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Academic-diplomatic imprints of black Africa’s first Harvard Graduate, Ambassador (Prof) Lawrence Ekpebu (1935-2022)

Academic-diplomatic imprints of black Africa’s first Harvard Graduate, Ambassador (Prof) Lawrence Ekpebu (1935-2022)

Prologue

Unbelievable, but it’s one year gone already! Remember, with the year 2022, still at cockcrow, one of Africa’s most worthy citizens, Professor Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu, took a bow from mortal plains on January 2nd. Leaving in his trail at the time, an emblazon of accolades and global reminiscences of an outstanding life including from Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, former Nigerian leader, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and home state Governor, Bayelsa Governor, Douye Diri, amongst others. Quite striking, Ekpebu was the first Black from the African continent ever to obtain a degree from the prestigious Harvard University in the United States of America.

Through the luxuriant sides of life’s detours, he was a scholar and researcher of special genre, a notable diplomat, down-to-earth community man and a statesman of exceptional accomplishments. His passing at a ripe age of 87 years with flowing lines of great work turned out to be a celebratory development, poking the whole mystery and emotional debility of death, even as he was laid to rest on Saturday, 30th April, 2022, in his birthplace, Okoloba, in the creeks of the Niger Delta.

A fisherman’s son in Harvard

When the Puritan clergyman, John Harvard established in Massachusetts in the United States the university named after him in 1636, he aspired to create a citadel of scholarship superior to his own alma mater, Cambridge University. Cambridge itself was founded about 427 years earlier and 390 years continues to remain on top in global ranking of universities. Predominantly elitist and conservative, the institution perhaps, unintentionally had also maintained a racially segregated character for many centuries. The jinx on its racial balance was however broken when the lawyer and educationist Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922) became the first Black man to graduate from the university in 1870, that is 254 years after its founding. Twenty-five years later, by 1895, the American Pan-Africanist and Sociologist, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) also became the first Black man to bag a PhD degree from that institution. But the doors of Harvard remained shut to black Africa for another half century.

However, 20-year-old Ekpebu opened a new veneer for all of Black Africa in faraway Harvard as he entered its hall in 1955 to study, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 1960 and later on, returned to earn a Doctorate in 1965. Ekpebu left Harvard not only a trail blazer, but also taking along some of the institution’s most coveted academic prizes. Of particular note was the Francis H Burr Prize Scholarship for “outstanding character, leadership, academic brilliance and sportsmanship” established in 1918 in honour of one of America’s outstanding national heroes. His citation for the award, stated amongst other things that, besides exceptional academic standing, this African door opener was also a notable sporting icon in Harvard and combined these with vivacious activism within the university’s civic space. In sports, he captained the Harvard Football Team to win the All New England Cup in 1957 and the Harvard Cups consecutively in 1958 and 1959. It was to his credit and strident opinions, that Harvard ended up de-cocooning itself from self-imposed isolationism within the American University System in several areas, especially becoming part of the National Student Unionism system in America.

Academic Pan Africanism of an African boy in Harvard

On hindsight, Harvard and indeed all of Africa seemed a far end for early educated Africans. Due to its vertical neo-colonial relations with Britain, Africa’s early westernized elite had mostly looked at UK schools. This was until such persons as Prof. Eyo Ita, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and others broke the ranks by seeking knowledge in the United States. Close to Ekpebu’s birth place in Opokuma in Bayelsa State, some pioneers such as agriculturist JHP. Appah, administrator, Sen. Amatari Zuofa and even award-winning poet, Gabriel Okara had also suddenly crossed over to the US to study in the 1940s and early 1950s instead of the UK as was the practice.

From the onset of Ekpebu’s enrolment in Harvard, records show his unrelenting advocacy for creating avenues for greater African presence. Riding on a crest of superstardom, his lone voice rightly earned to be heard. His arguments that nascent African states needed Harvard-trained leaders, received sufficient appeal. As he proceeded to graduate, cum laude, the university authorities entrusted the 25-year-old to set up a Programme to admit deserving Nigerians, all on scholarship; with a proviso to extend to the rest of tropical Africa, if this proved successful.

He therefore worked out a different paradigm on opening the pathway for more Black Africans at Harvard. The prodigy he was, he connected with the newly established Nigerian Liaison Office in Washington, DC and got introduced to the ebullient politician and nationalist, Chief O. Awokoya, arguably one of the pioneers of Free Universal Primary Education in Nigeria to help further elaborate on the Harvard scholarship scheme. Being an “omo eko”, on this pedestal, Awokoya who became a father figure to him followed up with Harvard, established the Nigeria-American Scholarship Programme (NASP) and thereon, the African Scholarship Programme of American Universities (ASPAU). He further introduced other programmes such as African Graduate Fellowship Programme (AFGRAD) and Advanced Training for Leadership and Skill (ATLAS), bringing on-board 250 American universities and covering 4,000 beneficiaries.

Since Ekpebu had determined to strive for the golden fleece in American and was now a gold fish sought after by the best educational institutions in the world, such as Columbia, Yale, he settled for Princeton University, America’s fourth oldest university to do his Master’s Degree in Public Administration which he earned in 1962.

Political advocacy for identity

Rather than remain in the euphoria and allure of American grandeur, Ekpebu quickly returned to Nigeria after his PhD and ended up in the classroom at the University of Ibadan. At the same time, he also became closely connected with the political class, especially from the Niger Delta area in Lagos. Of particular note were the likes of Chief Harold Dappa Biriye, who founded the Niger Delta Congress (NDC) and was notably the political leader, Chief Melford Okilo, who became the only parliamentarian elected under the NDC, former External Affairs Minister, Dr. Okoi Arikpo, Dr. Udo Udoma (later Justice), all of whom were leaders of the Calabar, Ogoja Rivers (COR) movement. He was also very close to those within the Zikist political stable with whom he shared intellectual and personal links.

It is recalled, that while he carried out internship for Master’s Degree at Chase Manhattan Bank, New York, one of the foremost American business moguls, Nelson Rockefeller met the “Outstanding Young Nigerian” and sent personal words to Nigeria’s newly-elected President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. The latter in turn, sent a telegram to Ekpebu, with “best wishes for many more future accomplishments.” Ekpebu later became a life-long “child” of the great Zik of Africa and personal friend with Owelle Chukwuma Azikiwe, first son of the President, who joined him in Harvard and kept a close relationship. Ekpebu soon became a shining star within the politico-intellectual community in Lagos and Ibadan axis.

With the political maelstrom in the country, the ensuing military coup of 1966 and the outbreak of civil war in 1967, life took a turn placing Ekpebu at the vortex of governance. The dream of a COR State somehow materialised with the creation of Rivers State amongst the new 12-states structure on 27th May, 1967. Naturally, he was amongst the line-up of intelligentsia from the Old Rivers State area to give the young state life and content. He was easily appointed, fittingly, the pioneer Commissioner for Finance and later, Economic Planning.

The current Rivers and Bayelsa States which made up the new State were the epicentre of the Nigeria Civil War at the time. The new state government and its proper financial management and economic planning had to be done from Lagos for a good while. This however suited Ekpebu, as it enabled him combine his political roles with his academic work at Ibadan more easily and also devote copious time to planning. By the time government effectively moved to Port Harcourt, the state’s capital in 1968, as the war abated, Ekpebu’s blueprint became unparalleled in all of Nigeria.

Developmental strides of a co-opted scholar

Amongst other things was the robust infrastructural and educational development programme.

a) Physical infrastructure

Coming from a background of living in the United States of America, Ekpebu became accustomed to doing things with grandeur and thoroughness. His approach to the physical development of the new state was to invest heavily in building up the State capital as one of the main urban areas in the country. Accordingly, American-style skyscraper buildings were introduced as Port Harcourt ended up boasting of the best Government Secretariat Complex of 6 units of nine storey high buildings. Indeed, the picturesque 19-storey ‘Point Block’ became the tallest building in all of Nigeria, outside Lagos and Ibadan at the time. The city’s road infrastructure also became greatly modernised. Port Harcourt once more regained its “Garden City” moniker. Of even greater impact was his conception of what became known as the East-West Road which was styled after President Eisenhower’s post War World II American super highway connectivity. Ekpebu’s idea was to build a road that will connect the entire Niger Delta of Nigeria to make it a self-sustaining co-prosperity zone. This was expected to cover about 340 kilometres from Warri to Oron through Kaiama and Port Harcourt. Although the project started in some form, it was only decades later during President Obasanjo’s tenure in 2006 that the idea of dualising it came to fruition.

b) Social development

On the soft issues, realising the importance of education and against the backdrop of relative under-schooling in the state, Ekpebu’s main focus was school planting. Working with his colleagues, slain playwright and Ogoni minority rights advocate Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Chief Melford Okilo, both of whom had the portfolio of Commissioner of Education, respectively, Government Secondary Schools were built all over the state in larger communities while Primary Schools were established in every human settlement. At tertiary level, a College of Science and Technology, one of the first of its kind in the country, was established in 1972. Robust scholarship and bursary schemes for studies both in-country and internationally were put in place. Of particular note, corresponding costs for outward bound beneficiaries were fully paid, covering the entire length of studies; as if they foresaw the impending geometric tumbling of the Naira. Today, whole generations of people from the old Rivers State owe their success in life to the schools which were established during this period as it opened up hitherto isolated communities.

c) Economic and industrial development

Another area in which Ekpebu left his imprimatur is the building of the economy of the state through the establishment of various institutions. In particular was his emphasis on assuring that financial resources were available to indigenes of the state for economic activities of various sorts. It is in this respect that he came up with the idea of a state-owned bank which metamorphosed into the Pan African Bank (PAB) in 1971, that was wholly-owned by the Government of Rivers State. Gradually, PAB grew to become one of the most capitalised bank in Nigeria and became the bellwether for economic activities not just in Rivers State but for many parts of the old Eastern region, that is particularly extending to the present Imo, Abia and Akwa Ibom States amongst others.

Also, of significance and still enduring today was the establishment of PABOD Finance Group. Acronymed after the then existing Divisions or now called Local Governments (Port Harcourt, Ahoada, Brass, Ogoni and Degema), PABOD Finance which was established in 1972 is still surviving 50 years later as one of the leading holding conglomerates. By 1978, it ventured into chemicals and beverages and is today owner of PABOD Breweries, producing a variety of products, Golden Guinea beer.

Another area of economic development was the establishment of industries, including the establishment of one of the biggest palm plantations in the country known as Risonpalm Estate which had plantations in all parts of the old Rivers State. Indeed, he established Risonpalm Estate from a credit facility from the World Bank which was soon redeemed as the return on investment on that line of agro business made it very attractive. When Risonpalm was at its peak, it had some of the largest hectares of oil palm plantations in Ubime and Elele in Rivers State and in Elebele in present Bayelsa State and took the oil palm business to a new level and today, remains the economic livewire of several states in the region.

In similar vein, during his period as Commissioner of Finance, the government of old Rivers State established other industries such as the West African Glass Industries in Trans-Amadi Industrial Layout, Port Harcourt. Established in 1972 and taking advantage of the abundance of sand which is one of the most abundant mineral resources in this largely riverine state, the West African Glass Industries became an industrial hub in Nigeria and dominated the market shortly after it was established., In fact the company became the largest manufacturer of glass bottles, glass containers, catering for the needs of most of the country’s breweries, pharmaceutical companies, distilleries and all kinds of domestic wares.

Read also: Bukhastari: The man who did not win

Ekpebu and Diete-Spiff connection

In private conversations, Ekpebu had attributed his exceptional performance as a commissioner in a post-war rehabilitation situation, in the old Rivers State, primarily to his close David and Jonathan like relationship, to say, with his erstwhile boss, then Lt. Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, with whom he shared age affinity. Whilst he was 32 years in 1967, the Governor, a Naval Commander at the time, though now Paramount Ruler of Twon-Brass, was only 25 years old. Ekpebu and King Diete-Spiff developed a profound relationship of mutual trust all through until the former has now taken a bow. Accordingly, what is attributed to Ekpebu was effectively under the directive of his principal who gave him the platform to thrive.

Diplomatic legacy and impact

With the sudden political change in Nigeria in 1975, leading to the forced ouster of the military government which he served, Ekpebu returned to academia, especially research and writing. Most of his work was at Ibadan and East Africa, especially Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, with which he had been associated since 1966.

By 1976, he was called back to national service as Adviser on International Affairs to the Military Administration and had the opportunity to work directly with General Murtala Mohammed and later on Olusegun Obasanjo as Foreign Policy Adviser. This was a very critical time as that government more than any other African leadership at the time, played a major role in the decolonization of the continent. Indeed, it was during that period that General Mohammed made his “Africa has come of age” speech which eventually led to the independence of Angola.

Still on the external scene and on return from East Africa where he had gone for academic work, he came back in 1984, this time to work with the administration of General Muhammadu Buhari. This resulted into his appointment as Nigerian Ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) by the country’s new military ruler, General Muhammadu Buhari. Even though power changed hands in Nigeria, leading to the take-over by General Ibrahim Babangida in 1986 and all Ambassadors were recalled, Ekpebu was one, among few to be retained. This was due to the fact that his diplomatic forage was marked with the highest level of diplomatic and intellectual adroitness in fully repairing the state of mutual distrust and unease between that country and Nigeria.

Ekpebu’s performance was besmirched particularly on account of the President Boigny’s previous support for secessionist Biafra. More peculiarly, he endeared himself to “Papa” Houphouët-Boigny (1905-1993) who had ruled the country since it attained independence in 1958 until his death in 1993. He used personal charm, intellect, and background of American modishness to deal with the irritating bilateral distrust between Nigeria and his host country that had defied the best of diplomatic endeavours.

Ekpebu therefore, served Nigeria as Ambassador to that country for a uniquely long period of 7 years. Indeed, it is on good authority that the aged President Boigny precluded all efforts at his recall back home through personal intervention with Abuja authorities on several occasions.

Unending national service

At various times, later on, Ekpebu was appointed to serve in several other capacities. These included the Governing Council, Nigerian Institute of Management, 1968, Governing Council, University of Ilorin, Member, Governing Council, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, 1970-1975, Pro-Chancellor, Rivers State University of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt. In the academic world, he was for almost a lifetime on the leadership of the Nigerian Political Science Association, American Society of International Law and the International Political Science Association. Ekpebu was until his death also on the Board of World Model (Peace Research), Centre for International Affairs, Harvard University.

During the Government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, he was again co-opted to the service of the country as Chairman, of the Presidential Committee on NDDC Project Implementation. This position he held for a total of eight (8) years and left behind a record for his thoroughness and knack for details. This is adjudged to have left that institution better positioned for performance.

As Obasanjo’s government approached its end in 2006/2007 and at a time when Goodluck Jonathan was a newly inducted Governor of Bayelsa state, the doors to the Nigerian presidential elections were thrown open. Naturally, several well-qualified Nigerians indicated interest to take over from President Obasanjo. From the Niger Delta, such heavyweights among the then Governors, Peter Odili of Rivers, James Ibori of Delta, Donald Duke of Cross River, Lucky Igbinedion of Edo, Obong Victor Attah of Akwa Ibom, all indicated interest in the ruling PDP. From faraway north, the Governor of Katsina State, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua also threw in his hat and was considered as favoured.

Interestingly, Ambassador Ekpebu who at the time, was of great health, full of wits and intellectual stuff also showed up. He was very idealistic of what Nigeria should be but very less of a politician than most of other personalities. But as the discussions progressed, it was clear that Ekpebu was ready for the presidential quest and was about to throw his hat in the ring.

Until his death, he remained an Honorary Adviser to the Government of Bayelsa State and played various roles in governance as well as matters of infrastructure and social development. At a wider national level, he remained a think-tank of many capacities and contributed to the development of such national programmes as the 2nd National Development Plan, which was from 1970-1974 and the 3rd National Development Plan, from 1975-1980.

Home and community

Although Ekpebu achieved exceptionally in life, the truth is that he was merely a home boy, so to say. He was born to Naupa Ekpebu of Okoloba and his wife, Mary Geku. Pa Naupa was a renowned sailor with one of Britain’s leading maritime fleets, Elder Dempster Lines, established in 1913 in Liverpool and named after its original founder and has continued the tradition of the British maritime industry which had been established from the 1860s.

His cradle was in his home town, Okoloba which itself is a small autonomous community around Seibokorogha (Sabagriea) town in Kolokuma/Opokuma Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. The Kolokuma people, though covering a small area of just about 360 square kilometres, are easily rated as one of the most ancient and custodians of the traditions of the Ijaw ethnicity, Nigeria’s 4th largest group. Their founding eponymous progenitor, Kalaokun who also went with the name Aluku. Aluku was considered one of the children of Izon, the original progenitor of the Ijaw race.

From the traditional point of view the antiquity of the Kolokuma is evinced by the existence of such major deities as Kolokuma Egbesu, Opudaba and other similar traditional power bases around the area which are believed to be among some of the most devoted Ijaw pantheons. At the same time it is the Abadabou and Asanipoubo which are sacred forests and the deity in Kalama are all located in Kolokuma areas.

In modern times, however, the Kolokumas easily became the most educated people among the Ijaw nationalities due to early acceptance of western way of life. They were early evangelised by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) led Reverend Proctor who established a Mission field in 1904. This quickly translated not only into a church but the building of a school. It created a centre for missionary activities and a school in Kaiama in a compound provided by the Amala community. Virtually every great personality from the present Bayelsa State from the early years had a place. In the course of time, some of the early educated people from the area who later became national figures such as Gabriel Okara, Senator Zoufa, JHP Appah, Koripamo, Chief E.P. Okoya, Chief Frank Opigo, and Newton Igali, FCA, (as headmaster) all passed through that institution. Proctor Memorial is today one of the primary schools that has produced the highest number of professors, statesmen and top military men in the entire country, including the legendary Ijaw activist, Isaac Boro.

Ekpebu’s early years were therefore spent as any of the young men from the area in his home town located on the banks of the River Nun which had so aptly been illustrated in the poetry of Gabriel Okara and J.P. Clark. In particular, in Okara’s “The Call of the River Nun”, a poem which he wrote in 1950 while also seeking education in the United States of America, a journey that Lawrence Ekpebu had to make later.

Like Okara, young Ekpebu fantasised about the “ceaseless flow” of this great river, “the seabed call” of its environment and its unending call. It symbolises the blissful life which the people of Kolokuma/Opokuma, the people of Ijaw nation and the rest of Niger Delta lived at the time they grew up on the bank of this river which is a tributary of the River Niger when it bifurcates into the Nun and the Forcados. Beyond the fact that it bagged many awards and in 1953, featured as the main poem of the Festival of Arts, it gave all a graphic indication of Ekpebu’s path of life, a people that lived with nature. The symbolism of this poem therefore followed Ekpebu all his life, which itself was a metaphor of the undulating circumstances which the Niger Delta in which he grew up now finds itself.

Like most young men from the area therefore, his primary school was at Proctor Memorial Primary School which was established in a nearby town of Kaiama, which was one of a kind in the area then known as Northern Ijaw Division. It was on completion of his primary school education that Ekpebu and his family moved to Lagos where he continued his secondary education at the Ahmaddiya College, Lagos which itself is an institution established as far back as 1948. This institution, though established by Islamic clerics, has produced some great Nigerians and for a young Ekpebu from a Christian background, it widened his horizon to life, especially seeing the universality of humanity, as the school promoted religious tolerance and excellence in education and sports, both of which he carried with him to America and excelled.

Many would be curious as to why he moved from the Niger Delta to faraway Lagos. This is however not far-fetched as mobilities in and out within Nigeria were quite common. However, his peculiar case was due to the fact that his father, being a seaman of senior rank, was essentially located in Lagos from where he operated. And due to itinerant nature of his occupation, with much time shared between various ports around the world and Nigeria, it was a matter of convenience to keep his small family at the time in Lagos, the federal capital. For a child gifted as Ekpebu was, he quickly secured scholarships and found himself going to learn in Harvard on account of his brilliance. The rest as we say is history.

It was due to this his attachment to home, that Ekpebu while devoting himself to the service of humanity specially focused on his immediate community. First and foremost, he made it such that all Kolokuma communities had primary schools. Thereafter, he quickly established a secondary school at Asoama which indeed was a new town that was created from the existing landmass close to his home, Sabagreia and Opokuma. It was indeed the first school of its nature in the entire area and after training uncountable citizens from the area has been upgraded by the Government of Bayelsa state to a tertiary institution, i.e. Bayelsa State Sports Academy which is expected to be a joint collaboration with the Federal Government. In addition to this, it was during his time that the Government Secondary School, Odi was established to help cater for a greater number of students. Again, that institution had turned out many great citizens of Nigeria including the present Governor of Bayelsa State, Douye Diri, even as the school recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

As it pertains to physical infrastructure, virtually all that is presently provided in the Kolokuma/Opokuma area were initiated by this iconic citizen during the various times he was in government. He did not also leave the aspect of culture and development of the church. Ekpebu also played a great role in promoting the culture of his native Kolokuma people. He associated fully with what was being done to promote the tradition of his area and therefore championed the spread of awareness on the existing festivals around the area, such as Efi festival. At a time, he was even offered to present himself as the “Ebidaowei” which is the Paramount King of the Kolokumas, a position which he is reputed to have turned down, to enable him focus on other things.

For his numerous services both to his nation and community, Ekpebu was appreciated and venerated the world over. Since he was not a man given to much traditional encomiums, he simply held on to the high national honour conferred on him, being Commander of the Order of the Niger, CON. At the global level, in a rare feat, his host country when he was ambassador, i.e. Côte d’Ivoire also conferred on him, in this case the country’s highest honour entitled “Grand Order of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire” awarded in 1991. But in truth, the real honour of his life lies in the deepest recesses of the hearts of the men, national leaders spread across Africa, including Heads of State, Prime Ministers, top functionaries, 250 professors and even ordinary pioneers in all fields of learning who count their essence of life to this man, a true human legend.

While holding public office of various sorts, he also carried out robust research in his chosen area of scholarship and was published widely. He combined the rigours of public life, academia and the world of research and of publishing all seamlessly. This was rare for many top office holders, many of whom became occupied with their daily duties.

Epilogue

In his 87 years of living, Ekpebu’s life typified what the contemporary Jamaican-Nigerian writer, Lindsay Barrett, once said, “judge your day not by the fruit you pluck but by the seeds you planted.” Ekpebu has sown some seeds which have germinated and flourished in all spheres of life. First, in inspiring a whole generation of people from his own Sabagreia and all surrounding areas in Bayelsa, the Ijaw, the Niger Delta area through great work and achievements in life. From a humble beginning, he became a great man by the dint of hard work, hard work and unmitigated hard work. This accounts for the fact that people like him inspired others from Kolokuma as well as those from the Sagbama area to pursue knowledge and scholarship as the whole, viable pathway to competitive living in a modern world. The records which he has set will take a long time to match, talk less to surpass.

Yes, Ekpebu will be remembered perpetually by what he had done. After all, he typifies the name by which his bigger town is called, Seibokorogha, which in literal translation into Izon means “a land where men of evil deeds cannot tread”. A man of great deeds, he has trodden and left for generations to come, greatest of legacies. The challenge ahead therefore, for us and all our families is how to immortalise these his giant landmarks and produce many who will come to be greater than him in our communities.

Prof Ekpebu was not least of high fecundity, leaving behind, his wife and not less than 19 children to continue his good works.

.Dr. Igali is a retired Ambassador