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How Ekwueme sponsored my trip to US without knowing me – Prof. Ozokwelu

Professor Dickson Ozokwelu, with more than 40 years of diversified chemical engineering and management experience, is currently in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the US Department of Energy’s headquarters in Washington D.C., United States. Prior to his current position, he had held senior engineering and management positions at BP North America and Eastman Kodak Chemicals. He is a leading international expert on energy, power, oil and gas and has a rich and diverse experience cutting across academia, industry, entrepreneurship and government, where his forte is renewable energy.

A former World Bank consultant on renewable energy for Africa, Prof. Ozokwelu is one of those many beneficiaries of Dr. Alex Ekwueme’s philanthropy by way of academic support through the Ekwueme Memorial Trust Fund. In this very revealing interview, Prof. Ozokwelu pays glowing tribute to the man who assisted him in achieving his glittering professional life.

Professor, we are here for you to pay tribute to the departed former Nigerian Vice President, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, and would like to start it this way: Who is Alex Ekwueme, from your perspective?

The late former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, played diverse and noble roles in his life. Among the roles was his great impact on my life, in addition to a few other positive ones I will mention and then attempt to expatiate on one by one.

First, Dr. Ekwueme was a great philanthropist. Second, Dr. Ekwueme was a great intellectual, as shown by his ability to earn degrees across diverse disciplines, including Law, Architecture, Sociology, Urban and Town Planning, et cetera.

As a great professional, he is one of the few Nigerians who not only had academic degrees, but also displayed his prowess throughout his practice and lifestyle. He started his Ekwueme & Associates, an architectural, urban and town planning firm, which made major contributions to the development of Nigeria.

By 1975-76, Ekwueme & Associates had about 13 architects on its payroll, including some of my classmates who graduated in 1975. Ekwueme & Associates designed and completed all the Urban and Town Planning master plans for each of the old 19 states’ capitals of Nigeria, including the Abuja Federal Capital Territory (FCT) right at the onset of their creation. That was a very major contribution, which many people are unaware of. Perhaps, his greatest character trait was that he lived a very simple, unassuming, productive and inspirational life despite all his exemplary accomplishments

Then, there was Dr. Ekwueme — the great leader and politician, who was colossal both at the national and community levels. At the community level, he brought a lot of development projects to his area, including the College of Arts and Science, which is the Federal Polytechnic, Oko, today. This was in addition to several other city roads and infrastructural developments in Oko community and environs.

As a politician, he was a national leader and a great patriot. He was calm and very courageous. Of course, he was the Vice President of Nigeria from 1979 to 1983 during the Alhaji Shehu Shagari administration. Needless to say, he was a very loyal Vice President to Alhaji Shagari with whom he maintained a life-long friendship.

Dr. Ekwueme left a lot of legacies. One of the most outstanding of those legacies is arguably the six geopolitical zonal structure, which Nigeria currently uses in the delimitation of units of the political space. It is on record that as both a politician and leader, Dr. Ekwueme led the battle to restore democracy to Nigeria by rallying opposition to the late General Sani Abacha who had wanted to transmute into a civilian dictator. In response, Dr. Ekwueme started assembling what was then known as the Group of 11, which soon grew to G-18, G-34 and finally became what we know today as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP).

As a politician, Dr. Ekwueme left a lasting legacy as one politician who was both upright and untainted. This sparkling quality was evident throughout his entire life and throughout all the things he did in Nigeria – both in the private and public sectors. He was not corrupt. Indeed, not corrupt is a gross understatement. Dr. Ekwueme was incorruptible and I believe all Nigerians bear testimony to this fact.

At a time, such as now, when we are engaged in a war against corruption, let’s not forget that there was a man who walked the political space in this country at the highest level. He had all the opportunity to amass wealth for himself and enrich his family, friends and cronies, which has since become the norm in our nation, but vehemently refused to do so. As is also common knowledge, at the time the government that he served was overthrown, in December 1983, by the military, led by no other person than the current President, General Muhammadu Buhari, Dr. Ekwueme was detained and thoroughly investigated by a Military Panel almost unlike any other politician of his era.

In the end, Dr. Ekwueme was found totally clean of corruption. Remarkably, of all the politicians of that era investigated, Dr. Ekwueme was the only one who was found to be corruption-free. Not only was he found to be free of corruption, the panel declared that he was the only one who actually came out of office poorer than he was when he went in. That is remarkable, even by international standards.

Is there then a lesson here for both the Federal Government in particular and Nigerians in general?

Yes, indeed. There are several lessons there. One very important lesson here is that there are still in our midst men and women of honour and integrity who could be counted upon to serve and restore the integrity of our nation, Nigeria. In other words, there is hope for Nigeria, provided we can look inwards and identify the right kind of people and skills, who can help in this regard.

Secondly and, perhaps, more importantly, the passing of Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme offers this administration a great opportunity to castrate corruption at the highest level. To do this, I strongly recommend to the Federal Government to name or rename, as the case may be, the headquarters of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) after Dr. Alex Ekwueme. An “ALEX EKWUEME HOUSE,” as the headquarters of the EFCC, will be a bold statement about our commitment to the war against corruption. This will immediately send out a message that we are committed to fighting the evil of corruption. It also sends the message that we appreciate honesty and probity and are prepared to demonstrate that appreciation. Most importantly, it would be a bold historic banner for our children and future generations to behold and study. No other honour that I can readily mention would be more befitting than that for Dr. Ekwueme.

You mentioned that the late Dr. Ekwueme was a great philanthropist. Can you elaborate on that please?

I think the best way I can talk about his type of philanthropy is to share my own first meeting experience with him. Prior to my first meeting with Dr. Ekwueme, I had received admission letters to various universities in the UK, Canada and United States for graduate work in Chemical Engineering, including Cambridge University, Imperial College, London, University of London, University of Manchester, McGill University, Canada, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Oklahoma State University. Only the last university gave me a teaching assistantship position and allowed me to pay in-state fees, beginning from my first day of enrollment. Financial assistance of any type in the other U.S. universities depended on my performance after completing the first semester. 

It was a Sunday afternoon, a day prior to my first meeting with Dr. Ekwueme, when I went out on a social outing and ran into two guys from Nanka, a neighbouring town to Oko, Dr. Ekwueme’s hometown. I shared with them that I received admission and financial support to Oklahoma State University in the United States, but I lacked the money to travel to the U.S., despite the fact that I had two Federal Government scholarships. The scholarship issue is another topic for discussion elsewhere. These guys told me that there was one man called Dr. Ekwueme who would readily assist somebody like me to go for higher education. I remember telling them that there was nobody in Nigeria that would do that for a stranger, but that I would try anyway and they gave me his office address in Ikoyi, Lagos.

The next day was Monday and I was in a long line of people waiting to see Dr. Ekwueme at his office at Ikoyi. When it was my turn, I presented my academic credentials to him and presented my request. To my surprise, he never asked me the expected questions such as “Who are you?” “Who is your father?” “Which is your tribe?” or “Which is your town?” et cetera.  Rather his first question was, “Are you ready to go to America now?” I answered, “Yes sir.” His second question was: “Do you have a passport?” I answered, “No, sir.”

Before I could kneel down to beg to be allowed to go get a passport, he called one of his aides and told him, “when this gentleman comes back with his passport, please give him the usual two packages to go to the U.S. Embassy.” And that was it! Two weeks later, I was back in the office with my passport and I was given two envelopes! I did not see Dr. Ekwueme again.

One of the envelopes had a check for N2,000 at a time N1 exchanged for $1.5. In order to understand the value of N2,000 at the time, a four-door Peugeot 504 or British Rover sold for N4,000! That was a lot of money, especially for me.

The other envelope had some papers in it addressed to the U.S. Embassy in Lagos. Next, I went down to the African Continent Bank and cashed the check, and used the money to buy a ticket. In those days, one had to go to the embassy with a plane ticket. I then proceeded to the American Embassy the same day. When I submitted the letter from Dr. Ekwueme to the embassy, they asked me if I was related to Dr. Ekwueme and I answered: “No.”

After looking at Dr. Ekwueme’s letter and the letter for financial assistance from Oklahoma State University, they gave me a visa. Total time spent at the embassy was about 30 minutes! When I came out of the embassy, it was very sunny and I remember bursting into tears of joy.

Within a week and half, I was on a plane going to the United States. The next time I saw Dr. Ekwueme was two years later, when I visited Nigeria after completing my MSc and already enrolled in the PhD programme in Chemical Engineering. I went in the company of one of my mentors, Chief S.N. Okeke, to greet him and he was hosting some distinguished chiefs in his house at Oko.

After completing my PhD in Chemical Engineering, I returned to Nigeria in 1986 and went to his house at Oko to pay back the money from Ekwueme Memorial Trust Fund. He refused to take the money and told me if I liked what he did for me, then I should go ahead and do the same for others—and you bet I have. There are many people like me that would not have accomplished their academic and professional goals without financial assistance from Dr. Ekwueme. What a philanthropist he was!

I cannot conclude this tribute without saying a few words about Dr. Ekwueme’s vision for Nigeria. The time was 1998 when I heard that Dr. Ekwueme was participating in the PDP primaries. I was second to the highest rank on the technical ladder at the British Petroleum headquarters (North America out of Chicago, United States). I simply had to volunteer to assist in raising funds and supporting him through his campaign. I was the coordinator for the Midwest in the United States, while Prof. Bath Nnaji was the coordinator for the entire North America. We like to claim that we raised the most money from the Midwest.

When he visited Chicago, I went to the airport in company of two gentlemen to pick him up. As soon as he got into the car, I gave him a proposal entitled “Operation Infrastructure” for his campaign manifesto, and we drove him straight to Radio Chicago to tell the world why he decided to run for presidency of Nigeria.

To my amazement, it took us about an hour from the airport to the Radio Chicago premises and he finished reading the 30-page document and discussed his thoughts with me very intelligently. That is how I knew he was a very fast reader and when I asked him how he did that, he told me he took some fast reading classes to prepare for his busy schedule. I didn’t expect him to read all of it, but he did read and understood it all.

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