Dr Alex Ekwueme occupied a unique space in Nigerian history. As the first elected Vice-President, Ekwueme was the face Nigeria advertised to the world that indeed the Igbos were back into the mainstream of Nigerian politics after the gruesome Civil War that ended in 1970. After that war, he made more money and decided to show the way to other Igbos who had come into wealth. By the time he was made the Vice-President to Alhaji Shehu Shagari, his philanthropy was well known. He single-handedly built the vocational centre, in Oko, his home town which has now been turned into The Federal Polytechnics, Oko. He was highly educated and knew the language of money. In the cacophony of the old National Party of Nigeria, NPN, during the Second Republic, his was a Voice of Reason. Now the voice is stilled.
When Ekwueme died Sunday, November 19 in London, it was at the end of a long farewell. When I met him in his country home in Oko, Anambra State, in 1986, it was for him, the beginning of a new life. In July 1986, my editors at Newswatch, sent me to Oko with the good news that Ekwueme, who had been in Ikoyi Prison since Shagari was toppled on December 31, 1986, would soon be freed. I broke the good news to his mother, Mama Agnes and his younger wife, Ifeoma. Everyone was ecstatic. I met the late Igwe Justus Ekwueme, the traditional ruler of the town who welcomed me with open arms. Few weeks later, Ekwueme rode to Oko in triumph. I was one of the hundreds of people who joined him and his family at the thanksgiving service in the Anglican Church in the town.
Ekwueme and Shagari were central to the cover story I anchored for Newswatch in the edition of February 3, 1986. The story, The Trial of Shagari was based on my coverage of the Justice Samson Uwaifo panel which was instituted by the new regime of General Ibrahim Babangida to review the cases of political prisoner. The panel recommended that both Shagari and Ekwueme should be released as there was no direct evidence of corruption against them. However, the press, especially the radical Newswatch, was openly against the verdict. When I brought the report, our editors, especially Dele Giwa, the Editor-in-Chief and Ray Ekpu, his deputy said the verdict was expected but unacceptable.
Ekpu, in his column for that edition, took the Uwaifo panel to the cleaners, saying its decision was kangarooic. He accused the presiding judge of “abject naiveté.” Justice Uwaifo, who was then serving on the bench of the then Bendel (now Edo and Delta) was later to rise up to the Supreme Court.
The judge believed it was an unfair blow below the belt and decided to ambush us. Knowing that trouble would likely result, I wisely stayed away from the tribunal the following Monday. Expectedly, Justice Nwaifo was deeply unhappy with Newswatch coverage, especially the provocative comment of Ekpu. He issued a bench warrant for all of us who participated in that story; Ekpu, Soji Omotunde, Joyce Osakwe, Nosa Igiebor and Dele Olojede. The following day, we were in the dock before Justice Uwaifo at the old National Assembly, Tafawa Balewa Square and only the legal skill of Chief Gani Fawehinmi saved us from joining Ekwueme at Ikoyi Prisons.
Since he was freed from prison in 1986, Ekwueme had tried to fashion out a new order for Nigeria so that future generations can be spared the ordeal that became the comeuppance of his public service. He invested his faith in the General Sani Abacha Constitutional Conference of 1994 and it was his suggestion that created the now famous six geopolitical zones of the country. Hesitant at first to join the opposition bandwagon, but by 1998, he teamed up with leaders across the country to form the G34 that came out boldly to oppose the attempt by Abacha to become “an elected leader,” sponsored jointly by the so-called five political parties. It was this G34 that eventually became the core of the nascent Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
Ekwueme contested for the presidential ticket of the PDP in 1999. He was backed by the rump of the old NPN who felt that if the South would produce the President, no one should take precedence before loyal Alex. He lost to the military muscle of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who later won the presidential election of 1999. Obasanjo tried to persuade Ekwueme to run for the Senate, but he refused. Having served as number two during the Second Republic, he did not want to be number three in the national pecking order. He later served as the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the then ruling party.
Ekwueme made great impacts on many aspects of Nigerian life. He was recruited into the Nigerian project by his Civil War experience. He was one of the best educated persons ever to participate in national politics. He had a doctorate degree in architecture from the University of Strathclyde and top it with another degree in law. By 1966, he was one of dashing young architects in Lagos, in high demand among the emerging glitterati. He made money and built for himself a comfortable home in the Government Reservation Area at Apapa. His neigbour was Olasubomi Balogun, a young banker and lawyer who had also embarked on a career of making money and building institutions.
By 1967, like most Igbos, Ekwueme fled Lagos, leaving his beautiful home for the Biafran enclave of Colonel Chuwkuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The Biafran nightmare ended in 1970 and Ekwueme returned to Lagos. He was not too shocked when he realised that his Apapa home was occupied by another family. Balogun had put a tenant into the house and saved the proceeds for Ekwueme. This experience was to cement a life-long relationship between Ekwueme and Balogun, the doyen of the Nigerian banking industry and founder of the First City group.
Nine years after the war, Ekwueme emerged as the Vice-President and Balogun remained a prominent banker. One day, both the vice-president and Balogun were attending service at the historic Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos, when Balogun accosted him. He needed Ekwueme’s intervention to secure the licence for his bank, the then First City Merchant Bank, FCMB. Ekwueme obliged. The licence was issued and the rest is history.
Ekwueme conducted himself with dignity and moderation. He was already a very wealthy man by the time he joined politics in 1978 and refused to join the feasting by the perchance of the ill-fated NPN. One of the cases brought before Justice Uwaifo was that of an indigenous contractor who got a job to construct a road in Ekwueme’s home state of Anambra for the princely sum of N20.4 million. The grateful contractor distributed largess to many top NPN members including ministers. One day, he met Ekwueme in his country home in Oko and handed him a suitcase filled with N200,000.00. In those days, the highest denomination of the naira was Muri, the iconic twenty naira note with the portrait of General Murtala Muhammed. Ekwueme refused. Instead, when the contractor insisted that he wanted to help the NPN, the vice-president directed him to the party headquarters. The money was duly paid to the party chairman who provided receipt for the “donation.”
Now that he is gone, I hope that our country would learn from him the lesson of service and humility. A year after his return from prison, I went back to Oko to meet him. Within 12 months of freedom, his impact was evident. He had built a new hotel, complete with lawn tennis court and modern amenities. He and my friend, Akin Oparison, who was also visiting, were enjoying a daily game of tennis. I congratulated him for what he had done. “I am only trying to make a difference,” he said. I wish all our leaders can make a difference as Dr Ekwueme had done.
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