FEATURE ARTICLE

Michael NnebeFriday, January 26, 2018
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ALEX EKWUEME…..A GREAT MAN

t is true that I have not published anything in well over two years, and when he died on November 19th I deliriously thought this could also pass just like other national events about which I have deliberately failed to comment. Many have since written glowingly about him, but as we begin the final ceremonies in Abuja, Enugu, Awka, and lastly his burial in Oko on February 2nd it would be unconscionable for me not to write a few words in honor of the man who has charmed me for many years. As the first elected Vice President of Nigeria and a founding father of the PDP it is inescapable that Alex Ekwueme would be described as a first rate politician, but in all honesty I have known too many politicians and never saw him as one. There was something different about him, I have many times struggled to find the right words to describe what made him different, but it was always abundantly clear to me that he represented a little bit of sanity in an otherwise crazy world of Nigeria politics.

I had met dozens of people through the years in the UK and US who were sponsored by Alex Ekwueme to come to Europe and North America for studies. Over time I found out that there had been hundreds of these beneficiaries of his scholarships beginning from before his time in politics. Many families in Oko, Orumba North and South, and the old Aguata local government and beyond benefitted from his academic scholarships. He didn't just give out scholarships because he has the money, no, quite the contrary, he was a man who believed passionately in Education and how anybody's life can be changed through education. I don't know for sure the source of this motivation but he had lost his father when he was very young and it was through the help of someone that he was able to further his own education. Apart from sending hundreds abroad for studies he built a school in his hometown Oko and funded it himself for many years, it later became a polytechnic and eventually handed over to the federal government as Federal Poly Oko. One would have thought that such benevolence would naturally diminish with age, but that was not the case for him. Up till his death Alex Ekwueme was still maintaining scholarships for many young people studying overseas, and often these are people who otherwise could never afford such quality education. I remember specifically one such case just a couple of years ago when he was shopping for a foreign medical school where to send the brilliant daughter of one of his gatemen.

Many in Nigeria would surely remember him for the role he played in Nigeria politics, but for me personally I have no doubt that his most enduring legacy would be the hundreds of people he sent to study in various universities all over the world. And all these he had done quietly and continued to do quietly until his death. I wonder how many Nigerians have touched such many lives without any newspaper headlines about it. His passion for education is simply boundless, a few years ago I had the honor to attend the commissioning of a massive building he had built and donated to Unizik at Awka. The minister of Education and the Governor had both come to commission the building but Ekwueme could not be there, he had done the work that matter and since he was in London at the time I travelled with his daughter to represent him. And just a couple of weeks after his death I was also privileged to be present where Paul University Awka was presenting a doctoral award on him posthumously. During that convocation ceremony I learned that three former students of Paul University were currently overseas continuing their studies on Ekwueme's schorlaship, and I found out that he had built and donated their huge administrative building where we met the VC. These are just the couple that I witnessed but there are many such buildings donated quietly to various institutions across Nigeria, all without funfair and even media coverage. That is Alex Ekwueme for you.

Though he held various degrees he was best known as an architect, a brilliant architect and one of the most successful architects in the history of Nigeria. By the sixties he has already made his mark around the landscapes of Nigeria and Lagos in particular. But it didn't stop then, his work and signature could be seen all over Nigeria is landmark buildings like the National Theatre Igomu Lagos, the National Stadium Abuja, and the National Assembly extension just to mention a few, even the Abuja Federal Capital geographical masterpiece was designed by him. He was not one of those big men who simply delegated every work because of his status in life or age, I have seen him many times in his eighties still examining architectural drawings and putting corrections where necessary. His exterior fragile look represents a huge contradiction to the real man, one who remains mentally alert and engaging and one who still played lawn tennis regularly up till the end, he was even scheduled to play tennis two days before he fell ill. On the political front Alex Ekwueme is simply not your typical Nigerian politician, the man actually keeps his word, very straightforward, a true democrat, and a true Nigerian nationalist. He was not afraid to put his life on the line for the sake of Nigeria as evidenced by the meetings he hosted at his house on Raymond Njoku in Ikoyi with people like Bola Ige, Solomon Lar, and a handful of others who together wrote a letter urging Abacha not to transmute himself into a civilian president. This group eventually grew to be 34 in number and ultimately metamorphosed into what became the present day PDP. In spite of his heroism on behalf of Nigeria and his leading role in the creation of the PDP the party has since their primaries in 1999 treated Alex Ekwueme rather shabbily, quite ungrateful for his piloting role in the party. They only came calling when they have crisis and as always he would put aside every grievances to lend a helping hand but the PDP just failed miserably to celebrate or even recognize this man and his pioneering role for their party. In the end he never harbored any malice for he was always self-content.

On a personal level, I first met a couple of his children in the eighties back in London, later I met his wife Beatrice, and then I finally met the man. I had noticed an unusual level of humility in his children so I wasn't totally surprised when we met and I found in him a man who despite his position in life was profoundly simple instead of simply profound. I was amazed at how his every word counted and how he made sure that he kept his words on all matters regardless of how trivial. When I first came back to Nigeria he invited me to his country home in Oko and gave me invaluable advice on how to maneuver the ups and down of Nigeria. He asked for my CV and wanted to get me a federal appointment because he felt that I should make a contribution to the affairs of Nigeria. He repeated the same gesture when he introduced me to Soludo during the 2010 Anambra governorship election telling him to make sure that he took me along because he believed I could make meaningful contribution to moving Anambra forward. Sadly though I've never harbored any dream of political office at any level whether by election or by appointment so I never encouraged his desire to get me involved. I knew that if anyone could get me involved in any political office it would have been him because I truly admire the man a lot, but it just wasn't my thing.

I have however learned a lot from him just by mere association; one Sunday in 2012 he invited me to attend a church service at St. Faith's Cathedral Awka in honor of his relative that was being ordained an archdeacon, I went with him and his wife. During the sermon one visiting bishop preached what I thought was an unwarranted personal attack on Ekwueme, and by the end of that sermon I was quite livid and had made up my mind that I wasn't going to give them a single kobo of the one million I brought along as donation but when I looked at Dr. Ekwueme who sat next to me he had pulled out his check book and written a very large amount of money to help the missionary of this same bishop. I found it difficult to understand but that was Alex Ekwueme for you, he has a very forgiving heart and generous in his grace. That singular episode thought me a lot in life. In the end I enjoyed our countless hours together at his homes in Lagos, Enugu, and Oko especially sharing the best palm wine anywhere in Nigeria. Here's a man who showed me love much more than I expected, he invited me into his homes, was very kind and generous to me, always there for me including during my dad's burial in 1999 and my mum's burial in 2015, he did not only attend these two burials, he was there in every aspect to show love and care, that is what only a true friend would do, but he was more than a friend, he was my mentor, like a dad really, he was indeed the man who charmed me and I know that I will miss him dearly. Farewell Ide, rest in peace Odogwu akataka ndi Igbo.

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