Alfred Ilenre was a name whispered in news rooms when I became a professional journalist in the early 1980s. He was one of the leading journalists in the country.
Veteran Labour leader, playwright and patriot, Jonathan Ihonde was in 1965, elected President of the Mid-West Development Corporation Workers Union.
It unionized workers in the cocoa, oil palm and rubber plantations in the region. By 1970, the military regime of Samuel Ogbemudia decided to privatize the plantations.
The workers resisted with mass strikes, and a clampdown followed. Ihonde and leaders of the union including the General Secretary, B.O. Agbator and Organising Secretary, Deb Oikelome went underground with the military and security services in pursuit. They were surprised one day when a journalist appeared at their hideout in the forest; he was Ilenre.
Where the country’s security services failed to locate the fugitive labour leaders, the news hunter did!
However, when I got acquainted with Ilenre, it was in the arena of activism.
He, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the famous writer and environmentalist, and Anthony Enahoro, the Nationalist who in 1953, moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence, were the leading lights of Minority Rights in the country.
They were also passionate patriots and advocates of restructuring the country along the federation lines of pre-independence Nigeria when the Regions were semi-autonomous and economically, independent of the centre.
The three teamed up with other patriots like Mokwugo Okoye and Olu Onagoruwa to run the Movement for National Reformation (MNR) It advocated the restructuring of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities into eight autonomous regions with a union government at the centre.
However, it was Ilenre and Saro-Wiwa who became champions of internationalizing the Minority Question in Nigeria. With Saro-Wiwa as the Spokesperson, and later, President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) Ilenre became one of its brain boxes. He attended their programmes and was so much identified with MOSOP that not a few persons thought wrongly, that Ilenre was an Ogoni.
In internationalizing Minority Rights in Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa and Ilenre founded the Ethnic Minority and Indigenous Rights Organisation (EMIROAF) with the former as President and the latter as Secretary.
In 1993, Saro-Wiwa explained at a mass rally in Ogoniland that they set up EMIROAF because “Indigeneous people often do not realize what is happening to them until it is too late”
If Saro-Wiwa had a quiet, reflective side, Ilenre was it, often, you could see them together in Lagos; in those days, if you ran into Ilenre, Saro-Wiwa was not likely to be far away, or Ilenre could tell you what part of the world his bosom friend could be found.
In 1994, I had a discussion with Ilenre following the Rwandan genocide of April 7-July in which some 850,000 persons were killed within 100 days. His concern was more about Nigeria avoiding the Rwandan tragedy. He said the scenario was same; pastoralists and farmers in contention, with the colonialists favouring one party rather than molding them into one nation.
About this time, an anti-military regime organization, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was in full swing with Ilenre as one of its leaders. It opposed the holding of a Constitutional Conference by the Abacha regime on the basis that it has a pre-determined conclusion and would not hand over power to business mogul, Moshood Kashimawo Abiola who had won the June 12, 1993 elections annulled by the military.
NADECO asked its members and allies to boycott the Conference but Saro-Wiwa rejected the call. It was in the course of his campaigns to be elected a delegate to the Conference, that he was arrested by the regime and accused of murder. Ilenre summarized the dizzying events that year: “It was a monumental tragedy that the Ogoni peaceful revolution had to consume a great number of its shinning lights and motivators.
Four Ogoni Leaders of Thought were murdered in a mob action on May 21, 1994 in the cause of the non-violent struggle. In retaliation, the Abacha blood thirsty dictatorship in a brutish display of power rounded up 10 Ogoni environmental rights activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa and hanged nine of them after a show trial on trumped charges of murder on November 10, 1995.”
Ilenre had a very clear analysis of the tragedy that claimed his dearest friend and comrade: “MOSOP struggle was purely a peaceful movement dedicated to the protection of Ogoni and the rest of the Niger Delta environment. State agents scared of the possible repercussions of a genuine dialogue on the status quo, turned it into violence.”
I had been close to both men; circulating MOSOP and EMIROAF statements in the media and often, holding discussions with them on how the Ogoni struggle could be widened to include the Ijaws. Saro-Wiwa believed that while Ogoniland was small with a small population, the state could not ignore the Ijaws if they decide to rise against oil exploitation and the destruction of the Niger Delta environment.
While Saro-Wiwa was in detention, a group in MOSOP led by his younger brother, Dr. Monday Owens Wiwa began to circulate the falsehood that although I had been quite supportive of Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP, I had changed sides to pitch camp with the murderous Abacha regime.
I was enraged and gave Owens and his group an ultimatum to recant their slander and apologize. During the ultimatum, I ran into Ilenre who was coming out of the Anthony-Lagos office of human rights giant, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti. He had left a message with the latter to intervene.
Ilenre told me to ignore the Owens crowd saying that despite his closeness to Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Cause, they had also slandered him and insinuated that he was misusing the struggle and the Saro-Wiwa name for personal benefits. He appealed that I should look at the bigger picture and focus on the struggle to save Saro-Wiwa ‘s life.
A few days after Saro-Wiwa was hanged, Owens showed up at my new office in Oregun-Lagos, apologized for his conduct and informed he would be fleeing the country.
Ilenre himself went to exile in Ghana where he led the Nigerian exile community against military rule. Once, I went to Accra and tried to ferret him out. I asked a journalist whether he was familiar with the name Alfred Ilenre. I hit the bull eye.
After his return from exile, he continued his campaigns and was respected internationally for his global knowledge of Minority issues, and commitment to remake Nigeria and the world.
The last time I met him was February 10, 2016 where we had gathered in Lagos to commemorate the tenth year departure of Ransome-Kuti. On January 12, 2017, Alfred Ilenre passed away. We prepare this Saturday, February 25, 2017 to bid him eternal farewell.