By Obi Nwakanma
My most enduring personal memory of Alex Ekwueme was at his brother Laz Ekwueme’s 60th birthday in January 1996, which began appropriately with a performance at the University of Lagos auditorium, with Laz himself conducting his Chorale as part of the events. At the end of the performance, his brother, Dr. Alex Ekwueme made a personal request for a performance of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” and he was obliged.
What struck me was the effect of the music on the man – the intensity of his expression and absorption of the movements of the song. Schubert arranged “Ave Maria” as a movement of seven songs, taken from Walter Scott’s epic poem, “Lady of the Lake,” and the denouement is in that moment, when the character, Ellen, at the lead of the far-removed harpist, raises an invocatory prayer to the Virgin Mary, summoning her to help, as the protagonist goes off into battle against the king. Years later, the significance of that request made utter sense to me.
Dr. Alex Ekwueme was at the promontory of his own epic battle with General Abacha, and “Ave Maria” was his own invocation to the virgin. I could associate this purely on the subjective whim of my own interpretation, but of all the things that have been said of Dr. Ekwueme in the deluge of epiphanic eulogies from many quarters, the most central have been an acknowledgement of his quiet dignity even faced with the kind of challenges that would normally set off less accomplished men, and the second is the affirmation of the consistent principle he brought to bear on public service. What has often not been noted in his obituaries is that Alex Ekwueme was of that generation of men inspired by the politics and philosophy of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who taught us that in our quest to make a great society and liberate our people from the clutches of poverty and ignorance, we must show ourselves as the first and perfect examples.
Those who wish to lead must themselves be willing to serve, given that leadership is a sacred trust, a call to dispense of all other interests that negates the higher interest of the people. True leaders are the servants of their people. They are not the masters of their people. True leadership requires mental and spiritual preparation: those who wish to lead must explore the vast fields of human knowledge, and thus like Azikiwe, Ekwueme prepared himself intellectually, ranging in fields of human knowledge, from Architecture to Sociology, to Town planning, and to Law. He was basically, philosophically trained. In other words, he could interrogate, if not interpret Pythagoras, as he could comprehend the movements of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” or the lines of Enwonwu’s “Agbogho Mmo,” as well as understand the notions of Zoroaster, or even the subtler underlays of the Paulian dispatches. Dr. Ekwueme was therefore rooted, without ambiguity. He was as local as he was cosmopolitan. He came to the clear and inexorable understanding that there was no genetic difference between the poor of the North and the poor of the South, there was only a moral condition, and it required the transformation of the material conditions that should give each man or woman the dignity of their humanity.
Dr. Ekwueme also clearly absorbed the Zikist idea that the individual who offers himself for public leadership under the norms of democracy, must be willing to apply the strategic patience of the Roman General Pontifex Maximus. Zik himself summed that up as the principle of “Suru-Lere” – the virtue of patience. The Igbo themselves had put it in their own inimitable philosophical frame: “Anu laa ta, echi wu nta” – if the game escapes today, tomorrow is another hunt. Such a philosophy priotizes the virtues of patience, tolerance, and compromise as the sum of political conduct.
It therefore makes political action, under the democratic principle, a process rather than a zero-sum game. And these are, in sum, the very principles that guided Dr. Ekwueme’s political action, from when he joined the fray, first in the first republic as an NCNC candidate for the Eastern Regional House, and later in the second republic, when he became Vice-President of the Federation of Nigeria, under the elected government of the National Party of Nigeria, led by President Shehu Usman Shagari. Ekwueme wanted to be governor of the old Anambra state, and had been nominated, and confirmed NPN’s gubernatorial candidate for Anambra in 1979. I do personally recall this moment because I had just become very acutely alert to national politics in that moment, and the Nigerian papers, particularly the local Nigerian Statesman published in Owerri, were full of the doings of politics.
Shagari had first offered the Vice-presidency to an Igbo woman, the first Nigerian to earn a degree from Harvard, who was a senior lecturer then at the Alvan Ikoku College of Education. She was quietly convinced to decline the offer. Two giants later loomed: Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe, and Dr. J.O.J Okezie. And these were, politically speaking, known quantities. Then Shagari pulled the surprise, and it has since come to some light, with the quiet counsel of Dr. Nwafor Orizu, and picked what was essentially a dark horse, a younger man, Dr. Ekwueme – who compared to the other two seemed bloodless, and wilting. Ekwueme had always presented the image of that groomed silence; the self-effacing, un-intrusive man, who did not have the theatre of his more boisterous brother, Laz, but who had often proved with the quiet force of his intellect and will, to be no less a force or quantity.
His quiet efficiency; his organizational capacity, and his fierce sense of loyalty and obligation, have all been attested to, by those who have worked closely with him, and no less, by President Shagari himself, who could never have wished for a better lieutenant. Dr. Ekwueme’s record of public service stands perfectly in that adulation, by those who put him before the blind goddess of justice, who then compelled by the sheer evidence before her, led her servant at the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Justice Uwaifo to declare that Alex Ekwueme had no scintilla of corruption around him, in a government that had been roundly accused of corruption.
Dr Alex Ekwueme, the honorable judge declared, is the only example of a man who entered government very wealthy, and left less wealthy than he was when he went into government in Nigeria. In other words, Ekwueme remains Nigeria’s moral beacon – that example of the distinguished and incorruptible public servant, who has continued to elude this nation since the locusts came to town. Alex Ekwueme’s moral courage came through when he stood up to General Abacha and his ploy to succeed himself with the formation of the G38 in 1997. Ekwueme led the G38 to say, “heck no!” and was ultimately prepared for a showdown.
I should now confess, that I ran a number of couriers between Ben Obumselu and Bola Ige, from Lagos to Ibadan, in that triangle of action, and it was clear that a showdown was indeed in the offing with Ekwueme at the center of it against the military regime. Perhaps that was why they stopped him too, when it came to crunch time. I was in that stadium at Jos, reporting the PDP convention for the Newsweek Magazine, with Marcus Mabry late in 1998. We had been taken that night to see General Obasanjo where he was sequestered in the lap of luxury in Jos, holding court. It was very quickly clear to me, that Obasanjo who had just been released from prison was suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and his responses to basic questions were incoherent. Later on, I was also taken by Professor Obumselu, whom I met at the Hills Station Hotel in Jos, to see Dr. Ekwueme. Obumselu was the Director of Planning and Operations for the Ekwueme Campaign, and was running the numbers for the campaign. There was a clear difference. The surroundings were different. Ekwueme was of course surrounded by Chinweoke Mbadinuju and Igwe Mbaukwu, but he was clear and articulate, and Marcus Mabry in spite of himself did say, “that’s your best chance in Nigeria.” But later that night, while we were hosted at the Jos home of General Lawrence Onoja, and in the company of Alhaji Isyaku Ibrahim, who was a major Ekwueme backer, we got the news that a lot of money had gone round at about 2:00 a.m., spent by the key military backers of General Obasanjo.
The rest is now history. In spite of the bright and articulate speech of Asiodu, or the moral significance of Alex Ekwueme, the PDP went to the dogs: they gave the party’s nomination under fraudulent conditions to Olusegun Obasanjo. And that, very clearly in my mind, sealed the fate of Nigeria, for this country was handed back to the locusts. The result is clear: violence, corruption, religious and ethnic tensions. Any nation or party that would choose an Obasanjo over an Alex Ekwueme was doomed to misery. Ekwueme was the cornerstone of Nigeria’s fourth republic, but he was that cornerstone that was ignored. And we are still paying for it.