Nigeria, nay Africa and the global diplomatic community, has lost a titan in the person of Ambassador Joe Tonye Fubara Iyalla OFR, fondly called JTF or Joe Iyalla. He passed on in the early hours of January 30, 2019, at the ripe age of 90. A diplomat of diplomats, envoy of envoys and ambassador extraordinaire, Joe Iyalla stood tall in the diplomatic community and his influence towered through Nigeria’s Foreign Service and Business circles. My late father, Mr. Emmanuel E. Ihua was an Associate of Amb Iyalla, and served under him for 22 years as Group General Manager to his group of companies, in his post-service life. I grew up knowing Ambassador as my father’s boss. It is therefore my distinct honour and privilege to pay tribute to this illustrious African diplomat, and to honour the friendship and mentoring that my late father enjoyed, learning at his feet.
From very humble beginnings, this Bakana-born diplomat, of Kalabari heritage in Rivers state Nigeria, bestrode the world like a colossus and etched his name in gold across the global diplomatic pedestal. This wasn’t to come as a surprise given the sheer genuis, exceptional intelligence and academic prowess displayed by young Joe through his early education, to the amazement of his family members and teachers. My father once recounted a story Ambassador shared with him. Young Joe must have been about 8 years old at the time, and was on a boat ride from Bakana to Abonema with a relative of his. He sat quietly readinga novel on the Boat, and flipping through the pages. To the surprise of his relative, he read the novel from cover to cover in record time. But beyond that, and to the utter astonishment of everyone on the boat, the young Joe began reciting word for word, all he had read from the novel, from beginning to the end. Yes, he was exceptionally intelligent from a tender age!!
From his days at Okrika Grammar School, to Yaba College and then Nigeria’s premier University, University College Ibadan, as pioneer set, his innate brilliance beamed strong, as he always came top of his league; even amongst mates like the late Cicero of Esa-Oke, Chief Bola Ige. Armed with a BA in Classics, and specialization in Latin, Amb Iyalla began his career as an Administrative Officer in the Office of Chief Secretary for Nigeria, before joining Nigeria’s Foreign Service and rising through the ranks. Being a golden fish that couldn’t hide, in 1964 he was moved to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) as Assistant Secretary General, and by 1966 he was appointed Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations. In 1968 he was moved to Washington as Nigeria’s Ambassador to the United States of America, where he played a key role in garnering global support for Nigeria’s civil war. He was later redeployed back home and appointed Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs in 1972, where he remained until his premature exit from the service in 1975, occasioned by the palace coup which ousted General Yakubu Gowon and brought in Brigadier Murtala Muhammed.
Amb Iyalla was one of Nigeria’s exalted Super Permanent Secretaries of the 1970s, who were confronted with the enviable task of fashioning out a policy framework for the war time and post-war Nigeria, along with his ilks- Allison Ayida, Jerome Udoji, Ahmed Joda, Leslie Harriman, Philip Asiodu, and Ibrahim Damcida amongst others. Until his death, Ambassador Iyalla was considered one of the doyens of Nigeria’s Foreign Service and the crème de la crème of the ex-diplomatic corps, in the league of Simeon Adebo, Olujimi Jolaosho, Isa Wali, Olumide Omololu, Sule Kolo and Aminu Sanusi (father of the current Emir of Kano, HRH Mohammed Sanusi II). In the past few weeks, I have read several published tributes written in honour of Amb Joe Iyalla and his life as a first class Diplomat; but there’s been very little on his post-service life. Therefore, I have decided to focus my tribute on his life after service; particularly, life as an astute business man and entrepreneur.
After his life at the Foreign Service, Amb Iyalla spent considerable time in business; first as an investor in shares and stocks, and secondly, as a business man. Amb Iyalla was a guru in trading shares and stocks, and remained a major player in Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE) until his death. He held significant shares in most, if not all, of the major blue chip companies trading on the NSE. Besides, he was a major shareholder and Permanent Director of Nigerian Bottling Company Plc. I also recall that he was a good friend of Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, founder of Ragolis Table Water; and at a time, Ambassador wouldn’t drink any other bottled water besides Ragolis! Interestingly, Amb Iyalla personally taught my father how to trade in shares and stocks, and that was something that gave him joy, especially when healthy bonuses and dividends were been declared by quoted companies. He would go like “E.E. have you heard that Texaco has just declared 20 Kobo per share dividend?” The implication of such declaration for Ambassador could only be imagined, given the quantum of shares he owned in such companies.
Amb Iyalla had a special fondness for the Danish, and I believe it was due to his longstanding friendship with Danish Ambassador-at-large and Entrepreneur, Ambassador Erik Emborg, founder of the Emborg Group, headquartered in Copenhagen Denmark. Iyalla and Emborg were very close business partners and their relationship birthed several business interests and investments in Nigeria. In the late 60s Amb Iyalla supported the Emborg Group to establish Fan Milk, one of Nigeria’s leading ice cream and yoghurt manufacturing companies. It was therefore not surprising when sometime in the 80s there was a spurious claim that Fan Milk was owned by Francis Arthur Nzeribe, alleging that F.A.N. were Nzeribe’s initials; it was Amb. Iyalla, who dug-up archival records to clear the air and quell the mischief makers. Again, Iyalla and Emborg founded DanAfrik (short for Danish Africa), an agro-business company, which started out by importing unprocessed dairy products from Denmark, and supplying to local manufacturers of processed dairy products such as evaporated milk, yoghurt, and ice cream. Similarly, with Iyalla’s influence, Emborg won the contract to build Otta Farms in Ogun state, under President Obasanjo’s Green Revolution of the 70s. The initial idea was to start with Otta, as a prototype Farm, which would then be replicated across the six geo-political zones. Sadly, the project was short-lived.
Amb Iyalla also partnered with Emborg to establish Scanwater Nigeria Limited in the late 70s. In fact, in the 80s, Scanwater was to Nigeria’s Water Engineering sector, what Julius Berger is today to Road Construction. The company managed several high profile water projects across the country, such as the Surulere, Agege, Ikorodu, Shomolu and Shasha Water Works in Lagos state, as well as the Abonema, Degema, Bonny and Okrika Water Works in Rivers state, to list a few. Till today, Scanwater is still managed by Ambassador’s son, Dr. Apiribo Iyalla. In addition, Iyalla and Emborg also established Cerekem Nigeria Limited in the 80s. I recall they got the contract to build the production plant for Jos International Breweries, makers of Rock Lager beer, and provided technical support to Consolidated Breweries Agbara, makers of Hi-Malt and Maltex.
Also in the 80s, Amb Iyalla raised One Million Pounds from partners in the United Kingdom to establish Merchant Bank of Africa (MBA), where he served as Chairman. MBA was one of the licensed indigenous Merchant banks established to support trade and investment in the sub-region. I recall that Mr. Jim Ovia, Founder and Chairman of Zenith Bank Plc, was one of the pioneer staff headhunted at the time, to join MBA. Sadly, poor economic policies under the military regimes negatively impacted the fortunes of the Bank and it was delisted in the 90s. I recall Ambassador was detained for a short period at the state CID Office Panti, under Sani Abacha’s failed bank tribunal. However, he was soon released and given a clean bill of health after investigations proved he was completely innocent and had nothing to answer. Ambassador soon bounced back and continued managing his other business interests to the admiration of colleagues from business community and academia. He was bestowed honorary doctorate degrees by the University of Ibadan, his alma mater, and University of Port-Harcourt. By the mid-90s, the economy was weak, and things had slowed down a bit. His private office was managed by a small team led by my father- E. E. Ihua, alongside Mr. Solomon Dokubo, Mr. Nathaniel and Mr. Jimoh, who served as his driver for donkey’s years.
Ambassador was a lover of Jazz and Classical music; and was a keen supporter of the Muson Centre Lagos. He was quite cosmopolitan, and belonged to a few of the elite Lagos Clubs, like Motor Boat Club, Island Club and Metropolitan Club. I recall my father often accompanied him for a bottle or two, to calm their nerves after work. Ambassador never forgot his roots. He was a real Kalabari man, spoke the language fluently, and often visited Bakana. He was really close to Chief Keagan Igbanibo Braide, who had the honour of naming me at birth, and was later installed Amayanabo of Bakana. Under Iyalla, my father sharpened his Kalabari skills, as they switched in and out of Kalabari for frequent tête-à-têtes.
One of Ambassador’s happiest days was the day his son, Apiribo, graduated with a PhD from Oxford in the 90s. It was talk-of-the-town in my home for months. It made my father resolute that I got my PhD from the United Kingdom as well. So when it was time for me to leave Nigeria for further studies abroad, my father remembered Iyalla’s mortal words: “education is the greatest legacy you can give to your children, E.E. do your best to give your children the best”. From the shares he had accumulated under Ambassador’s tutelage, he brought out his Union Bank share certificates and paid a visit to Mr Beede Ogujiuba, his Stock Broker, to help dispose the shares. As God would have it, the money was enough to make my initial tuition deposit and purchase my flight ticket. My father was in high spirit, convinced that if Apiribo could do it, I too could. So fast-forward to 2011, on that faithful day, when I rang home to inform Dad that I had just passed my viva; he screamed out with so much excitement. You could only imagine his joy and fulfillment. Perhaps, only to be compared with how Ambassador felt the day his son passed his viva.
Amb Iyalla was kind, large hearted and generous, sometimes to a fault; and his office on the 9th Floor, Western House on Broad Street Lagos, was a Mecca of sorts to many of his Kalabari kinsmen, JBs and people from all walks of life seeking one form of assistance or the other. He was urbane, debonair and witty, with a telegraphic memory that had the ability of processing information at an amazing speed. He had a knack for remembering names and faces, and was at home in Cape Town, as he was in Cairo, which endeared people to him like a magnet.
Ambassador JTF Iyalla was laid to rest in March 6, 2019, and he was survived by his children and lovely wife Mrs. Mabel Iyalla. There’s absolutely no doubt he was one of the brightest minds and greatest Nigerian that ever lived. As you join the host of heaven, please say me well to E.E., your loyal associate and my beloved father. Men like Joe Iyalla can never die. Their spirits live forever. Adieu Ambassador!
Dr. Ihua holds a PhD in Management from University of Kent, Canterbury, United Kingdom. He is an Opinion Polling & Social Research Expert, and writes from Abuja.