|Urhobo Historical Society|
December 15, 2011
Alex Uruemu Ibru:
Radical Humanist and Nationalist
By G. G. Darah
Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria
ALEXANDER Uruemu Ibru was a radical publisher, nationalist and humanist. He was radical in the scientific sense of someone who naturally and instinctively favoured fundamental and thorough overhaul of the unjust and oppressive situation in Nigeria. He was a humanist who used his gifts of virtue and material riches to uplift the life and conditions of other people. Although he did not paste political slogans on his face and utterances, Alex was a genuine nationalist who believed that Nigeria has a manifest destiny to provide good leadership for Africa and the world. He was a consummate advocate of Africa’s liberation and renaissance. In the mid 1980s, he set up a regional bureau for The Guardian in Harare, Zimbabwe, to monitor the final stages of the struggle against apartheid in Southern Africa. Alex was a courageous fighter for freedom, democracy, equity, and justice.
Many people have remarked on how the paper attained the position of media supremacy within a short span of time. This achievement is all the more significant because it took place during a very difficult and treacherous period in Nigeria’s history; this was the era of corrupt and repressive military regimes. The newspaper was barely a year when General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew the elected government of President Shehu Shagari in December 1983. The Buhari regime inaugurated the system of military despotism and reckless abuse of human rights. Generals Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993) and Sani Abacha (1993-1998) worsened the situation with their devilish schemes of self-succession. The turning point was the fiendish annulment of the result of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, which Chief M. K. O. Abiola was bound to win. The Nigerian civil society and forces of democracy had to wage a titanic struggle to throw out the corrupt and disgraced military tyrants.
Alex and The Guardian constituency were joint heroes of this revolutionary uprising. The high-tide of the civil insurgency was the fight to redeem the June 12 mandate from Abacha’s cabal. The paper gave unqualified support to the cause of democracy and correctly stigmatised the regime as a usurper one. Abacha saw this as a threat to his ambition to become ruler for life and he promptly banned The Guardian and its associated businesses in August 1994. The move was to crush Alex’s spirit and destroy the material foundation of the Ibru family. Abacha’s evil designs ended in fiasco as the paper returned a year later with more fiery outrage against military rule. When the ban on the newspaper was lifted in August 1995, some of its celebrated egg-heads and veterans did not return. There was apprehension that The Guardian might not regain its flagship status. The search for a new chairman for the Editorial Board brought me from the Daily Times where we were engaged in a quixotic game of walking on a tight rope as Alhaji Babatunde Jose was to describe his 1970s experience in his memoirs.
My movement was brokered by the late Andy Akporugo, a media luminary and Executive Consultant to The Guardian. We met on the matter only once and concluded that there was a duty to perform. At the time I had had only one brief encounter with Alex in 1986 on a biography for their mother. But he trusted Akporugo’s judgment and I did not have to see or be interviewed by him before I resumed work. In the six years I served as chairman of the editorial board and editorial page editor, the publisher never rebuked or chastised me for any error or extremist view. He had full confidence in those he entrusted the work to and he regularly humoured us by saying, “You are the experts.” Whenever he showed up at editorial board meetings, he never betrayed any gesture of proprietary arrogance.
Much has been said about Alex’s odyssey in Abacha’s cabinet and how he was removed arbitrarily. His newspaper was shut down probably because he refused to interfere with its editorial independence and robust pro-June 12 stance. Yet there is a matter that is easily ignored in the narrative of the scenario. In the weekend before his sack, it was reported that he hosted some leaders of the Niger Delta region in Abuja. They exchanged ideas on the constitutional conference promised by Abacha. His association with this group was interpreted by the cabal to be a dangerous signal. The attempt on his life in 1996 was an extension of this suspicion.
Alex was a resolute promoter of the cause of the Niger Delta. In 1992 he and his associates prepared a memorandum on equity, federalism and oil resources. His cohorts included Akporugo, Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, and Chief Effiong Essien. They named the group the Association of Mineral Oil States (AMOS). Their memo outlined measures to increase the derivation quotient for the oil states and manage oil-induced conflicts to avoid war and bloodshed. They took the document to President Babangida in Abuja. The “ebullient General” received the group warmly, perused the memo and thanked them for their foresight and patriotism. Soon after, Babangida enacted a decree to outlaw AMOS and similar organisations. Any rally of those dispossessed of the oil wealth was deemed to be a declaration of war against the conqueror class of Nigeria. He went further to establish the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) and made Chief Albert Horsfall from Rivers State its first chairman. OMPADEC is the precursor of the Niger Delta Development Commission and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. History will remember Alex’s AMOS as the progenitor of these remedial institutions.
He always sought means to empower the minority and oppressed nations in the competitive politics of the Nigerian federation. This is the context in which he expressed his Urhobo nationalism. In the build up to the constitutional conference in 1994, he sponsored the Urhobo Study Group, a think-tank of academics and professionals to prepare an Urhobo agenda. The group was jointly coordinated by Akporugo and Professor Bright Ekuerhare of Delta State University. We met regularly at the Agbarha-Otor family house of the Ibrus and produced an Urhobo manifesto that encompassed the prime demands of the Niger Delta on an equitable federal system, resource ownership and control, environmental justice, industrialisation, and employment. The document was put to effective use by Engineer Moses Kragha and other Niger Delta delegates to the 1994-95 constitutional conference. One laudable outcome was the 13 per cent derivation principle enshrined in Section 162 (2) of the 1999 Constitution. Many politicians who preside over hefty state budgets in the Niger Delta now are blissfully oblivious of this background.
The developments alluded to above coincided with the upsurge of ethnic and environmental movements in the Niger Delta. Among them were the Southern Minorities Movement (SMM), Anthony Enahoro’s Movement for National Reconstruction (MNR) and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Alex encouraged us to carry generous and supportive reports on these associations and their activities. On November 10, 1995, the Abacha junta murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni compatriots. The newspaper gave copious space to the local and global outrage that resulted. My first feature article published in the Sunday edition of November 18, 1995, had the title, “Dying for the Niger Delta.” I traced the history of resource agitation from the 19th century and illustrated with the fates of heroes such as Jaja of Opobo, Nana Olumu of Itsekiri, Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi of Benin, Major Isaac Adaka Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa. In the fullness of time history will recognise Alex Ibru as part of this pantheon of Niger Delta revolutionaries. The ethno-national uprising in the Niger Delta dovetailed into the nation-wide anti-military insurgency of the period. The Guardian became the media spearhead of the radical advocacy that evolved.
Thanks to Alex’s intransigent commitment, the region’s issues became the regular fare of the papers news menu; in about three years hundreds of editorials and opinion articles were published on the politics of oil and its associated crises. The oil-induced fire holocaust in Jesse, Delta State, in October 1998 was one such subject. The Ijaw youths released their “Kaiama Declaration” on resource ownership and control in December that year. Professor J. P. Clark made sure we had an authentic copy and the paper reproduced it for the attention of the Nigerian and international readers. Within The Guardian, there were internal grumbles against the pro-Niger Delta bias of the era. Yet we the principal stakeholders were undaunted, insisting that without the stolen oil wealth of the Niger Delta there would neither be Nigeria as a nation nor the newspapers whose fortunes were fattened by oil-nourished advertisement patronage. Alex stood by us all the way because he was convinced that the resolution of the Niger Delta imbroglio was necessary for the ultimate restoration of democracy and justice in Nigeria and Africa. Looking back now, it is logical to observe that Alex sacrificed his wealth and life for the emancipation of the Niger Delta and Nigeria. We can stretch that logic further by adding that the momentous ascendancy of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is part of the harvest of this sacrifice.
As already noted, there was palpable fear in 1995 that the paper might not regain its premier position after the proscription and Alex’s removal from Abacha’s cabinet. Many thought that the instinct for survival would blunt its ombudsman’s teeth. In six months, these apprehensions vanished as the paper intensified its uncompromising crusade against military autocracy and denial of human rights. This was done in the midst of frequent arrests and detention of pro-democracy activists. Bombs and terror attacks were legion, so were casualties. There was an attempt to incinerate the premises of the paper in 1996. The failed assassination gamble on Alex was part of the plot of this bloody season of anomy. In spite of these forbidding conditions, The Guardian’s revenue, advertisement patronage, and readership rose beyond pre-ban records. Alex’s managerial genius was the major factor.
Yet the professional and intellectual elan of the editorial team was an important side of the success story. There was already a solid foundation to build on. The editorial board, which I headed epitomised this heritage. Alex fortified it with learned people to match the credentials of the best newspaper in the world. There was a fine blend of academics, media professionals, and those with distinguished careers in government and business. At a time, there were more Ph. D degree holders on the board than could be found in an average University department in the country. Maiden Alex-Ibru and Alex Thomopulos maintained a non-obstructive vigilance in the weekly meetings. Ambassador Patrick Cole wore several crowns: media magnate, business guru, diplomat and presidential aspirant. Professor Sam Egite Oyovbaire had been a university don and Minister of Information. Professor Kyari Tijani was of the University of Maiduguri. The newspaper “professors” were Andy Akporugo, Lade Bunuola, Femi Kusa, Felix Adenaike, Onyema Ugochukwu, Emeka Izeze, and Debo Adesina, all of whom had been editors/managing directors of media houses.
Eminent national figures included Alhaji Shehu Musa of Niger State who was Secretary to the Government of Nigeria. The balance of regional voices was ensured by the “permanent” presence of Ambassador Ahmadu Hamza from Sokoto, a former Nigerian envoy to Holland and Cameroon. In the legal constituency, the “Chief Justice” was Dr. Olu Onagoruwa who was Alex’s co-dreamer and Abacha’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General. Other members of the “bar and the bench” were Chris Akiri, Kingsley Osadolor, and Dr. Reuben Abati. Ben Ejiogu had retired from omnipotent Shell. Luke Ashikiwe doubled as economist and evangelist. Younger economists – Nkem Ossai, Marcel Okeke, and Etim Etim – left early for banking pastures. So did Bolaji Ogunseye who took his French skills to international appointment. Uthman Shodipe loved bombastic words but ended up as a local government politician. Akin Osuntokun was baited by partisan politics too. For some years, a retired security officer, the late Francis Karieren, was consultant to the board. In the period under review, other members included Drs. Hope Eghagha and John Otu. With this array of talents and experiences, every issue was vigorously debated until a consensus was reached. The diversity of knowledge and ideological leanings reflected in the quality and authority of the opinions of the paper.
The Guardian was a resolute companion of the national movements to terminate military rule. Alex always charged us to engage the civil political class to justify its claim to power. General Abacha died in 1998, along with his ambition to succeed himself in office. In the delicate transition period of 1998-99, the publisher’s vast experience and liberal pedigree were of inestimable value to our work. We had survived Abacha’s terrorism and looked forward to the restoration of civil rule. The military supervised and manipulated the process to protect their stooges and bourgeois allies. But the paper was convinced that even an incompetent civilian government was preferable to a benevolent military regime.
This pragmatic approach helped us to overlook the anomalous situation of two presidential candidates coming from the Yoruba area of the southwest, namely, Chiefs Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Falae. The Nigerian ruling oligarchy of the time used the gambit to pacify the region for the losses it suffered with the annulment of the 1993 election and the death of Chief Abiola. The arrangement delivered victory for Obasanjo of the Peoples Democratic Party. Even with the flawed system, Alex constantly urged us to give critical support to the new government and hold it accountable to the electorate. On the whole, we felt fulfilled for doing what was necessary to safeguard nascent democracy after about 30 years of military autocracy. We owe this modest effort to Alex who was large-hearted enough to tolerate some of us who were incorrigible extremists in ideological temperament.
I end the tribute with a brief analogy between Dr. Alex Ibru and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. In 1937, Azikiwe returned to Nigeria from sojourn abroad to establish the West African Pilot and about 12 other papers. His newspaper empire was headquartered in Yaba area of Lagos. Azikiwe put this formidable arsenal at the service of the Nigerian trade unions, revolutionary youths, political parties and nationalists. His primary mission was to drive away the British colonial impostors and win independence for Nigeria. This was partially accomplished in 1960 when Nigeria attained flag independence. In 1983, the Ibrus set up The Guardian group in Isolo district of Lagos to be the mouthpiece of the poor and oppressed sections of the society. In three decades, the newspaper has been the veritable vehicle of ideas for the redemption of Nigeria and Africa from corrupt and despotic regimes. The liberation of Nigeria from poverty and incompetent governance is still some distance away. Surely, the memory of Alexander Uruemu Ibru will oil the sinews of those who will ferry us to that utopia.