Ekwueme: A cultured man takes a bow
It was 7 a.m. on New Year day in 1999 and I was seated in front of Dr. Alex Ekwueme in his country home in Oko, Anambra State. The interview had been scheduled to take place the previous evening. But after waiting for him till midnight and he had still not returned – there was no GSM then — we decided to call it a day and I went back to my room in the nearby hotel.
I had travelled the previous day to Oko from Lagos, after a firm arrangement had been put in place by his aides for the interview. The PDP national convention to choose the party’s flag bearer for the presidential election was fast approaching, and all the candidates were moving round the country wooing delegates. The previous week, two of my colleagues at The Guardian (Dr. Reuben Abati and Chukwuma Nwokoh) and I had interviewed General Olusegun Obasanjo at his Otta farm in Ogun State. Obasanjo and Ekwueme were the two top contenders for the PDP ticket and it was only fair that both be given equal space in The Guardian.
As Ekwueme fielded the questions from me that early morning on New Year Day, I could not but admire his depth of knowledge, his articulate delivery of facts and figures, his sense of history and his determination to see Nigeria prosper.
He dwelt on issues relating to agriculture, education, religion, foreign affairs, political party formation and growth and other pressing national issues. It was clear that he and his aides had done some thinking on how to move Nigeria forward.
Two hours after the interview started, I packed my tape recorder and notebook and headed for the door. We bade each other farewell and while he strolled to the nearby church for the New Year Service, I entered the car that brought me and the driver and I left for Lagos.
All through the journey back to Lagos, I couldn’t stop feeling sad that given what was on the ground, Obasanjo was likely to clinch the party’s ticket instead of this urbane, articulate and knowledgeable man. Some of us reporters knew quite well at that point in time that the forces propelling Obasanjo were simply unstoppable.
Our experience the previous week with Obasanjo showed a man who was still trying to overcome his unfortunate prison experience. His answers to many questions were disjointed and you could easily tell that he needed some time to put himself together. But at that time, the “owners” of Nigeria had decided who they wanted to take over from General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
General Abubakar was in a hurry to relinquish power, and the “conclave” felt it would be safe to entrust Nigeria in the person of Obasanjo; a man with plenty experience and with a military background like most of them.
Roll back to 1986. The Justice Samson Uwaifo panel had just finished its assignment and recommended the release of former President Shehu Shagari and his deputy, Ekwueme from detention. The previous regime of General Buhari had detained the two indefinitely without any charges brought against them. The succeeding Babangida regime was navigating how to grant them freedom, without causing much disquiet in the polity.
I had written an analysis on the development in The Guardian, as a rookie reporter. A phrase I used which lumped Ekwueme among the widely unpopular group of politicians of the Second Republic, drew the attention of Mrs. Omobola Onajide, who sought me out.
She had worked with the Vice President during the Second Republic as a top civil servant. I went to her house in Ikoyi and she then proceeded to lecture me on how honourable Ekwueme was. Beyond his accomplishments as man with several degrees in diverse fields and a very successful architect, Ekwueme, she said, was NEVER a corrupt man. He was a listening man. He helped people whenever he could. He was a mentor to many people. He was an excellent father. And so on and so forth.
Any time I visited her in those days, the visit wouldn’t be complete without a word or two about this man of great character. At a point, I mischievously thought it was idol worship. Needless to say, Mrs. Onajide has remained my friend ever since.
Sometime in 2008, at the burial of Mrs. Virginia Chuks-Nwosu (mother of my friend Eloka) in Achina in Anambra State, the former Vice President was present. As would be expected, almost everybody at the event went to him to pay respect. His presence was a testimony to his loyalty to friends and people generally. For he had come for the burial because the deceased was his classmate in primary school. Ekwueme built and nurtured networks and relationships.
October 2nd this year, some of us had accompanied Ken my cousin to the house of Mrs. Helen Ekwueme somewhere in Ikoyi, Lagos. Mrs. Ekwueme is the Aunt of my cousin’s wife and she and other members of her family – they are from a prominent Itsekiri family — had insisted that we hadn’t finished “properly” burying Ken’s mother-in-law, who was buried three days earlier. So we trooped to Ikoyi to do what was required and I led the family delegation.
As you entered the expansive living room, it is the life-size picture of Ekwueme that welcomes you. It is a clear evidence of who is the man of the house.
Such was his domineering presence that though he was naturally a quiet man, he was always a noticeable man everywhere he went to.
Ekwueme was a highly cerebral man. But he didn’t need to shout for you to recognise him as such. Two sentences from his mouth were enough to confirm that. He was a very wealthy man. But he didn’t need to go about with a brigade of thugs for you to recognise that fact. He was a man of means. And like a tiger, he didn’t need to announce his tigritude.
As a human being, he surely had his weaknesses. But stealing from the commonwealth was not one of them. Nobody ever accused him of financial impropriety.
He was also a man of courage. He was one of the Group of 34 who rose up in 1997 to tell then dictator, General Sani Abacha, that his stranglehold on the nation had done enough damage and he needed to vacate the scene. The voice of this group of eminent persons added to the zeal of NADECO men and women and other resistance groups helped accelerate the end of that era.
Ekwueme may not have been a flamboyant person. But he was a cultured man. The nation needs more of his type in the public domain.
Ohwahwa, a former editor of The Guardian on Sunday, wrote from Lagos.
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