Thank you, Vice President Alex Ekwueme
“No doubt, when this statesman (Dr. Alex Ekwueme) passes, many years hence, we pray, tongue-in-cheek Nigerians will gather to lament about ‘another greatest president we never had.’” – Lamentations and the self-destruct spirit; The Guardian, February 28, 2017.
When I wrote the above words some 10 months ago I had truly believed the architect of Nigeria’s six geo-political zones would be with us for many more years, contributing his usual priceless counsel to the making of Project Nigeria. Recent pictures of the octogenarian suggested he enjoyed good health; and there hadn’t been any report to the contrary. Alas, little did l know that the Heavens had, even back then, decided to call up one of their own within the year. And rightly so, I might add with hindsight: the late former vice president hardly belonged here, much like the first “greatest president we never had” was deemed by many as a misfit in our clime. But that is a twist to the narrative, to which we will return presently.
The existential challenges of the average African student in the United Kingdom (UK) had deprived me of the luxury of closely following Nigeria’s internationally acclaimed transition from military dictatorship to democracy, which sprung Alhaji Shehu Shagari, and his then little known deputy to power in 1979; but in December of the same year, the words “Dr. Alex Ekwueme” writ large in my impressionable mind. The venue was at the British Post Office in London.
In those days, (I am not so sure about the present practice) the British Post Office used to make creative use of the over supply of holiday students in London in December, to answer to the need of extra hands for sorting the usual huge haul of mail at Christmas. The job was relatively easy, and the pay relatively good. It was an annual ritual of sorts for African students in the UK. I was thus engaged on a very cold winter morning when I, at random, picked up a large white envelope addressed thus: Mrs. Margret Thatcher; 10, Downing Street, Westminster, London; England.
On the top left hand corner of the envelope were the words “Office of the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Ribadu Road, Ikoyi…”. Before sorting the envelope into its designated box, I impulsively showed it to my nearest colleague, Hartson Emesibe, a fellow Nigerian; and we both openly admired our vice president’s cultured handwriting – it was the handwriting of someone who spared attention to even minor details.
Long after, I would at random recall those artistically crafted letters on a large crested envelope, and wonder at the make-up of the personality that had written them. In late 1981 l would once again cross paths with Ekwueme during the course of my duty. I had in the preceding year, whilst in the employ of the Nigerian Petroleum Refinery Company (NPRC), in Port Harcourt, made a compilation of what seemed to me like unacceptable design lapses in a particular brand of vehicle assembled in Nigeria by a global manufacturer; and subsequently sent same to the Federal Ministry of Industries for further investigation.
The ministry reacted swiftly; the vehicle was consequently adjudged sub-standard and eventually withdrawn from the Nigerian market. I later learned that after the vice president read the ministry’s incident report on the matter, he directed that “the NPRC staff be co-opted into all standing committees on road vehicles under the ministry.” I felt deeply humbled in the knowledge that my modest contribution was greatly appreciated by someone in the second most important office in the country. I couldn’t resist the urge to express my appreciation to the vice president.To my greatest surprise, Ekwueme promptly responded in a three-paragraph letter, signed by no other person than himself. The words in those paragraphs proved to be the most inspiring I would ever read. They continue to inspire me even to this day.
As would be expected, news of the letter reverberated in NPRC; its CEO, the incomparable Chief J. J. Akpeiyi, one of the brightest Nigerian minds you ever met, caught wind of it, and immediately asked to see the original copy of the vee-pee’s letter. Much to my disbelief, Akpeiyi thereafter approved a post-graduate scholarship for me! I fervently hope that other persons in powerful positions would learn the implicit moral of my life-transforming encounter with our widely respected and cerebral Ekwueme: it takes the least of efforts for those in high office to make a huge impact.
From the tributes that have been pouring in since his passing in early November, there is no doubt that the late vice president was among the few Nigerian leaders who know how to employ a high office to make a huge impact on the greatest number. Therefore, Nigeria is the poorer that he was consistently denied his well deserved opportunity to “restore the years the locust has eaten,” in spite of his best endeavours. Lamentations and the self-destruct spirit was in part inspired by this realisation. Like the then Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, also rightly observed during the 50th anniversary of the death of Ambassador Isa Wali, Nigeria has a surfeit of identified able men and women who can make very impactful contributions to national development; but what she desperately lacks is the collective will to allow such identified persons, irrespective of tribe or religion, make their contributions.
Ekwueme’s qualities as a public administrator had shown as a bright star back in the Second Republic, 1979/83. His brilliance as a political strategist again had stood out amongst equals during the dark days of the dark-goggled general, mid-1990s. Ekwueme’s audacious Group of 34 later metamorphosed into the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at the dawn of the Fourth Republic, 1998. The former vice president had therefore been the logical, if rational presidential candidate of the party; but he was denied by Nigeria’s legendary treachery. Self-same treachery was reacted in 2003 at the PDP Eagle Square contrived Convention. (It could well be said that PDP’s great dispersion started after the Eagle Square betrayal, albeit imperceptibly).
In spite of the repeat denials, Ekwueme remained true to both his country and political party; a rather uncommon attribute in these parts. Even while he was yet submerged in a sea of political treachery, he singlehandedly laid an impeccable foundation on which a truly great Nigeria could be built: The Six Geo-Political Zones. It was the creation of a genius; and decidedly the single most important political achievement in Nigeria since 1966. What an enviable legacy; no greater tribute can be paid to the departed intellectual politician than for Nigerians to insist on completing the envisioned Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme Six Geo-Political Estate.
Emerging evidence does suggest that the accomplishments of the quintessential architect would vouchsafe for him a permanent place in the hearts of true patriots as the Father of Modern Nigeria. Mr. Vice President, sir, thank you so very much, as we, your millions of beneficiaries, wish you a blissful journey to Abraham’s bosom.
Nkemdiche, a consulting engineer lives in Abuja.
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