Alex Ekwueme: Philosopher and king; visionary and practician
“To honour him whom we have made is far from honouring him that hath made us.” It was Michel de Montaigne, the 16th French philosopher and writer who wrote those magnificent words. I think and know Dr. Alex Ekwueme as one of those who hath made us.
Those were my first words of acceptance of the request that I served as keynote speaker at the August 24, 2012 international event celebrating 80 years of a great, impactful and purposeful life.
Ide Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, born October 21, 1932, was both philosopher and king; visionary and practician; philanthropist and resourceful role model for millions.
It was a great privilege for me to appreciate Dr. Ekwueme — respectfully, to his face in his esteemed presence. It was a continuation of my trans-generational commitment to appreciating and honouring outstanding leaders and persons who continue to make a difference and inspire our commitments.
I do know that Ekwueme, recipient of Nigeria’s second highest national award of the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), lived a quintessential live of public service and was a living example as an individual — working in cooperation with his wife, Beatrice – engaged in strategic generosity for almost 45 years!! He established the first indigenous architectural firm in Nigeria, Ekwueme Associates, Architects and Town Planners, and improved the face of Nigeria.
In the arena of politics, he will, forever, be remembered as the man who formally led, through his democratic election in 1979-1983 as Vice President of Nigeria, the most comprehensive reintegration of the Igbo into the geo-political and socio-economic pillars of power in the country. Set aside other fanciful claims of that period.
I do know that Ekwueme used his appointment of Mark Okoye as Nigeria’s Minister for the Abuja Federal Capital (with the city then under construction) to empower thousands of the Igbo and other easterners who, today, have become key economic factors in Abuja. Remarkably, Ekwueme never bragged about this critical role. He would not talk about it.
Ekwueme’s philanthropy, relatively and in terms of community impact, compares to the Carnegies’, the Mellons’, the Gates, Mohameds’, Bank-Anthonys, the Buffets’, Annenbergs, Mosingers, Ilodibes and many other cheerful givers. Moreso, for me to capture the modest totality of Ekwueme’s meaningful life will require a special book.
Ekwueme was, by no means, perfect. He also had issues where some disagreed strongly with him.
Permit me to note that our Igbo and Yoruba nativist, refuseniks and hardliners dismissed Ekwueme and others such as my mentor the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo who worked politically with Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the Kaduna ‘mafia’ and the northern Nigeria conservative leadership as “sell-outs.”
As a matter of fact in the early 1980s, while I was a very young employee of the Electronic News Gathering (E.N.G) unit of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Channel 6, Aba, I joined in covering Ekwueme and Shagari in our broadcast area which included the old Imo, Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Cross River, Rivers and Bayelsa states.
Let me note that Nigeria’s incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari toppled the democratically-elected presidency of Shagari and Ekwueme on December 31, 1983 when Buhari was an Army General. Buhari kept Ekwueme in jail and held Shagari in cordial house arrest.
Ekwueme valued education; got the best, and gave hundreds of scholarships. His own primary education started at St John’s Anglican Central School, at Ekwulobia, a few miles from his hometown of Oko; attended the prestigious King’s College, Lagos; showed such excellence he was given the U.S. Fulbright Scholarship. In 1955, he was admitted to the University of Washington where he bagged a Bachelors degree in architecture and city planning, a Masters degree in urban planning. From the University of London, he excelled with degrees in sociology, history, philosophy and law; from the University of Strathclyde he got his Ph.D. in architecture.
On his 80th birthday, I said during my keynote presentation that: “Dr. Alex Ekwueme, you have planted human seeds through large scale scholarships and empowerment of Oko persons and other communities. Many will thank you; maybe a few will scorn you with their violent ingratitude that the sun and moon you showed them were not bright enough…. No matter what, Ide, your name and legacies are greater.”
As a chronicler of history, ancient and modern, of current affairs and the business of power for the past 35 years of the Igbo nation, of Nigeria, of Africans and Americans, I can state without any fear of contradiction that Ekwueme was among the top 50 greatest Africans of the 20th century!
Dr. Nwangwu is a public affairs analyst.
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