Abuja, Feb. 5 2018 (TNE) On February 2, 2018, Nigeria’s first civilian vice president, Dr Alex Ekwueme was buried in his home town of Oko (Anambra State) — but the legacy and sterling examples he left behind are written in bold and gold, all crying to be embraced by us, the living, and especially the political class.
The statesman who died at the ripe age of 85 has been the subject of more than a hundred stories and social posts, as Nigerians try to grapple with the reality of his departure.
Born on October 21, 1932, Ekwueme, attended St.John’s Anglican School, Ekwulobia, in Anambra State, and King’s College, Lagos. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and City Planning and a Master’s degree in Urban Planning from the University of Washington. His degrees in sociology, history, philosophy and law were from the University of London, and he bagged a PhD in Architecture from the University of Strathclyde. With all these academic laurels in his kitty, humble and modest Ekwueme still proceeded to the Nigerian Law School for the Bachelor of Law degree.
Before inching his way into the public political space, Ekwueme had established a name as an architect, and as a prolific philanthropist. At its height, his firm, Ekwueme Associates, Architects and Town Planners, Nigeria’s first indigenous architectural firm, had 16 fully-operational offices around the country. The Educational Trust Fund which he started was in response to the yearning need to satisfy the educational aspiration of the youth of his community, was already providing sponsorship for youths in his community to universities in Nigeria and abroad.
In 1979, Ekwueme became Nigeria’s first Vice President, serving as deputy to Shehu Shagari, until they were ousted in the 1983 coup. As Vice President, he did not wear his encyclopaedic knowledge on his sleeves but was loyal to the President and faithful to Nigeria.
A trial of corrupt politicians of the era revealed the quintessential Ekwueme: a tribunal not only found him innocent but confirmed that his engagement in politics left him poorer — testifying to his unimpeachable integrity and transparency in public service while in office as Vice President. Despite being unjustifiably incarcerated, he never lost hope in the country. This shows his patriotic side and his bent for perseverance.
In 1999 and 2003, Ekwueme tried unsuccessfully to clinch the presidential ticket of the PDP. He lost out on each occasion to the then candidate Olusegun Obasanjo, in what was largely seen as conspiracies against him. On both occasions, he shrugged off the experience, accepted his fate calmly and moved on with life as a principled and loyal party man!
Unlike some power hungry-politicians of today, he was never found in one party before dusk and in another at dawn – just in the hope of getting nominated as a Presidential candidate! Another lesson in patriotism and a great and rare lesson in equanimity.
His resentment for authoritarianism was as deep as his passion for democracy. He openly challenged the late Head of State, General Sani Abacha, as soon as it became clear that the dictator wanted to succeed himself in office.
As a leading figure in the then emergent opposition, Ekwueme was instrumental to the establishment of the Institute for Civil Society, the G18, and the G34, which eventually metamorphosed into the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He subsequently served as the first Chairman of the party’s Board of Trustees. A lesson in principle, tenacity, loyalty and perseverance.
Ekwueme participated in the Nigeria National Constitutional Conference in Abuja where he served as member of the Committee on the Structure and Framework of the Constitution. His fecund mind thought up the idea of the current six geopolitical zones as a just and equitable power sharing in Nigeria necessary for maintaining a stable polity.
Ekwueme never, never sang his own praise. He fought for democracy, tried to improve the lot of his people, and, without drawing attention to self, spoke against environmental degradation and pauperisation of people in oil-producing areas. His record spoke louder than his words.
To an interviewer’s question in 2013, on how he would like to be remembered, he responded: “I will like to be remembered as someone who came into public office to render service and rendered that service selflessly.” In the same interview with Rariya (The Sieve), a Hausa-language newspaper, Ekwueme said of his vision of Nigeria “My vision for Nigeria is that Nigeria should become a nation rather than a country”.
Ekwueme died on November 19, 2016, and the outpouring hasn’t stopped.
In his tribute to the man, President Muhammadu Buhari — under whose watch as a Military Head of State the former vice president was wrongly jailed — said that Ekwueme worked assiduously to improve the livelihood of many poor and underprivileged people; praised his unwavering commitment to the unity of Nigeria, and added that his regular counsel on national issues and mediations for peaceful co-existence would be sorely missed.
Until his death, he was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Nigerian Institute of Architects; a member of the Board of Directors of Canada-based Forum of Federations and a member of the Economic Community of West African States Council of Elders. In 2000, Dr Ekwueme was the leader of the team assembled by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for pre-election monitoring for the parliamentary election in Zimbabwe that year. That same year, he led the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) observer team to the Tanzanian Presidential and Parliamentary election.
He has been honoured many times including with the Order of the Republic of Guinea and Nigeria.
Ekwueme was a man of character. And although he’s gone, those who want to pick up the mantle of public service in 2019 and beyond will be wise to follow his examples: of genuine patriotism, adherence to principles, public-spiritedness, public-service mindedness and careful, reasoned and thoughtful discourse.