By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
Alex Ekwueme is dead. A wasteful nation rues his passing. When politicians die, people mourn. Often, they mourn unthinkingly. The Nigerian poor are especially sentimental. They will mourn those who dispossessed them. They will mourn those who stoked fires that burnt them. They will mourn pimps and scoundrels. Africans always have good things to say about the dead. And wonderful things to say about dead big politicians. But the public grief for Ekwueme is different.
No one mourns him because he was his ethnic champion. No one mourns him because he ever designed ‘stomach infrastructure’ and distributed gifts in ‘notice me’ philanthropy at Christmas. No one mourns him because he championed intoxicating puritanical religious fundamentalism. Ekwueme’s exist is mourned because Ekwueme infused Nigerian politics with thought. And many wonder what could have been, if he had been president.
Eulogies have been pouring in. In 1979 he was selected by Shehu Shagari as his running mate. The NPP was the party of Igbo land. Nnamdi Azikiwe was NPP’s presidential candidate. Ekwueme was therefore an Igbo traitor. The war and its telling aftermath was fresh on Igbo minds. Ekwueme was branded a Hausa-Fulani stooge.
His intellectual capacity was not important. Ethnic passions held sway. Ojukwu returned from exile following the pardon granted by President Shagari. He inserted himself into the troubled waters of Igbo politics then. His campaign vehicle, the IKEMBA FRONT, had a reputation for reflexive violence. Ekwueme and Igbo leaders in the NPN took the blame. They were accused of bringing back the ‘Ogboso 1’ of Igbo land. They were accused of importing banished violence back to Igbo land.
Ekwueme served Shagari diligently and with humility. Insiders spoke of his clarity of thought and painstaking thoroughness. Outsiders saw a docile, pliable, aloof vice president. Adisa Akinloye, Joseph Wayas, Umaru Dikko, Uba Ahmed, Saraki were the noisy and so, the all important ones. The ruling NPN had no ideology and scant regards for moral principles. So we all thought they were all thieves. The 1983 elections were massively rigged. The elections created the impression in many Igbos that Ekwueme was a slavish enabler of rampant and oppressive Hausa Fulani hegemony.
Ekwueme was thrown into a common jail in Kirikiri. He had no political clout. Shagari was treated with residual dignity. Hundreds of other politicians were found guilty of embezzlement of public funds. Nothing was found on Ekwueme. The vice president of an infinitely corrupt NPN government was whistle clean. The trial judge attested that Ekwueme, who was a multimillionaire prior to his incursion into politics, left the government house poorer than he had entered.
Everyone says Ekwueme was different from the others. He wasn’t given to compulsive theft of public funds. He was wealthy but abhorred frivolity and exhibitionism. He stayed away from rancor and left bitterness for thugs. When others howled and threw tantrums, Ekwueme furnished objective reasons and proffered solutions.
Past vice presidents in Nigeria they spend the rest of their years idling and collecting political rents. But after 1983, after being vice president, he spent his later years accumulating degrees in law, philosophy and sociology and charting courses for sustainable democracy.
Ekwueme’s intellectual footprints litter the Nigerian political space. Everywhere he stepped foot he stood for equity and social justice. He stood against Abacha at home. He championed the formation of the PDP. The political class yielded to his intellectual leadership. He was set to be president. But the military had other ideas. Ethnic considerations, suspicions and narrow interests crept in. Obasanjo was dusted up. And power was handed to him. Ekwueme was still available.
But Obasanjo chose pettiness and vindictiveness. He seized the structures of the PDP in Ekwueme’s Anambra state and handed it over to touts. An Igbo crude oil trader who had made significant financial contributions to Ekwueme’s PDP presidential primaries campaign had his oil lifting contracts terminated the very day Obasanjo was sworn in 1999.
Everyone loved Ekwueme. He told the truth. He had clarity of thought. The PDP government he midwifed had no active role for him. In the run up to the 2003 elections the relationship between Obasanjo and Atiku ruptured. Atiku revved Ekwueme up. He wanted him to become the PDP candidate. Ekwueme with hesitation accepted to run after he was given guarantees of Northern support. Political intrigues followed. Atiku caved in at night. And betrayed Ekwueme. Everyone loved. Yes, he was such a gifted man.
Ekwueme was urbane and philosophical. He wouldn’t hunt political enemies. He wont tell necessary lies. He didn’t want to be known as a messiah. But the nation said it wanted a strong man. It wanted a brute. Ekwueme was deemed too philosophical, too weak to rein in the widespread madness. Obasanjo remained president after 2003 election and turned over the country to political fixers in Anenih and Mantu and Uba. What followed was a Nigeria run by efficient economic hands but dubious political minds. Obasanjo now says he didn’t want to be president for life. The reign of politics of opportunism meant that an Ekwueme was only good for the benches. The madness was too much for him.
When ethnic fervor returned to the Southeast it enthroned with Ojukwu. APGA became the new PDP. Ekwueme’s PDP had fallen in the hands of money bags whom he could not identify with in public without being sullied. So Ekwueme became a retired politician. Everyone loved Ekwueme. But Ekwueme didn’t love money politics and thuggery. So the sort of politics that the third republic fell in love with was the very sort of politics Ekwueme did not accumulate degrees, polish and refinement for.
I don’t know what his regrets were. He had lamented the bastardization of the PDP. Like many of the others, he died in London. A country that has earned hundreds of billions of dollars has no one good hospital. He would not be accused of choosing the easy path. He wasn’t a mere armchair political intellectual.
He was right in the middle of things. And they all loved him. But the perverted system had a way of distancing itself from merit. When it was not ethno-religious and sectional passions dictating choices , it was money and brigandage running the show. So when democracy returned, Ekwueme didn’t get his chance.
He was a great man, in a mad country .