A Tribute to an Uncommon Pioneer and Genius:
Michael Ibru at 80
By Peter Ekeh
Chairman, Urhobo Historical Society
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.