Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme was a man of destiny who exemplified the best of Nigeria. A child of humble beginnings in Oko, Anambra State, through the dint of hard work, love of country and his innate sense of dignity and decorum, Alex Ekwueme became a consummate statesman and visionary.
Dr. Ekwueme was blessed by God with a superb and versatile intellect. He earned degrees in such varied disciplines as Architecture, Sociology, Philosophy, History and Law.
That he learned and knew so much made him a most rare and skilled individual. That he would devote this wealth of knowledge and learning to the betterment of the people of this nation made him great. He was as outstanding a patriot as any man could be. His sense of humanity was palpable. There was no mean bone is his body. There was no malice in his speech. There was no evil in his deeds. He acted in the best of our traditions but also with a unifying and positive vision for the future.
Despite his exemplary skills, Alex Ekwueme moved about with great humility of spirit and singular modesty. He never sang his own praise. But his record of act spoke louder than words.
Accompanying his soft-spoken demeanor was a drive to achieve and a belief in personal and national excellence. Thus, this renaissance man broke ground by becoming the first architect in the country and by establishing the first indigenous architectural firm in Nigeria. His skill can still be witnessed in much of the architectural landscapes of this country.
Dr. Ekwueme had made his mark in the social and educational development in this nation long before he became the Vice President of Nigeria in 1979. He started an Educational Trust Fund responsible for sponsoring the education of many youths to universities in Nigeria and abroad. At the national level, Dr. Ekwueme was a member of the housing sub-committee of the Adebo Salaries and Wages Review Commission.
Yet it was on the national stage that he made his greatest contribution and the example he set would have a profoundly salutary effect on many aspiring public servants including me. Because of his outstanding personality traits and his broad expertise, he was nominated as the running mate for Alhaji Shehu Shagari in the 1979 presidential election.
As vice president, he showed himself to be an invaluable asset in governance of the nation. He was loyal to his boss and most importantly was ever faithful to the nation. He was genuinely concerned about bringing about a better Nigeria. His time and energy were geared towards nationalistic issues. He was always at the forefront of efforts to resolve problems. His deep intellectual interventions often helped the country navigate through critical periods and troubled times.
Those of us who cherish democracy and those of us who celebrate the end of military rule in Nigeria must never forget that it was this soft-spoken man who mobilised the group of 34 eminent Nigerians that would put at risk their very lives and livelihoods to confront the oppressive Abacha dictatorship.
The G.34 would later form the basis of the Peoples Democratic Party and Dr. Ekwueme was the founding Chairman of that party. I do not intend to delve into partisanship on this occasion but suffice it to say that had Dr. Ekwueme been allowed to play his proper and rightful role in the party he helped create, Nigeria would be a better place.
I have always admired Dr. Ekwueme even though our political paths diverged. I became close to him when I was Lagos State governor. In 2002, I helped put together a 70th birthday celebration for him. Chief Ekwueme was a son of Lagos in many ways. He attended Kings College, Lagos. He lived in Lagos. Also, his architectural business flourished more in Lagos. As he was the pride of the people of Anambra, he was also our pride. He helped make Lagos a better place and his success in Lagos helped demonstrate that Lagos was a welcoming home to all Nigerians who wanted to achieve and contribute to our collective progress and purpose.
One of the most memorable honours ever given me occurred in 2006 when I was conferred with the chieftaincy title of Eze Obalu-Dike Egwu, meaning the king who terrified the giant. This was done by his younger brother, Igwe (Prof.) Laz Ekwueme, the traditional ruler of Oko, and I believe it was done due to my close relationship with Dr. Ekwueme. Here I must say I learned so much from Dr. Ekwueme. He was a fount of wisdom and I am still learning.
At 85, the late Chief Ekwueme lived well. He was the finest of gentlemen and a loving family man. He served Nigeria so much better than it served him yet he never grumbled or complained. He was always willing to set at risk life and limb for a greater cause and a higher purpose.
In a telling interview he granted to a leading Hausa newspaper, Rariya, he said: “My vision for Nigeria is that Nigeria should become a nation rather than a country. Ghana is a nation. The type of massacre of people from certain groups that takes place from time to time in Nigeria won’t happen in Ghana. You will not see people from Ashanti descending on the Fantis and the Ga and others and killing them as if they are not citizens of the same country. And when you talk to a Ghanaian, without being told you will see that he is talking as a Ghanaian but when you talk to a Nigerian, by and large it will not show that they are Nigerians first and foremost”.
Dr. Ekwueme is no longer here to make his dream become our reality. We believe God has taken His son to a better home for a life well lived and a job well done. But the example and wisdom of Dr. Ekwueme belongs to all of us. We serve his memory well and serve our nation even better if we follow his example and make use of his wisdom.
Dr. Ekwueme was a man for Nigeria and all Nigerians. He was what we all should strive to be. This man personified a better nation. May his good soul find eternal peace and rest well in the bosom of the Lord. I pray that God grant his family strength and grace at this time and that He grant our nation too good sense to never forget this man and what he represented.