How time flies. In our time you knew your peer, even if by reputation, not only in your school but in other schools. Secondary schools were few as were students. We had inter school sports, debates and quiz competitions and these attracted huge audiences and spectators from the public as these events were the major sources of entertainment.
While Clement, better known as Clem was in Community Secondary School, Ugep, one of the oldest secondary schools through community self help, I was in Mary Knoll, an early and famous Roman Catholic institution in Okuku, then in Ogoja now in Yala Local Government Area, both in Cross River State.
Sports and extra curricular activities were then as important as academics and there were sports festivals and competitions which facilitated peer interaction and integration.
Though slightly, (because he lost some years to the Nigerian civil war), senior to us we however largely belonged to the same school generation. Clem was already established as an all round sportsman but more especially as an outstanding footballer. His academic brilliance had gone before him.
He was to read Economics in the University of Nigeria and after the compulsory NYSC, joined the Cross River State Newspaper Corporation, publishers of the Nigerian Chronicle, as a journalist. The Corporation was to become a breeding ground for soon to be famous journalists like Ray Ekpu, Kate Okon, Bassey Ekpo Bassey (of blessed memory), Pat Utomi , Okon Akiba and many others, and an eminent destination for the brightest and the best.
When, as a very young lawyer, I relocated from Ogoja to Calabar, it was Clem who ensured I immediately connected and integrated with our elites in Calabar. One remarkable quality of his is that he knows how to keep in touch with people. On weekends, we drove in his Citroen D Super or Mazda 626 from house to house visiting people.
A technology freak, his home is littered with all sorts of gadgets. I believe his days in the Biafran Air For, during the Nigerian Civil War heightened his interest in technology. In those days of video cassettes you had to go to him for any movie you wanted. His collection was huge. When satellite television made its debut, he was easily the first to install one in Calabar. I remember he had a mammoth satellite dish and the crowd always assembled to watch Peter Arnett reporting the United States invasion of Iraq otherwise known as the first Gulf War for CNN.
His collection of books, as his knowledge, is eclectic. His collection of ancient, defunct and current newspapers is incredible. How he finds storage for them passeth the understanding of all. Amazingly, his Calabar home is a garage for living and dead models of American automobiles of different generations.
When I was appointed Commissioner for Works and Transport in the old Cross River State ( now Cross River and Akwa Ibom States) two months shy of my twenty seventh birthday, Clem was on hand to give me background information and insights into tricky decisions I had to make, and there were indeed many, given the political climate at the time. His advice and insights were always spot on. We had to engage him for several assignments. He at different times chaired the Task Forces on Books and later, Disposal of Unserviceable Government Assets, tasks he carried out with uncommon devotion and accountability.
When early in 1987 I disengaged from Kanu G. Agabi and Associates to set up my own practice, Clem requested that I took his younger brother Richard along. Richard turned out to be Clem’s greatest gift to me. Richard was brilliant, hardworking and focused. Like me, he was also an avid lawn tennis player. The practice we started as Victor Ndoma-Egba & Co in May 2007 became Ndoma-Egba, Ebri & Co in under two years and has endured to date in spite of Richard’s shocking sudden demise in January 1999. That the name has remained unchanged till date is a tribute and a testimony to his contributions to the firm which today has judges, Senior Advocates of Nigeria and public office holders of different standings amongst its alumni.
It is said that the true character of a man is known when he is in wealth , or power , or both. Clem has always been comfortable but more importantly contented. Clem is deep and subtle. He is neither loud nor flamboyant but he has unmistakable presence. We were six or seven ( I remember Chief Wilfred Oden Inah, Dr. Josephat Itafu Okey, Engr. John Uguru Egbe, Chief Linus Bisong and I) who sought the governorship ticket of the defunct National Republican Convention along with Clem in 1991. Clem prevailed and went on to win the elections and became Governor. He was thirty nine years old.
Though we sought the same ticket in a rigorous direct primaries campaign, our relationship was at no point threatened or adversely affected. A runoff was eventually held between himself and late Chief Inah which became acrimonious. Although it took years, he ensured that his relationship with Chief Inah was restored in full and he remained one of the closest persons to Chief Inah until his death a few years ago. His victory was understandable. He had seen the need to go to the 1988/89 Constituent Assembly where the emerging power blocks were being configured. He was part of the game and therefore had mileage and a head start.
In spite of the fact that his dear brother was my partner, we received no special patronage or privileges. He had no airs. He did not have the pomposity, arrogance or needless flamboyance of today’s men of power. Occasionally he would call to find out if we could have a game of lawn tennis and would sound like if he was asking a favor. I recall coming back from court in Obudu to see a massive satellite dish installed in my compound. I was surprised as I had not commissioned any. When I inquired from my cousin who was staying with me what was happening, she said those who installed it told her they were from the Governor. I called him to complain that his workers had gone to a wrong house to install a satellite dish. He said “ yes your house is that wrong address”.
He wedded his dear wife, Veronica Ntiti while in office. It was at night. It was a very private affair. I had to send a staff to spy and he confirmed that indeed the Governor, my friend and brother was getting married with less than ten persons including security aides in attendance. That event did not reflect today’s obscene lavishness and ostentation by those entrusted with our common patrimony. I never heard there was a reception after the wedding. It was also not in the media in-spite of Clem being a media person himself. He did not use his high office, not notwithstanding, to assault public sensibilities with needless obscenities. The marriage held at night produced four boys who are now successful men in their own rights and some of them are now raising their own families.
The few times he came to my house as Governor he drove himself. I don’t remember if he even had a convoy. In fact one day, my drunken security man would not let him into my compound. He calmly introduced himself first as Clement Ebri. When the gateman would not relent he introduced himself as the Governor . The gateman who said he knew him was unrelenting. Clem could not help himself. He burst into such a boisterous laugh that I was attracted outside to see the drama of a gateman “flexing” with His Excellency. He had just had his lesson in “power 101” that teaches that everyone has his or her sphere of power. I was very upset at my gateman for trying to choose my visitors or friends. Clem pleaded that I should not sack him. They became friends. Clem would engage him in long discussions in subsequent visits. I never found out what they discussed in Efik which he speaks fluently.
If there ever was a god father in the politics of Cross River State, it would undoubtedly be Clement David Ebri . It was he who identified and appointed a youthful Donald Duke as Commissioner For Finance. Donald became a two term Governor. He sent Liyel Imoke who became the youngest senator to the Senate in the most unusual circumstances and against all arguments. He thought Cross River State owed Liyel’s illustrious father, Dr. S.E. Imoke a debt. After becoming Senator, he became Special Adviser to President Obasanjo, Minister and a two term Governor. He appointed Gershom Bassey to the board of Cross River Estates Limited (CREL). Gershom is today a second term Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Professor Ivara Esu was his Commissioner for Agriculture. The Professor has since become a Vice Chancellor, Minister and is today a two term Deputy Governor of Cross River State. Pastor Usani Uguru Usani was his Personal Assistant. Usani has since been Minister for Niger Delta Affairs. I could go on and on.
Since leaving office, Clem has been National Chairman of a political party. He has also chaired the Presidential Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He is currently Chairman of the Board of the National Biotechnology Development Agency.
One remarkable attribute of Clem’s is his relationship with his parents, siblings and friends. His relationship with his father was to be envied. It was not just filial , they were friends who discussed just any subject. While Clem trusted his father’s wisdom, his father on the other hand trusted his judgement. He adores his mother and the mother, on the other hand cannot have a conversation without Clem ending up as the topic. The same can be said of his mother in law with whom he enjoys a unique relationship. He is very close to his siblings for whom he is the Iroko providing shade for all.
In my tribute to Senator Uche Chukwumerije titled “UCHE CHUKWUMERIJE: A BOOK IS CLOSED” in May, 2015 I had written this: “Every age, every generation produces an iconoclast, an eclectic, eccentric, quirky and unusual figure who ironically represents the measure, values, the essence of that age or generation and becomes the icon of that age or generation. They are not conventional persons, they are perculiar, odd, aberrant, curious, capricious, quaint, queer and even erratic. Somehow, in spite of their unusualness they remain unusually lovable. They cannot be ignored. They are usually unobtrusive yet their presence is forceful.”
This can as much be said of Clem, the Biafran Air Force Officer, soccer star and overall sportsman and enthusiast, husband to one wife, Vero, father, grandfather, economist, journalist, archivist, auto enthusiast, technophile, statesman, friend, and brother. Like every human, he is not perfect. He has his failings and frailties. On a scale however, his strengths and virtues far outweigh his weaknesses. His integrity stands out and has never been questioned. His carriage is dignified and he is an icon.
Happy seventieth birthday. An extensive study in the US found that the most productive age in human life is between sixty and seventy years of age and the second most productive age is seventy to eighty. You have just left one productive age for another. May your days be long and glorious, may what is ahead be greater than what is in your remarkable past.
Victor Ndoma-Egba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Leader of the 7th. Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and former Chairman, Niger Delta Development Commission is an old friend of Clement David Ebri. He wrote in from Abuja.
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