From the outset, I must declare my interest. I was not only a great admirer of the late former Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme (October 21, 1932 – November 19, 2017), I was also fortunate to be his devoted friend. To be associated with a man of such gravitas, learning and consequence was a tremendous honour. In fact, I estimate his friendship as an inexpressible pleasure and consolation for more than thirty years. Those fortunate to be close to Dr. Ekwueme would testify that he was a man possessed of undisputed, if quiet, brilliance. He was so at ease in his wealth of wisdom and rare knowledge that he was absolutely approachable, even self-effacing. A stubborn optimist and warm personality, he was deeply jovial and radiated a certain fellowship and bonhomie.
Never a man of rough edges or surly habits, Dr. Ekwueme held himself to such high ethical standards that he was faithful to his word and commitments, whether that commitment was made to his social peer or a subordinate. His signature traits included an infectious humility and unstinting clarity of expression.
Over the years of interacting with him, learning admirable lessons from him, I often reflected on the ease with which he turned friendship into a veritable gift. He was constant in his solicitude for his friends’ well being. Thanks in a large part to him, I came to realize the sheer beauty of friendship, often a relationship between two persons who do not share genes, yet have interests that intersect and entwine. Indeed, he taught me that few things in life are more prized than friendship, loyalty, love, and service. Epitomizing these qualities, he loved life completely and lived it intensely. His protean nature was revealed through his eclectic relationship with music. He loved Mozart, Bach and local music.
When Dr. Ekwueme made a promise, he kept it. He did so not only because he understood the meaning of responsibility, but also because he was a man of extraordinary ethical capital. He spent much of his life working selflessly to improve the lot of those dealt a harsh hand by life or circumstances. He carried out that impressive work through the Alex Ekwueme Foundation. I was elated when he invited me to serve as a director of the foundation. In that role I saw first hand the meaning and majesty of “quiet” philanthropy – the transformation of other people’s lives without drawing attention to oneself as the giver. Dr. Ekwueme was particularly sensitive to the pain of people consigned to the margins of society. His ability to understand the nature and scope of suffering, and to empathize with the downtrodden, was some of his most memorable attributes. Those qualities are bound to endure, reminding those who knew him – as well as those who will come to know about him – that he lived a life that mattered, a life that was significant, and a life that recognized that true greatness lay in striving to make a difference in his society.
Every enlightened person should hope to leave a mark, to try their best to make the world slightly better than they found it. Dr. Ekwueme fulfilled that ambition many times over. His legacy in politics, an arena where egos often trump dedication to service, is peerless. If democracy is to function, a high percentage of those who hold public office must be honest, honourable and courageous people. Their office and service should enrich society and advance its interest rather than enriching themselves. He sought to address injustice and to bring his vast intellectual acumen and ethical funds to bear on governance.
In 2002, I had the privilege of being the chief launcher at the presentation of his memoir titled From State House to Kirikiri. On the occasion, I enthusiastically declared, “unlike many, he did not go into politics in order to rig for himself an easy life. Instead, he set out to use the ameliorative powers of government to make a difference”. Those words bear echoing, for Dr. Ekwueme was an advertisement for the kind of noble-minded, visionary, and focused leader that our country sorely needs.
Many men and women aspire to greatness, yet few ever succeed in capturing the imagination and spirit of their times. The ones who do become truly unforgettable, and they achieve a kind of immortality. I have no doubt that Dr. Ekwueme has earned his place among the small pantheon of those who, despite huge odds, challenged their fellows not to settle for a mediocre nation, but to imagine and work towards a loftier one.
While it may be too soon to undertake a full assessment of Dr. Ekwueme’s legacy, it is not hasty but altogether proper to underscore the fact that the former VP has been widely lauded, in Nigeria and beyond, by numerous newspaper editorials as well as his colleagues in architecture, business, politics and law. The unanimity of the laudatory verdict offers us a shape of the judgement that history is bound to render.
May His Excellency, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, GCON, rest in peace.
• Adimora, writes from Lagos