By Edang Yolanda Ekpo Bassey.
American actor Jesse Williams (of Grey’s Anatomy fame) won the 2016 Black Entertainment Television (BET) Humanitarian Award, and in concluding his consciousness-stirring acceptance speech said of the prowess and resilience of Africans: “Just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.” These words perfectly encapsulate my union with my husband, Edidem Bassey Ekpo Bassey II … known in the Nigerian Socialist Movement as Comrade Bassey Ekpo Bassey.
I remember … In 1995, as Sole Administrator of the Cross River State Newspaper Corporation (publishers of the Nigerian Chronicle titles), Comrade Bassey received in his office a courtesy visit from the newly-elected executive council of the National Association of Cross River State Students (NACRISS), at the instance of Hon. Cletus Obun, who then was the association’s Staff Adviser. Joe Tawo was president and I, the Public Relations Officer (East). That visit proved to be a personal date with destiny, for it was the day I met my soulmate. I was 23, he was 46 and together we were magic. It wasn’t a heat-driven, spontaneous manifestation, but a stewed discovery that we seamlessly converged on so many pivotal matters including a love of Bob Marley’s music. Two years afterward, we were married. When Life’s Tide turned 13 years and three children later, we were still going strong … proving we were also real.
I remember … It is difficult to tell the full character of a person in a single visit, but the books they read would be insightful. Comrade Bassey’s personal library boasted of many well-thumbed tomes and periodicals from a broad gamut … radical philosophy, leadership and governance, religion, social science, leisure and even a cache of Readers’ Digest. And occupying pride of place in his foyer, a prized work of art announced Comrade Bassey’s disposition: “… because thou art lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I shall spew thee out of my mouth” – Revelations 3:16. Combined, these gave me early understanding of the man who was legitimately many things and in every one a revolutionary.
I remember … While not given to talking about himself, once in 1976, pressed by the NEWBREED magazine to describe himself, Comrade Bassey stated he was “a Marxist-Leninist (who) once in a while permits (himself) the rituals of the bourgeoisie.” Decades later, his life was testament to the veracity of this self-portrait. For though born into Efik aristocracy, his heart and soul were with the masses and how they could be liberated and empowered. He frequently leveraged his privilege for the greater good, and would just as soon give the shirt off his back as risk himself for a good cause. Indeed, decades after he held any public office he was hailed as “Man of the People!” whose moniker was “Make Poor Man Follow Chop!” Therefore, depending on which side of the divide people stood on when he spoke truth to power, the cries concerning him were equally passionately either “Hear! Hear!” or “Crucify him! Crucify him!” But neither ever enticed him away from his pursuit of justice and equity.
I remember … In the heat of the #EndSARS protests, our children asked me what side their father would have been on, … I had responded without hesitation: “On the side of justice.” For, it was his earnest opinion that “… the Nigerian workers, farmers, students, petty traders, market women, intellectuals and all progressives in this country should come together … and get ready to pull off the forces that are holding the country back.” Indeed, he had asserted during the Azikiwe/Gowon National Symposium on Nigeria held in 1994 that “Civil society will continue to be unstable where some of its members … cannot be authoritatively questioned in any of the things they do. Because, imperfect as it is, our society can only survive if it proceeds in recognisable (rather than arbitrary) patterns, with enforceable rules of association applicable to all.”
I remember … Many things have proven Comrade Bassey was a man far ahead of his time, making his legacy more poignant in retrospect. Whereas today focus is put on Sustainable Development Goals, entrepreneurship and enabling environments, three decades ago, as Chairman of the Calabar Municipal Council, his government’s four-point programme was: Relief … from excessive taxation and oppression by government as an instrument of terror against the people; Free education; Rationalisation and humanisation of government processes and Community development through grassroots participation and industry. Within less than two years, he delivered on each of these to varying degrees, proving that with determination, good governance is possible.
I remember … Fluent in the languages of Western and Eastern Nigeria, though he didn’t speak any Northern Nigerian language, he forged genuine, enduring relationships with people from all over the country, strategizing and fighting in the trenches with them with equal passion, brotherhood and camaraderie for a just and equitable Nigeria with proud, patriotic citizens. Regardless of tribe, gender, religion, politics, class or ideology, if Comrade Bassey was persuaded there was a just cause to be pursued, he did.
I remember … Shortly after we met, I came across a quote of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s, taken from the prologue of his autobiography What I Have Lived For. I recall doing a double-take upon reading it, for I felt it could have been penned by Comrade Bassey himself. Russell had written:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
I remember … and assure: the trees we planted together have grown sturdy and true to form. The harvest shall be just as tenacious and even more so. Given the chance.