"For instance, if you are a civil servant on level 10 and you are driving a Mercedes Jeep (SUV) and you are living in a palace in Maitama (Abuja) and your lifestyle is such that cannot be justified or defended by your legitimate earnings, then you are deemed guilty until you prove otherwise”
Above is an excerpt from an interview Dr. Ekwueme granted in 2013. We shall return to this later.
On Sunday, November 19, 2017, news started filtering in that one of the last surviving fathers of the nation, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, GCON, had passed on, barely one month after his 85th birthday. It was not until the next day that his younger brother, the erudite Professor of Music and the traditional ruler of Oko kingdom, His Royal Highness, Igwe (Prof.) Laz Ekwueme, formally announced that Dr. Alex Ekwueme had joined his ancestors. Dr. Ekwueme represented different things to different people, but to me, he was not only a father but a role model and a mentor, from whom I received sound advice from time to time. ‘Sake’, as we used to call each other, was always there to share superior ideas with me in virtually every matter that I needed counsel. He was easily one of the most educated Nigerians, having earned a first degree in Architecture as a Fulbright scholar from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Strathclyde. To broaden his horizon, which was later to account for why he was at home with virtually every subject, Sake went back to school, this time the University of London where he obtained degrees in Philosophy, Sociology, History and Law. Thereafter, he was called to the Nigerian bar as a qualified lawyer.
As President of the Nigerian Institute of Architects, his tenure brought a lot of reforms and placed the institute at a very high pedestal. His private firm, Ekwueme and Associates, Estate and Town Planning, which was the first indigenous architectural firm in Nigeria, was so successful that he opened several offices in different parts of the country. A lot of landmark and signature buildings in major cities in Nigeria were designed by this distinguished statesman. As a stickler for best practices, he shut down this sprawling business prior to assuming office as the Vice President of Nigeria in 1979 to avoid conflict of interest. This is a rare act that is hardly seen in the Nigeria of today. Leaders today would have used such an office to amass wealth by channeling jobs to it. That was not the Alex Ekwueme that I knew.
Dr. Ekwueme was the brain behind the idea of power-sharing in Nigeria based on the six geopolitical zones of the country. As things were drifting in the country in the mid-90s under the autocratic leadership of the late dictator, General Sani Abacha, Dr. Ekwueme assembled 33 other eminent Nigerians under the G34 to confront the late maximum ruler. This was at great personal sacrifice and risk. This group was the brain behind the People’s Democratic Party of today, even if it had not kept to the ideals of the founding fathers.
In politics, Dr. Ekwueme was urbane and civilized, consistent with his pedigree and his exposure. He didn’t believe in violence. He was principled and upright. It was natural that he was going to be one of the first people I would consult as I was considering running for an elective office in 2015. So, in the middle of 2014, I called him and wanted to visit him at home to have the discussion. Being the very humble man he was, he insisted that since he came to Lagos from time to time, he would let me know when he was going to be in Lagos so we could see, of course, he added, except if it was ultra-urgent. We eventually met up a few weeks later and I broached the topic to him. The ever dutiful and warm aunty Helen was on hand to attend to me asking what she needed to offer me. Even though Dr. Ekwueme liked the idea of my joining to contribute towards liberating my state from poor leadership as according to him, he wanted more exposed people from the private sector to show interest in governance, he struggled with the idea of my leaving my job at that time. He worried over if it was not too early to leave the good job that he knew I was doing in the banking industry at that time, given the uncertainty in the political terrain, some of which, he had been a victim of, himself. Most importantly, according to him, he had a dream of whom he wanted me to be like in the future and politics was not in the equation. He was very proud of his friend, Otunba Subomi Balogun, the grandmaster of banking, who set up the First City Banking Group.
Sake thought I was going to follow his footsteps and set up a formidable banking group in the future. After so much persuasion, I was able to convince him and he gave his approval without which, I was not going to attempt joining the race. He supported me all the way and regretted that my mandate was stolen at the 2015 polls which I overwhelmingly won. He kept encouraging me to hold on to my vision as according to him, ‘if it did not happen today, it will happen tomorrow’.
Prior to the general election in 1979 where he paired with Alhaji Shehu Shagari to win the Presidential polls, he had come home after earning his PhD degree to contest for the Governorship of the old Anambra State. He lost at the primaries to Late Christian (CC) Onoh, who was later to be governor in 1983, succeeding Jim Nwobodo. Little did he know that God had a better plan for him. He was soon to be nominated as the running mate to Shehu Shagari and both won the election and formed government in1979. Towards the end of 1983, the military struck and dismantled the democratic governance and Gen. Buhari became the Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic. Ekwueme was the first in his group to be thrown into the gallows. He moved from house arrest to prison and back to house arrest until 1989 when he was eventually consigned to his hometown in Oko. It was not until 1998 that he made another attempt to govern the country under the PDP. He was tipped to win the primaries in Jos. Unknown to him, there was a grand conspiracy that saw some of the people he relied on, switch camps to support his opponent, General Olusegun Obasanjo, who won the primaries.
Obasanjo had little or no home support but was the choice of the powers that were at that time. Ekwueme demonstrated his large heartedness and statesmanship by walking over to congratulate Obasanjo and working with him all the way until the election was won. He had a choice of not accepting the result of the primaries and he had very solid grounds to stand on. According to the party’s rules at that time, a candidate for governorship elections must have won his ward in the local government elections that held a few months before while to qualify to be a Presidential Candidate, such a person must have delivered his local government in the same election. Obasanjo did not deliver his polling unit not to talk of his ward and his local government. The statesman in Ekwueme was such that he did not want to scuttle the election lest the military found a reason to stay on. He, therefore, accepted defeat, chaired the fundraising committee and worked very hard to ensure that Obasanjo won the general election.
There had been some subtle argument about Ekwueme’s role in scuttling his kinsman’s ambition of being the President of Nigeria. By this, people refer to his acceptance of the role of the Vice Presidential candidate of NPN when The Rt. Hon Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was running for President under the NPP. Those who know, dismiss this argument as it was and it is still lacking in facts and remains theoretically untenable and analytically useless. Zik and Ekwueme were contesting under different platforms and were not bound by the same rules, assuming there was any. Secondly, as at the time that Ekwueme was nominated as the Vice Presidential candidate of NPN, the Great Zik of Africa was yet to make up his mind about whether to contest and, if so, under what platform. It was well after Ekwueme’s nomination that Zik was offered the platform of PDP to lead and run, a decision that led the late Ibrahim Waziri to leave the party to form the GNPP. The rest, like they say, is now history.
At an anti-corruption workshop in 1991, Ekwueme insisted that corruption thrived in Nigeria because people were allowed to get away with it. He made two major recommendations on how to curb the scourge of corruption. The first is whistleblowing which has now been adopted as a policy by the current government. Some successes have already been recorded from the whistleblowing policy. His second recommendation was to review that part of our jurisprudence that presumes one innocent until he is proved guilty. According to him, it was that part of our law which puts the burden of proof on the accuser that protects criminals and corrupt people. He would rather have an exception in cases of corruption such that you are presumed guilty until you prove your innocence. He, of course, knew that such a law could be abused and that is why he advocated that it be applied as an exception to deal with a rather troubling matter.
It must be noted that Dr. Ekwueme set a new paradigm in probity and integrity in public life, by his sterling conduct in office as the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in the second Republic. Paradoxically, as highlighted above, he was incarcerated for a lengthy period of time, yet, quite remarkably, the various tribunals set up by the then military government discharged and acquitted him on all the multiple charges of abuse of office and corrupt enrichment. In fact, one of the reports issued on him declared that he came out of public office poorer than when he went in! He remained one of the most honourable public officers in Nigeria’s history. Indeed, the Nigerian Government which imprisoned him falsely owes him a national apology. I believe that it was a grave injustice that Ekwueme didn’t get that apology in his lifetime. However, as the old saying goes, it’s better late than never. A posthumous apology at this time even though belated, will go a long way in righting the historic wrong done to his good name. I dare say that there is no better person to do that than President Buhari who was also the Head of the government that incarcerated him and whom fate has given the job of being the Head of the government that would be burying him.
I had thought Dr. Ekwueme was still going to be here with us for a while. Even though he had aged, he was still very strong, agile and mobile and that probably deceived a few of us. I still had in my mental to-do list, some matters that I was going to discuss with him when next we saw. It is difficult to believe that that is no longer going to happen in this mortal life. There is an outstanding request Sake made of me which is still pending. I will ensure that the assignment is done even though he is no longer here. We must thank God for the gift of such a perfect gentleman to Nigeria and the world as a whole. We also thank God for calling him back without having him experience protracted suffering, ill health and pain. It is my firm belief that he finished very well and has gone to rest. I have no doubt that on that resurrection morning, we shall meet him again to part no more. Good night Sake. Good bye, Ide. Ka chi foo Nnamukwu.