Being a press statement released by (Former) President Olusegun Obasanjo…
By Simon Kolawole
They have shut down the factory that produced the political breed of Dr. Alexandra Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme. They don’t make them like Ekwueme anymore. Upright, cerebral, courageous and loyal — it is often a contradiction in terms to attach any of those adjectives to a Nigerian politician. Yet, in the last four decades, Ekwueme, who is currently hospitalised, has demonstrated those virtues largely unappreciated. Or, at best, underappreciated. The politicians that we recognise and celebrate are the noisemakers, the pilferers, the nitwits, the chameleons, the bandits. Even with my excessive distrust of politicians, I can afford to make exceptions. Ekwueme is an exception.
When I heard on Wednesday that he had slipped into a coma, I said: “Not again!” Too many times in my life, I have procrastinated in paying tribute to Nigerians who truly inspire me while they are alive. When they die, I will start writing tributes that they cannot read in the grave. Maybe it is human nature to demonise people when they are around and canonise them when they are gone. The way we eulogise dead people makes me feel that maybe if we had said those words to their hearing, some would have lived longer. Thankfully, Ekwueme is still alive. I can finally “cleanse my soul” with a tribute from my heart. No matter his failings as a mortal, he is a man of adorable virtues.
Upright. After being detained in Kirikiri prisons for 20 months following the coup of December 31, 1983, the military tribunal that tried him over his tenure as vice-president to Alhaji Shehu Shagari (1979-1983) did not only discharge and acquit him, it also eulogised him thus: “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.” Nobody says that about Nigerian politicians anymore. The most common story is that they became stupendously rich just after a few minutes in office, with mansions in Dubai, New York and Banana Island to show for their “service” to the nation.
Cerebral. I do not know many Nigerian politicians, dead or alive, with the academic grounding of Ekwueme. He has four first degrees: architecture and city planning (from the University of Washington, US, as one of the first four US Fulbright scholars from Nigeria); sociology (also WU); history, philosophy and constitutional law (as an external candidate of the University of London); and law (London). He has a master’s in urban planning (London). He also holds a PhD in architecture (University of Strathclyde, Scotland). For all his degrees, he was loyal to, and respectful of, Shagari, who didn’t have a degree. Ekwueme was called to the Nigerian bar in 1990 at the age of 58.
Therefore? Therefore, you could see the depth of knowledge, intellect and foresight in some of his contributions to the nationhood debate in Nigeria. In 1995, he proposed the six geopolitical zones which Nigerians now hold dearly as a commandment from God. To manage the mistrust and fears about domination among the different components of Nigeria, he suggested power rotation and six vice-presidents. To prevent the Yar’Adua scenario that we are yet to recover from, he proposed that if a president dies, resigns or is removed, the VP from the zone should complete the tenure. To tackle the oft-acrimonious re-election bids, he suggested a single-term tenure.
Not that all his ideas are perfect, but they offer solutions to some of our perennial political crises. We freely discuss Nigeria today as north-west, north-central, north-east, south-west, south-south and south-east. I must say I have my reservations about the assumption that these sub-identities are settled. For instance, of the six zones, only the south-east is close to homogeneity in ethnicity and religion — the two biggest identifiers in Nigeria. The rest are far from homogenous. But, in fairness, Ekwueme’s idea of geo-political zoning represents a layer of nationhood that is largely acceptable even among agitators in today’s Nigeria. We owe Ekwueme some kolanuts for that.
Ekwueme apparently paid a price for his ideas. His geopolitical proposal was initially interpreted as an attempt to break up or weaken northern political solidarity. I don’t know if that is the same perspective today. He was accused of trying to even things with the south-west by making sure the Igbo had a zone of equal status. But how is that a sin? More so, his proposal to decentralise the army to make coups difficult, if not impossible, was twisted to mean he was advocating regional armies and promoting confederacy through the backdoor. I’m inclined to think these misinterpretations counted against him in his bids to be president in 1999 and 2003.
Courageous. When Gen. Sani Abacha was in power, his biggest opposition came from two camps: the civil society and senior politicians. The civil society, with NADECO in the lead, fought from the trenches, insisting that the military should leave power and hand over to Chief MKO Abiola, the winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election. On the other hand, some elements in the political class, working from the inside, organised within their ranks to fight for the restoration of democracy, albeit without insisting on the restoration of Abiola’s stolen mandate. As narratives go in Nigeria, the only democrats were those who fought for Abiola.
Yet, the role of these politicians was as dangerous, if not as suicidal, as that of NADECO. Abacha was in no mood for any agitation for democracy as long as it did not mean perpetuating himself in power. Ekwueme was a key player in organising some politicians against Abacha’s self-succession plans that began to materialise in 1995. Ekwueme chaired the All-Nigeria Politicians Summit at Eko Hotel, Lagos, to demand a return to democracy. It was disrupted by political thugs, with the security agencies watching as if they were at a cinema. Ekwueme also chaired the Institute of Civil Society (ICS), which continued the demand for a return to democracy.
After the launch of ICS, chaired by Justice Kayode Eso, Ekwueme held a meeting in his house in Lagos with northern politicians — Alhaji Abubakar Rimi, Chief Solomon Lar, Chief Sunday Awoniyi (all late now) and Mallam Adamu Ciroma — and told them there was an impression everyone in the north was supporting Abacha’s transmutation plot. They agreed to fire a letter to Abacha, with the understanding that a pan-Nigerian group would follow. The northern politicians, called G-18, met in Kaduna and wrote to Abacha to demand a return to democracy. Lar delivered the letter. Abacha was yet to recover from the shock when the enlarged group, G-34, was formed.
G-34 met at Ekwueme’s Lagos office to finalise their plans. A committee of four — Prof. Uzodinma Nwala, Senator Onyeabor Obi, Prof. Jerry Gana and Ekwueme — prepared a stinging letter, warning Abacha not to transmute from military ruler to civilian president as he was planning to do, with the five political parties having adopted him as their “consensus” presidential candidate in a well-choreographed charade. It amounted to wilful suicide writing such a letter at a time Abacha was sparing no bombs in taking out his opponents. NADECO was already too hot for Abacha to handle. Now senior politicians were on his case. It was double trouble.
Abacha died in June 1998 and Abiola also died in detention the following month. We still don’t know the true details of what happened but we can reasonably speculate that the deaths were not accidental. The military moved to restore democracy and, naturally, G-34 was in the centre of things. It practically formed the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which would go on to win the 1999 presidential election on the strength of its national appeal. Ekwueme, as a respected founding father, sought to be the presidential candidate but was defeated at the primary election by Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, whom many believed was the anointed candidate of the military.
Loyal. Ekwueme had every right to make life difficult for the PDP and Obasanjo over the presidential ticket in 1999. It had been agreed by the party’s national executive committee on November 24, 1998 that a presidential aspirant must have delivered his LGA and state to the PDP in the council and governorship elections. On that score, Obasanjo was not qualified to contest, yet it was clear the military wanted the next president to come from the south-west. Ekwueme did not make an issue out of it. He could have engineered a crisis and handed victory to the opponents by default. He was clearly a loyal party man. You don’t say that of many Nigerian politicians today.
Now, that was the point at which I began to idolise Ekwueme. He not only openly congratulated Obasanjo at the convention ground in Jos — a clear departure from the politics of bitterness we play in Nigeria — he went on to chair the campaign fundraiser for Obasanjo. Wait for this: when Dr. Pius Okigbo and Prof. Ben Nwabueze later went on air, on behalf of Ohanaeze, to declare that the Igbo should vote for Chief Olu Falae, Ekwueme countered. He personally paid for radio slots to ask Igbo to support Obasanjo. He even met with Igbo community in Lagos to push this position. Sadly, Obasanjo was reportedly made to believe Ekwueme was behind the Ohanaeze broadcast.
For all his grace, therefore, Ekwueme was politically ostracised by Obasanjo. He was accorded only one ministerial slot, and even his nominee — Prof. Barth Nnaji from Enugu state — was not appointed. Not surprisingly, Ekwueme was more confrontational and unforgiving in his next bid for the PDP ticket in 2003. This time he did not congratulate Obasanjo. He believed there were underhand tactics at the convention which undermined fairness. But he never left the PDP. Fidelity is not a common virtue in Nigerian politics these days. Given that no human is perfect, Ekwueme thoroughly deserves our respect. I wish the Ide of Oko kingdom quick and full recovery.
Editor’s Note: This article was initially published by the author with the title: Ekwueme in the Eyes of History