Ekwueme: A Patriot is Gone!

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Former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, who passed on last week, was a patriot and a distinguished statesman, writes Shola Oyeyipo

Many actors have been well captured for either the negative or the positive roles they played in Nigeria’s political trajectory. Former vice-president, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, is one Nigerian, who maintained and retained his place as a worthy patriot till he breathed his last.

This reputation is not only because he served as the fifth vice-president of Nigeria, but because he was truly a nationalist and patriot, both well embedded in his gentlemanly demeanor.

Between October 1, 1979 and December 31, 1983 along with former president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the Oko, Orumba North local government area of Anambra State-born politician earned a place of pride in national development by his dispassionate contributions and nationalist ideologies.

That much was reflected by the preponderance of eulogies from well-meaning Nigerians – an
attestation to his patriotic contributions to national unity, development and a successful private and business life.

Shortly after the news of his death broke on November 19, 2017, having marked his 85 birthday earlier in October, former presidents Shehu Shagari and Olusegun Obasanjo, and the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari; Senate President Bukola Saraki; Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara; former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and a very long list of other prominent persons had impressive things to say about the late octogenarian and national leader.

President Buhari, in his condolence letter to the family tagged the late Ekwueme as someone, who worked assiduously to improve the livelihood of many poor and underprivileged people through the Alex Ekwueme Foundation, saying he served his country and humanity.

To Obasanjo, Ekwueme “devoted his life to the service of his fatherland,” while Atiku said “Ekwueme was a man of character and never faltered in his belief in Nigeria.”

Former deputy national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Bode George, described Ekwueme as an “outstanding statesman, who lived to see Nigeria develop,” adding that “The sudden passage of Dr Alex Ekweme is indeed a very painful national loss. The former vice president was a genuine patriot, an outstanding statesman whose total fixity was predicated on the growth and the development of the Nigerian state.”

Summarily, every commentator underscored the sacrifices he made in helping to lay the foundation for sustainable democracy in Nigeria and how he did so selflessly. He was a gentleman, a thoroughbred, civil, humble but yet radiated a powerful intellect and a scholarly presence, stripped of arrogance.

Aside the roles he played as vice-president, Ekwueme was a respectable Nigerian leader with his participation in birthing the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in August 1998 through his membership of numerous groups and organisations, including the groups known as G-18 and G-34. They came up with a party with broad political base and ideology that supports economic deregulation, human rights, and greater funding for health care and education, among other goals.

The G34 which had other prominent Nigerians as members eventually became what is today known as the PDP and they worked hand-in-hand in the interest of the country. And despite the unfair treatment meted to him by the party, especially what transpired during the party’s presidential primary before the 1999 general elections, which he was almost going to win until the eleventh hour, he remained a consistent member of PDP.

Ekwueme mobilised the group of 34 eminent Nigerians, who risked their lives to stand up against General Sani Abacha’s military junta in Nigeria and became the founding chairman of the ruling party in Nigeria and was the first Chairman of the party’s Board of Trustees.

In fact, while many members of the G34 were changing from one party to another, Ekwueme remained in the PDP and this earned him huge respect and admiration in the party, hence he was always the first to come to mind whenever the need to resolve a serious crisis in the party arose. He had intervened in many of such situations in the party and always in national interest.

He would be remembered for his famous proposals at the national constitutional conference for a just and equitable power sharing in Nigeria, which gave birth to the six geopolitical zones that are now accepted as necessary for maintaining a stable Nigerian polity.

He was a die-hard adherent of the zoning principle and in fact, during a meeting where Alhaji Lawal Kaita suggested that he should be the presidential candidate of the PDP, Ekwueme said in an interview that, “I said no, that that wasn’t the way it should be and that if we had set out to set up democratic norms, we should do things differently and that we should be different from the military we were trying to oust.

“I said we should let people conclude that all we did at the constitutional conference, to the all-politicians summit, which I chaired, to the Institute of Civil Society, which I chaired, the G-34, which I chaired and the party, which I was then chairing was merely calculated to make me presidential candidate by fiat without going through any democratic process.

“So, I didn’t want a precedent to be set whereby democratic ethos would not be followed in the party and that was why I didn’t want to encourage that decision at that occasion. It wasn’t more a matter of humility but a matter of being a stickler for democracy.”

He revealed that during his 20 months incarceration along with former governor of Ogun State, Chief Bisi Onabajo, he told him that his interest was to bring about a format that would guarantee stability for the country and not one that would throw the country into wanton take-over by the army.

For those close to the late elder statesman, it was obvious he was a meticulous man, who wanted to avoid the blemishes that characterised politics in this clime, even though there were many issues that really agitated his mind.

For instance, the allegation by President Buhari that he was the mastermind of some atrocities in the Shagari government didn’t go down well with him.

Listen to him: “The worst one was a press statement made by General Muhammadu Buhari, then Head of State, that the President didn’t really know so much about what was happening that it was the vice president who was in charge of petroleum, who was in charge of Abuja.

“But of course the president was the minister of petroleum then and he had a minister for Abuja. I was the only person, who could not award a contract during the Second Republic. But Buhari came out to say that I was in charge of Abuja and I was in charge of petroleum and that they had all the facts and that whenever they were ready to present the facts to me, there would be no way I could get out of it.

“Buhari was my accuser, he was the judge and he had concluded that there was no way I could get out of it. So, I was put away for 20 months, waited for those 20 months, for them to present the facts or to come and question me – for 20 months. They did not come and ask me any question at all until after 20 months. And the facts that they said they had, nothing was brought to my attention – for 20 months.

“It is half true. First, I did not chair any tenders board. In fact, I was the only member of cabinet, who could not award any contract. The permanent secretaries, tender’s board, directors, could award contracts and these had limits but as vice president, I did not have powers to award any contract and anything beyond those limits will have to come to the Federal Executive Council (FEC).”

Despite this, he remained a firm believer in Nigeria and supported successive administrations and that much did President Buhari confirm on Monday in his condolences to Nigerians, and to the government and people of Anambra State, following the news of his passing.

In a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, Buhari said the deceased’s regular counsel on national issues and mediations for peaceful co-existence would be sorely missed.
“The president affirms that Dr Ekwueme’s unwavering commitment to the unity of Nigeria had been a major encouragement to many governments, recalling the personal sacrifices he made in helping to lay the foundation for sustainable democracy in Nigeria.”

Until his death, like most other Nigerians, Ekwueme was an advocate of a restructured Nigeria. He held that there was need for the country to return to what was inherited from the founding fathers, arguing that what Nigeria negotiated and agreed with colonial masters before independence was a regional government, where each has a constitution, which was annexed to the Republican Constitution of 1963.

The republican constitution, he further noted, provided for 50 per cent revenue sharing formula for the regions, 30 per cent to a distributable pool, and 20 per cent to the centre. He advocated the immediate implementation of the 2014 National Conference report.

He is well loved by his people because before he gained national and international limelight as the vice-president, he was actively involved in the socio-economic development of his community. He was renowned as a prolific philanthropist, public servant, and a man of peace.

There is no doubt Nigeria has lost one of the few men of integrity and outstanding principle of his generation. It is unfortunate that Nigeria failed as a nation to fully take advantage of the knowledge, passion, wisdom and guidance of great men as Dr. Ekwueme to develop the country. Indeed, a patriot is gone!