Ray Ekpu at 70

Mr. Ray Ekpu turned 70 recently, and we all turned up at the Agip Hall of the MUSON Centre in Lagos, to celebrate his arrival at the gate of the proverbial three scores and ten in life’s bumpy journey, what Dan Agbese calls, the “age of wisdom.” Except that wisdom came to Ray Ekpu much earlier. For the past 45 years he has devoted his entire life to a conversation with his country, Nigeria, and with the entire universe, asking questions, interrogating issues and providing much meaning with his pen.  His reward has been a life of purposeful leadership in his chosen field. He is without doubt one of the masters of the pen profession in Nigeria.

He is indeed one of the most inspirational figures in modern Nigerian journalism, along with his colleagues at the Newswatch magazine – Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, Soji Akinrinade and the generations of journalists that they helped to groom and others of their own generation, too numerous to mention who gave Nigerian journalism new meaning through innovativeness, entrepreneurship but more importantly through the courage to speak the truth.

Ray Ekpu is ordinarily a soft-looking, soft-spoken gentleman, but beneath that calm exterior is a fiery spirit, so much fire in the belly, stubbornness and irreverence and a capacity to kick against any form of chicanery.  In the course of an eventful career, he has been detained more than six times. In January 1983, he wrote an article in which he advised that a major public building should be secured lest the crooks working in the place set it on fire to destroy documents in the accounts department. As it happened, the building in question, the Nigeria External Telecommunications (NET) building in Lagos, went up in flames the following day. Someone died. Ekpu was charged for arson and murder.  For writing an opinion, he was accused of using his pen to commit arson and murder! He was again in another matter, charged for contempt of court. He and his colleagues were a pain in the neck of Nigeria’s military desperadoes.

I started reading him as an undergraduate at the University of Calabar. In those days, Nigerian universities had very good newspaper sections and the UNICAL library was excellent. Today, the new heroes of the Nigerian cultural space are rich musicians, rich Nollywood actors, yahoo boys,  dumb politicians and crooked baby Mamas riding vehicles the source of which they can’t explain to their poor parents, yes, slay queens too, those coded prostitutes with borrowed wigs and eye lashes. But in our time, when we were growing up, we looked up to the likes of Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Biodun Jeyifo, Edwin Madunagu, Chinweizu, Effiong Essien, Andy Akporugo, Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese  Yakubu Mohammed, Ray Ekpu, Soji Akinrinade, Doyin Abiola, Bilkisu Yusuf, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Chidi Amuta, Tola Adeniyi, Odia Ofeimun, Sonala Olumhense, Ashikiwe Adigone-Egom, Niyi Osundare, Amma Ogan – men and women who used their pens to construct an empire of ideas around Nigeria’s troubled ecosystem. Ray Ekpu was a star in that firmament and he has remained one of the most consistent and most durable. He is sharp, lucid, assertive. His prose is well-crafted, his style is unmistakable, his devotion to his trade and art is impressive.

Like all men, he has had his moments of trials and triumphs.  He has been to places and occupied positions of leadership that future Nigerian journalists would be glad to reach. But he has taken everything in his stride. In his lifetime, the Department of Mass Communication at the Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic has been named after him, and he is readily cited as a model of journalistic excellence in Africa.

However, Mr Ekpu is not all about writing, editing, publishing and activism. I can attest that the man enjoys the art of being human. He loves to dance, he enjoys cognac and he is fashionable with all the things that go with that, especially those shapely things that light up a room even when NEPA takes light. When a young man follows elders around, he learns many things but because it is not everything you go home and tell Mummy, let us save those proverbs for another day. Congratulations sir. Live long.

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