Ekwueme, Political Engineer, Takes Final Bow



Bolaji Adebiyi in Abuja

Last Sunday night, Nigeria lost another political giant, who many people have described as a principled and brilliant politician, a distinguished elder statesman and a man of peace.

Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, better known as Alex Ekwueme, died in a London clinic, aged 85. Though he passed on at a ripe age, he probably would have lived longer had the nation’s health system been more efficient and capable of dealing with his essentially rudimentary ailment.

Suffering from a chest infection, the first elected Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria collapsed at his Enugu residence at the tail end of last month and had to be rushed to a nearby neurosurgery hospital, where he slipped into a coma. The best the doctors could do was to stabilise him. They could not cure him. He had to be ferried abroad in an air ambulance made possible through the intervention of President Muhammadu Buhari. He could not make it back, joining the elongating list of Nigerian statesmen who have died abroad from minor ailments.

Yet at his ripe age, Ekwueme would have loved to pass on peacefully at home, in a country that he had served so diligently and patriotically. He had crept into the political consciousness of Nigerians in 1979 when he emerged as the running mate to the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) presidential candidate, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, in that year’s general election that ended 13 years of military rule in the country. As vice-president, he was known to have worked harmoniously with his boss, helping to smoothen the reintegration of the South-east into national politics as he skillfully negotiated the return of erstwhile Biafran leader, Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, from exile.

Many political analysts would recognise that singular move, which saw Ojukwu enter the political fray on the side of the ruling NPN against his kinsman, the Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe-led Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) that was dominant in the South-east, was the most concrete evidence that was needed by his Igbo ethnic bloc to believe that their political rehabilitation and reintegration in Nigeria was indeed possible.

Ekwueme’s national integrationist politics and bridge building fervour would become more apparent after the military ended democratic rule in 1983 and installed a dictatorship that circumscribed the basic freedoms of Nigerians. Hauled into jail along with a horde of allegedly corrupt politicians of the Second Republic, his military traducers headed by then Major-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari had no option than to release him, having found nothing incriminating against him even when he was number two in the hierarchy of a leadership reputed more for its gross financial misdemeanour.

His high moral ground was perhaps what he needed to stand tall among his peers in the struggle for the restoration of democracy in the 1990s as politicians and civil society groups stood up to the military rulers, whose sojourn in power had been shown to be no less self-serving than their civilian counterparts that they shoved out of power more than a decade earlier. During that struggle, Ekwueme made outstanding contributions that have become his significant legacy.

At the 1995 General Sani Abacha National Constitutional Conference (NCC) in Abuja, the former vice-president exhibited a rare political brilliance, proposing a power-sharing arrangement that sought to engender equity and justice in power relations in the country. Delineating the country into six geo-political zones, Ekwueme proposed that presidential power should rotate among the zones. His proposal, which was accepted by the conference, ameliorated the fears of domination in the South by the North as it not only balanced the federation but also provided an equitable basis for ascension to power. Although the proposal never made it into the subsequent constitutions, it remains till date, the basis for power sharing among the various zones in the country.

Meanwhile, as the military became more autocratic and repressive in the face of mounting opposition to their rule by Nigerians, it was Ekwueme that rallied the critical political stakeholders massed in the G-34 that provided the political leadership for the final civilian rebellion. The group would later metamorphose into the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which took the reins of government from the military and sustained democracy for 16 unbroken years before it was ousted from power two years ago. In these two ways, Ekwueme merited the accolades of a founding father of Nigeria’s nascent democracy, a principled politician and an elder statesman with an uncommon integrity.

Yet, he could not have been otherwise given his rich educational background that most probably moulded his penchant for service. Clearly one of the most educated Nigerian political leaders, Ekwueme was educated at the King’s College, Lagos, from where he went to the University of Washington to study Architecture and City Planning. With a Fulbright scholarship in his pocket, he earned a Bachelors of Science degree. He also took a Masters degree in Urban Planning and later obtained a PhD in Architecture from the University of Strathclyde. A compulsive knowledge seeker, the elder statesman also obtained degrees in Sociology, History, Philosophy and Law from the University of London. He was also a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

Before he came into politics, he had worked and done business. An illustrious architect, he began his professional career as an Assistant Architect with a Seattle-based firm, Leo A. Daly and Associates and later worked with a London-based firm, Nickson and Partners. Returning to Nigeria, he worked briefly with ESSO West Africa, Lagos where he was in charge of the Construction and Maintenance department. He founded his own company, Ekwueme Associates, a firm of Architects and Town Planners. It was the first indigenous architectural firm in the country, which in little time grew its branches to about 12.

His firm and businesses gave him wealth, which he lavishly deployed in his community, helping the needy. His Education Trust Fund helped train many children up to university level. For his philanthropy, his people made him the Ide of the Oko Kingdom in Anambra State, where his younger brother, Lazarus, also a man of letters and artist, is the traditional ruler. He was also honoured by the Council of Traditional Rulers in the old Aguata as the Ide of Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State comprising 44 towns.
Ekwueme was also honoured with the Order of the Republic of Guinea and Nigeria, as well as Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), the nation’s second highest national honour.

His services transcended Nigeria. He led the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union (AU), observer team to the Tanzanian presidential and parliamentary election in 2000 and was the co-leader of the 28-member NDI/Carter Centre sponsored observer team to the Liberian presidential run-off election in 2005. He was also a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Council of Elders as well as the leader of the team assembled by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for pre-election monitoring for the parliamentary election in Zimbabwe in 2000.
Ekwueme was married to Beatrice on December 19, 1959, who had beautiful children for him.