Thought Leadership

Herbert Wigwe: A Tribute

5 Mins read

By Sani Aliyu and Chikwe Ihekweazu

As we mourn the sudden passing and celebrate the extraordinary life of Herbert Wigwe, we fondly remember a man whose impact extended far beyond his immediate constituency, the financial sector. Herbert was involved in a variety of projects and made progress in everything he touched. Leveraging his private sector expertise and dynamic leadership, Herbert brought to prominence the role of the private sector in the country’s HIV/AIDS control programme, as co-chair of the Nigeria Business Community against HIV/AIDS (NiBUCAA). However, it was the emergence of a new threat, COVID -19, that ultimately brought us together as a team.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people panicked and withdrew, while others emerged as leaders. Some quietly and others more publicly. In response to the outbreak, many innovative solutions to address the pandemic emerged, as the world grappled with a virus that threatened global stability. We saw the economies of countries that we admired weaken under the pressure. In the middle of the chaos, many remarkable initiatives took shape.

One such endeavour was the coming together of Nigeria’s largest conglomerates. This brought about the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID). Companies with different corporate objectives, came together, pooling their resources and skills to provide technical and operational support to the government’s pandemic response efforts. CACOVID quickly became an integral part of the country’s response to the escalating pandemic. Its steering committee was made up of Captains of Industry, who ensured that interventions were well- coordinated and aligned with the national response plan. Herbert was a prominent leader of this initiative and played a pivotal role in its success.

CACOVID was actively involved in several crucial areas during the pandemic, including the establishment of isolation centres, supporting the procurement of laboratory reagents, and facilitating the delivery of palliatives to states. However, one lesser known, but crucial aspect of CACOVID’s work was the establishment and management of the Nigeria International Travel Portal (NITP). In response to the economic impact of the pandemic on commercial flights, once international travel resumed, there was a need for a safe means to restart travel.

The high number of COVID-19 cases being reported in countries like the United States and United Kingdom, both popular travel destinations for Nigerians, underscored the need for caution. We needed a system that could ensure travellers were tested before arrival, isolated on entry into the country, and tested again after entry. To enable this, an online platform for managing travellers was considered necessary.

The NITP stood out as one of the world’s first travel portals, specifically designed to manage international travel traffic during the pandemic. Beyond its core role, the platform also had to provide us with essential data for tracking the contacts of identified cases. This feature required careful attention to regulatory frameworks and payment procedures. To achieve this, an extraordinary group of Nigerian leaders from the CACOVID platform, including Herbert Wigwe of Access Bank, Segun Agbaje of Guaranty Trust Bank, and Zouera Youssoufou of the Dangote Foundation convened to support us. Herbert chaired the group and personally drove most of the discussions. The CACOVID leaders and their teams brought their expertise and resources to the table, working with us at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention ( NCDC) and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19(PTF) to develop and operationalise the NITP.

Leading our technical teams, we held zoom calls with Herbert and colleagues every Thursday night. We always kicked off with some banter; the pandemic had brought us all to a level playing field. We joked about how we spent the days rushing from one screen to another, working tirelessly to keep the country moving. But we quickly got down to work, tackling agenda items diligently and comprehensively. During these few hours every Thursday, we were privileged to experience Herbert’s unique style, respectful, never overbearing, yet always focused on the end goal. While NCDC was already hosting an array of digital services, managing a platform that would generate such a high volume of daily traffic all year round from around the globe was unprecedented; so, this one was special.

Herbert generously made available the resources of Access Bank’s technical team, to support us in developing the backend technological infrastructure required for processing the identification, verification, and payments for intending travellers from all over the world. This system connected users to particular private laboratories around the country where the actual testing was performed. Working with the NCDC IT team, the Access Bank team diligently worked in the background, never claiming credit or demanding attention. As with any major IT project, technical challenges emerged along the way. Yet the team never complained, instead working swiftly with us to resolve each problem and prevent recurrence.

Given the urgency of the circumstances, we were unable to conduct extensive testing before going live. We publicly acknowledged any glitches and worked to enhance the system, eventually transforming the travel portal into a valuable resource that facilitated international travel for Nigeria. We would not have been able to safely resume international flight operations at the time we did without the invaluable support of Herbert’s technical team.

The success of the NITP restored confidence in the system. Following our example, many countries around the world adopted a similar model aimed at supporting the restoration of international travel. We took pride in being the pioneers of this initiative. The rapid development and deployment of NITP demonstrated the power of collaboration and highlighted the critical role of the private sector in addressing public sector priorities.

As the country gradually recovered from the pandemic, we both returned to the business of securing the health of populations, while staying in touch with Herbert. Despite his continuous commitment to improving public health, as seen by his prominent role in founding and chairing the Nigeria’s HIV Trust Fund, it quickly became clear that his attention had shifted to other pressing priorities. In recent months, we reconnected with Herbert regarding his newest project; Wigwe University. The experience of the pandemic continued to weigh heavily on his mind.

As the country comes to terms with a future without Herbert Wigwe, he has left a wealth of indicators for what it will take to build the country of our dreams. His vision, energy, resilience, and strength of character infused dynamism to the national COVID-19 response and paved the way for a more confident public health system for the country. To depart with his life partner and first son, is pain too hard to imagine. Yet, despite our immense sorrow, Herbert left us all with something invaluable.

In the words of Sufi Epigram, “When the heart grieves over what is has lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left.” Though Herbert may have departed, his generous spirit lives on. We should find solace in those things he left behind, using it as a guiding light to create a less fearful future. He will like that.
Rest in Peace Herbert, Chizoba, Chizzy

Dr Sani Aliyu was the former Director General, National Agency for the Control of Aids (NACA) & National Co-ordinator PTF -COVID. Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu was the former Director General, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and currently Assistant DG World Health Organization.

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