Ijaw nation, the Niger Delta, Nigeria, and indeed Africa, have lost a titan with the exit of Ambassador Professor Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu who passed on to glory on 2nd January 2022.
A cool, calm and collected teacher and an unflappable diplomat, Ambassador Professor Lawrence B. Ekpebu, right from his days as a student at Harvard University in the mid-1950s when racism was widespread in the United States of America, made Africans proud by demonstrating that it is possible to break barriers, move mountains and raise standards without noise and fanfare but by sheer determination and willpower. He excelled over his peers in academics, sports and leadership qualities and won the most coveted Francis H Burr Prize in the Harvard University class of 1960.
Ambassador L B Ekpebu offered his country (Nigeria) and the continent of Africa more than he has been remembered and credited for. Born May 2, 1935 in Okoloba, Sabagreia, Bayelsa State, he started his primary education in 1943 at Opokuma Group School, Opokuma and completed it in 1948 at the Reverend Proctor Memorial School, Kaiama. He had his high school education at Ahmadiyya High School, Lagos, 1950 – 53. Thereafter he worked for a few years as a 3rd Class Clerk at the Office of the Council of Ministers, State House, Marina, Lagos before setting out for the United States in 1956 to attend Harvard University where he studied for a BA degree in Government (1956 – 1960). He excelled in his academics as well as in sports, particularly in the football field where he earned himself the prowess of a soccer star. The sheer brilliance and ingenuity of Ambassador Professor Lawrence Ekpebu, fondly called Larry by his friends and contemporaries, attracted the attention of those that mattered in the Harvard University Council and subsequently the wider American Ivy League Universities circles, and it led to the American Universities formation of the various scholarships programmes such as the Nigerian-American Scholarship Programme (NASP), African Scholarship Programme of American Universities (ASPAU), African Graduate Fellowship Programme (AFGRAD) and the Advanced Training for Leadership and Skills (ATLAS) that hundreds of Nigerians and thousands of Africans benefitted from in the 1960s, 1970s and right up to the 1980s, to enable them undertake undergraduate and graduate studies in participating United States Universities.
What most beneficiaries of these scholarships don’t know is that it was the altruism of Ambassador Ekpebu that led to the establishments of these scholarships. Ambassador Ekpebu told me during one of our memorable conversations that when he won the Francis H. Burr prize in 1960, Harvard University Council asked him to recommend people from his native town that were similarly bright and they would award them scholarships but he assured the University Council that there were many bright students in Nigeria. So instead of recommending a few people from his native Ijaw ethnic community in response to the original request which would have resulted to just few persons been given scholarships at the time, he made it open to the wider Nigerian nation and that led to other Ivy League Universities joining in to offer scholarships not only to Nigerians but to people from the rest of the countries in the African continent. Following his BA Government degree at Harvard, he proceeded to Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, 1960-62, where he earned the MPA, degree. He then returned to Harvard to earn the MA, PhD degrees, 1963 – 1965.
Motivated by a passion to make a difference in his home country the then Dr Lawrence B. Ekpebu left all the opportunities before him in the United States and returned to Nigeria to help build the young independent nation, Nigeria. He began by lecturing at the University of Ibadan, where he taught Political Science and International Relations 1965 – 69. He then moved to serve as a pioneer Commissioner of Finance in Rivers State, 1969 – 74, Commissioner of Economic Development and Reconstruction; Commissioner of Information, 1974-75, under the premier governor of the old Rivers State, Lt. Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff. As Commissioner of Finance, Ambassador Ekpebu put his mastery of public administration into practice by initiating the creation of Pan African Bank and Rivbank Insurance, respectively, in Rivers State with branches across Nigeria. Mindful of the need to build up manpower, as Commissioner of Finance, Ambassador Professor Ekpebu demonstrated a tremendous initiated the then Rivers State government automatic scholarship to enable Rivers State indigenes pursue secondary and university education without financial constraint.
With the overthrow of the government of the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, Professor L B Ekpebu became adviser on Foreign Policy to the Federal Government headed by Murtala Mohammed and Olusegun Obasanjo. He subsequently went on to be one of Nigeria’s longest serving Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Cote d’Ivoire (1984 – 1991). Thereafter, he returned to the University of Ibadan to continue teaching. He was subsequently appointed Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Governing Council of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt. He is an author of several authoritative academic reference books and numerous academic articles in national and International Journals. He received several awards and prizes and was a member of various academic organisations and literary societies. The Federal Government of Nigeria showed him national recognition for his enormous contributions and service to the nation by awarding him the national award of Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic, OFR, in the 2005 national honours list. His service for the nation continued beyond his retirement years as he sat as Chairman, Presidential Monitoring Committee, Niger Delta Development Commission, (NDDC), until 2007. After this, he continued to respond to various Federal Government calls as well as advising the Bayelsa Government almost until the time of his transition.
As I recall how I met Ambassador Dr L B Ekpebu in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in 1987, the words of Brutus to Cassius in William Shakespeare’s book Julius Ceasar echo in my heart with a sense of gratitude to God. Brutus said to Cassius:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries.”
I was a teacher in one of the Government Colleges in Rivers State but suddenly felt that a man in his early 20s should not spend his life in a career without a clear and defined path of progression to fulfil his potential. I resigned from my work as a Teacher at the Government Technical College, Ahoada, Rivers State, in July 1987, after nearly 3 years of service and wanted to head to Helsinki, Finland for further studies. But in a way that only God could have orchestrated, I decided to head for Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, as if for a long holiday or a time of retreat and re-evaluation of my strategies. But that led me to a divine connection and to fall in line with the tide of destiny. Shortly after my arrival in Abidjan, I looked for a Church to worship at and I found the Interdenominational Protestant Church of the Plateau, Abidjan. This was the perfect Church for me because it was an English Church. My grasp of French was simply poor to enable me fellowship in a French Church. In fact I was still learning French informally with the French students I played football and draughts with. I soon joined the Interdenominational English Church Choir. I found it spiritually refreshing. But unbeknown to me, God had a greater purpose for me and surrounded me with favour like a shield (Psalm 5:12). The choir members were mostly Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean ladies, the only other Nigerian man in the Choir was a kind and respectable gentleman who was a senior diplomat with the Embassy of Nigeria in Abidjan. He had arrived Abidjan on posting to the Embassy within weeks of my own arrival so he soon started treating me like his younger sibling. Mr George O Soyeju, who was a Senior Counsellor at the time and Head of Chancery of the Embassy and his wife were so kind to me. It was as if God commanded them to be kind to me because I just couldn’t understand why they cared to be that kind. But Mr Soyeju didn’t stop at the level of showing me personal favours, he took me to Ambassador Ekpebu and introduced me to him since I was from Rivers State and the Ambassador was from Rivers State too. This was in 1987 when Bayelsa had not been carved out of Rivers State. After the introduction I went about my business without any real concrete expectation but, certainly with my natural tendency to harbour a quiet confidence that I am flanked by goodness and mercy at all times, since I have an abiding faith in God’s goodness. Indeed, unbeknown to me, destiny was on course. We read the psalmist in the Holy Scripture saying: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance!” Psalm 16:6. That would be a near perfect summation of my experience after being introduced to Ambassador Ekpebu and all that followed.
In a series of unfolding events at the time, the Federal Government decided to open a Nigeria Trade Centre section of the Embassy of Nigeria, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and the issues of confidentiality and sensitivity that were involved, required trusted persons to be employed to fill the administrative roles that came up with the opening of the section. That was how I was considered ideal to fill what was a mid-level administrative role in the Embassy. Mindful of the confidence reposed in me by Ambassador Ekpebu and Mr Soyeju, I carried out my duties conscientiously with great enthusiasm and successes with occasional short missions to Nigeria High Commission, Monrovia, Liberia, 1989, and Nigeria High Commission Banjul, The Gambia, 1990, to assist in the coordination of Made in Nigeria Products Solo Trade Exhibitions in those countries. But it was not just at the official level that Ambassador Ekpebu was magnanimous to me, he integrated me like a son into his family and I went on to relate with his children as my brothers and sisters. It was actually all hunky dory for me in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. However, I woke up one morning and decided to resign my work from the Embassy of Nigeria, Abidjan, to pursue further studies in England. It seemed quite crazy at the time in December 1990 when I took that decision and put in my notice of resignation but, the Spirit of God was actually leading and guiding my path without my mind understanding the details. Just a few months after my arrival in London in 1991, I heard of civil unrest and eventual breakdown of law and order in the once serene and beautiful city of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. It finally dawned on me why I was moved to leave. Years later, I wept inside my soul when after completion of my law studies and working as an Adviser in one of the Legal Advisory Agencies in London in 1998, some Ivoirians were given appointments to see me for advice on their asylum and refugee applications in the UK. These were nice people who were forced to flee their once peaceful and prosperous African country.
Ambassador Ekpebu and I maintained a father and son relationship until the very end, as he visited me when he came to London and I visited him when I went to Nigeria on holiday. He was simply an extraordinary person. I remember with profound admiration some occasions where Ambassador Ekpebu displayed his charisma and simplicity. One of such occasions was when a prominent and highly respected Nigerian man in Abidjan lost his wife and after our Sunday Church service that weekend, Ambassador Ekpebu asked me if I knew the man’s house? I answered that I did, and that I had actually been at the man’s house with several members of the English speaking community from Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in Abidjan just 36 hours earlier (Friday night into Saturday morning of that weekend) for a wake-keeping. We left the church premises that Sunday afternoon and went straight to the man’s house. When we got there, I thought Ambassador Ekpebu would sit down as an important visitor waiting to be served tea or some drinks but he asked to see the bereaved man without sitting down. When the man came, he called him by name, sat him down and asked him if he had eaten? It was obvious that the man was still mourning his late wife and had not eaten. He insisted that they should serve the man food. After they served the man some food, he told the man that he knows what he was going through because he too lost his wife a number of years ago. The bereaved man was surprised to hear that a no less person than Ambassador Ekpebu had experienced the kind of sorrow and pain that he was going through. As they say: “in the service of love, only the wounded can be servants” the burden of sorrow the man bore suddenly seemed to have disappeared from his countenance that day.
On another occasion, I noticed that on a day that African Ambassadors met for a reception and each should be displaying their countries’ cultural attire, the Ambassador of the then Republic of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) was wearing Nigerian Niger Delta Ijaw attire – owoko and gold studs – which Ambassador Ekpebu gave to him. He and Ambassador Ekpebu looked like brothers. But more interestingly, I observed the Zairian Ambassador was clutching in his hand Ambassador Ekpebu’s prize winning book: Zaire and the African Revolution © 1989, inside it Ambassador Ekpebu lambasted the then President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire for avarice and for his role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of Zaire. I looked in admiration knowing that it takes a great measure of clout and charisma to achieve that and Ambassador Ekpebu had it in abundance. Ambassador Ekpebu exuded infectious confidence that inspired those around him to believe in their abilities and excel. He was an Ambassador that Nigerians in Cote d’Ivoire were proud of and those who worked with him were also proud of the calibre of person they had as Ambassador. Evidently, the Ivorien government recognised his extraordinary talents and abilities and conferred on him the exceptional honour of the Grand Order of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire.
Over the twentieth century, since the nineteenth century English philosopher J S Mills stated in his essay titled “On Liberty” that: “The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honours, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed” there appears to be a tendency to downplay the greatest and magnanimous of men when it comes to posthumous honours, but I would like to believe that the great talent exhibited by Ambassador Professor L B Ekpebu that led to hundreds of Nigerians and thousands of Africans benefitting through the American Universities Scholarships for Africans which came about because of his exceptional brilliance will continuously speak in his honour. Perhaps, someday soon, the political leaders of Rivers State and Bayelsa State would come to the realisation that it is right to immortalise Ambassador Ekpebu by naming an institution after him. However, whatever the case may be, Ambassador Professor L.B. Ekpebu will remain in the annals of history as one of the greatest sons that Ijaw nation, Nigeria, and Africa produced in the twentieth century.
How can one mourn such a great man and a great father who in many ways has lived a full life? One should rather thank God for him!
Daddy, while I wish you lived just a bit longer I thank God for your extraordinary life and outstanding achievements.
I pray that God would receive your soul in heaven and grant you a blissful rest in eternity in Jesus Name! Amen.
Shalom Abba! Vade in Pace! Goodbye my father! Go in Peace!
Author; Conflict and Dispute Resolution
Mediator; Fellow, Civil Mediation Council, London UK