There are some passages which make the bones to creak and rumble with intimations of mortality. There are some deaths that ignite speculations about the promise of the past and of a great future firmly behind. Some passages speak to the utter despondency of the times, and the needless waste of priceless human assets.With the death of Alfred Ilenre last month, Nigeria has lost one of its most consistent and impassioned advocates of genuine federalism and equality of opportunity for all Nigerians. The struggle seemed to have defined his existence. He lived this struggle for a better Nigeria and breathed it till the very last moment.
Yet unlike many in his shoes, Ilenre never sought to personally profit from the onerous and back-breaking labour to make Nigeria a better place. Even the official titles which rightly accrued to him as a result of distinguished service he bore with such casual indifference that it could easily have been mistaken for a joke. He was a man who carried self-depreciation to its ultimate logic.
Quiet, self-possessed, self-erasing and ultimately self-sacrificing, he could always be found in the trenches when and where it mattered most and no matter the personal cost and inconvenience. The expanding vista of that struggle to redeem Nigeria and the huge opportunity cost left no room for equivocation or ambiguity. A man of simple taste and without airs or affectations, it was the content and sheer heft of his contribution that mattered most rather their form or outward ornamentation.
Alfred had been at it for a long time. Despite his humble mien, he was a man of granite determination and muscular resolve. Nothing was going to stop or deter him in his bid to make Nigeria a better and more humane place for its harried denizens. He was there as an intrepid reporter at The Tribune in Ibadan in the heydays of the struggle against political tyranny and as the battle crystallized in the seventies against arbitrary military rule.
Ilenre also participated in the epic resistance against the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election known to have been won by the Yoruba billionaire business mogul, MKO Abiola. He was there in the struggle by the Ogoni people for economic and political self-determination led by his bosom friend and beloved comrade in arms, Kenule Saro-Wiwa who eventually paid the supreme price along with eight of his colleagues.
As the battle to rescue Nigeria took on a conceptual and intellectual hue, particularly with the growing concern about the shape and structure of the nation, Ilenre was in his true elements serving in the uppermost echelons of the Movement for National Reformation(MNR) led by the iconic nationalist, Chief Anthony Enahoro, EMIROAF as secretary, MOSOP as Saro-Wiwa’s ideological soul mate, NADECO as a home-based leader and in the PRONACO bid to put advocates of unitarism and rigid centralization on the spot.
It was a noble life devoted to permanent struggle. The last time this columnist saw the federalist notable was at the symposium to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the assassination of Chief Bola Ige held at the Airport Hotel in Ikeja, Lagos at the tail end of December last year. For this writer, it was a bitterly ironic moment. While the political acolytes of the late statesman were nowhere to be seen, it was the likes of Ilenre who kept his memory alive.
As usual, Alfred Ilenre was sitting quietly and anonymously among the crowd and did not come forward until the tail end of the proceedings to felicitate with friends and old colleagues of the timeless barricades. Snooper noticed then that the great man was frail and obviously ailing. The fire had gone out but he remained as militant and defiant of evil authorities as usual. Three weeks after, he slipped out of the ring for the final time. The Edo-born nobleman had joined his ancestors as quietly and without fanfare as he had lived.
The lack of airs and self-importance can sometimes lead to comic embarrassment. In a society where perception overwhelms reality and where self-projection and self-positioning are all that matter, people like Ilenre can suffer double jeopardy: unrecognised and unrecognisable.
To this columnist’s utter embarrassment, Alfred was once detained in front of his house on the suspicion of wandering. Yours sincerely was roused out of bed to disown the intruder who was claiming professional kinship with him. Lo, it was Alfred Ilenre sitting quietly on a cement slab and eyeing his tormentors with a faraway look of superior compassion.
When snooper upbraided the uniformed urchins for embarrassing his former boss, they all slunk away in different directions with looks of incredulity. As if nothing had happened, Alfred went straight to the business at hand. He must have grown used to being embarrassed by the same people he had spent a lifetime fighting for.
It is important to reveal that Ilenre was not in the house on a self-serving or self-saving mission. He was a proud and defiant Ishan nobleman till the very end. He never for once drew attention to his own plight however seemingly parlous. As usual with him, he came at the behest of a beloved friend and mutual acquaintance who was in dire medical straits. The person in question was also snooper’s older friend and mentor during the turbulent days at The Tribune at the turn of the seventies. Such was this man’s nobility of purpose and compassion.
Nigeria wastes its most gifted children. This country sacrifices its best and brightest, making sure that those who survive are nothing but walking apparitions and political calamities. Nigeria destroys its talented ten and first eleven, its most visionary and most humanly evolved scions at the altar of a dysfunctional nation and an even more dysfunctional post-colonial state.
For people like Ilenre and their beloved country, the past was far more promising. Our paths first crossed at very beginning of the seventies at The Nigerian Tribune newspaper, then at Adeoyo in Ibadan. While snooper was just starting out as a cub and mere ammunition boy, Ilenre was already established as an ace investigative reporter.
Although the military coup had disbanded the warring children of Oduduwa about four years earlier, The Tribune still looked very much like a war camp, a redoubt of political insurgency or the Headquarters of political hara-kiri brimming with journalistic suicide squads, recuperating political hit-men, intellectual snipers, enforcing auxiliaries and domestic storm troopers.
These were hard men. It was a common sight to espy amulets and dangerous charms dangling ominously from rumpled pockets. A fellow in the production department known by the nickname of Alekuso was said to have seen action during the early days of Adelabu and the Mabolaje Grand Alliance. Openly defiant and contemptuous of authority, Alekuso’s pocket bristled with all kinds of fireworks like a hunter on an expedition: matches, lighters or what is known in local parlance as monrasana, pellets, flints and other local conductors of thunder and electricity. He must have been a travelling freelance arsonist in an earlier incarnation.
It was impossible to work in that environment without fully subscribing to the Awo cause and credo. The atmosphere smelt Awo, breathed Awo and spoke Awo. It was ideological mobilization at its most potent and unyielding, underwritten by the old Action Group war-cry of permanent and eternal vigilance: “Gbogbo’ gba e standby….” Like the epic personage that he was, the spirit of Awo suffused the place but Awo himself was nowhere to be found. It was eerily reminiscent of Bakayoko, the hero and presiding deity of Sembene Ousmane’s novel, God’s Bits of Wood.
The siege mentality was nurtured and encouraged by burgeoning signs of military dictatorship. Although the combustible west had known relative peace and stability in four years of military rule, there were still some flashpoints of civil disorder such as the Agbekoya rural uprising which metastasised into the urban terrorism that saw to the summary decapitation of the reigning Shoun, or paramount traditional ruler of Ogbomosho.
This was the social and political milieu in which Alfred Ilenre rose to reportorial stardom and which also shaped his later national prominence and visibility as a militant advocate and staunch campaigner for civil rights and self-determination for ethnic nationalities. He never looked back from that moment.
Just as it was said of Karl Marx that he needed a sustained sojourn in a socially and industrially more advanced country like England in order to grasp the full contradictions of capitalism at work, Ilenre’s sustained immersion in the political and economic dynamics of the old west and its epicentre must have furnished him with insights as to how the most economically and politically advanced section of a country can be imperilled under the baleful spell of unitary federalism.
Despite the loss of some of its most illustrious pathfinders in recent decades, the struggle to redeem Nigeria must proceed apace until victory is won. Alfred Ilenre has fought a good fight and has gone home to his maker. May his kind and noble soul find eternal peace.