By Muyiwa Adetiba
A good man was laid to rest at the weekend. Dr Alex Ekwueme had passed on in a London hospital at age 85. He had been a colossus in the political arena in the past 40 odd years. I caught up with his night of tributes on NTA last Sunday when a friend called to intimate me of it. Such is my respect for him that I dropped everything to stay glued to the station. It was a rewarding experience to hear the glowing tributes being paid by political peers and subordinates to a man whose public life was exemplary in many ways.
And a reminder once again, that what lives after you is not your wealth however you acquire it but your name and the lives you touch. Some of the tributes were sugar-coated as often happens when a public man passes on. But the consensus, if we needed any, was that he was a cut above his peers. It was not just his high intellect but what he applied it to. It was not just his courage but what he applied it to. It was not just his statesmanship but how he applied it. It was not just his ‘Nigerianess’ but how he demonstrated it.
It was not just his religion but how he lived it. If he was bitter about the way Nigeria and his political associates treated him, he kept it out of the public square. He demonstrated, at least in public, the rare attributes of politics without bitterness. The image he projected was that of simplicity, integrity and profound intellectual prowess.
His announcement some 40 years ago, as the vice-presidential candidate to Alhaji Shagari came as a surprise to many in the country and even in the media. The general sentiment then was Alex Who? At the beginning of the political dispensation after years of military rule, I was one of a three- man team mandated by the Punch Editor to monitor political developments leading to the 1979 elections. I was generally to handle interviews, Eric Teniola was to handle news while Nduka Onum was to handle features.
Towards this end, I was given an interview column titled: ‘Spotlight “79’ under which I interviewed many of the then ‘dark horses’ including Dr Olusola Saraki. The three of us exchanged information regularly and I can’t remember Ekwueme’s name ever coming up. Like Ekwueme, Onum the Political Editor, is Igbo and an old boy of Kings College Lagos so he would have been more than willing to suggest Ekwueme’s name for an interview had he been aware of his political strides. The feeling out there then was that he was not so much chosen for his electoral value as to his religion and tribe.
With Awolowo firmly in control of the ‘West’ and Shagari in control of the ‘North’, ‘East had become the so called ‘swing states’ of Nigeria. Ndigbo was the bride of the ’79 presidential election. Not surprisingly, the North was the groom that eventually turned her head. Already a wealthy man and successful architect, Dr Ekwueme had responded to his nomination by contributing what was then considered a hefty sum to the coffers of the NPN.
The man who emerged into the public arena was a quiet, almost diffident one. He did not have the quiet eloquence of S.G Ikoku; or the oratorical prowess of K.O Mbadiwe; or the expansiveness of Ibrahim Tahir; or the sheer presence of J.S Tarka; or the effervescent brilliance of Chuba Okadigbo; or the magnetism of Nnamdi Azikiwe. These were some of the great men at the time, many of whom I had the pleasure of meeting one on one. But he did have something in common with another great man. Like Obafemi Awolowo, he was a deep political thinker.
Like Awolowo, he was not given to frivolities or political rascality. Ekwueme has been credited with suggesting the six zone structure for Nigeria. He has been credited with suggesting rotational presidency and a fixed term of six years for political office holders. He has been credited with suggesting a six-man vice-presidential system, one from each political zone. It is likely that the trajectory of Nigeria would have been different had either Ekwueme or Awolowo—or both—been given a chance to rule the nation.
It is fitting therefore for the country to roll out the drums for one of her illustrious sons. It is fitting to celebrate the life of a man who compares favourably with the great political personalities of yore. But it is also fitting to celebrate his death in the way the man celebrated his life. Dr Alex Ekwueme was not given to flamboyance; he was not given to prodigality; he certainly was not given to sleaze. I am sure he would turn in his grave if he could hear of the amount being spent on his burial. According to government sources, over one billion Naira has been spent so far on his burial arrangements and that was before the body had been interred.
Only God knows what the final figure would look like. One billion is one thousand million for crying out loud. That is a preposterous amount to use to bury anybody including a Head of State. And that is from a country just coming out of recession. Think of what that amount can do in Oko, Ekwueme’s hometown. Think of what that amount can do to give some fortunate youths a leg-up in life. Think of what that amount can do to bequeath a befitting facility to the memory of the diseased.
I think the Ekwueme family owes it to the good name of its son to demand some form of accountability. His burial should not be used in future as an example of waste and sleaze in government. I think the rest of us who are astounded by this jaw-dropping sum should not rest until we get details of how the money was spent.
The National Assembly should for once rise up to its name and perform its oversight function. I personally do not think that excess of one billion Naira for a funeral is money well spent. Especially when the beneficiaries of the bulk of it are likely to be the same fat cats who have been feeding off the system. This is not in conformity with a government that promises change. It is also not in conformity with a president who is known for his frugal and ascetic lifestyle.
Our priority as a nation bewilders and confounds sometimes.