Ekwueme’s greatest interview (1)
….Corruption: Military lied against me
…The risks we took under Abacha
…I never advocated regional armies
For the late Chief Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme (Ide), Second Republic Vice President of Nigeria, co-convener of G-34, founding leader of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, the definition of contentment can never be subjective. His residence in Enugu, off Rangers Avenue says it all – a sparsely furnished sitting room, a walkway that belies the status of a former number two citizen in a country where opulence is second nature to public office holders, and a perimeter wall that is as nondescript as can never be imagined for the residence of the first executive Vice President of Nigeria.
But Ekwueme, that wonderful Wednesday afternoon on August 12, 2009, soft-spoken, conveyed the persona of a man at ease with himself. Married to three wives, with children to boot, Chief Ekwueme had some fire in him. That day, at his residence in Enugu, Sunday Vanguard engaged the man in what he was to admit as “the first time I have spoken like this to anyone about my life, Nigeria and its politics.”
He was right. After some four hours – at a point his voice started fading – Ekwueme made some startling revelations like never before.
*His choice as running mate to Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari in 1979 – the details;
*The N1 million he donated to the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, contrary to the rumour that he paid N2 million to ‘purchase the ticket’;
*How he was the only member of the Federal Executive Council, FEC, between 1979 and 1983, who could not award contracts, contrary to the press statement credited to the then military government that toppled the Second Republic, that claimed that all the ills of the Second Republic were perpetrated by Ekwueme;
*What he thought would happen to him on December 31, 1983, when the military struck;
*The formation of G-34 and the type of risks its leaders took in confronting then General Sani Abacha;
*What he actually proposed at the Constitutional Conference of 1994, contrary to the allegation that he advocated the formation of regional armies.
Because of the seriousness of the issues the now deceased Ekwueme discussed in that interview, Sunday Vanguard had to make it a two-part interview.
In the second part which would be published next week, Ekwueme exposed the lie that was Olusegun Obasanjo’s supposed hand of fellowship after the Jos, February 1999 Convention of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP;
*Why he, Ekwueme, averted a catastrophe by not following due and legal process to expose the manifest illegality of Obasanjo’s participation in the Jos contest for the PDP presidential ticket, because he believed that such a move could have thrown the Abdulsalami Abubakar Transition programme into a convulsion;
*Why the PDP has become what it has become and how President Umar Musa Yar’Adua may be able to save the day;
*The defections by state governors into the PDP and a very introspective perspective on the issue;
*Corruption in Nigeria;
*The intrigues which threw up late Senator Chuba Okadigbo as Senate President;
*Ekwueme’s life as a father, a husband and a politician.
AT a time like this, your voice is not being heard; you’ve just been too quiet and some people are wondering why?
Yes, you don’t just talk. It’s been quite a while because if you keep talking every time, even when you have something important to say, people will not take you serious. But when occasions demand, and you talk, people are more likely to take you seriously.
We were told that at one of the meetings in the formative stages of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Lawal Kaita offered that you be the automatic presidential candidate of the PDP, but you turned it down; why?
The matter arose during the formative stage of PDP. We had put together a committee as far back as August 13, 1998, at a meeting we had on the 13th floor of Western House, in the chambers of Barrister Onyeabor Obi, where we signed a memorandum of understanding to form the party. We were at a meeting and we had agreed that one of the cardinal principles of the party would be zoning of the offices and Alhaji Lawal Kaita said specifically that I should be the presidential candidate. I said no, that that wasn’t the way it should be and that if we had set out to set up democratic norms, we should do things differently and that we should be different from the military we were trying to oust. I said we should not let people conclude that all we did at the constitutional conference, to the all politicians’ summit which I chaired, to the Institute of Civil Society which I chaired, the G-34 which I chaired and the party which I was then chairing, was merely calculated to make me presidential candidate of the party by fiat, without going through any democratic process. So, I didn’t want a precedent to be set whereby democratic ethos would not be followed in the party and that was why I didn’t want to encourage that decision at that occasion. It wasn’t more a matter of humility but a matter of being a stickler for democracy.
Let us take it chronologically. Back in 1979, had there been any meeting between you and Shehu Shagari before that nomination of 1979?
Yes, I’d met him before when he was commissioner for finance. The military, in Port Harcourt, was occupying some of my houses there and they were in arrears of rent and I was discussing with a friend of mine that the military had stopped paying me rent and were in arrears. The friend said I should go and see the federal commissioner for finance who was then Shehu Shagari. The friend made the introduction and I went across to Mosaic House at Tinubu Square. I saw him and then he called Alhaji Shehu Musa who was deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence and told him that he was sending me over to look into my matter. I went to meet Musa and he asked me to produce the papers, I gave him. He called a gentleman, Mr. Shittu, one of those working under him, to bring the files relating to my matter and he brought it and found that the claim I was making was genuine and he arranged for the payment to be made. I then telephoned Shagari to thank him and tell him that Shehu Musa had done as he was told. It was just fortuitous that in 1979, Shagari was President, I was Vice President and Musa was Secretary to the Government. It was a coincidence.
Your name first came to limelight once you were chosen as the vice presidential candidate of the defunct National Party of Nigeria, NPN. There were other contenders, let’s hear it from your mouth, how did it happen that you were chosen?
The NPN was the party that introduced zoning into the political lexicon of this country and the idea was that every part of this country should have a sense of belonging. On December 10, 1978, we elected Shehu Shagari as our presidential candidate. In that contest, we had Yusuf Maitama Sule, from Kano; we had Adamu Ciroma, from Potiskum; Olusola Saraki, from Ilorin; J S Tarka, from Gboko; Iya Abubakar, from Mubi.
Preparing for run off
So, though the ticket was zoned to the north, we still had representation from diverse parts of the north. Shagari scored the highest number of votes followed by Maitama Sule and then Ciroma but because Shagari did not score up to 50 per cent, there was going to be a runoff. We were preparing for that run off when Sule, having conferred with some people simply came up and said he didn’t want to proceed any more, that power belongs to God and that anybody God gives the power to should use it judiciously and that since Shagari scored the highest number of votes he was stepping down. And you have to give it to Shagari, because all those who contested with him were accommodated in his administration. Ciroma became party secretary, Sule was posted to the United Nations as Permanent representative, Iya Abubakar became a minister, Tarka contested and won Senate seat and became committee chairman of a powerful committee, Saraki contested and became leader of the Senate – everybody was carried along, that team spirit on which the NPN was founded was allowed to blossom by Shagari. Remember that the chairmanship of the party was zoned to the South West and Akinloye became our chairman. The vice presidential slot was zoned to the East, specifically Imo and Anambra States. A committee was set up to screen and make suggestions for the possible candidate. The committee went round and at a point the committee even suggested a lady as possible candidate.
We heard that the lady was hounded out of contention by some of those who were interested in the number two position?
Yes it’s true. In fact when it was mentioned that it was about quota, one of those who was very keen on getting the number two ticket said why should the ticket be ceded to the womenfolk when there were very capable men and that if the party was so keen on giving women the quota, why must it be the quota of the East that people now want to give to a lady and that we could as well have given the presidential slot to a lady.
Who made that charge?
No, I will not mention the person’s name. But you know that the committee did not complete its work. In fact, immediately after the convention, the committee was given till December 27, 1978, to submit their recommendations but the committee did not finish. On the 21st, I left Nigeria with my family for vacation. I went to Duala, in Cameroun, with my family, from there we moved to Nairobi Kenya, we spent Christmas in Kenya and then we came back to Nigeria on December 28, hoping that they would have finished their screening and recommendations submitted.
You were said not to be interested and that you just came from the blues?
Let me tell you how it all happened. Shagari was to start his mobilization for votes in all the states to get people sensitized about his campaign. When he came to Enugu, after the campaign that night, they invited the NPN leaders in both Imo and Anambra states to a suite at Hotel Presidential. He told us that since the thing had been zoned to the East, and there was yet to be a candidate, for him, he would like people who had actually supported the party in the two states. He then asked Anambra State to nominate one person who they would all support if he accepted the person and also asked Imo to do the same. Anambra State nominated me and Imo nominated Macaulay Nwankwo, a very good friend of mine too – he used to work for Shell. Shagari then asked, that should he pick anyone of these two, would the person be accepted and supported by everybody, they said yes.
You were there and Nwankwo, too, was there?
Yes, we were both there. So, he requested for our CV. But then, he reminded us that the decision would still be taken by the executive committee of the party. This was around January 10 or January 11. The day after that, not the next day, we finished the campaign in old Anambra and then we went to see him off at the Anambra/Benue border, after Obulafor. When we got to the border, the people from Benue State were waiting to receive Shagari and we parked, did some back-slapping and just while all that was happening, Shagari drew me aside and said he wanted to tell me himself and that he would like us to work together once the NEC approves, that he wants to work with me; but he said I should still keep it to myself. I thanked him right there at the border; but again, something very interesting happened. As we were returning to our state, some people who were still interested in the job still went with him to Benue State and all along with the campaign until he came back to Lagos (laughs) on January 20.
At that moment when he told you, can you recapture the feeling you had? Here you were, not so keen about the job; but here it was, for you?
Well, I just felt that it was what God wanted to happen. I was actually out of the country when the ban on politics was lifted. I was having my convocation dinner abroad and we had a large delegation from Anambra and they said I must come home and participate in politics. They wanted me to contest for the governorship of Anambra State. I told them that I would contest on two conditions: First, because I had just finished my LL.B and another Ph.D, I was really fagged out – in fact that was why I moved to Southern France on holiday – they would have to go back and do the campaigning and secondly, that I didn’t have too much resources at my disposal for such. They agreed and said I should just come back. I came back to Nigeria just a few days after the presidential congress and a few days later was to be the governorship primaries but it was postponed for another week so I had time to actually prepare and participate.
But when you told them to go and do the spadework, was it a way of putting them off, or you actually wanted to participate but needed them to do what you requested?
I was ready to serve.
What struck me earlier was the issue of Shagari whispering to you, after which, you, knowing you had been chosen and yet, you saw some of the other contenders following him: How did you feel, what went through your mind?
I knew they were obviously wasting their time because they did not know how the mind of God works but you could see them that they were very optimistic that they would lobby and get it. Now, see the Anambra State governorship thing, Chief C C Onoh, of blessed memory, who was here when the party was formed, had been campaigning, on the basis of northern Anambra against southern Anambra, the former being made up of Enugu, Abakaliki and Nsukka senatorial districts and the other made up of Awka and Onitsha districts, of the 23 LG. As then, 15 were on one side and only eight were here and eventually when the thing came, I didn’t win. This is where God comes into the affairs of men: I lost the guber ticket at a time when NPN was quite popular here. But shortly after that, Nnamdi Azikiwe came into the picture and it changed all the dynamics and calculations when he became the presidential candidate of the NPP and if I had won that guber primaries, I would have also lost the election for the office of governor. In fact, it was during that discussion in Shagari’s presidential suite that Onoh suggested my name as the possible nominee from Anambra State for the position of vice president and it was unanimously supported.
One of the things which hit Nigerians like a heat weave in 1979 was the donation you made to the NPN then – N1million – the equivalent of a million pounds sterling today, which would have been the equivalent of today’s over N200million(actually it would have been about N465million today); but there was a controversy then because it was said in some quarters that the money was used to buy the ticket. What actually happened?
I’m happy you raised that point the way you’ve done. People should be told the truth. I’ve just told you how the ticket came about. Before that January NEC meeting of the NPN where the ticket would be ratified, I had even gone back to the UK for my convocation, one particular young man was claiming that he had been nominated to be the running mate and in fact, a national newspaper of that day had a front page picture of the man with a bold inscription: Gunning For NPN Vice Presidential Ticket. By the next day when it had become public that I got it, they asked him what happened. He just off-handishly said I gave the party N2million to get the ticket so that was how the issue of N2 million came about; but as at that time, I had not given even one kobo to anybody and that was how the issue came about. Was it N2 million or N1 million because at some point you gave money? The man told the world it was N2 million. Of course later when we were about commencing campaigns, people were looking for money and as running mate I should be able to contribute something so I sold some properties of mine in Palm grove and made a donation of N1 million to the campaign, to our campaign then, after the ticket but up till today there are those who still think I gave N2 million to get the ticket, something I was trying to avoid because I was very keen to be Anambra State governor, because, as state governor, I could do more, but as vice president, you had limited powers to do anything and, in America, the worst job you can get is that of the vice president because if all goes well, it is the president who gets the credit and if it goes bad, it is the team that is blamed.
Coupled with that was the fact that going back to the 1966 coup and the way the military struck, I had it at the back of my mind that should there be a military return, it would be bloody because as the vice president, I would be a certain target; but not withstanding that, I still put in my best for the job.
Would you agree sir, since Shehu Shagari said he wanted to be a senator and not President, something which he spent so much time and energy avoiding, and here you are, saying you actually wanted to become Anambra State governor but ended up becoming Vice President, that this was a combination of two people who never really wanted to serve the nation in the capacity which they found themselves and, therefore, the stigma of non-performance which the military gave as excuse for taking over on December 31, 1983, is permissible?
No, I would not want to put it like that. I would rather say that we were called to serve our nation and we agreed to serve in the capacity we found ourselves and we did a good job and put everything to it. We served well; we served this nation very well.
After your nomination it was said that the move was an attempt to further re-integrate the Igbo nation into the Nigerian system once again: Would you say your vice-presidency served that purpose?
Well, the NPN wanted to carry all Nigerians along, including the Igbo in the spirit of the ‘no victor, no vanquished’ agenda of General Gowon and the party wanted all parts of the country to be involved in governance at the highest level. Definitely, my involvement in government at that level, certainly gave some level of re-assurance to my people, that they were now truly part of Nigeria and not a disgraced or conquered people.
As an insider in that regime, Nigerians had a funny appreciation of your office. They complained that here was a Vice President who was contented to be part of photo-ops and not one doing anything in government. In fact, some people were of the opinion that you were just there, doing nothing. How were those days as Vice President?
I had a very good working relationship with my President and actually in the first council meeting, where memos were brought up for discussion and some of the memos came for signature where some ministers had to sign, some for the President, after the session and because the ministers had just been appointed, almost all the memos came under the signature of President Shagari. During the meeting I said nothing, not because I had nothing to say but I just chose to say nothing.
Was it because you were Vice President or because you had not seen the memos or because you just didn’t want to talk?
When we finished, the President came to me and asked why I didn’t make contributions to the discussions and the signing and I told him that first, it would be very embarrassing for him and for the government if he brought a memo to council and I demolished it and that I am sure that if I did that and, based on logic and sound reasoning, the council would agree with me, but that would appear as if the presidency was not working together and I told him that I would rather we discuss the memo before hand, and by the time we get to council, it would be easier to handle. He said that since the memos come from various places, if we have to go through all the memos at council, it would take time but that he would appreciate it if I took a very good look at the memos the way they come and make my input the way I saw it good or bad and that he wouldn’t consider it embarrassing if I demolished any memo brought to council. And so we agreed and began to work on that basis.
What would you consider the most momentous period in the life of that administration?
First, the effort to enthrone democracy; I think because of the parliamentary background, we did not wield the executive powers the Presidency was capable of wielding. We almost always threw everything into the open for discussions and debate to arrive at a consensus so that everybody is taken on board and at the same time I think that the party we had then, NPN, I don’t know of any other party before or after that, working together as a group in unity and working for the success of every part of the country – from the President to the Vice President, chairman of the party, Senate President, Speaker and so on. We tried to balance everything out in the interest of unity and every Monday, we had a caucus of the party which brought in the executive, the party and the bureaucracy represented by the secretary to the government where we discuss everything up to appointments in small boards and nobody felt he was on the periphery.
But saying you served well might not go down well with some people. It has to do with contract awards and it is believed that some contracts were awarded without merit and a very good example was the one regarding Ajaokuta, that a certain amount was due to be paid back to a powerful politician who had loaned NPN some money for campaign and the kickback from the Ajaokuta contract was supposed to service that. How were contracts awarded?
Well, it is half true. First, I did not chair any tenders board; in fact, I was the only member of cabinet who could not award any contract: The permanent secretaries, tenders’ board, directors, could award contracts and these had limits but as Vice President, I did not have powers to award any contract and anything beyond those limits will have to come to the Federal Executive Council, FEC. But because of my own background as an architect who had so many years experience and had handled contracts all over, I insisted at council meetings that contracts should be awarded on merit and even when the civil servants try and put the memo in a way – you know they are very clever – to favour a particular contractor, I was able to see through and I wasn’t very popular with the civil servants and the contractors who wanted to profit unnecessarily. After that, when we were pushed out, they said we were very corrupt but I laughed.
That brings us to the issue of the Uwaifo Tribunal saying you came out of government poorer. Nigerians didn’t agree with that. In fact, what does it mean?
That is a matter for which the records are very clear. But today, people talk about billions of which by any stretch of estimation you can not match what we were accused of doing and I used the word accused.
When the soldiers came for you in 1983, how was it and how did you receive the news of the coup?
I knew that the military may come back as I said earlier and, so, I was prepared but when they came and it was not going to be about bloodshed, I was very calm and that came as a surprise to the people who came.
How was detention like? Were you allowed access to newspapers?
No. Nothing. But you know how these things work. We had one man from Bauchi, who always had a radio. Whenever they came to search and sometimes they came at about 4 a.m., they’ll pick up the radios and any other things they didn’t want us to have but after three days or so, the man would surface with another radio and I didn’t know how he managed it. We were not in solitary confinement as we were supposed to but that period taught me a lot of lessons because I had enough time to reflect.
You said you expected the worst but when they came, there was no shooting?
Yes-o. I was relieved. But when I kept hearing some of the things that were being said about us and what we did, it was disheartening. The worst one was a press statement from State House, Dodan Barracks, that the President didn’t really know so much about what was happening that it was the Vice President who was in charge of petroleum, who was in charge of Abuja. But of course the President was the minister of petroleum then and he had a minister for Abuja. As I explained to you earlier, I was the only person who could not award a contract during the Second Republic. But they came out to say that I was in charge of Abuja and I was in charge of petroleum and that they had all the facts and that whenever they were ready to present the facts to me, there would be no way I could get out of it. That military government was my accuser, the judge and had concluded that there was no way I could get out of it. So, I was put away for 20 months, waited for those 20 months, for them to present the facts or to come and question me – for 20 months. They did not come and ask me any question at all until after 20 months. And the facts that they said they had, nothing was brought to my attention – for 20 months.
It was when General Ibrahim Babangida took over that you were able to face the Samson Uwaifo Tribunal?
Yes. In fact it was when Babangida came that we were released from prison to house arrest, with 24 hour military guard and by that time we could receive visitors, read newspapers, watch television.
During the Babangida Transition, you were not particularly active?
Yes, it was based on principle. I just wanted to stay away from Nigerian politics after what happened then; I stayed away.
So, what brought you back into politics again?
I had to call a press conference about Abiola at Ikoyi Hotel, during the Interim government, that the same way Azikiwe was mentioned by name in the 1963 Constitution, that Abiola, too, shall be the President of Nigeria and there shall be vice presidents from the different geo-political zones, a multiple vice presidency, under the constitution. I didn’t participate at all until Abacha’s constitutional conference in 1995. This was based on my background that I should make my input but even then, I was out of the country when they had the elections. I was elected in absentia by my people.
It was interesting at that time because your activities at the conference drew so much attention as well as the ire of the North because of some of your views; what was state of mind when you were putting those radical thoughts of yours together?
I had a long time to think through those issues. That was one of the things I was able to do while in detention. I reflected a lot and the only person I confided in at that time was my friend, Bisi Onabajo, then detained former governor of Ogun State. I felt that we could have a format that would guarantee stability for the country and not one that would throw the country into wanton take over by the army.
That was what some people termed to be regional armies?
Yes, that was what people said but I never suggested or advocated that. In fact, specifically, I said there shall be only one Nigerian Army to be organized under regional commands, just as we have divisions in Ibadan, Enugu, Kaduna, that the GOCs of the divisions would come from that geo-political zone because I felt that would not give way to somebody in Ibadan announcing that there has been a take over of government. The question the man heading the Kaduna area would ask is, with whose consent and with whose authority is the coup being carried out. It would ensure that nobody would take the nation for a ride and it would stop these buccaneering tendencies of some people. I also felt a sense of compulsion because of what I studied at the LL.B level – it was rigorous and I wanted to put the knowledge at the disposal of my nation and humanity. I did constitutional law and I understand what it entailed. One of the ideas was that the President would have a single term of five years because the problem of re-election creates problems. And the suggestions were such that you cannot run again immediately. When you compared the elections of 1959 to that of 1964, especially in the North, except you were of the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, you were not even allowed to file your papers to contest elections. It was all over. In fact, one of the lawyers the NCNC sent to the North to go and represent a candidate was himself locked up by an Alkali Court. The lawyer became a judge here, an in-law, he’s late now, his name was Monday Abengiwe, from what is now Abia State. So, I wanted a clear departure. In 1979, we had good elections alright but here in the East, anybody the Nigeria Peoples Party, NPP, fielded was bound to win, just as it was in the West for the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN. But if you look at the voting during the Senate elections, which was the first elections in 1979, the total number of votes, compare that to the number of votes cast during the presidential elections which was the last, you would see the amazing turn around in the number of voters. Everybody whose name was on the voters’ register voted and that was the pattern all over. In 1983, it was worse. For NPN, for instance, people would want to bend over backwards to please the government of the day and even when the government wanted a free and fair elections, it may not happen. So, I saw that as a problem that would always haunt us whereas if somebody had a five year single term it would not be like that. We considered four years, six years and came to the conclusion that five years was fine enough to learn and do whatever you wanted to do; six years, if you’re bad, you would saddle the people with bad governance and we said after these five years you must go and somebody else would come and spend his own five years and that if you were so popular, you can then try again but you cannot sit there and supervise your own elections.
But, with the way the polity was progressing in the negative direction, what chances were there that somebody would not supervise the election of his crony who would then supervise the former’s return to power? Because in Nigeria, anything can happen m just reasoning like the average Nigerian politician always looking for ways to circumvent, rather than work within the law because that defeats the argument?
That if you install somebody in power, it then becomes a matter of changing of the baton. All you need do is look at those who installed people in power today and see what is happening to them.
Okay, the threat of a walk out at the Constitutional Conference, what really led to that and what role did you play?
The role I played was simple. We were concluding the matter of zoning and rotation and I felt very strongly that we can only have a nation and not a country if everybody has a sense of belonging, and that if the presidency was seen as a birthright of a section of a country, then we were not ready and in my minority report, I made it clear that it should be between North and South but some people came with a position that the political parties should be allowed to decide that and that it should not be part of the constitution but I disagreed because if the first president is from the north, what guarantees are there that if another political party nominates a candidate which fulfills that provision and another party insists on nominating someone from the zone which had just served, it defeats that purpose. But that if everybody looks in the same direction, it becomes wholly participatory.
But some say that suggestion comes with the possibility of enthroning mediocrity rather than meritocracy?
I believe that each of the six geo-political zones canvassing is as big, if not bigger than Ghana so if we can’t get somebody with merit from that zone that is qualified, then there is a big problem for the country as a whole and not just that zone where we say we cannot get a candidate and I’m sure that each of the zones can produce somebody of merit and the same thing we did with the states. Each of the three senatorial districts can produce a governor. Take Benue, it would be a Tiv governor or Kogi, it would be Igala governor, or Akwa Ibom, Ibibio alone but with such an arrangement everybody would be involved. Look at Ogun State where you have the former President, an Egba man and the state governor talking about the possibility of power shifting to Yewa.
Looking at you and even your voice, it sounds so harmless and frail but you keep coming up with some daring-do acts. Where do you draw your strength from?
It comes from God Almighty. I’m from a very poor family who grew up in the church compound. My father was a church teacher and I was nine years old when my father died. My mother was a widow for 50 years. And from my village school in hinterland Anambra State, I got a scholarship to study at the Kings College in Lagos where I met with people from all over the country and finished top of the class and also got a Fulbright Scholarship. I have a feeling that God has been with me all through my life and so I think I don’t worry about what people worry about. I think through things and pray before doing them. What we did during the Abacha era was risky and I was warned by some people.
Who warned you – family or friends?
Some friends came to me and asked, ‘what do you think you’re doing, challenging the military, when you have no guns? And as it turned out, there was a 24hour surveillance on me both here in Enugu and Awka.
To be continued….