It is rare to find someone who has ever dealt with Beatrice Chigozili Ekwueme, widow of ex Vice President Alex Ekwueme, without fond memories of her. Those who met her in politics have the same opinion of her as those who met her in business or in the church or in the larger society. Yet, the Nigerian public knows little about her. She is self-effacing, like her husband whose achievements are prodigious. As she goes to the Cathedral of Good Shepherd, Independence Layout, Enugu, on Sunday, July 7, for thanksgiving for her 85th birthday– which actually took place four days earlier– it is fitting to remember the woman honoured by the Oko community in Anambra State as Aka Ide, that is, the husband’s pillar, a most important formal recognition in a patriarchal society. When the husband was Nigeria’s vice president, she covered the political front. Dr Ekwueme was not widely considered a politician, but a solid technocrat.
It may be speculated that even if she had not got married to Dr Ekwueme, the man whose humungous intellect, moral integrity and devotion to the public good enabled him to effectively lead the group of statesmen who stood up to the Sani Abacha dictatorship in the late 1990, Mrs Beatrice Ekwueme could have been a remarkable success on her own. She attended the competitive the highly Archdeacon Crowther Girls Secondary School at Elelenwo, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, on scholarship earned through scholastic excellence. She also won a scholarship to study in the United Kingdom based on merit. She was on government scholarship at the Enugu Campus of the University of Nigeria where she earned a very good degree in management.
The speculation that Beatrice Ekwueme could have been successful even if she did not marry Dr Ekwueme is perhaps unnecessary. Mrs Ekwueme seems destined to marry the man she did. They met in Port Harcourt when she was 12 years, still at the Methodist Primary Schoo at Ovim in today’s Abia State, an elite boarding school, while the future husband was 13 going to 14. When Alex Ekwueme was studying architecture in Washington State, United States, and at the same studying law as well as history, sociology and history at the University of London as an external student, Beatrice had many suitors. She shares a certain cultural propinquity with them, a particularly big deal in those days, yet she waited for a whole five years for the young non-Aro man from Oko to return to Nigeria and for another two years to get married. They wedded in December, 1959, only for the groom to find out on Christmas eve while on honeymoon in Calabar that the new wife had remained chaste after 13 years of “courtship”. The husband ironically could not claim the same level of fidelity. In his own words, he experimented with whites, blacks, browns, etc!
So, it is understandable that Dr Ekwueme was to trust his wife immensely. Trust is here defined as the faith that someone will not take advantage of you even when you may not notice it. She was instrumental to the success of the Ekwueme Foundation through which some 2,000 persons received education in Nigeria and overseas. She co-spearheaded the establishment of the Oko Community Hospital. It is doubtful that Dr Ekwueme would have become one of Nigeria’s greatest philanthropists ever if she herself had been less public spirited. As the psalmist says, only the deep can call to the deep.
Though never a first lady –despite her husband’s two attempts at becoming Nigeria’s leader– Mrs Ekwueme has played the role of Nigeria’s First Lady for four years. This was from 1979 to 1983 when the husband was Nigeria’s vice president. President Shehu Shagari was a conservative Muslim who would not allow any of his wives to appear in public, even though none was in purdah. The role of the First Lady, therefore, fell on Mrs Ekwueme who discharged the duties with both efficiency and panache and aplomb. She hosted such global figures as wives of Walter Mondale and George Bush when their spouses were at different times American vice presidents, in addition to Mrs Grace Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
A former member of the Anambra State Board of Internal Revenue (she obtained a master’s degree in finance from the United Kingdom in the late 1970s) who has served on the governing council of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Mrs Ekwueme has been decorated with the national honour of the Order of the Niger (OON). We may conclude this short reflection on this illustrious woman by recollecting the words of her husband, a man not known for sentiments or extravagance, at her 80th birthday five years ago in Enugu:
“ … I offer my salute, congratulations, and best wishes to a woman who has remained true since I met her as a small 12-year old in Port Harcourt 68 years ago and who, over a period of 55 years of our marriage, has managed to keep the ship of our household afloat on an even-keel in spite of sometimes scandalous turbulent waters.
“We pray God may grant (my wife) good health, continuing good humour and good devotion to her God for another 10, 20 or 30 years”.
Mrs Beatrice Chigozili Ekwueme, OON, is truly deserving of her sobriquet of Aka Ide. She has been the pillar of Dr Alex Ekwueme, the venerable former vice president whose leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party at its inception in 1998 turned the PDP into a national movement but quickly lost the status. At her 85 birthday anniversary, we wish her many more years of sound health, great wisdom and commitment to the common good.