Ibnu was born near the Yogyakarta Sultan's palace on 23 September 1914. His father had been a regency head near the city of Semarang in Central Java. His privileged background at the time of the colonial Dutch East Indies allowed him to attend a superior Dutch school and then medical school in Surabaya. Upon graduation, Ibnu was assigned to a colony of Javanese transmigrants in Belitung in South Sumatra. During the Japanese occupation in World War II, Ibnu, like many indigenous Indonesians filling in for imprisoned Europeans, assumed many local administrative powers. By the time of Japan's surrender, he was a leader in irregular forces backing the Indonesian Republic in its fight for independence.
In 1945, Ibnu was appointed a combined staff and medical officer of the republican army fighting the Dutch for the Palembang region's oil fields and plantations, and once Indonesia's independence was secured in 1949, he worked in the region's civilian health service whilst remaining in active army duty. He was appointed head of the South Sumatra's Sriwijaya Division in 1955, a division which earned much revenue for the army during the independence struggle by smuggling vast quantities of rubber, tea, pepper and coffee to Singapore. Although the independence struggle was over by late 1949, the lucrative trade continued, and Ibnu benefited through his wife, Zaleha, the daughter of a wealthy family who later succeeded in business in her own right.
The Army commander, General Nasution, recognised Ibnu's administrative skills and appointed him in 1956 as Chief of Logistics and subsequently added the position of chief of Operations. He returned to Palembang to talk his former troops out of joining the anti-Sukarno rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi. Ibnu's military prospects were thwarted by the 1958 Tanjung Priok smuggling scandal in which he was the main actor.
In 1957, Dutch assets in petroleum were nationalised, and Pertamina founded. General Nasution installed Sutowo as Pertamina's head. He served as Minister of Mines, Oil, and Natural Gas in President Suharto's "New Order" emergency cabinets of 1966. Sutowo's younger brother had been the Communist mayor of Surabaya, however, the New Order's promotion of Sutowo despite his Communist connections was exceptional in this period of Communist purges.
Using the proceeds from the 1970s oil price rises, he expanded the state run oil monopoly's interests far beyond oil production to include investments in oil tankers, steel and construction. Bruce Rappaport, an oil tanker broker, was accused of price gouging, and corruption, in a World Bank investigation of Ibnu and Pertamina. In 1976, Pertamina had built up debts of US$10.5 billion (equivalent to 30% of Indonesia's gross domestic product at the time) and was unable to service them. Ibnu was "dismissed with honour", and in 1978 the attorney general announced he had been found "not involved" in criminal activity. He continued to manage 37 private companies.
- McDonald (1980), p. 144.
- McDonald (1980), p. 145.
- Vickers (2005), p. 185
- Vickers (2005), p. 185.
- Schwarz (1994), p. 55
- McDonald (1980), p. 163; Schwarz (1994), p. 55; Ricklefs (1991), p. 301
- Friend (2003), p. 168
- Friend, Theodore (2003), Indonesian Destinies, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-01834-6
- McDonald, Hamish (1980), Suharto's Indonesia, Melbourne: Fontana Books, ISBN 0-00-635721-0
- Schwarz, A. (1994), A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s, Westview Press, ISBN 1-86373-635-2
- Vickers, Adrian. 2005. A History of Modern Indonesia, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press