To Ray Ekpu at 75…

Mr. Ray Ekpu
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By Etim Etim

 One of Nigeria’s most respected journalists and elder statesmen, Raymond Amos Ekpu, clocks 75 on Sunday, August 6, and I am particularly pleased to send him and his family my felicitations and best wishes. Uncle Ray, as I call him fondly, has been one of my role models for decades. Nationally, he has strong name recognition, and in Akwa Ibom, his home state, he has become a household name and a folk hero. We all grew up reading his articles in The Calabar-based Nigerian Chronicle, a government-owned newspaper, founded in 1971 as a weekly, but became daily the following year. Mr. Moses Ekpo, the immediate past Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State, was its first editor. For us in journalism, Uncle Ray has been as an inspiration, exemplar and standard bearer. I am sure that there will be many celebrations around the country to adulate this great writer. Uyo Book Club, founded by Dr. Udeme Nana, one of Ekpu’s protegees, will hold a special reading session on Sunday to honour him. ‘’Ray Ekpu embodies the resilient and courageous spirit of creative writing and journalism, two vocations which are at the forefront of seeking answers to the myriads of developmental questions facing the nation, and who has, fearlessly used his essays, through his columns in national newspapers, to fight for justice, equity, freedoms and good leadership’’, UBC said in a statement early in the week. I hope that the Akwa Ibom State government will also celebrate Mr. Ekpu on this very auspicious moment.

I saw Uncle Ray last in March 2021 at a public function in Port Harcourt. He looked radiant and well. It is gratifying that he’s been keeping well since then despite a recent health scare. May Almighty God continue to keep him in good health. Ekpu has had a distinguished career and held almost every conceivable responsibility and position in journalism since his first job as staff writer/reporter in 1974 at the The Nigerian Chronicle. The paper was one of the influential state-owned newspapers in those days that trained some of the best journalists we have today. Others were The Nigerian Observer in Benin; The Renaissance (later renamed Daily Star) in Enugu; The Tide in Port Harcourt; The Statesman in Owerri; The Herald in Ilorin and Daily Sketch in Ibadan. New Nigerian in Kaduna and Daily Times in Lagos, owned by the federal government, circulated nationally. These were all my regular readings every morning as a secondary schoolboy in the 1970s and they shaped my understanding of public affairs and interest in writing. My school library and the public library in Uyo had regular supplies of these newspapers. What are our kids reading now?

In 1977, Ekpu was promoted editor of The Chronicle after passing a competitive examination conducted by the late Prince Tony Momoh who was then the editor of Daily Times. Momoh was brought by the management of Cross River State Newspaper Corporation, publishers of The Chronicle, to help in conducting the selection process. The GM of the newspaper was Chief Efiong Essien, whom I later met at The Guardian when I joined as a reporter in 1988.  He was then a member of its Editorial Board.  It was from The Chronicle that Ekpu was hired in 1980 to be the editor of Sunday Times, the largest-circulating weekly newspaper in those days. It was a must read for every person in business, government and academia. He joined the Concord Group, owned by the late MKO Abiola, in 1982 as member of the Editorial Board of National Concord, the daily newspaper in the stable. But it was in 1984 when he co-founded Newswatch magazine that the world came to appreciate his quintessence. The first edition of the magazine was published in January 1985.

Born on August 6, 1948, in Ikot Udo Ossiom village in Ukanafun LGA in today’s Akwa Ibom State, Ekpu is a recipient of several honours and awards, including International Editor of the Year (1987); Outstanding Young Person of the World (1988), Diamond Award for Media Excellence (DAME) Lifetime Achievement Award (2018) and Lifetime Achievement Award by Vanguard newspapers. A former President of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Ekpu had also served as Chairman, Editorial Board, Concord Newspapers before partnering with the late Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohammed to establish Newswatch magazine in 1985.

He was also the President of Commonwealth Journalists Association in the 1990s, and has just been named its President Emeritus in recognition of his contributions to the association. The Nation newspaper of Kenya also honoured Ekpu with Lifetime Achievement Award during its 50th anniversary celebration in 2013. The Department of Mass Communication of Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic, Ikot Osura, Ikot Ekpene, has celebrated him by naming its mass communication department after him. It is now called Ray Ekpu Department of Mass Communication. Ray Ekpu is currently a columnist at The Guardian; The Sun and Daily Independent newspapers.

Life gives each person his own lemon. It is up to you to make your own lemonade. Uncle Ray has had his own share of vicissitudes practicing journalism during the dark days of military dictatorships in the country.  He was detained six times in different prisons and Newswatch magazine was shut down for over six months by the military junta. But it was the dastardly murder of his business partner and friend, Dele Giwa, through a parcel bomb on Sunday, October 19, 1986, during the IBB regime, that shook Ekpu to the core of his being. It is a shame that the military leaders of the time had not been held to account for the heinous crime.

A grandfather with three children and six grandchildren, Uncle Ray is enjoying retirement in peace and absolute gratitude to God. He spends time reading, writing and enjoying quality time at home. He loves playing with his grandchildren and watching football and boxing as well as listening to music. Ekpu is an avid reader. He enjoys reading all sorts of readable stuffs — books, magazines, columns in newspapers, including agony columns, especially the Bunmi column in the Vanguard. For him, books are repository of wisdom and knowledge. He told me recently: ‘’I am sure that I have up to 10,000 books and pamphlets.  These include three sets of general encyclopaedia; computer science encyclopaedia and encyclopaedia of the oceans; science encyclopaedia; social science encyclopaedia and some rare books’’.

 In his library also are about 100 pamphlet boxes where all kinds of pamphlets and leaflets are kept as reference materials.

With advanced age, Uncle Ray has modified his lifestyle. He doesn’t drink any longer (cognac was his thing); doesn’t take salt in his food (during the civil war when the commodity was so scarce, he used to walk some 30 kilometers to Ikot Abasi from his village fetch and evaporate sea water to obtain it) and socializes sparingly (parities were his favourite pastime in those days).   But his love for journalism, which he studied at the University of Lagos, is undying. I am pleased that Uncle Ray is writing his memoire. I love to read memoires and I’m always disappointed when a newsmaker fails to write one. Ekpu has a lot to tell and I can’t wait to read it. As a whet, I asked him to reminisce about journalism of his days and compare it to what we have now. He chuckled gently: ‘’The practice of journalism today has been improved by advanced technology. With a smart phone you can record interviews and pictures; you can make phone calls and send text messages. Materials could be delivered to your office from long distances in no time. Reseach is just a click away. But there is the down side. It has made many journalists lazy because they rely on unverified stories in the social media. When this happens, they end up publishing fake stories in their traditional media which ought to be the major source of authentic stories’’.

Uncle Ray has some affection for me. He took me under his wings when I joined The Guardian newspaper in January 1988 as a Finance reporter. When I came out of my own three-month detention in November 1988, he sent a reporter from his magazine to interview me. He later received me at his Ikeja home lavishly.

Happy birthday, Uncle Ray!

Mr. Etim, a veteran journalist, wrote in from Abuja

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