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Remembering Alex Ibru

Violence has been visited personally on some of the most illustrious sons of the country in recent years.

STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: You promised, during our last conversation, to talk about Mr Alex Ibru, publisher of the The Guardian newspaper of Nigeria, who passed away on 20 November 2011.

ME: Yes. I once visited the Guardian offices when I was in Lagos. And guess whom I ran into? Francis Awuku, former editor of the Sunday Mirror of Ghana. In those days, a lot of talented Ghanaians with good qualifications went over to Nigeria to work. Because our currency, the cedi, had hit rock bottom.Ghanaian teachers in particular were in great demand in Nigeria. Then in 1982, the Nigerians turned on these Ghanaians who had contributed so much to Nigerian life, and turfed hundreds of thousands of them out. The Nigerians didn't say so, but their action was a tit-for-tat for what had happened in 1969, when Ghana expelled thousands of Nigerians who, it claimed, did not have "residence permits". These callous actions of both countries caused a lot of suffering to their citizens. Fortunately, the coming into existence of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975, has put an end to those types of actions by neighbouring Governments in West Africa.

When I saw Francis Awuku in Lagos, he was working as a sub-editor on the Lagos Guardian. I was so surprised that I yelled, “Francis! What are you doing here?” Everyone turned to look at me. Francis replied with a catch-phrase we had: “One short man!” In the 1960s, Francis had been part of a delegation of Ghanaian journalists who visited Nigeria, and who had come back with a funny record by a Nigerian singer entitled, “One short man!” The language was a bit difficult to understand, but the song seemed to be about a short man who tried to woo a beautiful, tall woman. It gave us a lot of reason to laugh at the Accra Press Club.

SOC: So, did you meet the Publisher of the Guardian at that time?

ME: No – I met Mr Alex Ibru in London. I did a story on the Ibru family for South Magazine, in which one of his brothers, Goodie, featured prominently. Goodie was then chairman of the company that owned the best hotel in Nigeria at the time, the Ikeja Sheraton. I was very impressed with Goodie. When I visited his residence, I noticed that he was a connoisseur of art and had quite a collection of art works. When one doesn’t know Nigerians, one may get impression that all that Nigerians care about is money. But even some of their richest people are sometimes interested in works of art. For instance, the owner of one of their biggest businesses, the mobile phone tycoon, Chief Michael Adenuga, Chairman of Glo-Mobile, is a connoisseur of the works of the American jazz guitarist, Earl Klugh!

SOC: I thought we were on Alex Ibru?

ME: Well, having mentioned music, let me tell you this: one of the very richest Nigerians, the late Chief M K O Abiola, started life as a band leader! He had a tiny band, which played at weddings and funerals, and did not charge money, but asked to be paid in food. He then sold the food which the band could not consume – that’s how he paid his school fees. Abiola was a singer – when he sang, the stammering that bugged him all his life disappeared….

SOC: I bet you’re going to tell us about Abacha, who imprisoned Abiola, and died before he could release Abiola, and Abiola himself died in prison shortly after Abacha had died? And General Abdulsalam Abubakar and all that?

ME: Well, isn’t it all interesting?

SOC: Yes, but we haven’t got all year, have we?

ME: Well, I visited Alex Ibru at his flat in London. Very posh – on top of a Mercedes Benz leadership just across from the banks of the Thames river in Chelsea. A mutual friend had suggested that I should write for his Weekly Guardian and I went to talk to him. He told me that much as he would like to ask me to write for the paper, he would much rather I was commissioned by its editorial people. “I like to carry my editors with me, “ he said. In those days, communications between London and Lagos were difficult and I couldn’t see how the idea could be pursued. But I was wrong. He actually mentioned it to the chap who was editor of the paper at the time, Andy Akporugo, and when I ran into the editor on a trip to Lagos, he mentioned to me that Mr Ibru had told him of our conversation and he wanted to know whether I would carry the idea forward. But I’d by then become committed to another publication and never did write for the Weekly Guardian.

Alex Ibru died at the age of 66. His story is one of the most pathetic examples of how violence has been visited personally on some of the most illustrious sons of the country in recent years. The Nobel Prize-winning author, Wole Soyinka, for instance, once had to hop it out of Nigeria fast, on the back of a motor-cycle taxi known locally as "okada"! that has marked Nigerian social and political life in recent years. He reached safety in Benin....

SOC: And where is Ibru in all that?

ME: Sorry oh. Alex Ibru was born in Lagos in 1945, but his family hailed from Agbarha-Otor in the Ughelli north local government area of Delta State. He was the youngest of five brothers. The eldest, Olorugun Michael Ibru, was at one stage, described to me as the richest man in Nigeria, with a chain of businesses to his name. Alex Ibru studied at Ibadan Grammar School and Igbobi College, and then went on to Trent Polytechnic (now Trent University) where he studied Business. At 25, barely out of the Polytechnic, he founded a successful business called Rutam Motors in 1970. By the time he founded The Guardian newspapers in 1983, he had become quite wealthy.

What he brought to the newspaper scene in Nigeria was that he recruited a large number of outspoken academic types to run the paper and write for it. Among these stars were Stanley Macebuh and Yemi Ogunbiyi. By the time General Sani Abacha seized power in Nigeria in 1993, the Guardian had become so glamorous that Abacha, in a bid to bask in its reflected glory, invited Alex Ibru to become his Minister of Internal Affairs. Like many of those who were seduced by flattery to join Abacha’s administration, he probably thought that he could influence the dictator to become more 'liberal' in his methods. But Abacha only wanted to use Ibru's name to polish his image. To his credit, Ibru did not attempt to influence his editorial staff to use the paper to support Abacha, and in August 1994, Abacha banned the paper because its stance was too critical of his administration.
Inexplicably, however, Ibru chose to remain as a minister in Abacha’s administration, on spite of Abacha's display of mistrust in Ibru's paper.

The ban on The Guardian was lifted after a few weeks, but the relationship between Abacha and Ibru had soured and Ibru left the government in 1995. In 1996, Ibru was driving home from work when his car was sprayed with machine-gun fire on a famous bridge in Lagos called Falamo Bridge, in Ikoyi. Ibru was seriously injured and lost an eye. But he survived and was flown to Britain for further medical treatment. Abacha’s then security chief, a certain Mustapha, has been standing trial for the attempted assassination of Ibru. Ibru may never have fully recovered from the injuries he sustained in the assassination attempt, and no doubt, the injuries were partly responsible for his death at the relatively early age of 66.

SOC: Ok, what next?

ME: Don't worry, just trust me. I don't want to drop names by heart, so be patient.


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