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Remembering the life and times of ex-VP, Alex Ekwueme

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Ekwueme (middle) during a meeting of stakeholders of the Old Aguata Union (OAU) in his country home in Oko, Orumba North, where he endorsed the governorship candidate of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Anambra State, Mr Oseloka Obaze and his running mate cum Ekwueme’s daughter, Mrs Chidi Onyemelukwe

The late former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, will forever be remembered for his simplicity, humility and intelligence-qualities that endeared him to people of all walks of life.

This was the general consensus among those who eulogized and paid tributes to the deceased in their speeches in his honour. With several university degrees in different fields at a young age, Ekwueme really showed that the youth could truly be leaders of tomorrow.

He became Nigeria’s Vice President at 46, a feat that seems impossible in the Nigeria of today. Ekwueme is a man of many parts, who meant different thing to different people.

Those who knew him well would readily say he never lived a life of luxury, but used every opportunity available to assist people. They disclosed that he never traveled on first class or business class. He always boarded the economy class, converting the difference to helping pay tuition fees for indigent students in his community and beyond.

Sources said he was a replica of his father, Lazarus Ibeabuchi Ekwueme, a teacher of Anglican Church, who traversed the length and breadth of the country, teaching and establishing mission schools for the Church.

His simplicity was key to his survival and advancement in education, as he excelled in almost every discipline he ventured into.

A native of Oko community, Ekwueme’s country home, Chief Donatus Onuchukwu, told The Guardian that the late former Vice President lived for all, especially the less privileged in society.

Reminiscing on his personality, he said: “Not many can still remember much about him, because his quest for knowledge took him away from our community quite early. He was a brilliant person and was being promoted from one class to another.

“I remember clearly that he did two classes in one year at the Ekwulobia Central School and got a scholarship to study at the Kings College. He was probably 11 or 12 years old then. He loved knowledge so much and spent time trying to acquaint himself with it.

Onuchukwu, who was at the commendation service in Enugu for the late sage, stressed that while Ekwueme was growing up, “many thought he would have become a pin the Anglican Church, because of his passion for the work of God. He was in most activities of the Church and related very well with pastors.

This perhaps was his way of keeping with the legacy of his father, who served the church throughout his life. He was a humble boy and was very focused in all his undertakings. So, it is not a surprise to us that he graduated quite early and engaged in several other activities in the quest to acquire more knowledge.

“He may not have raised many politicians, but he raised other professionals in various fields. From childhood, he was encouraging his peers to study. I recall the day he made two of his classmates change from picking other peoples’ property in class and become serious students in the school. He was always happy seeing people compete in class for knowledge,” he said.

He explained that the death of their father brought some level of hardship to the family, adding however that, he braced through the challenge by gaining scholarship, which enabled him to study in various institutions.

“I don’t think I still have much to talk about him, but all I know is that, he realised he was a product of scholarship and struggle and throughout his life gave scholarship to people to study, irrespective of sex, language and ethnicity.

Those who visited him for this purpose could testify that he paid several school fees, built institutions to make people happy and majority of those now mourning him are people he shouldered their responsibilities,” he added.

Alex’s younger brother, Professor Laz Ekwueme, said, “He loved God and his fellow men to the extent that many people took advantage of his kindness and generosity.

“He was generous, an extra-ordinarily talented man, who ranked among the best in the world. He gave more than 30 per cent of his earnings to the churches, communities, institutions and individuals. He had a forgiving spirit and forgave those who wronged him in
business and politics.”

It would appear that the entire Oko community mourned him. The reasons are not far-fetched. Majority of the people said Ekwueme touched almost every home in the area with his generosity and kind words of advice. It was gathered that in the attempt to develop infrastructure, create jobs and empower his people, he invested his personal resources in the building of the structures, which presently house the Federal Polytechnic, Oko.

Before it was transmuted to a Federal Polytechnic, it was known as Oko Community Hospital, which Ekwueme single-handedly built, but was taken over by the government and renamed Comprehensive Secondary School, Oko.

The community also attributed the network of roads, electricity and health care centres to him, stressing that, a large chunk of his personal resources were invested in human development.

They stated that the Ekwueme Memorial Trust (EMT), an educational trust fund, established in 1965 catered for the education of several hundred youths in Nigerian universities and abroad.

One of the beneficiaries of Ekwueme’s gesture, Dickson Ozokwulu, now a Chemical Engineer, narrated how funds could have deprived him of studying abroad, but for the intervention of Ekwueme, whom he never knew until, “two young guys” he shared his experience with asked him to look for him (Ekwueme)

He said it was the money and recommendation from the EMT that saw him through his studies abroad, adding that even when he returned to repay what was spent on him, Ekwueme rejected it and asked him to do likewise to others in need.

The Guardian learnt that although his compound is different from those of his brothers, his main building (a storey building) was built long ago. There is another building added to the main building recently in an attempt to expand his compound and probably give him a place befitting of his status.

Yet, the buildings put together, are far less than what present day politicians erect in their country homes. The entire compound is being renovated to give it modern taste but it is still not markedly different from the one storey building he occupied at the Alvan Ikoku Street, Independence layout, Enugu, which underwent renovation a few years ago.

One of his bosom friends and former Presidential candidate, Dr. Sylvester Ugo, told The Guardian that, “Ekwueme was extremely humility and never succumbed to the temptations of materialism, even as he played politics and engaged in other spheres of human endeavor.

“We were friends for a long time. I knew him before I ventured into politics and I can tell you that he was an accomplished gentleman, a man of high intellect and impeccable character. He loved his fellow human being and was prepared to make sacrifices to make people around him happy. Whatever could yield to progress, peace and unity, he was ready to avail himself of it.”

A retired judge of the Court of Appeal and a member of the Good Shepherd Anglican Church where Ekwueme worshipped, Justice Eugene Ubaezuonu, captured it more succinctly when described him as “ a real man of God.”

Ubaezuonu, who said he played a major role in the choice of Ekwueme as Vice President to former President Shehu Shagari, explained that it emanated from the records and testimonies that people bore of him.

“I got to know Alex (as he was fondly called by his friends) closely during his political days. I was the Adviser to Dr. A. A. Orizu. At that time, Shagari had won the nomination of his party to fly its flag as the presidential candidate.

“So, Shagari decided that his vice must come from Igboland and asked Orizu to help him get somebody. Orizu called me to help present a candidate. After a careful survey, I presented Ekwueme. Orizu initially doubted my nomination but after taking him through the ladder on the kind of person Ekwueme was, he was convinced and so forwarded his name to Shagari.

“Shagari had subjected the nomination to another thorough survey and concluded that he was the right choice. Thereafter, we went on campaigns and toured the length and breadth of the country.

“He won and Ekwueme became his vice. He was very resourceful and that showed in the kind of contributions he made in that government that was toppled by the military.

“He wrote the memo to the committee set up by the government to formulate governance structures, where he suggested the creation of the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is presently a full-fledged Ministry contributing to the development of the country.

He was the proponent of the six geo-political structures for Nigeria, which has helped to solve various political and economic issues in the country. He designed the architectural structure of Abuja as capital territory and some airports in the country, among others,” he stated.

Ekwueme’s journey of life touched on several facets geared towards the lifting and development of the country.

His highest political attainment was serving as Vice President from 1979- 1983. His other attempt in 1999 to use the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) after he used the G34, which he formed to pressure the military to quit politics to clinch the presidency failed to materialise.

However, that did not change his love for the party and the country. He rather worked for the victory of the party in the general elections that saw the emergence of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

When the PDP lost power to the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015 and solutions were being sought to rekindle the party, Ekwueme told members of the National Working Committee (NWC), who visited him early last year with report of their recommendation to the party leadership that the story of the PDP made him sad.

His Last Journey
A few days after he celebrated his 85th birthday at Singapore on October
21, Ekwueme returned to the country to join in the governorship campaign of his daughter, Mrs. Chidi Onyemelukwe, who was chosen as the running mate to the PDP governorship candidate in the November 18, 2017 election in Anambra State.

He was said to have collapsed at his Enugu residence on Independence Layout after he took ill on October 29.  He was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit of the Memfys Specialist Hospital, Trans Ekulu, after efforts to revive him failed.

About two weeks after doctors battled to stabilise him, he was flown in an air ambulance to London for further medical treatment. It was, however, his last journey on earth, as he never returned alive.

He passed on peacefully on Sunday November 19, 2017, a day after the governorship election won by the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).
Since last month, activities peaked in Anambra and the entire southeast leading to his final journey home. Services of songs, parades of honour and commendation services were held for him in Enugu.

Activities also held at the Sports Club Enugu to commend the roles he played in promoting tennis. The roads leading to his residences in Enugu and Oko have been rehabilitated among several other activities in line with Igbo custom.

Igwe Umenyiora

Ekwueme Was The President Nigeria Never Had, Says Igwe Umenyiora
By Chuks Nwanne

The traditional ruler of Ogbunike Community in Oyi Local Council of Anambra State, Igwe John Ositadimma Umenyiora, has described the late Ekwueme as a reputable Nigerian, who stood by his words at all times.

While paying tribute to the later elder statesman, Igwe Umenyiora, who is a very close friend of the deceased, described him, as the President Nigeria never had.

“Alex is a president that was never elected. This is a gentleman and somebody that stands by his words. He’s somebody you can trust, a technocrat and honest man. The Igbo nation and the entire country will miss him. He is somebody we should all emulate,” he said.

Recalling his fond memories with Ekwueme, who also holds the title of Onunekwulu Ora of Ogbunike, the monarch observed that his humility remained with him till death.

“I remember some years back before he joined politics, I was coming back from London and he was in the same plane with me; I didn’t even know. I was in first class, surprisingly, I was told he was in the economy class with his wife, Beatrice.

“So, I had to go meet him and said, “what are you doing here?’ He said to me, ‘well, this is where I belong.’ I said, ‘no, no…’ But he told me, “Igwe, this is the way I like to live my life.’ He was very wealthy, but very unassuming,” he said.

According to Umenyiora, “Alex helped a lot of people. Many went to the university through him. He has done a lot for his people in Oko. Like I said, he is a president that never was. That is the way I like to describe him.”

Describing the late architect as an upright man, who handled his position diligently, Umenyiora recalled the verdict given by the judges set up to look into his activities while in office.

“When he was incarcerated after the military coup, he was to be tried and the judges that were to try him, after looking into his activities, described him this way: ‘If angels were as clean as this man, then this country would have been a different thing entirely.” They didn’t find him wanting on anything. He wasn’t a politician; he was just a technocrat, who knows a lot.”

To Umenyiora, Ewkueme’s death is a huge loss to Nigerian.

“This country has lost something extra ordinary because, this is the kind of people we need to develop this country. But politics being what it is in this country… he’s a very quiet man; you don’t see him jumping from one political party to another. He was a very serious minded fellow; that’s the way I look at him. He was a great friend of mine. In fact, his death was a great loss to personally. I gave him a chieftaincy title during his time as the Vice President. His death is a big loss to us all,” he added.

Upon his return from the United Kingdom, Ekwueme’s original plan was to vie for the governorship position in the old Anambra State, but it took the likes of Igwe Umenyiora to make him drop that plan for something bigger.

“I personally told him that the position was too small for him. I told him its either he goes for the President or Vice President. And as things turned out, he eventually got the slot of VP under the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).”

For Umenyiora, Alex Ekwueme was not a job seeker; he’s not the type that would rock the boat.

“I remember during the PDP convention in Jos that eventually produced Obasanjo as the candidate of the party, he (Ekwueme) would have been the presidential candidate of the PDP. But because of the way he does his things… if he tells you, ‘I’m going to do this…’ he’s not going to change his mind; he will never deviate.

“I remember Orji Uzoh Kalu and Abubakar Rimi met me; they wanted me to convince Ekwueme for Rimi to be his running mate and I met with him. He said to me, ‘Igwe, if Rimi could look for something else, I would appreciate it.

“He never told me whether he had A or B at the back of his mind as running mate, but for me, I suspected it might be Adamu Ciroma he wanted as his running mate, although he didn’t tell me. So, Rimi was really the one that distorted the whole plan; that’s how Obasanjo got into the system with Atiku.

“Otherwise, Alex was clear as the presidential candidate, but when this problem came up in Jos, Rimi moved with the youths to support Obasanjo. Although he played a major role in birthing the PDP, Ekwueme never carried the party as his personal property.

“If you think he is in a position to do a job, you leave him to do the job. But if you want him to struggle with you, Alex will be out of it. He is a self-made man and he knows what to do at every point. In fact, Shagari relied so much on him,” he said.

God Used Him To Make Me First Nigerian To Own A Bank, Says Subomi Balogun
By Chuks Nwanne

Whenever he tells the story of First City Monument Bank (FCMB), its founder, Otunba Subomi Balogun would always give credit to two great Nigerians for their role in birthing the financial institution.

First is Oladimeji Gbadamosi Otiti, who was the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) at the time, while the second is the late Ekwueme, who was buried yesterday. As far as Balogun is concerned, God used the two individuals to bring to life his dream of becoming the first Nigerian to own a bank.

In an interview during his yearly New Year prayer session at his Ijebu-Ode residence, Balogun described Otiti as a distinguished doyen of the Nigerian banking industry and a legendary benefactor of people like him, who dared to be pioneers in the Nigerian financial sector. Then, he specially singled out the late Ekwueme, who he said, pulled the last strings that saw the issuance of operational licence for FCMB.

“I’m a very appreciative person when you do any good to me. I was happy to give the testimony publicly during Otiti’s 90th birthday and I’m doing the same thing with the late Ekwueme. What I did at that time was unprecedented in this country for an individual to say he wants to single-handedly establish a bank.

“They wanted you to get a white technical partner. Beyond that, in the history of Nigeria banking industry, I think there was only one person, who started something in the name of a bank by late Chief Okupe. He was only doing money-lending enterprise. There was a statue that allows somebody to be lending, but nothing more,” he stated.

Balogun explained that for someone to set up a bank with branches all over the place without a foreign technical partner was not available in the country at the time, but that he got the inspiration to set up FCMB through his nine-year old son.

“We were praying and the young man went to his mother and said, ‘when we were praying, I pity daddy. Why not he go and start his own bank, instead of wanting to be the chief executive of somebody’s bank?’

“When my wife told me, I thought she was becoming faithless that we were praying to God, why not leave things in His hands? Then I told my wife that God was speaking to a nine-year-old boy; the young man is 47 now.

“And I made up my mind that I will do it. Naturally, human beings feel nothing is impossible but with God all is possible. All I was doing was pray, but God will not come personally, he will use other people,” he said.

For Balogun, God directly used Otiti and the late Ekwueme to assist him in doing what many people thought was impossible.

“In the case of Otiti, he was CBN Deputy Governor and someone just said to me, ‘we cannot give you a license because you don’t have a technical partner. I said, ‘God is my partner.’ Having said this, I knew some people in the CBN, something just struck me and I told my driver to take me straight to Otiti’s house.”

As at the time Balogun arrived Otiti’s house, the elder statesman, had gone to the then CBN Governor’s house to break his fast, as they were both Muslims.

“Again, I told my driver to go to the CBN Governor’s house. By the time we got there, I was already getting emotional and was shedding tears. I got to the gate and said, ‘I must see Otiti; I gather he is with the CBN governor.’ Those people, seeing a big man crying, said they must help him. So, Otiti and the CBN governor rushed out and I said, ‘Big brothers, these people want to scuttle my ambition of owning a bank because they said I don’t have a foreign technical partner.’ That I cannot be given a license to run a bank… I also said other emotional things,” he recalled.

At that point, Otiti calmly said to him, “Subomi, don’t worry, the CBN governor and I would arrange something provisionally, which will enable you to run that bank and later on look for a foreign technical partner.”

Having earlier been told by CBN staff that he could not own a bank without foreign partners, Balogun was a bit sceptical about Otiti’s option.

“Otiti was the first person to put my mind at rest, but he and the CBN governor were not giving the license at that time,” he noted.

Determined to see his dreams come true, Balogun resolved to reach to an old friend Ekwueme, who was the Vice President at the time.

“We had been friends before the war and he came back. So, in the Cathedral, my wife and I planned that when Alex is being led out, that I would grab his dress and my wife would grab that of his wife.”

Indeed, that was how he and his wife succeeded in getting the attention of the late former Vice President, but not without encountering his security aides.

“Alex looked back and said, ‘Subomi, Bimbola, what is happening?’ Do you know what I told him? You will read that in what I’m writing about him soon. I told him, ‘Mr. Vice President, why are you not giving me a license?’

About the same time, Otunba’s wife went to Lady Ekwueme and said, “my husband wants something, only your husband can give him.”

With the mild drama, Ekwueme has no option but to intervene.

“He said we should come to see him and he assured me that the following Thursday, I would get my license. By 3pm of that Thursday, a minister phoned me and he said, ‘Egbon, congratulations, the Vice President said that your license has been approved.’

“That was how the floodgate of Nigerians owning banks started. When I had my license, people were amazed. Some people even said, ‘if you have a license, you will rather be a multi-millionaire or their father will go to jail, but I am a person who is always grateful to my God and appreciative of whatever you do for me,” he said.

On the late Ekwueme, he said, “My institution will be doing something about the funeral; I’m personally in touch with the family. Just be patient until when we are burying Alex.”

However, Balogun’s relationship with the late Vice President dated back to the civil war era, that forced the Igbo to abandon their properties and fled from Lagos, the then capital city of Nigeria.

“I can tell you that during the war, many of our friends from the east abandoned everything they had and went away. The war was so hot that many people did not think it was right to remain in Lagos. The first house I built in my life was in Apapa, Alex had the next building to mine.

As soon as the war started, some pool players took over the house and were playing pool there; they will be there until midnight. But in wanting to protect my own house from being burgled by those people, I arranged for the police to evacuate them and having done that, I renovated the house and rented it out to a lady from the east and I was collecting rent,” he narrated.

When the war ended and Alex Ekwueme returned to Lagos with his family, he went to visit Balogun, whom he had not seen throughout the war period.

“After exchanging pleasantries, I went to my room and brought out a big envelope. In those days, we don’t use cheque much; it was all cash. So, I gave him the money. I told him I renovated your house, rented it out and this is the rent we collected.

Ekwueme looked at me. A number of our friends from the East lost their houses. In fact, some so-called friends took over their houses and claimed they were given. But for somebody, who was not familiar with him to take care of the house, rented it out and came to hand over the rent collected to him, Alex couldn’t believe it. All he could mutter was, ‘Mike, I am grateful.’ That was how our friendship started,” he narrated.

Impressed with Balogun’s kindness, the late Ekwueme resolved to go into a business partnership with him.

“He said, “with what you have done for me, let us do something to help the returnees from the war zone,” and I said, ‘what can we do?’ He said we should be selling building materials to rebuild the war-torn areas; it is in my book,” he noted.

Both men eventually started a company called the Renaissance Builders Merchant and were dealing on plywood and other building materials.

“Alex’s brother, Lawrence, was the salesman and we were making raw money. Every weekend, we would balance our accounts. After service, I would go with an envelope to Alex with his share of the profit, not knowing that God was going to use him to do something in my life and that of Nigeria.”

The friendship between Ekwueme and Balogun was very close that the first time he (Balogun) visited Oko, the late VP’s hometown, the people gathered to break kolanut to thank him for his kindness.

“I made sure I opened a branch of the bank in his hometown and a property owned by him. It was a Godly relationship between us, as God used Alex for me and also used me for him; it is a lesson for Nigeria,” he said.


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