On Sunday 12, November 2017, weeks after turning 85, politician and elder statesman, Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, GCON was transferred from Memfys Hospital of Neurosurgery, to the Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu state, from where he was ferried via air ambulance to the United Kingdom for continued medical care.
Ekwueme, former vice president of the federal republic had collapsed in his Enugu home and subsequently slipped into a coma. He was managed in Enugu for a while but as his condition failed to improve, the decision was made to seek medical assistance abroad.
His illness was played for political gain by the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, as well as the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party, as the presidency and the Ekwueme family traded barbs and shared updates on the financial implications of his hospital stay.
A week after the trip to the United Kingdom, the Ekwueme family, in a statement signed by Igwe Laz Ekwueme, traditional ruler of Oko community and younger brother to Alex, announced his death. No immediate cause of death was stated.
A grand old man of politics and stalwart of the South Eastern region, especially, Anambra state where he hails from, Ekwueme remained in the public eye decades after his stay in the presidency was interrupted by a military coup that brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power in 1983.
After two failed attempts to contest for the presidency under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which he helped found, and slowed considerably by advancing age, Ekwueme retreated to the East where he remained a regional force, both within the PDP- which he never left, despite suffering a series of betrayals- and amongst opposition figures.
He turned down an offer to be the first Senate President of the fourth republic, and remained a decorative and on occasion, functional leader of Igboland. Ekwueme retained much of his dignity and goodwill and his blessings were constantly sought by politicians aspiring to one office or the other.
During the run up to the 2017 Anambra state guber polls, Ekwueme was able to prove his influence within party circles when his first daughter, Alexandria Chidi Onyemelukwe was named running mate to the PDP’s flagbearer, Mr Oseloka Obaze. The gamble did not quite pay off as Obaze (and the PDP) lost to incumbent governor, Willie Obiano. While the PDP remained in the power at the center, Ekwueme had to make do with nominating candidates for political appointments that were zoned to his home state.
Ide of Oko
Born in Uga, about eleven miles east of Oko where he hails from- Ekwueme’s traditional title is Ide of Oko- on 21, October 1932 to a missionary father and a school teacher mother, the Ekwueme family was quite mobile as his father had to constantly move to different towns to help set up new parishes of the Anglican Church. When Alex was ten years old, his father passed, leaving care of four young boys to his mother. She had twin daughters shortly after.
Naturally academically gifted, Alex struggled to overcome the financial challenges of living with a widowed mother. An aunt offered to act as caregiver until he secured a scholarship to Kings College, Lagos.
After secondary school, Ekwueme was one of the first beneficiaries of a Fulbright scholarship that took him through Universities in England, to the University of Washington. He graduated with numerous Bachelor’s degrees- in Architecture and Urban Planning, History, Philosophy and Constitutional Law (University of London,) Sociology and Law. He would eventually obtain a master’s degree in Urban Planning (London). He also holds a PhD in architecture from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland.
In between this time, Ekwueme returned home to work for Standard Oil, before setting up his private practice. Ekwueme Associates Estate and Town, Lagos, registered in 1958, is billed as the first private architectural firm in Nigeria. During the civil war, Ekwueme served as the Head of Planning of the Biafran Airports Board, and is credited with the construction of the Uli and Uga air strips, utilized at the time, by the Biafran government.
Shortly after obtaining his PhD in 1978, the country was still buzzing with the excitement of rebuilding after the war and accomplished Nigerians in the diaspora like Ekwueme were being courted to return home to join the development process, through politics of course.
Ekwueme was invited to contest for the governorship of old Anambra state under the banner of the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPN). Ekwueme was attracted to the NPN because the party presented a national outreach, as opposed to the regional bent of the other parties. He lost the party’s ticket to CC Onoh, a more familiar politician, and was nominated by the party to serve as running mate to Shehu Shagari who had secured the party’s ticket to contest the presidential elections.
The NPN emerged victorious and Ekwueme became the first elected vice president of the federal republic of Nigeria. He was perceived as the technical head of the government and oversaw the government’s policy focus on low cost housing, industries and agriculture. He was able to make use of his clout to set up the Anambra state polytechnic in his hometown.
Two years later, the Shagari administration was grappling with the oil bust of 1981 that lead to a deterioration in national finances, corruption and widespread hardship. Shagari and Ekwueme were elected for a second term in office amidst allegations of electoral malpractice. By the time General Buhari and his military junta seized power shortly after in 1983, not a few Nigerians were relieved.
Blamed by the Buhari regime for the follies of the Shagari administration, Ekwueme was the highest ranking government official to be arrested and was detained in both Kirikiri and Ikoyi prisons for the entire 20 months of the Buhari regime. He was discharged and acquitted by the Justice Samson Uwaifo panel, set up by General Ibrahim Babangida, who had overthrown Buhari in yet another palace coup. Ekwueme was discharged with the following words of recommendation, “Dr. Ekwueme left office poorer than he was when he entered it, and to ask more from him was to set a standard which even saints could not meet.”
The second coming
Placed on several forms of house arrest and movement restrictions, Alex Ekwueme could not travel out of the country until 1995, and thus, largely stayed away from politics for bulk of the Babangida regime. The 1993 elections, largely adjudged to be free and fair, were unjustly annulled and the Ernest Shonekan led interim structure almost created a constitutional crisis.
Ekwueme found his voice once again, calling a press conference advocating for a new constitution legitimizing MKO Abiola’s presidency. He also proposed that a vice president be appointed from each geopolitical zone. He was ignored.
General Sani Abacha easily swept Shonekan aside and seeking legitimacy for his government, Abacha nominated Ekwueme into his new constitutional conference, a body set up with a mandate to come up with a new national constitution.
Ekwueme took on this new assignment with a zeal uncommon in politicians without an angle to sell, famously championing proposals to restructure Nigeria politically while creating a more equitable system. His most enduring legacy was the advancement of the six geographical zone structure, still in effect today. Other submissions from Ekwueme include his calls for a rotational presidency between the zones, plus a single five year term.
In a prescient move, proposed to allay the fears of any zone losing power accidentally, Ekwueme suggested that each zone produce a vice-president, and in the event that the sitting president has to leave office — by impeachment, resignation or death — such a person would be replaced by the vice-president from the same zone. He also called for decentralization of the military as a way to avoid further coup plots but was met with furious blowback considering his ethnic origins.
Abacha ultimately showed himself to be ruthless in his mad quest for power and Ekwueme took up the challenge of resisting, building alliances with both civil society and political players interested in taking the country back from the military. He called a meeting in Yaba attended by 34 like-minded high profile citizens and fired off the now famous G34 memorandum, which was presented to Abacha and kept the military dictator on his toes.
The G-34 consisting of elders like Jerry Gana and Sule Lamido essentially midwifed the People’s Democratic Party which was founded in 1998 ahead of the general elections ushering in the fourth republic. Ekwueme was the first chairman of the PDP but stepped down on account of his personal ambition. He wanted to be president.
Ekwueme ultimately lost the PDP primaries to Olusegun Obasanjo at the party’s inaugural convention, presided over by the late Solomon Lar, and beamed live on national television. Ekwueme would cast his reservations aside- Obasanjo wasn’t even qualified to contest based on the party’s constitution, but was a firm favorite of the military and political establishment- and canvassed support for the party’s candidate, even chairing the party’s electoral fundraising committee on account of Obasanjo. The relationship with Obasanjo eventually soured and Ekwueme would lose out again in 2003 to Obasanjo who was hustling for a second term in office.
As he became increasingly sidelined by the party, Ekwueme remained a constant and unifying presence, refusing to let personal ambition get in the way of his nation building antecedents. He paid the price for this, as he suffered numerous political setbacks on his way to settling into his final act as a level headed voice of reason. He told Premium Times in a 2013 interview, ‘’I will like to be remembered as someone who came into public office to render service and rendered that service selflessly.’’
Legacy is a tricky thing, but it is unlikely Alex Ekwueme won’t get his wish.
The writer tweets from @drwill20
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.