I first met Chief Alex Akinyele sometime in 1984 when we were shopping for investors in our admittedly ambitious news media project – publishing a weekly newsmagazine, Newswatch. Our ambition was, if you would excuse the worn out cliché, to blaze the trail in weekly newsmagazine publishing in Africa. It would be tough, we knew. But the thrill of blazing a trail was inebriating.
Dele Giwa, Yakubu Mohammed, Ray Ekpu and yours sincerely, had been national newspaper editors. Our new baby was the challenge of our lives in journalism. We wanted it to be the first print media company in the country owned by professional journalists. But our individual pockets gave that familiar, sonorous sound of near emptiness. We needed men with the cash muscle to be the pillars of our professional ambition because all we brought to the table was our media successes and expertise.
We searched for investors, men who believed in our strange dream and were prepared to part with their money. We combed the town. We drew up a list of potential investors.
One of them was Chief Alex Akinyele. I did not know him but my colleagues did. They knew him well enough to know that he would be more than willing to support our venture. He had retired from the Nigerian Customs Service where he left his mark as the pioneer public relations officer of the Service. At the time our story with him began he owned a good number of private businesses in Lagos. He was solid financially.
One afternoon, we went to Akinyele’s in his office in the Mafoluku area of Lagos on appointment. We presented ourselves to his secretary, a fair complexioned young woman who answered our greeting with a huge, friendly smile. She directed us into the chief’s office. Dele opened the door and we were greeted with a sight that unnerved us. The chief was pacing up and down in his office. We exchanged worried glances and waited at the door. It took about one minute that seemed like eternity for him to notice us. He beckoned us in in silence. We took our seats at the long conference table. He stood briefly and then dropped rather heavily on the chair at the head of the table and heaved the loudest sigh I had ever heard up to that point in time.
Akinyele welcomed us in a rather subdued way. Dele asked him what was wrong. Surprisingly, he opened up to us. He had been duped by a fellow Ondo man with whom he had made arrangements for foreign exchange to bring in the FA brand of cosmetics for the Christmas season. He had paid the man in Naira. He said he took the money in three suitcases to his house and “I even dashed him one of the suitcases.” The man gave Akinyele a cheque drawn on his sterling account in London. But when Akinyele’s manager presented the cheque at the bank the next day, a red ink instruction was drawn across it and returned to the manager. No money. And then the man began to play hide and seek with Akinyele.
Akinyele told us, “Gentlemen, if I were not comfortable I would not be sitting with you this afternoon.”
He quickly returned to what brought us to his office as if nothing that terrible had happened to him. I was pleasantly surprised about this. A man so traumatised was calm enough to turn his attention to four men seeking his business partnership. Any other man would have turned us out that afternoon and given us a new date. Not the chief.
He gave us his full attention. We briefed him about our project. He asked a few questions and said yes, he would support us financially but he rejected our suggestion that he should also serve on the board because he said his hands were full. We argued back and forth on that point. We told him we needed more than his money. We needed him on the board to reap something from his reach and contact in government and the private sector. We needed to be able to drop his name at the door and it would be opened unto us. He was persuaded. And our long business and personal relationship that lasted for 30 years or so, took off.
I have related this story in order to make some important points about the life and times of Chief Alex Akinyele who, sadly, answered the call no man born of a woman could refuse. His eyes closed in death on November 14. We lost a great and humble man, a public relations guru and a faithful business partner and friend.
What struck me most about him was his open mindedness. Akinyele had no cant and he had no hypocrisy. He wore his friendship and his humanity on his sleeves. He was a raconteur and a jolly good fellow. He was a towering figure but I doubt if anyone found his physical size intimidating. His large heart dwarfed his physique.
Akinyele opened his home to his friends at all times. He was generous with his time and he was generous with his food and choice wines. My colleagues and I cherished the memory of our feasting in his Ondo country home as well as at his grand house called Azania Castle in the Magodo area of Lagos metropolis. It is a castle. The only thing missing is a moat. He named the castle in honour of his South African wife, Yvonne, who died before him. Azania is the traditional name the black South Africans gave to their country and hoped during the anti-apartheid struggle that it would be the new name for their country when, as it happened, majority rule defeated apartheid.
Chief Akinyele did not like to take himself seriously. He preferred the common touch common among public relations gurus. But some people took advantage of this to call him a joker. A colleague of ours who headed a federal government parastatal under his ministry reportedly once called him Alawada. It got to the chief. He did not find it funny. He exacted his revenge.
Here was a rich and successful man, a former minister of information, a former chairman of the National Sports Council, a close friend of generals during the military regime and a man whose expensive and sartorial elegance was the envy of hundreds of other men – and yet he preferred to be nothing but Chief Alex Akinyele, an Ondo chief with a string of chieftaincy titles.
He once asked me to draft a speech for him. I cannot recall what it was all about. I put my mind to it and turned it in to the chief, all correct with quotations from the late prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Akinyele read it and called me. He said he liked the speech very much and thanked me for it. Then he said, “But I am sorry, Dan, I am not going to read the speech because it is too serious. If I do, people would begin to wonder when Akinyele became such a serious man.” I found that interesting but it was vintage Akinyele, always true to himself.
Trouble dogged our path at Newswatch. When the magazine was proscribed by the Babangida administration in 1987, only one of our external directors, Alhaji Abdulaziz Ude, stood by us. Both the chairman, the late Ume Umanah and Chief Akinyele more or less kept a safe distance from us lest they incurred the wrath of their military friends. Akinyele made some uncomplimentary remarks about us. He thought we erred because we were stubborn. But when he returned to the fold, he rationalised it on the grounds that it was easier for him to blame us than to blame the generals. We understood.
Years later, Akinyele was the only external director of the company who identified with us. He became chairman of the company and never missed a board meeting. He and I once were once assigned by the board to look for a printing press for the company. I was most impressed by his commitment to the project. We never bought the press but he left an indelible impression on me as a man one could always count on to do his best for his friends.
In 2011, the devil delivered us into the hands of a man we mistook for a genuine investor who shared our ambition and aspiration for the magazine. Chief Akinyele, who participated in all the discussions, yielded his place as chairman of the company. He believed, like as we did, that the change was best for the company and its famous product. Sadly, not even his business acumen could protect us from poor judgment and save us from the disaster that befell us and rubbished our 27 years in the company we built from the scratch and to which we gave all we had. In all our problems and challenges, including the cruel killing of Dele Giwa, Chief Alex Akinyele was there for us.
And now he is gone. We did not say good-bye. He loved life and was in some ways larger than it. We will always miss him. We will find comfort in the fond memories of the good times and the rough times we had together.
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