The bells tolled for Dr Alex Ekwueme on November 19. And the former vice-president answered the call that no mortal has the power to reject. In his going, we have lost the most level-headed politician our country has ever produced. If you describe Nigerian politicians as gentlemen, you waste the word. If you describe Ekwueme as a gentleman, you nail the word. It is the word that best describes him as a politician and as a statesman.
I first met the then vice-president sometime in 1983. I was editor of the New Nigerian at the time. I sought an appointment to see him because I was increasingly worried about the allegations of corruption against the Shagari administration that had become disturbingly rife. He graciously received me in his well-appointed office. I did not go through a phalanx of protocol and security men to see him. He was alone in his office when he welcomed me with a moderated smile. He had not yet cultivated the grey mane of his later years. I saw a handsome man who, I thought, did not quite cut the picture of the expansive Nigerian politician. What he exuded was the air of political power but the cool, calm air infused with intellectualism. He was so disarming that I felt momentarily disarmed. He asked after my family. I found that both unusual and interesting. He said my newspaper was doing a good job with its editorial stand on national issues. I felt my head expanding with pride.
I then brought up what took me to his office. I asked him if they were aware of the allegations of corruption against the government. And if so, what were they doing about it?
He admitted they were aware of the allegations but that they found it difficult to do anything about them because no one was prepared to back up his allegations with verifiable facts. As I recall, he said, “Once you ask people to bring the facts, they either clam up or disappear altogether. No government can deal with corruption without facts. The opposition parties believe they have a duty to give this administration a bad name by making such wild allegations. It is all primitive politics. I think what they fail to realise is that they are not just smearing this administration; they are also reducing the prestige and the integrity of our country in the international community.”
He spoke calmly and from the heart. As he spoke, I could feel his pain, the sort of pain honest people feel when they helplessly watch their names being dragged through the mud.
I cannot recall the details of how our conversation drifted to India. Ekwueme seemed genuinely fascinated by the tremendous progress that country had made. “You see,” he said, “India has become a net exporter of food. Given its large population, it is a miracle that it cannot only feed its people but also feed people in other countries too. I believe there are important lessons we must learn from India to give muscle to our Green Revolution Programme.”
I could not agree more. He said he intended to visit India in 1984. And he gave me a standing invitation to accompany him on his planned trip. The trip never was. Early in 1984, the generals chose to abandon their barracks for the state houses across the land once more. Ekwueme as well as President Shehu Shagari and other leading politicians in the second republic were herded into detention for many months. And I am left dreaming of visiting the Taj Mahal. Khaki men kill dreams, you see?
In 2002, Ekwueme published a semi-autobiographical book, From state house to Kirikiri, in which he detailed his experiences during his detention in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Lagos. I was most pleasantly surprised that he had such a high sense of humour and could make fun of his political misfortune in such a self-deprecating manner. He related the fascinating story of how he and his fellow VIP detainees engaged in a competitive shocking sport of ‘bombing.’ I won’t tell you what ‘bombing’ is. The one who released the loudest ‘bomb’ was declared the winner. One would not expect those very important people to engage in such a competition that engaged us as children in my village, Ikpeba.
In the book, he disclosed that he went into public richer in 1979 but was thrown out of it in 1984 much poorer than he went in. Ekwueme was an architect and a lawyer and had a very lucrative architectural practice before the lure of political office made him sacrifice his wealth for national service.
Ekwueme was cheated by the system but showed no bitterness in his account in his book. He spoke ill of no one. Men without bitterness are men with large hearts. They are rare.
The next time I saw Ekwueme was in Geneva in 2003. Both of us attended a conference organised by the Forum of Federations, a body that brings together all the 51 federated countries in the world. The conference usually discusses the various issues that individual countries contend with in politics. I first attended the conference in the company of Alhaji Abdullahi Adamu, governor of Nasarawa State, in Canada a year or two earlier. President Bill Clinton delivered the key note address at that conference. The Forum meets regularly to exchange ideas on best practices in federalism.
Ekwueme and I served on the same syndicate at the Geneva conference. I found him rather reticent. I expected him to talk about our peculiar national problems with the nature of our federalism. He simply chose to listen to other countries’ problems. I then noticed that he was quietly amused when an Indian member of our syndicate recounted a recent experience in his country in the conduct of their general elections earlier in the year. The Indian said they had eight million polling stations to which they posted four million policemen during the election. I cannot pretend to know why this amused the former vice-president.
Ekwueme was accompanied to the conference by his lovely wife. He introduced her to me later in the evening when we went on a boat cruise. I asked him why he chose to say nothing about own national problems with our federal system. I thought we had enough problems with the system worth airing at the forum. Ekwueme told me he believed that the talk shop would not offer us any solutions to our problems. He said, “I prefer to talk about our problems at home, not outside the shores of our country.”
He was there, he said, to learn whatever lessons worth taking away from other countries and see how he would modify them and apply them to our situation. “In any case,” he said, “these countries know enough about our situation.”
I think he was loath to washing the mess we had made of our federalism in full view of the rest of the world. He was right even if I felt disappointed that he did not appear to accept to lead the Nigerians at the conference. It was the last time I saw him at close quarters.
Throughout his political career, Ekwueme refrained from controversies. He consistently offered sober views on issues that agitated the polity. He chose to be a statesman rather than a tribal champion. I think that was wise. Championing tribal interests would have diminished him as a statesman. Ekwueme was humble and self-effacing. At the Geneva conference he always introduced himself simply as Alex Ekwueme. Humility was wired into his DNA.