By  Okey Ifionu

Although he spent barely 22 months as the pioneer civilian governor of Anambra  State, Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife had become a household name in Nigeria by the time the third Republic was truncated by the Sani Abacha military junta.

His bold and clear-cut positions on nearly every national or subnational issue, his iconic mannerisms— trademark, well-groomed goatee, his ox-blood red cap and spotless white habit, his hand-held elephant tusk and of course his deep, guttural voice— distinguished him in any crowd, however huge.

Few Nigerians are as concerned as he was about Nigeria’s potential for  greatness. How that potential for greatness could be realised at minimum cost was a consuming passion for him. He frequently articulated his dream Nigeria in speech after speech and in many of his radio and television appearances. To get more than a glimpse of how intense this passion was, you need to read his book

 “Remaking Nigeria With Progressivism” (1997). It is a distillation of his thoughts on the place of not only Nigeria but the entire black race in the global scheme of things. Given the leadership challenges that Nigeria has faced over the decades, some of the aspirations he articulated in that book would appear to be questionable, if not in jeopardy. But then, their validity is unimpeachable.

My path first crossed with Ezeife’s in 1988 when I was covering the then Constituent Assembly for the Concord Group of Newspapers. His comportment, his well  ordered and brave contributions and deep insight on many of the thorny economic and political issues of the time, earned him the admiration of some of us in the press gallery.  Nearly every journalist  covering the constitution-drafting conference wanted an interview with him. At both the plenary and committee levels, Ezeife’s contributions were landmark. He took a deep view of every issue and did his homework well in advance. His strength did not lie necessarily in his eloquence but in the profundity of his thoughts and ideas on how to make Nigeria a meaningful and enduring federation.

At that time I wrote a weekly column in the National Concord with the masthead “Makers of the Constitution.” It was quite popular with members of the  Constituent Assembly. It was a full page that featured the contributions of one distinguished  member every week. 

I tried a number of times to fix an interview with Dr. Ezeife but it all failed, no thanks to his hectic schedule. Then one day while he was leaving the Assembly chambers for his hotel room, we bumped into each other. “My brother,” he said to me, “if you can follow me to Agura hotel now, we may be able to talk.”

At Agura hotel, then one of the few decent hotels in Abuja, Ezeife and I talked for nearly two hours amidst dinner. We discussed literally everything about the work of the Constituent Assembly, especially the controversies around the Sharia law viz a viz Nigeria’s secularity.

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After my story of that encounter with him was published in the National Concord, Ezeife reached out to me with compliments for “accurately portraying my views on all the issues, especially my position on the Sharia clause.”

That marked the beginning of our friendship. Thereafter whenever he had something special to say, however controversial, he would give me the privilege of being the first to hear it. 

After he won the governorship of Anambra State despite many odds, he offered me the opportunity to serve as his number one spokesman. 

In the less than two years that I served in his government, I saw an uncommonly self-sacrificing leader who was determined to do his best for his people.  Of the three governors I had the privilege of working with, Ezeife was the most selfless and prudent. When I came down from Lagos to assume duties in Awka, the first word he said to me was “My brother,” (Ezeife would often casually address me as his brother) “I am sure you have come with your sleeves rolled up.”  He was a workaholic, a patient listener and a man with strong convictions. He didn’t swallow received wisdom without proving them. You couldn’t stampede or even cajole him into doing something he wasn’t convinced about. Some of his critics thought he was too rigid. May be!  But given his bureaucratic background as a former federal permanent secretary, his education at Harvard University where he obtained a Ph.D in economics, his spell at Makerere University, Uganda as a lecturer,  I was hardly surprised at his deliberate approach to governance. He wanted things done properly in an environment where shoddiness has become a norm.

Ezeife, in just 22 months laid the solid foundation on which his successors have built since his exit. His  “Think Home” policy rallying wealthy Anambra indigenes to invest in the state, remains as relevant today as it was then.

History will be kind to him as his legacy of prudent management of government resources continues to be an essential ingredient for any meaningful development in the state.

As he is laid to rest on April 20, 2024, I thank God for the privilege of meeting and working with him. He spoke boldly for Nigeria’s unity and even more so for justice and equity for all Nigerians. His had become one of the few credible voices in Nigeria on the matter of leadership and governance. 

His Ìgbo pedigree is one he defended fiercely and unapologetically. He wanted justice for the Ìgbo in one united Nigeria. As he often said “the Ìgbo are the cord that binds Nigeria together, more than any other ethnic group.” In a condolence note a friend sent to me, he wrote: “Dr.Ezeife’s death has robbed Nigeria of one of the few brave voices that could still speak truth to power without concern for their personal safety.” He added rather  indisputably, “Most of today’s political leaders are not the type with any serious interest other than self-aggrandisement. Ezeife was far above the cut.” Nothing can be truer! Ezeife gave himself entirely to public service, with little or no pecuniary consideration. Rest in peace, Okwadike ! May the Lord reward your seed for all your sacrifices.

• Ifionu, now an Archdeacon in the Anglican Church, was Gov. Ezeife’s Chief Press Secretary