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Opinions of Sunday, 18 October 2020

Columnist: The Nation

25 years after

We remember Alfred Rewane, a dogged fighter and warrior who gave up his life and treasure for democracy.

Alfred Rewane and his friends were clinking wine glasses in a party at the Island Club in Lagos in 1948. They belched triumphantly over what was known as the Colour Bar in the colonial era. Rewane and friends were fellow travellers in equality.

He and other nationalists, including lawyer Oladipupo Odunsin, had fought the good fight for the Nigerian against whites who had barred a black Caribbean from being a guest at the famous Bristol Hotel. They earned the support and respect of the then governor-general of Nigeria, Sir Arthur Richards, and won the fight against Bristol Hotel.

It was not only a victory in Bristol. Its virtue reverberated all over the country. Bastions of racism fell. The so-called segregated laws of colonial Nigeria yielded to free access for all blacks to such places and institutions as hospitals, hotels, clubs and elite suburbs. For instance in Lagos, the European Hospital became Military Hospital and the European Club changed to Ikoyi Club. That was Rewane’s first major act and legacy as a warrior for the Nigerian soul.

Five decades later, in the midst of another joust for the people and sovereignty of democracy, he would enter another act: his third.

It was an eerie Friday and an onslaught on his august tale. It also gave a new and ominous turn to a parade of bad news in a nation already trembling in its turmoil of fear and freedom. When in the morning of October 6, 1995 a Peugeot 504 car arrived his 100, Oduduwa Crescent in GRA, Ikeja, Lagos, a group of hoodlums, dedicated to the atrophy of democracy, walked into his bedroom, and unleashed a hail of bullets into his body. Rewane’s third act was his last. He died. We mark the first quarter century of that tragic episode.

Rewane was in the throes of politics. He sought neither office nor cheap fame. He brought the genius of business to the service of his political cause. That was what he was at when the bullets and their carriers came calling. The military junta of Sani Abacha had released its jackboot on all who wanted liberty for the people. After General Ibrahim Babangida had annulled the election that Moshood Abiola won, Abacha, who succeeded him after a farcical contraption of Ernest Shonekan, was a brutal presence that wanted to perpetuate tyranny. Rewane’s home was a centre of activists who wanted to reverse the junta’s course. He brought his resources. He was a super-wealthy man, and he saw no reason to be a peacock of plenty in a nation of poor humans reeling under a cabal of impunity.

He was one of the movers of the National Democratic Coalition known as NADECO. He never spoke much in public. He fought without vanity. He gave without personal reward. He helped design the architecture of the struggle and supported its logistics, as well as those who fought but left their jobs. He backed families of men who were locked up. He funded underground operators as well as those who travelled to Europe and the United States to advance the cause.

The military was killing quite a few. They cut short Kudirat Abiola, wounded Alex Ibru, snuffed out Bagauda Kaltho, and stalked Abraham Adesanya. They locked up many others. Rewane was perceived as the financier and lifeblood of the movement. Soyinka, Enahoro, Tinubu, et al as well as media houses became constant targets.

In spite of the murderous tyranny of the junta, they did not survive the movement. Eventually, Abacha died. Tragically, the fountainhead of the foray, M.K. O. Abiola, died, and the nation returned to civil democracy in 1999.

But Rewane had a second act. After his role as a fighter for independence beside Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he was a prominent name in the Nigerian crisis in the 1960’s. He was one of Awolowo’s associates arrested in the treasonable felony crisis arising from the turbulence of the Western Region crisis. Even after he was released, his loyalty was such that he did not want to go home, and followed Awolowo to jail on the pretext that he left his belongings there. The security personnel frog-marched him out of the premises.

Rewane started as a businessman working as manager with the United African Company (UAC). He turned his experience into profit in his ventures as he set up quite a few businesses, including selling bones, black pepper, plywood and also the famous Rex Club. He brought that acumen into the Action Group when he served as the chairman of the Western Nigeria Development Company that was the fulcrum of the many big ventures of the region, from the Cocoa House to the estates and industrial initiatives that endure till today.

He was one of the great biographies of the Nigerian story, and although a major road has been named after him, he deserves more for his monumental stature in the nation. He is a tale we should emulate today when our business men are mere appendages to political corruption and our politicians raise the banner of tribe and faith over human peace, justice and concord. He may have passed on, but we must hold high the torch he passed on.

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