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Alex Ekwueme: His life and travails

Holding public office in Nigeria in those days when military coups occurred regularly could be very precarious. For those who were brave enough to venture into it, it meant that you were aware of the high probability of either certain death or long term incarceration. Heads of Governments, ministers and many other officials had lost their lives to malevolent soldiers during coups, while a lot more had their freedom curtailed for years. Alex Ekwueme who died recently had the misfortune of being incarcerated by soldiers for eight years. He had been the first to be elected Vice-President when the country returned to civilian administration after a prolonged period of military rule from 1966-79. 

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Their government had completed its first term and was three months into the second when they were toppled. Both the President Shehu Shagari and the Vice-President Alex Ekwueme were detained for years, even beyond the life of the regime that overthrew and arrested them. Both of them wrote memoirs that detailed the periods of their incarceration and life after. Shehu Shagari’s, Beckoned To Serve told the story of all his life going from that dusty village in Sokoto, whose name he bore as a surname, to the glory of State House, Ribadu road, then to detention. 

Ekwueme’s memoir on the other hand, From State House to Kirikiri was more purpose specific – telling the story of his incarceration and vindication of his innocence. Most of the manuscript was actually produced when Ekwueme was in detention. I recalled reading the book when it was released about fifteen or so years ago. This time when I heard of his death I looked for the book to refresh my memories about the life and travails of the man. 

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I searched for the book in Abuja, where I live, but I could not find it. Even my normal haunts, the best library in town, the Obasanjo Library in the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre didn’t have a copy. The only alternative was to travel to Kaduna, and as I expected, the book was available in the Aliyu Mohammed Research Library on Dendo road. I spent the day browsing through the book and made copious notes to prepare for this piece. 

When I first read the book I regarded it as one of the ‘unputtable down’ books of the time along with Sam Gumsu Ikoku’s, Nigeria’s Fourth Coup D’etat, which was also a thriller of sorts. Ekwueme similarly wrote his in a fast-paced manner, like a thriller that kept one engrossed and hardly wanting to stop. The first page of the story gave an indication of the tension-soaked night of the 31st December when the coup planners finally struck.

‘The time was 4.00 a.m., on the last day of the year 1983. There was some rather loud banging on the door of my bedroom at 17, Ikoyi Crescent.  – – At first I heard the banging as if from afar, as if in a dream. However, gradually as I came to, it became more real – – I got out of bed and opened the door which led on to a small first floor sitting room. Directly in front of me as I opened the door was an Army Major – unarmed or at least not obviously so – accompanied by the head of Nigerian Security Organisation (NSO) team detailed to my premises on duty for that night. At the four corners of the sitting room stood four soldiers, one at each corner, with rifles or perhaps sub-machine guns at ready and all pointing at me. I took in the scene with some confidence and looked at the Major enquiringly but without uttering a word. 

“I have been asked to bring you, sir”, he said to me.

“Where to?” I asked.

“To Army Headquarters, sir,” he answered.

“And whom by?” I countered.

“Sir, there has been a change of government”.

“I see” was all I could say.’

The soldiers were led by Major Mustapha Jakolo and when Ekwueme left with them they detoured to a nearby residence to pick up House of Reps Speaker, Chaha Biam. It was a short drive to Bonny Camp, the headquarters of the coup planners. But what a short drive they had! They almost had a mishap when they were nearly shot by soldiers at one of the many checkpoints that have cropped up due to the coup in progress. 

At Bonny Camp, Major Jakolo handed over both the Vice-President and the Speaker to Lt. Col. Halilu Akilu and retreated into the night. It was only when they were settled in Bonny Camp that they first listened to the coup speech by Brigadier Sani Abatcha. The speech which was carried over the radio in the wee hours of the morning announced the suspension of the constitution and all the offices attached to it. The Brigadier also announced the formation of a Federal Military Government. 

In the book Ekwueme recalled that in all the four years they were in power, the likelihood of a military coup was in his words ‘a distinct possibility’, not because there would be ‘bad government on our part, but rather on the general history of military intervention in government in third world countries in general and Africa – West Africa – in particular. As at the time of our swearing in on 1st October 1979, fully half of the member nations of our sub-region, the ECOWAS, were being governed by Heads of States who, at least initially, rose to power by force of arms. Nigeria itself had a history of at least four previous military coups – two successful and two unsuccessful. Three of the four Nigerian coups resulted in the death of the Head of the Federal Government’. 

At least, there you have it. This partially explained Ekwueme’s bit of confidence at the first stage of incarceration in Bonny Camp. He remained in Bonny Camp for over a week – a very busy time for the soldiers who were always in meetings to strategize and fine-tune their newly acquired government. It was after one of such meetings in the premises that Brigadier Ibrahim Babangida, then just assuming office as Chief of Army Staff took time off to visit the Vice-President in his detention room for a friendly chat. Actually they had been neighbours in Ikoyi, their official residences lying adjacent to each other. 

Ekwueme’s stay in Bonny Camp was short-lived as the place became overcrowded in due course, with many public officers of the overthrown regime – Governors, Ministers and many other high-ranking officials – coming in for interrogation. The soldiers then were constrained to move Ekwueme and Chaha to a house on Temple Road. Here also he stayed for only about a week before he was moved to the detention place, Kirikiri Prisons, which became the main subject of the book.

Ekwueme had never seen the inside of a prison until 17th Jan 1984. He said, ‘Actually The closest I recall coming to even the outside of a prison was driving the main entrance to Enugu Prison on Okpara Avenue on several occasions. I had never even seen the main entrance to Ikoyi Prison which was barely 200 metres from my former office at Awolowo road when I was in Architectural practice, and some 300 meters to the gate of the State House, where I worked for over four years’.

From Temple road, Ekwueme was eventually transported to Kirikiri Prisons in a manner that recalled the adventures of the first journey from his residence. At a later stage of his incarceration he also stayed in Ikoyi Prisons. Next week we would share Ekwueme’s surprise and indignation at the faces he met at Kirikiri Prisons. Keep a date with this page.

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