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Alfred Ilenre: A salute to commitment



Amidst deepening crisis of governance underlined by a non-productive speculative economy, the country is also losing those who would have provided viable solutions to its problems. Alfred Ilenre, one of the few progressive intellectuals and ethnic rights activists, passed on recently. It is painful but we can’t escape the inexorableness of death. Often the living take solace in the legacies of the departed.Truly, Ilenre is gone and gone forever.

I can’t recall exactly when I first met Mr. Alfred Ilenre. From his name I knew he was my kinsman. But the opportunity to work with him at close quarters came during my election into the office of the General Secretary of the Campaign for Democracy (CD) in the heydays of the struggle against military autocracy. The repressive politics of military rule had spurred us into forming the CD to see to the exit of the military from politics. Incidentally at the Ibadan convention of the CD, he was elected into the Executive Council of the CD as an ex-officio member along with Dr. Frederick Faseun. So we worked together to rally Nigerians in a long drawn struggle that saw the exit of the military in pacted transition in May 1999.

Ethnic Minority Organisation of Africa (EMIROAF) which he co-founded with Ken Saro-Wiwa was one of CD’s affiliate organisations. It was the platform upon which he and Ken Saro-Wiwa came to function within the broad prodemocracy movement. Indeed, Saro-Wiwa had been the Vice President of CD Benin zone covering the South-south geopolitical zone. He was replaced by Festus Iyayi upon his incarceration from which he never returned alive. In all the meetings of the expounded secretariat of the CD, he was always present. His views on the ethnic dynamics of the Nigerian federation were weighty.

When I was saddled with the responsibility to develop a blue print for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) before the Ibadan Convention of the CD in 1994, he contributed the view on the need to organise the Nigerian army along regional command—the Indian model. We sought ways to transform the material force of the state from being the ethnic tool of one ethnic group in the country and ensure balance of terror. In this respect, he was the quintessential expert of ethnic autonomy. His views featured in one major conference proceedings at the turn of the century. The proceedings was titled ‘The Emperor has no Clothes’ published by Environmental Rights Action in 2000. He contributed “The Niger-Delta Crisis, The Failure of the Nation-State Model and the 1999 Constitution.” In 2000, he was also an active participant in the National Conference which I organised under the platform of the Centre for Constitutionalism and Demilitarisation which yielded the volume, Constitutionalism and National Question in 2000.

With the judicial murder of Saro-Wiwa by the Abacha regime, he lost one of his closest soulmates. He had to re-organise EMIROAF into Ethnic Minority Organisation of Nigeria (EMIRON), the platform for his advocacy on ethnic rights and the restructuring of the skewed Nigerian federation.

I know his progressive orientation made him work for the Angola Embassy in its early post-liberation days. I did not quite catch up with his journalistic exploits. Retired Col Ajayi, former Deputy Commander of the Lagos Garrison Command, told me he went through him as a green horn while Ilenre presided as Sub-Editor in The Nigerian Tribune in the late 1960s. He had nose for data and availed me with British archival documents on Ishan Division during the colonial rule. These documents would have assisted me in reconstructing aspects of the history of Esan people. Unfortunately, they were seized by state security operatives when I was arrested in January of 1995 by the goons of General Sani Abacha who passed for state security personnel. Skimming through those archival data I was hit by the notion of total security of the colonial apparatus. Confessions by parishioners were recorded as intelligence matter and sent to the colonial office in London. These gave them full knowledge of our people and how to manipulate them.

It is a measure of Ilenre’s commitment that he was to chair June 12 Coalition which kept the memory of the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election alive and featured in virtually every gathering of the working people of our country. I met him for the very last time in late 2016 at the presentation of a book of tributes on Baba Omojola, another giant and leader of the toiling people who passed on in 2013. I had sensed age was beginning to take its toll on him and the journey from cradle to grave was nearing its twilight. I told him that he should re-prioritise his social engagements because of his age and he agreed. Now he is resting in peace. May his dream of a better Nigeria materialise.

Dr. Akhaine, a visiting member of The Guardian Editorial Board, is the Acting Head of Department of Political Science, Lagos State University.

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