Professor Lawrence Ekpebu at 82
The myth of black inferiority was shattered in 1960 as 25-year-old Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu received his Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from Harvard University. What left America shaking its head was not his record of being the first African to successfully graduate from Harvard as his winning the highly coveted Francis H Burr Prize Scholarship Class ‘60.
He was cited as a dependable member of Harvard Varsity Soccer Squad, HVSS, whose exploits retained his place in All-New England 1957 and All-Ivy 1958 and 1959 teams. Elected two consecutive years into Harvard Student Council, he argued that Harvard could not afford to lead the world isolating itself from National Student Association of United States. His argument convinced Council to hold a referendum where Harvard voted to rejoin mainstream student politics. His “remarkable qualities of character, leadership, scholarship and athletic ability” got him the prize. Till date he remains the only black to win the 109 years old graduation prize scholarship.
While writing his final examinations, the authorities told him that they had conceded to his requests of admitting more Africans. He was asked to set up a scholarship, on behalf of the university, for Nigerian students to study in Harvard. If the arrangement proved successful, other African countries could benefit, as Harvard was determined to expose future African leaders to Western thinking.
While registering his appreciation, the whiz- kid replied that he had no intention of returning to Nigeria without a Doctorate. Yale, Princeton and Columbia Universities had already offered him places but he promised getting a competent Nigerian to establish the scholarship. The authorities gave him two weeks to present his candidate. Before coming to Harvard he worked in the Office of the Council of Ministers, Lagos. He knew every nationalist, yet in his frantic search, he was careful not to pick a tribalist who could compromise the scholarship. Three days to deadline, a loud voice said to him, “Chief Awokoya is coming to America. Look for him.”
Chief S.O Awokoya was Western Region’s pioneer Minister of Education and founder of Free Primary Education under Premier Obafemi Awolowo. Ekpebu was in Ahmadiyya College, Lagos, when Awokoya was disgraced out of office because of his soaring profile. Declining lucrative positions from multinationals, he returned to the classroom at Emergency Science School, Onikan, now Federal College of Science and Technology, Victoria Island, to teach. If there was a Nigerian trusted to recruit students purely on merit, that Nigerian was the incorruptible Awokoya.
Nigerian Colony must wait till its October 1 independence before opening embassy in America. Without embassy there was no source of information about Nigerians in America. Independence was months away but Harvard would not wait. But at Nigerian Liaison Office, Washington DC, where Reginald Barrett was training the first batch of Nigerians to run the embassy, Ekpebu got an unexpected breakthrough when he phoned. He located Awokoya in Boston and presented him to Harvard just in time to beat the deadline.
Awokoya established the Nigerian-American Scholarship Programme (NASP), which he managed so well that Harvard asked him to expand it to African Scholarship Programme of American Universities (ASPAU). The African Graduate Fellowship Programme (AFGRAD) and Advanced Training for Leadership and Skills (ATLAS) came next. 250 American universities and 53 African countries joined the programmes benefiting 4000 African scholars.
Funded by the participating universities and USAID, the scholarships were supervised by the African-American Institute, AAI. Ekpebu completed his Master in Public Administration, MPA, 1962, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University and returned to Harvard. He was welcomed by four Nigerian students, none of whom knew his role in their coming to America.
It was billionaire David Rockefeller who broke the news to Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikiwe. Ekpebu’s attention to duty during his Princeton internship at Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank had endeared him to the American. Azikiwe, on October 12, 1961 poured his encomiums, “I am writing in order to express my pride and extend to you my sincere congratulations on your achievement so far.”
Forever Serving God
On this his 82nd birthday Professor Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu JP, OFR, states his core philosophy as “Service to God and Mankind.” He explains: “The only career for man is serving God and mankind irrespective of age and circumstance. One’s skills and education are means to this sacred calling. A baby who quietens at night to enable his parents enjoy a sound sleep is serving God. The parents who sacrifice all to train their children are also serving God. Even a dying old man about to expire can also serve God.
“An old man about to expire can with his last breath say something capable of bringing peace or strife to those he’s leaving behind. Whatever comes out of his mouth becomes a position to be defended. Knowing he’s about to be silenced forever, a wise patriarch will set his house in order by telling the whole truth. That is serving God.”
Born May 2, 1935 to Chief Naupa Ekpebu and Mary Geku of Okoloba town, Kolokuma/Opokuma LGA, Bayelsa State, Professor Ekpebu declined the best from the West and came home to educate young Nigerians. This followed the 1965 completion of his MA and Ph.D, Harvard. When General Yakubu Gowon created Rivers State on May 27, 1967, he again sacrificed a flourishing career at the University of Ibadan and came home to serve.
As the longest serving commissioner under Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, Professor Ekpebu educated his people, replicating NASP in Rivers Automatic Scholarship Programme, ASP. To launch Rivers people into corporate Nigeria, he replicated Chase Manhattan Bank by establishing Rivers-owned Pan-African Bank, PAB. He conceived East-West Road and secured a World Bank loan to establish Risonpalm.
In 1984 General Muhammadu Buhari appointed him Nigerian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Cote d’Ivoire. When Buhari was overthrown, General Ibrahim Babangida asked him to remain in Abidjan and complete his term before retaining him for a second term. Professor Ekpebu’s achievements included reconciling Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire that were on virtual enmity over divergence of policies on Biafra, recognised by Cote d’Ivoire; and Apartheid South Africa, which Cote d’ Ivoire had ties with. The Nigeria House, Abidjan, was completed by him.
He was also Foreign Policy Adviser to the Mohammed/Obasanjo regime; Member of Governing Council, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Member of first Governing Council, University of Ilorin; Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, former Rivers State University of Science and Technology; University of Ibadan representative in the Governing Council, Nigerian Institute of Management; and member of immediate past Governing Council, University of Ibadan. The Federal Government repeatedly called him from retirement for national duties 2000, 2008 and 2014.
The Sin of Amnesia
This consumerist generation could be forgiven the venial sin of not recognising Professor Ekpebu. The see-no-evil, hear-no-evil and speak-no-evil inherent in Gowon’s “no victor, no vanquished” policy, though reconciliatory, meant that today’s senators, governors, generals, etc, of Rivers and Bayelsa origins were not taught his contribution in their own education.
Institutional amnesia, however, is mortal as he has been systematically purged from official historiography. But the danger of sanitising history is narcissism. Expecting no official recognition, having denied others same, the sanitisers erect their own monuments while still in office. If it is a crime to name an institution after him, why are entities that contributed next to nothing in the development of Rivers and Bayelsa States so honoured?
Writer acknowledges the immense contribution of Dr Beatrice Ibieyuwa Larry Ekpebu.