Tribute to Dr. Alex Ekwueme
By Pat Utomi
Hypocrisy may be the hallmark of political culture in Nigeria. It was evident when Chief Obafemi Awolowo was called to Higher Realm, as we lamented the “greatest President we never had”. With Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, gentleman, intellectual and great champion of fairness and balance in public life, it is even more sad watching the rush to praise on his demise.
The rush of words of praise, plenty by those who toiled to prevent Nigeria from profiting from his leadership skills and installation of decency in public life, make’s those not challenged with memory loss wonder about the essence of character in Nigeria. Do we truly look at ourselves?
I had the privilege of knowing the great man fairly well in good and in challenged times and learnt to gauge his stoic but sanguine personal disposition. His place as boss, mentor in my own run tells the story of who he was. As many very powerful engaged in frenzied lobbying for position when he was Vice-President he asked I be invited to his home. A group of young Ph.ds was being evidently pooled for his office, but he wanted my position to come from the President. He had made the recommendation to President Shagari without my having any clue such a thing was in the offing. With a casualness that still amazes me to this day he told me the President had approved for me to replace Professor Odenigwe. I was not quite sure how to respond to that, so I asked if I could think about it. He gave me liberty to go and do so. A matter that shocked my friends when I asked their view of the offer. One asked that I immediately get in his car to go back and say I had finished thinking about it and had reached an affirmative conclusion.
The baptism into public life really dawned on me when President Shagari and Dr. Ekweme went to Enugu to condole the people after the F28 plane crash in December 1983. From there I flew with him and Alhaji Umaru Dikko to Ibadan where the NPN was having a convention. Arriving the venue, Dr. Ekwueme said a few words that sounded like ejaculatory prayer, like a War Lord entering the theatre of altercation, and handed me his Ideh of Aguata traditional Chieftaincy Fan of office. I was overcome by the symbolism of that moment. As a 27 year old, not related in any way, and picked in perception of merit, it was not lost on me that the noble man standing before me was making a bet on the future and staking plenty on me. I was determined there, never to let him down. But it would not be long before things changed.
Like the military wing of the ZANU PF moved to stop Robert Mugabe so that the presumption of Grace Mugabe would be stopped, the Military wing of the NPN moved to stop Shagari, primarily so that Alex Ekwueme would not become president in 1987.
It is a factual counter point to imagine where Nigeria would be today had they not moved. But the facts continue to be more evident by the day. The class of capture which has exercised state capture in Nigeria since 1966, mortally afraid that a strong-willed Thinking Man in power could interfere with their strangle hold on the Nigerian State could not beer to see Ekwueme as president in the same way as they have tried to stop MKO Abiola and Atiku Abubakar, just as they did Chief Obafemi Awolowo. But they were not alone. The Governors of the South East did more to sabotage Nigeria’s future by conniving to rob Ekwueme a place leading the country when Gen Obasanjo could have been persuaded to live his dream of being the next Mandela by leaving in 2003. Former Delta State Governor James Ibori would prove to be a person of courage in making the point that those shedding tears that Ekwueme did not get to offer Nigeria the direction he was capable of giving, were being hypocritical because they betrayed him when the chance came.
It is not my place to write the history of what Nigeria could have been had these groups not prevented the possible transforming leaders that have come Nigeria’s way from reaching office. But I thought of it a lot more the very last time Dr. Ekwueme and I met, barely a month before he passed on. It was in Enugu at the Ikenga awards. I had given a lecture on the evolution of the Nigeria Political Economy and the Imperative of Restructuring.
As I came down from the podium Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife kept repeating excitedly, my God, that is deep. Jimi Agbaje nicely assured him that “Pat is always deep”. But Dr. Ekwueme just kept up this smile of satisfaction. He seemed to say I did not make a mistake 35 years ago. The patronly figure he was then, he remained.
But I remembered also the season of detention in the hands of many who pay warm tribute to him today. From prison he smuggled notes that I carried off to designated people around the world and those I saved for my Memoirs.
It has been a huge honor and privilege to have had the privilege of meeting and working with a true giant among men who carried himself so simply he often made nonsense, by his actions, my goal of desiring to live a simple life. When he arrived Nike Lake Resort Hotel in Enugu for what would be our final meeting just last month, he came in a Toyota Corolla. It reminded me of the remarks of a famous Architect who as a young Architect arrived London only to find that a more accomplished senior colleague had flown in the economy cabin of the same Aircraft.
How thankful I am we shared much in common by way of values. When a few years ago one of the Awolowos said to me, I see this people trying to stop you the way they tried to do to my father, I thought to myself what a great honour to walk in the path of the Awolowos and Ekwuemes. But when will the generation Y challenge those who ensured their future would be deprived of the benefits that would have come from leaders like Chief Awolowo, Dr. Alex Ekwueme and Chief MKO Abiola. Quite a tragic history.
Yes I remember the time of laughter, like the great man’s determination to catch one mosquito buzzing every ear in the room when you thought he was fully focused on an idea you had just espoused; or Mrs. Omobola Onajide carpeting a scoundrel and him sticking his fingers in his ears to hear no evil and see no evil. But above all he was a man not obsessed with who he was; determined but gentle and reassuring father figure not in the greatest hurry to impose his will but – unwavering once he was convinced he was right.
He questioned the premise of your supposition without letting you fill threatened and gave you that quiet smile when he saw you had a winner. I surely will miss being at the feet of this sage.
• Patrick Okedinachi Utomi, a Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of CVL and was Special Assistant to the President in 1983.