By Ndutimi Alaibe
The news came with a frightening shock: Prof is dead. Bad news! It sent goose pimples all over me. I’m still in that state of mental numbness. Professor Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu was a trailblazer in several ways. On Sunday January 2, they told me he had walked past the exit door. What? Prof, dead? No, certain things should not happen.
How do you mourn the death of this erudite scholar — the pride of every African! How come I am talking about him in the past tense when we should be sitting together recalling his ground-breaking academic exploits in Harvard and Princeton, and unequalled administrative leadership back home; or when he served as Nigeria’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary!
We must recall that he was appointed Nigeria’s ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire by the then Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari. When General Ibrahim Babangida forcefully took over from Buhari in 1985, he did not only retain Prof in that position, his tenure was renewed. Prof reconciled Cote d’Ivoire with Nigeria over the civil war brouhaha and completed the Nigeria House in that country.
This Elder Statesman was exceptional in many aspects. Born on May 2, 1935, he emerged from a hitherto obscure village, now a thriving community in Kolokuma Opokuma LGA of Bayelsa State, called Sabagriea, to become the first African to successfully graduate from the white-saturated Harvard University. It is also indisputable that he was the first black African Professor from that institution. We would remain eternally proud of him.
At the last count, his academic degrees acquired at Harvard and Princeton Universities included Bachelor of Arts, Master of Public Administration, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Philosophy. He served in different capacities in some of the topmost universities in the world—teaching, researching and writing.
He was my most cherished maternal uncle; from the same local government area. But beyond such affinity, Professor Ekpebu was our shining star and an inspiration to us all. He came as an Ijaw sun — created to shine beyond the confines of his environment; despite all the constraints. He conquered forces that pulled others down.
Back home, Prof was in the original administrative team that turned the water-logged Rivers State into what it has become today. He served as the State Finance Commissioner under the then military governor, Commander Alfred Diette-Spiff. So committed, he left the enticing academic environment to sacrifice his time, energy and intellect for the growth of Rivers State.
Besides committing the state to obtain a World Bank loan and establish Risonpalm, it was during his tenure that the Pan-African Bank — modelled after the American Manhattan Bank — was established by the Rivers State Government. Beyond the finance industry, his creative imagination and foresight conceived the need for the construction of the East-West Road, with his boss, Diete-Spiff. They tackled the then military government to approve the construction of this historic road to connect the major oil producing states of Nigeria. Before then, if you had to go to Warri in Delta State or Benin in Edo State, you had to go through the tortuous journey of crossing the Onitsha Bridge.
At the time I was at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Professor Ekpebu was appointed by President Olusegun Obasanjo as Chairman of the NDDC Presidential Monitoring Committee. To my knowledge and utmost delight, he discharged the functions of that office with conscientiousness. He was a man of integrity — fully dedicated to any assignment given to him. He would rather not accept the job than not do it excellently.
His diligence in critically evaluating and monitoring our work at the NDDC with other members of the monitoring team, despite our acknowledged filial relationship, was absolutely impressive. This was, for me, integrity and moral rectitude at their best.
What I can say in this space is just a scratch on the surface of what this great diplomat, international scholar, leader, a prolific author and administrator was to us — and to me as a person. Even death cannot minimise his stature. He will ever remain great. My condolences go first to his beloved wife, his children and grandchildren who will greatly miss him.
In his life time, the Federal Government honoured him with the prestigious Order of the Federal Republic (OFR). The government and people of Cote d’Ivoire also honoured him with Grand Order of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire. It is my belief that the government of Nigeria will do well to name the Nigeria House in Abidjan after this great patriot.
In addition, both the governments of Rivers and Bayelsa States should immortalise Professor Ekpebu. It is unfortunate that this could not be done in his lifetime. But it is better to be late than never. Existing monuments of significant value or new ones should be erected in his honour.
May the valued soul of Professor Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu rest in peace.
Ndutimi Alaibe is a former Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta Affairs; and was prior to that, the Managing Director of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).