By Mike Ebonugwo
At last the news which most Nigerians dreaded to hear and have prayed against these past few days has come to be a stark but unfortunate reality. Death, the vengeful, grim reaper of all mortals, has visited yet again and has claimed among its latest victims, one of Nigeria’s highly revered elder statemen and leaders of thought, one whose name certainly occupies a pride of place in the country’s chequered history.
Last year, precisely on Friday April 8, 2016, he was one of the eminent Nigerians selected and celebrated by Vanguard Newspapers as Torchbearers in Nigeria during the paper’s 2016 Awards. It was a day he was once again recognised and honoured for his immense and vital contributions to the history making processes of Nigeria.
Even with the physical evidence of the debilitating effects of age(he was then 84 years old having been born in 1932), he still managed to carry himself with a regal poise as he paused to acknowledge and greet an all-women cultural troupe clad in a culturally befitting traditional attire that drummed, sang and danced enthusiastically in honour of a man they loudly chorused as deserving to be celebrated.
Indeed, within the context of Nigeria’s political evolution, Dr Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme obviously needs no introduction. He was the country’s first Vice President, having been elected to that position along with President Shehu Aliyu Shagari in 1979 on the platform of the defunct National Party of Nigeria, NPN.
In other words, he was the running mate to Shagari during the Second Republic presidential election that saw them pitched against such formidable political heavyweights and charismatic leaders as Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe of the Zik of Africa fame and the celebrated political sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, respectively of the Nigerian Peoples Party, NPP and the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN.
In what would appear as little David versus giant Goliath political contest, the humble and unassuming duo of Shagari and Ekwueme had emerged victorious to the consternation of many political pundits at the time. Thus did Ekwueme ascend the stage as a political leader of note and had remained so for a long time.
Self-effacing, soft-spoken and with an amiable mien, Ekwueme hardly cut the picture of a political firebrand. But like a bolt from the fog of obscurity he had dared to seize the political limelight with the ease and nimbleness of a stage magician and had succeeded in bringing under his spell millions across the country who were only too glad to identify themselves as his hero-worshippers. Among his people in Igboland, for instance, he was loudly hailed as the Ide Aguata, Ide Igbo and Ide Nigeria, obviously to underline his popularity reach.
The simple explanation, however, is that he was the Ide of the Oko kingdom in Anambra State where his younger brother, Prof Lazarus Ekwueme, holds sway as the traditional ruler, while he was also honoured by the council of Traditional Rulers in the old Aguata as the Ide of Aguata Local Government Area of the state which is made up of 44 towns. This was in recognition of his active involvement in the socio-economic development of his community.
The story was told that but for his refusal of the promptings of the kingmakers he would have ascended the throne as the Eze or king of the ancient Oko Kingdom after the death of his uncle who was then the king.
He was said to have argued and eventually convinced the conclave of kingmakers that his bearing the highly revered title of ‘Ide’, reserved for the crown prince and eldest son in the family, was sufficient for him, while pledging to use this and other privileges at his disposal to serve them at a higher level to the best of his ability. It was a statement that seemingly turned prophetic as years later, he had emerged as Nigeria’s first executive vice president.
His refusal paved the way for his brother, the world renowned musicologist, Laz Nnanyelu Ekwueme, to be crowned the king, hence, his being recognised today as Igwe Laz Ekwueme.
Dr Ekwueme’s journey to becoming a community and national political leader and icon began with his primary education at the St John’s Anglican Central School, at Ekwulobia from where he proceeded to Kings College Lagos.
Fortune was to smile on the young Alex as he became one of the first Nigerians to be awarded the Fulbright Scholarship in the United States of America which enabled him to attend the University of Washington where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Architecture and City Planning. He subsequently obtained a master’s degree in urban planning.
But given his adventurous academic disposition, he had vigoriously pursued and eventually earned degrees in various disciplines, including sociology, history, philosophy and law from the University of London. He was to crown these academic pursuits with a Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of Strathclyde and later a BL (honours) degree from the Nigerian Law School.
Given the benefit of his enviable education and training, it was easy for Ekwueme to achieve success career-wise, distinguishing himself within a short time as an architect of repute. It all began when he was appointed an Assistant Architect with a Seattle-based firm, Leo A. Daly and Associates, later serving in a similar capacity at the London-based firm Nickson and Partners. This proved to be an important training and learning curve for him as he was appointed to oversee the Construction and Maintenance department of ESSO West Africa, Lagos, which he joined on his return to Nigeria.
With the experiences acquired working in these places, Ekwueme proceeded to set up the famous Ekwueme Associates, Architects and Town Planners, the first indigenous architectural firm in Nigeria that was considered a remarkable success story as a private business. It was a success story that derived from the fact that within a few years, his practice had 16 offices spread all over Nigeria. Presumably in recognition of his achievement in this regard, Ekwueme was appointed to preside over the Nigerian Institute of Architects, NIA and the Architects Registration Council of Nigeria, and later as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the NIA.
Other appointments were to follow as he was increasingly recognised as a man to be trusted in holding positions that require high level of competence and integrity. Hence, his name came to be associated, through appointment, with the Educational Trust Fund, ETF, under which auspices hundreds of youths enjoy education sponsorship in Nigeria and abroad. The renowned architect was a member of the housing sub-committee of the Adebo Salaries and Wages Review Commission and served for many years on the board of the Anambra State Housing Development Authority.
Perhaps, with the possible exception of serving as Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria between 1979 and 1983, his participation in the Nigeria National Constitutional Conference, NCC, in Abuja, where he served on the Committee on the Structure and Framework of the Constitution, particularly stood him out for special recognition as a man of substance, and one who it would have been in the interest of Nigerians to have elected President when he sought their mandate in 1998/99.
He is fondly remembered today for his famous proposals at the NCC which encapsulate the now popular six geopolitical zones whose selling point was an envisaged just and equitable power sharing in Nigeria. Nigerians can also not forget that when the going got really tough in Nigeria under the dictatorship of the late General Sani Abacha, it was Ekwueme who seized the bull by the horn and mobilised a group of 34 eminent Nigerians to challenge Abacha’s reign of terror.
The G-34, as the group came to be known, later fused with the Peoples Front-cum-Peoples Democratic Movement founded by the late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar to form the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, that became the ruling party in Nigeria between 1999 and 2015. He was the first Chairman of the party’s Board of Trustees.
Ekwueme could also have graduated from being a Second Republic Vice President to a Third Republic President if the keenly contested PDP presidential primaries that pitched him against General Olusegun Obasanjo at the time had turned out in his favour. It was an opportunity lost that many, especially his well-wishers, continue to rue, convinced that he would have made a better president than the man who eventually defeated him.
It is also significant to note that Ekwueme was not only a home-based achiever.
It is to his credit that he was a member of the Board of Directors of Canada-based Forum of Federations as well as that of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, Council of Elders. Apart from that, he was leader of the team assembled by the National Democratic Institute, NDI, to monitor the parliamentary election in Zimbabwe in 2000 and also served as the leader of the Organisation of Africa Unity, OAU, observer team to the Tanzanian Presidential and Parliamentary election in 2000. He also co-led the 28 member NDI/Carter Centre sponsored Observer Team to the Liberian Presidential run-off election in 2005.
In recognition of his numerous achievements and significant contributions to thewellbeing of Nigerians and Nigeria, Dr Ekwueme was deservedly honoured with the Order of the Republic of Guinea and Nigeria, and the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON, Nigeria’s second highest national honour.
Dr. Ekwueme, a noted philanthropist, is the benefactor and Patron of Alex Ekwueme Foundation.
Particularly worthy of note about the man, is the general belief that on the question of integrity, he probably stands head and shoulder above his peers. For instance, Nigerians will never forget the verdict of the military panel that investigated him after he was detained along with other key political actors following the fall of the Second Republic through a military coup.
Whereas many others were found wanting based on the widespread allegations of corruption and looting of national treasury, the panel declared to have found Ekwueme poorer after leaving office than he was before he was elected into the exalted position of Vice President.