“I have thought of what I could do as my little contribution to the NUJ in Akwa Ibom State with regards to this matter (of investigative reporting). Anywhere that I have gone in this world when people talk about journalism, one individual comes to my mind first…. It is in honour of this high priest of quality reporting that I hereby request (you) to accept the institution of an annual award to be called: Ray Ekpu Award for Investigative Journalism.”
July 30 was, in several ways, a historic evening. The entire press centre of the Akwa Ibom Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists was filled up. More than half of the people in the hall sat outside, under canopies. My presence was based on an invitation by the State Council Chairman of the NUJ, Amos Etuk. He made me feel special. Amos disclosed that a respected technocrat, Udom Inoyo, would be the special guest. Udom retired recently from ExxonMobil as Executive Vice Chairman.
I knew it would be an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues I had not met in years. The event attracted almost every practitioner of journalism in the state. I listened and watched Udom deliver a well crafted and easily applauded paper. At the end, it was announced that only three questions or comments would be taken. I was one of the three people recognised to ask questions. I had three questions but I tried to melt them into one.
However, before then, in a conversation entitled: “Your Pen, Our Future”, Udom left no one in doubt as to how his past prepared him for what he has become in life. He talked about his late father with a sense of pride in what the man stood for. Here was a man whose life was ruled by the four pillars of hard work, contentment, integrity, and fear of God. Citing verifiable legacies, he said his father walked the talk on several fronts.
He recalled: “I will never forget offering my father N300 in 1988, and he refused to accept it, querying the source. He had retired from service, and though I was an administrative officer on grade level 9, he thought the amount was too much for me to pull out of my savings. To date, I still visualise my hands stretched out and listening to his interrogations. He was always interested in the source of everything in our possession and even my friends, who would visit, especially in cars that seemed off their economic mark, did not escape such scrutiny. It did not matter if those cars belonged to their parents.”
Udom challenged Akwa Ibom-based journalists not to abandon investigative journalism. He reminded them of the legendary professional exploits of two Washington Post investigative reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, backed by a determined editor, Ben Bradlee, who exposed a corrupt political system and forced a sitting American President, Richard Nixon, out of office. He noted that the action of the two investigative reporters also led to the jailing of more than 40 people including America’s chief law officer, the Attorney General of the United States.
Back in Nigeria, he called to remembrance the investigative prowess of Segun Osoba, who discovered the corpse of the first Prime Minister of Nigeria after the 1966 coup. His conclusion was that “today, there is the Freedom of Information Law that could help reporters do more than what others did, in the past. You do not need to bring down a government or discover a missing corpse, but you can do a lot to help the government and society through truthful investigative reporting.”
Suddenly, the hall exploded in endless applause as Udom said: “I have thought of what I could do as my little contribution to the NUJ in Akwa Ibom State with regards to this matter (of investigative reporting). Anywhere that I have gone in this world when people talk about journalism, one individual comes to my mind first. He is…an international award-winning journalist, who rose from a position of insignificance to that of global prominence. It is in honour of this high priest of quality reporting that I hereby request (you) to accept the institution of an annual award to be called: Ray Ekpu Award for Investigative Journalism.”
The award is to be administered annually by a panel of five first-class media chiefs comprising: two celebrated veteran journalists; one national officer of the Nigerian Guild of Editors; a nominee of the award sponsor; and the State Chairman of the NUJ. It is aimed at encouraging quality, factual investigative reporting in Akwa Ibom State and Nigeria at large. The prize money for the overall winner each year is N500,000. But the journalist must operate from Akwa Ibom State.
Shortly after Udom announced the award, I put a call across to a delighted Ray Ekpu in Lagos to congratulate him. He was stunned after I revealed the detail of the award to him. He confessed: “I know Udom Inoyo closely. But Sam, I have never done anything special for him to deserve this kind of honour. This is purely from a heart of love. I’m glad to be so honoured by someone who has never placed a demand on me. I am greatly delighted.”
Soon, it was time for questions and comments. So far, it was clear to me the combination of issues I needed to raise with Udom, whom I first met in 2005. I tried to make it a simple straight-forward inquiry, which required an equally straight shot of an answer, powered by facts. Both happened. Colleagues had thought nobody would have the intrepidity to raise such a contentious issue with Udom, who parades towering credentials in public service. He was also our guest. There was therefore the need not to embarrass him with any negative interrogation. It was even made clear at the beginning that no political questions should be asked. I considered that as self-censorship.
In journalism, every question is aimed at searching for and unearthing facts. It is these verifiable facts that would eventually open doors for truth to emerge. Only truth can heal doubts and end every speculation.
I cannot recall the exact words in which each section the harmonised question was captured. But it went this way: Having left ExxonMobil, are you going into politics; if you are eyeing the governorship of Akwa Ibom as being speculated, what is your view on the issue of cultism which has recently brought avoidable bloodshed and death to the state? Then I ventured into the hyper-sensitive, seemingly politically-motivated but widely-held conjecture that he had, during his university days, identified with the Pyrates Confraternity, also called Seadogs. I told him that no one has provided any evidence to prove that Seadogs is a cult. “But I want you to be categorical in your response: Are you a member of any secret cult, or even the Pyrates Confraternity?”
The silence that ruled the hall suddenly ended. Uneasiness set in. Within a split second, tension took over the hitherto relaxed atmosphere. It was a question nobody wanted to ask, but which everybody now waited for the answer. A senior journalist who sat next to me whispered: So you came all the way from Abuja to ask one long satanic question! My eyes were however focused on Udom. I needed to observe and decode his reaction. Was he harassed?
Quietly, he took hold of the microphone, stood up with a tantalising smile, and confidently responded to the inquiries without any hesitation. He looked first in my direction as though trying to tell me something important enough to demand eye-to-eye contact. At that point, I only hoped he was not taking it personal. Then the smile waned. Diplomacy left. Seriousness took hold of him as silence returned to the hall. Journalists were ready for the news and every word must be recorded. Udom understood the moment and declared in no uncertain terms: “I am not a member of the Pyrates Confraternity.” He said this three times. He did not stammer. It was for emphasise. The message sank in. Something snapped; and the tension ended.
After the absolute declaration, he went ahead to state his position on the menace of cultism in the state. He spoke as a father whose children could have been victims of the bothersome situation. You could sense the pain as each word dropped from his lips. He expressed serious concern over the threats and challenged parents and every person to rise to the occasion: “We must not take the matter of cultism lightly. We must begin to find out what is driving cultism in our state and in Nigeria. We must take cultism out of the reach and the realms of politics.” It was another way of saying that cultism must not be used as instrument for political gains.
Udom refused to accept or deny any interest in the governorship issue. His position was that Governor Udom Emmanuel does not deserve any distraction as he focuses on the serious business of governance in his final two years. He told the media professionals that every indigene of the State and indeed every Nigerian should be politically conscious and must develop a sense of involvement in governance, even without necessarily contesting for any office.
The position of the former ExxonMobil chief may have been a cautious demonstration of maturity in view of what a local newspaper did to his reputation earlier in the week. He woke up that morning to see a screaming headline in one of the State-based tabloids suggesting that he had a meeting two months ago in Calabar with a former governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke. The imaginary meeting was intended to lobby Donald to in turn arm-twist Governor Emmanuel to consider Udom as his successor.
The reporter who created the deliberate falsehood sounded as though he was privy to Donald’s conversation with Governor Udom Emmanuel. He cited the governor as telling Donald on telephone that “Inoyo is a hard sale” for the governorship. Udom’s description of the story was: “This is complete falsehood and a mischievous creation of a fiction writer. While I will never border to debunk such falsehood it would be better if all practitioners would uphold the basic tenets of journalism in their daily practice, which includes truth, accuracy, objectivity, social responsibility, etc.”
The evening ended on the high. With five laptops as gift, an institution of excellence award in journalism worth N500,000; a promise to collaborate with the NUJ on several issues for the good of the profession; and of course, some other heavy but undisclosed packages. The weekend started well for my colleagues.
Sam Akpe is a journalist and editor.