For the first time since her travails in the court, the former Managing Director of the defunct Oceanic Bank, Mrs Cecilia Ibru, speaks on life after she left the bank, her ordeal and what she has been doing, in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA of Punch Newspapers
For years, you have been absent from the social scene; what have you been up to?
I would say I have been retooling and reinventing myself by taking on new challenges. I’m in the education sector now, which I think is worth going into, because everything about development revolves around education. If done properly, our nation will not be complaining too much because human capital would have been well developed. So, that is where I am now and it’s like an experiment for me. My late husband (Michael Ibru) and I started with nursery, kindergarten, primary, secondary and now a university. We are trying to raise talents in a way that it would produce excellence because education across the world is not commensurate with the speed at which we are growing here. We cannot expect people to become champions overnight without being nurtured and trained, even if they have the right talents. That informed part of what we are doing with the Michael and Cecilia Ibru University.
You spent years in the banking industry but now in education, have you always had the passion for the sector?
I would say I was born into education. When I was growing up, I used to hear my mother call my father principal and one day I asked why she called him that and she said he was one of the pioneers in that sector in Warri (Delta State) area. Also, he had a primary school and a technical college. Till date, there are people who tell me that if not for my father who encouraged and supported them, they wouldn’t have been where they were. He ended up being a lawyer, but I went to his primary school before I went to St Margaret’s High School, Ilesha, Osun State for my secondary education. I got married and then I went to the university in London.
You left Warri for Ilesha for your primary school education, what informed that move?
(Laughs) I know you would ask me how I got there. In those days, we did common entrance and you could choose schools anywhere you wanted. The belief then was that missionary schools were better, so St Margaret was an option for me and we actually loved it because it was far from home.
Why did you want a school far from home?
Not that I really wanted to, but now in retrospect, it was good my sister and I did. If you were far from home, the pressure from home was lesser. Besides, they couldn’t visit anytime they liked and so we were able to concentrate on our studies since we didn’t have many visitors from home. That exposure also helped us because that was where I learnt to speak Yoruba.
From what you said earlier, it seems you got married so early.
Yes, I did and I thank God for it.
How old were you then?
I got married before 20. I think I was 18-plus then because I had my first son in January before my 20th birthday. When I clocked 70, my first son was 50. So, I was 18-plus.
Can we say yours was early at the time or that was the norm?
Well, if a man wants you and your parents agree to it, you would go ahead. After all, in our days, they didn’t expect that girls would go very far in education, so early marriage was accepted. Interestingly, I didn’t have to choose between him and any other person. My dad used to say I should aim to be a lawyer and I said I wanted to be a doctor and he agreed. So, I went to the School of Nursing, Idi Araba, Lagos and it was when I was there that my husband met me and he went to see my parents that he wanted to marry me. That was how it started. He did what he had to do and that was it. He was in business then and he was already an established person. So, I married into his business as well and he began to put me through certain things. When we got married, he wanted me to do something different from medicine; he suggested I should become a social scientist. We deliberated on it and that was how I ended up studying sociology. After studying, I joined the Ibru Organisation in the United Kingdom because we had an office in the UK then and that was it.
After decades of being married, he died in 2016 after a prolonged illness, how did you cope at that period?
His death was a great shock to me. I had just come back from a trip abroad and the previous night everything seemed to be alright. He had been sick for a long time, but we felt he was getting better, so we continued to be hopeful believing that he would totally recover over time. I travelled that night and I got home that same night and then I went to bed, but somehow it wasn’t a restful night. I couldn’t tie it to anything anyway. That morning, around 7am, my daughter called. I asked after my husband and she said she didn’t know what was happening. I asked what she meant by that; she wasn’t so plain about it. So I said, what step have you taken, she said she had called an ambulance and I said, so what are they doing about it, she said they had been resuscitating him. I said how do you mean resuscitating him? This was the same person who looked alright the previous night when I was with him. The most painful part was when my daughter called again and broke the news to me. She told me those resuscitating him said they had to take him to the mortuary. Unknown to me, he passed on while we were talking. It was a shocker and a very difficult moment. It was very painful because we were expecting him to get better, not for him to die, but God knows all things. I’ve yet to recover from his death. Someone who was consoling me then said I should try and forget it and I said how? How do you just forget somebody you lived with for over 50 years? Till today, I still go to his office to redecorate the place the way he would have loved it. Perhaps, one thing that has helped to deal with it is the university which we established two years before he died. We were already preoccupied with running the school even before he died. However, when you withdraw into the room and you are alone, what you are missing dawns on you afresh. We adopted a boy six and half years ago, and if not for him it would have been worse. My husband would be two years gone in September. Taking care of the boy has been of help. He’s still small, so there are times he would do something naughty. That keeps you busy and distracted. Before you know it the day is gone. I miss my husband a lot. He was very analytical and anyone would love him. Even though he’s left us, when taking decisions, I still look at things the way he would have. So, I really miss him.
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He was ill at the time your case in court was on, do you think the trauma that accompanied that case affected him some more?
Till he died, he never knew about that incident. I didn’t tell him about it throughout. He was sick, so I couldn’t have told him so that it wouldn’t worsen his health. I needed a lot of strength to stay strong and it got to a point I asked God what I could have done wrong to deserve such a treatment. Someone said I should read the book of Job and I declined, but I did eventually. I read the Bible from cover to cover and found words of wisdom.
Since your conviction and the sentence you served, one has rarely seen you at social functions. Is that deliberate?
I spend most of the time now in the university and while I’m there, I don’t have the time to go out as much because it’s a new university. Being the proprietor and co-founder, you know what you want, how you want it and you try to make it conform with world’s standard and even become a reference point in the world. That won’t come easy and you would need to get involved and work harder. What really occupies me now is administration, especially in the area of providing infrastructure and making sure things are in order in the school.
The drama that ensued when about eight of you were eased out of the banking industry at that time was an episode people may not forget on time. Have you been able to live past that time?
You cannot; the intensity of it would be obliterated but it’s not as if you would forget. I have not forgotten them but it’s no longer an issue for me by the grace of God. God has saved me from it and He has enabled me to move on. I can’t be stuck in that rot; it would be anti-Christ. He said wherever you are, pick up yourself and move on, and I live by the word. It’s a pity it happened, but then if it didn’t happen, would I have been in the university. I probably would not. I probably would still be stressing myself about things I shouldn’t bother myself about. So, for me, I thank God for everything because it could have been worse. Also, God showed himself to me in all that terrible drama. Like a Christian brother told me that even Jesus was persecuted. They even killed him (Jesus). If it was not for God, would he have resurrected and then what would have happened to him? That could have been the end. So, in a way God has given me some kind of resurrection and I’m grateful to God for bringing me out of it.
The information available at that time suggested that there were serious issues, but you mentioned something about persecution. Do you feel you were persecuted?
Yes, I was.
What would you tie that to?
For me, they just wanted the banks. An envious fight does not end, but that is a big story that I would prefer to write about later. You find that when people knock you down, they don’t expect you to get up again. So, when you get up, they have mixed feelings. After all that happened, people became curious. In 2015, which was about five years after the court judgment, the university started. Other levels of the school had been running, but you know the university is the showcase of the whole enterprise. My husband was very ill, I had to look for money to treat him, but you see, when you believe in God, He would cater for you in mysterious ways. I believe that the God who has seen me through till today will continue to do so until He comes.
You took the plea bargain option and some people would feel you simply wanted a soft landing. Was that the case?
You see, when they offered me plea bargain as the way out, many people said I shouldn’t take it. Many of my pastors even said don’t accept it, fight it till the end, but I just told them I was fed up already. I was tired of the whole thing. I thought to myself that why should I be fighting with my whole heart when there was an alternative, even though not a nice one; pleading that you are guilty when you know that you are not. You are pleading as if you are guilty and you are agreeing with whatever they wanted when you know you didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t easy; my husband was sick and I didn’t want to be sick too. So, I decided to do what I had to do so I could be able to function. That was it.
You were in the hospital for the most part of your sentence.
By the time I left that hospital, they had to fly me to London for treatment. The experience in the little time I spent there impacted negatively on me so I was in the hospital most of the time. Maybe the emotional aspect of it made the medicines they were giving to me not to work effectively. As soon as they discharged me, they flew me straight to London. I can’t even describe how I looked. When people saw me, they asked what happened to me and I said I didn’t know. They ran series of tests on me and I tell you that in a matter of two weeks, my eyes became clear. Meanwhile, all I did was to just lie down and walk in the garden and I went for check-up twice a week. They advised me not to think about the whole thing so as to keep my blood pressure normal. And here I am by the grace of God. If you saw me then, I looked like an 88-year-old woman. I looked at myself in the mirror then and now and I say God is awesome.
During that trial, were there people you relied on that betrayed you?
I won’t say betrayal, including (Lamido) Sanusi (the then Governor of the Central Bank) himself, but people that I thought would come and help me did not do so. However, God raised other people to help me. Back then when I was in office, if I was at home, you wouldn’t find a parking space in my compound; it was always filled with cars and people who wanted one favour or the other from the bank. But after that episode, everywhere became empty. One day, a man came to visit me at home and when he was going, there were no security personnel or driver. So, he asked what happened to them and I said the bank had withdrawn all of them on the order of Sanusi. They withdrew everything. He said that wasn’t good. The man asked me what it would cost me to put in place some security measures and I said about N1m. He said I was a popular personality and I couldn’t go around without some form of protection. He paid that N1m every month until I went to London. And when I got there, I informed him I had travelled. I can’t forget that kind of a person, and guess what, he is a Muslim.
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Was that episode the first time you would go through such?
Definitely, it was. I got married as a young girl and so what problem could I have had. My husband was like a big umbrella over me so I didn’t have any problem. For me, they just wanted the banks. For those who heard about it on time, they quickly did something about theirs, but I didn’t see it coming. It was even one of us – one of those affected – that told me about it. That colleague called me one day and asked where I was and I said I had travelled to see my husband, who was sick at that time, he briefed me what we were up against. I was even planning to retire in March the following year (2011) when I would have been about 65. So, when it happened, I couldn’t travel anymore. I will put the details in my memoirs and it will be in volumes.
What lessons did you learn about that period of your life?
I learnt that you never know who your enemies are until you have a problem. That underscores the prayer that God should show us our enemies so we could do what is necessary before it is late. Also, I found that you are on your own when you have problems. I was deserted. Remember I said my compound and even outside the premises used to be filled with vehicles when I was in office. I mean people who needed all kinds of favour. One of the foremost banks in Nigeria today got the N3bn loan they used to start at that time from our bank. They came to me one day; I was even travelling that day, so I told them we should reschedule, but they insisted they had to see me that day. They told me they needed N3bn loan for the bank and I told them to let us meet in the office to do the paper work and go through the process. But when the problem arose, God showed me that He’s the only one you can depend on. The only person you can depend on in this world is God, and maybe a few people who are committed to you.
Have you forgiven those who, according to you, put you through that ordeal?
I have done so already because they didn’t know that they were simply promoting me. I run a university now and it is exciting impacting lives. Yes, in the bank, we helped businesses grow and people became rich but in education, you are dealing with human beings; moulding lives and I see that as better. God used it as a stepping stone for me.
When you look back at what the then Oceanic Bank transformed into, do you still feel pained that you lost it?
Let me put it this way; you cannot forget it because it was like losing a child you had watched grow. In the beginning, it was very painful but as time went on, the pain began to fade away and I began to regain myself. I also lost a son after that episode and it was painful. The consolation is that there is nothing that happens in this world that God does not know about, and there are things He allows you to go through for His own reasons.
In your social circle, are there people who still look at you in funny ways?
Of course, but that is their opinion, it has nothing to do with me. Your opinion cannot affect the person that I am. When such happens, some people tend to become distant because of that and I say maybe you probably didn’t need those friends anyway. I know that God uses things like this to show you the friends you need and those you don’t need. Just do what God wants you to do, try and live a holy life and study the Bible so you are continuously redefined. If it were not for God, I wouldn’t be sitting with you for this interview and I probably wouldn’t come across you. It was tough and I don’t wish it for anybody.
At that level, bank CEOs and the governor of the Central Bank are usually colleagues before one of them is elevated to head the apex bank. Was that not the case then?
We were friends, seemingly, but it doesn’t mean they like you. There is also competition.
What could have been the basis of the competition when the then CBN governor already left as the GMD of First Bank?
He (Sanusi) thought I wanted his job but I didn’t. I was offered the position, but I said no.
Why did you decline?
My husband was sick and I needed to be with him. That was the reason, and I didn’t think much about it anymore. Remember I said I was planning to retire in March of the following year to go and stay with my husband. When he (Sanusi) was appointed, I congratulated him. He even told me at that time they had not given him a letter and I told him not to worry that it would come. So, these are some of the things you live through that make you stronger. Sometimes you feel hit but you have to let go.
If you look back at all that happened, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
To be frank with you, I would say nothing. I did everything with my whole heart. I genuinely wanted to help people grow their businesses and a lot of people and businesses were empowered. We floated Econet, Oando, we built MMA2, Iba Expressway, we put guarantee down to build Toll Gate and the project at the Bar Beach. So, we did a lot under public-private partnership and I enjoyed it because I knew that if there were about three to four banks doing what we were doing at that time, Nigeria would have been industrialised by now. Look at Dangote at Obajana, we did (funded) it, and it was after we had finished that we began to sell the credit to other banks; the same with Econet, MMA2 and others. I enjoyed it all because we created real and sustainable value because those businesses are still there till today. Looking at individuals that also benefited from the bank, we assisted people like Dapo Abiodun, Jimoh Ibrahim, (Aliko) Dangote, etc.
Are you still in touch with them?
Yes, though they don’t call me; whether there is nothing to discuss, but I call them when I want to.
You spent most of your working years in the bank, but now you are in education. If we are to compare, which do you enjoy more?
One has to do with money while the other has to do with human beings and I think the latter is more interesting because you see developments in a fellow human, like helping them to unlearn bad habits, imbibe good habits and help to refine their character. Children are very easy to work with and when they get it right, you would be happy being part of that process. My children went to school abroad and I have often admired the way the schools there groom their students, so we felt we should bring that back home so that the students that come out from our school can be different, including their dressing style. Education has certain expectations, in terms of appearance, conduct, speech, composure and how to go about their business or career. It teaches a more ordered way of living and those things don’t come easy if you didn’t go to school. I’ve yet to see a child that came to us and was badly behaved that did not change within a year. We are not a reformatory; it’s just character moulding and personality shaping so that they become acceptable and sociable in the society.
There are very many universities already, is there anything you want to do differently?
First of all, I want our students to be passionate because it is important, and that is one virtue many people don’t seem to have. They start one thing and then jump into another. But we want determination and once you decide what you want, we chart the path for you. In the early schools, students do all sorts of subjects and that is to expose them to different things so we could see where their strength, interests and passion would be executed and then we begin to help them on that path. So, we feel the earlier we discover the strength of the child, the better. In our school, we have more people doing science subjects than arts and I say let’s balance it. Even if you are doing science, you must do music because music has been known to do something to the mind which enables people to be sharper and humble. For you to learn those notes in music, you’ve got to persevere and that is a trait that many don’t have.
Having been an employer of labour and now a proprietor, would you say the challenges in the sector are as bad as presented or there is a bit of exaggeration when people say graduates from Nigerian universities are not employable?
We cannot generalise because there are many products of our education system that are excellent, but maybe quite a proportion of them are not. Saying our graduates are not employable is an exaggeration. I can speak from the little we have done so far and in September we would have our first convocation, where 30 students would be graduating, which is not bad for a start. One of the things Michael (my late husband) wanted to see in the university is that all our graduates must be employable. It’s either they go into their own business, get an employment or we get one for them in the school or other organisations. We do not want to turn out students that would become a nuisance in the society. That is why we do entrepreneurial training and equip them with skills that employers look out for.
From your experience so far, what are the typical challenges facing the education sector?
First, I must say government is doing a lot, especially as most public schools are virtually free. But, even so, I think power, Internet availability and funding need quick attention. I think we are not putting enough resources into education and apart from that, government should make Internet available to all universities, including private ones a priority. In over the world today, you can’t go very far without power and good Internet connection. Government should give us these. On Google, you can teach yourself anything, but if there is no access, that knowledge is gone. And no doubt, power would reduce the cost of education and it is the bedrock of civilisation. Also, if you don’t have constant power, you cannot go very far. Thus, for a better and vibrant education sector, we need power, Internet accessibility and funding. There are other challenges, but if those three are available, it would help a lot, and the idea of lecturers not doing research would be a thing of the past and then students can also teach themselves.
There is the perception that private schools pamper students. What is your thought on that as a proprietor?
Public universities are virtually free, but when parents are ready to spend more money on their children in private universities, it means they want their children to get the best and be nurtured the best way. I don’t know what happens in public schools but in private schools, every child has somebody to talk to. If that is what you mean by pampering, well yes, and in my view, that is how it should be. We believe in counselling to see whether they can help you to achieve the objective of being in school. The point is that counselling is not pampering, but a means to make you aware that there are better choices than the ones you were trying to make. We all need some form of in-depth guidance, so I wouldn’t say we are pampering them.
You clocked 73 on March 22, yet you look beautiful as ever, is there a formula you like to share?
(Laughs) When I was much younger, I was doing a lot of aerobics but that has reduced now. I think it is also genetically determined. My father was 92 years old when he died and he didn’t really have grey hair. Beyond these, you should eat right. You shouldn’t eat heavy meals all the time. For instance, I do more of vegetables and fruits. For breakfast, I could have avocado peer, pineapple and pawpaw, together with ginger drink. And usually I eat twice a day. My second meal could be Edikang Ikong, Efo riro and guinea fowl and I try not to eat the fatty areas. Now, at my age, I do light exercises, maybe for like half an hour. I was very slim before I went into banking and I wanted to keep it that way, but I used to feel so stressed after each day at work, and so going for aerobics became a challenge and I didn’t want to fall down on the treadmill someday (laughs). That was how I put on more weight. Drinking plenty of water also helps. I try not to drink juices unless occasionally when I feel like taking sweet things. Lifestyle has a role to play in people’s looks and I think people have to study theirs because beyond looking good, good lifestyle is also capable of extending their years on earth.