Ufot Ekaette: Quintessential servant
The 70s must have been the golden era of Nigeria’s public service. That was the era when the Permanent Secretaries most of whom were trained abroad or at the University of Ibadan drew up transformational development plans for the country. They exhibited knowledge, deep knowledge of the development matrix. They exhibited patriotism, deep patriotism that the country needed. They had influence, overarching influence in the affairs of Nigeria.
They came to be named and called Super PermSects. Four of them that I can readily remember were Allyson Ayida, Ahmed Joda, Philip Asiodu and Ime Ebong. They were the movers and shakers of Nigeria’s public service based on their knowledge, the force of their reasoning and argumentation, their ability to assemble facts and figures to support their position or proposal and their readiness for robust forensic battles in their defence. It made decision-taking easy. It made listening to them a happy event. If Ufot Joseph Ekaette had been a Permanent Secretary during the 70s he would have made the grade. He would have earned the stripes of the Super PermSecs.
Ufot Joseph Ekaette was born on April 17, 1939 and attended some of the best schools of that era. Etinan Institute where he did his secondary school course was one of the illustrious institutions established in Akwa Ibom State by Qua Iboe mission. It was there that Ekaette met two other persons with whom he became life-long friends: Bassey Ndiokho and Udo Udo-Aka. These three musketeers were almost inseparable.
They all grew to become people of distinction in Nigeria. Ndiokho was the Chief Executive Officer of UAC Plc while Dr. Udo Udo-Aka became the Director General of the Centre for Management Development (CMD). Ekaette who did his Higher School Certificate Course at King’s College, Lagos and his degree in Economics at the University of Ibadan chose the public service as his career path. He chose wisely because he left remarkable footprints on his public service path. He was the longest-serving Permanent Secretary to the then Head of State, Yakubu Gowon. He was also Permanent Secretary in several Ministries, the first Director-General of the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI), a development intervention agency established by the Ibrahim Babangida Administration. He was a Director General in several organisations, chairman of Corporate Affairs Commission, Chairman of Industrial Training Fund, and Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State when Commodore Idongesit Nkanga was the Military Governor. He was Secretary to the Government of the Federation under President Olusegun Obasanjo, a position he held first eight years. He later became the first Minister of the Niger Delta Ministry. This litany of appointments speak volumes about his dedication to duty, his undiluted patriotism and the appreciation of his work by his bosses.
When he died on September 25, this year many people who worked with him were unstingy in their praise of his quintessential-ness as a public servant. In the Foreword to a book, Ufot Ekaette: A celebration of Meritocracy in Service, Yakubu Gowon under whom he worked closely for many years described him as “a rare patriot that has been catapaulted to the top by sheer dint of hardwork, undiluted loyalty and commitment to constituted authority.” The book which was reviewed by Sam Akpe in the Vanguard recently was coordinated by Nyaknno Osso, a former Newswatch Librarian while Professor Desmond Wilson was one of contributing writers.
The book quotes Gowon as saying that Ekaette was a “workaholic who does not remember the days of the week once he has been given an assignment to deliver.” That evidence of his being a workaholic and a devotee to duty was very evident during his days as Secretary to the Government of the Federation under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo drives himself hard and goes to bed by two or three in the morning. He has established a solid reputation as a slave driver who commands those who work with him to deliver assignments within near-impossible deadlines. When Ekaette was the SGF President Obasanjo had given Ekaette one of those assignments with a crushing deadline. Eventhough Ekaette was sick he struggled to meet the President’s deadline.
His Chief Detail was worried that he might collapse on the job. He sent an SOS to Nyaknno Osso who was one of the Akwa Ibom persons working in the Presidency who was close to Ekaette. He wanted Osso to come and take him home or to the hospital. Osso told me: “when I got in there he was sitting behind a mountain of files trying to produce an urgent memo for President Obasanjo. He was shaking, shivering, shaken by fever. When I said I came to take him home or to the clinic for a check-up he said that he cannot go anywhere until he had completed the memo for the President because he wanted it before midnight. He refused to leave so I left him there at 11pm.” That is the very definition of hardwork, the very definition of dedication to duty. For a man who had several Permanent Secretaries that he could have conveniently assigned such duties to but did not that is evidence that he always wanted to do a thorough job by not delegating duties to others.
He is the one who always took notes at Federal Executive Council meetings and produced those minutes within two hours of the meeting being concluded. He always wanted to be sure that there were no lapses on the job and no reasons for his bosses to complain about the quality of job done. Despite his thoroughness at work Ekaette did not keep a personal diary. When those who were working on his biography needed to fill some gaps in his life’s personal history a diary would have been helpful but they found none. He didn’t want to keep a personal diary because, as he explained to some friends, it could be used against him as it was used against Chief Obafemi Awolowo, former Premier of Western Nigeria during his treason trial in the 60s.
Ekaette was an exemplary public servant not only in terms of hardwork and dedication to duty but he was also transparently honest. Today, the civil service has gone through a severe negative transformation that has witnessed the presence of thousands of ghost workers and ghost pensioners, on the payroll, evidence of the decline in honest service delivery. People like Ufot Ekaette remind us that once upon a time there used to exist in this country civil servants who rendered selfless and meritorious service.
There probably still exist some of them but the general rot in the country seems to drown the efforts of the few of them that still exist so much so that we may be inclined to think that the beautiful ones are not born again. This drab backcloth that our public service presents today constitutes a loud tribute to such excellent public servants as Ufot Joseph Ekaette, the quintessential servant.