Ekpu and the burden of the pioneer
Courage is defined by crisis.
We were the unconquerable team when we started Newswatch in February 1985.
Our editors were not just the generals of the Nigerian press, they were the toast of the society.
They combined the ultimate chemistry of power, celebrity status and an appearance of money.
They were high professionals and they had the talent and the connections to lead us to the moon.
Journalism was the great profession and we at Newswatch were on at the top of the league.
Then our world shattered one Sunday morning in October of 1986.
We had stumbled into crisis of unprecedented dimension.
The four big boys who founded Newswatch were the miracle workers of Nigerian journalism.
Dan Agbese was the editor of the conservative New Nigerian. Yakubu Mohammed was editor of the National Concord.
Ray Ekpu was editor of the Sunday Times and later Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Concord Group of newspapers.
Dele Giwa was the editor of the Sunday Concord.
Fate brought them to together. They brought us to Newswatch.
I was the third editorial staff of Newswatch.
The first was Dele Olojede, who was a reporter for the Concord and who regarded Giwa as the ultimate mentor.
The second was Rolake Omonubi who had come from the Nigerian Tribune in Ibadan.
The fourth was my bosom friend and old classmate at the University of Lagos, the late Wale Oladepo, a celebrated investigative reporter who was nicknamed the “in-house detective of Newswatch.”
On Monday August 6, this week many veterans of the old Newswatch gathered at the Muson Centre, Lagos, to celebrate Ekpu at 70.
Finally our oga is officially an old man, to quote Dan Agbese, a tireless wit whose cutting edge sarcasm had devastated many bloated egos in the past.
Ekpu had been to hell and back several times and he has survived with little scars.
In 1983, he assumed the editorship of the Sunday Times, a newspaper with a weekly circulation of 600,000 copies.
He was stepping into the shoes of the legendary Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, the great columnist and editor.
He was also ready to step on toes.
Ekpu wrote a weekly column for his paper and we fell in love with him. His prose, with ensnaring cadence and captivating lyricisms, was music for the soul.
But the Daily Times had changed from the era of the legendary Alhaji Babatunde Jose when it waved the banner of truth.
In 1975, the privately owned newspapers was seized by the military regime of General Murtala Muhammad, following petitions by some staff of the paper.
By the time Ekpu assumed editorship, the Daily Times group was still the biggest newspaper group in Black Africa, but it had already taken its fatal poison and the politicians at the helm during the Second Republic of President Shehu Shagari were not interested in the marketing of ideas.
They were interested in power. One clear afternoon, Ekpu was fired from his editorial chair.
He said he received his sack with “philosophical calmness.”
Doyin Abiola, our Editor-in-Chief at the Concord, invited Ekpu and made him the chairman of the Editorial Board. It was a job he did with panache.
It was a period of heavy politics and our boss, Chief Moshood Abiola was at the thick of it.
Abiola had tried to challenge President Shehu Shagari for the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, presidential ticket, and had been shut out.
He announced his withdrawal from partisan politics but for the NPN crowd, the Concord was an enemy press.
The put Ekpu and his colleagues on the shooting range, no thanks to the mercurial Inspector-General of Police, Sunday Adewusi.
As a columnist for the Sunday Times and the Concord, Ekpu was also a prophet of our possibilities including the dark imagining of Nigerian public officers.
He predicted that with the rate of arsons targeted at public buildings to cover fraud, fire may also visit the 27-storey headquarters of NITEL in Lagos.
Few weeks later, fire gutted the national edifice where at least one person died.
Ekpu was arrested and charged for arson and murder. He became the first person in the world to be charged for committing murder and arson with his pen!
In truth, Ekpu uses the pen as a revolutionary weapon.
He and his other colleagues were armed with this weapon when Dele Giwa fell on the battle field.
On the morning of Monday October 20, 1986, the day after Giwa’s assassination through a parcel bomb, we were like sheep in disarray.
We looked for direction from Ekpu. He and Giwa were sharing the same twin duplex on Talabi Street, off Adeniyi Jones, Ikeja.
They were always together, but as fate would have it that morning when the angel of death came calling, Ekpu had gone out with his wife to see a family friend.
The military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida did not like the way Ekpu and his team managed the post-Giwa crisis. Giwa’s lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi, had blamed the regime for Giwa’s assassination.
It was difficult for the junta to escape the heavy fog of suspicion and it held Ekpu and others responsible for its travail.
Newswatch prided itself as the fulcrum of investigative journalism and every week it was feeding the public with mostly exclusive stories.
On Monday April 6, 1987, the magazine hit the newsstand with the cover story, THIRD REPUBLIC: A New Political Agenda on the report of the Political Bureau headed by Professor Samuel Cookey which was supposed to be the blueprint of Babangida’s Third Republic.
This was the excuse the Babangida junta used to proscribed Newswatch.
Policemen came and sealed up our premises on Oregun Road. They were not masked.
They captured our editors as their prisoners of war and herded them to Alagbon Close, Ikoyi.
In defiance, we the reporters met under a tree close to our premises under the leadership of Soji Akinrinade and Dele Omotunde.
We resolved to stand with our bosses. Some of Newswatch external directors dragged Ekpu to Doddan Barrack, then the official residence of the Nigerian ruler, and ask him to apologize for what the magazine had done. He refused.
Ekpu has a larger than life reputation and we his reporters were proud to bask in his after glow.
In October 1987, I was sent to Calabar, capital of old Cross River State, Ekpu’s home state, to cover a story.
Everywhere I went, I encountered the larger-than-life reputation of my boss.
Ekpu had served as the editor of the state-government owned Nigerian Chronicle. Clement Ebri, who succeeded him as editor, spoke glowingly of my boss.
It was Ebri who took me round the city to see many of the prominent citizens including retired Brigadier Jacob Esuene, first military governor of the state and Dr Joseph Wayas, former President of the Senate.
Many of them regarded the reigning military governor, Commander Ibim Princewill, as a loose canon.
I was very happy years later when Ebri too was elected governor of Cross River.
It was when I joined some of my colleagues to start TELL in 1991 that I realized how much we owe Ekpu and his colleagues.
They were the pioneers who used their bodies to clear the way for us.
For them there were no guiding maps and no re-assuring precedence and they had to solve every new problem as pioneers.
They tested the waters with their foot. We simply followed and avoided some of their pitfalls.
We decided that we will not publish our pictures in the magazine.
Therefore, when the goons of the military unleashed their terror, it was not too difficult for us to disappear into the crowd.
Only few people could claim to be able to match our names with our faces.
Now Ekpu is an old soldier, a hero who had sacrifices a lot for the birth of democracy in Nigeria.
We are waiting his books of practical instructions and reminiscences of those great days when Newswatch was the roaring lion in the land.
Those days are gone and what is left is the pride that Ekpu did what was expected of a leader and the pang about what could have being.
He is a leader who stands for the truth and justice and always ready to bear the burden for Nigeria.
He is a hero of uncommon courage and sagacity and he faced his trial and troubles with “philosophical calmness.”
I thank God for Ray Ekpu.
We are proud of his adventures and the vast spectrum of his influence and numerous achievements.
Even now, Ekpu’s articles, tempered with omnivorous knowledge and wide-ranging experience, still resonates with creative muscularity.
In Lord Alfred Tennyson poem, Ulysses, the great adventurer was returning to his kingdom of Ithaca, an old man.
His declaration may also be true of Ray Ekpu:
That which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate,
But strong in will,
o strive, to seek, to find and
not to yield.
I wish our oga many more years of creative service to Nigeria and humanity.
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