Igbos from all walks of life had used the recent occasion of the 80th birthday of Second Republic Vice-President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, to review their standing within the Nigerian nation, writes Christopher Isiguzo
Saturday, October 20, was not just any day for many people of the Igbo extraction. For many, it literally marked the celebration of one of Nigeria’s quintessential leaders and elder statesman, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme who turned 80 years. But for many from this critical ethnic group, there was more to the occasion.
With different tongues, people had gathered at the Michael Okpara Square, Enugu State, venue of the event where they eulogised and idolised the former vice president in glowing colours. The carnival-like event which attracted cultural groups, dancers and traditional masquerades including the most revered Ijele Masquerades from different communities, local governments and states in the South-east as well as groups from Delta and Rivers States also witnessed the gathering of the crème de la crème of the Igbo kindred; their friends and well wishers from other parts of the country.
Indeed, every available space within the state capital adorned special flex-banners and posters with Ekwueme’s pictures conspicuously displayed. The venue of the event did not disappoint guests as the Senator Ken Nnamani and Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo-led planning committee took time to provide beautiful scenery.
The roll call of dignitaries is inexhaustible as they converged from the political, religious, cultural, traditional and the academia. They kept behind their differences and united under one purpose- to give honour to whom it was due.
Among the many dignitaries were President Goodluck Jonathan who was represented by a former Senate President and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, Governors Peter Obi (Anambra), Rochas Okorocha (Imo), Theodore Orji (Abia), Acting Governor, Enugu state, Sunday Onyebuchi, and Deputy Governor, Ebonyi State, David Umahi.
Others included the Director-General of Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms. Arunma Oteh, National Chairman of APGA, Victor Umeh, former Ministers like Prof. Barth Nnaji, Igwe Aja Wachukwu and Dubem Onyia; former Senate President, Ken Nnamani, former Governors Chief Jim Nwobodo, Dr Okwesilieze Nwodo, Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife and President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Amb. Ralph Uwaechue.
Also present were former Central Bank Governor, Chukwuma Soludo, Prof Joe Irukwu, Senator Anyim Ude, Prof Chinedu Nebo, Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma, and His highness, Cletus Ilomuanya, chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), South-east zone and the Anglican Bishop of Enugu, Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma, among several others.
Messages of goodwill and felicitations naturally flowed in torrents. But there was a common denominator: they all declared that Ekwueme had made invaluable sacrifice for the Igbo race and Nigeria at large and as such deserved the red-carpet birthday celebration that was put together by the South-east Governors’ Forum, led by Obi, Ohaneze Ndigbo and indeed the entire Igbo nation.
But in spite of the fanfare that characterised celebration, the Igbo leaders took time out to dissect some of the political issues that have bothered the Igbo nation of late. Prominent amongst this was their insistence on a president of Igbo extraction and the creation of additional states in the South-east to address the current imbalance in the number of states in the zone when compared with other zones.
In agreement, the Igbo leaders asked the Federal Government to forward an Executive Bill to the National Assembly for creation of additional state in the South-east. This, they said would remain the best birthday present for the octogenarian.
Anyim who stood in for the President reiterated government’s commitment to the cause of the Igbo race and assured them that his administration would continue to address all genuine demands with a view to creating a sense of belonging amongst the people.
While asking the Ndigbo to rally round the elder statesman to enable him lead the Igbo to the Promised Land, Anyim described Ekwueme as “the living symbol of Igbo race,” and urged politicians in the country to use the elaborate celebrations of his birthday to chart a new course and leadership for their people.
“As a national symbol of service, a statesman, I wish to use this opportunity to urge Nigerian politicians to emulate the virtues in Ekwueme because that is the only way to secure the future of Nigeria,” he said.
Obi said the South-east governors had decided to work together for better results, stressing that Ndigbo had not been treated fairly in the country. According to him, the Igbo remains one of the regions that believe greatly in the unity and survival of the country.
Regretting, however that adequate attention had not been paid by previous administrations to the welfare of Ndigbo for their contributions to the survival of Nigeria, the governor said the five governors had come together and agreed to resist the airlifting of pilgrims from the zone from other airports in the country, except through the Akanu Ibiam International Airport Enugu, as part of efforts to making the Federal Government attend to the myriad of problems plaguing the zone.
He challenged Igbos to continue to emulate Ekwueme, whom he said history would never forget his contributions to the unity and survival of Nigeria. He said the choice of Enugu was to honour Ekwueme for his services while still alive in the Eastern capital.
Uwaechue said the creation of additional state in the zone was a demand that should agitate the mind of every believer in the progress and unity of the country and maintained that it was one way of addressing the prevalent injustice in the country. He, therefore, called on the leadership of the country to give full support to the request and attend to it urgently.
On his part, Ezeife said the Igbo was the missing link in the scheme of things in the country and that allowing the Igbo produce the president would go a long way in developing the country.
In a speech punctuated with intermittent clapping, Okorocha disagreed with the maxim that disunity was the cause of the alleged marginalisation of Ndigbo in the scheme of things in Nigeria and stressed that unity was not the problem with Ndigbo.
“We are a great nation and only waiting for the appointed time and Nigeria is waiting on the Igbo nation. Those people who thought that unity has been responsible for the denial of what is due to us might not be right; what is simply happening to Ndigbo …does not reflect any practical realities.
“Igbo nation is carefully created by God. We are a great people and nothing is wrong with us in any manner. Unity is never our problem. We are a great nation waiting for the appointed time. Nigeria is waiting for us. We are simply passing through temptations as easterners and at the appointed time, we are going to assume that position that God has prepared for us,” he said.
Orji and Umahi agreed that anything short of an additional state for the South-east as a priority before making other considerations would ultimately be a total disservice to the people of the zone who have made worthy contributions to the unity of the nation.
Nnamani, however, said the South-east decided to accord such a huge honour on Ekwueme because he remains a rare gift to the country and the pride of Ndigbo.
“As a people, we tend to celebrate people more in death than when they were alive. While people are alive, issues of politics, business interest and some other considerations becloud people’s sense of appreciation of the contributions of individuals to the society. But today, we have, as a people, risen above such considerations to accord a statesman the respect and honour he has worked very hard to earn.
“By our action today, we are putting a lie to that misrepresentation of Ndigbo that “Igbo amaa Eze or Igbo enwee Eze” (Igbos don’t respect or have true kings). By coming out en masse today to celebrate our father, we have made bold statements that Ndigbo are united; that Ndigbo know where they are going; that Ndigbo can easily be rallied together by a good cause; that Ndigbo know what they want and how to go about actualizing them,” he noted.
Other speakers including Nwobodo, Illomuanya, Emordi, Nebo among others concluded that with the gathering for Ekwueme, Ndigbo, will never be the same again because they had defined themselves and are now more prepared to assume their place in destiny.
In his brief response before the cutting of his cake, Ekwueme expressed appreciation to all those who put the event together and assured them that he would never deviate from defending the collective interest of the people of the zone and beyond.