Until he passed on in a London clinic on November 19, 2017, Dr. Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme demonstrated the basic decency and moral principles required of a statesman. A patriot through and through, he did not seek public office for self-enrichment but to render selfless service. Asked why he wanted to be President of Nigeria, Ekwueme answered: “I have always dreamed of achieving a Nigeria in which every ethnic nationality melts into one nation. Indeed, I wanted to make Nigeria a one-nation entity; instead of a mere country where each ethnic group would be fighting to pull it to its sole benefit.”
Indeed, patriotism flowed in his veins. An egalitarian, he desired a strong, united and more compassionate Nigeria, where the citizenry would have equal opportunities to pursue their dreams and aspirations. In those dark days, when the Gen. Sani Abacha junta was knocking off perceived enemies, he put his life on the line and made uncommon sacrifices to ensure that democracy was achieved and sustained in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, you cannot talk about democracy in Nigeria since the Second Republic without dressing Ekwueme in admirable robes.
Perhaps, it was because of personalities like Ekwueme that the late flambouyant politician, Dr. Kingsley Mbadiwe, coined such phrases as “political juggernauts” and “men of timber and calibre.” As Ndigbo would say, he was nnukwu mmanwu (the big masquerade), yet he was a perfect gentleman. The icing on the cake was that he chaired the group that transformed into the biggest party in Africa, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
It could be said that, but for Ekwueme’s selflessness and the need to ensure that the military quit the stage, he might have truncated former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s ambition to rule and, perhaps, scuttled the entire process. He could have played a spoiler’s game but he chose to sacrifice personal ambition for national interest. It was a historic departure from the rancorous and selfish ways of politicking. But how could he have done that?
In an interview with a newspaper, Ekwueme had disclosed that Obasanjo did not meet the requirements to contest the presidential election as stipulated by the PDP guidelines concerning candidates for various positions.
Take this from Ekwueme: “Most people didn’t understand that I could have scuttled the whole thing in Jos. The government had said that it was the performance of parties at the December 1998 local government elections that would decide which parties would get final registration approval. So, it was crucial for every party to succeed in the local government elections of December 1998. Also, in November 1998, at a meeting of the National Executive Committee of the party, it was also stated in black and white that anybody who did not win his local government for the PDP would not be eligible to contest for presidency. Anybody who did not win his ward would not be eligible to contest for governorship.”
Disclosing that after the local government elections of December 5, 1998, the next NEC meeting of the party approved and confirmed the decisions of the NEC, Ekwueme added: “In my pocket in Jos, I had a copy of the decision and also the constitution of the party. The chairman of the party was like the chairman of a board and the secretary of the party was like the managing director. So, it was the secretary who had executive powers, not the chairman. When the result was announced in Jos and they said Obasanjo won, I had the option of saying I didn’t accept it or to say I accepted it; embrace it and work together to make sure the party wins. I could have said that, of all the candidates that contested, it was only six that were eligible and, of those six, I had the highest number of votes.
“So, I expected the party to send my name to INEC. Having said that and read the minutes of the NEC meeting, it was incontrovertible that a person who did not win his local government area, he didn’t win his ward, he didn’t even win the polling station in front of his house, so, with that PDP NEC decision, he couldn’t be the party’s candidate.
“And this decision was mentioned at the screening committee when we applied to contest. When the screening committee read the letter and its implications, Solomon Lar (may his soul rest in peace) wrote to them to plead that they should give Obasanjo provisional clearance to contest. That provision turned out to be solid but then I could have made a point that, out of six of us who won our local governments, I had the highest votes among those qualified to contest and I expected the party to nominate me. The next day, the secretary, who had executive powers, could have sent my name and letter to INEC as party candidate while Solomon Lar would have sent Obasanjo’s name and letter to the same INEC. So there would have been confusion in the house of PDP.”
The former Vice President argued that it could have defeated “all the efforts we made and the risk we took to place our lives on the line during Abacha. 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. A few days after, fund raising was done at the congress hall and I chaired that fund raising ceremony.”
In fact, Ekwueme played a pivotal role in the return of the country to civil rule after many years of military dictatorship. While Abacha’s junta was running riot, clamping people into detention and sending many to the great beyond, Ekwueme refused to be cowed. Particularly incensed by the disdain with which the junta treated civilians, Ekwueme mobilised patriots of like minds to find a way out of the cage, as it were.
He said: “When Abacha came, what really triggered me was his modus operandi. He came and it was clear that he didn’t have any regard for the civilian population. He thought everything was to be accomplished by force of arms. We organised first as civil society, nine of us, to try and really appreciate that, if we didn’t extricate ourselves from the military, we would remain slaves to them forever. Then from the Institute for Civil Society, we decided to hold a summit, which was held at Eko Hotel. While that was holding, he sent thugs to disperse us. After that, we heard that he was planning to transit from a military to civilian head of state and we found that that was unconscionable. If he wanted to run as a civilian, he should retire from the Army and come into one of the parties and contest for nomination, not use his position to manipulate political parties into nominating him as a sole candidate that, in short, he would be returned unopposed. I guess all the decrees he passed said that no public servant should take part in partisan politics.
“So, after the summit, all of us in civil society met again and recognised the summit and felt it was widely assumed that they were all supporting Abacha because he was a northerner; so, we agreed that they would make the first move, telling Abacha that what he was doing was not acceptable. We met in Kaduna and drafted a memorandum, which Solomon Lar delivered to him by a group of 18. Then, after that, I called a full meeting at Glover Hotel in Yaba, where 34 of us met and I prepared a memorandum, which we gave to him, the G34 Memorandum.”
The G34 later metamorphosed into the PDP or, rather, it mid-wifed the PDP.
Ekwueme displayed uncommon vision and political sagacity during the 1994/1995 constitution conference, when he championed the restructuring of the country into six geo-political zones. It was a political masterstroke aimed at giving every section of the country a sense of belonging. And it was one of the most important decisions reached at the conference. Another radical idea of his was that there should be one Nigerian Army with six command structures. Interestingly, he was out of the country when election into the conference was held but his people elected him in absentia.
According to the former Vice President, in advocating for six zones, he took cognisance of the skewed structure as well as the content and character of the polity.
His words: “We had three regions, the North, the East and the West. The drawbacks of that structure was that the North was bigger than the other two regions put together, which meant that, in a parliamentary system, if all the other MPs vote together, they would always produce the Prime Minister, which meant that some parts of the country would consider themselves second class citizens, if they could not aspire to the highest office in the land. That was the first pitfall. The second was that we met the structure for each region such that in each region we had a majority ethnic group and then a group of minority ethnic groups. In the North, Hausa/Fulani, then the others like Kanuri, Gwari, Nupe and so on coming down to others like Angas and Tarok.
“In the West, we have Yoruba, Edo, Urhobo, Isoko, Itsekiri and Western Ijaw. In the East, Igbo is majority and there are Ibibio, Efik the Eastern Ijaw, Ogoja area and Ogoni. So, all these minority groups felt that, by the structure of the regions, they were again second class citizens. So, it was in their interest that they should be in opposition. The Mid-West was established as the first region. The minorities in the East and North were not so lucky, so my thinking was, how do we cure these two defects? First is the overbearing size of land in the federating units and, second, the conflict between the majority and minority groups. Of course, if you cure these two then we have a stable country. So, we said that we should have in the North three zones, North West, mostly Hausa/Fulani, North East and North Central mostly minorities. South West is mostly Yoruba, the South East mostly Igbo and South-South mostly minorities again. Although we have some Igbo in Delta, you have some Yoruba in Edo and you have some Hausa in Auchi. So, with this arrangement, we now have three majority zones and three minority zones. That is three zones in the North and three zones in the South, so we cured the first defect of the first structure. That was the logic that informed the proposal.”
Ekwueme was detribalised and had profound belief in the Nigerian project. For him, all Nigerians are brothers and sisters. He believed that, while it is the role of government to promote national integration, Nigerians should embrace one another. Consider this: his first son, Pastor Goodheart of the House on the Rock, attended Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, and his wife is from Osogbo, Osun State. His second son, an architect, married an Egbira girl from Okene. His third son’s wife is from Obudu in Cross River.
Offering insightful perspective on his pan-Nigerian outlook and philosophy, Ekwueme disclosed that, when he had his first child, a girl, after nine years of marriage in 1968, in the middle of the Nigeria-Biafra war, he chose for her a godfather in his best friend in school, Rex Agbofure, an Urhobo who was on the Nigerian side while he was on the Biafran side. It did not make any difference to him that his friend was Urhobo.
“So, the schools children attend now will make a difference in their outlook on Nigeria and, with time, we will build up a Nigerian nation. We have to work very hard at it. It won’t come as a gift,” he insisted.
Journey into politics
Ekwueme went into politics after bagging a doctorate in the United Kingdom. The idea of going back to Nigeria and entering the political fray was mooted at a dinner held in his honour by Nigerians in Glassgow after his Ph.D. That was a few months after the military government lifted the ban on politics in 1978. There was excitement about the emerging political landscape. He actually wanted to be governor of Anambra State but ended up as Nigeria’s first Vice President.
Ekwueme told the story in an interview: “Those who came from Nigeria were intrigued about the change from military to civilian administration and at the dinner they all said that I should come back and contest for governorship of Anambra State. I gave two conditions. First and foremost, I had spent 24 months doing this work and I was really exhausted. During the research work and preparing for my LLB examinations, it took a lot away from me. And I shuttled back and forth to Nigeria 13 times during those two years. Although I had partners who were running the firm but still those people who gave us their commissions asked for me because they knew me. So, I had a personal responsibility to ensure that those projects were properly handled; so I travelled 13 times. I said, first, I need to rest. After that, the next condition was that I didn’t have the resources for campaign and won’t be able to rush into the campaign with that kind of energy. What they told me was ‘don’t worry. We will take care of all that;’ that I should just accept the nomination.
“I came back to Nigeria in November and by the time I came back they had formed the parties and it was four days before the primaries but they postponed it for another one week, so I came in 11 days to the primary nomination.
“And, true to the promise they made, they had mobilised people. Many of those who had indicated interest to run all stepped down and said they would support me. Anambra State, as it was then composed, had polarisation between its north, which is now Enugu State and south, which is presently Anambra, and people from Enugu State already felt they were dominated by people in what is Anambra now.
“C.C. (Christian) Onoh wanted to be governor and from my own part of the state there were three of us. We sat down and everyone stepped down, except Chuba Okadigbo. We came to the primaries and there were three of us coming from what was then Anambra and only one coming from Enugu. So, the result was a foregone conclusion.”
Having lost the gubernatorial ticket to Onoh, it was all over, or so Ekwueme thought. He did not know that providence had much more in store for him. After Alhaji Shehu Shagari was nominated as the standard-bearer of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the South East, comprising Anambra and Imo States, was required to produce his running-mate. Consequently, a committee was set up by the party to go to the two states to find out whom they thought would be able to run with Shagari. The committee went around the states but could not complete its assignment by December 27.
Ekwueme said: “What happened was that I was not mentally prepared for Vice President; what I came back to contest was the post of governor. So, on the December 21, while the committee was going round, I left the country with my family. We went to Douala in the Cameroons. Then on December 24, we moved from Douala to Nairobi. We spent Christmas in Nairobi and then came back to Nigeria on December 29, by which time they should have finished the selections but they hadn’t.
“At the Hotel Presidential, Enugu, where the state chairman of the party, Dr. Ralph Orizu, former president of the Senate, was staying, he called leaders of the party from Anambra and Imo to come to his suite. When they came, he told them that the slot for Vice President had been allocated to Anambra and Imo and that the two states should bring one person each who they would like to occupy the slot and that the two people should bring their CVs the next morning. As it turned out the state executive submitted my name. So, the next morning, we submitted our CVs to Shagari and he spent the next day in Enugu. The day after, they moved us from Anambra to Benue. When we got to the Anambra/Benue border, the Benue contingent had come to meet us; so, while we were exchanging greetings, Shagari called me aside and said he had reached agreement and that he would like to work with me. I thanked him for the honour of considering me a suitable associate for the office of the President. We went back to Lagos after the tours and they fixed a national executive council meeting and I was in London for my convocation. The treasurer of the party in Anambra State called me on the phone and said: ‘what are you doing there?’ I tried to explain to him and he said ‘jump into a plane and come back immediately.’ I said, what is happening? But he said I should just jump into a plane and come immediately. I came back and, on January 23 at the NEC, I was invited to Jibowu Street. After the NEC met, they had consultations with Alhaji Shagari and he announced to them that the party had adopted me as his running-mate.”
After his emergence as Shagari’s running mate, Ekwueme donated N1 million to the NPN and the entire country got talking. At that time, it was a stupendous amount but he was a man of means. Only a few Nigerians could match him then.
On December 31, 1983, the government of Shagari was toppled by the Gen. Muhammadu Buhari junta. Ekwueme was first the person to be arrested. The military came to his house at about 1am. Ironically, it was his friend’s son who came to arrest him. Over the years, Ekwueme had cultivated a chummy relationship with the Emir of Gwandu and it was the monarch’s son, Major Jokolo, who came to arrest the former Vice President.
For the 20 months that the Buhari junta lasted, Ekwueme was in detention, moved from one place to another. First, he was detained at Bonny Camp in Lagos. From there, he was taken to a house, first, on Temple Road. He was later moved to Kirikiri and Ikoyi prisons. While he was in Ikoyi Prison, the Buhari junta fell.
The Ibrahim Babangida administration, which took over from the Buhari government, relocated Ekwueme from Ikoyi Prisons back to house arrest. Again, he was moved from house to house for about 10 months.
Ekwueme recalled: “From there, I was taken to my home at Oko and placed under restriction. I could not go out of my local government. I was not allowed to make any statements; so, naturally, I had to comply because I signed that I would comply and I did comply. After the restriction within my local government, they expanded it and said I should not move out of my state. From my state, I was kept within Nigeria until 1989. Six years after that I was allowed to travel out of the country. That was why you didn’t hear much from me. Then Babangida came and promised to hand over after a period of time. He set up institutions, Centre for Democratic Studies, so many institutions, and created parties. What I decided was that I would not participate in any political activity. I wouldn’t be a member of any of the parties and institutions.”
Ekwueme was detained on the allegations that he was part of a corrupt administration. However, the Samson Uwaifo Tribunal set up by the Babangida junta to investigate the activities of the Shagari government gave him a clean bill of health. As a matter of fact, the tribunal declared that the former number two citizen came out of government poorer. In other words, he didn’t steal even a penny.
Although Ekwueme declined to participate in political activities afterwards, when the Abacha junta began to ride roughshod over civilians, he couldn’t take it anymore. So, he joined forces with like minds against the oppressive regime: “What we did during the Abacha era was risky and I was warned by some people. Some friends came to me and asked, ‘what do you think you are doing, challenging the military, when you have no guns?’ And as it turned out, there was 24-hour surveillance on me both here in Enugu and Awka.”
In the beginning
Considering Ekwueme’s gargantuan achievements, it would appear that he was a product of comfort. On the contrary, he was born into a poor home and he grew up in the church compound. Born in Oko, Anambra State, on October 21, 1932, his father died when he was nine years old.
With the death of his father, the condition of the family worsened. So, his aunt asked him to come and live with her, which served two purposes.
Hear him: “First, it relieved my mother of the burden of having to look after me and, second, I was able to keep my aunt company because she was living alone. But from there, to continue going to school meant a journey of five and half miles every morning on foot, which was very strenuous. But it toughened me because we used to leave in the morning as early as five O’clock and get to a stream on our way and we stopped there to have our morning bath and from there we walked uphill to the school and it was very strenuous. And you had to get to school on time because when you came late you were in trouble because it attracted corporal punishment. It was no pleasure.
“When we closed, we started trekking back five and half miles to get back to my aunt’s place. And I had to go to the stream to fetch water for us to use and come to help cook the evening meal. It was very strenuous, but it was useful. As I said, it toughened me and I was able to cope with tough situations later in life.”
Even though he was born into poverty, he decided very early in life to break the vicious circle by being dedicated to his studies. Subsequently, he got a scholarship to study at Kings College, Lagos, where he finished top of the class and also got a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States of America. Indeed, he was one the first Nigerians to receive the award.
Ekwueme’s quest for knowledge was extraordinary. He read all manner of courses and obtained degrees of various shades. In fact, he could easily sew an agbada with the certificates he possessed.
At the University of Washington, he obtained a bachelors degree in Architecture and City Planning. He also obtained his master’s degree in Urban Planning. He equally earned degrees in Sociology, History, Philosophy and Constitutional Law from the University of London. Not satisfied, he later went for a doctorate in Architecture from the University of Strathclyde, before gaining the BL (Honours) degree from the Nigerian Law School in Lagos.
In January 1958, Ekwueme Associates, Architects, Estate & Town Planners, an architectural firm, was registered. It was the first indigenous architectural company in Nigeria. His company was renowned for designing world-class structures. The firm flourished, with offices across the country.
Ekwueme was not the only star in his family. All his brothers are shining stars in their own right. His immediate younger brother, Prof. Laz Nnanyelu Ekwueme, professor of music, is the traditional ruler of Oko Kingdom. The baby of the house is Prof. Obumneme, a renowned surgeon. The first son of the family, Gaius, died at 28 years of age. With his death, the young Ekwueme assumed headship of the family. And he provided leadership in every material particular. As someone put, “no member of the Ekwueme aristocratic clan would speak of their ‘Ide’ without an open hint of awe.”
Ekwueme was actually chosen as Igwe following the death of his uncle, who occupied the throne. He declined because he was convinced that he would be more useful to the people as a player on the national stage. In other words, it was better to be a big fish in a big pond than to be big fish in a small pond.
Ekwueme, who wears the highly revered title of Ide, also logically argued that the crown would fit Laz’s head better, considering his training in arts and culture.
The saying that behind every successful man there is a woman rings true for Ekwueme. His soul mate was Dame Beatrice who was with him all the way. What was the secret? Let’s hear from Ekwueme: “May be because we started as little children. I was 12 and she was 10 when we first met. We were actually living opposite each other in Port Harcourt and, gradually, through secondary school and so on, until we got married many years after that. Maybe because of that long period that she was able to tolerate all my inadequacies and idiosyncrasies, that’s why we are together and living happily today.”
Before his transition to higher glory, Ekwueme disclosed what he would like to be remembered for. He said: “I cannot and should not blow my own trumpet. My music teacher in secondary school said you have to blow your own trumpet because if you don’t no one will blow it for you until it gets rusty. But I would like to be remembered as someone who came into public office to render service and rendered that service selflessly.”
On his vision for Nigeria, the cerebral politician remarked: “Nigeria should become a nation rather than a country. Ghana is a nation. The type of massacre of people from certain groups that takes place from time to time in Nigeria won’t happen in Ghana. You will not see people from Ashanti descending on the Fantis and the Ga and others and killing them as if they are not citizens of the same country. And when you talk to a Ghanaian, without being told, you will see that he is talking as a Ghanaian but when you talk to a Nigerian, by and large, it will not show that they are Nigerians first and foremost.”