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Uncle Ray Is 75 (2)

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OPINION

By Sam Akpe

Let me conclude this birthday wish to Ray Ekpu with a few paragraphs of a long story. It is a story of two men whose paths crossed dozens of years ago—a story of tested friendship loaded with benefits.

One day in the mid-1970s, an audacious young man walked into the South Eastern State Library in Calabar and had his destiny redirected. He made it to the quiet, fun-filled city the previous day from Ibadan, where he worked as a library assistant at Nigeria’s premier university.

His mission was to explore the possibility of a job offer at the newly established second generation university—the University of Calabar. Unfortunately, he was informed on arrival that the man he needed to meet was out of the country.

While being driven in a taxi out of the campus, almost in frustration, he thought of the most likely way and a place to spend his first afternoon in the city. The first place that came to mind was the library—his natural domain.

As he walked into the silent environment, loaded with books of all shapes and contents, he observed a familiar face sitting across the table—a face he had seen in the local newspaper the previous day.

Taking a deep breath, he walked up to the gentleman and greeted him with a smile. “Sir, you must be Mr. Ray Ekpu,” he observed. “Yes, I am. How did you know? I don’t think I’ve met you before,” replied the man known today as Uncle Ray.

With a smile, the visitor explained, “No, we haven’t met, Sir. But I know you. I read your column yesterday. A beautiful prose, rich in words, but not much of depth in terms of background”

Uncle Ray frowned. But he knew the young man was right. The Nigerian Chronicle at that time had no research centre or a library. He however wondered what qualified this bold-faced lad to be his judge. He tried to ignore him. However, minutes later, they got to know each other better.

Uncle Ray, now 75, was the editor of the Nigerian Chronicle—an office he occupied at age 29 after an interview conducted by the late Prince Tony Momoh. The young librarian was Nyaknnoabasi Osso, now close to 70.

A detail version of this story is told in an upcoming book by Nyaknnoabasi. From their meeting in the state library, Nyak—as Uncle Ray calls him—got hired to set up a media research centre at the Nigerian Chronicle. This was where Nyaknnoabasi met the late Dele Giwa when the latter visited Uncle Ray in Calabar.

Hugely talented in library science, Nyaknnoabasi went ahead in his latter days to become a multiple award-winning media librarian, documentation specialist, an accomplished researcher, and author of the widely acclaimed Newswatch Who’s Who in Nigeria.

His encounter with Uncle Ray that day, and later, with Dele, paved way for his employment at the Newswatch magazine—an opportunity that took him to the front row of media librarianship and unlimited international exposure.

So, when Nyaknnoabasi sent me an old copy of Gaskia magazine for a review, it was understandable and even expected, because the publication has Uncle Ray on the cover.

Described by the magazine’s publisher, Dare Babarinsa as the “battle-tested general of the Nigerian press,” Uncle Ray takes the reader back to his early days in the village as a kid when he used to read newspapers meant for his father; who was a member of the Customary Court of Appeal.

He was so much in love with the media that when he was at the Ibibio State College, he started writing articles; and pasted them on the school’s notice board with his by-line: Pressman Remmy!

Moved over to Holy Family College, Abak later, he started a bi-monthly magazine called Nightingale. The production process was simple: write the articles, type them on stencils, have them cyclostyled, stapled and sold! Before long, he was noticed by the school principal who assigned him and his team a supervisor—a reverend Father from Ireland.

Ray’s father had five wives. Four of them gave him 19 children before he died at 50. The last wife had no child. One can only imagine what would have happened if the man had lived longer. Uncle Ray told the magazine that from the manner his father organised the family, “he made polygamy look attractive.”

Dare asked him the natural question: “So what happened that you are not a polygamist?” Uncle Ray responded without hesitation: “I guess it is not too late!” However, he went ahead to describe polygamy as a philosophy that should be discouraged in the modern era because “it has its own downsides.”

For unknown reasons, the interviewer did not ask him any question about his sojourn at the Nigerian Chronicle. From my findings, as editor, Uncle Ray kept a must-read weekly column that put him in trouble several times.

In 1980, he went to the Sunday Times newspaper as editor. Most old staff of the paper thought he was a mere local Calabar boy brought to be their boss. They however swallowed their arrogance when Uncle Ray redesigned the concept and the contents of the newspaper. Within a short time, he improved the circulation figure by 100, 000 copies every Sunday.

Besides the in-house battle which he faced, Dare observed that the roughriders of the then ruling National Party of Nigeria never liked Ray’s icy witticism and omnivorous knowledge. Speedily, they kicked against his column and reassigned him to the relatively unknown Business Times.

He refused to be frustrated. Instead, he accepted the challenge, re-modelled the newspaper with appetising contents and design; and brought back his column. That was unacceptable to his bosses. He resigned. When Dele showed up and took him to the Concord Group as Chairman of the editorial board, Uncle Ray took his column with him.

One day, he predicted that at the rate public offices were being set ablaze whenever corrupt acts were noticed, the towering Nigerian External Telecommunications (NET) building was not safe. At that time, a N54 million corruption case was under investigation at NET.

The article appeared on a Sunday; and early Monday morning, NET building was on fire. The columnist was promptly arrested, detained and charged with murder and accessory to murder. He was later discharged and acquitted.

From this point, the interview shifts to how the Newswatch project was conceived. Ray reveals that he resigned from Concord Group when Dele was removed as editor of Sunday Concord. At that time, Dele was away on honeymoon.  

Dare, the interviewer, had worked at the Concord with Uncle Ray, Dele and Yakubu Mohammed. He was also a senior editor at Newswatch. So, what you have in Gaskia are insider’s questions and responses. Uncle Ray talks about his relationship with Dele, Dan Agbese, and Yakubu—who was his classmate at the University of Lagos.

You want to have tears streaming down your eyes? Then read his account of the death of Dele. They had lived together in two wings of a duplex. Most times they ate together either in his or Dele’s study. Both used Ray’s electricity generating set whenever there was power cut. Then with palpable emotions, he talks about their last few days together.

Six months after Dele was assassinated, Newswatch magazine was proscribed by the military government over a report on the draft constitution. Uncle Ray and his colleagues were loaded into jail. Another trouble!

One day, he was at the Calabar airport, waiting for a flight to Lagos. He had just completed his vacation in his village. That week, Newswatch had on its cover an exclusive interview with General David Mark; conducted by Dan. It exposed General Sani Abacha’s sit-tight agenda, as head of state. Uncle Ray, who was on leave, was arrested at the airport, detained and taken by road to Lagos and locked up.

Fast forward: Uncle Ray explains to Gaskia how Newswatch was sold to a new investor who abandoned it. That transaction was indeed a sad tale of how a flourishing and most influential news magazine in Nigeria went down the highway of silence; then death.

As predicted by Dare, the interview with Ray is un-put-down-able. It tastes like a thriller. I expected more questions. But that may come another day.

Ray remains one of the most revered practitioners of journalism, not just in Nigeria, but across the world. He does not only write, but speaks as an ancestor of the noble profession—a living legend.

Many of us are still waiting for that day when Ray will compile and publish his columns—from the Nigerian Chronicle, Sunday Times, and Business Times, to Sunday Concord. A book on journalism practise, from insider’s view point, is equally not a bad idea. Such a book would capture the silent role played by Uyai, his wife of over 40 years; and chronicle his travails—the repeated harassments, arrests, and detentions.

Unfortunately, none of his three children is interested in journalism. They have all moved on to other things. His son, at five, dreamt of being like Uncle Dele and Daddy. But after the death of Dele on October 19, 1986, the boy formally denounced his previous interest. His reason: “I don’t want to be killed like Uncle Dele.”

For Uncle Ray, the world is waiting for his memoir, Again, Happy Birthday, Sir.

Akpe is a Journalist and writes from Abuja

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