ther of late First Lady, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo and the first in­dige­nous Chair­man and Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of United Africa Com­pany (UAC).

Ac­cord­ing to the burial ar­range­ments re­leased by the fam­ily, the fu­neral mass, in­ter­ment and re­cep­tion would take place to­day, May 18, the tra­di­tional vil­lage re­cep­tion will take place on Satur­day, May 19 at Late Abebe’s coun­try home in Iruekpen, while the out­ing ser­vice takes place on Sun­day, May 20.

Last Fri­day in La­gos, a night of trib­utes was held at the St. Gre­gory’s Col­lege in hon­our of the late Udion­were (com­mu­nity leader) of Iruekpen. The oc­ca­sion was or­gan­ised by UAC, Nige­ria Em­ployer’s Con­sul­ta­tive As­so­ci­a­tion (NECA), Nige­ria Brew­eries Plc, Vitafoam and Nige­rian In­sti­tute of Man­age­ment.

The event at­tracted who’s who in the so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing cap­tains of in­dus­try, board­room gu­rus, pro­fes­sion­als in var­i­ous fields, re­tired and many oth­ers still serv­ing, who poured en­comi­ums on the great man who joined UAC on De­cem­ber 1, 1935 with­out shoes but rose through the ranks to be­come the chair­man and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor 45 years af­ter.

The in­cum­bent Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of the com­pany, Ab­dul Bello, sim­ply de­scribed Abebe as one of Nige­ria’s gifts to the world who was in­cor­rupt­ible and of high in­tegrity.

“The story of Abebe’s life of hard work, hu­mil­ity, in­tegrity, rising from lowly po­si­tion of un­paid ap­pren­tice to the en­vi­able po­si­tion of Chair­man and Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor in­spires and will in­spire gen­er­a­tions of em­ploy­ees.”

From the Nige­rian Brew­eries where he was once chair­man from 1980 to I989, it was scin­til­lat­ing words from the in­cum­bent Chair­man, Chief Kola Jamodu, who de­scribed the late non­a­ge­nar­ian as a great man­ager made great con­tri­bu­tions to the suc­cesses of the com­pany in a dif­fi­cult phase of the Nige­rian econ­omy. Jamodu said Abebe en­sured that the busi­ness con­ti­nu­ity of Nige­rian Brew­eries Plc in the face of chal­lenges in the foreign ex­change regime to ease the liq­uid­ity prob­lem it posed for Nige­rian Brew­eries.

“His lead­er­ship as Chair­man of the com­pany at the time con­trib­uted hugely to the sur­vival of the com­pany dur­ing the tough era of im­port li­cens­ing that put a lot of pres­sure on the ease of ac­quir­ing raw ma­te­ri­als and spare parts over­seas. In his time as chair­man, Nige­rian Brew­eries was part of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion from the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor to gov­ern­ment which led to sev­eral busi­ness-friendly eco­nomic poli­cies, some of which still ex­ist to­day.

“In our spe­cific in­dus­try, Abebe’s time as chair­man saw the be­gin­ning of the use of lo­cal raw ma­te­ri­als as sub­sti­tutes for bar­ley as a re­sponse to gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy on the use of lo­cal raw ma­te­ri­als for com­pa­nies in the coun­try. His ten­ure as chair­man also saw an ex­pan­sion in the com­pany’s ex­ist­ing brew­ery foot­prints with the com­mis­sion­ing of Ibadan Brew­ery n 1982 fol­low­ing the La­gos, Aba and Kaduna Brew­eries. Sig­nif­i­cantly, the land where our flag­ship Ama Brew­ery cur­rently sits was also ac­quired dur­ing Abebe’s time as Chair­man of our Board.

“His ex­am­ple of hard work, pa­tri­o­tism, lead­er­ship and pos­i­tive so­ci­etal im­pact strongly re­in­forced our com­pany’s phi­los­o­phy of Win­ning with Nige­ria, which still drives our op­er­a­tions till to­day.”

Vitafoam too paid glow­ing trib­ute to Abebe, say­ing the story of its tran­si­tion to a truly Nige­rian en­tity can­not be suc­cinctly told with­out the men­tion of his name. The com­pany said Abebe was ap­pointed its Di­rec­tor on De­cem­ber 19, 1978 on ad­vice from Lon­don and was in­stantly elected chair­man by his col­leagues in an ex­em­plary demon­stra­tion of trust in his ex­cel­lent and ad­mirable lead­er­ship skill set thus etch­ing his name in gold in the com­pany’s his­tory book as the first Nige­rian Chair­man.

“This is not sur­pris­ing given his an­tecedent as a thor­ough­bred Unilever man and his pre­vi­ous record of ac­com­plish­ment at UAC (a mem­ber of the Unilever fam­ily). His as­cen­dancy oc­curred at a time when Vitafoam was in dire need of a new lead­er­ship in its quest for greater heights. He was in­deed a trail­blazer! Prior to his emer­gence, the post of Chair­man and Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor was held by an ex­pa­tri­ate whose over­bear­ing in­flu­ence on the Nige­rian Ex­ec­u­tives of the com­pany cre­ated fric­tions that al­most rocked the sys­tem to its foun­da­tion. A con­sum­mate ad­min­is­tra­tor with as­tound­ing peo­ple-man­age­ment skills, Abebe suc­ceeded in mend­ing bro­ken fences within the sys­tem and en­trench­ing a tra­di­tion of peace, progress and sta­bil­ity. His debt han­dling of the frac­ture in the sys­tem set the foun­da­tion for the widely ac­claimed and time-tested cul­ture of seam­less board and man­age­ment suc­ces­sion that has be­come a hall­mark of the Vitafoam sys­tem through the ages. The ma­tu­rity and adroit­ness he ex­hib­ited in the han­dling of board af­fairs and over­all gover­nance of the com­pany af­ter the exit of the Bri­tish en­sured that Vitafoam flour­ished and be­came even more vi­brant un­der a full Nige­rian man­age­ment. This is a re­mark­able ac­com­plish­ment con­sid­er­ing that most or­gan­i­sa­tions hardly sur­vive the exit of their ex­pa­tri­ate lead­ers. He was in­deed a bridge builder!”

In­di­vid­u­als who eu­lo­gised the late board­room guru was the for­mer Head of the In­terim Gov­ern­ment, Chief Ernest Shonekan, who de­spite his frail con­di­tion, came to hon­our the his late boss. Re­call that Shonekan suc­ceeded Abebe as Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of UAC. The for­mer Head of State de­scribed Abebe as a man of in­tegrity who laid a solid foun­da­tion upon which the com­pany flour­ished. He added that the late Abebe be­lieved so much on de­vel­op­ing hu­man ca­pac­ity which saw them tak­ing the com­pany to greater heights when he re­tired.

Also, for­mer Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of the Nige­rian Brew­eries, Mr. Felix Ohi­w­erei, in his own trib­ute, said he does not think there was any great man in this part of the world like Abebe, adding he taught them how to be hon­est and hum­ble. Ohi­w­erei who worked closely with Abebe, said he proved to every­body that hard work pays, not­ing that lit­tle won­der he rose from the low­est rank to the peak of his ca­reer.

“I don’t think there is any great man in our part of the world like Abebe. He was an epit­ome of hu­mil­ity. He was hum­ble, hu­mane and very un­der­stand­ing. He was blessed. Through­out the vi­cis­si­tude of life, he demon­strated that in ev­ery­thing, hold on to Je­sus. He went through chal­lenges in life. In all of these, he held on to God. Only few men will sur­vive the chal­lenges he went through and still re­main sane. He was one of the few. He showed us that hard work pays. He showed us to live and be hon­est. He rose from the low­est rank to the peak of his ca­reer.”

Pa Abebe was born on July 18, 1919. He shared the same birth­day with for­mer South African Pres­i­dent, Nelson Man­dela, who is older by a year. Abebe did not have the ben­e­fit of blue chip ed­u­ca­tion that is avail­able to younger gen­er­a­tions of to­day. But that did not de­ter him from achiev­ing the goals he set for him­self which saw him rise from a po­si­tion of rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity to high fly­ing at­tain­ments in top level cor­po­rate man­age­ment and pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion.

On De­cem­ber 1, 1935, he was ap­pointed as an un­paid ap­pren­tice in UAC, from where he rose through the ranks to be­com­ing the Chair­man and Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor from 1975 to 1980. He be­lieved in the com­pany he served so well and was de­servedly en­cour­aged by the ex­pa­tri­ates of his days who saw in him at­tributes that, if nur­tured, were ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of the Bri­tish in­vestors who be­lieved that a time will come when they must hand over to lo­cal tal­ents that will carry on with the build­ing of a lo­cal busi­ness en­ter­prise with in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions. That as­pi­ra­tion was re­alised when Abebe as­sumed the man­tle of lead­er­ship of the com­pany, the first Nige­rian to do so. The story of Abebe in the UAC which we know to­day sim­ply as UAC Plc, is a study in hard work, dili­gence, ex­em­plary courage and proof that with de­ter­mi­na­tion as well as as­sid­u­ous ap­pli­ca­tion of will power, it is pos­si­ble for one to pull one­self up by the boot­strap to the com­mand­ing heights of power and af­flu­ence.

It was not only in UAC that Abebe per­formed ex­cel­lently. He was at var­i­ous times the Pro-chan­cel­lor and chair­man of coun­cil of three Nige­rian uni­ver­si­ties: the Univer­sity of Benin, the Univer­sity of Nige­ria, Nsukka and the Univer­sity of Cal­abar. It is on record that it was based on his ad­vice that UNN was taken over by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment af­ter the in­sti­tu­tion was mas­sively de­stroyed as a re­sult of the civil war.

He also served as Di­rec­tor in var­i­ous com­pa­nies in­clud­ing ICON Mer­chant Bank, Wig­gins Teape, First In­ter­state Mer­chant Bank. For two years, he was Vice-Pres­i­dent and five years Pres­i­dent of Nige­ria Em­ploy­ers Con­sul­ta­tive As­so­ci­a­tion (NECA) (1963-1970). For nine years, he served as Pres­i­dent of Nige­ria In­sti­tute of Man­age­ment.

As if they were not enough, he was co-founder and for­mer Chair­man COMET Mer­chant Bank Lim­ited which later trans­formed into First At­lantic Bank Plc and later be­came part of FINBANK Plc. at consolidation. He was also for­mer Chair­man, Se­cu­rity As­sur­ance Com­pany Plc, Di­rec­tor West African Port­land Ce­ment Com­pany Plc, served on the Con­sti­tu­tion Review Com­mit­tee 1987 to 1988.

The late non­a­ge­nar­ian was a mem­ber, Na­tional Uni­ver­si­ties Com­mis­sion, Pres­i­dent, Nige­rian Chap­ter of African As­so­ci­a­tion of Pub­lic Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Man­age­ment, mem­ber of Ben­del De­vel­op­ment and Eco­nomic Re­cov­ery Coun­cil, among many other po­si­tions.

Abebe was a com­mit­ted and de­voted Catholic, a qual­ity that was ac­knowl­edged by the Catholic Pon­tiff who con­ferred on him the highly sought af­ter Pa­pal Knight­hood of the Or­der St. Gre­gory the Great, one of the high­est hon­ours in the Vat­i­can City’s Hon­ours Roll. Be­fore this recog­ni­tion by the Pope, he had been a mem­ber of the pres­ti­gious Or­der of the Knights of St. Mu­lumba. He rose from the rank of an ini­ti­ate through the var­i­ous De­grees to be­come a Fourth De­gree Knight and was elected the Supreme Knight of the Or­der of St. Mu­lumba, the high­est po­si­tion in the Or­der.

His ex­am­ple of hard work, pa­tri­o­tism, lead­er­ship and pos­i­tive so­ci­etal im­pact strongly re­in­forced our com­pany’s phi­los­o­phy of Win­ning with Nige­ria, which still drives our op­er­a­tions till to­day

Late Abebe

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