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Boji-Boji Atamuna

Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme: Fall of the last Iroko

“I was the chairman, Nigerian Railways, when that cooperation was like the present day behemoth, the NNPC; the greatest employer of labour, expending a very massive annual budget. During my tenure, employing our own professional engineers, architects, surveyors, technicians, medical doctors, etc, we built the most modern and durable rail lines in the Commonwealth; second only to the British, ahead of the Canadian and the Indian railways.

The details of those contributions you have recorded for posterity in my autobiography, which was released yesterday in Ottawa for the international audience. I’m beholden to you and cherish your hard work, giving reality to my last request of reading my life work before I die. Emma, bless you and anytime you arrive Nigeria and you need anything, invoking my name, call any of these three gentlemen: Akintola Williams, Chief Sony Odogwu and Dr. Alex Ekwueme. These were among the brightest of their generation and I made them millionaires in their early twenties…’’

(See Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani, The Unrepentant Patriot, Snaap Press, 2007)

Akintola Williams was the first qualified Nigerian chartered accountant. In 1949, he passed the finals of the professional accountancy examination of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England. He returned to Nigeria in 1950 and, in 1952, he set up the firm of Akintola Williams & Company as the first Nigerian firm of chartered accountants. Before his arrival, the accounting profession was monopolized by expatriate firms. Akintola Williams’s fate changed for good when, in 1961, the Railways approved a capital development programme costing millions of pounds. Price Waterhouse, the foreign firm, which hitherto audited the cooperation, was axed and Akintola Williams was invited to take over. At the same time, Chief Sony Odogwu, the owner of the African Insurance Brokers, was offered the mouthwatering contract to insure the Railways after the  expatriate insurance firm of Edward W. Turner & Sons was sacked. 

Before Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani, I had enjoyed in countless measures the favours of my maternal uncle, Chief Sony Odogwu, Ide Ahaba. In this trade, I have without any prior notices found my way to his Finchley Road headquarters and his residence in Guiders Green, London. By mid-summer, 2004, I was at his London residence making arrangements to return and resume office as the newly appointed and gazetted editor-in-chief of the Post Express, Nigeria’s first on-line newspaper. Before long, a phone call from my sports editor, the late Dave Enechukwu, spilled the beans: “G.O.C., the Chief has turned down your appointment  and even though the management stood its ground explaining that the process that announced you editor-in-chief was transparent, with full merit, the Chief would not allow a ‘communist’ head his million-dollar newspaper investment.” I lost that job and with it the dreams, the expectations. Odogwu’s interferences, coupled with the little minds he brought to replace my recruited “Total Publishers,” connived and conspired to ruin the emerging digital philosophies of that experiment. Before long, that newspaper, with the best available hands, the best press in West Africa, tragically plummeted to the rocks.

Of the three Ikejiani musketeers, Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme was perhaps the most polyvalent, eclectic and polymathic. While I am yet to meet Akintola Williams in flesh, I have devoured his autobiography from cover to cover. Like most of their breed, he has kept the professional faith and loves his family.

Odogwu’s impact and times, in spite of his early emergence as a captain of industry, I am afraid, would be constrained by the absence of protégées, unlike the colossus, Ekwueme, whose legacies in agriculture, education, industries and community service scream, and he has been established as a maker of history.

Prof. Bernard Nwakanma, top scientist with the American secret energy commission, says it all: “Look at me, I came from the village and my parents lived in mud houses. When I passed my school certificate, I took my results to the Ekwueme Foundation and they took my papers and, the following week, I found myself in the US attending the best universities in the world. Now, I have a job that few Americans would ever nurse ambitions to get. There are thousands of Nigerians that enjoy the scholarship largesse of the Alex Ekwueme Foundation. There is no human being like this man in the world.’’

The journey of this icon began of Agu-Ukwu Nri, where his very poor father was an Anglican Catechist. Brilliant and in a hurry to conquer the world, he sat for his first school leaving certificate and entrance examination to secondary school from the same junior class where his mates were not yet ready to do the same examinations. Unlike the other two brilliant actors of their generation, Ekwueme was actually the one who invited me to share his evening days and he always forgot my name! He would rather address me thus: “Blood On the Niger, I invite you to my wife’s 60th birthday celebrations…

“Blood On the Niger, we play tennis Sunday at Oko after I return from England, and remember my back hand cross court is my weapon to destroy you.”

Ekwueme was hilarious, full of life and at the Oko Tennis Club single-handedly built by him, like the Oko Polytechnic, Oko Anglican Dioceses, Catholic bishoprics, the banks, most of the gargantuan infrastructures that adorn the mini city … we acknowledge the spearheading involvement of Ide Oko.  At the Oko Tennis Club, we would sit down and the atmosphere of sumptuous course meals of vegetable salad, ise ewu, red and white wines would caress the questions and answers, gently hugging them down to intimate conversations.

“Ide, your younger wife’s birthday was a bomb! How do you accommodate all these quality First Ladies?’’

“There is no fuss in this family of different mothers. We are one family. My wives know the protocol and their statuses and they respect each other. You were at the birthday dancing time when my Beatrice emerged…”

“We were with the celebrant and, immediately Beatrice emerged, we were holding our hearts … Showing the greatest happiness, the women embraced each other, with Beatrice  openly offering her birthday gifts and then walking up to take her rightful place at your left hand side!”

“Yes, Blood On the Niger, Beatrice had to respect the celebrant, and her day. Through the church services, down to the cutting of the cake, my younger wife knew her place, so also is Helen, the Itsekiri beauty I met in Lagos when I was in Kings.’’

“Chief Philip Asiodu, who was the most brilliant student of his class in Kings College, was in the same class with General Odumegwu Ojukwu and they were in Oxford also at the same time … He mentioned that your academic record was his inspiration and that record in both the sciences and arts is yet to be broken.’’

“Asiodu is right. I was the first student from this Aguata/Orumba to study in Kings. As a young pupil we looked up to the excellence and academic records of Dr. Pius Okigbo, Prof. Nwabueze and Dr. Chike Obi. In fact, I borrowed money to pay them visits at Onitsha before travelling to Lagos to resume at Kings. In fact, they were three outstanding students whose academic records in Kings College remain unbeaten. Asiodu is one of us but the most brilliant result was that of Professor Cyril Onwumechili. A nuclear physicist, he was the former Vice Chancellor, University of Ife. He was ahead of me and I think I was one class ahead of Chief Phillip Asiodu and my man Emeka Ojukwu.’’

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