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Alex Ekwueme: The man in the arena with a purpose

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Charles Chukwuma Soludo

In October 2012, I chaired the Committee that organised Dr. Alex Ekwueme’s 80th birthday ceremonies. On October 16, we organised an international colloquium on Nigerian Federalism: Building on the Ekwueme Legacy at the ThisDay Dome Abuja—and this was the highpoint of the 80th birthday anniversary.

After some five years and three months, I am here today, at the Federal Polytechnic, Oko that has Alex Ekwueme’s imprimatur, to speak as we bid him farewell. For me, the loss is huge and the grief very deep. May his giant soul rest in peace!

Yes, Dr. (Chief) Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, GCON (Ide Aguata na Orumba) is dead. As it is usual with a moment like this, tributes from foes and friends will suffocate space. It is a fleeting moment of hyperboles that usually end on the Sunday of the outing service.

Thereafter, the deceased joins the list of the forgotten dead or occasionally but perfunctorily remembered in somber memorial events, while the living move on with their lives. It is the fate of all mortals but I pray that Ide’s shall be substantively different.

Ide was not God! He was human, with his own dose of human frailties and imperfections. But he was an exceptional human being. Tributes will pour in to celebrate Alex Ekwueme the architect, town planner and surveyor, lawyer, sociologist, historian, politician, philanthropist, Christian, husband, father and grandfather, technocrat, nation-builder, statesman, tennis lover and player, among others.

Many will celebrate his uncommon intellect, his legendary character epitomised by integrity, his credentials as a thorough bred democrat and nationalistic federalist, or his humane, passionate commitment to people and his giant philanthropic strides.

Like the proverbial elephant and the blind men, many will describe and miss him for different reasons.  Few humans have successfully juggled the demands of family, community, profession, and national service like Alex Ekwueme.

I have come today to join in celebrating Ide Aguata na Orumba.  But beyond the usual platitudes for an exceptionally eventful life, I want to devote this tribute as a message from Alex Ekwueme to all of us, the living. I was converted into a self-appointed apostle of Alex Ekwueme because of the message of his life. Growing up in this clime, the philanthropic exploits of the man better known around OAU, as “Ekwueme Oko” was news and ennobling.

As a pioneer student at Uga Boys Secondary School, one of Ekwueme’s beneficiaries, Cyprian Ifekanandu Okafor, was my classmate and he told many enchanting stories about this exceptional man. In August 1980 and as we were waiting for our JAMB results to go into the university, I was excited to join a crop of activist OAU students, which included Romanus Achusi (Isuofia), Chidi Ezeaguba (Nanka), among others, as foundation members of the Ekwueme Movement, and with Dr. Anene Uzuakpunwa as Coordinator. In 1981, I became the Secretary of NPN students’ wing at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), and later in 1982, the Chairman.

Simultaneously, I was the chairman of OAU students’ wing of NPN from 1982 and coordinator students’ wing of NPN (old Anambra and Imo— current South East zone) in the 1983 presidential election. On December 19, 1982, I was miraculously saved from a ghastly motor accident along Oko-Ufuma road, as we were traversing the communities of OAU campaigning for our own IDE. From 1980 until his death (37 years) I was a devoted student and apostle. We were there for him when he made his bids for Nigeria’s presidency, and remained sufficiently close to him until death.

Why was I such an unapologetic devotee? The answer is simple: I saw in Alex Ekwueme a man who came before his time; a man who realised and lived out the full essence of life, which is to leave society better than we met it; a man who refused to join them even when he could not beat them but instead insisted on fundamental principles, as beacons for social progress; a man worthy of emulation in many respects.  I am a devotee because Alex Ekwueme exemplified an impactful life. He impacted his environment—and it is evident that Oko, OAU, Anambra State and Nigeria became better because he lived.

I must admit that Alex Ekwueme was one of the early influences on my life. I believe that our lives only make meaning when we live for others, and that at a macro level, public service is the best form of philanthropy.

Alex Ekwueme exemplified these, and that’s part of why I was a devotee. It seems to me that American President Theodore Roosevelt foresaw the life and times of Alex Ekwueme when he spoke about “The Man in the Arena” at a speech he delivered on April 23, 1910 in Sorbonne, Paris, France.

According to Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”.

For much of his entire life, Alex Ekwueme was “the man in the arena”! But he was not just in the arena: he was in the arena with a purpose. Perhaps, Rick Warren knew of the life and times of Alex Ekwueme when he authored the bestselling book: “A Purpose Driven Life”.  In his classic also, “The Wretched of the Earth”, Frantz Fanon observed that: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it”. Ide bore the beacon of his generation and swore not to betray its mission. He discovered his mission in life very early on, and strove to exemplify a purpose driven life.

Ide lived out a purpose driven life not only through his devoted Christian life, but through prodigious private charity/philanthropy, and stayed long in the arena to alter the macro environment through public service and statesmanship.

In other words, Ide served out a lifetime of service to God by changing the fortune of mankind. That is the true meaning of a purpose driven life. On private charity and philanthropy, Ide lived out the content of John Wesley’s injunction to: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can”.  Ide was a community builder, built or facilitated in building of schools, hospitals, and churches, offered countless scholarships, created jobs, and mentored hundreds. The Bible enjoins us to devote 10 per cent of income to “make food abundant in God’s house”.

Rick Warren admonishes us to reverse that, and instead devote 90 per cent to public cause. I don’t know what percentage Ide doled out, but he certainly left a huge challenge to all of us. What is the purpose of accumulating wealth if not for the purpose of touching lives beyond ourselves and family? That is the question Ide leaves with us!

But private philanthropy is not enough. Alex Ekwueme agreed with Martin Luther King Jr. that “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary”.

In more than 50 years of perseverance in the public arena, Ide served Nigeria as Vice President and gave us the six geopolitical zones as a framework for national cohesion. He also taught us an enduring lesson: If you have the conviction of purpose, never quit. Alex Ekwueme never quit. From the early 1960s, he contested election into the Eastern Regional House of Assembly under the NCNC and lost. He probably never won any individual election as a candidate under a political party system, but he never quit politics. He lost the NPN gubernatorial nomination to Chief Christian C. Onoh in 1978 but he never quit. He later served as VP and was jailed in spite of his exemplary public service, but he never quit. He led the G-34 and co-founded the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which twice denied him nomination as its presidential candidate, but he did not quit.

He was all but shoved aside and humiliated countless times by the party he founded but he did not quit. He founded the PDP and died as a PDP member. There are very few Nigerians who can make a similar claim. In the end, the history of the Nigerian arena belongs to Ide and a few others. And that is what counts!

Alex Ekwueme was “the gentleman” of Nigerian politics in a game dominated by street urchins, dirty money and by those Chief Obafemi Awolowo described as ‘men and women of easy virtue’. He fiercely stuck to politics of ideas, principles and rules—and was continuously “surprised” that most of his contemporaries played politics of convenience and took no prisoners. He could not compromise honour, decency and integrity in public service.

It was always refreshing hearing him talk about “merit” and “qualifications” in a terrain where it was believed that just anybody was “qualified” to do any job. Ide’s values in politics should be a serious subject of study.

Ide Aguata na Orumba left an even more profound message to us all. Ide was a professional and in all his years in the public arena, he had verifiable and sustainable sources of livelihood. He was not in the arena as a source of livelihood but as a platform for selfless public service. This is what separates Ide from most others and is probably a major reason for his uncompromising set of pristine principles.

As the saying goes, a hungry person does not philosophise.  Ide was different. Modesty and contentment characterised his outlook and lifestyle in spite of his personal wealth. Ide paid to serve, and served selflessly. He was probed for years after office as Vice President and it was concluded that he left office poorer than he was when he took oath of office.

That is a badge of honour and integrity, uncommon in Nigeria, which Ide Aguata na Orumba will carry to heaven. With this lesson, Ide leaves us with a message and a challenge. Igboland and Nigeria are in search of men and women of high virtue who, though hungry, can still refuse a pot of porridge. Where are the new Alex Ekwuemes of Nigerian and Igbo politics?

Yes, Ide Aguata na Orumba has lived and gone. But he also left several messages to Nigeria and humanity. The graveyard is filled with thousands of geniuses whose brilliant ideas either never saw light of the day or passed as flickers. Those that survived have one thing in common—they have determined disciples.

Where are the disciples of Alex Ekwueme? This is the time to stand up to be counted. It is not the empty words that we utter at this moment or the fleeting display of solidarity for public show, but the steps we take each day and every year to live out the true meaning of the Alex Ekwueme’s message, and transmit same to the next generation, that will count.

Whether it is in the area of giving back to society unconditionally and leaving society better than we met it, or selfless public service and unique ideas and values that last, or as beacon of character and industry, Alex Ekwueme has left us with enough new grounds to form the fulcrum of the New Ekwueme Movement.

Yes, I call for a New Ekwueme Movement. Alex Ekwueme died as a person. But he lived as an institution. The institution must not be allowed to die.​ Alex Ekwueme as an institution deserves and needs urgent volunteers as disciples to carry on with the message and legacy left behind. How can we become Alex Ekwuemes in our individual lives in our communities, local government, state and Nigeria and how do we organize to collectively ensure that Ekwueme as an institution lives?

Yes, there is the Ekwueme Square at Awka and we hear of the Alex Ekwueme Foundation; yes, the Federal Polytechnic, Oko needs to be renamed and upgraded to Alex Ekwueme University of Technology, Oko; and yes, there should be several other artifacts to remind us that a great soul passed through this clime.

But the most important is that Alex Ekwueme as an idea and as an institution must live in our hearts and minds, today and tomorrow.  The greatest tribute to this genius should not be mere words, though important. The greatest tribute is to answer the call to discipleship. The moment is now, for I dare to ask: If not you, then who; and if not now, when?


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