Published on Feb 05, 2018 Yawe Emmanuel
On 31st December 1983, President Shehu Shagari delivered a budget speech to a joint session of the National Assembly then left Lagos for a short new year holiday in Abuja. He left the Federal Government in the hands of his trusted Vice President, Alex Ekwueme.
Dr. Joseph Wayas the Senate President who presided over the Joint session also took a flight the same day for a holiday overseas. He left the National Assembly in the hands of Hon Benjamin Chaha, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
At night, officers of the Nigerian Army who had been conspiring to overthrow the government swung into action. They went to NITEL and disconnected all telephone lines. After that they invaded the residence of the Vice President and abducted him. With the President marooned in Abuja and all telephone lines cut off, the executive branch of the Government was effectively decapitated.
Could the legislative arm rise to the challenge and save the day? The military squad that abducted the Vice President took him to the house of Speaker Benjamin Chaha.
“It was a hectic day for me. After the budget session, I played a game of lawn tennis and retired to bed. Then I suddenly heard loud and rude banging on my door. When I opened it I saw a man I later came to know as Major Jokolo standing there in full military uniform. He took me downstairs and to the courtyard where I saw my Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme squeezed in a small car,” Speaker Chaha recounted to this reporter.
The significance of the meeting of these two captured leaders of the second republic was that the legislative arm of the government like the executive was also decapitated and the collapse of the Second Republic was now a forgone story.
Back in 1978 after Shehu Shagari emerged as the Presidential candidate of the NPN, there were many political heavy weights of the First Republic from the Ibo ethnic group to whom the party had zoned the slot of the Vice President. Shehu Shagari sent shock waves to all when he ignored them and nominated a little known Alex Ekwueme to run with him in the 1979 elections.
Ekwueme may not have been a household political name at the time but his profile advertised him as a man who groomed himself for the great task of providing leadership for Nigeria. He started primary school at the St John’s Anglican Central School at Ekwulobia from where he proceeded to King’s College Lagos.
As an awardee of the Fulbright Scholarship in the United States of America (being one of the first Nigerians to gain the award), he attended the University of Washington where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Architecture and city planning. He also obtained his master’s degree in urban planning proceeding from there to bag degrees in sociology, history, philosophy and law from the University of London. He later went ahead to obtain a Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of Strathclyde, before gaining the BL (honours) degree from the Nigerian Law School.
He started his professional career as an Assistant Architect with a Seattle-based firm, Leo A. Daly and Associates, and also with the London based firm, Nickson and Partners. On his return to Nigeria, he joined ESSO West Africa Lagos, overseeing the Construction and Maintenance department.
He then went on to create a successful private business with his firm – Ekwueme Associates, Architects and Town Planners, the first indigenous architectural firm in Nigeria. His practice flourished with 16 offices spread all over Nigeria. Dr. Ekwueme had presided over the Nigerian Institute of Architects and the Architects Registration Council of Nigeria.
Before he gained national and international limelight as the Vice President of Nigeria in 1979, he was actively involved in the socio-economic development of his community. Dr. Ekwueme started an active Educational Trust Fund that was responsible for sponsoring the education of several hundred youths to universities in Nigeria and abroad. He was a member of the housing sub-committee of the Adebo Salaries and Wages Review Commission. He also served for many years on the board of the Anambra State Housing Development Authority.
The events of December 31 1983 leading to a long spell of detention at the Kiriki Maximum security prison in Lagos were definitely traumatic for him. But Dr Ekwueme never lost hope in Nigeria. He participated actively in the National Constitutional Conference of the Abacha government. It was there that his famous proposals for a just and equitable power sharing formula in Nigeria based on the six geopolitical zones has now come to be accepted as necessary for maintaining a stable Nigerian polity.
When he noticed that Abacha was trying to make himself a perpetual president, he mobilized the group of 34 eminent Nigerians who risked their lives to stand up against the plot. This group eventually became the nucleus of the People’s Democratic Party with him as founding Chairman. He was also the first Chairman of the party’s Board of Trustees.
On the international front, he was a member of the Board of Directors of Canada-based Forum of Federations. He was also a member of the (ECOWAS) Council of Elders. Dr. Ekwueme was leader of the team assembled by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for pre-election monitoring for the parliamentary election in Zimbabwe in 2000. He was the leader of the (OAU) observer team to the Tanzanian Presidential and Parliamentary election in 2000. Dr. Ekwueme co-led the 28 member NDI/Carter Centre sponsored Observer Team to the Liberian Presidential run-off election in 2005. Most recently he was called upon by the PDP to head the Reconciliation Committee in the wake of intra-party discord. He was honoured with the Order of the Republic of Liberia and second highest national honours of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON).
The immediate family of Alex will miss him, his community, Nigeria, Africa and the world will miss him. I will certainly miss him too.
In the last few months of his life, I mounted a massive manhunt for him because of a project I have been working on in the past few years. It is a book on the life and politics of Benjamin Chaha. It is a difficult task because all the relevant documents that would have helped my research work were destroyed by the military.
After the overthrow of the Second Republic, Benjamin Chaha relocated to the town founded by his grandfather – Zaki Biam Alla. In 2001, the town was invaded by Nigerian soldiers in revenge of some soldiers killed there. They unleashed a reign of terror on civilians in the town killing hundreds of unarmed and harmless civilians.
Benjamin Chaha’s modest bungalow was a special target. It was bombed and reduced to rubles. All documents from his career as a teacher to his venture into politics and his eventual emergence as the number four man in Nigeria’s power architecture were destroyed in that senseless attack on his house.
My research work has relied in the main on his oral evidence. Speaker Chaha in recounting the terrible experiences of the night of that coup remembers the courageous comportment of Dr Alex Ekwueme.
“I was shocked and confused that night as the two of us were led away to an unknown destination and uncertain fate. You remember when the military struck in 1966, the civilian leaders they took from their homes in Lagos were never found alive. It was Dr Ekwueme, a great leader and a rare gem who stabilized me mentally that night,” he told me.
It was on the prompting of Speaker Chaha that I was on the trail of Alex Ekwueme. Tragically, death robed me of an opportunity to meet the great man.
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