It’s a season of tributes for former vice president and Ide Aguata, Dr. Alex IfeanyichukwuEkwueme, a respected political leader and elder statesman. If there are Nigerians, few as they would be, who could be called true statesmen, Ekwueme would rank high among them. He prepared himself for leadership and is eminently qualified for it. He is well read and is also a bundle of integrity. He qualified as an architect but also earned university degrees in History, Sociology and Law. Talking about his integrity, I recall that after the fall of the Second Republic and the hounding of most of the political actors of the time into detention by the Buhari/Idiagbon junta and after his own detention and incarceration for close to six years, the Justice Uwaifo tribunal that tried most of the actors declared that Ekwueme left office as vice president poorer than he went into it. This is indeed a good commentary on Ekwueme’s selflessness, his integrity.
Ekwueme clocked 80 last Sunday October 21 – a true Octogenarian in October as somebody described him in a full page advertorial. Everyone has been celebrating him. Encomiums were poured on him endlessly. There were parties thrown to celebrate him, there were loads of paid advertorials to congratulate him. The celebration of his birthday had started about two weeks ago such that one could be at a loss as to when he actually clocked 80. His political friends and associates had earlier on October 16 in Abuja put together in his honour a lecture entitled “International Colloquium on Nigerian Federalism: Building on the Ekwueme Legacy,” which is a fitting title considering Ekwueme’s contributions to Nigeria’s federalism. Last Saturday, Igbo leaders, including governors of the region, gathered at the Michael Okpara Square in Enugu, the political capital of the South-east, to celebrate his 80th birthday. President Jonathan who was represented at the occasion by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation Senator Anyim Pius Anyim described him as a true national icon. He said Ekwueme is a “living personification of the highest ideals of patriotism and selfless service” whose birthday should be used to mark the beginning of new things for the country.
At 80, what are Ekwueme’s contributions to the country? One may need a whole book, not a small space like this, to do justice to his place in the Nigerian project. But for me, apart from his belief and commitment to bringing about a greater Nigeria and his integrity, which shine through in whatever pursuits he is engaged, his watch as vice president (as depicted in the verdict passed on him by the Uwaifo panel), his role in birthing G34, the group of eminent Nigerians which provided civilian opposition to the late Abacha dictatorship, and later in the founding of the PDP, each time I came across his name, what readily raced to my mind is his proposal on the restructuring of the country along the present six geo-political zones.
What are his regrets? THISDAY had an interview with him published in the Sunday edition on October 7. And one regret he talked about was putting all his efforts in founding PDP along with others and finding out that the ideals for which the party was founded had been frittered away by a few who came into the party merely to use it as a vehicle for acquiring power and who hijacked it in the process. I’m sure, however, that beyond what the PDP has been turned into today, a party lacking in discipline and internal democracy, Ekwueme has other regrets. He badly wanted to be president of this country (he sought to be president on two occasions) but some military and political elite across the North and his South-east geopolitical zone worked against him particularly in 1999. Also, the South-east is yet to mount the presidency of this country (save for the six months or so late General Ironsi spent in the saddle in 1966); so Ekwueme would wish Igbo presidency is actualized in his lifetime. This, I guess, is perhaps why Ekwueme is stridently canvassing that a Nigerian of Igbo extraction succeeds President Jonathan after his tenure.
Ekwueme was the founding chairman of PDP. He stepped down to contest the presidency and was the candidate to beat at the party’s presidential primary in Jos but some military and political leaders from the North, backed by some political elite from the South-east, had brought up General Obasanjo, thrown him into the fray. He would eventually win the party’s ticket and became president in 1999.
As many are singing Ekwueme’s praises today, including some Igbo leaders who worked against the actualization of his presidential ambition in the past, what would be a fitting tribute to his legacy, to my mind, may not only be in subjecting his proposal on Nigeria’s restructuring to serious consideration, as canvassed by some analysts, but also in ensuring that the Igbos get their due in the Nigerian project. To bring this about, there must be unity of purpose and commitment to that ideal among the leaders of that zone.