The Armament of Sobriety: A Tribute to Prof. Akpan Hogan Ekpo

Udom Inoyo

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a University of Uyo community member about a valedictory seminar and book presentation in honour of Professor Akpan Hogan Ekpo. He also requested that I send a tribute. I wonder if Professor Ekpo is a wine or whiskey connoisseur. Even if he is not, maybe today, given his background and tour of duties, he undoubtedly knows much about pre-dinner cocktails or excellent after-dinner drinks. Regrettably, we are in a country where, despite the best efforts of some government agencies, unscrupulous citizens are still bent on importing substandard food products, with some brazenly extending the madness to manufacturing supposedly choice drinks in unhygienic environments. So, anyone who has fallen prey to and consumed these drinks may never know the taste of a meticulously brewed drink. Lovers of good brews often identify a few things that go with the quality: colour, taste of wood, complexity, persistence, passion, and maturity. Age matters, just as it does in human life.

Professor Ekpo undoubtedly comes in many shades of quality, not the least shaped by his upbringing and, unsurprisingly, now tamed by age. The younger Prof was different, and Akwa Ibom State couldn’t produce a better prototype! Wherever he found himself, from primary to secondary school and university, through dint of hard work and perseverance, he conquered. His parental background was never a setback, and he has always been authentic, proudly sharing his roots with any audience, local or international. This is probably one reason, despite numerous job opportunities, that he returned to Nigeria after his academic pursuits in the United States of America. He desperately wanted to contribute to developing his state, country, and the continent.

I first encountered Akpan Ekpo during his sojourn as a young lecturer at the University of Calabar. Like many intellectuals of that time, the bug of the African Renaissance bit him, and they were collectively at the forefront of the liberation struggle, especially in Southern Africa. Interaction with most young people, students, and fresh graduates in Calabar was easy, given their age. They recruited, nay indoctrinated, many with their leftist ideology. I was not part of that school, but there were a few of his ilk, both on and off campus, that I admired.  Bassey Ekpo Bassey was a journalist whose vibrant articles were a delight to read. Edwin and Bene Madunagu, a young couple, were unrepentantly dogged in pursuit of a better Nigeria. I greatly admired both and remain grateful that many years after, my good friend, Kayode Komolafe, would reconnect me with Professor Madunagu when he visited Lagos. Who can forget the no-nonsense and blistering Professor Eskor Toyo, whose class was always packed, not necessarily by students offering economics, but anyone, including young lecturers, engaged in the stumping of Western democracy and its capitalist institutions? There was also Professor Eteng, Comrade Amah T. Amah, Dr Biko Agozino and Dr Yakubu Ochefu. How can I forget the one who drank from Eskor’s fountain right from home, a veteran journalist, Ikpoto (Comrade) Okon Osung! Whether fully persuaded or not, this bunch afforded many a broader view of issues and taught the importance of authenticity, transparency, and commitment. I am indeed grateful for such orientation at a young age.  Interestingly, Professor Ekpo would utilize his skills beyond the academic community to help positively influence our public institutions, both at the federal, state and even local levels.

In his home state, his service spans several decades, whether as a member of an Economic Advisory team, crafting the blueprint for the development of the state or superintending as Chairman of the Akwa Ibom Investment Promotion Council (AKIIPOC). He was a known name, especially when Obong Victor Attah held sway as the state Governor between 1999 and 2007. This was also a challenging time for the oil and gas industry, given the conflict between the oil-producing states and the Federal Government under President Olusegun Obasanjo because of paltry revenue allocation for crude oil extraction. Tagged ‘the agitation for resource control,’ the international oil companies, though in a joint venture with Nigeria (through the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation-NNPC), contributing their fair share of operational cost and paying relevant fees and royalties, were largely signposted as the culprits. After all, they were the operators of these oil and gas assets and, therefore, closest to the people. While there were relationship challenges with the oil-bearing communities, truth be told, these companies were also victims, trapped in the dishonesty and inefficiency dotting our landscape, which have negatively impacted the ability to improve the lives of citizens, even to date. In Akwa Ibom state, no love was lost between the Governor and Mobil Producing Nigeria. However, as one of the company’s leadership members, I must admit that he treated me courteously. But there was an incident that beggars belief to date. And this is where my path crossed again with Professor Akpan Ekpo after over two decades.

A state government-appointed auditor reviewed the company’s payroll to ascertain the appropriateness of taxes paid by its staff working in Qua Iboe Terminal or any Field location in Akwa Ibom state. This routine exercise, conducted every few years, was appropriately concluded, and a satisfactory clearance report was issued. To the company’s surprise, a few months later, a letter was received jettisoning that report and an outrageous amount was slammed on the company as a penalty. Despite several attempts to understand the basis of its computation, the matter could not be resolved. Eventually, the government resorted to strange tactics, including issuing a warrant to arrest some key company staff. Though not directly responsible for the matter, I was also listed for arrest.  This was comical but frustrated my ability to visit my aged parents in the village.  There were also mixed messages from the Governor whenever we spoke, leading me to believe he was not fully aware of what his appointees were doing.

After a year of back-and-forth and a weighty petition from the company, the Governor requested Professor Akpan Ekpo to review the case. By this time, I had lost confidence in the ability of any government official to objectively review the matter as it appeared everyone was singing from the same songbook. My first shock at the meeting was how elementary Prof’s questions were. Disinterested in long speeches, he asked the state auditor to comment on the accuracy of the initial clearance report it issued. With the affirmation of authenticity, he asked about the basis for the penalty for which additional payments were demanded. There was silence. An angry Professor Ekpo was unmistaken in his reprimand, and I was embarrassed at how some officials had misled the government and created a rift with such a significant investor. It was unusual for a government representative to be so direct and transparent. What a relief that someone finally understood the issues! On how MPN offered medical support to its staff through a quarterly reimbursement, he advised that such payment was subject to taxation.  This case was resolved in under forty-five minutes. Neither the outgoing nor incoming Governor opposed his recommendations. Still, it was never lost on me that though locally situated, Prof was quick to think globally, focusing on the implications of impeding smooth business operations in Nigeria and Akwa Ibom state. He connected the dots quickly, enabling the much-touted ease of business.

As mentioned earlier, Professor Ekpo has advised all levels of government (local, state, and federal) in Nigeria, and his contributions have impacted the country’s journey towards economic advancement. With a distinguished career spanning several decades, Akpan Ekpo has exemplified patriotism, expertise, and dedication in these roles. In economics and policy formulation, he has demonstrated a deep understanding of Nigeria’s economic environment and commitment to excellence, and his insights have been instrumental in guiding policymakers and shaping economic strategies to foster growth, stability, and inclusivity. You can, therefore, imagine how excited I was to serve under him as the Chairman of the Akwa Ibom State Post-COVID-19 Economic Reconstruction Committee set up by Governor Udom Emmanuel in May 2020. For posterity’s sake, I will provide some insights and use this forum to plead with the state government to find comfort in entirely going through and utilizing that committee’s recommendations. Luckily, most of the current players in government, including the State Governor, were either part of the initial committee works or were aware of its activities. While I cannot attest to everyone’s support, as you will soon know, one thing is sure. In the usual duplicitous posturing, this report would have been given an elaborate unveiling if we were gathered for the funeral service of any of the committee members. The family would have been told they died in the service of the people and that such a person would be immortalized. We worked for the Akwa Ibom people when most were sheltered indoors except for essential service workers. Regrettably, the lacklustre attitude of some people concerning the pandemic, including officials who refused to mask up or respect the established control protocols, was not helpful and may have contributed to the loss of lives to COVID-19. It could have easily been one of us, as significant breaches occurred when we arrived at Uyo for the committee meetings.

Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, the then Secretary to the State Government (SSG), called to inform me that the Governor would like me to be part of a committee to fashion a blueprint for the state post-COVID-19. This was a few days after I retired from ExxonMobil. I was looking forward to resting but was happy to contribute my knowledge and experiences towards the development of my state. This is not the first time I have served the state. During Governor Victor Attah’s tenure, I recall working with Dr Ebebe Ukpong, the then Commissioner for Economic Development, to design a roadmap for developing the oil-bearing communities of Akwa Ibom State. I was part of Governor Godswill Akpabio’s transition team in 2007. By 2015, when Governor Udom Emmanuel assumed duties, I volunteered to serve on the Agriculture Technical Committee, working with Professor Edet Udoh. However, given the importance of leadership, it was a no-brainer that I would ask Dr Ekuwem about who would drive the committee’s work. I was surprised that though listed as a member, it was not Prof Ekpo. I must credit Dr. Ekuwem for seeing my viewpoint and reverting shortly on the Governor’s approval for Prof to chair the team.

The Government was audacious in its timing, inaugurating the 20-member committee with nine terms of reference and a one-month time frame to complete the assignment. Prof. Ekpo’s leadership was indispensable. He led with foresight and determination, steering the committee during a pandemic to meet the deadline. The committee’s initiatives encompassed various sectors, from mindset change to healthcare, finance, agriculture, and infrastructure, reflecting his holistic approach to economic development. His advocacy for evidence-based policymaking was critical, recognizing the need for data-driven decisions. He always wanted to be guided by reliable information, not emotion, to respond effectively to the issues. Furthermore, Prof. Ekpo’s leadership was characterized by inclusivity and collaboration. He actively engaged stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, including government officials, business leaders, civil society organizations, and academia, fostering a sense of shared responsibility and collective action. By harnessing the expertise and resources of various stakeholders, he ensured that the committee’s efforts were comprehensive, responsive, and sustainable.

In addition to his immediate focus on managing the COVID-19 crisis, Prof. Ekpo emphasized the importance of long-term vision and structural reforms. He advocated policies that would mitigate not only the immediate impact of the pandemic but also lay the foundation for a more resilient and dynamic economy in the future. His vision encompassed investments in human capital, innovation, infrastructure, and reforms to enhance transparency, accountability, and governance.

Hear him:

‘’…there is a paucity of relevant data on the state. Establishing a State Bureau of Statistics is important to ensure that policy pronouncements are evidence-based. The State needs an Economic Advisory Council to assist in the conceptualization, formulation, and implementation of government policies. Such exercise would be evidence-based. It would advise the government and serve as a think tank. The State should have a ‘Reserve Fund’ – an agreed percentage from federal allocation should be deposited into the fund to meet unforeseen circumstances and save for a rainy day. The Fund should be invested in, and strict conditions should be established for withdrawal. The government should have an exit plan for its commercial investments. … the state needs a 30-year Perspective Economic Plan (2021-2050) with 5-year consecutive plans to execute the long-term plan. This would ensure balanced development of the state’.

This report was presented on June 9, 2020. Unfortunately, because of scheduling challenges, three Lagos-based members, including the Chairman, were huddled at the private aviation terminal awaiting the Aviation minister’s approval of a flight to convey them to Uyo. Professor Emmanuel Onwioduokit, the Committee’s Secretary, had to represent the chairman. The Governor was so impressed with the quality of work done and decided at that meeting to set up a 5-member committee to do a deep-dive, creating actionable plans and timelines for immediate implementation. Professor Ekpo was retained as the chairman, and Professor Onwioduokit as Secretary. The other three members were Dr. Glory Edet (as dean of commissioners), Mr. Ime Uwah (Senior Special Assistant to the Governor) and me. We were domiciled at one of the government guest houses and were excited to deliver on the mandate.

To our chagrin, and despite the Governor’s earlier compliments to the team, empowering it to solicit information from any public servant, including himself, things fell apart shortly. Even close allies of the Governor were non-cooperative, putting the chairman under pressure. Oliver Holmes Sr. reminds us that the young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions. I am thankful that age enabled Prof’s sobriety throughout this moment of trial. The young, radical, and activist Professor Ekpo would have acted differently. He earned my respect for his sustained calmness at every point.

The ill-treatment was signposted earlier. Given that travelling was restricted during the pandemic, no sufficient arrangements were made for us to arrive in Uyo, and even while we were yet to finalize our study, one of the committee’s recommendations was contracted out for implementation without any courtesy to the chairman. Upon arrival in Uyo, there were logistical and directional challenges. The team had no vehicle to visit locations, and the one assigned to the chairman would immediately attract the displeasure of even the driver. It eventually led to an altercation with a senior government official and remained unused throughout the assignment. I was embarrassed at such a level of treatment to a renowned son of Akwa Ibom State. I was more pained knowing the courtesies, usually extended to outsiders, with little or no value-addition to the state.

In contrast to the Governor’s message, there was also a reluctance to respond to requests by some government officials. Given the nature of the information solicited, such reactions in certain instances were laughable.  For example, a particular commissioner was unwilling to share rudimentary financial information with two economics professors he knew had access to the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Ministry of Finance, and the Debt Management Office. It took a phone call, and the committee obtained the needed data. Even a committee member, largely absent from meetings, would stonewall several times on information disclosure. These necessitated the chairman to seek clarity from the Governor on the committee’s status/relevance. To his disappointment, the Governor had been informed that the committee was ‘investigating’ the government, an allegation which was a blatant lie. Throughout his career, Professor Ekpo has exemplified the role of a thought leader, strategist, and implementer, driving positive change at local and regional levels. He came to serve the state, and all he got was backstabbing. That was most unfair. When he returned from that meeting, he contemplated resigning from the committee. I have never seen him so livid. It took much persuasion to have him continue, and we are grateful he obliged. But we now knew all was not well, despite the Governor’s statements and assurances. Undoubtedly, a third force had emerged, undermining either the committee or the Governor and the ultimate beneficiaries of the study, the people.

We all know that one of Prof. Ekpo’s career hallmarks is his crucial role in leading institutions dedicated to developing human capital. At the University of Uyo, where he served as the Vice-Chancellor, he demonstrated uncommon courage to confront the monsters of cultism and certificate racketeering, even at the risk of his life. As the Director-General of the West African Institute for Financial and Economic Management (WAIFEM), he spearheaded initiatives to enhance the capacity of policymakers and financial practitioners across the region. Under his stewardship, WAIFEM emerged as a beacon of excellence, fostering collaboration and knowledge-sharing among West African nations. So, who was afraid of his efforts to re-position the state? If there was any suspicion of going outside the mandate, why was no one bold enough to confront him?

We recognized that the future of Akwa Ibom state was at stake, and unless disbanded by the Governor, there was no need to discontinue our work. We visited the Minister of Solid Minerals to support authenticating and registering the needed solid minerals data in Akwa Ibom State. Professor Linus Asuquo of the National Metallurgical Development Center was very useful in facilitating this meeting. We also visited the leadership of MainOne Nigeria regarding internet penetration in Akwa Ibom State. A visit to some of the leading farmers in the state was refreshing and comical, as some confessed that they have never been visited or supported by the government, despite the massive intervention of the State Government, including the Central Bank of Nigeria, in agriculture. A comprehensive report with viable solutions and actionable recommendations was submitted to the Governor promptly. He was thankful, and we had no reason to doubt him.

On this auspicious occasion of Professor Ekpo’s retirement, I pray that this report will not be consigned to the dustbin, at least for the following reasons:

1.         In my opinion, the committee’s recommendations still represent a roadmap for revitalizing the economy of Akwa Ibom State and mitigating the socio-economic impacts of not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also our current economic challenges. They provide valuable insights, and it’s unnecessary to reinvent the wheel.

2.         That study was conducted despite severe danger to members’ health. For example, the chairman was seriously ill; unfortunately, no official extended courtesy. His recovery was a miracle, and we remain grateful to God. We owe him and others who risked their lives some gratitude by implementing the recommendations.

3.         Unsurprisingly, but not to be glossed over, no team member received a thank-you letter. We should always appreciate knowledge and commitment to general interest, knowing that these are valuable tools for societal growth and collaborative governance.

I am pleased to have penned these few words in honour of a professor who has earned his place at the top. I look forward to a well-garnished ‘okpo ebot’ in his Ikot Obio Eka home. That is, if the 1.5-kilometre road to his abode, abandoned since 2022, is passable. I pray that the government will restart work on that road as a modest demonstration of gratitude for Prof’s services to the state over the decades.

Prof, enjoy your retirement and the company of your family members!

•Udom Inoyo is Advisor, Inoyo Toro Foundation; Former Vice Chairman, ExxonMobil Companies in Nigeria

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