By Handel Okoli
October 21, 2022, would have been the former vice president, Alex Ekwueme’s 92nd birthday and I find it extremely difficult to allow this auspicious moment to pass without once more eulogizing the man I often refer to as a true incarnation of the greatest philosophers of this existence, an embodiment of the finest qualities of purposefully public life, a Nigerian patriot of unquestionable and proven credentials and a somewhat extravagant philanthropist whose legacies are often understated and underrated. Not even his party, the Peoples Democratic Party, has found time to honour their guiding light.
From a heritage of diverse intellectual industry, deployed to his commitment to constitutionalism and democracy, and to his devotion to the principles of equity, justice and fair play in a country desperately in search of meaningful nationhood, Alex Ekwueme still stands out as holding what I refer to as the patent to some of the prescriptions for lasting peace, justice equity and unity in Nigeria. Our refusal or neglect to recognize these prescriptions continue to haunt us as a nation.
Alex Ekwueme’s position on the restructuring of Nigeria which he championed during the 1994 – 1995 constitutional conference remains perhaps his finest contribution to the Nigerian journey to nationhood to date. Encapsulated in that outing by the south-east delegates led by Ekwueme were well-researched scripts on zoning and rotation of high political offices, devolution of powers and principles of resource generation (production) and control.
In that famed constitutional conference chaired by late Justice Karibi Whyte, himself from a minority tribe, Nigeria was presented with a deliberate plan which recognized the proclivities of the African politician towards power as evidenced by well-known sit-tight African leaders who would rather die in office or be removed by a coup d’état or some violent change.
We shall not forget Alex Ekwueme’s statement that if the purpose of the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates of Nigeria in 1914 was for one part of the country to continue to rule Nigeria, we should peacefully de-amalgamate. What followed was a robust debate and an x-ray of the path already travelled by Nigeria, starting from its constitutional history, to the civil war; from the distortion of the intendment and purpose of the amalgamation and independence to the perversion of the dream of true federalism. That constitutional conference consisted of both elected and appointed delegates but in the end, recognizing the peculiarities of the Nigerian situation and the need for the emerging democratic governance to be strongly founded on a widely accepted constitutional foundation, the conference prescribed a single term of five years for the presidency which will rotate among the six geopolitical zones such that in thirty years each geopolitical zone would have produced the president of Nigeria. The idea was to jettison rotation after 30 years when every part of the country would have become integrated by participation.
This proposal, which did not sit well with the northern delegates, was surprisingly accepted by General Abacha. It was later to be discarded by General Abdulsalam Abubakar who succeeded Abacha, thereby foisting as it were, a forged version of the constitution on the country on May 29, 1999,, purporting it to have been accented to by the Nigerian people.
Prior to the constitutional conference aforesaid, Ekwueme had thoughtfully prescribed six vice presidents for the country such that each zone produces a vice president that will oversee ministries, departments and agencies assigned to them by the president. It was also designed to ensure that if a president died in office, was removed or resigned from his position, the vice president from his zone would succeed him. My humble submission is that had Nigeria considered this proposal, Umar Musa Yar’adua would probably have resigned as president when he knew that he could no longer continue or his zone would have risen to the occasion to advise him to step down in the interest of the country. That way the transition would have been very seamless. The vice president from the north-west would have stepped into his shoes.
I should further submit that had that Ekwueme proposal been considered, President Mohammad Buhari, who himself had admitted his underperformance due to age, would have probably resigned by now to allow the vice president from the north-west zone to complete his tenure. Lastly, I also believe that if Ekwueme’s prescription was seriously countenanced, there will be no shout of “e mi lokan” after eight years of President Obasanjo and eight years of Vice President Osinbajo.
But the irony of it all is that while the country continues to kick this can down the road, it has also continued to recognize and apply the six geopolitical zones as a national political imperative while refusing to elevate it and have it entrenched in the constitution. The result is that any zone which has the power of incumbency will arbitrarily deny others their due share. If not for the division in the APC hierarchy, another northern Muslim would have flown their flag for the 2023 presidential election.
The Federal Character Commission, Police Service Commission, Federal Civil Service Commission, etc have one way or another other continued to apply this principle. The same goes for the national assembly, federal executive council etc. Two Sundays ago, my church hosted what it termed the annual zonal harvest where each geopolitical zone came to the altar to offer thanksgiving to God.
If the robust and strong foundation on which the Peoples Democratic Party was founded is anything to go by, Nigerians now recognize that the party was birthed on the strong principles of zoning and equitable distribution of offices as enunciated by Alex Ekwueme. Those of us who witnessed the formation of PDP from the kitchen of the G-34 now wonder whether what happened in the 2022 PDP presidential primaries is not an aberration and a continuation of the unfair domination, which the south-east delegates and indeed the southern delegates to the 1994-1995 conference kicked against.
One can not however discountenance the fact that PDP was in a very difficult position given that it was not clear whether APC was picking its presidential candidate from the south. Therefore, even if one considers Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as one in possession of stolen property, the entire circumstances must be equally x-rayed in the proper context. It is expected that PDP should have quickly rejigged its top positions to rebalance the party structure. The problem some of us have with the crisis in the party is that those crying out for zoning and rebalancing are themselves guilty of complicating the process because of their individual ambitions. Otherwise, why would a Wike be aspiring to be president under PDP after Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency?
On this note, it is perhaps time to condemn the naivety and misadventure of the south-east governors who attended several meetings of the Southern Governors’ Forum where a resolution was taken that the presidency must be zoned to the “south”. Of particular note are Governors Ugwuanyi of Enugu state and Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia state who attended a ceremony where their family heritage was being stealthily shared among those who were not from the south-east, the zone to which the presidency ought to have been zoned had Alex Ekwueme’s prescriptions been entrenched in the constitution.
My submission, therefore, is, that there is nothing like the ‘southern zone’. It is a misnomer which was packaged and surreptitiously sold to Governors Ugwuanyi and Okezie. What we know are six geopolitical zones. How conceivable is it then that a south-east governor would participate in a meeting where a resolution is taken for a ‘southern president’ without realising that such a resolution ought to have been south-east specific? Does it not now expose their interest as personal since the leader of the team himself should not have contested the primaries in the first place? For clarity, it is my thesis that if the purpose of the resolution of the Southern Governors Forum was for south-south and south-west to have yet another bite at the presidential cherry, then we should unzone and go back to the drawing board.
We must admit that the principle of ethnoreligious balancing and the accommodation of the educationally disadvantaged parts of the country are some of the measures adopted at the federal level to give every part of the country a sense of belonging. The constitution supports this in Section 14(3). Curiously, the principle is non-justiceable thereby leaving its application to the whims of any person in authority.
In all, the beauty of his legacy is that Alex Ekwueme saw tomorrow and cried out when it mattered most. He saw the shenanigans of Nigerian politicians and once called for a code of conduct for politicians. What is left is for those who truly love this country to draw from this legacy and allow the country to thrive. The Peoples Democratic Party must model the legacy of this great man and strive to review the structure of the federation in line with them.
Okoli was a former Special Assistant to Dr Alex Ekwueme and former President Olusegun Obasanjo
By Handel Okoli