By Louis Odion, FNGE
Astrologers paint them in sometimes conflicting colours: generous yet needy of attention, forgiving yet vengeful, loyal yet flirty, and charming even though insecure.
It is from such maelstrom of cosmic contradictions, we are made to believe, that the Leo persona crystallizes.
While the rest of us may be handicapped to join in such astral speculations, what is however not in dispute is that Dr. Peter Odili and Mr. Ray Ekpu, two illustrious members of this zodiac family just joining the septuagenarian club, are indeed a study in consistency.
Ekpu, a journalism icon, turned 70 on August 6 while Odili is nine days younger.
Until the unveiling of PAMO University of Medical Science in Port Harcourt in February this year and the national fanfare it generated, not many would remember that Odili had been a successful medical doctor before venturing into politics some three decades ago.
As editor of a national newspaper, it was inevitable that my path and his would cross more than 17 years ago, being not only the governor of a key state like Rivers but also a top player in national politics.
But we grew much closer only after he left office and was no longer in a position to dole out contracts. That afforded me the privilege for a closer scrutiny. You may disagree with some of his views and choices, but certainly not his humanity.
Those close to him even before he became governor always attested to his unstinting generosity in material terms. As I would later find after he left office, even more understated is his generosity of spirit – this complete lack of bitterness even when circumstances justify such.
Here is a man who, on account of national appeal and network, most bookmakers had projected would effortlessly clinch PDP’s presidential ticket in 2006, but for the eleventh-hour high-level intrigues and vicious smear campaign approved – if not orchestrated – ironically by the same man he had worshipped zealously and trusted blinded all along – OBJ.
Aspects of that momentous moment are already well captured in his memoirs, Conscience and History – My Story, published in 2015. He says he learnt early to bear betrayal with philosophical equanimity: “There is indeed no art for discerning who will stand with you to the end. It is also not a function of sanguinal relations or ethnicity. That is why the list is a mixed salad of friends, fraternal, religious, political, professional, colleagues turned betrayers, even extended family members… those by God’s will we single-handedly invited to occupy positions, those who could not pay school fees or transport their children to school until Odili came into their lives long before I became Governor; those who called me ‘brother’ and were called ‘best friends of Government’ on the basis of the tremendous patronages they enjoyed from my administration albeit meritoriously; those who had no leather shoes at the point of contact with me politically and who are today acclaimed success stories…
“People who wined and dined with me every day in office literally and were privy to most decisions and actions of my Government… foot-runners who became owners of cars through our patronage and assistance. Even those whose wedding were sponsored and funded by us and those who received free medical treatment in our private hospital for many years. That’s how deep the betrayal was.
“Like the scripture says ‘Many are the tribulations of the righteous but the Lord delivers them from them all’.”
After Yar’Adua was virtually foisted on PDP by OBJ, the story is told that a strong lobby to “console” Odili with the VP slot was similarly scuttled by the powerful interest. His loss became Goodluck Jonathan’s gain.
So, here is the man who could have been president in 2007 instead of Umar Yar’Adua.
What would then seem exemplary was Odili’s fortitude thereafter. On account of the raw deal suffered, many in his shoes would have recoiled in depression, if not burned the party’s flag outright.
Not Odili who, without prompting, enthusiastically became Jonathan’s main cheerleader in the subsequent campaign “in furtherance of the South-South cause”.
To sit with him in his Abuja redoubt is to come in contact with the warmth of his uncommon humanity. Whenever I visited and chatted with him, not once have I ever heard him, even within permissible allowance of Freudian slip, speak ill of those who repaid his good with evil politically. Forever smiling and genial, he would invite you to pour another glass of habitual red wine, always enjoining you to take life easy and not be too much in a hurry to return to Lagos.
Fiercely devoted to Catholic values, Odili treasures family. The spirit of solidarity easily discernible in the nuclear family he has built is perhaps only equalled by the durability of the political home he knitted together. It is perhaps a measure of his dexterity that that unit has managed to stand together till date.
Save for Rotimi Amaechi, virtually everyone who is somebody in Rivers politics in the last two decades will hardly be shy today to be introduced publicly as “Odili boy”. Incumbent Governor Nyesom Wike now provides the rallying point for the clan. From the Celestine Omehias to the Abiye Sekibos, Uche Seconduses, Austin Okparas, Magnus Abes, Kenneth Kobanis, Emma Okahs to Emeka Wokes.
Even then, the circumstances of Amaechi’s estrangement were somehow complicated. Harmony had flourished in the household until OBJ’s sepulchral shadow loomed. As the popular account goes, once Third Term collapsed in 2006, the vengeful Ota chicken farm thereafter stalked the land to exact a pound of flesh from those considered saboteurs. He doubted if Odili did enough to deliver him.
So, EFCC Rottweilers then wrestled down the then Speaker, Rotimi Amaechi. His ransom? An undertaking to commence Odili’s impeachment process after release. Once the then ultra loyal Speaker touched down in Port Harcourt from the Abuja detention camp, he reneged and went underground.
When Amaechi was later announced as winner of the PDP governorship primaries, OBJ vetoed it, famously citing “a K-Leg”. Odili was given a short deadline to submit another name, failing which the imperial majesty at Aso Rock would appropriate that right. Then, the governor settled for Omehia, apparently oblivious of the tidal current of an ancestral feud. Though cousins, the latter and Amaechi were everything but friends due to old family wounds.
Thus emerged the crack in Odili’s political family which time is yet to mend.
As for Ray Ekpu, his biography may as well pass as the story of the Nigerian media in almost half a century. His chequered journalistic pursuit in the last forty-five years undoubtedly mirrors the industry’s transitioning in all its ramifications: from the colonial to the modern; from the preponderance of state ownership to free enterprise; from the relative prosperity of the 80s/90s to the hardship of today.
Segun Adeniyi was right in saying members of our generation owe people like Uncle Ray a debt of gratitude for inspiration. Indeed, the 1980s were the years of the locusts as well as the eagles. We shuddered at the spectre of Lawrence Anini and the nation’s new addiction to cocaine and heroin. But it was nonetheless the decade of th Nobel laurel when Wole Soyinka put Nigeria on world’s map as the first African and black to win Alfred Nobel’s golden medal.
It was also the decade of letter bomb when ace journalist, Dele Giwa, was brutally dispatched. To paraphrase John Galbraith, he paid the price for immortality – dying young.
But it was a death that shook the nation and put the presiding military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, on the back foot. Being Dele Giwa’s professional soulmate, Uncle Ray naturally became part of the legend.
It was not yet the age of Instagram where cant rules and folks are more obsessed with the glitzy, with vanishing appetite for the written word. Then, hypnosis from merely reading fine prose by Uncle Ray weekly was enough to make many of us decide early the career paths we wanted to pursue.
Sure, writing talent isn’t all; even more remarkable is the character – that crusading spirit – and the consistency Uncle Ray has brought to bear in his journalism odyssey. He dared authorities in his writings. Forever etched in our memories are the old front-page Black/White photographs of him being whisked away to prison or being arraigned in court looking disheveled, but unbowed.
Such depiction of courage in the face of bare-knuckle intimidation was no doubt inspiring for younger minds dreaming of a better country. We wanted to be like Uncle Ray, stand up to the political bullies and fight for liberty. Material benefit was never the primary motivation.
Doubtless, it was in recognition of the immensity of his talent and contribution that the department of Mass Communicstion at the Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic has been named after him. A rare occurrence indeed in a society where true heroes are seldom celebrated alive.
Today, it is no doubt a measure of his clout that, after Chief Segun Osoba, he is often the next choice to preside over mass fellowships of practising journalists anywhere in the country.
However, to describe Uncle Ray as only a journalism master hardly does justice fully to his enigma. Beside the crown of a prose master is also the jewel of the connoisseur of the good life.
In a moving tribute last week, my brother and friend, Dr. Reuben Abati, ended on a cryptic note: “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.”
I take liberty to shed further light. The fellowship “Monumental” Reuben (“My Son”) alluded to could not have been outside the iconic Nightshift Coliseum tucked in the bowels of Opebi, Lagos.
I happened be a Gold Card member myself. Waddling into its glitzy gallery those unforgettable Friday nights, it was impossible not to immediately take notice of Uncle Ray in the corner reserved for the “Big Boys”. Of course, “the boys” like us were customarily obliged to first go over to pay homage.
Seeing him in the company of the impeccable Professor Bolaji Akinyemi carousing choice cognac, you got a final confirmation that the show could then commence.
Here is wishing Dr. Odili and Uncle Ray happy birthday.