Memorial To My Brother, Frank Okonta

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On the first anniversary of the demise of Chief Frank Okonta, an arts and sports patron, his bosom friend, Mr. Moses Ekpo, Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State writes a moving tribute

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!

How the mighty has fallen!

Tell it not in Gath,

proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; …

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

greatly beloved you were to me ….”

(A dirge of King David to Jonathan the beloved as contained in II Samuel, Chapter 1: 19-26)

Of the epics of bosom friendship in history, that between David and Jonathan in the Bible would qualify as the most poignant given the circumstance of hard choice involved in its enactment – filial-tie was pitted against soul-tie, and the latter managed to gain ascendency over the former.

At the risk of invidiousness towards some of our very wonderful parents, siblings and other family members, the view may be canvassed here that as we get down to brass tacks, David and Jonathan are a proof-conclusive that “water may in fact be thicker than blood”. The supporting logic is that blood-bond results from the accident of birth, whereas the bond of friendship is a matter of the heart – something consciously contracted, with all its implications carefully weighed out.

But between me and Chief Francis Chukwuma Okonta, or Franki, as I used to call him, who passed on exactly a year ago, matters were simply out of the box. For us, blood was thick; water was also thick – he being at once my brother and friend; and, in equal measure, our friendship and brotherhood mutually feeding each other. And my experience with Frank enables me now to empathise with David when, as part of the above dirge for Jonathan, he makes the following confession: “Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women …”

My peregrinations in the service of father-land had landed me in 1982 in Lagos, at that time the seat of the Federal Government of Nigeria. The exact place was the Federal Ministry of Information where I had been deployed from my previous post in Cross River State. Discomfiture and the other nuances associated with relocation would have been my lot had I not met Frank who by the design of providence started work at the Information Department in Ikoyi, at the same time as my own deployment there.

We soon struck a relationship! And over the years, the encounter yielded a union of “alter egos” – for Frank and I had done too many positive things together, formally and informally. On the informal side, our relationship deepened beyond the cosmopolitan “Lagos friendship” down to our respective roots in Ibusa and Abak. And as it is said in pidgin English, “me and Frank, we sabi ourselves reach village”.

In those breezy days of relative youthfulness, the unique whirlpool of Lagos life added to the rough and tumble of the Information beat to give a certain dreary edge to our lives together. The salve, however, came from the many recreation spots and other joints Frank and I frequented. But we made sure that Frank’s young family was adequately settled before our daily recreational adventures, considering that his wife was away at the Unversity, and that we had to fill in for her in many areas at the home front, including baby-sitting. My wife was at her job in Calabar with our family.

Formally, Frank and I worked together to, amongst other things, contribute to the prestige of the Information Department. We were the first to report for duty in the department and the last to leave, a novelty at that time in our office. In one very memorable instance Frank, in addition to his other duty schedule, voluntarily joined me in my crucial assignment as Director of War Against Indiscipline (WAI), a programme which was conceived to bring discipline to our national life. It was in Ibadan where President Muhammadu Buhari, then as Head of State, was to inaugurate the WAI Brigade to launch the National Monthly Sanitation Exercise as part of the WAI programme.

As usual, Frank brought his Midas touch to bear on that campaign to awaken national consciousness on hygiene in the country. I remember vividly how we both strategized far into the night of Monday, the 26th of August, 1985. We were dusting up the programme for the following day’s countrywide exercise to select the cleanest city in the country.

For the two of us, expectation was high; excitement was fever pitch, and we were soon to pull through a feat of national significance, perhaps in the process writing our names in gold. But as they say, there is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Suddenly, we felt our happy bubbles burst in our grasp – alas, the Babangida coup had struck in the early hours of the following day. Of course, the planned exercise was aborted, and with it, the entire WAI crusade!

But for the soulmates of Frank and Moses, the odyssey in friendship brooked no drawback, and the governing credo was “never say die!” A few years afterward, I was recalled home to Nigeria from the foreign information service to establish the Copyright Commission in Iganmu, Lagos; then to the former Cross River State as Commissioner of Information, Culture and Social Welfare; and subsequently that of Information in my newly created state of Akwa Ibom. Trust Frank, he was right on the spot at both locations with me to share in the euphoria and participate in the launch of the Akwa Ibom State-owned newspaper, The Pioneer, in the oil-rich city of Eket.

My sojourn in the Diplomatic service, National Population Commission, and even in my present job as Deputy Governor, all got spiced up by Frank who defied whatever distance it was that separated us in order to make himself personally available to be with me from time to time in London, Washington DC and other locations. In the text he sent to me upon my becoming Deputy Governor in 2015, he took ownership of that accomplishment in a way that only he could have done.

Thus, when I received the sad news of his passage last year, I knew for sure that the stellar heavens had just shed one of its brightest stars; and that I, as a person, had lost a loyal friend, a brother, a sincere companion and compatriot – someone who genuinely “rekindled the inner spirit” in me.

Virtue is said to be a syndrome. Frank Okonta’s abiding commitment to friendship also resulted in an unusual knack for prompt and excellent delivery in other areas. He was an accomplished art patron, the Nkem art gallery in Lekki Island, Lagos, which he established after his retirement from service, and his role as president of the Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN), bearing out his immense status in this regard.

Prior to his retirement from the Federal Ministry of Information as Deputy Director of Information in 1999, Frank served as a member of the VISION 2010 in the late General Sanni Abacha regime. He was also Secretary General of the Nigeria Olympic Committee; President of Cycling Federation of Nigeria; the Chairman of the Nigerian Boxing Association, and Special Assistant to the former Minister of Information, the late Senator Uche Chukwumerije.

It was indeed true of him to say that he had his finger in every pie, even as he made a success out of everything he touched. Frank was indeed an accomplished gentleman, and the loss implied in his passage will be difficult to fully quantify.

Against the backdrop of this overwhelming sense of loss, I ask with the Biblical Job; hoping for a reprieve for whatever it is worth: “If a man dies, will he live again? (Job 14:14). I know that Frank was a devout Catholic, and by lay assignment, the saint with similar name with him, the saint of God, Saint Francis of Asisi, is one of his Patron Saints.

For myself and others who have been weighed down in the last one year over the demise of Frank, I therefore invoke St. Francis of Asisi in his popular prayer for those suffering bereavement: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; … for it is in dying that we are born to eternal life”.

And then, the question again, “if a man dies will he live again?” In divine chronology, Job’s question waited long for an answer. Weary centuries rolled away; but at last the doubting, almost despairing cry, put into the mouth of the man of sorrows of the Old Testament is answered by the Man of Sorrows of the new: “I am the Resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live!” (John 11: 25-26). I can confirm that Frank Okonta was a believer in Christ; and, of course, his eternal destiny is covered by this promise of all promises – this assurance of all assurances, as prefigured in the Resurrection of Christ Himself, the ceremonial test-run for the general resurrection of believers in their own turn.

Yes, Frank lives on in his unprecedented legacies, in his offsprings, and wonderful wife, Patience, who are veritable clones of Frank himself. He lives on in the hearts of those lives he positively affected while he functioned in the material. He lives on in his unending network of friends. And most importantly, he lives on in the eternal continuum which has become his portion because of his Redeemer and Lord.

“When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today”. This evocative epitaph is enshrined on the Kohima war memorial in Naga-land, India, built to commemorate soldiers of the empire who laid down their lives for their fellow country men.

If ever there was a fault that Frank could justifiably have been accused of, it would be the prodigality of giving. The definitive memory I have of him is that he was a giver. He gave, he gave, and finally he had given of himself in death.

One year on, I join our colleagues in our then Information Office in Ikoyi Road, Lagos, circle of friends and others, to remember and celebrate this rare gem. I pray that Almighty God grant us the enablement to fill the vacuum created by his exit.

Once again, good night Franki! May your gentle soul continue to rest in the bosom of the Lord till we meet again on the Resurrection Morning.