Ekwueme: The Democrat Who Gave Abacha Red Card

Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme
Image: Wikipedia

The soft, gentlemanly features of Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme belie the heart of steel inside the late first ever Vice-President of Nigeria. Back in 1998, Nigeria’s Head of State, General Sani Abacha, had perfected plans of transmuting from a military leader to a civilian president. Abacha got all the five existing political parties to adopt him as the sole presidential candidate. Ekwueme met with his fellow politicians, 17 from the North and 17 from the South, that became G-34. As the chairman of G-34, Ekwueme took charge of forwarding a letter to General Abacha, warning him not to ever dream of turning himself into a democratic president. It was akin to giving a red card to a murderous dictator by an unarmed civilian.

Many Nigerians waited with bated breath, believing that there was no hiding place for Ekwueme and his group of crusading politicians. Then Abacha suddenly died. And soon after, the winner of the June 12 1993 presidential election, Chief MKO Abiola, whom Abacha had kept in captivity also died. General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who took over after Abacha’s death, announced a 9-month transition to civil rule programme. The Ekwueme-led G-34 decided to turn into a political party that became People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Alhaji Isa Kaita came forth with the suggestion that Ekwueme should be named as the presidential candidate of the party. Ekwueme said he would only accept the nomination if it came through an all-encompassing democratic process. That is the essence of Ekwueme – a democrat through and through.

Ekwueme simply means a personage who does what he says. In his chequered lifetime, Ekwueme was a man who lived up to the exact letters of his name. He was an architect of the first order, town planner, philosopher, attorney-at-law, sociologist, historian, politician, educationist and statesman. He backed up every discipline with a well-earned university degree.

Ekwueme was barely three months into his second tenure as the Vice-President of Nigeria in the Second Republic regime of President Shehu Shagari when the military overthrew the government on December 31, 1983.

In his memoir, From State House to Kirikiri, published by Nwamife Publishers, Enugu, in 2002, Ekwueme gave a candid account of his multiform experiences in detention for about 30 months, to wit, from December 31, 1983 to July 3, 1986. The military men who took over power detained Ekwueme in the following Lagos addresses, namely: Bonny Camp, Victoria Island; Temple Road, Ikoyi; Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons; Ikoyi Prisons; Hawksworth Avenue, Ikoyi; Barlow Street, Ikoyi; Ruxton Road, Ikoyi; and Milverton Road, Ikoyi.

When he was eventually released from detention, he was ferried to his country home in Oko in the then Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State where he was not allowed to travel farther than his local government in the first 18 months. Then gradually, he was allowed to venture within the state, and later other parts of the Nigerian nation. It was in 1989 that he earned the special permission to travel outside Nigeria for some two weeks. About eight years after his detention, in 1991, he was allowed the full freedom of movement as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution.

According to Ekwueme in the preface of From State House to Kirikiri, “The story was written between 1984 and 1986 and, for the most part, smuggled out of prison. I took the decision at the time of writing that it would be published only when the civilians had finally and firmly taken over the reins of democratic governance in Nigeria. The idea was that it might point civilians to the danger and consequences of playing into the hands of the military. I had thought that the waiting period before publication would be a matter of a few years.”

Ekwueme’s optimism could not be borne out as the military stayed put in power, and the book could only be published some 16 years after it was initially written.

It was in the wee hours of the last day of 1983, at 4am, that the military coup-makers came knocking on the then Vice-President’s door. Four guns were pointed at him, and he was told by the gun-toting soldiers that their mission was to bring him to the Army Headquarters. Ekwueme thought he was being taken to the Independence Building at that ungodly hour only to be told by the Army Major that Army Headquarters was now at Bonny Camp.

He had no suspicion that a military coup was imminent, as the coup broadcast was a surprise, thusly: “Fellow countrymen and women, I, Brigadier Sani Abacha of the Nigerian Army, address you this morning on behalf of the Nigerian Armed Forces…”

Ekwueme took note that of the 15 members appointed to the Supreme Military Council by the new Head of State General Muhammadu Buhari, 12 were from the North while only three were from the South.

While being detained at No. 4 Temple Road, Ekwueme took to abstinence from food. It was on January 17, 1984 that Ekwueme saw the inside of a prison for the very first time in his life, and it was the dreaded Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison. It dawned on him that not all who found themselves in prison were actually criminals. When he overheard the ACP of Kirikiri Maximum discussing the matter of confining him in a cell, Ekwueme said: “I mentioned the matter of my claustrophobic propensities to the ACP and suggested half threateningly that it might be wiser for him to leave my cell door unlocked if he expected to find me alive the following morning.”

Of course after the overthrow of Buhari, the Justice Samson Uwaifo Tribunal set up by Military President Ibrahim Babangida to try the detained politicians eventually set Ekwueme free, stating that punishing Ekwueme would amount to “setting a standard of morality too high for saints in politics in a democracy to observe.”

Another sterling testimonial for Ekwueme came from the erstwhile Communications Minister Audu Ogbeh who stressed that “ministers and key government officials with frivolous memoranda at Federal Executive Council meetings usually feared Dr. Ekwueme,” revealing that Ekwueme saved Nigeria a loss of N800 million in 1983 alone.

Born on October 21, 1932 in Oko, an erosion-ravaged town in present-day Orumba North LGA that was carved out of the old Aguata LGA in Anambra State, Ekwueme lost his Anglican Church pioneer father at the age of nine. A child prodigy, he passed the competitive entrance examination into King’s College, Lagos, and had to make the long journey from rural Oko to metropolitan Lagos. He topped his class, winning a Fulbright scholarship along the line.

He studied architecture and city planning at the University of Washington, and later obtained a Master’s degree in urban planning and a Doctoral in architecture from University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom. Ekwueme also earned degrees in sociology, history, philosophy and law from the University of London. He was called to the Nigerian Bar later in life after undergoing the grind of the Nigerian Law School.

He established Ekwueme & Associates, the first indigenous architectural firm in Nigeria that designed the splendid structures showcasing Lagos, Abuja, Enugu and sundry Nigerian cities.

A self-effacing philanthropist, he ensured that almost every family in his native Oko hometown benefitted from his facility of sending outstanding students to universities in the United States of America for further studies. He undertook from scratch the building of the institution that is now known as Federal Polytechnic, Oko.

As a resourceful political thinker, he put forward his political philosophy in the book Whither Nigeria? Thoughts on Democracy, Politics and the Constitution, 1999-2000.

At the 1995 Constitutional Conference, he courageously fought for a just and equitable power-sharing formula that posited the inclusivity of zoning based on the six geopolitical zones. This initiative of Ekwueme has helped in many ways to stabilize the Nigerian polity.

On his role in making Obasanjo, who failed to win his local government, the president, Ekwueme said: “If am a troublemaker, Obasanjo would not have been civilian president because at the Jos convention where he was elected, I had in my pocket a copy of the NEC (National Executive Council of PDP) decision of November 1998 show­ing that to qualify you must win your local government. The NEC had taken a deci­sion and only a convention can change that decision, and no convention has been called to change that decision…”

He played the gentleman so that democracy could survive, but unfortunately, PDP, the political party he helped to found, being its first Chairman, and then Chairman of Board of Trustees, is today embroiled in crisis as a result of its failure to adhere to his principles of sportsmanship, inclusivity and zoning.

Ekwueme died on November 19, 2017 at the age of 85 years, and the Federal Government on February 2, 2018 renamed the Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo in Ebonyi State as Alex Ekwueme Federal University (AE-FUNAI) to immortalize him.

Ekwueme would have been 90 years on October 21, 2022, whence this 90th posthumous birthday tribute.

Written by
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
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