Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, the cerebral, quiet, urbane and quintessential statesman who died in a London clinic the other day, was no ordinary politician. To term him a politician, as many tributes have done, is to demote him to the category of vainglorious power seekers who criss-cross the country for self-gain and clannish privileges. Beyond the man and his actions, Ekwueme was an enriching but unwittingly inadequately acknowledged concept in Nigeria’s political lexicon.
His demise has further depleted the dwindling number of great political thinkers and leaders in the country. From the moment he was sworn in on October 1, 1979 as the first elected Vice-President of Nigeria, Ekwueme made the unity, stability and development of Nigeria his lifelong project. He was one political leader who worked underground for the stability of democracy in the country, by weaving together the scarce qualities of patriotism, loyalty, consistency, in a very sacrificial manner for the national cause.
As the running mate of former President Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari, he maintained utmost loyalty, even to a point of dignified subservience, notwithstanding his cerebral endowment and professional success. Despite his unjust incarceration by the military junta of the then Major General Muhammadu Buhari that toppled the Shagari government in 1983 and his subsequent release by the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, Ekwueme remained undaunted in his service to the fatherland.
Two things, it seems, could have made this possible: one was his gift of serenity and the other was his incorruptibility. Whilst the report of the Justice Samson Uwaifo-led judicial tribunal established by the Babangida regime detailed his incorruptibility, his serenity was demonstrated by his commitment, focus and sincerity of purpose which knew no bounds. It was these attributes that drove his formation of the group of 34 eminent Nigerians (G34) that firmly opposed the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. They also demonstrated his positive influence at the 1994 national constitutional conference to deliver Nigeria from the shackles of military rule. In furtherance of this resolve, the G34 became the nucleus of democratic idealists that formed the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
His influence on the present democratic dispensation is so legendary that, his formation of another group of 18 eminent Nigerian (G18) had earlier led to the provision of alternative governance structure for the country. If Nigeria prides itself as a stable, renascent democratic country, the governance structure along six geo-political zones as well as the idea of inclusivity through some form of rotational presidency that made this happen, were conceived by the Ekwueme-led G18. In his unique way, devoid of needless celebration, he fought against the despoliation of the oil-producing communities and marginalised citizens.
Regardless of the toll which such sacrificial involvement in public service had on his domestic space, he was a good family man and community leader. He united all his extended family members in a very unique way by keeping the peace.
Born on October 21, 1932 in Oko, in present-day Anambra State, Ekwueme had his early formal education at St John’s Anglican Primary School, Ekwulobia, Anambra State and then King’s College, Lagos. Beside the close-knit Anglican household in which he was raised, Ekwueme’s encyclopaedic intellect, clarity of thought and urbane civility are attestation of his liberal education.
Trained as an architect, Ekwueme earned a degree in Architecture and City Planning from the University of Washington, as a Fulbright scholarship recipient. He also took a Masters degree in Urban Planning and later obtained a Ph.D in Architecture from the University of Strathclyde.
In deliberate expansion of his intellectual horizon, Ekwueme obtained degrees in Sociology, History, Philosophy and Law from the University of London. He was thereafter called to the Nigerian Bar. Ekwueme began his distinguished career in architecture in Seattle, USA and London before working in Esso West Africa, Lagos. He was also president of the Nigerian Institute of Architects.
To genuine politicians who want to understand what public service entails: when they pick up a dictionary or encyclopedia of politics, under the term public service, they would find the description of Alex Ekwueme.
Ekwueme embodies the finesse and psychic disposition required of people desirous of steering the ship of state. His involvement in politics was so deep that it was very far removed from the quotidian rat-race and importunities of immediate gratification. The reason for this lies not only in the deployment of his intellect to identify principles and values amenable to the smooth running of the state, but also to his tenacity to sustain these ideas and principles as well as the fecundity to churn out long-lasting ideas of statecraft. He was a great politician, a great leader and also a stabilising factor.
A typical philosopher-king, he was unencumbered by the baggage of appetitive cravings that have become the life pursuit of many politicians in Nigeria today. In his well-guided missives and dignified eloquence, he personified the cultivated elan which anyone transiting from mere politician to statesman should command. Politicians who accord respectability to the craft are often those whose sense of moral judgement is consistent with high level of integrity, selflessness, openness and the ability to genuinely forgive.
Throughout his political sojourn, Ekwueme punctured the near-acceptable myth amongst political idealists, which proclaims that, until highbrow politicians with a repository of ideas become presidents and heads of states in Nigeria, the country would not be prosperous. To support this position, these pundits have cited people like Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Mallam Aminu Kano and other great men of ideas who never became presidents to the detriment of the country. But those leaders and the likes of Ekwueme are coaches in the political arena, who think far ahead of their peers. Whilst they may not be presidents and heads of states, their fecund intellect is laden with ideas that can help identify future leaders and suggest ways of transforming and leading the country to prosperity.
His life was a sharp contrast of the life of mendacity, bitterness, murderous animosity and greed that have infested Nigeria’s political space.
Amidst the growing trend of predatory culture and willful plundering of the common wealth, Ekwueme’s death affords another brief moment for soul-searching by public officers and politicians. It reminds one that the ability to lead depends not on fleeting popularity acquired from giving hand-outs to the electorate but rather on the ability to identify and stand by enduring principles that can solve problems, appeal to common sense and satisfy the common good.
As family members, kinsmen and fellow politicians prepare for the grand reception of the remains of one of Nigeria’s most respected statesmen, Dr. Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, they should not forget in a hurry that, like the true architect which he was, Ekwueme coupled fragmented differences into a formidable national edifice.