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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme: Legacy of service to humanity

The late former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme played diverse and noble roles in his life. Among the roles, was his great impact on my life, in addition to few other positive ones I will mention and then attempt to expatiate on one by one.

First, Dr. Ekwueme was a great philanthropist. Second, he was a great intellectual as shown by his ability to earn degrees across diverse disciplines, including Law, Architecture, Sociology, Urban & Town Planning, et cetera.

As a great professional, he is one of the few Nigerians who not only had academic degrees, but also displayed his prowess throughout his practice and lifestyle. He started his Ekwueme Associates, an Architectural, Urban and Town Planning firm—which made major contributions to the development of the Nigeria.

By 1975-76 timeframe, Ekwueme Associates had about 13 architects on its payroll, including some of my classmates who graduated in 1975. Ekwueme Associates designed and completed all the Urban and Town Planning masterplans for each of the old 19 states' capitals of Nigeria, including the Abuja Federal Capital Territory (FCT) right at the onset of their creation. That was a very major contribution which many people are unaware of. Perhaps his greatest character trait was that he lived a very simple, unassuming, productive and inspirational life despite all his exemplary accomplishments

Then, there was Dr. Ekwueme — the great leader and politician, who was colossal both at the national and community levels:

At the community level, he brought a lot of development projects to his area, including the College of Arts and Science—which is the Federal Polytechnic, Oko today. This was in addition to several other city roads and infrastructural developments in Oko community and environs.

As a politician, he was a national leader and a great patriot. He was calm and very courageous. Of course, he was the Vice President of Nigeria from 1979 to 1983 during the Alhaji Shehu Shagari administration. Needless to say, he was a very loyal Vice President to Alhaji Shagari with whom he maintained a life-long friendship.

Dr. Ekwueme left a lot of legacies. One of the most outstanding of those legacies is arguably the six geopolitical zonal structure which Nigeria currently uses in the delimitation of units of political space. It is on record that as both a politician and leader, Dr. Ekwueme led the battle to restore democracy to Nigeria by rallying opposition to late General Sani Abacha who had wanted to transmute into a civilian dictator. In response, Dr. Ekwueme started assembling what was then known as the Group of 11, which soon grew to G-18, G-34 and finally became what we know today as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP).

As a politician, Dr. Ekwueme left a lasting legacy as one who was not only upright but also incorruptible. This sparkling quality was evident throughout his entire lifetime and throughout all the things he did in Nigeria--both in the private and public sectors. He was not corrupt. Indeed, not corrupt is a gross understatement. Dr. Ekwueme was incorruptible and I believe all Nigerians bear testimony to this fact.

At a time, such as now, when we are engaged in a war against corruption in Nigeria, let us not forget that there was a man who walked the political space in this country at the highest level. He had all the opportunity to amass wealth for himself and enrich his family, friends and cronies—which has since become the norm in our nation—but vehemently refused to do so. As is also common knowledge, at the time the government that he served was overthrown, in December, 1983, by the Military, led by no other person—than the current president, General Muhammadu Buhari.

In the end, Dr. Ekwueme was thoroughly investigated by the judicial Panel organized for that purpose and found totally clean of corruption. Remarkably, of all the politicians of that era investigated, Dr. Ekwueme was the only one that was found to be corruption free. Not only was he found to be free of corruption, the panel declared that he was the only one who actually came out of office poorer than he was when he went in. That is remarkable, even by international standards.

Indeed, Dr Ekwueme’s sterling qualities provide a lesson for both the federal government in particular and all Nigerians in general:
One very important lesson here is that there are still in our midst men and women of honor and integrity who could be counted upon to serve and restore the integrity of our nation, Nigeria. In other words, there is hope for Nigeria, provided we can look inwards and identify the right kind of people and skills who can help in this regard.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the passing of Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme offers this administration a great opportunity to castrate corruption at the highest level. To do this, I strongly recommend to the federal government to name or rename, as the case may be, the Headquarters of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) after Dr. Alex Ekwueme. An “ALEX EKWUEME HOUSE,” as the headquarters of the EFCC, will be a bold statement about our commitment to the war against corruption. This will immediately send out a message that we are committed to fighting the evil of corruption. It also sends the message that we appreciate honesty and probity and are prepared to demonstrate that appreciation. Most importantly, it would be a bold historic banner for our children and future generations to behold and study. No other honor that I can readily mention would be more befitting than that for His Excellency Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme.

Having mentioned earlier that the late Dr. Ekwueme was a great philanthropist, let me elaborate on that because I am not sure a lot of Nigerians are familiar with that side of him.

I think the best way I can talk about his type of philanthropy is to share my own first meeting experience with him. Prior to my first meeting with Dr. Ekwueme, I had received admission letters to various universities in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States for graduate work in Chemical Engineering, including from the Cambridge University, Imperial College of University of London, the University of Manchester (UMIST), McGill University, Canada; the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Oklahoma University. Only the last university gave me a teaching assistance position and allowed me to pay in-state fees, beginning my first day of enrollment. Financial assistance of any type in the other U.S. universities depended on my performance after completing the first semester. 

It was a Sunday afternoon, a day prior to my first meeting with Dr. Ekwueme, when I went out on a social outing and ran into two guys from Nanka, a neighboring town to Oko, Dr. Ekwueme’s hometown. I shared with them that I received admission and financial support to Oklahoma State University in the United States, but lacked the money to travel to the U.S.— despite the fact that I have two federal government scholarships. The scholarship issue is another topic for discussion elsewhere. These guys told me that there is one man called Dr. Ekwueme who will readily assist somebody like me to go for higher education. I remember telling them that there is nobody in Nigeria that will do that for a stranger; but, that I will try anyway and they gave me his office address at Ikoyi, Lagos.

The next day was Monday morning and I was in a long line of people waiting to see Dr. Ekwueme at his office at Ikoyi. When it was my turn, I presented my academic credentials to him and presented my request. To my surprise, he never asked me the expected questions such as “Who are you?”, “Who is your father?”, “Which is your tribe?”, or “Where is your town?”, et cetera.

Rather his first question was, “Are you ready to go to America now?” I answered, “Yes.” His second question: “Do you have a passport?” I answered, “No, sir.”

Before I could kneel down to beg to be allowed to go get a passport, he called one of his aides and told him: “when this gentleman comes back with his passport, please give him the usual two packages to go to the U.S. Embassy”. And that was it! Two weeks later, I was back in the office with my passport and I was given two envelopes! I did not see Dr. Ekwueme again.

One of the envelopes had a check for 2,000 Naira when one Naira exchanged for 1.5 U.S. dollars. In order to understand the value of 2,000 Naira at the time, a 4-door 504 Peugeot or British Rover sold for 4,000 Naira! This was a lot of money especially for me.

The other envelope had some papers in it and was addressed to the U.S. Embassy in Lagos. Next, I went down to the African Continent Bank and cashed the check, and used the money to buy a ticket. In those days, one has to go to the embassy with a plane ticket. I then proceeded to the American Embassy the same day. When I submitted the letter from Dr. Ekwueme to the embassy, they asked me if I am related to Dr. Ekwueme. I answered: “No.”

After looking at Dr. Ekwueme’s letter and the letter for financial assistance from Oklahoma State University, they gave me gave me a visa. Total time spent at the embassy was about 30 minutes! When I came out of the embassy, it was very sunny and I remember bursting into tears of joy.

Within a week and half, I was on the plane going to United States. The next time I saw Dr. Ekwueme was two years later, when I visited Nigeria after completing my MS and already enrolled in the PhD program in Chemical Engineering. I went in the company of one of my mentors, Chief S. N. Okeke, to greet him and he was hosting some distinguished chiefs in his house at Oko.

I was humbled and happy as he introduced me as one of his boys that he was very proud of. I strived to maintain a close relationship with him through letters; and despite his busy schedule, particularly after he became Nigeria’s Vice President, he never missed replying to any of my letters.

After completing my PhD in Chemical Engineering, I returned to Nigeria in 1986 and went to his house at Oko to pay back the money from Ekwueme Memorial Trust Fund. He refused to take the money and told me if I liked what he did for me, then I should go ahead and do the same for others—and you bet I have. There are many people like me that would not have accomplished their academic and professional goals without financial assistance from Dr. Ekwueme. What a philanthropist he was!

I cannot conclude this tribute without saying a few words about Dr. Ekwueme’s vision for Nigeria. The time was 1999 when I heard that Dr. Ekwueme was participating in the PDP primaries. I was on second to the highest rank in British Petroleum, North America out of Chicago, United States. I simply had to volunteer to assist in raising funds and supporting him through his campaign. I was the coordinator for the Midwest in the United States, while Professor Barth Nnaji was the coordinator for the entire North America. We like to claim that we raised the most money from the Midwest.

When he visited Chicago, I went to the airport in company of two gentlemen to pick him up. As soon as he got into the car, I gave him a proposal titled “Operation Infrastructure” for his campaign manifesto, and we drove him straight to Radio Chicago to tell the world why he decided to run for presidency of Nigeria.

To my amazement, it took us about an hour from the airport to the Radio Chicago premises and he finished reading the 30-page document and discussed his thoughts with me very intelligently. That is how I knew he was a very fast reader and when I asked him how he did that, he told me he took some fast reading classes to prepare for his busy schedule. I didn't expect him to read all of it, but he did read and understood it all.

He then asked questions about how to implement it if he indeed won the election. “Operation Infrastructure” was about three companies in each zone, including one for electricity; the second for telecommunication (telephone); and the third for water in each of the six geopolitical zones—a total of 18 companies in the whole of Nigeria.

All the companies would be private companies and ground breaking for all the companies would be at the same time and the same day. Details of planned implementation cannot be fully discussed here, but the idea was to give all parts of the country what they all need at the same time; and therefore, break the yoke of tribalism and sectionalism. We also agreed to establish ministry of national orientation to engage in programs that will bring Nigerians together through national financed intertribal marriages, sports and cultural displays.

Dr. Ekwueme and myself believe so much in one Nigeria that we want to put Nigeria first in everything we planned to do so as to unify the country, something we very much lack today!

Suffice it to say that Dr. Ekwueme was the best President that Nigeria never had. He loved Nigeria very much and so do I. May his soul rest in peace.

*Contributed by the author Professor Dickson Ozokwelu with 40+ years of diversified chemical engineering and management experience is currently in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Headquarters in Washington D.C., United States. Prior to his current position, Professor Dickson Ozokwelu has held senior engineering and management positions at BP North America and Eastman Kodak Chemicals. He is a leading International expert on Energy, Power, Oil and Gas. He has a rich and diverse experience cutting across academia, industry, entrepreneurship and government, where his forte is Renewable Energy. A former World Bank Consultant on Renewable Energy for Africa, Professor Dickson Ozokwelu is one of those many beneficiaries of Dr. Alex Ekwueme’s philanthropy by way of academic support through Ekwueme Memorial Trust Fund. In this very revealing interview, Professor Dickson Ozokwelu pays glowing tribute to the man who assisted him in achieving his glittering professional life.


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