Exactly 19 years ago, death, the greatest leveller of human beings, stole into the home of the patriarch of the highly revered Edu dynasty of Lagos State and one of the few surviving titans of Nigeria’s pre-independence generation nationalists and statesmen, Chief Shafi Lawal Edu. He was born in Epe, Lagos State, on 7th January 1911. His family and friends celebrated his 90th Birthday with pomp and grandeur in January 2001. In 2002 he turned 91 and bade the world farewell twenty-four hours after. In line with his wish, S. L Edu’s remains were lowered to the mother earth of his homeland Epe on Monday 9th January 2002. The journey of life which started in Epe in 1911 had been usefully and productively spent in the service of his people, Nigeria and the global community. His life was a life of service, a life well spent in the service of humanity.
My first contact with Chief S. L Edu was in 1993, when Dr. A.O.K Noah and I went to his Queens Drive (now Oyinka Abayomi) Ikoyi residence to seek his fatherly intervention in the LASU crisis during Sir Micheal Otedola’s tenure as the Governor of Lagos State and Visitor to Lagos State University. He immediately rose to the occasion and the LASU crisis was justly and fairly resolved. In the course of my association with him, I was privileged to be the author of Journey from Epe: Biography of Chief S.L Edu, (Lagos, West African Book Publishers, 1996).
From his humble journey beginning from the Arcadian milieu of Epe, he went on his odyssey in life, making significant and ground breaking forays into the domain of business, commerce, politics, environment, philanthropy, religion and education. In the process, he indelibly etched his name on the canvass in all these spheres as a man who personified success and achievement. The essence of the life of Chief S. L. Edu is that of an altruistic philanthropist, an astute business mogul of international repute, a great family man, a benevolent educationist, a world renowned conservationist, a self-effacing politician, a patriot and a strong pillar of the Muslim community in Nigeria.
Chief S. L. Edu belonged to a royal ancestry with a rich historical heritage. He was the scion of a highly respected and devoted Muslim family that drew sustenance from the tenets of the Holy Quran and the Hadith of Holy Prophet Mohammed. His grandfather was Buraimoh Edu, a distinguished and seasoned Muslim Mogaji who later became the Baale of Epe. Buraimoh Edu reigned between 1903 and 1917 and is generally regarded as the last paramount ruler of Epe. Buraimoh Edu was one of the most martial and adventurous young men who accompanied Oba Kosoko of Lagos into exile in Epe in the wake of British military infiltration and occupation of Lagos in 1851. During this cataclysmic movement, Buraimoh Edu was said to be in his arly twenties. His decision to migrate with Kosoko was contingent on the fact that he was also a Lagos Prince from the Onilegbale segment of the Akarigbere (White Cap Chiefs) and an ardent adherent of the Oba Kosoko’s cause.
S.L Edu was a man of modest education but he did not perceive his modest educational background as an obstruction to upward mobility in society but rather as a challenge that must be transcended. In fact, as a template for his self-effort and doggedness, Chief S. L. Edu appreciably improved on his formal education. He nursed a passion for education but while his contemporaries were either busy acquiring degrees or getting enmeshed in the web of national politics, he gravitated towards the art of buying and selling, and acclimatizing himself with Nigeria’s investment climate.
It is apt to note that the year 1945 was particularly significant in the life of S. L. Edu in having an encounter with this destiny. It was this year that he resigned from Holland West African Line to feather his own nest as an independent business man. At this time, he derived great inspirations from and found remarkable models in such business icons as Oga Josiah Henryson Doherty, the “Prince Merchant of Alakoro Fame”, W. A. Dawodu of Olowogbowo, Chief Timothy Adeola Odutola, Alhaji Sule Oyeshola Gbadamosi, Sir Mobolaji Bank-Anthony and Alhaji Issa Williams, among others.
S. L. Edu’s voyage on the high seas of entrepreneurship started as a ship chandelier, food contractor and timber trader. He successfully and creditably paddled his way through the storms to the safe shores of a fulfilling business life. His spectacular sense of insightfulness and penetrating vision in business enabled him to expand his business interest in the early 1950s to include such areas as transport which he named Slee Transport Limited. This company majored in oil haulage and transportation of petroleum products. From the 1950s to the end of the First Republic, Slee Transport Limited was a major haulage contractor for the British Petroleum. The Time of Friday, September 17 1965 describes him thus” Chief Shafi Lawal Edu, 54, who is president of Lagos Chamber of Commerce, has built a fleet of eight oil tankers. He owns a silver-blue Rolls-Royce, but usually a drive around in a Mercedes- thinks it is less ostentatious.”
His participation in the oil industry, however, extended beyond mere oil haulage and marketing of petroleum products. He established a firm foothold in oil exploration with the establishment of the Niger Petroleum Company which later had working relationship with Diminex. The quintessential Edu was also director of several companies including Nigeria Oil Refinery Company, Palm Lines, Niger Petroleum Company, Alumaco (Nigeria) Limited and Blackwood Hodge Limited, among others. With this personal devotion and attention to his business ventures and an unparallel self–disciplined life, S. L. Edu, in fact, offered an alternative definition of an enterprising spirit which has counterpoised the outlook of other successful businessmen whose business creed is governed by life of self–aggrandizement, mindless opulence and ostentation. S. L. Edu also extended the tentacles of his business to the insurance sector in 1959. He was lucky to have forged business links with efficient and reliable professionals like T. A. Braithwaite with whom he co-founded the African Alliance, the first indigenous life insurance outfit in Nigeria. Indeed, the African Alliance was anchored on the professional dexterity of Mr. T. A.Braithwaite. Though he retired from active business life in 1981 at the age of 70, S. L. Edu’s sense of business was very active till death in January 2002.
He was, in the twilight of his years, still engaged in buying and selling of shares and had substantial shares in such public companies like African Petroleum (AP) Afprint, Bata Shoe Company, Lever Brothers, Wiggins Teape Nigeria Plc., Nigeria Breweries Plc, among numerous others. During his sojourn on earth, S. L. Edu graduated “from Cowries to Naira” and in fact, spent over half-a-century erecting a formidable business empire which created employment, provided succour and means of livelihood to several thousands of Nigerians. He was indeed a scintillating star in the galaxy of Nigerian businessmen and entrepreneurs which included Alhaji Sanusi Dantata, Alhaji S. O. Gbadamosi, S. Ade Tuyo of De Facto Works Limited, Sir Louis Philip Odumegwu Ojukwu, Sir Mobolaji Bank-Anthony, Emmanuel Akwiwu, Bayo Braithwaite and the legendary Chief Timothy Adeola Odutola. These men did not allow the tempestuous waves of politics to torpedo the ship of their business concerns. Infact, S. L. Edu attributed his resounding success in the world of business to two major factors; the providential grace of Allah and a deep sense of industry and hard work.
To sufficiently gauge the thermometer of success and worth of S. L. Edu’s life, it is imperative to navigate the broad spectrum of his stations in life which spanned the vast gamut of human existence, registering an impressive litany of “firsts”. He was the first Nigerian President of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, a co-founder of the West African Chamber of Commerce, the President, Association of Commerce Industry and Mines of Nigeria, the first Nigerian to establish a life assurance firm in 1960 – the African Alliance; the first president of Rotary Club of Lagos; the founder and life president of Nigerian Conservation Foundation, the first Nigerian to pioneer trade relationship with the Netherlands, and to be conferred with the Order of Orange Nassau and the first Lagosian and Nigerian to build a state-of-the-art Lecture Theatre for the Lagos State University, Ojo.
One other legacy of Chief S.L Edu was his promotion and advancement of Islam. He was the 6th president of the Anwar-ul-Islam Movement in Nigeria, a tenure which spanned the period between 1973 and 1987. Prior to his election as president, he had served the movement as chairman of the Headquarters Building Committee and it was through his generous support that the Headquarters Central Mosque was completed in 1980. His first major achievement as president was the change of name from Ahmadiyyah Movement in Nigeria to Anwar-ul Islam Movement of Nigeria. This was effected through a resolution; dated 12th May 1974 with resounding majority. With this revolution, members who had hitherto been barred from performing holy pilgrimage to Mecca could now do so. It is also during his tenure that Anwar- Islam Men’s League was established. The innovation here lies in the fact that the Men’s League comprises of the founding fathers of the movement as well as others who joined the movement on their own application. Similarly his tenure also witnessed the establishment of Anwar Islam Women’s League. The league comprises of wives of Anwar-ul-Islam Men’s League and other distinguished ladies within the movement. One other measure of S.L Edu was that he continued to support the movement financially, long after the expiration of his tenure. However, his success story is also partly attributed to the committeemen of his indefatigable Vice-President, Alhaji Hassan Adisa Babatunde Fasinro.
Chief S.L Edu was also distinguished Nigerian politician and a statesman. His stint in politics dated to December 1951 when he was elected as a member of the Western Region House of Assembly representing Epe Division, initially as an independent candidate and later as an Action Group member. In 1954, he was elected as a member of the Federal House of Representatives. A member of the generation of Sir Ahmadu Bello, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, S.L. Edu was one of the precursors of Nigerian independence as he was an active, vociferous voice in the nationalist ferment that was a harbinger of independence. With the creation of Lagos State in May 1967, S. L Edu was appointed the first Health Commissioner by Brig-Gen. Mobolaji Johnson. As commissioner, he did not earn a penny rather he donated all accruements to public health institutions in Lagos and Epe. Before the end of 1968, he resigned from government to concentrate fully on his business ventures and philanthropy.
Ever his own man, not afraid to be a pioneer, he introduced into Nigeria a
reasonable level of consciousness about the environment and an organization to conserve Nigeria’s ecology was formed at his instance. He was an outspoken critic of whoever threatens Nigeria’s environment and had called on all Nigerians to be environment friendly and to follow the path and pattern of leaders in advanced world by active philanthropy and commitment to worthy causes. He, indeed, merits the title of “Godfather of Conservation” bestowed on him by The Guardian on Sunday in January 1996.
At his 90th birthday anniversary in January 2001, S.L Edu told his audience that he was not happy that government had not done enough to preserve the natural environment “because our lives and survival depend on it”. He appealed to private investors to help in fighting environmental degradation and thereby help in the preservation of the ecological and natural systems. As we mark the 19th year remembrance of Chief S.L Edu, it is noteworthy that his memory is being perpetuated by his family, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, Chevron and other organizations that are interested in the advancement of Nigeria.
Till death, he remained relevant and significant but he grieved that he had to witness the contemporary deterioration in the state of Nigeria’s economy, governance and international relations. Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth during the General Sani Abacha tenure as military Head of State was particularly bitter to him as he was actively involved in the Commonwealth Chambers of Commerce in his capacity as the Chairman of the Nigerian Chapter of the Royal Commonwealth Society for decades. One notable contribution of Chief S.L Edu to the stability of Nigeria in the twilight of his years on earth was his active involvement in the committee of concerned citizens to douse the tension associated with the introduction of Sharia Legal System in some parts of the country.
He lived an accomplished, celebrated, contented and fulfilled life as a philanthropist, astral business icon, seasoned politician, benevolent educationist, foremost conservationist and environmentalist, devout Muslim and patriotic citizen whose prodigious accomplishments will continue to endure for generations to come. He was certainly a giant among giants in business and cornerstone builder in modern entrepreneurship in Nigeria.
Prof. Oyeweso FHSN, FNAL is currently affiliated to Osun State University, Osogbo. He is also Chief S. L Edu’s biographer.