“Is Dr. Alex Ekwueme dead,” that was the question a prominent friend of mine asked me midweek last week and I could’t give him precise answer until late Friday when this political icon was lowered into the grave at his village in Oko, Anambra state. It was a befitting departure for a man who gave his all for the benefit of our nation. I thank the federal government and the Igbo nation for honouring him the way they did.
Those familiar with Igbo traditional religion would understand what my friend meant when he asked if Ekwueme was dead. There are people you meet in life and the things you see around them, their worldview, comportment, manner of speech, character, social relations, vision and achievement, make you think they can’t die because in your subconscious you equate them with God and when they die you are left to wonder what hit you and what indeed is happening. That has been exactly the situation with the passing on of Dr Alex Ekwueme to the great beyond. The Igbo nation from where Ekwueme came from and our country have never been the same.
Igbo don’t crown kings and they don’t set out in a deliberate fashion to anoint a strongman out of an ordinary mortal but they have a tradition handed over by their forefathers which prescribes recognition for exceptional display of strength, character and achievement. Those who read the popular book, “Things Fall Apart” by Prof. Chinua Achebe, particularly the story of Okonkwo, will be at home with the picture I am trying to paint. True, Ekwueme was a mortal but he was no ordinary person. Put in another way he was a special breed. At the time he went abroad to study it was not a very popular venture. Only those with a lion heart took the decision to move. There is a uniqueness in what Ekwueme did while abroad and from that one could discern his mind, his vision and his expectations. While many of his contemporaries read one course of study, Ekwueme read over four in different areas.
This is a clear indication he prepared for a life beyond professional career and the power of preparation showed clearly in what was to happen in his life in the later years. Renowned Pentecostal preacher, Myles Monroe taught that the real man does not have to beg to be of service to humanity, that all you have to do is to carry value and the world would look for you irrespective of where you are. Good men are always in demand, men of vision and purpose, principle and integrity. In the late 1970s our country began to drift because of the negative consequences associated with military interventions in governance and they had to go in search of good and principled men. Ekwueme was one of those they discovered in faraway America and lured to return and serve his fatherland.
He returned and soon after he became the Vice President of Nigeria under Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Ekwueme’s conduct in politics and in power should be a lesson for our political class if truly our desire is to build a new Nigeria that can compete with the best of nations in the world. A sage said “the secret of contentment is knowing how to enjoy what you have and to forgo desire for things beyond your reach.” Ekwueme knew this much and was happy with his job description for the office of the Vice President. He carried himself well and spoke to the limits allowed by his reach. It is possible he may have had issues but he also knew that there is what is known even though unwritten as governance etiquette and governance administrative procedures. For four years he never had any public altercation with his boss or any other person in the power hierarchy; this is exemplary.
Those who sought out Ekwueme, given the circumstance surrounding the Igbo experience after the civil war, never publicly made the point am going to highlight, but one can easily see that uppermost in their mind at the time was to get what many commonly refer to as a “nationalist”, whatever that means, but in practically acting out his place in national history he more than adequately proved that formal education, intelligence and religion must go together. Ekwueme was a true Nigerian just as he was an Igbo man; his mode of dressing and his disposition to his people showed that. He was able to manage both personalities without conflict, he was as much loved by Nigerians and non-Nigerians as much as the Igbo saw him as their cherished star. Ekwueme emerged at a time the Great Zik of Africa was in total control of the South East with his party, Nigerians People’s Party (NPP) but the Ekwueme style was so effective that he had no cause to either abuse Zik, other Igbo political gladiators, the Igbo or to cause them pain in any manner, yet he was effective and fruitful. There is lesson in this.
Ekwueme was a true democrat and it is in this aspect he left for our country his biggest legacy. Ekwueme was a Vice President and of Igbo extraction, he served well and displayed great knowledge and candor, it was expected after Shagari he would become the next President but that was not to be as the military took over power and the strong story has remained that the coup was instigated to halt Ekwueme’s advancement. This could be true because we have seen evidence from biographies showing that some of the coups were at the instance of politicians and big business personalities. If Ekwueme was hurt he didn’t show it and it didn’t diminish his love for our country.
Ekwueme was a man by heart, and as William James said, “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlive you.” This titan from this point gave his life wholly to the transformation of Nigeria and since changes often go with pains, Ekwueme took so many risks on behalf of our country and was severally bruised. He went against the military, and even when others in the struggle ran away into exile for safety, Ekwueme remained in the country and worked with others to see the military hand over power; he led others to form the People’s Democratic Party but when it was time to choose the presidential candidate for which Ekwueme was more than qualified, the military working with their civilian collaborators not only subverted the process, they as well imposed on the nation a reluctant candidate and Ekwueme still found reason for the sake of this country to live with the ugly experience.
In Ekwueme’s life we see the contradictions in our country. When he was alive we all agreed he was a genius but in daily operations we found it difficult to use him. Even when he made spirited efforts, the system visited him with frustrations, he was good but we put him in prison and it took the court to let the country know that he went to power rich and came out poorer. The Igbo are in search of a leader; in private they agree Ekwueme was one but I wonder how many times they consulted him and the governors were the chief culprits. Indeed he has gone but he left a mark. He lives.