Osibakoro, the fearless one! 1916–1995

I did a Twitter thread to mark the memorial of Alfred Rewane the other day, and I was stunned the number of people who don’t know him or how he died, or how important he is to the democracy we all enjoy today.

Of course my thread was short and didn't say enough about what would ordinarily need to be a tome on him. So, I spent some time searching through my papers looking for something that could give those interested, a sense of how incredible the old man was. I found this write up by Bola Ige, delivered at Rewane’s 5th memorial in 2000.

Did it ever occur to him that he too would die by assasination about a year after that memorial? Of course, it was a risk they all lived with and which some of them were acutely aware of. I hope to write about that some day.

Enjoy!

Remembering Alfred Rewane

By Bola Ige

This is another opportunity to pay tribute to a great man, a big man in every sense, who did great and good things in his lifetime and whose good deeds always loom larger than life the more one thinks about them.

I think that we need to proclaim it to the whole world that his example as a guide and protector of good causes is not just unparalleled; it deserves the status of legend which it has attained.

What remains is for present and future generations to be made concretely aware of this builder of community, leader, friend and father-figure of popular struggles who was always true to his name, Osibakoro the fearless one. Thank goodness, the immortalisation of his name is easy because his good works have spoken for themselves. They cannot be repressed. They speak with a lasting value that will be further enhanced by the launching of his book, The Link With The Past. I want to identify with the necessity to celebrate the man, his works and the great tradition of commitment to public service that he upheld throughout his life. I want specifically to identify with his family, especially his children and the October 6' Club, who have laboured that Pa Alfred Rewane’s name remain indelible and unsullied. And, I want to propose, if this has not already been done, that October 6 should be declared OSIBAKORO DAY, to be commemorated wherever Nigerians care for service to community and country, without fear and without cavil.

Five years ago, I had the singular honour of delivering the funeral oration at Pa Alfred Ogbeyiwa Rewane’s burial in Warri. What I said then was a heart full; but it can always bear elaboration. Osibakoro, the fearless warrior, whom our leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo also called Ogidigbo, did things by a tall order that words cannot fully exhaust. I shall not attempt to exhaust what needs to be said about him. I wish merely to draw attention to the rareness of breed to which he belongs, the sharpness of vision he always exhibited and the fact that the freedom we actually enjoy in Nigeria today must be credited, in good measure, to the self sacrificing disposition that he displayed consistently.

In the past half century, Osibakoro provided the progressive Nigerian politics with the sinews to fight the good fight. All the children of Papa Rewane I pray for them to find fulfilment in whatever they do all of them, certainly, will remember him as a man of strong will who provided a soft cushion inside a tough protective cover. For each of his 24 children, he was a great shield. It is usually expected that a father will be such a shield for his children. More remarkable is the cover that Osibakoro provided beyond his immediate family. Many are the wives and children of a great number of progressive politicians in this country who can attest to the special quality of the man beyond the love he had for his immediate Itshekiri family.

From the days of the Action Group crisis in the sixties, he stood up as a comforter of the family of the detained, those under house arrest, those in jail or those forced into exile. When he was himself not answering charges of treason, from which he would later be discharged and acquitted, he literally carried a bag of gifts with him wherever he went: toys for children, stipends for whole families, and a wealth of jokes to share with all.

The wives and children of many generations of detainees, exiles and prisoners of conscience will attest to it: that he did for many families what the fathers who were away from home could not have done in the best of times. To many people who do not know how we of the progressive family around Chief Awolowo garnered our strength, it could be said that Alfred Rewane was just being a good party man. I have the authority of our collective experience to reveal that Rewane was more than a party man; he was good human being who work so relentlessly hard to make money but never batted an eyelid when he thought that a cause he believed in deserved it more. He was a financier rather than a mendicant waiting for handouts from the party.

It is a matter of benign legend, that before the founding of the Action Group, he was already one of four great timber magnates in this country. When Chief Awolowo made his first triumphal entry into Lagos to inaugurate the Action Group, the crowd that awaited him was very large, so mammoth that he had to abandon his car on the old Abeokuta Road around Agege. Alfred Rewane’s Oldsmobile was the one car considered grand enough for the triumphal entry.

That original act of turning his car in for a public purpose was more than symbolic. It contained an inkling of self-fulfilling prophecy: thereafter and throughout his life Osibakoro provided a vehicle that carried the dreams of millions to various places of fulfilment. Hardly any public project of value took place without his commitment. He was a businessman who realised that service to community was the most solid ground for the growth of enterprise.

He stood up for the Itshekiri people as he stood for the people of the Old Midwest, the Old Western Region and the people of Nigeria, always concerned that a good citizen should give of his best in whatever theatre he finds himself At every level of his social and political commitment, he was a fount of realism whose two legs were firmly planted in the world of genuine entrepreneurship.

He moved always for the establishment of things that would last; programmes and projects that would redound to the welfare of the great majority of the people. Today when we talk of free education, free health services and all the welfare planks in our economic life, it is hardly remembered that but for great minds like Osibakoro, there would have been no sustaining the organisations that braved the hard knocks until the whole country, and now successive Constitutions in our history, accept them as pillars of our common wealth.

Osibakoro had a large heart: brusque when the occasion called for it, he was forever loyal to his friends, a devoted family man, a committed party man and a studious supporter of whatever he believed in. His concerns were generally larger than the ordinary. I think that, in this regard, he was lucky like all of us in having a political leader who was a brilliant exemplar of a very steadfast code: capable of bringing dissimilar people together to make common cause and to turn service to the people into the measure of integrity.

Osibakoro was in a class of his own; he was a businessman who did not see capital accumulation as an end in itself. A genuine capitalist, he had the sagacity to see the improvement in the welfare of the majority of the people as requiring a political education of capital itself. He never wavered even when he was surrounded by socialists. In fact, he took a personal interest in wooing avowed communists to the fold, always concerned that any idea that works best should be deployed, not thrown away on the altar of ideological differences. The point, of course, must be stressed that Pa Alfred Rewane trusted his leader and his leader trusted him. His commitment to the Leader’s permanent campaign to save Nigeria from poverty and tyrannical rule was like a religion.

When in the transition to the Second Republic, the Unity Party of Nigeria ran into hard times, Osibakoro was there to bail out the party. He gave the party a series of loans which he converted into donations at the end of the day. At the end of the Second Republic, when General Muhammadu Buhari arrested him as part of a general roundup of all of us who were on the wrong side of the military dictators, he told. his interrogators that it was his own money that he gave to the UPN. He had been making money, he said, before his interrogators were born. He was not going to change his style to suit their dispensation.

For as long as Chief Awolowo remained in politics, he would always give financial support to the organisation that he led. After the leader passed away, he became a rallying force for progressives across Nigeria; he worked hard at mobilising the leaders themselves not to abandon old ambitions that still promised Nigeria a better future than all the contending forces in the political marketplace.

Empowering the common cause was his great forte. Never failing to stand by any colleague or comrade who tottered or fell was his weakness.

It must be imagined that a man who worked so hard to serve others and to uphold public causes would run afoul of enemies of public good. Pa Rewane was not only a doer of deeds who sustained public causes, he was indeed Osibakoro, the fearless one who spoke truth to power even in the most dangerous times. In the series of publications that he authored and which are being launched today with the title that he himself had chosen, The Link With The Past, he proved not only that he knew the story of Nigeria, where we are coming from, how we got to where we are, but that he was prepared to be counted eternally among those who would bring correction to our wronged estate.

He did not allow the threat of dispossession or destruction of all he had made and fought for to intimidate him into silence; he refused to cower before civilian tyrants and military dictators who saw power as a means of destroying the advantages of individuals, groups and regions of a different political persuasion. Various and successive governments assaulted his businesses in more ways than can be imagined; but he was a shrewd man. He diversified his investments in ways that would put the larger Nigerian economy in trouble if his businesses were put under the hammer. Anyone who remembers the politics of Flour Mills in this country would agree that putting Rewane’s investments in trouble amounted to putting the Nigerian economy in trouble.

In the dark days of the military when unpatriotic cabals were strutting about this great country, bringing her name to dust and reducing all Nigerians to their knees, Pa Alfred Rewane was a pillar of strength, serving as inspirer and sustainer of will for all who said No to the Generals. He made his position very clear: he was in agreement “with those who advocated restructuring of the Federation in order to achieve a more equitable union in which regional ethnic and religious competition over the attainment of the highest offices in the land and access to economic opportunities and development will be moderated in the particular interest of the component areas of the country and in the general interest of our common citizenships”.

Along these lines, he never missed a chance to support all who were on the barricades. He had unwritten pact for instance with the guerrilla press. He would send them press releases and, after publication, he would send the same press releases as advertisements. Such was his commitment. Such was his understanding of the very nerves of political struggles. He knew what mattered. He knew how to back it up. And he worked hard to find the means to do so.

What better can be said about the resilience and courage of a man who at almost threescore and twenty devoted his life to ensuring that old dreams never die; making himself a factor of insurance against return to a bad and bleak past! In more civilised environments, he would be assured of worshipful adulation even by his opponents; the people and the state would see it as an honour to have such a unique elder and statesman as a contemporary.. It is the tragedy of our times that it brought home to him an assassin’s bullet.

As I said in my funeral oration at Warri, it is a tragedy that we must not accept as a norm in this great country. There may be difficulties, but we need to exact the full rigour of the law to ensure that those who bring the name of our country to shame and ruin through mindless assassinations are brought to book. It happened to Pa Alfred Rewane, a good man who deserved every laurel. It happened to Kudirat Abiola, a courageous woman who demanded justice. It could have happened to any of us.

We owe it as a responsibility to our dead, to the living, to ourselves, not to let there be closure to the case until full accounting under the law. Not to pursue justice in this and in all the cases that plague our country is to give up a civilised way of resolving wrongs. It would amount to submitting to barbarism. May this great country of ours never know such barbarism again. And may the family that Osibakoro left behind, his immediate and civic family, which includes all of us, never grow less.

* Chief Ige, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, sent this address to the Alfred Rewane Remembrance Day.

Educational Books Publisher & tech enthusiast, (especially its application in Education). Nigerian history, politics and offbeat tid-bits.