BY NNIA NWODO
Today is exactly two years since the cold hands of death took our former Vice President, erudite, incorruptible, unassuming and astute Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme. His burial was a deserving state burial. The tributes from erstwhile political foes and friends poured ceaseless encomiums on him as a statesman. It is amazing how Nigerians, friends and foes alike, hardly say anything negative about the dead. What is however remarkable in all the tributes paid to our revered leader in those sad moments is the unanimity of most of them on Ekwueme’s incorruptibility, patriotism and committed service to his fatherland.
As I write about Ekwueme today, I will not continue with the tributes but I will like to raise a few issues arising from his life and death which continue to give our country a troubling image of a people who may never recognise the paths to their greatness.
I had the distinguished pleasure and rare opportunity of serving in the Shehu Shagari/Ekwueme government at a very impressionable age. Special Assistant to the President at 28 and Minister of Aviation at 30. In these positions I had very intimate working relationships with both the President and the Vice President. President Shagari was a committed nationalist, a meticulous administrator and an exemplary bridge builder. Vice President Alex Ekwueme was the intellectual vault of the government, the friend and loyal ally of the President, and the enforcer of all government decisions. Because of his loyalty and closeness to the President, he wielded enormous influence but his comportment, demeanor and language portrayed the opposite. His mien was gentle. He tried to convince you rather than intimidate you in his encounter. He lived out his oath of office in his incorruptibility and complete allegiance to his country. He virtually knew every section of the Constitution and would not allow the Executive Council to unknowingly flout any of its sections. Between him and the President, the chemistry was superb. Sometimes they just needed to glance at each other without uttering a word and resolution was achieved with a contagious application to all their subordinates.
Planning was his major responsibility as Chairman of the Economic Council. He took this duty seriously and was determined to lay the structural foundations for our growth. For the first time, Nigeria had a Ministry of Science and Technology; the Steel Mills gained priority in the budgets. Education was conceived as the surest path to the future. Food security, known then as Green Revolution, was a cardinal policy of government. The nepotism and divisive ethnic passions which characterised Nigerian politics disappeared. Even though their party, the NPN had no majority in the National Assembly, this did not portend political tension and insecurity. The opposition headed the House of Representatives as Speaker and fielded ministers in the cabinet, while his party provided the President of Senate. Leaders of all the parties in the National Assembly were hosted in strategic meetings by the Vice President on any bill intended to be put before the National Assembly. Ekwueme, a consummate Board Strategist, navigated through those meetings with consummate skill and diplomacy. Most bills of the government sailed through the National Assembly without much acrimony. The government worked. I have continued to wonder why that government was overthrown by those who had nothing ideologically opposed to it except a vain desire to attain power. Regrettably, that development opened a gateway for meaningless military coups that stultified our growth as a nation and left us in our present beggarly status. Many political pundits have argued that the 1983 coup was intended to forestall an Ekwueme succession as President. If Ekwueme had succeeded Shagari in 1987, he would have long abdicated the position in, for the farthest, 1995 but our democracy would have been stabilised and more productive. What have we indeed learnt from this recklessness? Nothing. After the military interregnum of Babangida/Shonekan/Abacha and Abdulsalami, what followed? Babangida’s transition was aborted by, in the views of many, an attempt to avoid the emergence of a President from the wrong place. If Ekwueme can’t be, certainly Abiola, even if a Moslem, cannot be.
Shonekan too could not be tolerated. Abacha then designed a conference which gave birth to a national consensus of six political zones authored by Dr. Alex Ekwueme. Had those zones formed the basis of Nigeria’s administrative structure, we could have been more of a wonder than Rwanda. Why was Alex Ekwueme denied the Presidency and about 14 years later his formula for the restoration of political cohesion and growth in Nigeria buried? Has anyone offered a better solution? I hear someone say that our problem “is not structure but process”. What process? The process that gave birth to an electoral system that makes us the laughing stock of the world. Tell me any nation that seven months after their elections are still in the courts disputing the transparency of their process. Tell me any country that is Federal in name and constitution but running a unitary system- all because we must not recognise that Alex Ekwueme saw tomorrow today.
Two years after Ekwueme’s death, we cannot feed ourselves, Housing is elusive to urban and rural dwellers. Education is falling in standards. Infrastructure is despicable. Health care is tragic. Rule of law is upside down. The debate for restructuring still rages.
Against this gloomy background, our sources of revenue are dwindling. Oil will soon become a disposable source of energy and so our national revenue will collapse. As national income dwindles, businesses will collapse, so will VAT and other forms of taxation – import duties, company taxes etc. Chaos and danger looms because we did not heed Ekwueme.
Vice President Ekwueme, we mourn you, we remember your scholarship, your unwavering commitment to making our country a better governed place, a richer economy and your philanthropy.
Please forgive us for not heeding to your recommendations. If the dead can help the living, please do not desert us. We can still turn around.
Rest in perfect peace our dear father and statesman.
Chief John Nnia Nwodo, a lawyer, economist, politician, is the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, former Minister of Information and Culture and former Minister of Civil Aviation.