Ray Ekpu: the Journalist As Gadfly, By Tunji Olaopa
Ray Ekpu himself became the very exemplar of the best and of the worst that a journalist in Nigeria could ever go through in the pursuit of truth and excellence… From the Sunday Times to the Sunday Concord, Ray Ekpu was consistently refining and redefining his acts, skills and competences.
Only very few people in life have the rare opportunity of having their professional achievements nearly catching up with a life well spent. The mercurial journalist, Ray Ekpu, is one of these few truly blessed persons whose achievements are half his chronological age. One beautiful way to read this is simply to say that Ekpu grasped his path in life early enough to commence the pursuit of his fulfillment where many had to wander in the proverbial forest of life before seeing the light. Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist, once remarked: “Before I was 23, I had conceived everything.” There would seem to be a touch of cocky arrogance to Linnaeus’s statement, but does one not need that kind of arrogance to ride through the impediments that life throws at us? The arithmetic of Ekpu’s life narrates the story of one who figured out early in life what he needed to do, and he did it. He is now 70 years old, and has been a journalist, and a successful one at that, for 45 years.
If the roll call of those who bear the professional appellation of “journalists” is taken in Nigeria, only very few have the honour of bearing that title with the kind of professional dignity, fervour and competence like Mr. Ray Ekpu does. For those who are old enough, the following names ring a bell: Babatunde Jose, Bisi Onabanjo, Lateef Jakande, Peter Enahoro, Alade “Allah Dey” Odunewu, Segun Osoba, Stanley Macebuh, Lindsay Barrett, Dele Giwa, Yakubu Mohammed, Andy Akporugo, Tola Adeniyi. Doyin Abiola, May Ellen Mofe-Damijo, Bilkisu Yusuf, Areoye Oyebola, Felix Adenaike, Pini Jason, Olatunji Dare, and so on. Odunewu’s formidable column “Allah Dey”, Onabanjo’s “Ayekooto”, Peter Enahoro’s “Peter Pan”, Dele Giwa’s “Parallax View” and “Press Snaps”, etc. were all examples of what good journalism used to be. And Ray Ekpu was right in the midst of what could be considered the Golden Age of journalism in Nigeria. He was instrumental, together with Dan Agbese, Dele Giwa, and Yakubu Mohammed, in the establishment of the distinctively volatile Newswatch magazine in 1984. With this magazine, the rampaging quartet took the bulldog fierceness of Jose, Enahoro, Macebuh, and the rest of the hordes to a whole new level.
These were all firebrands who were all thrown into Nigeria’s post-independence political inferno to observe, investigate, calculate, reflect, write, and they stood by what they wrote as the truth from what was observed and pondered on. They could not be stopped. They moulded public opinion, and lit the fire beneath the actions of the government. Those were the days when the pen was really and truly mightier than the gun! These were all revolutionaries who wrote back to power and spoke the truth from the nibs of their fiery pens. Journalism in those days was the very epitome of irreverence, integrity, dedication and intellectualism. Stanley Macebuh, for instance, was the very essence of an urbane, focused, no-nonsense journalist. With the emergence of the Guardian, all titles were reduced to simply “Mr”.
These warriors of the Fourth Estate had some measures of success, not only with the template they imposed on the vocation of journalism, especially within a context that brought out the best in them, but also with the quality of offsprings they inspired— Sam Omatseye, Mohammed Haruna, Kunle Ajibade, Dele Momodu, Nosa Igiebor, Azubuike Ishiekwene, Oluremi Oyo, Femi Adesina, Olusegun Adeniyi, Reuben Abati, Festus Eriye, Tunde Rahman, Ayisha Osori, Abraham Ogbodo, Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, Toyosi Ogunseye, and so many others. Ray Ekpu straddles these two temporalities and dispensations. His life is a solid trajectory stretching from the 80s to the present. And that trajectory constitutes a timeline of depressing paradoxes, existential pains, ironies of nationhood, and the abiding testimonies of the unwavering human spirit. Nigeria has remained a news-worthy context that did not take kindly to irreverent investigative sniffing. Postcolonial Nigeria threw up Babatunde Jose, Alade Odunewu, Stanley Macebuh, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Dele Giwa, and Ray Ekpu. The Nigeria state and its multitudes of political acts and dramas facilitated the emergence of those who would wrestled her to the ground against herself. Yet, while Nigeria is every journalist’s dream, it is also their worst nightmare, as all these people will testify. For all his fierce reputation as the “doyen of Nigerian journalism,” Jose faced the wrath of the military when he was eased out in 1975, following the Murtala Muhammed coup, and the takeover of the Daily Times by the government.
Ray Ekpu faced down the guns, the gulags, the gagging, the brutal betrayals of professional ethos, the possibility of a fragmented family, as well as the torments of possible failures. He fought for 45 years in a postcolony that is inclement and refuses all rules of civil engagement, and he is still fighting.
Ray Ekpu himself became the very exemplar of the best and of the worst that a journalist in Nigeria could ever go through in the pursuit of truth and excellence. Samuel Johnson sums up the precarious circumstance that raises the nobility of the press but also kills its spirit: “The liberty of the press is a blessing when we are inclined to write against others, and a calamity when we find ourselves overborne by the multitude of our assailants.” Mr. Ekpu would not know about the multitude of assailants until he discovered his path in investigative journalism with the birth of Newswatch and his irritating perch on the very nose of greedy and recalcitrant leadership, military and “democratic.” From the Sunday Times to the Sunday Concord, Ray Ekpu was consistently refining and redefining his acts, skills and competences. When Newswatch arrived on the scene, the wordsmith was also ready to unleash the verbal assault against all forms of bad leadership and all elements of bad governance. In the 80s, and before the fiery enthusiasm of reporting was taken out of the heart of those who had been called to the service of journalism, Newswatch became the standard of how to write and how to confront the government in its own lair. From its first edition in 1985, the four journalists driving the onslaught of the magazine against the Nigerian state defined their mission very well. The magazine was not only meant to relentlessly nudge and irritate the Nigerian state and its apparatuses toward the notion of the truth, but it also tasked itself with the responsibility of restructuring what it means to be a reporter or a journalist.
Since the state usually acts in secrecy, especially with regards to its affairs that ought to be laid bare in the public sphere for all citizens to see, discuss and participate, journalism as the fourth estate of the realm also ought to sharpen its investigative capacities to burrow into the heart of political darkness and ferret out those secrets the government would not want its citizens to know about why governance could translate into a good life for all. Investigative journalism therefore became the essential heart of the press in a democracy. And Newswatch, under the relentless guardian of the quartet, threw itself into the fray of political intrigue and dangerous power play of post-independence Nigeria. In 1986 when a letter bomb exploded and snuffed out the life of Dele Giwa, the others knew immediately that the game had become a very dangerous one. Newswatch landed smack within the brutal autocrat regimes of the military. And finally, the magazine learnt silence in a context where you had to fight or you had to keep quiet.
Ray Ekpu faced down the guns, the gulags, the gagging, the brutal betrayals of professional ethos, the possibility of a fragmented family, as well as the torments of possible failures. He fought for 45 years in a postcolony that is inclement and refuses all rules of civil engagement, and he is still fighting. With Ray Ekpu, we have a whole new understanding of what a veteran means. He is not only old (even those he does not look his 70 years), he is also stubbornly unrelenting in his insistence that the leadership equation must be recalculated if we are ever going to understand the liberating meaning of good democratic governance in Nigeria. And Ekpu communicates his dogged insistence in the most brilliant of simple prose. Of course, there is no point making fundamental points on the governance dynamics in Nigeria in ways that is obtuse for Nigerians to even understand.
Ray Ekpu is a worthy successor in a line of predecessors — from Babatunde Jose to Peter Enahoro — who defined the dynamics of good journalism in Nigeria. Indeed, he is the stellar bridge that links the old and the new in the Nigerian journalist scene. Ekpu still leads the pack, with others following — Dare, Abati, Igiebor.
Ray Ekpu is a worthy successor in a line of predecessors — from Babatunde Jose to Peter Enahoro — who defined the dynamics of good journalism in Nigeria. Indeed, he is the stellar bridge that links the old and the new in the Nigerian journalist scene. Ekpu still leads the pack, with others following — Dare, Abati, Igiebor. He is a master wordsmith of all time. Ray Ekpu is one of the lone, and even lonely, stars in the firmament of journalists who fight on a daily basis to stave off the lures of encroaching decadence that has undermined the integrity of the fourth estate of the realm. The Nigerian society has degenerated to the extent that socioeconomic and other existential variables have circumscribed the professional competence of the press in Nigeria. The catchphrase is: “Everyone has a price.” In other words, if one is sufficiently constrained by existential pressures, one would finally be forced to sell his or her soul for a morsel of porridge, or for a few wads of naira.
Thus, Mr. Ekpu needed more than professional competence and bull-headed investigative stubbornness to be able to make his way through the depressing but tough Nigerian political context within which he was doggedly trudging to make some fundamental points critical to the consolidation and sustenance of democracy in Nigeria. He needed to compromise his moral stature. He could not without undermining the reputation and credentials of a firm and committed journalist that he had built over the years. So, he lost out in the Newswatch boardroom politics that saw a once vibrant exemplar of what a newspaper or magazine should be, becoming just another example of the betrayal of the people’s democratic aspirations.
But the person and the professional fate of Ray Ekpu narrates something even bigger and more sinister about Nigeria’s place in a global economy of talents, of competence, and of knowledge. By the time we successfully denigrate and undermine our intellectual, talent and competence quotient as a nation, we not only miss out in the full throttle march towards a global knowledge economy, but we also miss the full implication of the place and the role of the intellectuals and the intelligentsia in the knowledge production and democratic dynamics that make nations the instigators of their own destinies. These are the lessons that Ray Ekpu’s 45 years of travails, achievements and circumstances enable us to ponder while we celebrate the life of a master wordsmith.
Tunji Olaopa is a professor of public administration at Lead City University, Ibadan; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com