By IFEOHA AZIKIWE
For the past week, the nation mourns the death of a siege, statesman, an icon, and the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979-1983, Dr. Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme.
As of August 2012, when I called his telephone line, humbly requesting audience with him to discuss Nigeria’s impending centenary, there was no iota of doubt that Ekwueme, Ide Oko, would make it to 90, and beyond.
Unfortunately, he died on November 19, 2017, barely one month after his 85th anniversary (Born October 21, 1932)
He responded to that call from far away Bridgetown in the Eastern Caribbean Island of Barbados, where he was attending a crucial international conference, suggesting that his line was roamed. He was still mentally and physically alert.
Not minding who was at the other end, he simply gave me a date to call, by which time he would have returned to Nigeria. On the appointed date, he invited me to his suite at Transcorp Hilton, Abuja, and we got talking.
I needed his input to clear certain doubts, assumptions, and misconceptions on the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates that forms the entity called Nigeria, to back up my work, “Nigeria, Echoes of a century, 1914-2014,” then in the making.
He recollected vividly how, during the colonial days, they were ordered into the bush to collect palm nuts without pay as school children. They would crack the nuts, bag and move them to a central collection point for export to England. Part of the proceeds; he recalled, went into colonial administration, while the rest was used to aid British efforts during the World War II. The slogan then was, “Let’s get cracking”, coming from the merchants who came regularly in their Kit cars to evacuate copious palm produce from Eastern Nigeria.
“Oh, you mean the British Amalgamation of January I, 1914?” he questioned? And I said, Yes, Your Excellency. Apart from Dr. Marion Wallace, curator of the British Library, whom I worked closely with on that project, Ekwueme was the only person, among the numerous I encountered locally, who remembered the exert date of amalgamation extempore.
According to him, “the most important thing about amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria is that it never happened.” None of Nigeria’s over 250 ethnic nationalities was consulted. He did tell me, however, that amalgamation per se, was not solely responsible for Nigeria’s myriad of problems, but the structure adopted at amalgamation where the units evolved very amorphously.”
From amalgamation, we discussed 46 years of colonial governance; the domestic movements, agitations and struggle that culminated in Nigeria’s independence of October 1, 1960, and finally an appraisal of post independence Nigeria.
Have we done well as a nation? “Emphatically, no,” he replied. “We have not done well because at independence the world was full of expectations from Nigeria. It was expected that Nigeria would be a model for ex-British colonies, with her abundant human and mineral resources, but we have not met the expectations of our own leaders and of our own citizens.”
Is this not a product of bad leadership since 1960, through the military, to the current democratic dispensation? “I won’t exactly put it as a product of poor leadership. It is a combination of poor leadership and poor followers,” he responded disappointingly.
He stated that Nigeria is a very complex country, quite unlike other smaller nations where one charismatic leader would gather the rest of his countrymen, and everybody moves along with him.
“The structure was basically wrong from the outset. That is why any time there is crisis we tend to collapse, so to speak. Everything we have done, as a nation has always been based on compromise and not strictly on constitutionality. We compromise and make adjustments. It is that consensual approach to problems that has kept the country running.”
Nigeria has been a nation at war with itself, beginning with the civil war of 1967, to the current Boko Haram insurgency in the North, militancy in the Niger Delta, IPOB agitation in the South East, and menace of Hausa/Fulani herdsmen nationwide.
The nation has been fighting to accommodate diverse individual and parochial group interests. But we have, through divine providence, managed to remain a nation in spite of our obvious, and sometimes, irreconcilable differences. Why? I asked.
In his estimation, “God loves Nigeria more than we love ourselves, otherwise Nigeria would have disintegrated long ago. Each time we got to the precipice, we managed to pull back and move on”.
A firm believer in the corporate existence of Nigeria, Ekwueme was of the view that Nigeria could only survive on condition that there is fair play, equity and justice for all, and that no Nigerian is regarded as a second-class citizen in his own country.
“The minute a group feels that they are not wanted, and if we change the Nigerian policy, and they feel they will do much better outside of Nigeria than inside Nigeria, then our problem begins. So, it is the duty of government to make sure that every part of Nigeria feels that they stand to gain more by staying in Nigeria than staying out of it.
This is the cardinal principle that will fasten Nigeria’s corporate existence, unity and development.”
On his last days, Ekwueme was seriously concerned about the level of corruption, which has become nearly institutionalised as part of state apparatus, and its negative impact on Nigeria’s future. “Corruption is allowed to thrive because we do not have enough deterrent to stop it. Where nothing happens, like in our present circumstance, there is no genuine reason for people to stop those involved in corruption.”
Although he predicted bright future for Nigeria, he expressed doubts on the nation’s ambitions to join the world’s 20 economies in the nearest future, considering huge deficits in infrastructure, and in a situation where 67% of annual budget goes into recurrent expenditure. “ It is an uphill task but we have to keep trying,” he concluded.
Azikiwe, journalist, author, is a retired diplomat