By Steve Azaiki
On the 2nd of January 2022, an illustrious son of Africa, Amb. Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu, passed on, having left on earth footprints that are the stuff of legend. Some of his accomplishments are beyond the capacity of any one to re-enact. He was a great man for many reasons.
Ekpebu was born on May 2, 1935, in Okoloba, a small settlement lying on the bank of the Nun River in the flood plains of the Niger Delta. He had a precocious mind and loved learning, and that was where his spirit of excellence was noticed. Since then, he recorded one academic accomplishment after another, until he reached the prestigious Harvard University, where he won coveted awards and graduated in 1960. He was the first African Harvard graduate. After a master’s programme at Princeton, he went back to Harvard where he obtained a Ph.D. His prestige in that university opened the door for him to be of help to other students from Nigeria, and he extended his hand to the brightest students he could find in Nigeria. He had a penchant for excellence and merit.
On his return to Nigeria, he focused on boosting learning among young people and giving them a voice in their chosen fields. He went into teaching, taking up a position at the University of Ibadan. He rose through the ranks and was enjoying a thriving career when the Gen. Yakubu Gowon administration created Rivers State out of the old Eastern Region. At the invitation of the then military governor, Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, he left Ibadan to take up an appointment as Commissioner for Finance.
During his time as Commissioner for Finance in Rivers State, he took decisive steps to realise his vision of a vibrant state economy powered by knowledgeable and skilled indigenous manpower. To that end, he spearheaded the establishment of the Automatic Scholarship Programme to give opportunity for brilliant students to further their studies, even if they were from indigent backgrounds. The impact of the initiative was tremendous. It gave hope and opportunity to many who would have ended their studies at lower levels. Today, there are many prominent personalities across Rivers and Bayelsa states who benefited from the scheme.
To broaden and strengthen the economic base of the state, he secured a World Bank loan to expand the production of palm oil, thus giving birth to Risonpalm. The company grew rapidly and engaged in exporting processed palm produce. With its high profitability, it soon became a darling of the Rivers people. But it was a brainchild of Ekpebu.
He also thought of enabling people have easy access to bank financing, so he put together a plan that resulted in the establishment of Pan African Bank. It was one of the leading state-owned banks in the country, with branches in most states of the federation. His idea was to use the bank to fuel commercial activities and ensure economic development of Rivers State. In that respect, the bank was a success.
There were many other measures he introduced to spur development of the old Rivers State, which today embraces Bayelsa State. He served the people of his state with passion, determination and honesty. No wonder he was retained in the cabinet for a long time. But his service also extended to the wider Nigerian nation.
In the late 1970s, he was a foreign policy adviser to the Federal Military Government of Gen. Murtala Muhammed and Gen.Olusegun Obasanjo. Then, in 1984, he was appointed by the Gen. Muhammadu Buhari military administration as Nigeria’s ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire. His good works in Cote d’Ivoire ensured that he retained his position even after the government was overthrown in 1985. He held many other positions and, in all of them, he showed himself as a man devoted to service and committed to the prosperity of the people.
I remember an incident in 1997, when I was Commissioner for Agriculture in Bayelsa State. Buhari, as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund, had invited me on the basis of a letter I had written. In the letter, I had raised issues of marginalisation of our people. I was worried about the invitation. So, I approached Dr. Emmanuel Denennu and Ekpebu for advice and support. They both readily agreed to go with me to meet with Buhari. Ekpebu was a mentor and father to me. I worked with him on several committees, including one set up to enhance the position of the Ijaw nation. I also worked with him in the Bayelsa Development and Investment Council (BDIC). He supported me all through the time I was commissioner, Secretary to the Bayelsa State Government and pro-chancellor of the Niger Delta University. He was always willing, even when he was growing older, to play the role of a father.
He was also a prolific writer who authored many books and published many papers. He used his intellectual strength to elicit positive public response to the issues that confronted our society and our world. He was acknowledged far and near for his contribution to the growth of knowledge.
In acknowledgment of his service to society, the Nigerian government honoured him with Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR). In like manner, the government of Cote d’Ivoire also awarded him the Grand Order of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire, a rare honour for a foreigner. But that is testimony to the goodwill he generated wherever he went.
The people of Rivers and Bayelsa states should be proud that a man emerged from their midst and gained widespread respect as a student, an academic, a public administrator, author and diplomat. A few people can match the accomplishments of this great icon. He was a trailblazer who left behind some gigantic contributions to the progress of his state and country.
Based on the many-sided contributions he made towards the development and growth of Rivers and Bayelsa states, I want to urge the governments of these states to honour him by naming important public institutions after him. We need to inspire the younger generation by pointing to them the deeds of great men such as Amb. Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu.
•Prof. Azaiki, OON, represents Yenagoa/Kolokuma-Opokuma Federal Constituency, Bayelsa State