When news broke a few days back that veteran journalist, Ray Ekpu was going to turn 70, on 6th August, it came as a pleasant surprise.
This is because there is nothing about this co-founder of Newswatch magazine to suggest he is that far gone in age. Ray Ekpu has always been seen as that star journalist who rocked the 80s along with his other colleagues like late Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohammed. Years after, he is still his bubbly self, bouncing like a footballer, whenever he walks. At 70, he has no strand of grey hair on his head which is clean shaven and he has kept his baritone voice.
Many can’t just believe that the young journalist of yesteryears has now clocked 70. He is not only a father, he is a grandfather. To celebrate his 70th birthday, he simply organized a birthday colloquium on NIGERIA: The Leadership Question.
Last week, City People interviewed Ray Ekpu at his Lagos home and he didn’t look an inch 70. He is still very strong and agile and he has maintained his slim figure. Unlike many men his age, he does not have a pot belly. That is due to his healthy living and daily exercise on his treadmill.. He eats healthy too. He eats fruits and vegetables twice daily and stays away from carbohydrates. In the last 70 years, Ray Ekpu has achieved a lot.
How did he celebrate his 70th birthday, City People asked him.
“I decided to have a Colloquium to discuss Nigeria, especially the Leadership question,” he explained. That is something that bothers me. Nigeria has a huge collection of solid and liquid minerals. It has intellectual capacity. It has the biggest manpower collection in Africa. But its growth is stunted. I look at the country at 57+ and I say this is not the way a 57-year-old country should look like. It has to do with leadership. I am a student of leadership. I decor a lot of leadership literature. I thought we could focus attention once more on leadership”.
“Because that simply can make the difference. It was quite successful. We had a good turn out. We had a quality crowd that waited till the end of the ceremony. I was happy, we achieved what we wanted to achieve at that event.
At 70, what is on his mind?
“I feel good” he said. “I feel fulfilled. I feel happy for myself and my family. But I am not happy for the country. I wish we could do better. We have the potential to do better. It is not enough for me to feel fulfilled as a person, because I have a good family, 3 lovely children, (well educated with good jobs) lovely grand children, I have a lovely wife, that I love very much and who loves me. But is that all? We are not all living for ourselves only. We live for others as well. We need to have a good country”.
“People need to have a good country. Even though I am old now, and people who are old say to themselves, now I have gotten a Boarding pass now and I am waiting for God to call me to heaven. So, if God calls you to heaven how about your children and grandchildren?
“You have to worry about what sort of country you are leaving behind, now that you are dying now. That’s the issue. That’s why I am not totally fulfilled. At the personal and professional level, I feel fulfilled. But at the level of looking at the country we have today and what we have been able to accomplish, I think we still have a lot of work to do.
How come Ray Ekpu does not look 70? Whats the secret?
(Laughs) “I think God has taken good care of me. And I have done a bit to take care of myself. In longetivity literature, we are told up to 35% of what you become in terms of your health comes from your genes, it is delivered to you by your grand parents and parents. And you have nothing to do about that one. You can’t control those ones. So the 65% that is left is for you to work around that and see how you can help yourself. Don’t do the things that will damage your health, if you can. One of it is Smoking. Cigarette takes away 7 minute of your life. Thats what the experts say. Don’t drink alcohol excessively because it will damage your health. Don’t take salt. Don’t take sugar. Take fruits and vegetables.”
“Do exercise and so on. Those are brisks. Those are basic things. But at the end of the day God also helps. Pray to God for good health and with everything else.
In his own case, what did he do?
“All that I have said come from my own experience. I eat fruits twice a day. I eat a lot of vegetables. I don’t smoke. I take alcohol occasionally. I am a social drinker, now I have reduced my carbohydrate intake. I don’t touch sugar at all. I don’t take salt. I don’t eat red meat. I take fish, chicken, snails, stockfish.
How about exercise?
“I have two excercise machine at home. One is a stationary trycycle and the other is a machine on which I can run”.
One would have expected him to have written a book to mark his 70th birthday. Why didn’t he do that?
“Its because I have been busy doing other things. I am working on one. One hopes that if I live up to 75, I hope so, I should be able to come out with a book. Sometimes, some people say an autobiography is self adulation and self-worshiping and so on because you should not be writing about yourself. People have actually approached me to write my biography and I keep saying to them; what do you actually want to write about?
What do you want to say? Is it that I went to prison several times? Other people have actually gone to prison several times too. Is it that I am a Journalist? No big deal. I am working on something anyway. It is important for people to leave their thoughts behind if it will give others an inkling of what they went through and how they can overcome some of the hurdles if they meet them. People have even said to me: Why don’t you compile some of your columns and writings and launch as book. If I did that it will be up to 10 to 15 books.
I am still gathering them from various sources. Some are missing, particularly some of the ones that were published in the newspaper where I did my internship in the U.S – Portland Orgenia and Milwaukee Sentinel.
I also wrote some articles for the New York Times and Inter. Herald Tribune. I have the ones for Journal for Democracy. Nyaknno Oso who was our famous librarian is helping me to gather some of the missing articles. I have 95% collected. I am working on something.
What has changed about Ray Ekpu? And what has not changed?
“Nothing has changed, except my age and my walk. I now walk slowly. My steps are shorter and thats the function of age. But in terms of my memory, it is still sharp. I still love to read and write because that contributes to my good health and that contributes to the sharpness of my memory, and it contributes to improving my own knowledge of the world and its people. What has changed is largely physical. But in terms of mental acuity, mental sharpness it is still there. I haven’t lost a lot of that.
What prepared Ray Ekpu for all the roles he played in his later years was his pedigree. Ray Ekpu was born on August 6,1948 into the family of Chief Amos Ekpu and Mrs. Abigail Amos Ekpu in Ukanafun Local Government Area of present day Akwa Ibom State.
He attended 2 primary schools in the local government area before heading to Ibibio State College, Ikot Ekpene for his secondary school education. The Nigeria – Biafra war disrupted his studies at Holy Family College, Abak where he had enrolled for his higher school studies. He sat for his Higher School Certificate Examination when Abak was liberated by the Federal troops.
As was the custom in those days he had to teach in a Secondary School for nine months before enrolling in the University of Lagos for a course in Mass Communication. He graduated with a BA, Mass Com with second class Honours Upper Division. He also acquired a master’s degree in Mass Communication from the same University. Earlier in 1977 he had acquired from Indiana University, Bloomington, USA an advanced diploma in Journalism under the tutelage of a scholar of international repute, Professor Arpan.
However, Mr. Ekpu cut his journalism teeth at the Nigerian Chronicle, where he did his vacation job in 1972. It was there that he met Mr. Moses Ekpo, an editor who knew the lay of the land of journalism. He it was who took Ray Ekpu under his wings and taught him the tricks of the trade. Mr. Ekpu owes a huge debt of gratitude to this suave and debonnaire man who is now the Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State.
At the completion of his National Youth Service Corps in Sokoto, then capital of North Western State, it was natural for Mr. Ekpu to gravitate to his familiar territory: The Chronicle. Within a few years he rose like a meteor to the editorship of the Nigerian Chronicle through a competitive practical examination which was conducted by Prince Tony Momoh, then Editor of the Daily Times. It was Prince Tony Momoh and Chief Efiong Essien, General Manager of the newspaper that prevented the vultures of ethnic politics from throwing merit out of the window.
Merit won and Mr. Ekpu became Editor of the Nigerian Chronicle in 1977. Three years later, he thought it was better for him to be a small fish in a big pond rather than a big fish in a small pond. He headed to Lagos and took the chair at the Daily Times as the Editor of the Sunday Times, Africa’s highest selling newspaper at the time.
Two years down the road, there was a fierce fight between partisan politics and professional journalism. Partisan politics won and Mr. Ekpu was moved from the editorship of the prestigious Sunday Times to the Editorship of the demure Business Times. He edited the Business Times for only 4 weeks, submitted a two paragraph letter of resignation and vanished. Dr. Doyin Abiola, Yakubu Mohammed and Dele Giwa threw a lifebuoy to him. He grabbed it and they offered him a seat as the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Concord Group of Newspapers.
In Nigerian journalism, trouble is never too far beneath the surface.
After about two years at the Concord trouble reared its horrid head and Mr. Ekpu, Mr. Yakubu Mohammed and Mr. Dele Giwa took their exit. The three of them along with Mr. Dan Agbese who was the Editor of the New Nigerian co-founded the path-breaking newsmagazine, Newswatch in 1984. Its first issue banged its way into the newsstand in January 1985. It was an uproarious entry into the market. The magazine became the toast of the moment. Twenty two months later, tragedy struck. Dele Giwa, the magazine’s first Editor in Chief was assassinated with the use of a letter bomb. The founders of the magazine found themselves between the rock and the hard place.
Were they to fight or to flee? That was the question. Six months later, there was another reason to mourn: the magazine was proscribed by the Ibrahim Babangida government and its accounts frozen. What were the founders to do: fret, fight or flee? None of them was a viable option.
Ray who had taken over as the Editor in Chief/Chief Executive Officer was inconsolable. He and his colleagues pulled grief aside and picked up the pieces, running the company for 27 years before they retired in 2011. On retirement, they founded a book publishing and journalism training company called MayFive Media Limited.
Mr. Ekpu’s 45-year career in journalism has been marked by a fistful of both travails and triumphs. He has been detained 6 times in various prisons by 4 governments. He has been tried for Murder and for Mutiny for writing and or publishing articles that did not sit well with some governments. However, it hasn’t all been stories of woes or travails. There have also been epic stories of triumph. At 38, Ray Ekpu became the first black man to win the prestigious International Editor of the Year Award which is given for “courage, enterprise and leadership in advancing press freedom and responsibility, defending human rights and fostering journalistic excellence” granted by the World Press Review based in New York, USA. The following year, 1988, he was named as one of the Outstanding Young Persons of the World by Jaycees International at Sydney, Australia.
Ray Ekpu has been decorated with many other awards.
During his journalism journey, Ray Ekpu has been in the company of one person with whom he has been inseparable like gin and tonic. That is his wife Uyai. She has been with him every inch of the way, during the years of famine and years of harvest, bad times and good times. She has made the bad times look less bad and the good times look much better. She has smoothened the rough edges and removed the creases. She has borne with equanimity the taunts of some enemies and the hypocrisy of some friends. She pushes him forward to do what is right and pulls him back when he is about to go crazy.
She has dexterity in multi-tasking, juggling babies and business, children and chores, work and worries without losing her cool. Whenever trouble knocked at their door and her man was taken into detention she would do a rectangular journey from home to office to school and to the place of confinement. In all of these, she exuded admirable qualities of endurance, resilience, empathy, chutzpah and a sense of balance.
Ray Ekpu acknowledges that his wife is his stabilizer, his anchor, his mooring, his grapnel, his Rock of Gibraltar and that the debt that he owes Uyai, his adorable wife, is irrepayable.
Do you feel fulfilled at 70?
Yes. I feel fulfilled. Many Nigerians think fulfillment is how much money you have in your bank account or how many cars and houses you have. Those are not indicators of fulfillment or happiness. I am fulfilled because I have a good family, a lovely wife, 3 lovely children who have done well in their professions and I have 3 grandchildren. That for me is a big fulfillment. It is not how much money, how many cars or houses I have. Fulfillment comes from within. Nigerians like to throw their wealth around and show how much money they have. I don’t fall into that category. What I have, I’m satisfied with it.
Tell us about your growing up?
I come from an unknown village in Akwa Ibom. I don’t think it is on Google map. It is called Udo Osiong, in Ukanafon Local government area of Akwa Ibom State. There is no industry there. There is only a primary school there. There is no secondary school or university. There is no factory. There is nothing. There is no tarred road. The pipe borne water they have, I put it there, in the school compound, so people can go there and fetch water.
I brought my friends and we went there and raised money and put electricity in the village. So, that is the setting from which I have come. My father had 5 wives and we were 19 children. He died when none of us got into the university and then I rose to a level where people now know my name and can identify me by face. What more can I ask for? It has its blessings. And of course, it has its burdens of being known. Being popular has both its blessings and burdens, but you must be able and ready to take them in your stride.
I didn’t ask to be known. This profession thrust me into limelight and the things that have happened in my life have made me known, I am a self-effacing man and I don’t think that I deserve all the publicity I have gotten and I try to resist and shy away from unwanted, unmerited publicity. So, I feel good, I feel okay the way I live my life.
Has Journalism been good to Ray Ekpu?
Yes. At least I can put 3 meals on the table for myself and my wife and my children but none of us actually eats 3 meals a day. There isn’t enough time to eat 3meals. So the people who have time to eat 3 meals do not have the money to do it. That’s the reverse. When you have a little bit of money to be able to eat three meals, you don’t have enough time to eat three meals. Those who have the time to eat three meals don’t have enough money to buy three meals.