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Ifie Sekibo: 57 garlands for the astute banker saving Niger Delta culture

Sometime in the early 2000s, a group of students in Etche Local Government Area (LGA) of Rivers State made a startling discovery. They found that a few elders in the villages of Ikwewengwo and Umuebulu spoke a unique language distinct from Etche, the Igboid language of the Area.

This “newly discovered” language, as far as the students could tell, was non-Igboid.

It was called Oʼchiʼchiʼ (Ọchịchị) and presumed to be an extinct Central Delta language of Nigeria.

Unfortunately, not much progress has been made in documenting the language.

A University of Port Harcourt team that arrived in the area soon afterwards were unable to collect much data on Oʼchiʼchiʼ.

From the few words collected, Ọchịchị appears to be related to Obulom, a Central Delta language in turn related to Abuan.

It is likely that Oʼchiʼchiʼ is already one of the 50 Nigerian languages that experts say could be facing extinction in less than 100 years.

If Oʼchiʼchiʼ is to survive, it would take a determined effort to save it, such as that being spearheaded by a man I respect so much for his reputation as a turnaround expert; he is Dr. Ifie Sekibo, the Managing Director of Heritage Bank who turns 57 on April 18.

In the last few years, I have followed Sekibo’s passion for culture. He has been championing a campaign to save Niger Delta languages and culture, a development, which has seen him sponsoring the publication of books in Niger Delta languages. He has also single-handedly supported Seki, a Niger Delta dance.

After the successful launch of “Speak Izon” language, Sekibo, who said he stumbled on the idea of converting the English language to local dialects, sponsored Niger Delta Books Limited to launch an audio CD in the Kirike language, (Okrika dialect) titled ‘Speak Kirike’ which was successfully launched in 2017.

In January 2021, Sekibo championed the launch of a book titled “Let us speak Ikwerre”, (A KWU IWNUROHHNA), in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital.

The book was originally written in English language by its author Oyintarela Ebiere Umeri. Through Sekibo’s efforts, it was translated to Ikwerre -an Igboid language (or Igbo dialect) – by Tony Enyia, an indigene of Rumuor-Ogbakari, Emohua Local Government of Rivers State.

As to his interest in the writing of books in all Niger Delta languages during the launch of ‘Let us speak Ikwerre’, he said it was borne out of his belief that Nigerians must not allow their local dialects to become extinct.

Sekibo said: “The idea of converting English to our local dialect wasn’t mine, I stumbled into it by chance. I was invited by my bosom friend, Timi Alaibe to the launching of Izon fie, a book written in the Izon language, so I felt if people can think of printing books in the Ijaw language, why we can’t do the same for all Niger/Delta languages? And I decided at the event that I would be ready to fund or sponsor the production of these printable books in our language. Not just Izon but in all Niger/Delta languages.

“So, I decided to set out with languages in Rivers and Bayelsa states. So, we did Kirike Fie which is the dialect of Okrika in Rivers state and I found out it was very successful, so I decided to give sponsorship for other languages which include Ikwerre, Kalabari, Ekpeye, Nembe and Ogoni languages”.

He identified a need for children to speak their local dialects adding that the only way this could be done successfully other than speaking at home is to introduce English books into the local dialects.

To make more local dialect books available, he sponsored the Niger Delta Books Limited to develop and publish books in some local languages, adding that there is still a need to publish more in other local dialects like Kalabari, Nembe, and several other dialects of Niger Delta.

“We need to act fast before our dialects go into extinction. So, we plan to introduce the books in other local dialects of different states across the Niger Delta, at least before the second quarter of 2021, we should have been able to achieve six other languages”.

But making the books available in different local languages, was not enough to preserve it.
Sekibo realized that there was a need to get the youths to read and use same.

On ‘Let us speak Ikwerre’, he said their ambition was to put a copy of the book into the hands of all Ikwerre students, noting at the time that no fewer than 10,000 copies were needed to achieve that feat

“One of the things we have done is that these books are to be distributed and given free to all the schools and colleges…

“When my son greets me in my dialect, which is Okrika, it is a great deal for me. So, we as parents need to encourage them in speaking our dialects. Some of the children would love to speak but they do not have access to reference books that will help them. This is one of the major reasons we took it upon ourselves to support this cause”.

This explains why he joined other private citizens to support the call for local dialects to be taught in schools, nothing that most youths, due to parental or societal influence, feel the English language is superior to their indigenous languages.

Interestingly, Sekibo’s Ph.D. is not in linguistics, rather he has a degree in accountancy from the University of Science & Technology, Port Harcourt, is an alumnus of Harvard Business School OPM Class (2006-2009) and has a PhD in Credit Management from the London Post Graduate Credit Management College, UK, an affiliate of American University, London.

He is also a Member and Fellow of a number of professional institutes including the Institute of Directors; Institute of Petroleum, London; Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, Nigerian Institute of Management; Institute of Credit Administration and Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria
Sekibo, who was born April 18, 1965, is the pioneer and currently the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Managing Director of Heritage Bank, a position he has held since 2012. He is also reputed for turning a moribund business into profitability.

His passion for saving languages and culture is perhaps an offshoot his competence in saving business and making them thrive.

From starting his career as an Auditor 11 with the Rivers State government’s Audit department in 1988, Sekibo flourished and switched to KPMG and then other firms until 2003 when he became the Executive Vice-Chairman of International Energy Insurance Plc, IEI, a position he held till 2009 when he led another team of professionals that nurtured the re-birth of the erstwhile Societe Generale Bank (SGB) into an innovative commercial bank with regional authorization called Heritage Banking Company Limited as the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer. In 2014, against all odds, he led the bank to acquire Enterprise Bank and got a national license from the Central Bank of Nigeria to operate nationwide bigger, better, and stronger Heritage Bank. Headquartered in Lagos, the bank has grown to 127 branches, 202 automated banking centres and 350 ATMs across the country, it has also won several awards including Best SME Bank in Nigeria by Capital Finance International (CFI) 2018, Agriculture Bank of the Year at Nigeria Agriculture Awards (NAA) 2018, among others.

Sekibo has been involved in mentoring the youths over the years despite his busy schedules, and has led several business forums for entrepreneurs and mentorship sessions both within Nigeria and outside Nigeria.

His passion for youth mentorship is hinged on his belief that it is the pathway to the economic development of the country and the African continent.

As he marks his birthday, all I wish this great Nigerian and quintessential banker, culture lover and entrepreneur are more years of purposeful leadership, good health, and everything good.

Sadiq, a public commentator, sent this piece from Lagos.