By Charles Kumolu
WRITING in one of his numerous works, the late American author, E.E Cummings said: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” This quote finds full expression in the story of Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, retd.
His life is a journey that commenced in 1940 with royalty and has so far been powered by courage. With educational qualifications from Presbyterian School, Abriba; Duke Town School, Calabar and Emida College, the son of the then traditional ruler of Abriba, the late Chief Ebitu Ukiwe, armed himself for the future of his dreams.
To create the future he desired, Ukiwe got enlisted in the Nigerian Navy in 1960 and was commissioned in 1964 after his training at Royal Naval College, England.
He was also at Britannia Royal Navy College where he aquired certificates in Ocean Navigation Watch Keeping.
Ukiwe’s career was, however, punctuated three years after by the Nigerian Civil War, which saw him retreating to the defunct Eastern Region to fight for Biafra. Despite playing an active role on the frontlines in the war, Ukiwe would later describe that phase thus: “We had to fight each other, especially in a war that people have now realised was unnecessary.”
Proverbial golden fish
Unlike some who didn’t return to their pre-war professions, his belief in the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reintegration, RRR, policy of the Gowon administration influenced his return to the Navy.
His reabsorption came with personal losses as he was denied promotions, but Ukiwe exhibited strength in the face of pains. It was a phase that saw his juniors wearing superior ranks.
Ukiwe, who was a member of the Supreme Military Council, SMC, in the Obasanjo regime, soldiered on with exemplary displays of professionalism. For instance, he held command positions as a Captain, when those postings were meant for Rear Admirals.
His reputation as an officer with distinguishing professional skills, saw him being appointed the military governor of Niger and Lagos states in 1977 and 1978 respectively.
Ukiwe, who later headed the Western Naval Command, was appointed the pioneer Director of Naval Faculty, Jaji. Like the proverbial golden fish with no hiding place, his sterling qualities earned him the position of Chief of General Staff (Vice-President under the military) in the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida (retd). However, he only lasted for a year and two months as the number two man in that administration given his unceremonious exit from government.
The same display of bravery that is known as his trademark was responsible for what was regarded as his premature retirement at a time his services mattered most.
He would later describe the incident thus: “It is nothing personal with Babangida. We had our disagreements, and these were expected since he was not working with a buffoon. It would be impossible for people to agree on everything.
“There were major policy disagreements. One of them was over the OIC – the Organisation of Islamic Countries. I thought it was wrong as the number two man in the administration for me not to be told about such a major decision.
“I still maintain that Nigeria, as a country, should not be a member of a religious organisation. Individual organisations can take up the membership of religious organisations, but not the country.”
In retirement, he continued his contributions to nation-building as he played critical roles during the struggle for the actualisation of June 12 election. In fact, he was reported to have been the one that convinced the late Chief MKO Abiola to return and fight for his mandate in 1993.
The National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, which was the vehicle used by democratic forces to campaign for an end to military rule, metamorphosed from the Council for Unity and Understanding, CUU, which he founded alongside other like minds. He aspired to the presidency in 2007 on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP.
Apart from his nationalistic interventions, Ukiwe, who holds the traditional title of Ochiagha, excelled in business as the chairman of companies such as Bitu Properties, Kobimat, Bitu Promar and Rudocons. He was adviser and consultant to an offshore company, Statoil for nearly a decade.
Even as he inches towards the octogenarian club, he is still relentless in his desire for a better Nigeria where there is peace and progress.