Tribute to Herbert Wigwe, an African finance icon and philanthropist

As CEO of Access Bank and Access Holdings, he saw to the company's rejuvenation and rise to a modern financial institution with footprints across Africa

Tribute to Herbert Wigwe, an African finance icon and philanthropist
Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe CFR

During the late hours of yesterday (10th February, 2024), news spread that one of the most influential figures in the Nigerian business scene, Dr. Herbert Wigwe CFR, the founding Group Chief Executive Officer of Access Holdings and former Group Managing Director of Access Bank Plc, was involved in a fatal airborne accident in the United States. 

Upon sending shock waves both abroad and home, the development went viral on social media, at the least stirring curiosity regarding the authenticity of its said cause. Sources close to, as well as secondary reports, have confirmed the incident. 

What happened?

Herbert, who is best known as the CEO of Access Bank, was in a helicopter transit with five others (including members of his own family) when the aircraft suffered a technical difficulty and crashed somewhere in California

The chopper designated as Eurocopter EC 130 was en route to Boulder City, Nevada from Palm Springs, but crashed near Nipton, an unincorporated community in the Ivanpah Valley in San Bernardino County. 

Others involved in the accident have been identified as his wife, his son, erstwhile Chairman of Nigerian Exchange Group Plc Abimbola Ogunbanjo, and two yet unnamed others.

While investigating the root cause of the helicopter mishap, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a statement confirming that there were no survivors found on the scene. 

“We were made aware of a downed aircraft at approximately 10:12 p.m., on February 9, 2024. The scene of the crash was determined to be east of the 15-Freeway, near Halloran Springs Road,” the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said.

As the reason for the accident remains vague, the United States National Transportation Board has deployed an investigative team to look into the occurrence and provide much-needed answers. 

Access Bank is yet to release an explainer on the matter but has briefed the public with the above update.

A force in finance 

Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe, born on August 15, 1966 in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, is easily one of the most popular persons in the Nigerian (and by extension African) financial industry. 

With an accountancy degree from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), his professional career kicked off at Coopers & Lybrand Associates, a cross-border organization of chartered accountants. 

Shortly after this, he joined Guaranty Trust Bank Plc, where he spent a decade managing several portfolios for financial institutions, big corporations, and multinational entities. 

Herbert eventually left GT Bank in 2002 to lend a hand in leading the revamp of Access Bank, one of the top five financial institutions in the country. He joined as Deputy Managing Director, and on the back of his efforts, was promoted to Group Managing Director/CEO in 2014. 

Dr. Wigwe oversaw affairs at Access Bank up until 2022, when (in May) he was made a non-executive director. Under his watch, Access Bank transitioned to a holding company and a modern financial services provider with a pan-African purview. 

On the back of its holdco status, in September 2022, Access Bank was able to launch Hydrogen, a CBN-licensed digital payments platform. It went on to get approval to launch Oxygen X, a standalone consumer lending subsidiary.

Herbert also spearheaded the Bank's expansion, acquiring shareholding in Diamond Bank, Intercontinental Bank, Megatech Insurance Brokers Limited, Zambia's Atlas Mara, African Banking Corporation of Botswana, Angola's Finibanco, and a host of other financial outfits both home and elsewhere on the continent. 

Mr. Wigwe served as the Chairman of Access Bank (Ghana), Access Investment & Securities Limited, Central Securities and Clearing System (CSCS) and Chairman of Access Bank (UK) Limited and Unified Payments Services Limited.

He was also a board member of Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Company and part of the advisory board for Friends Africa, which provides personal and social development opportunities for the young.

Real-world impact

Outside finance, Wigwe's mark is still evident. As a philanthropic, in 2016 he set up The How Foundation, a non-profit social enterprise vested in enhancing African livelihoods through impact-first programs in partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

Along the lines of giving back to society and love for education, he disclosed last year his intentions to build a tertiary academic institution in his hometown, Isiokpo.

Called Wigwe University, the school, touted as an African first in the Ivy League category is set to open in September 2024. The tycoon invested $500 million on the institution in November 2023.

In a team with Access Bank and UNICEF, Wigwe supports vulnerable children, orphans, and displaced individuals in parts of northern Nigeria. To spread word on the cause, the collaborators hold the Access Bank/UNICEF Charity Shield Polo, annually.

With the aegis of the Bank, in 2008 he established the W Initiative to raise, groom, support, and overall empower Nigerian women via capacity building and finance-accessing programs.

His works have earned him various awards, including the 2016 Banker of The Year by The Sun and Vanguard newspapers, two of Nigeria's biggest newspaper publications.

Herbert Wigwe's professional and extracurricular achievements will outlive him, and his legacy will remain indelible. Our hearts go out to all those affected by the loss.

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