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Ekwueme, five years after

Ekwueme, five years after

ON February 2, 2018, the remains of Nigeria’s first democratically elected vice president, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, were committed to mother earth in his ancestral home – Oko, Orumba North LGA, Anambra State. When he died on November 19, 2017, he was 85 years, an age many would consider old. Nonetheless, he died when the country needed him most.

As Professor Ben Nwabueze, Nigeria’s globally-acclaimed legal icon, noted in his tribute, Ekwueme’s demise “is not just the death of an individual, it is like the passing of an age – the age of patriotism, integrity, of principled approach in national affairs, of intellectualism in politics and steadfastness in political allegiance.”

Ekwueme was a quintessential democrat who espoused politics without bitterness and demonstrated by his actions both on and off the political turf that politics is not a dirty game played only by grimy characters. He proved, remarkably, that politics and integrity can and, indeed, should be soul mates. For many years, he was a bridge-builder and stabilising political force who brought his enormous intellect to bear on the country’s politics.

Born on October 21, 1932, Ekwueme was an intellectual in politics. In a country where leaders parade affidavits rather than verifiable certificates, Ekwueme was an exception. He attended the prestigious King’s College, Lagos, studied architecture and city planning at the University of Washington and later obtained a Master’s degree in urban planning and doctorate in architecture from University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom.

Even with such eye-popping accomplishments, he still went ahead to acquire degrees in sociology, history, philosophy and law from the University of London, making him one of Nigeria’s most accomplished multi-disciplinary intellectuals. Thereafter, he established Ekwueme & Associates, an architectural firm that designed some of Africa’s landmark edifices.

A political philosopher and visioner extraordinaire, his adopted proposal at the 1995 Constitutional Conference for a just and equitable power sharing based on the six geopolitical zones helped in stabilising the polity, notwithstanding that the greed of a few continues to make the stability rather tenuous. It is poetic justice that the whimsical repudiation of the zoning principle by PDP bigwigs is at the root of the crisis presently rocking the country’s main opposition party as the country hurtles towards another consequential election in 2023.

Alex Ekwueme
Alex Ekwueme

He also left Nigerians a body of works unlike most of his peers. His political philosophy as encapsulated in his seminal book, Whither Nigeria? Thoughts on Democracy, Politics and Constitution, 1999-2000, is still germane, just as his other book, From State House to Kirikiri, his insightful detention memoir, remains a magnum opus for all.

As Editor of the Weekend Examiner newspaper in the early 2000, I interviewed Ekwueme in his Lagos office. And what an experience it was. He was a teacher, historian and philosopher with disarming candour. His understanding of Nigerian politics was fascinating and encyclopedic. But my fondest memory of him was his political sagacity at the PDP national convention at the Jos Township Stadium in 1998, which captured his enduring essence in politics.

Having galvanised into action the group of 34 intrepid politicians that dared General Sanni Abacha, a group that morphed into the PDP, Ekwueme, first national chairman of the new political party, was in a pole position to pick the presidential ticket for the 1999 elections before the military apparatchik stepped in, anointing one of their own, General Olusegun Obasanjo, who was in Abacha’s gulag serving life sentence for treason when PDP was formed. To foist Obasanjo on the party, all the rules were changed in the middle of the game. Ekwueme could have torpedoed the primaries if he wished because Obasanjo’s candidacy, a classic display of military impunity, violated the party’s constitution.

In an interview with Hausa newspaper, Rariya, in 2013, he painted a picture of the intrigues that propped the Obasanjo candidacy, machinations that are still haunting the country’s democracy. “What most people didn’t understand is that I could have scuttled the whole thing in Jos because in November 1998, at a meeting of the National Executive Committee of the party, which we had before local government elections of December, the government had said that it was the performance of the local government elections that would decide which parties would get final registration,” Ekwueme said.

“So, it was crucial for every party to succeed in local government elections and at this meeting, it was stated in black and white that anybody who did not win his local government will not be eligible to contest for the presidency. Anybody who did not win his ward will not be eligible to contest for the governorship. After the election of December 5, the next NEC meeting, which was chaired by the late Sunday Afolabi because Solomon Lar was not present that day, approved and confirmed this decision of the NEC.

“Now in my pocket in Jos, I had a copy of the decision and also the constitution of the party … When the result was announced in Jos and they said Obasanjo won, I had the option of saying I didn’t accept it or say I accept it, embrace it and work together to make sure the party wins.”

He chose the second path for the sake of the country’s fledgling democracy even when Obasanjo neither won his local government, his ward, nor even the polling booth in front of his house. I was at the Jos Township Stadium that fateful night. Ekwueme’s supporters were not prepared to take prisoners. To them, their candidate had been unconscionably robbed and nothing short of a repudiation of the fraud was acceptable. But Ekwueme would have none of that.

He sacrificed his political ambition on the altar of national democratic renaissance. As he later explained, to do otherwise “could have given the military the chance to prolong their stay which would defeat all the efforts we made and the risk we took to place our lives on the line during Abacha regime. My own personal ambition was not worth putting Nigeria at risk and that was why I embraced Obasanjo and went on to campaign for him.”

But beyond patriotism, Ekwueme, like Caesar’s wife, was above suspicion. For a country blighted by corruption, that was no mean feat as testified to by the Justice Sampson Uwaifo military tribunal set up by the General Muhammadu Buhari junta to try alleged corrupt politicians.

The tribunal exonerated him thus: “Dr. Ekwueme left office poorer than he was when he entered it and to ask more from him was to set a standard which even saints could not meet.” Before his death, Ekwueme held the Grand Commander of Nigeria, GCON, honour and the Federal University, Ndufu Alike, Ikwo Ebonyi State, was renamed Alex Ekwueme Federal University, AE-FUNAI. But considering his outstanding contributions, the country has not honoured him enough.

And knowing the Ide Oko, the immortalisation he would cherish most is to see his ideas for equity, fairness and justice blossom in Nigeria. That, unfortunately, is not the case. And the prospect of such a glorious dawn is getting dimmer by the day. The tragedy of the Nigerian situation is that with Ekwueme’s death five years ago, the clan of those with his political pedigree who see public office as a call to service was depleted further. That vacuum is still yawning.

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