There are far too many reasons to felicitate with my brother and friend Ray Ekpu, a man we fondly call ‘Brother Ray’ as he turns 70. Perhaps the most important and obvious reason is that he is a journalist. The second reason is that he has lived a life of journalism in a place called Nigeria. Ray’s abiding courage and significant leadership lies in the boldness of the choice he made as and when he made that choice.
Ray had a copious array of choices. He could have joined the civil service and retired ten years ago possibly in stupendous wealth and opulence. He could even have avoided the entire grueling process of university education and joined the military early enough. There again, he possibly could have ended up dead or joined the pantheon of retired generals for whom most things are possible. Still better, he could have opted for a career as a perennial politician as an illustrious son of Akwa Ibom State.
A lifelong career
He chose differently. He opted for a lifelong career in a profession with no foreseeable financial or immediate material rewards. In our country, journalists hardly qualify for a pension or gratuity. Most often, the organizations where they spend the better part of their productive years hardly survive beyond a decade and where they do, the great journalists walk in and out through a revolving door. When they leave, they walk into a horizon of uncertainty and sometimes end up in near destitution.
While on the job, the contentment of the truly great journalist is in the intangible and grudging role as part of the 4th Estate of the realm where indeed there is a realm. In war and in peace, in crisis and in normalcy, the journalist remains the intangible bridge between what, where, when and how on the one hand and the multitude of humanity waiting anxiously to know why. Humanity will wither in darkness without the multiple exertions of journalists of distinction. We are the unarmed legion of light questing to beam the light on the truth; the gallant avatars that intercede between the jackboots of power and the loud cries of the oppressed.
Beyond the general category of journalist, Ray Ekpu and his kindred spirits offer us a lead into the subject of this lecture, namely leadership. Along with Dele Giwa (in memoriam), Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed and Soji Akinrinade, Ray blazed a trail of courageous leadership in the history of Nigerian journalism. Their feat consisted in one novel concept: how to crown excellence in journalism with success in media entrepreneurship. They set out to take the leap from being employees of moneybags to employing themselves and other journalists, a leap that was being taken in the Western world by journalists like those who founded the Independent in London.
What distinguishes great leadership is vision and the courage to drive it in order to deliver the overall society-wide impacts of the leading stride. That is one essential quality of leadership that gave Nigeria the uncommon gift of Newswatch.
The journalists and their admirers who gathered in January 1985 wore no battle fatigues. If anyone referred to them as ‘revolutionaries’, I suspect that they would, like Hitler’s publicist, Goebbels, have drawn a pistol to silence the misrepresentation. After all, they were all mostly right-wing or centre-right idealists at best.
In fact, when the collective of Ray and his colleagues gathered to launch Newswatch in 1985, they probably were unaware of the revolutionary implications of their professional foray. However, they ended up birthing one of the most incisive and authoritative news magazines in Africa at a time when Time and Newsweek maintained unquestioned dominance. These international giants were only being complemented by efforts like Chris Okolie’s Newbreed at the national level and geo-strategic and continental efforts like South, Africa, New African and Africa Now and a host of others.
Newswatch quickly emerged as the national gold standard in enlightened journalism. Its columnists were easily the most authoritative, influenced and civilized in the nation. Its cover stories were well researched and grounded. The encyclopedic research prowess of the Newswatch librarian, Nyakno Osso was everywhere in evidence in an age without today’s Google touch screen access to global information.
Expression of power
With the emergence of Newswatch, Patrick Dele Cole’s Daily Times, Abiola’s Concord titles and the arrival of The Guardian, Nigerian journalism redefined itself as a power centre, not just an accessory to power.
The lead players at Newswatch were no longer ‘Press Boys’ to be found at Press galleries or the hallways of power. They were purveyors of a certain intangible but real power. Every expression of power comes with inherent dangers. Ray and his colleagues understand this truism all too well as they reflect on the glories, tears and blood of their years in and around real power.
In retrospect, the real significance of the leadership of Ray and Newswatch is not in the sacrifices they had to make as leaders. It is in their legacy in Nigerian media and journalism. The abiding gospel of Newswatch is possibility. It is possible to liberate the voice of the people, to give meaning to the freedom of expression as a cardinal aspiration of a free society.
Accordingly, independent and private media initiatives stepped forward to replace government monopoly. Individual journalists and groups of them stepped forward to try their hands at publishing or broadcasting. An avalanche of private newspapers, magazines and broadcast media emerged to finally bury government monopoly or even participation. Truly, a million flowers were blooming.
This gathering is not strictly about Newswatch. But Newswatch has enabled it. It is also a veritable anchor for understanding the requisites of leadership both in journalism and the wider polity. I know the leadership we all seek to hear more about in this time and place. It is political leadership as it concerns Nigeria, the nation we all love passionately.
Let us proceed from the simplest description of leadership. It is the ability to develop a vision of community and the capacity to translate that vision into beneficial reality in a manner that carries the followership along. To envision an alternative higher reality, the leader must be enlightened. To translate that vision into reality, the leader must have executive capacity or find those so equipped. To attract and carry the followership, the leader must possess personal electricity or charisma in the form of oratory, personal carriage, integrity and connectedness to ordinary folks. The people must see aspects of themselves mirrored in the life and story of the leader.
Perhaps at no other time in our national history has the issue of leadership presented itself so boldly in the front yard of national discourse. In spite of elections that fill various levels of public office in the land, our people continue to yearn endlessly for purposeful leadership. It has therefore become necessary to make a distinction between power incumbency and leadership in the nation. There is, as they say, no vacancy in either Aso Rock Villa or the 36 state Government Houses across the land. Whether inspiring leadership is emanating from any of these locations is quite another.
Make no mistake about it. The drama of power incumbency continues to rage all over the land. The sirens blare even louder; the pomp and ceremony of public office is in full gear; the perfunctory rituals of government continue unabated. So also is the impunity of power, the arrogance of today’s men and the injured ego and deflated importance of yesterday’s people.
Genuine leadership is somewhat more subdued than the cacophony of incumbent power. True leadership consists in the ability to inspire and carry an undivided nation along the path of self- realization. It is inspirational; innovative; empathic. In words and actions and personal conduct, the leader touches the vital chord that unites a nation irrespective of creed, ethnicity, class and even circumstance. More often, what the people value in their leader is intangible.
True national leadership is perhaps best described and understood by what it is not. It is not water boreholes. It is not endless kilometers of roads or even kilowatts of electricity. It is not the meting out of casual cruelty on your perceived opponents or the shutting of the window of opportunity to all except your friends, loyalists and kinsmen. Nor can we mistake as leadership the subversion of the popular mandate into an instrument for dividing nations along all imaginable lines. If anything, these traits create the hunger for genuine leadership in nations such as ours that are so afflicted.
From the immediate post-civil war years till today, the crisis of leadership has plagued our public discourse. It was Chinua Achebe who in the late 1970s identified the crisis of leadership as ‘the trouble with Nigeria’. We remain frozen in that moment and mired in that intractable crisis.
The absence of a coherent national vision and sense of mission has bred a polity whose most recurrent fascination is ‘our immense potentials’. The hope of what is possible and the dream of where we could still be is what holds this behemoth ‘potential’ nation together. But in the interim, this generation of Nigerians remains the orphans of missed opportunities, squandered resources and periodic episodes of mindless leadership.
The rhetoric of potential greatness is getting worn out. It is even worse when mouthed by ignorant politicians who want to win an election and further deepen our leadership crisis. There is a potential in every nation which awaits leaders of purpose to harvest. For how long are we going to remain a ‘potential’ or virtual nation?
I have heard it said that Nigeria is still a young nation! Underlying that claim is the false logic that longevity confers on nations a guaranteed greatness. If that were true, the most advanced nations would be the oldest! On the scale of global development, where are Egypt, Greece and Portugal today? Egypt is the home of the great pyramids and of decadent dictatorships. It is also the hotbed of the most dangerous fanatics. Greece has a perennial archival interest with an economy that has developed the bad habit of surviving on frequent bailouts. Portugal used to be a colonial power but is now a virtual third world country with only a football club as its most notable export.
At 58, Nigeria is neither old nor young. My fear is that it came into existence with all the infirmities of decadent old age. Now in mature middle age, the nation is afflicted by a cocktail of ailments some of which can only be cured by killing the patient hence the loud cries for restructuring or even outright dissolution.
The consequences of past leadership missteps and failures now haunt us all. Our highways are dangerous; our urban streets are dark alleys hiding sinister possibilities as no one knows what lies in wait; the frontiers of freedom have been fenced by a rampaging insurgency while squads of killers sometimes difficult to name have rendered life in our villages even more capricious, brutish and short.
A nation that started out united and hopeful is today torn along all known divides just as the number of optimists has dwindled into miserable insignificance. Our youth walk the streets in quest of nothing in a land full of work but with no opportunities to find work.
Yet in the midst of this apparent hopelessness, I could hear the voice of hope rise at the places where our boys were at play in the World Cup. No doubt, the broad majority of Nigerians still love their Naija and wish for no other place to call home. That eternal optimism is for me the loud voice crying for the emergence of true national leadership.
Let us not be deceived. Leadership can kill or save a nation. History is as full of nations that have been ruined by bad leadership as it is of others that have been saved and resurrected from Hell because of the emergence of true leadership in the midst of disaster.
First, the bad news. The instructive thing is that most of the leaders who bring their nations to ruin do not always have the luxury of staying behind to watch Rome go up in flames.
Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire:
On 17th May, 1987, the forces of Laurent Kabila marched into Kinshasa. The long reign of Mobutu Sese Seko in what used to be Zaire was over. Mobutu fled and found his way to Eyadema’s Togo. There was no red carpet. His friend Eyadema confined him to the plane at the airport while working the phones in search of a place of exile for him. At last the late king of Morocco agreed to have him. He died in exile.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti:
On 29th September 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was besieged in the Presidential palace in Port Au Prince. Peoples’ power had ousted his rudderless regime. Haiti was at the brink of nasty implosion. There was panic in Washington. It took a combined effort of US, Venezuelan and French diplomats to negotiate a helicopter exit for him. But he had nowhere to go. General Collin Powell sent him a plane with a simple instruction: ‘take off and be air borne first’. While still in the air, diplomatic phones were busy searching for a place of exile. He was briefly stateless! Then Thabo Mbeki of South Africa gave him exile. But Haiti was in ruins.
This piece was delivered at the 70th birthday colloquium in honour of media icon, Mr. Ray EkpuSource: