By: Nsikak Ekanem
On January 19 this year, my telephone rang far more than any other day in recent time. The conversation I had with all the callers from early morning to night of that Tuesday centred on one issue: the death of Udo Ekpenyong, who was barely six months in office as Akwa Ibom State chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
From the first caller, who broke the sad news to me, to others that grievingly asked what, how, and why, I was imagining what Godwin Ekpe, the PDP chapter chairman of Ukanafun went through. Ekpe was a die-hard loyalist of Ekpenyong in both fair and unfair weather. I thought of how Governor Udom Emmanuel cope of the demise of his confidante, a man he had had conversation within the last 24 hours before his death. Not to talk of the deceased immediate family, including his octogenarian mother!
Though I have heard of his name since the mid 1990s when he was elected a local government council chairman in his native Ukanafun, I first came into contact with Ekpenyong in 2010. Without bothering to verify my goodness or badness, after Israel Thompson of Akwa Ibom State Broadcasting Corporation introduced me to him, he got my contact number and gave me his.
He was exceptional when I later met him in his house. He initiated relationship with me immediately that I should have the liberty of pointing out to him whatever wrong I spotted in his public life. He was then an ex-officio of PDP’s National Executive Committee.
Since I spent considerably lengthy time in Akwa Ibom around the time, I was frequent in his house in Uyo, mostly in the morning. We read newspapers together and cross-fertilized our minds on political issues in the country, particularly concerning the PDP, then President Goodluck Jonathan, the then main-opposition Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, among other topical national issues.
Given that he was old enough to be my father, of course, his first son and I are in the same age bracket, I savoured the relationship with the alacrity of a child. I sensed rightly that, though he had asked me to offer him my critique of his person privately, I stood to benefit more from his wealth of experience in life.
In size, Ekpenyong had the image of a tank. He could be called a short man as he was surely not a tall man, but certainly he was not a dwarf. He once told me that his height had less to do with functionality of his pituitary gland but much to do with environmental hazard occasioned by what he went through during his days of struggling to eke out a living: riding bicycle for a long distance to sell farm produce. He would often use his tall and bouncing four sons to buttress the point that his genes have what it takes for tallness if not impeded by unfavourable environmental factors.
His handsomeness was not hard to notice. His light-skin was still sparkling in his sextagenarian age and showed neither sign of being bleached nor painted. He was neat round-the-clock. When he walked his shoulder offered a picture of an obtuse angle, positioning him to walk with swagger and unassuming majesty.
Unsavoury habits have a way of turning finesse to disgust but when Ekpenyong brought out his tongue and used it in wetting his lips all round, another dimension of his alluring elegance came to the fore. It was easy for both the young and the old to have a flashback of how his boyish days were and why the then gracefully teenage Elizabeth tenaciously clung to him with irresistible charm of girlish finesse, not minding certain obstinacies that Ekpenyong exerted largely on account of youthfulness. That was why Ekpenyong combined the act of making children with Elizabeth while at the same time developing himself through his studies at tertiary levels of education.
Though PDP since its formation in 1998 is to some Akwa Ibom people what the Catholic Church is to the Italians, Ekpenyong’s avowal identification with the party was among the few that stood out. To him, it was not that PDP has not been faulty in a number of actions, including its treatment to its members; it was like a biological family that one cannot quit once one is born into.
While Godswill Akpabio’s governorship days lasted in Akwa Ibom, he was so proud, like so many other Akwa Ibomites, of infrastructural renaissance the former governor caused to happen in the state. But he had discreet disdain for Akpabio’s style just as he admired Victor Attah’s visionary works, but disliked his political animosity with his successor that drove some of his visions to reality. In his closet, his perception of Akpabio was that of a person with pathology to always steal the show.
One of the things that irked him was that Jonathan’s administration was going with the mantra of “transformation” but apparently to avoid being accused of plagiarism, Akpabio called his in Akwa Ibom “uncommon transformation” and took the shine off Jonathan’s. But Ekpenyong would not say it in the public.
In the build-up to 2015 general election, Akwa Ibom chapter of the PDP barred politicians from Uyo senatorial district from aspiring for governorship. The decision was taken at the party’s meeting held at the Government House in the state capital. In launching his diatribe against the decision of the party, Chief Don Etiebet mentioned, among other factors, that the meeting ought not to have been held at the governor’s “enclave”.
That factor, which also accounted for his refusal to attend the meeting, was that a near absolute power permeating at the Government House vicinity has the potency of eroding the party stalwarts the audacity to defer with the position of the governor.
Etiebet was not spared ripostes by those in the establishment of the party, which was then under Akpabio’s palm. When Ekpenyong came up with his, he took Etiebet down memory lane, mentioning one of the party’s stakeholders meeting that one of the founders of the PDP attended at Aso Rock. Some days later I was in company of Ekpenyong when Etiebet met him at Ibom Airport (now Victor Attah International Airport) and hailed him for tackling him with truth.
Some weeks after, Etiebet, who was waging a one-man war against the Akpabio-led establishment, petitioned the office of the Inspector-General of Police over worsening security situation in the state and that the lives of those with different political position with Akpabio were endangered. Ekpenyong confided in me and even asked for my contribution to take it up with Etiebet again through newspaper advertorial.
I told him he would not only fail woefully in such attempt in that it was incontrovertible that killing of human beings was almost on daily basis then in all part of the state, but he would also lose further regard from the elder statesman and that faulting Etiebet’s truth on the security situation would not be vindicated by history. Following my ability to kill the idea instantly, I was silently grateful to him that my nonsense of differing with his idea has made sense to him.
Perhaps owing to Udom’s low political profile, he was to the governor, from the beginning, what Otto von Bismarck was to the inept Frederick William IV, a one-time king of ancient Prussia. He was a dependable ally to the governor at night and day, shunning pitching tent with the powerful but preferring to add his weight to the weak in order to ease weakening the strong.
He once told me he would not in any way be comfortable being pleasantly reported in a newspaper that also run unpleasant story about his governor. That might have accounted for why many newsmen saw him as being media-shy, but the truth is that he had no abhorrence for publicity.
There was a stunning array of “social media influencers” that obsequiously made every private and public outing of his for public consumption even when its newsworthy content revolved around the region of pettiness. One of the ills of being promoted, projected and protected by praise singers through the unprocessed platform called social media is that the subject is constantly kept insensate to his real estimation in the public.
His belief, rightly or wrongly, was that anyone that had any form of association with him was duty bound to be the governor’s admirer irrespective of whether his boss’s action is laudable or illaudable. On this account, some few persons that publicly showed solidarity to him, especially when he was temporary dropped in Udom’s cabinet for publicly snubbing Akpabio, were no longer servicing relationship with him. Those few were of the view that clapping hands for what is not clap-able is complacency, which practically means okaying what is obtained at the moment to a point that nothing more should be done to move it from bad to good or from good to better.
Within the governor’s court he played a good courtier and won the governor’s heart far more than many other courtiers. In his own court, where he was the master he exemplified subterfuge and had a cult following. His acts were certainly not a function of erudition but intuition. So, it would not be right to attribute his political brinkmanship to the gospel of Nicolo Machiavelli or that of Robert Greene.
His being the governor’s man was of uncountable goodies to him. For suddenly and meteorically becoming the most sought politician in the state not a few persons saw him with green eyes monster. The jealousy attracted by such popularity is what Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and religious author, oxymoronically called “unhappy admiration”.
According to Robert Greene, “Envy creates silent enemies”, hence he admonished power gladiators “Never (to) underestimate the power of envy.” Whether Ekpenyong had taken such admonition to heart or not has no bearing here because, no matter how sophisticated, every human being is helpless before the forces of death.
Curiously, though the story bandied about everywhere by almost everyone in Akwa Ibom is pinpointing Ekpenyong’s death to politics and not coronavirus, no one, including his retinue of supporters, is bothered to speak publicly about it.
Much as I do not want to be counted among the multitude of unbelievers in the existence of COVID-19, I am of the layman opinion that there should be forensic examination of certain deaths outside coronavirus laboratories. With mysterious nature of certain deaths, one is tempted to think that COVID-19, in some cases, might be a convenient cover-up to other causative agents of death. Should medical negligence or outright sabotage, just like human-manufactured viruses be dismissed with a wave of hand?
In any clime where humanity is treated with its real worth, no human life is considered inconsequential.
Perhaps that was why Udom promised last year of launching investigation into the death of Ibanga Ettang, the former Executive Director of Finance in the defunct Interim Management Committee of Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, immediately it was announced that he died of COVID-19. The fact that the governor is yet to talk about investigating Ekpenyong’s death, more than two months after is, therefore, opened to conjectures. Now that Ekpenyong is no more, the best way Udom could reciprocate him for his unalloyed loyalty is to dig beyond the surface for his sudden death.
Though I was not closed to him in the last two years of his life, I still savour Ekpenyong’s love and tolerance to an opinionated person like me. In my thinking two factors distanced me from him: One, my utter disregard for Robert Greene’s law to “THINK AS YOU LIKE BUT BEHAVE LIKE OTHERS”. Two, my inherent stupid principle of a poor person that devotedly clings to personal do’s and don’ts even as it is obvious that such is not a panacea that pilots one from abyss of poverty to kingdom of prosperity.
It is possible I do not fall among the first 1,000 people that were closed to Ekpenyong. So many others, provided they are not swayed off the path of truth, ‘can tell his story far more than I do. Notwithstanding that mine could offer some glimpses, the Udo Ekpenyong-and-I story is just a minute of multi-millions of stories that soundly revolved around the grassroots politician in the over 60 years he spent on earth.