The news came like a bolt from the blue on a Sunday morning. Ibidun, wife of Pastor Ituah Ighodalo, had passed away in Port Harcourt in the early hours of Sunday, June 14 just before she clocked her 40th birthday. My long time sister, family, friend and associate, Debbie Akindele-Ojo, a fashion and beauty entrepreneur, called me but I missed her call. She left a note: call me. The note sounded urgent. In my mind, I sensed something was amiss but I could not figure it out.
I returned Debbie’s call immediately only to find out she was crying and heartbroken. “What is the matter?” I asked her, worried and confused. “Why are you crying? I managed to ask as I wasn’t sure what was going on. Debbie then struggled to break the news to me: “Have you heard? Ibidun Ighodalo is dead.” As I was absorbing the devastating news, Debbie was still sobbing and in a muffled voice, she said, “I’ll call you back.” I called my wife immediately to let her know I did not have good news for her. “Oh no, it can’t be true,” my wife screamed when I broke the news of Ibidun’s death. “What happened?” At this time, I didn’t have an answer to my wife’s question. My wife also called Debbie and they consoled each other.
Shortly afterwards, the news of Ibidun’s demise was confirmed by a family statement and social media was set on fire with fond tributes. Ibidun and her ever-dependable team at Elizabeth R, a premium event management company she founded in 2003, were setting up marquees as isolation centres for some state governments. Ibidun executes every contract dutifully and leaves nothing to chance. She was exemplary in character and leadership. Until her untimely death, Ibidun was working in Port Harcourt.
I always struggle to write about good people in the past tense. Ibidun was a good person and a great mind. When Debbie and I spoke later after about an hour, I told her we lost an Angel. In 1998 as the head consultant of PR Dimensions, my colleagues and I organised the first-ever Lux Beauty Pageant for Unilever Nigeria Plc (then known as Lever Brothers Nigeria Plc). As part of the event management plan, we inaugurated a screening committee for photo entries received for the contest.
I invited Debbie, owner of Everywoman — a fashion shop for women on Opebi Road, Ikeja, Lagos — to join the committee. Ibidun Ajayi – as she then was — made the final shortlist of 10 contestants. The grand finale of the beauty pageant held at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos and Ibidun, an undergraduate of the University of Lagos at the time, won the contest. It was a spectacular night that was full of glitz and glamour. Top Lagos socialite and award-winning actor, Richard Mofe-Damijo, emceed the show and he delivered a class act to an appreciative and distinguished audience. Ibidun was crowned as the maiden Lux beauty queen in a night that I was sure was memorable for her. I remember Ibidun saying to me after the event that she was not expecting to win as one of the youngest contestants.
One of the prizes for the Lux Queen was a safari trip to Kenya. It was a delegation of four persons that made the trip: Ibidun; Julie, her chaperon (from my office); Julius Agenmonmen, Personal Care Products Manager of Unilever at the time and me. John Mugo of blessed memory (he died in a plane crash) was Area Manager of Kenya Airways back in 1998. When I told him of our trip to Nairobi with the Lux Queen, he promptly provided four complimentary tickets.
It turned out to be a memorable experience as we journeyed to Masai Mara with tour guides for the safari including posing for photographs with Masai warriors. That was how a long-standing relationship began between Ibidun and members of the organising committee of the Lux beauty pageant. It was a relationship I treasured over the years. Upon hearing the news of Ibidun’s death, Mercy Nwosu, our family friend who lives in Houston, USA, called my wife. Mercy was the first runner-up of the beauty pageant that Ibidun won. “I’m still in shock,” Mercy told me when my wife handed the phone over to me. “Ibidun was too young to die. A long time ago, I told Ibidun that she could make a great career out of event planning because my mother was into the business. I’m glad she followed her heart and built a phenomenal and successful event company,” Mercy said.
Ibidun was beautiful, soft-spoken, humble, respectful, diligent, talented and friendly. She had a generous spirit and inspired young people who saw her as role model; they wanted to be like her. From the outpouring of tributes in some blogs to honour Ibidun, even those who were not close to her admired her strength of character, creativity, philanthropy and entrepreneurship. Ibidun called me “Uncle Ehi” as a mark of respect for our friendship. During her reign as a beauty queen, Ibidun made life easy for everyone – she did not carry unnecessary airs; her conduct and attitude showed great promise.
The fact that she was a beauty queen and campus celebrity did not get into her head — it was a reflection of her graciousness, strong family values and humility. Debbie and Ibidun became very close after she won the beauty pageant. “Ibidun was God-fearing; she was beautiful inside and outside,” Debbie told me when we spoke on the phone. “Everybody in my family loved her. We forged a remarkable friendship because of her sincerity and honesty. Ibidun called me her mentor and we were able to spend time together at my place, especially on weekends, when she was still a student at Unilag,” Debbie recalled. As Lux Beauty Queen, we ensured that Ibidun’s routine was flexible enough to accommodate her academic calendar at the University of Lagos. When Unilever gave us the green light to start the second edition of the Lux beauty pageant, Ibidun was very supportive and available to play her role until she crowned her successor, Ifeoma Williams (nee Njoku).
Together with Debbie and Joan Ibuzo, an associate and outstanding pageant director of Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria, we registered Queenafrik International 20 years ago to organise another beauty pageant with an African focus. We wasted no time inviting Ibidun and she happily joined the organising committee without any hassle.
Ibidun eventually established herself successfully as a renowned event planner. As chief executive of Elizabeth R, Ibidun displayed an amazing passion for innovation and hard work. She was painstaking and her company was highly sought after for high profile events by the rich and famous. By applying strategic positioning principles, Ibidun built an event planning brand that became number one in the mind in that category.
She was also known as the “Queen of Decoration” on account of the contract award to Elizabeth R from the Lagos state government when Babatunde Raji Fashola (now Minister of Works and Housing) was governor to decorate Lagos and give it a festive ambience for Christmas. Her brief was to beautify Lagos and she did well. Ibidun always wanted the best for her clients and worried about little details; she usually went beyond her brief to do more. Ibidun also loved fashion and style. Her dress sense was creative and remarkable – this could be due to her background as a former beauty queen.
Debo Adebayo runs a management consultancy and Elizabeth R is one of his clients. “I have been working with Ibidun now for close to three years,” recalls Adebayo who is also a Fellow of the National Institute of Marketing of Nigeria (NIMN). “I’m still devastated by the news of her death. Ibidun was a good person with a kind heart and she was always willing to lend a helping hand. The staff was very fond of Ibidun and they called her “Mama” because of her leadership style, management skills, discipline and kindness.
“Ibidun had a warm and pleasant personality; she was caring, friendly and humble. She treated everyone like a family but sometimes during management retreats, we teased her as a “Drama Queen” and we would all laugh together. Ibidun was always calm and confident but when she was offended and angry, you will know in spite of her friendly disposition. Our role as consultants to Elizabeth R is purely business strategy for the company and we design a road map to execute the strategy,” Adebayo said.
Everyone I know is shocked at the passing of Ibidun who would have marked her 40th birthday on July 19. Her death shows how fleeting every moment is in this world. “The news of Ibidun’s death is humbling,” Cynthia Yinkere, who also knows Ibidun, told me. “She made her mark and her death truly reminds us of our mortality,” Cynthia added. There was no chance to say even last minute goodbyes. Ibidun lived a worthy life and she will always be remembered as a humanist and care giver. She also expressed great love for children. Ibidun had her own fair share of life’s challenges but she endured them and soldiered on, putting all her hopes and trust in God.
As an amazing philanthropist who loved to touch lives positively, she set up the Ibidunni Ighodalo Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation, to encourage and support couples on their fertility journey based on her own experience. Ibidun is survived by her husband, Pastor Ituah Ighodalo, Senior Pastor at Trinity House Church; her daughter Keke and Zenan, her son. Both Keke and Zenan were adopted after her struggle with infertility. No doubt, this is a difficult period but my prayer is that God Almighty will grant Pastor Ighodalo and the entire family the fortitude to bear this great loss. Adieu Ibidun!
–Braimah is a public relations and marketing strategist based in Lagos