Babatunde Fashola writes that every way possible, Second Republic Vice-President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, has proven to be a statesman.
Hsow time flies! I received with a sense of pleasant nostalgia, the news of Chief Dr. Alex Ekwueme’s 80th birthday celebrations, and immediately began to reminisce about our recent political history and the positive role that statesmen like Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, GCON, have played in Nigeria.
I do not call him a statesman lightly or without thought. Nigeria has known a few good men and without a doubt, Dr. Alex Ekwueme is one of them. It is, therefore, always easy to acknowledge men like him. The silence of their quiet achievements is so deafening that they are impossible to ignore; thus making easy, the task of paying them tribute.
When Dr. Alex Ekwueme, GCON became the first elected Vice-President of Nigeria in 1979, he came upon us like a bolt out of the blues for many good reasons because not many of us outside his immediate constituency and professional field knew him closely.
During the 1979 to 1983 years, I saw him as a quiet backbone; a strong and supportive deputy; never in the limelight but always in the background. I admired the calm dignity with which he comported himself. He always cut the figure of a suave, sophisticated and distinguished gentleman.
It was this long-held impression that first came to mind when I received the invitation. But even this paled into insignificance when I recollected the events that in my view, catapulted Dr. Ekwueme into the realm of statesmanship.
For how else does a person show commitment and influence change but by personal example? And how else can we describe the example set by Dr. Ekwueme as Vice President when after all manner of investigation by the Panel set up by the military after they took over government in 1983, it was publicly and now famously declared that Dr. Ekwueme had left politics poorer than he was when he entered it and that to ask for more from him was to set a standard which even saints would be unable to meet. I can think of no greater honour than that which acknowledges a man’s high sense of integrity.
In a government that has continued to be defined by the depths of profligacy to which some of its members sank, it is indeed instructive that one good man stood out. A statesman indeed! But there was more.
Although, Dr. Ekwueme was unjustly detained, which itself was enough to turn the largest of hearts bitter. But our Statesman did not express bitterness even if he felt it. Instead, he accepted to serve as a delegate to the National Constitutional Conference and prescribed for us the legacy of the six geo-political zones that will be part of the collateral issue to which I will return.
We may not all agree with his prescription, but you can hardly fault the genuine concern behind it, acknowledging as it did the over-concentration of power and resources at the centre and its debilitating effect on true federalism and national unity. For one who was aspiring to lead the country, he was prepared to limit the authority of the central Government he aspired to lead.
How many men will yield power willfully even if illegally acquired? This for me was statesmanship indeed. And there was even more.
I believe that one of the marks of a true statesman is the inability to stand by and look. Dr. Ekwueme must have agreed with the truism that when good men do nothing, nothing good gets done. So rather than sit by the sidelines he formed the Group of 34 Eminent Nigerians- the G34, to persuade the then military leader not to succeed himself.
With the passage of time, it is often easy to forget just how much of an act of selflessness and bravery this was, particularly under the dangerous conditions of military rule. But occasions like this present us with the opportunity to reflect, conquer our amnesia and publicly acknowledge a statesman indeed.
G34 metamorphosed into the PDP, of which he was the founding Chairman and later Chairman of the Board of Trustees. A lot of water has passed under the bridge and there are those who would argue that Dr. Ekwueme has not always been fairly or well treated. However, you are unlikely to hear such arguments from the man himself because his brand of politics is the hallmark of the great statesman that he is.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that his Foundation; the Alex Ekwueme Foundation, has the promotion of peace, compromise and respect for democratic principles – ideals for which the founder stands for, as some of its core objectives. Against the background of the Civil War, this is worthy indeed of emulation. And this generation has much to emulate from this statesman indeed.
On behalf of my wife, Abimbola, the Government and People of Lagos State, it is indeed a privilege to salute one of our own eminent residents on his 80th birthday and join the family, friends and well-wishers to wish Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, GCON many more fruitful years of statesmanship in good health, peace and prosperity.