By OBINNA EZUGWU

At a gathering of some journalists to discuss the country’s challenges a fortnight ago, a question was posed by the coordinator: “Between Dr Alex Ekwueme and President Olusegun Obasanjo, who would have made a better president?”

The audience comprised Nigerians of different tribes and tongues, but the answer was uniform: “Dr. Ekwueme.”

Then the follow up question: “Why wasn’t he nominated instead of Obasanjo?” Everyone stared at each other and their silence spoke the obvious fact..

In those two questions lay the real challenge that has kept Nigeria down since independence in 1960. It is a country where leadership selection is based not on competence, but on religion, tribe and other pre-mordial considerations. And more than any politician in Nigeria’s history, the late Ekwueme has been a victim of these base considerations.

It would be difficult to predict what the outcome of an Alex Ekwueme presidency could have been. Would Nigeria have been a better country if he had ruled? What things could he have done differently?

These are questions that will forever go unanswered. On Sunday 19th November 2017 at a London clinic, Dr Ekwueme (GCON), a former vice president breathed his last following a relapse which resulted into a coma at his Enugu residence.

As expected, tributes have continued to pour in for him. It is a country where real heroes are appreciated in death but scorned in life.

President Muhammadu Buhari in a statement by his spokesman, Mr Femi Adesina, said he “commiserates with the entire Oko Kingdom, the Aguata Council of Traditional Rulers, and the Ekwueme family, over the loss of the family’s patriarch, whose regular counsel on national issues and mediations for peaceful co-existence would be sorely missed.”

Pointing out that the late former VP’s unwavering commitment to the unity of Nigeria had been a major encouragement to many governments.

“President Buhari believes Dr. Ekwueme worked assiduously to improve the livelihood of many poor and underprivileged people through the Alex Ekwueme Foundation, describing him as a man who served his country and humanity.”

Senate President, Bukola Saraki, in a message on Twitter said Ekwueme was a man who showed exemplary courage in the face of extreme odds.

“Today, I join Ndigbo and the entire nation to mourn the passing of one of Nigeria’s most illustrious sons, H.E. Dr. Alex Ekwueme, our first elected Vice-President. As we mourn his death, we celebrate his dedication and service to the development of our country,” he wrote.

“I will always remember Dr. Alex Ekwueme for his exemplary courage in the face of overwhelming odds — when he stood up to past military regimes, and his dexterity in his personal pursuits as a successful architect, lawyer, businessman and philanthropist”, Mr. Saraki added.

Ekwueme was, without a doubt, a man who served his country selflessly, and gave his best in spite of the odds.

An accomplished architect and philanthropist, he became the country’s Vice President in 1979 with Alhaji Shehu Shagari as president, nine years after the civil war. And although the administration was toppled barely three months into its second tenure by the Buhari led military coup in 1983 and he was consequently jailed for two years despite being found innocent by different bodies charged to investigate him, he never lost hope in the country, nor was he discouraged like most people in his generation.

In early 1994, Dr. Ekwueme participated in the Nigeria National Constitutional Conference (NCC) in Abuja, where he served on the Committee on the Structure and Framework of the Constitution. It was through him that the country’s now widely recognised six-zonal structure was conceived.

At the NCC, he proposed for a just and equitable power sharing in Nigeria based on the six geopolitical zones.

During the General Sani Abacha years of brutal dictatorship, he mobilised the Group of 34 eminent Nigerians – the famed G34, who risked their lives to stand up against the late dictator, which later became the nucleus of the PDP. .

Upon Abacha’s death and the process of transition to civil rule began, the G34 formed the nucleus of the emergent ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a party he served as pioneer chairman of its Board of Trustees.

In 1999 and 2003, Ekwueme tried unsuccessfully to clinch presidential ticket of the PDP. He lost out on each occasion to President Obasanjo in what was largely seen as conspiracies against him.

Ekwueme had gone to Jos for the 1998 PDP convention basking on hope of emerging the candidate, but unknown to him, the power brokers had decided it wanted Obasanjo. He was in the end, delivered a humiliating defeat. But even so, he accepted his fate, congratulated the winner and waited for 2003.

Unfortunately, he would still suffer the same fate in 2003 under some regrettable circumstances. Ahead of the PDP primary election for that year’s election, Ekwueme was to enter into an agreement with then Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who had fallen out with Obasanjo. The plan had been for Atiku to support Ekwueme to emerge candidate, join him as vice presidential candidate and then take over from him after four years.

However, some former military leaders worked to undermine the arrangement because they didn’t want Ekwueme as president. One of them, it was said, actually threatened to call in the military for a coup should Ekwueme be allowed to emerge president.

Faced with this opposition, Atiku retracted and eventually made up with Obasanjo with whom he ran and retained power. In the face of all, Ekwueme accepted his fate calmly and moved on with life.

Former Delta State governor, Chief James Ibori was one of those who worked assiduously to ensure that the Ekwueme presidential project materialised in 2003, but was apparently disappointed with the way things eventually panned out. In a tribute last week, he did not pull his punches. He noted that the country which refused to allow the late Ekwueme to rescue it is now “shedding crocodile tears” over his death.

“Though His Excellency, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, GCON, was a great leader, a national father-figure, a stabilizing factor in Nigerian politics, I Chief James Onanefe Ibori can never stop asking “what if!” Ibori said in a statement by his spokesman, Tony Eluemunor.

“It is ironic that the nation that betrayed this man’s effort to rescue it from political and economic morass will, now that he is dead, begin to shed crocodile tears.

“Even those who betrayed the very effort to make Ekwueme President, may begin to, hypocritically of course, bewail the fact that Ekwueme or the Igboman or woman, has never ruled Nigeria.

“In politics, he was both gentlemanly and fatherly, introducing mildness even when the others had embraced roughness and irascibility.

“If only we had allowed Ekwueme to rule Nigeria, what example would he have set? Now, we will never know…and Nigeria is the ultimate loser,” Ibori stated.

But it would be interesting to note that it was actually in 1983, and not in 1998 that the conspiracy against Ekwueme began.

Having been elected vice president for a second tenure in 1983, he was poised to become president in 1987 at the expiration of Shagari’s tenure, but his presidency was a prospect the military establishment could not contemplate; therefore they stepped in via a coup to truncate the Shagari government and consequently hauled Ekwueme to jail.

“They gave excuses of the corruption of the Shagari era, but as we saw, they became much more corrupt than Shagari’s so called corrupt government,” noted Prof. Pat Utomi, political economist and former presidential candidate.

“If you really think of it, the issue couldn’t have been corruption. The truth is that the class of ‘66 feared something that was going to happen, which is that Shagari was going to handover to Dr Alex Ekwueme in 1987, and they wanted to stop it.

“They can tell any story they want, but the coup of 1983 was designed to prevent Ekwueme from becoming president of Nigeria in 1987, which is why they accused Ekwueme of running the government instead of Shagari who was president. So, while they held Shagari under some kind of house arrest, they put Ekwueme in prison,” he noted. The same people also stopped him in both 1999 and 2003.

It was Buhari who led the coup of 1983, it is Buhari who as president few days ago, made available presidential air ambulance to fly Ekwueme abroad for treatment to the appreciation of many Nigerians. But his would be kind gesture soon turned sour. While the presidency had in a statement, indicated that it would bear the cost of his treatment abroad, his family would eventually disclose on November 13 that such was not the case.

According to a family source who spoke to Vanguard, the Chief of Staff to President Buhari, Mr. Abba Kyari, who released an Air Ambulance to take Ekwueme to London, informed the family that it was the extent the government could go.

The source wondered why the government would promise to treat Ekwueme as a former vice president but later back-tracked on the promise.

“We are not surprised about the development because Ekwueme has not been receiving his entitlements from this administration. The Federal Government was not pressurised to make the promise. It did so of its own volition,” he was quoted as saying.

“It is not as if our family could not have treated him in the best hospital in any part of the world. Even if they are not treating him, let them pay him his entitlements when he was still alive. They should not wait until he dies so that they will come and pay tributes to him as the best man while alive.”

A day later however, it was disclosed that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha visited the Ekwueme in the hospital in London where he promised that the government would now bear the cost of his treatment.

In a statement on November 14, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu stated that upon approval by President Buhari, Dr Ekwueme was rushed to the hospital in an air ambulance in what was described as a critical condition.

“The SGF, who was in London before Dr Ekwueme’s arrival, was received by his spouse, Mrs. Helen Ekwueme on behalf of the Ekwueme family. Mr. Mustapha told the Ekwueme family that the President and all Nigerians are praying for the speedy recovery of the elder statesman, adding that he believed that the doctors were doing their best.”

But not many must have been impressed. In a tribute to the late VP, Chief Goddy Uwazurike, President Emeritus of Aka Ikenga while extolling the virtues his virtues, told BusinessHallmark that those who refused to give him a helping hand when he desperately needed it could now shed crocodile tears.

“Dr Ekwueme lived a life that can only be called a fairy tale!” Chief Uwazurike said.

“He had an early education, went on to read widely diverse courses and to the highest level. In politics, his past deeds gave him the VP seat. We saw an immensely wealthy man put his resources to good use. Even with his position in life, he went to the Nigeria Law School and sat down with kids of the age of his grand kids.

“He refused to lower his standards in other to win the 1999 primaries of the PDP. He was the epitome of the ideal statesman. The people who refused to give him a helping hand in his moment of severe illness can now shed their crocodile tears,” he concluded.

Born on October 21, 1932, the late Ekwueme had primary school education at the St John’s Anglican Central School, Ekwulobia before proceededing to King’s College, Lagos.

As an awardee of the Fulbright Scholarship in the United States of America – he was one of the first Nigerians to receive the award – he attended the University of Washington where he earned bachelor’s degree in Architecture and city planning. He later obtained his master’s degree in urban planning in addition to degrees in sociology, history, philosophy and law from the University of London. He later proceeded to obtain a Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of Strathclyde, before gaining the BL (honours) degree from the Nigerian Law School.

He was a distinguished architect who started his professional career as an Assistant Architect with a Seattle-based firm, Leo A. Daly and Associates, and also with the London based firm Nickson and Partners.

Upon his return to Nigeria, he joined ESSO West Africa, Lagos, overseeing the Construction and Maintenance department. He would go on to found a successful private business with his firm, Ekwueme Associates, Architects and Town Planners, the first indigenous architectural firm in Nigeria.

His business blossomed with 16 offices spread all over Nigeria, but was wound up in preparation for his assuming office as the first executive Vice President of Nigeria in 1979.

On the home front, he was actively involved in the socio-economic development of his community. He founded Educational Trust Fund that has been responsible for sponsoring the education of several hundred youths to universities in Nigeria and abroad.

Dr. Ekwueme was a member of the housing sub-committee of the Adebo Salaries and Wages Review Commission. He also served for many years on the board of the Anambra State Housing Development Authority. He left behind, his wife, Mrs Helen, children and grandchildren.