Chief Clement Ebri did not keep the shop for a long time as Governor of Cross River State because President Ibrahim Babangida’s transition programme was pure mago mago. Every governor who contested and won the election could only stay for two years because Babangida’s maradonic manoevres ended in a disaster. The annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election had thrown a spanner in the works and put the country on the road to Golgotha. But Ebri did not need a century to make a difference in Cross River State. The impact of his short term has been long-lasting and the University of Calabar took note of it and decided to honour him with an honorary doctorate degree recently.
Of course, Ebri had been there in the public domain even after leaving office as governor. But the most important step in his journey to public reckoning began in the Cross River government-owned newspaper, The Nigerian Chronicle, in 1977. When we discovered that there was a gap in the reporting of the economy, we conducted an interview to fill the space. A brilliant young graduate of Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, got the nod of the interviewing panel. His name, Clement David Ebri, a man whose father David, was a prominent public servant both in the Eastern Region and later in Cross River State. Economics is an arcane subject, which has come to be known as a dismal science. It lacks the specificity and accuracy of mathematics. There is a large element of inter-relationship with other disciplines such as politics and logic, and its predictions are subject to some extenuating circumstances. This is why economists try to cover the field of their assumptions and conclusions by explaining their positions and fencing them with “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” Economists, I suggest, should pay particular attention at all times to the immediacy of our needs, what is called the “short run,” because as Maynard Keynes put it, “in the long run we are all dead.”
Ebri brought two jewels to the reporting of economics (a) a mastery of the subject and (b) the reduction of economic jargons to the understanding of non-economists in a readable and enjoyable format. There are very few experts who have the ability to reduce profound thoughts into simple language. The ability to achieve that, for me, is the true mark of a well-educated person. Ebri has it. He made economic reporting look easy and reading it very enjoyable. In this league I would put Chief Effiong Essien and Chief Onyeama Ugochukwu, who both edited the Business Times, Henry Boyo and Ms Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, who writes a seminal column, Facts Behind the Figures, in ThisDay newspaper. At the Chronicle, Ebri and I fitted together like rain and rainy season because, between us, we had some shared values, two of which were the love for work and the love of books. When I was about to leave the Chronicle in 1980 for my new job as editor of Sunday Times, it was easy for me to recommend Ebri as my successor. It caused a problem for me among my tribesmen who thought I ought to have recommended one of them for the top job. My idea of an editor is that of an ideas man, a deep thinker, one who Lord Byron said must have “the magic of the mind.” Ebri had it. And he took the job seriously because he is a serious-minded, hands-on and engaging person.
The Nigerian Chronicle, which was selling 100,000 copies when I left in December 1980, continued to soar. I consider the 70s the golden era of state newspapers. Some of the frustrating experiences I had was the low institutional support that the Chronicle received from even its own management. During that period, the outside correspondents were told to use their money for news coverage. The refund of the claims was never made promptly, which was frustrating for an editor who had to contend with disgruntled staff. One day, I went to the chief accountant’s office, locked the door and put the key in my pocket. I told him: If you don’t pay the claims to my correspondents today none of us is leaving this office. He phoned the general manager (GM) to report what I had done. The man came and I narrated my story and told him, if the correspondents refused to send stories to us, the paper would not come out every day. The GM promised that the money would be paid the next day. The next day the chief accountant wh always told me “no money,” paid the money to our correspondents. That was the kind of managerial setting that Ebri came into. But I knew he would succeed even in that suffocating system because even though he was humble, he had considerable positive ego and the ability to get things done even in difficult circumstances.
Ebri has had a taste of politics, the sweet and bitter side of it. He was an elected member of the Constituent Assembly (1988-1989) and chairman of the Presidential Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution (2000-2001). He was also the national chairman of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), which was founded by Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu (2008-2009). Ebri is certainly an optimist about the Nigerian project, despite the evidence that most political elite in Nigeria are not truly bothered about the state of the nation. Their primary motivation in politics is self-aggrandisement and power acquisition.
The 1988 Constituent Assembly gave birth to the 1989 Constitution but it never saw the light of day. The review of the 1999 Constitution, which Ebri and his team handled was completed in 2001 but no review was effected. The most recent review was done by the 8th National Assembly under the chairmanship of Senator Ike Ekweremadu. Have those recommendations been effected? No. But Ebri is, as said earlier, an unrepentant optimist on the Nigerian project. He believes in politics with ethics, the exact opposite of the one practised in Nigeria today. I suspect that it is the reason that the authorities of the University of Calabar decided to give him an honorary doctorate degree in Political Science. I believe they must also have been influenced by his achievements within the two years that he was the chief executive officer of Cross River State. He practised the politics of inclusiveness, offering political appointments to people of competence, irrespective of political affiliation.
That is who he is, a broadminded, urbane, detribalised Nigerian who fits into any sane group and who has friends across all frontiers. Those constitute his unique selling points, which make an enormous appeal to me. Sometimes I wonder why people of his nature are in Nigerian politics. If, as people say, politics is dirty, then Nigerian politics is the gutter. No one can make a big success in Nigerian politics without a large dose of crookery. That has been firmly established. There is no saint in Nigerian politics. None.
Ebri gave reasonable attention to education as governor of Cross River State. Within the two years he was in office, he created 220 literacy centres across the state for adult education. It is easy to do something for young people who want to go to school but it is more interesting and more important if you are able to convince people who are past their prime, who have responsibilities to their families, to go to school. That is a visionary leadership approach to governance because evry society is better off if all its citizens have the gift of education. It then becomes less difficult to break down the walls of ignorance, backwardness, superstition and disease. It also has a multiplier effect.
No parent who is educated needs to be tutored to send his children to school. The urge to do so comes from the fact that he, the parent, is already plucking the ripe fruits of his own education. Part of the reason our society is in deep trouble today is low level of school attendance and the high level of out-of-school children. That, too, has a multiplier effect, which is largely negative: crime, cultism etc.
Ebri has also been a businessman. In this area, he has displayed his mastery of the needs of the Nigerian market. He brings limousines from the United States and hires them out to Nigerians who want to show off at a lavish wedding. This is strategic thinking because many Nigerians don’t mind being dressed in borrowed robes, being driven in a room-and-parlour limousine for a few hours of attention. Another successful area of his business is that of taking care of fire in high-rise buildings. He, therefore, fills that gap by bringing specially designed fire trucks that have the ability to quell fire in high rise buildings without exposing the fire fighters to too much risk. Those trucks have been purchased by some state governments who have found them very useful in combating the menace of fire.
In all these endeaavours in which Ebri has been involved – journalism, business and politics – he has shown a high degree of consistency that reflects the depth of his spirit of fairness, open-mindedness and inclusiveness. Those are admirable qualities, which ought to stand him in good stead wherever he finds himself. However, I doubt if those qualities can serve anyone well in Nigerian politics.
Politics is a coldly imperfect profession. Nigeriaan politics is even more so. In that world not everything is cotton candy. Anyone who stays there must be ready to contend with sharks because that is a shark pool. Sharks are merciless, they bite, they eat, they swallow.
How my friend Clement David Ebri, with the firm qualities of a gentleman, has been able to survive in that shark pool is a minor miracle. It is such resilience, such devotion to good causes that has drawn the attention of the University of Calabar to him. Those qualities constitute what I call the Essential Ebri.