THE best place to know how much Nigerians hate others and themselves is in the tributes that they pay the dead. It would not be different for Dr. Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, who transited on Sunday 19 November 2017, while the result of the Anambra State governorship election was being awaited.
Dr. Ekwueme, a founding father of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, was an interested party in that contest, not just because he was from Anambra State. His daughter, Lady Chidi Alexandra Onyemelukwe was the deputy governorship candidate to Oseloka Henry Obaze of the PDP.
As the tributes pour in telling long tales of involvements with Ekwueme, scooping whatever media opportunities his death presents, the larger question would be why the “mourners” did not work with Ekwueme to achieve his dream of a Nigeria that worked with equity. He made many attempts in that direction and paid dearly for them.
When he ventured into politics in 1978, he was a wealthy man, with a flourishing architectural practice, the first that a Nigerian set up in these shores. His offices, 16, spanned across the country. He shut down Ekwueme Associates, Architects and Town Planners for politics, at a time most people freely mixed their businesses and politics – they still do.
Someone who once worked with him said Ekwueme declared personal houses in 52 cities outside Nigeria when completing his assets declaration on joining politics.
If that was not public, many were shocked when he donated N1 million to the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, in 1979. The money was worth at least $2 million then and was not the type of money associated with individuals as single donations. Where did he get the money? What could be his interest in politics? How would the novice contend with established political forces from the East?
Those who did not know him, there were few who did in 1979, derided him, thinking he was more money than brains. His choice as the vice presidential candidate was another shocker. It turned out that he was the best choice for President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari, who he served loyally to the end. It was unheard of that they disagreed whether privately or publicly.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who became military Head of State following the coup that overthrew Shagari on 31 December 1983, is among those expected to eulogise Dr. Ekwueme, who he threw into jail, with others, on allegations of corruption.
Ekwueme lived first in Ikoyi Prisons and then Kirikiri Prisons. He spent 20 months in jail before the military tribunal that Justice Samson Odemwinge Uwaifo, later of the Supreme Court, headed, released him. Justice Uwaifo said this of the former Vice President, “Dr. Ekwueme left office poorer than he was when he entered it, and to ask more from him was to set a standard which even saints could not meet.”
It is the only time such remarks have been made of a Nigerian politician on trial. Justice Uwaifo is not one known to be extravagant with his words.
The foam mattresses Ekwueme bought to ameliorate the harsh conditions at Ikoyi and Kirikiri Prisons are still in use in their vastly compromised state.
Five years he was released, the cerebral Ekwueme was called to the Nigerian Bar, aged 58. He added that accomplishment to a chain of academic attainment that no Nigerian has, not to mention the diversity of the fields.
Ekwueme, an alumnus of King’s College, Lagos, has these academic degrees –
· Architecture and City Planning, BSc, University of Washington, US, where he was one of the four pioneer Fulbright scholars from Nigeria
· Sociology, BSc, University of Washington
· History, Philosophy and Constitutional Law, BA, University of London, external candidate
· Law, LLB, University of London
· Urban Planning, Master’s, University of London
· Architecture, PhD, University of Strathclyde, Scotland
· Law, BL, Nigerian Law School
He was one who never lost faith in Nigeria, or talked down on others because of his education. Out of prison and in public life, he kept faith with the future of Nigeria. He used every opportunity to invest on the Nigeria project, at great risk and made minimal efforts to milk the investments.
Few took more risks than him in telling General Sani Abacha that he could not transmute to a civilian president. At a time nobody spoke to Abacha, at least not unkindly, Ekwueme led the battle to return Nigeria to civil rule, through the various meetings and alliances he created on ending military rule.
He harvested the alliances of the National Party of Nigeria with the Nigerian Peoples Party, NPP, to rally the Solomon Lar side of the North. Lar, who succeeded Ekwueme, interim national Chairman of the PDP, which emerged from G-34 meetings, was one of the major rallying point in the North.
Ekwueme offered himself for office as President in 1999 and 2003. In both occasions, he lost the party’s primaries to Olusegun Obasanjo, whose penchant for entitlement, was exhibited in his presidency, as well as annexation of PDP, which he knew nothing about its formation. Obasanjo frustrated Ekwueme’s participation in PDP. The collapse of PDP is an outcome of Obasanjo’s hijack of the party that witnessed the beginning of departures from the party – and its decline.
The former Vice President would not leave. He called PDP, “a house I helped in building”. The more crises there were in PDP, the more he thought he needed to rescue the party. Months ago, the PDP asked him to head its reconciliation committee.
On 4 May 2002, Ekwueme, fortuitously missed being in the EAS Airlines BAC 1-11 crashed in Kano that Saturday evening, killing at least 148 people, 75 on the plane and another 73 on the ground. It was a sheer miracle. Those who knew he was in the aircraft counted him among the dead, when nobody could account for his whereabouts.
Ekwueme had had political meetings in Jos. The EAS flight was making its way to Lagos, through Kano. Ekwueme was in the flight from Jos to Kano. Among those who boarded in Jos but died were Sports Minister Mark Aku and his media aide Nadon.
Where was Ekwueme who boarded with them? It was discovered that political friends on learning that he was in the plane had asked for a meeting in Kano. While more passengers boarded in Kano, Ekwueme was heading into the city for his meeting.
The plane crashed moments after take off, devastating villages, villagers, properties, and its passengers. Many other rumours of his death have attended him, especially after the fall in his Enugu home in early November.
Ekwueme’s calmness is extraordinary. He managed to stabilise PDP by not walking out as many expected. His gentility is often taken as a weakness, but it marked him out as one who acted out of his conviction, and for the greater good.
His proposal for six regional power centres at the 1995 National constitutional Conference under General Abacha was hugely misunderstood. Today, most political and economic policies are reckoned along those lines.
At the 50th anniversary of the Asaba Massacre in October, Ekwueme called for activities that will deepen Nigeria’s unity and ensure that it remains an indissoluble entity. He noted the importance of justice as Nigerians lived together.
He was the Ide of Oko in Anambra State. The Federal Polytechnic, Oko, was one of the projects he brought to Oko as Vice President. Lazarus Ekwueme, a Professor of Music at the University of Lagos, who is his younger brother, is the traditional ruler of Oko. The Council of Traditional Rulers in old Aguata, 44 towns, honoured him as Ide of Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State.
We have lost a respected voice; a courageous voice. A calm voice that only got agitated over the evils that pervade Nigeria. A firm voice, that the occasional stutter that denied him a faster delivery never silenced. A voice that they never listened to, but would now claim they would miss.
Ekwueme’s passage is another, in a series of judgments, on how Nigerians appreciate people and their ideas, while they are alive.