Achieving three scores plus ten years in good health and sound mind is usually no mean feat in a season growing with discontent, anger and frustration. Life has become short and brutish but I congratulate Ray Ekpu, a very distinguished journalist, writer, essayist, humanist, patriot, activist, award winner, good man, great mind and family man on attaining the glorious age of 70 years (I have heard Ken-Calebs Olumese, Niteshift Guv’nor and Ray’s bosom friend of so many years, call him Raymond, and I said to myself: so Ray is from Raymond).
In a tribute to the man of the moment, “70 years came too soon for Ray”, says Akpandem James, a journalist and special adviser on media to the Honourable Minister of Budget and National Planning, who has followed Ray’s career right from his days at the Nigerian Chronicle. This is another way of saying Ray is young at heart and does not look 70.
Indeed, Ray is very cosmopolitan in nature and outlook; he is blessed with a very warm, friendly and engaging personality. Whether young or old; rich or poor, Ray connects easily and relates well with various diverse groups, no matter their status in life. Ray does not know how to grandstand or carry any unnecessary air around him; he shoots straight from the hip. He can be described as a people’s man, seeking to do good all the time.
If you have followed Ray’s career as a writer as Akpandem did, you will agree with me that Ray is a master of the prose genre; a wordsmith and writer and intellectual who is good at his craft. Here is a graduate of the University of Lagos who became famous by training and working as a journalist and writer; Ray has a factory where he manufactures his own words and phrases which he uses to elucidate very topical issues and his worldviews when he writes.
Ray entices us when he writes and brings us into his own world of language; he plays with words and practically takes you on a journey of free flowing prose that is so gripping and exciting you will not stop until you finish reading what he has written. I still recollect vividly his column where he criticised the Justice Uwaifo Panel back then as a ‘kangaroo panel’ that could not stand the test of time.
As far as journalism is concerned, Ray is a pacesetter and role model, and a shining star in the media firmament in Nigeria. His admirers are therefore not surprised he is now noted as a grandmaster of journalism with his regular column in the Guardian alongside other contemporaries from his journalism career.
I met Ray more than 30 years ago through an encounter with Guv’nor Olumese during my early days at Niteshift, the upscale nightclub that was the rave at the time. And since then, our relationship grew to that of mentor and mentee. As a young undergraduate and aspiring journalist, I followed Ray’s writing closely from the Sunday Times, to Sunday Concord and then Newswatch. I used to buy my copy of Newswatch every week at N1.50 and read every page like the Holy Book. I was and I’m still mersmerised by Ray’s writing skills and I wanted to write like him, Dr Sunny Ojeagbase and the late Dele Giwa with their inimitable styles that brought flourish to the art of writing. Later, I took the bold step and started contributing to the sports pages of the Observer in Benin and later Sports Souvenir in Lagos as an undergraduate at the University of Benin.
Ray is usually not one to be intimidated as he speaks his mind on issues relating to how Nigeria can become a much better place with every government in power. In a 2014 interview in the Daily Trust as a member of the politics and governance committee of the National Conference, Ray said the House of Representatives should be scrapped. Ray’s view was that having a bi-camera legislature was a waste of money; instead he opted for a model whereby every state in Nigeria would have four senators each and one senator representing the FCT.
In the same interview, Ray voted for state (local) police. According to Ray, “community policing” would provide cover for the rural populace. “Local police”, he advised, “will know the territory, and if you have police that is close to the people, that nearness provided protection”.
“I met Ray in 1982, that is 36 years ago, when he was editor of the Sunday Times,” remembers Guv’nor Olumese. “That encounter has grown into a personal and family relationship. That was the time I also met the late Dele Giwa. Ray is a humble, trustworthy and dependable friend,” Olumese says confidently. “Ray believes Nigeria has been shortchanged for too long by our leaders and this explains why his writings reflect an abiding faith in Nigeria that has continued to experience wasted opportunities,” Olumese further asserts.
My conversation with Olumese naturally drifted to Ray’s career as a writer and journalist. “Oh, my friend,” Olumese quips, “Ray is a brilliant and prolific writer who writes on issues; his prose can bring hope to the oppressed because he’s eloquent and readable. Everyone one can read Ray and understand him and know where he stands. My prayer is that Nigeria should be blessed with many good people like him and we who over 70 years old will gladly welcome him to the club”.
From all accounts, it is evident Ray is a good man. I can also confirm that Ray has a pleasing personality; he’s friendly, approachable and always willing to lend a helping hand. Along with Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed and Soji Akinrinade, his colleagues at May Five Media, I had the opportunity of working with them when they launched Moving in Circles, the book containing a compilation of their columns, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) some years back.
Both in Lagos and Uyo, I have related with Census, the younger brother of Ray, on professional and personal engagements. He tells me Ray is a motivator, mentor, big brother, pathfinder and family patriarch. “Without Ray, I don’t know where I would have been today,” Census says. “And the same thing can be said by every member of our family because he succeeded in planting and nurturing the family tree. Our father died when I was very young, so it was Ray that trained me and brought me up. I feel fulfilled having him as my mentor and big brother,” Census further reflects.
When Ray was named the ‘World Editor of the Year’ in 1987, the entire community celebrated him because, according to Census, he is a hero among his people. Ray hails from Ikot Udo Ossiom in Ukanafun LGA of Akwa Ibom State. There are no dull moments with Ray because he believes life should be enjoyed and he enjoys promoting a sense of community. Ray is a family man, father and grandfather with his wife, Uyai, and three adorable children: Elu, Edikan and Mfoniso, popularly known as ‘Papa’; he’s the ‘man of the house’.
Instead of rolling out the drums to mark his 70th birthday as his family and friends wished, Ray has asked for a colloquium to interrogate leadership challenges in Nigeria, a topic very dear to his heart. Ray is very passionate about quality leadership, good governance, a democracy that delivers dividends and a society that is just, egalitarian and equitable. I agree with Ray that one of our biggest challenges as nation today is lack of visionary leadership.
Let us raise our glasses and toast with some cognac to Ray, a very distinguished Nigerian and a great mind, as he turns 70 on Monday August 6, 2018. May God Almighty bless him abundantly and renew his strength to carry on all the days of his life.
Braimah is a public relations and marketing strategist based in Lagos