One of the most remarkable events at the funeral of erstwhile Vice President Alex Ekwueme was the announcement by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo on Friday, February 2, that the Buhari Muhammadu administration has renamed the federal university in Ebonyi State after Ekwueme. The declaration received a thunderous and sustained ovation at the solemn requiem service going on at St John the Divine Church in Oko, Ekwueme’s hometown. The Anambra State government, which went out of its way to honour the great statesman, had the previous day held an interdenominational service in his memory at the Alex Ekwueme Square in Awka, the state capital.
It is delightful that monuments and institutions have been named after Ekwueme, one of the most enlightened, accomplished, upright and refined persons anywhere, exceedingly committed to the public good. A polyvalent intellectual in the finest tradition, he awarded scholarships to thousands of people in Nigeria and overseas he barely knew, allowed a large number of his tenants in choice places like Ikoyi, Lagos, to live for years without paying rents because they were facing business challenges, forgave those who betrayed him at the most critical moment in his life, showed no bitterness whatsoever to those who incarcerated him unjustly and even alleged to the Nigerian people that he was at the centre of crude oil contracts when he was the vice president whereas he knew absolutely nothing about such deals, and assist the very people sabotaging his presidential ambitions.
It is apposite that a higher institution is named for Ekwueme. Despite earning degrees in fields as diverse as sociology, philosophy, law, history, architecture and town planning, Ekwueme, unknown to most people, was pursuing simultaneously the Master of Law degree programmes at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, and the Abia State University at Uturu when he rejoined politics in 1998. He was at different times the chancellor of Paul University, Awka, as well as the Ebonyi State University. He took each job seriously. When a new university was battling with accreditation from the National Universities Commission, he secretly made N200m available to the institution with a stern warning to the authorities not to disclose the gesture. He was so self-effacing.
A couple of years ago when Michael Peel of Financial Times was conducting research to write a book on Nigeria and I helped arrange a meeting with the former vice president, Ekwueme rejected all entreaties to accept personal credit for the establishment of the College of Arts and Science in the late 1970s at Oko, now a federal polytechnic. He rather insisted that it was built by the entire Oko community. The polytechnic, the Oko Community Hospital and the impressive St John the Divine Church in the community are among different projects conceived and executed singlehanded by Ekwueme.
I am happy to disclose I played my own little part in honouring this great man in his lifetime. In furtherance of my belief that monuments, institutions, streets and roads should be named after truly exemplary figures so that they can serve as role models in society, I suggested in 1999 to then governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju that a major place be named for Ekwueme. The governor chose to name the most important square in the state for the statesman whom he served in the Second Republic as a special assistant and whose brilliant leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) enabled the nascent party to become the most acceptable political organization in Nigeria as the military were retreating to the barracks in 1999, thus enabling PDP candidates like Mbadinuju to win easily.
Mbadinuju was not capricious this time. Earlier in 1999 when Chinua Achebe was coming from the United States to deliver the annual Odenigbo Lecture of the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri in Imo State—Achebe’s first visit since his auto accident of 1990 which confined the globally renowned author to the wheelchair—I suggested to the governor to honour him by naming an important place for him. Mbadinuju chose to name a road linking the House of Assembly, the state legislative headquarters and Government House for the man of letters who had brought so much honour to the African world. I was over the moon. The governor went with his deputy, the speaker of the state legislature and all the members of the legislature as well as all commissioners to see Achebe in his Ogidi residence. On seeing Achebe in the wheelchair, Mbadinuju broke down, overwhelmed by emotions. He read out the letter proposing to name Anambra’s Three Arms Zone for the writer who graciously accepted. The event was covered by the media which praised the governor for promoting enlightened values.
But when some barely literate fellow suggested to Mbadinuju to name the same place Presidential Avenue to ingratiate himself on President Olusegun who was visiting the state, the governor heeded the advice of this controversial young government contractor! Despite all Achebe represents and all he did –and even continues in his grave– to bring honour to Anambra State and the rest of the world, there is no street or road or institution or monument named for him in the state. The situation would perhaps have been different if Chukwuemeka Ezeife had been governor for more than 20 months. I held a meeting with Ezeife in August, 1993, and recommended that Anambra indigenes who had won the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA), Nigeria’s most prestigious honour for artistic and intellectual achievement, be immortalized.
By this time, Anambra and Ekiti states were competing for the first highest number of the laureates. Among the winners were Pius Okigbo (economics), Ben Nwabueze (law), Ben Enweonwu (fine and applied arts), Chukwuedo Nwokolo (medicine),Alexander Animalu (physics), and, of course, Achebe who in 1979 became the first recipient in the country. I went a step further by suggesting that such internationally recognized icons as Olaudah Euiano, the first West African to write a book now entitled Equiano’s Travels;Kenneth Dike, the first African principal of the University College at Ibadan and later the first African vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan where he founded the famous Ibadan History School; and Chike Obi, Africa’s foremost mathematician, be immortalized.
Echoing the words of Okigbo, I argued that Nigerians should begin “to pay homage to education” rather than “calibrate everything in pecuniary terms”. I had hardly finished when Ezeife, who holds a Harvard PhD, jumped out of his seat and ordered that the tape of his broadcast on the forthcoming anniversary of the state be withdrawn so that he could include the government’s immortalization of these personages. He did add the immortalization part, but it was never implemented. Sani Abacha and his cohorts were to strike in yet another military coup d’etat three months later.
Both the Nigerian people and their leaders do not seem to appreciate that the type of people honoured in public places reveals everything about our value system. And many do not recognise the strong correlation between social values and economic development. Otherwise, the Kano State stadium would not have been named for Sani Abacha, and the Bayelsa State government would not have officially declared Deprieye Alamieyesigha, an ex convict, a hero, just as Delta State would not have been treating Ibori, another ex governor jailed for stealing humungous resources of his impoverished people and spending them on frivolities abroad, as an exemplary leader. To appreciate that societies with wrong values cannot develop competitive economies, I would like our researchers and scholars in particular to pore over books like Edward Banfield’s The Moral Basis of the Backward Society (1958), Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993), Francis Fukuyama’sTrust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity (1997), and Lawrence E. Harrison’s and Samuel P. Huntington’sCulture Matters (2000).
If by immortalizing a man of tremendous values like Ekwueme the Nigerian government has signaled that it now wants to go in a new direction, it means that there is a ray of hope for our society.
Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.