by Alexander O. Onukwue
In the first week of November, the announcement that former Vice President, Alex Ekwueme, would be flown abroad for medical treatment raised many conversations on social media. Many, particularly of the opposition, interpreted the move as patronizing to persons of the South East and not commensurate with the dignity of the person of Dr Ekwueme. But that did not stop nearly everyone wishing and praying for the recovery of the elder statesman, who, in the generality of the thoughts of many, represents the best of the breed of politicians ever produced in Nigeria.
In that week and the days that followed, persons like Simon Kolawole, publisher of TheCable, wrote a warming piece in honour of the cerebral architect, sociologist, lawyer and politician, to not be found guilty of the common act of putting off the praise of good men till after their death. A public affairs commentator and strategist of the PDP, Demola Olarewaju, staved off gainsayers who argued against his proposition that Dr Ekwueme qualified to be considered a ‘National Treasure’, providing evidence of Ekwume’s thoughts and works on nation-building. Ekwueme was alive (though in a coma) and people were talking about his life, showing through their goodwill that they would rather have him stay than go. Juggling the thoughts of her father’s health, Barr Alexandra Onyemelukwe was on the campaign trail hoping to add to her already impressive resume and make daddy even prouder.
Sadly, Dr Ekwueme passed away at 85 in a London clinic. It is a major loss for the illustrious Ekwueme family, for the people of Oko and for Anambra state. Being the person from South Eastern Nigeria to have attained the highest executive honour in the country (if you excuse Nnamdi Azikiwe’s ceremonial presidency), the loss is also significant for the South East. A quick glance through the region does not immediately bring up names of other grey-haired old men from whom wisdom can be sourced to stem the ethnic and populist tides that have contended with national consciousness over the past two years.
And it is definitely a loss for Nigeria too. James Ibori has described the expression of sadness as the shedding of “crocodile tears” but surely he must be wrong.
The idea that perhaps reflects Ibori’s theory of “crocodile tears” relates to the fact that Muhammadu Buhari, as Head of State in 1984, had organized the coup which overthrew Ekwueme and his principal, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Ekwueme was also detained and questioned, presumably with Buhari’s assent, on charges of corruption from that second republic administration. Hence, the thought goes, they cannot be really grieving the passage of Ekwueme. The thought probably borrows from the perception that people don’t change their feelings of people (like don’t expect that Buhari has changed his thoughts on the 5%, even with chieftaincy title). Chief Ibori also points to the 1998/9 manoeuvre against Ekwueme who had been best qualified to be the president of the new democratic Nigeria. Indeed, “what if” is a significant sigh but one wonders why it is Mr Ibori making it, given how much he benefitted from the eight-year tenure of the man who became president instead of Ekwueme. Heck, Ibori was leading the charge to give that man a third term!
The sigh and grief, from the generality of peace-loving Nigerians of goodwill, for Dr Ekwueme’s passing are not crocodile tears because he may be the last good and upright man of his generation. But, to give Chief Ibori credit, it is a development that should produce “what if” sighs. Maybe Ekwueme’s presidency could have set the standard for electing leaders in this country, those who would go into Government and come out of it without having to answer to charges of multi-billion naira corruption from home and abroad. Maybe Ekwueme, the urban planner, would have designed a Nigeria that would accommodate every Nigerian without any having to go die in the Mediterranean while seeking greener pastures in Europe. There would probably have been no ‘python dance’ or ‘crocodile smile’ because the man who became a lawyer late in life would do justice to all before the need for agitations arose. And the sociologist would always be one step ahead in knowing the mood of the nation, giving everyone their due in appointments and development.
And, to reemphasize, maybe the lawyer president would have made so strong a case against corruption by setting a living example so that all state governors that served within the period would be watchful and emulate him.
Could more have been done to save him and keep him longer? That is not a question anybody is asking and rightly so. The only necessary endeavour for the country is to review the legacy of a life well lived, grant him the most dignified rite of passage and start raising leaders after his likeness.