Alex Ekwueme (1932-2017)
The death last Sunday, November 19, 2017 of Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, GCON in a London hospital was another big blow to the ranks of eminent statesmen, dedicated public servants and principled politicians in Nigeria. He was 85 years old and had reportedly suffered from a chest infection. After collapsing at his residence in Enugu on October 28, he was rushed to the hospital and was later flown to London in an air ambulance with assistance from the Federal Government.
Dr Ekwueme was the only Vice President of Nigeria during the Second Republic, 1979-83. Born on October 21, 1932, he attended King’s College, Lagos and was one of the first Nigerians to receive the Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Washington in the US. He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture and city planning and a Master’s degree in urban planning. Ekwueme received his LLB and a second PhD in Scotland in 1978, about the time that the military government led by General Olusegun Obasanjo lifted the ban on political activities. Though most people in his native eastern Nigeria supported the Nigeria Peoples Party [NPP] led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ekwueme joined the more broad based National Party of Nigeria, NPN and contested to fly its ticket for the governorship of Anambra State.
Even though he lost the gubernatorial primaries contest, NPN’s presidential candidate Alhaji Shehu Shagari later chose him to be his running mate, over and above more “heavyweight” politicians such as Dr. J.O.J. Okezie and Dr. Jerome Udoji. NPN ticket won the subsequent presidential elections and Ekwueme was sworn in as vice president on October 1, 1979. As vice president for four years Dr. Ekwueme was self-effacing, efficient, non-controversial and also upright. He brought his relative youth and high education to bear in assisting the government through its food and shelter programs. Shagari again nominated Ekwueme to run with him in the 1983 elections and even though they won, the Second Republic was overthrown by the military three months later.
Leaders of the Second Republic including Shagari and Ekwueme were herded into detention after the military coup.
Ekwueme spent 20 months in detention at Kirikiri Prison in Lagos. He was never arraigned before the Special Military Tribunals but the Justice Uwaifo panel, set up by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida, later exonerated him with the words, “Dr. Ekwueme left office poorer than he was when he entered it, and to ask more from him was to set a standard which even saints could not meet.”
Ekwueme lived a quiet life after his release from detention and did not show much interest in politics during the long IBB transition program. However, he gradually returned to political activity in the run up to the 1994 constitutional conference convened by General Sani Abacha. At the conference of eastern leaders to prepare for that conference, Dr. Ekwueme made far reaching proposals, including for the creation of six regions [the six geopolitical zones of today], rotational single term presidency, three vice presidents etc.
He later joined hands with other patriots to form a group of 16 [G-16] eminent persons that spoke out against dictatorship and for a full return to civilian rule. When Abacha died in June 1998 and General Abdulsalami Abubakar started another transition program, the G-16 chaired by Ekwueme expanded to G-34 which fathered the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. In 1999 and again in 2003 he sought PDP’s presidential ticket but lost on both occasions to President Olusegun Obasanjo. He turned down Obasanjo’s offer to become Senate President and was instead chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees.
In the run up to the 2015 elections Dr. Alex Ekwueme led a group called Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly which caused tension in the country by alleging that INEC was plotting to rig out President Goodluck Jonathan. Otherwise he served this country with zeal and dedication and would be remembered for his simplicity and uprightness. May his soul rest in perfect peace.