Goodbye, Nigeria’s Mandela!

James Eze (

I guess I am the only one in this, but there is something about Dr Alex Ekwueme that reminds me of Nelson Mandela. Something faint and distant. Like an echo. May be it is the thick rich grey hair. I don’t know. Or their graceful aura. The immensity of their presence. I wish I could place a finger on it. It eludes me completely.
Their similarities are many. They were both political leaders. They both went to prison in the service of their people. They left their jail cells without a residue of bitterness for anyone; not even their jailers. They both wanted the best for their countries. They left huge legacies; one a rainbow nation, the other a fairly balanced federating structure with six geopolitical zones. And finally, they both died at a ripe old age. One at 95 and the other at 85; separated by a decade. A symbolic milestone, I dare say.
But that is not all there is to the similarities between these great sons of Africa. There is a lot more. For though Ekwueme never got the chance to lead Nigeria like Mandela led his country, he made two historic bids and came very close to realizing his ambition. And if he had enough genius to induce a fair re-arrangement of Nigeria into six federating zones for equity and fairness, who can say that he could not have healed the deep wounds of Nigeria as Mandela did in South Africa, had he been given the chance to lead us?
So, beyond the regal air that clung to both of them like a heady perfume to its wearer, beyond their soft voices and their awe-inspiring carriage, Nelson Mandela and Alex Ekwueme shared a close similarity in their possession of an iron will. Mandela’s iconic iron fist raised against Apartheid in Amandla salute is celebrated across the world. If you spend more than a generation in prison fighting for your people against one of the greatest nightmares of the 20th Century and come out unbowed and unbroken, the world would concede a place to you among its greatest. This is beside several other outstanding acts of bravery and courage sired by a direct confrontation with the intimidating horrors of Apartheid. So, Mandela’s legend is well established. However, our own Alex Ekwueme’s bravery can not only be seen in his silent suffering like being detained for a far longer time than Shehu Shagari under whom he had served as Vice President and on whose table the buck should ordinarily stop but in his bold and courageous eye-ball contest with Sani Abacha in order to chase the military away and give democracy a chance in Nigeria.
It is well-known to many people that Ekwueme was a prominent member of the group of nine patriots who came together to form the core of organised resistance to Sani Abacha. In his words, Ekwueme recalled that “what really triggered me was his modus operandi. It was clear that he didn’t have any regards for the civilian population. He thought everything was to be accomplished by force of arms. We organized first as civil society, nine of us. We really appreciated that if we didn’t extricate ourselves from the military, we would remain slaves to them forever. Then from the Institute for Civil Society, we decided to hold a summit which was held at Eko Hotel. While that was going on, he (Abacha) sent thugs to disperse us,” he recalled in his 2013 Interview with leading Hausa newspaper, Rariya.
Anyone who is familiar with the Abacha era would easily remember that the regime operated a nest of killers with the infamous Sergeant Rogers as its trigger hand. The gruesome murder of pro-democracy figures like Kudirant Abiola, Alfred Rewane and the attempt on the life of Chief Alex Ibru had sent a cold tremor through the land and forced many prominent political leaders to go underground. But out of the gathering fear and anxiety, Ekwueme had shrugged off the trauma of his years in prison to insist that Nigeria deserved a chance. He teamed up with 18 other members of the civil society for a meeting in Kaduna to draft a memorandum to Abacha. Recalling subsequent developments, he said “then after that, I called a full meeting at Glover Hotel in Yaba where 34 of us met and I prepared a memorandum which we gave to him which was G34 Memorandum.”
Indeed, it is near impossible to tell the story of Nigeria’s democratic journey without praising the role of the G34. For while the pro-democracy groups were waging relentless wars at home and abroad and fleeing across the border through the famous NADECO routes, it was Ekwueme and his G34 that stayed behind to dare the military by insisting on the formation of proper political parties. And since political parties are the very arteries of democracy, it is easy to appreciate the importance of Alex Ekwueme as the leader of G34 which midwifed the birth of PDP. The formation of PDP from the ruins of ANC, ADP, PDN, PCS, PNS and others marked the first bold attempt to form a political party which drew its membership from the entire spectrum of Nigeria’s ethnic diversity in the Second Republic. This attempt at national cohesion; at uniting the disparate forces in the country on the table of brotherhood against the rapine presence of the military is a legacy we would all do well to remember.
Interestingly, there is a sense in which Ekwueme’s legacy in opposing the military with the formation of the PDP can be compared to Mandela’s formation of the Youth League of the ANC in Apartheid South Africa. Formed in 1912 to defend the rights and freedoms of all Africans against the inhuman grip of the Afrikaner nationalists, the African National Congress (ANC) had receded into an effete organization in the 1920s leading to the formation of the Communist Party in 1921. The comatose existence of the ANC gave room to flame-eyed Apartheid leaders to roll out racist policies against blacks like the Colour Bar. But the ground shifted under their feet in 1944 when Nelson Mandela teamed up with Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo to form the Youth League of the ANC. Mandela and his friends gave the hitherto gasping ANC a shot-in-the-arm that led to the party’s historic Defiance Campaigns of the 1950s that sparked off the consciousness behind the mass movements to resist Apartheid. Mandela eventually emerged the cult-figure of those movements and made himself the rallying point of the global tide of emotion against Apartheid. So, Ekwueme was almost walking in Mandela’s awesome shadow when he defied the military to form G34 and subsequently organised the pockets of existing resistance against the military into one big mass movement that came to be known as the PDP.
A close look at the two iconic personages also shows that they shared a strong heritage in their sacrificial relationships with their countries. If Mandela were not “Mandela,” he could have done a Mugabe and ruled South Africa in perpetuity and many people would not have frowned at him. His sacrifice for his country was huge enough to earn him life president but he opted to do only one term. He preferred a proud and exemplary country that would immediately stand out as a beacon of hope to all Africans to a South Africa in the crushing grip of a god-like leader. In much the same way, Alex Ekwueme made it clear that his own personal ambition to become president of Nigeria was not as important as the democratic hopes of Nigerians. That was why he did not hesitate to give his support to Obasanjo in 1999 even when in his own words he was in possession of the legal instrument to “scatter it all.”
Ekwueme was fancying his chances at the presidency at the PDP National Convention in Jos when some party chieftains in collusion with the retreating military perfected a masterful sleight of hand and gave General Obasanjo the party flag. Unfortunately, Obasanio’s emergence was against the party’s constitution which held that anybody who failed to win his ward in the local government election would not be considered eligible to run for president. Unknown to other party members, Ekwueme was not only mindful of the rules but also had a copy of the party decision on eligibility of candidates as well as the party constitution in his pocket at the Convention in Jos. “When the result was announced in Jos and they said Obasanjo won, I had the option of saying I didn’t accept it or saying I accept it, embrace it and work together to make sure the party wins. I had the highest number of votes, so I expected the party to send my name to INEC and having said that and read the minutes of the NEC meeting it was incontrovertible that a person who did not win his local government area, he didn’t win his ward, he didn’t even win the polling station in front of his house, so with the NEC decision he couldn’t be the party’s candidate,” Ekwueme recalled in his Interview with Rariya.
The venerable statesman reined in his emotion and resisted the urge to throw the constitution at the party leadership and declare his rejection of the result of the primary. And there was only one reason why he did that. He put Nigeria first. According him, that “could have given the military the chance to prolong their stay which would defeat all the efforts we made and the risk we took to place our lives on the line during Abacha. My own personal ambition was not worth putting Nigeria at risk and that was why I embraced Obasanjo and went on to campaign for him. Few days after, a fundraising was done at the congress hall and I chaired that fund-raising ceremony.”
This is the full measure of Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme. True greatness lies in knowing the immensity of one’s power but never forgetting that it is tyrannical to use it. In my reckoning, only one person would have done what Ekwueme did. Nelson Mandela!
Farewell, Dr Ekwueme!