Alex Ekwueme: Earth to Earth

  • By C. Don Adinuba

Alex Ekwueme, Nigeria’s venerable vice president from 1979 to 1983, gave up the ghost in a London hospital last November 19. It has taken me two whole months to write a tribute in his memory because I have yet to reconcile myself fully to the reality of his departure. The relationship between us has been such that all those who know me, including those who do so only on the social media, would attest that I can brook insults to my person but not to Ekwueme.  I have been receiving condolence messages since his death, as though my biological father has just died.

Our relationship had a metaphysical touch. He breathed his last on November 19, 2017, exactly one year after my mother, whom I loved passionately, left this planet. He died at 85. My mother also died at 85. At my mother’s funeral on January 6, 2017, Ekwueme led us in a Catholic prayer for the dead, complete with some expressions in Latin, though he was Anglican. It was a prayer for the repose of the soul of the dead but also a reminder of our mortality. “Thou art dust”, as the priest, borrowing the words of the Bible, tells the Catholic faithful on Ash Wednesday to inaugurate the Lenten Season, “unto dust thou shall return”. In his memoirs, Bola Ige, another Anglican and the late old Oyo State governor who studied classics at the University College in Ibadan, recalled that he and Ekwueme participated very well in Catholic religious ceremonies in kirikiri Prison where they were held for years following the military coup of December 31, 1983, because of their knowledge of Latin. An architect and lawyer with degrees in sociology, history and town planning, Ekwueme was a quintessential Renaissance Man. His love of learning and civilized conduct knew no bounds.

Everyone knows that the former vice president was ever calm, reserved, measured and Socratic. In December 1994, when Ekwueme was chairing the famous All-Politician Summit at Eko Hotel in Lagos, General Sani Abacha sent soldiers, led by a major who was his chief intelligence officer but now late, to disrupt the conference. As the soldiers, pretending to be thugs, started to beat up participants brutally, everyone ran helter-skelter. Only Ekwueme remained calm, watching the hullaballoo with philosophical equanimity. The dignified comportment must have frightened the soldiers who left him alone but went after Olu Falae and Arthur Nzeribe, among others.

Strangely, Ekwueme always displayed extravagance, if not exuberance, towards me. This display of affection was as inspiring as it was humbling. Towards the end of September 2015, when I emerged from a private meeting with Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State in the governor’s dining room and met Ekwueme who was already seated in the governor’s living room preparatory to his participation in a public forum of Anambra State leaders, the elder statesman screamed repeatedly with child-like innocence on seeing me: “The one-man riot squad!” It was a name he gave me when I joined his campaign to become Nigeria’s president in 1998. He almost temporarily ignored ex-Governor Chukwuemeka Ezeife as well as Labour and Employment Minister Chris Ngige as he began to lavish praises on me. Obiano could believe neither his eyes nor ears.

The encounter is reminiscent of an incident in Jos, Plateau State, in January 1999, when the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) held its first elective national convention where the PDP chose Olusegun Obasanjo rather than Ekwueme who practically founded the party and led it admirably as its presidential flag-bearer in the 1999 general election. Ekwueme was occupying one of the two rooms at Hill Station Hotel reserved for Chinwoke Mbadinuju, then the Anambra State governor-elect, and sent for me for a confidential briefing. As I was leaving their suite, Mbadinuju called me out e and spoke to me in a whisper: “Ide (Ekwueme’s traditional sobriquet) gave an instruction that he would not see any person except you and Ochiora (Mrs Beatrice Ekwueme’s sobriquet) while he is working on his speech to the convention tomorrow. I understand you and I are from the same local government area. Ide has a very high opinion of you, so I want to know you better”. Mbadinuju, journalist, lawyer and former political science associate professor at the State University of New York, was Ekwueme’s special assistant until 1983.

I still remember my first close contact with Ekwueme. It was in December 1993, at the VIP Lounge of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, where Bart Nnaji, who had just finished serving for three months as the Minister of Science and Technology in the Ernest Shonekan-led Interim National Government, and I had gone to receive his family visiting from the United States for the Christmas holidays.  Ekwueme was travelling out of the country and I went to thank him rather casually for his recent robust statements on Nigeria’s future.

I was shocked that immediately I mentioned my name, he began to reel out my articles in the British press, including one on the modernization of NITEL’s operations and mentioned not only the number of telephone lines which had switched from analogue to digital but also the very issue of African Review of Business and Technology and even the pages. All the figures were correct! It was self-evident I was in the presence of a genius. Our discussion quickly moved to his recent political advocacy. As I made to join Nnaji and his family, Ekwueme spoke to me solemnly: “I would like your generation to know that if this country is not restructured, it will not know peace, let alone progress.”

The 1994/5 Constitutional Conference provided an excellent opportunity for Ekwueme to campaign vigorously for the country’s restructuring. Despite the intimidating excesses of some parochial elements in the conference and elsewhere, Ekwueme stuck to his gun that the country be broken into six geopolitical zones, that the presidency rotate among the zones, that a person be elected as president for only one term of five or six years, that each zone produce a vice president, that the derivation principle in national revenue be increased from 3% to 13%, and that the governorship rotate among the three senatorial zones in each state. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, recognizing that these proposals were inevitable for national cohesion and unity, persuaded northern hardliners like Buba Galadima to accept them. Only the recommendation for multi-vice presidency was rejected.

It has taken the death of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to dramatise to the Nigerian people Ekwueme’s foresight and wisdom in advocating six vice presidents, including one from the zone of the incumbent president who would complete the remainder of the tenure of the president should he or her die in office or be impeached or resign voluntarily. When President Yar’Adua died in 2010 and was succeeded by Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, many northerners felt cheated because they believed a northerner should be in office for eight years, all the more so after Obasanjo had served eight years.  As things stand today, a very incompetent president would demand re-election as of right, otherwise the geopolitical zone where he comes from will feel short-changed. I have in various contributions argued that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Head of Service, Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives can be considered as Vice Presidents for purposes of succession. The arrangement will help reduce cost and avoid multiplication of duties and power conflict.

It is regrettable that Afenifere leaders made the abandonment of the 1995 Constitution by the Abdulsalami Abubakar regime as a precondition for mainstream Yoruba participation in the 1998-9 transition to civil rule programme, disingenuously calling it a military product whereas the Abacha regime made no contribution to it. It is more appropriate to call it the Ekwueme Constitution because the defining features of the 1995 Constitution were the handiwork of the fallen former vice president. It is a supreme irony that the same Afenifere leaders who practically forced the Abubakar regime to bring back the 1979 Constitution with one or two changes have energetically been denouncing the current constitution as a military imposition.

Nigeria’s redesign is imperative. Those currently advocating restructuring are, however, marketing it poorly because they are presenting their case as an ethnic or sectional or religious agenda which naturally scares those on the other side of Nigeria’s primordial fault lines. They should learn from Ekwueme who laid out his vision as in the overriding national interest. He was a nationalist through and through.

My household and I are very proud of our association with the great man, one of Nigeria’s best ever. We will always honour his memory.

Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.

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