By Dr Ojiaku Kalu
In 1979, Nigeria as a country had the rare privilege of installing a team of pious duo as her Executive President and Vice President respectively. The president at the time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, had been an accomplished teacher before venturing into politics. For his Vice President, Alex Ekwueme, a world-acclaimed architect with untold testimonials in his quiver-both in academic qualification and material acquisition, the lot fell. Plus he was one of the scions of the nation’s long-running democratic monarchies and its undisputed crown prince in hopeful succession of his then ruling uncle.
Would Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme have made a better Eze (King in Igbo) than being the Vice President of Nigeria? I wonder. I just wonder. For Just thinking of that amounts to one deliberately brewing unending nationwide controversy. Or isn’t it? But there’s not been the slightest doubt in the mind of his watchers (near and far,) that the ‘Ide of Aguata’ would indeed have been as good an Eze as he was Nigeria’s number two citizen, and even better! For Alex is synonymous with streak wins!
At the death of his uncle who was then the king, the kingmakers in one of their very infrequent, once-in-a-life-time gathering had adhered to the stool’s monarchical succession dictates by inviting Dr. Alex Ekwueme already the ‘Ide’, a highly revered title for the crown prince and eldest son in the family, to come assume the throne. Alex Ekwueme would however, explain to the solemn conclave what a waste of rare human capital it would be for him to become their king.
In his logical submission, he was doing a superb job of representing them at both national and international levels and so, would be striping them politically naked should he do their bidding. Why not the next in line, Laz Nnanyelu, rather become the next king? Besides, he by his sterling professional training and doings, was a residue of arts and culture.
And so the world-renowned musician became crowned (the) king of his ancient Oko Kingdom – thereby making a smooth and impressive transition from gown to crown. But whether the giant oak throne in big brother Alex’s sitting room is a compensatory honour for his royal sacrifice; this writer did not ask and was not told. What is intriguing however is that throughout our two-day visit, the older Ekwueme never sat on that throne although right in his own home. The throne is meant exclusively for the younger brother, Igwe Laz Ekwueme whenever he visits!
This is where the big and real picture comes of the man on whose very young laps fate had dumped a family responsibility ranking in degree to what a friend of mine, Odudu Akpan, calls monumental cock-up. Just six weeks after returning to Nigeria from England for medical treatment of some ailment, big brother Gaius Ekwueme had died prematurely at about age 28 and with that, a load of bright promises for self, community and country!
Shocked and unprepared, he nevertheless assumed immediate leadership of his other surviving siblings Laz (who would become Nigeria’s first and foremost professor of music) and Obumneme, the least known of the three Ekwuemes, but still a highly respected diplomat in his field of medicine. With specializations in gynecology and surgery, he now runs The Enugu Clinics in Enugu, having retired a professor from the University of Nigeria.
Did Alex Ifeanyichukwu make a clean breast of guiding and guarding himself and his brothers and their individual families to acclaimed meaningfulness? Undoubtedly! For, up until date, no member of the Ekwueme aristocratic clan would speak of their ‘Ide’ without an open hint of awe! And this is a long running, (in fact a life time) appurtenance Dr. Alex Ekwueme enjoys without a trace of arrogance in his demeanor. Like Merle Miller said of Harry Truman (1884- 1972, the thirty third president of the United States, from 1945- 1953) Vice President Ekwueme is a man that has the uncanny ability to operate at sublime level of things but still comes down to earth with outstanding humility. So high up there but still so low down here- as if a human ramp that connects Heaven to the Earth!
Playing host to me and my colleague in his country home of Oko, Anambra State, from May 21- 22 , 2010, when he and Igwe Laz were home for the centennial celebration of the Anglican Church synod hosted by the Oko Diocese, afforded me deep insight into how little some public persons are known from the distance!
Indeed, I find it curious and admirable that the Vice President’s personality is practically inseparable from his name- Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme! By the way, the title, Vice President Sticks likes a birth mark. For once one manages to claw one’s way up such apogee, the title becomes indelible with, in this part of the world, an additional supernal, Your Excellency. In a not too distant future, am sure scholars shall find an apt tandem between the man and his name. His demeanor and doings bear such amazing relevant semblance to his name – akin to the leech on its prey. Little wonder I had feverishly desired to meet him in person, and possibly, to interview him, for several years running-until Igwe Prof. Laz promised to connect the two of us.
The journey to Oko
My cell phone had rang at about 12.42 pm that wet May afternoon. Day and date was Friday May 21, 2010; and for want of what else to do, I had driven in near frustration to the Senior Staff Club of the Abia State Polytechnic, Aba, to hopefully, enjoy some camaraderie with colleagues and friends, after a drawing fiasco on my key schedule for that day. At first, I missed the call, having been absorbed in the usual banter now frequently growing in animation. So I had caught only the last ding of his first ring.
I was full of rue as I glanced at my phone’s dial and learned of the caller. Igwe Professor Laz Ekwueme himself, the Ezioko of Oko of all persons! I winced in painful self rebuke and silently prayed for him to call again. I didn’t have sufficient airtime in my phone to return his call and worst of all, the management of the staff club is yet to include sales of airtime in its services. Some business persons!
But then, it was only about five minutes between the prof’s first and second call. ‘Call again, prof. For God’s sake, call again!’ I swore and prayed in anxiety. When the diallight came back on, I punched the receiver button with such intensity I almost lost the call (yet) again.
‘Kalu Ojiaku’, began the rich mid alto from the other end. ‘Good afternoon, sir’ I said in tow, my voice quivering. Then, as if noticing my embarrassment, he thereupon employed that famous avuncular tactics of his – soothing me while not losing his firmness. ‘I hope you are on your way already. I have arranged for you to meet with His Excellency, Dr. Alex Ekwueme at 4.30 pm today’ ‘Ok Sir. I will make it, and oh yes, am on my way’! I died a little at my lying. Pleasantries were exchanged in closing as is usual with protégé and mentor, and he finally signed off. I hurriedly said goodbye to my co conservationists and stormed out of the club and into my car and raced back to my office in search of Felix, my driver, whom I had left behind there.
After what seemed like eternity, with the attendant imbroglio, we finally set out on the odyssey, three of us – me, Felix and Idika. Oh but I almost missed Idika, my cousin and friend, in my tale. He made the journey on the last thought. He teaches high school full time and helps out at my office on a regular hobby-like basis. So that Friday, he decided just when the trip was about that he would be part of the bunch.
From Aba, Oko (in Anambra State) is an estimated two-and-a-half-hour journey. But the bad conditions of the roads from the Abia State end, plus our somewhat vague sense of the direction, elongated the trip. So with our setting out at about 1.35pm, we wouldn’t hit destination until around 6.05 pm and that’s despite Felix’s unquestionable driving mastery!
When we drove into Igwe Ekwueme’s palace, our car was enveloped in an auburn (reddish brown) dust, but about which we couldn’t care! All that mattered was for the king to (still) receive us despite our apparent lateness. As our engine finally quietened under one of the many shady trees in his compound, I said quiet prayers and braced up for the imminent reprimand. The Ekwuemes are old fashioned, and one of the enduring testimonials for that is orderliness. In such a system, punctuality must never be compromised. Arriving late, I therefore shivered with trepidation, despite Idika’s effort at calming me.
This was not my first visit to the palace. Indeed it was my second and so, I led the party considering myself a haunt of the place. Upon entering the smallest and oldest building in the Igwe Ekwueme’s village( yes, it duly qualifies to be so referred – for the palace is on an estimated landmass of a quarter kilometer radius, with about 14 buildings of different sizes, colour and sheds, scattered thereon (the biggest of the lot being the official palace – modern, big, solid!).
This palace is hardly in use, except during important state functions. If you ever had a pre-knowledge of older brother Alex being a world-class architect, you will readily be subsumed in his professional aura upon sighting this edifice. Indeed, you wouldn’t need to be shown his professional signature!
‘Igwe!’ I exclaimed in greeting while doing the obeisance. He was reclining in a corner seat at the northend of the ancient bungalow that doubles as his living quarters. The king, it is said, is inexorably fixated in this small building despite the incessant prodding and sometimes, badgering of his courtiers. But he cannot help it. As an Ekwueme, he lives out that altruistic simplicity that has become their tradition despite their world famous philanthropy. He is at home and content with simplicity almost to the point of sneering at avarice.
The Ekwuemes in informality
After greetings and rebukes, Igwe Laz quietly heaved himself from his recliner, walked into his bedroom area and reappeared in a simple white cotton, royal gown on a black trouser and as a habit, stroked his trademark white beard. Picking from his several collection of royal walk-sticks, he whirled round and jerked his head toward the doorway- meaning we were on our way to the Vice President’s residence.
After his just past disapproval of our lateness, he now had to do what had to be done, he must have reasoned. That is the hallmark of a father. As he made for the door and into his official car (a 2009 Prado SUV), he stopped and called out to his wife, ‘Dear, we go to Ide’s to see if we could negotiate another appointment with him for 11.30 am tomorrow’ the Mrs. presently rushed into view, and with a general look of approval of the Igwe’s appearance, wished us luck. But again there goes a lesson for us young people. Amazingly, the Ekwuemes, after more than four decades of marriage, still love openly and fuse over each other’s dress sense!
Inside the car, the dashboard screen came on with a musical of Tuface Idibia playing in full color. What? Though a musician, I expected the old man to have his preferences in the classical and jazz genres. But here he was playing a ‘whatzup’ CD! Indeed greatness is clothed in versatility and of course, Laz Ekwueme is eclectic.
It was about six minutes drive between Igwe Laz’s palace and Ide Alex’s residence, but I wished it had been longer at least to enable me soak in the scenic view of the ancient town of Oko now fast growing into a metropolis by virtue of the federal polytechnic hosting students from all over Nigeria and beyond.
VP Ekwueme’s country home is a scene! Big and beautiful in such a sense that communicates structural confidence and peace. It is partially shrouded in a well-maintained bush of flowers and trees. Its hall-size sitting room is rectangular and is furnished with deep cream set of furniture designed with timelessness in mind. A big desktop television sits at the right hand, and that giant throne at the left as you sit faces the entrance.
Above the throne is a framed life-size photograph of Vice President Ekwueme’s in a black jacket, white shirt and red tie. He is seated with his mouth and right hand curled in perpetual speech. A perfect depiction of the word, POWER.
As Igwe Laz led my team into the parlour that Friday evening, a chorus of ‘Igwe!’ greeted our entry. He smiled and laughed and raised his stick in gayly response. He knew every of his greeters by face and name. He finally climbed the throne, sat and began his customary tales of jokes – making everyone feel welcomed. And suddenly, he paused midsentence and looked at a lady from across his throne and enquired, ‘What about the Ide? Is he likely coming down again tonight?’ He was told his big brother was resting. ‘Okay. Let me see him before he sleeps. He had an appointment this afternoon with these young men’ and with that, he climbed upstairs. He would come back downstairs announcing to my relief that, ‘His Excellency, Vice President Alex has agreed to see you at 11.30 am tomorrow’. And with that, the house dissolved into various degrees and forms of socialization.
We guests were asked what we would like for refreshment, but the king specifically asked for the palm-wine which he humorously called ‘Ife Ocha’. palm-wine in His Excellency’s residence? There were assorted drinks at service; but that palm-wine dominated the interaction is a credit to the unpretentious africanness of the Ekwuemes.
We were having drinks and socializing when the ‘Aka Ide’, (as Mrs. Beatrice Alex Ekwueme is fondly called), walked into the assemblage. ‘Aka Ide!’ – the hand or strength of the Ide, is the chieftaincy title of the wife of the Vice President.
As she extended warm greetings to her guests, I regarded her with cautious concern. She is obviously not fine in health. A measure for ameliorating whatever pains she had was the hard neck band she wore. For those who have never met Mrs. Beatrice Ekwueme, she is an average height, dark skinned woman of medium weight. Her physical discomfort notwithstanding, she is warm and humble, as most good-natured people are, despite their worldly fame.
After all those births and hassles associated with high society belongingness and of course, the national leadership headaches, she is surprisingly (still) as strong and young. As soon as introductions were concluded with resultant exchange of pleasantries, she settled in a chair at an obscure corner of the parlour. Mrs. Beatrice Alex Ekwueme, the matriarch of the entire Ekwueme clan, safe for the occasional whispers to her husband who would later sit beside her, did not assert herself throughout our visit. And although the ‘Aka Ide’ was generally reticent
amidst our boisterous talks and doings, she nevertheless had an undeniable
presence in that gathering!
Surprise, surprise! Yours sincerely had resigned to the possibility of His Excellency’s (ever) returning downstairs that evening having been informed of his gracious willingness to meet with us the following day. For whatever reason, my left eyes did catch a glimpse of a figure making its way from the anteroom into the sitting room full of guests.
As if in theatrical prompting, Ide Alex the entire house rose to a cry of ‘Ide!’ My friend and I complied to the norm by rising in tow. He presently walked halfway into the gathering with measured gait. Reverential and powerful, he stood with smiles to the homage paid to his person. ‘Ide!’ the house chorused again, whereupon the younger brother, Igwe Laz, standing by his side as if for moral support, began his verbal treaties, ‘Ide’ of Nigeria, this young man (gesturing to me) is the journalist that has come to see you. He is Dr. Ojiaku Kalu of the Sun newspapers. At this juncture, the Vice President broke in with (‘Is he in anyway related to Kalu Idika Kalu?’) The amiable professor of music in response smiled and said ‘I have wondered so myself’.
Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, still standing, made his way to a seat but not to the now unoccupied throne, rather to a lowly one beside it. But before sitting, he motioned for everybody to take their seats and the younger brother king assumed the throne, thou away from his own home! Despite the assorted drinks and things, the Vice President himself, would again, prefer the palm-wine – confirming my impression of his deep-seated Africanism. Host and guests did wind up that night with an air of conviviality after small talks on this and that. My friend and I bade good night to the Vice President, his family and friends and left at 8. 16 pm.
Back to Igwe Laz Ekwueme’s home that night, we were fused over by the wife, Lucy Ekwueme, (an Associate professor of Music Education at the University of Lagos) as a mother hen would over her chicks. Though away from home, we never felt it as she saw to it that we were catered for bread and butter, according to the good old Americans.
From experience, Igwe Laz Ekwueme is not an early riser or (maybe better put) not an early outer from bedroom to sitting room. For I did go check to ensure he did not come out waiting for us for the appointment of that day. How I feared reenacting our lateness of the previous day! But I should not have bothered one bit-because at exactly ten minutes to our appointment, the Igwe did saunter into his parlour fully dressed and ready to go. I shuddered in wonderment to whether the old prof. had a physiological thermostat that regulated his activities. We drove same way; same route to His Excellency’s, his older brother of four years.
True to type, the Vice President was already spruced up and waiting for our arrival like a high school kid would a date. For no sooner had we arrived than he walked into us (still standing). While being friendly and fatherly, he is nevertheless businesslike. Dr. Alex Ekwueme would promptly call us both by names, shook hands in welcome and straightaway went into his self same seat as of the previous night.
The younger brother (Laz) quickly whisked another caller away with the explanation that we were better left undisturbed with the Vice President to interview and interact as best we could.
Left alone in the awesome presence of this world-great, it was all I could do to remain calm and confident. He presently glanced down at me and smiled probably noticing my discomfiture. ‘Ojiaku Kalu!’ I rebuked myself. I had for an upward of four years worked at a chance to meet flesh and blood, the first and greatest Vice President of Nigeria, and now that I had the rare opportunity, I was at a loss with how to handle him.
‘Sir, I may please need to come close to you to achieve clarity in my recording,’ I said for want of what else to say. ‘Okay. Do come sit close if it would help.’ I thereupon, moved over to the seat next to the venerable.
Not long after assuming that seat, I was immediately enveloped in a fresh worry. The Ide Aguata, Ide Igbo, Ide Nigeria, had raspy wind in his breath, a noise in his stomach; plus his breath was labored. Dr. Alex Ekwueme would be 78 in October 2010. Is this then a normal accompaniment of old age or is it a special something to worry about? ‘I have serious cold’ he said in intuitive explanation, and presently blew his nostrils into a white handkerchief, shaking as he did.
Only a handful of African frontiers and indeed Nigerian, nationalists fall into the ilk of Dr. Alex Ekwueme – selfless, real and zealous about the goal he has set for self and his country without recourse to who is watching or cheering.
I am not a medical doctor. Though a PhD with the title of ‘Doctor’, it would be professionally out of place for me to say what is wrong with our former Vice President. But with the benefit of common-sense, I couldn’t hold back the tears that instantly welled up in my eyes as I sat next to him. The glory of Nigeria, the pride of the Igbo nation is succumbing to old age and evidently fading out like a flower on a hot summer midday. And the whole country is running seemingly uncaring.
The Vice President though still surprisingly sharp witted, is now slow in movement and in speech. How could nature become so unfair to the man who has sacrificed so much for his community, his country and his God?! It is even more pitiable when one considers the austere measure with which Nigeria metes out appreciation to her heroic sons and daughters. The country doesn’t (as a custom) honour her builders until they are dead and buried! It’s unfortunate!
Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme has the enviable and rare record of leaving high public office not drawing from his country’s rich treasury but instead, enriching it further with his material and intellectual resources.
The prove is evident! His passion for the growth of Nigeria is encapsulated in his answer to my first question as I sat beside him that afternoon to interview. ‘What did you want to achieve by wanting to become the president of Nigeria, sir?’ ‘I have always dreamed of achieving a Nigeria in which every ethnic nationality melts into one nation. Indeed, I wanted to make Nigeria a one nation entity; instead of a mere country where each ethnic group would be fighting to pull it to its sole benefit’, he replied.
In spite of his ageing, growing weakness and apparently not too advantageous health and all the attendant telltale signs, succeeding generations would do well to remember Alex Ekwueme the way he was instead of the way he is!