Chief Johny Ucheaga is a lawyer and he is the Secretary, Nigerian Police Equipment Foundation. As a political associate of former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme who passed on recently, the Uturu, Abia State born politician in this interview gives an insight into how Ekwueme became a running mate to former President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari after he lost the Anambra State governorship primary.
How will you describe the late Ekwueme?
He was not a quintessential politician but more of a statesman, which is why he never struggled to become Vice President. He only made it through recommendation which marked the end of Nigerian civil war. The Nigerian President of Igbo extraction has remained a mirage because Ekwueme placed Nigeria above his political ambition. Nigerians owe gratitude to Ekwueme for his effort towards the enthronement of democracy in the country. He is a true Nigerian and a worthy son of Igbo who helped developmental stride in the south-east. Ekwueme stood and died for what he believed in and that is one indivisible Nigeria.
You were close to him, what would you say were his unfulfilled political dream?
Dr. Alex Ekwueme was not a quintessential politician as I said earlier; he was more of a statesman than a businessman. I knew him way back in 1978. He had just shown his philanthropic side by building a market for his people, in Oko in the old Aguata now Orumba South Local Government Area of Anambra State and a school which is today, Federal Polytechnic, Oko. It was formerly College of Advanced Studies for A-Level General Certificate of Education (GCE). At a time the state government build an Advanced Teachers’ Training College right inside the school and later the state government decided make it a polytechnic. My wife attended Oko polytechnic. Ekwueme political journey started when his people called on him to contest for the governorship of the state. He joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and contested the party governorship primary against the frontrunner, Chief C.C. Onoh who was very close to me too and Dr. Chuba Okadigbo.
So, the three of them contested the primary in 1979 and Onoh won. Ekwueme left for the United Kingdom where he lived but apparently he brought large sum of money he would have used to finance his governorship election and fixed it in the Co-Operative and Trade Bank. Later when former President Shehu Shagari emerged the presidential flag bearer of NPN, the position of Vice President was zoned to South-East caucus because they had caucuses then.
One of the frontrunners for the position was Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe and the south-east caucus met and came up with the condition that whoever wants to assume the position must be a graduate, must be a successful man and must give the presidential Campaign Organisation N1million and the person must also give South-East caucus N1million. There were other contenders but it fell on Mbadiwe because he was very wealthy and also his brother. He was an orator, astute politician with a lot of university certificates. But Shagari said Mbadiwe was his senior and he had worked with him before under the former Prime Minister, Sir. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He said Mbadiwe was older than him and preferred somebody younger. Shagari wanted somebody within the age bracket of 40 as his running mate. So, that knocked off Mbadiwe from the contest. There were many businessmen and women who had money but had no certificate and those who had certificate had no such amount to give. Most of those who had the requirements were in the Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP), the party of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. It was at this stage somebody told the treasurer of NPN and Chairman of Co-operative and Trade Bank, Chief M.M. Ugochukwu (Abiliki of Umunze), popularly called, Ugo foam that Ekwueme had huge sum of money in the bank. The problem was who was going to convince Ekwueme to become Shagari’s running mate having contested for the governorship primary and lost. He was a successful architect doing good jobs across the world as the founder of Ekwueme and Associate. Eventually, he was drafted in and that was how he became Shagari’s running mate.
So how did he emerge Shagari’s running mate?
He had no political adversary, he knows how to keep his mouth shut and his loyalty was never in doubt. The problem was who was going to convince him to be Shagari’s running mate and those who could have done that were those he had contested against at the primary. As far as the politics of old Anambra State was concerned, Onoh was strong. In fact, South-East caucus meeting was held in Onoh’s house in Enugu. So, a committee was set up that went to the UK and met with Ekwueme. They pleaded with him to come and become the Vice President and he agreed on the condition that not when he comes back the contrary would be the case but they assured him that it won’t be so. He came back and signed the necessary documents and gave the caucus and the Presidential Campaign Organisation N1million each. He refrained from lifting mouth to say anything wrong against his political opponents or anybody. His campaign speeches were issue driving and did not engaged in campaign of calumny as is the case today with most of our politicians.
Then our great leader, Chief Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu came back from exile and formed Ikemba Front and the group’s actions were negative at a point but Ekwueme kept quite. So, at the end of the election, NPP could not make enough votes because you must score 25 percent of all votes cast in 2/3 of the 19 states of the country. That is about 13 states. So, Zik and Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) could not get the required number of votes. But NPN got the required number of votes.
Ekwueme tried severally to become President but lost twice at the primary stage, as his associate, would you say he died unfulfilled?
I repeat, Ekwueme was not a quintessential politician. I took time to tell you how he became Vice President. He didn’t become Vice President by struggle but by hard work, professionalism and philanthropy. Also, when you take a look at his humble beginning politically, you will agree with me that Ekwueme never struggled to become whatever he became in life. Eventually the person who defeated Ekwueme at the primary, that is Onoh did not emerged governor instead Jim Nwobobodo of NPP emerged governor. And he left thinking it was over for him and somebody who was related to him who just knew that Ekwueme had a savings unprofessionally told the caucus and the caucus sent a delegation to go and bring him. So, Ekwueme was divinely ordained to be Vice President when he did.
What would Igbo remember Ekwueme for?
The very first flyover in the south-east, that short bridge at Upper Iweaka was done during his time. He made sure the Enugu/Onitsha Expressway was completed. He made sure there was a road from Oba to Okigwe that used to take us 45minutes which now takes us 3hours was done. You don’t see Ekwueme take the credit of these achievements rather other people were the ones talking trying to take the glory. When he assumed office many people were saying show us what he did but quietly he prevailed on the federal government to adopt institutions such as the Federal polytechnic, Afikpo, it was not a federal institution before but that of a state. The Federal Medical Centre in Umuahia was Queen Elizabeth Hospital owned by the old Imo State and Federal Polytechnic, Oko which are now federal institutions.
But he contested Presidential primaries twice and lost. Why?
People asked him to contest that was the G7 that became G14 and finally G34. They went to Chief Bola Ige and asked him to become their chairman but he asked them to go to Ekwueme and tell him to become the chairman. That was how Ekwueme became the Chairman of G34 and he probably didn’t know or he later knew what I’m telling you now. He didn’t go out to ask for the position rather they came to him. Ordinarily, there were a lot of our people who were ready to support him especially those who have the resources around him. But Bola Ige wanted him to be the chairman so he (Ige) could be President. But as a politician he wouldn’t tell Ekwueme that. Ige wants to become the president so that a northerner would become the Vice President.
Ekwueme is one man who matches his words with action, so, when people began to see and appreciate his style of leadership they said ‘what are we looking for’, he could be the President. But when the time for presidency came, the game and the beat for presidency changed as some people were still dancing the same old beat. The presidency was compensatory to the south-west who lost an election that it won in the past. So, the real people in contention were Chief Olu Falae, Bola Ige and former President, Olusegun Obasanjo.
When that game changed, I went and briefed Ekwueme that the game had changed. I didn’t go on my own but my leaders asked me to go and I explained everything to him. He also came and met with the eventual president, Obasanjo and they spoke at length. It was tough for him initially but gradually he found out that I was forthright.
By the time we were going to Jos for the convention, Ekwueme came one month to the convention. He was leading but when the presidential beat started for real, he took his final decision when he knew we were right. We were both in the same hotel, Hilton Abuja from where we went to Jos. We were told that before they left for the convention he called his major sponsors and his group and told them that whatever the outcome of the convention was, they should accept it. That was what saved this Republic. Ekwueme was a generous man because a week to the primaries he was still the man to beat.