Why Alhaji Shagari picked Dr. Ekwueme still remains a mystery, and only Shagari can explain how this happened, as the latter’s name was never speculated about. Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekuweme was forty-six at that time, and he was unknown in the political arena. Except for his business profile as a renowned architect and town planner…little else was known about him.
On December 12, 1978, after winning the presidential nomination of the NPN, Alhaji Shehu Shagari did not name his running mate. The rules of the party gave him the prerogative to name his running mate after consulting with the party leaders.
As he locked himself up at Eko Hotel, speculations remained high on who he would nominate as his partner on the ballot. Several names were mentioned, with that of Dr. Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe topping the list. Dr. Mbadiwe and Alhaji Shehu Shagari were colleagues as ministers under Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa. While Alhaji Shagari served as minister of Internal Affairs in April 1965, Dr. Mbadiwe served as minister of Trade. In fact Dr. Mbadiwe’s best friend, Dr. Kolawole Balogun, Nigeria’s former ambassador to Ghana, from Otan Aiyegbaju in the present Osun State told anyone who cared to listen that Dr. Mbadiwe was the choice.
Another group wanted Dr. Josiah Onyebuchi Johnson Okezie from Umuahia-Ibeku in Imo State. Under General Yakubu Gowon, Dr. Okezie was minister for Health and later minister for Agriculture and Natural Resources, before becoming chairman Board of Directors, African Continental Bank (ACB). In the constituent assembly, he represented Ikwuano/Umuahia/Bende constituency. There was also the youthful, Dr. Dike Nworah, a historian and businessman from Awka in Anambra State, who later became the Owelle of Awka. Being the national secretary of the party, Dr. Nwakama Okoro (SAN) was also mentioned as a possible choice. The profile of Dr. Okoro was intimidating. He was from Amuri, Arochukwu in Imo State. He had earlier served as the secretary of the Enugu branch of the Nigerian Bar Association. Between 1976 and 1978, he was the president of the Nigerian Bar Association. In the Constituent Assembly of 1977-198, he represented Ohafia/Arochukwu constituency.
Other names mentioned were my friend, Dr. Chuba Wilberforce Okadigbo, the Oyi of Oyi, Chief Christian Chukwuma Onoh, Dr B.U. Nzeribe, Chief Hilary Njoku, Mr. M.N. Elechi and Mr. J.S. Asegua.
Dr. Okadigbo represented Onitsha/Anambra constituency in the Constituent Assembly, while Chief C.C. Onoh represented Enugu constituency. Mr. Elechi represented Abakaliki/ Ikwo constituency. Dr. Mbadiwe represented Ideato/Nkwerre/Isu constituency, while Chief Hilary Njoku represented Owerri/Ikeduru constituency.
It was at that event that Alhaji Shagari first presented Dr. Alex Ifeanyi Ekwueme as his running mate. I saw a handsome gentleman who looked urbane and polished, who I had never heard of in national politics. It was the introduction and later the presidential election that shot Chief Ekwueme to national spotlight and turned him into a treasured national asset.
In the Constituent Assembly, Chief Onoh was very vocal in championing the creation of WAWA State, now Enugu State. He was a member of the Federal House of Representatives representing Enugu Metropolitan Council between 1958 and 1959. He was chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of Enugu in 1969 and chairman, Market Authority (1971-1987) and later chairman, Nigeria Mining Corporation. He held the title of Okaa Omee of Ngwo.
At that time, Dr. Azikiwe’s party, the NPP was the dominant party in the East Central zone, thanks to Chief Jim Nwobodo and Chief Sam Mbakwe. The publicity secretary of the party at that time, Chief Mo Obiekwe told me several times that the people of Imo and Anambra States would never vote NPN, insisting that the scars of the war were still with them.
On Tuesday December 15, Alhaji Shagari embarked on a national campaign tour that took him to Ibadan, Benin, Warri, Owerri, Port-Harcourt, Calabar and later ended on December 30 in Enugu. In Calabar, at a party hosted by the former commissioner for transport in the old South Eastern State, Dr. Joseph Wayas, at Metropolitan hotel, I teased Alhaji Shagari to give me a Christmas present by disclosing his running mate to me exclusively. He smiled and directed me to ask Alhaji Umaru Dikko. For forty-two days, Alhaji Shagari did not name his running mate.
Finally on January 23, 1979, the NPN called a press conference at the party headquarters at Jibowu street, Yaba, Lagos and I saw an unsmiling Dr. Okadigbo at the ground floor complaining to me: “He’s not even in our party, can you believe that?” He then directed me to the first floor where Alhaji Shagari was holding the press conference in company of party leaders. It was at that event that Alhaji Shagari first presented Dr. Alex Ifeanyi Ekwueme as his running mate. I saw a handsome gentleman who looked urbane and polished, who I had never heard of in national politics. It was the introduction and later the presidential election that shot Chief Ekwueme to national spotlight and turned him into a treasured national asset. Since that day, he never came down from being valued.
Why Alhaji Shagari picked Dr. Ekwueme still remains a mystery, and only Shagari can explain how this happened, as the latter’s name was never speculated about. Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekuweme was forty-six at that time, and he was unknown in the political arena. Except for his business profile as a renowned architect and town planner, and that he once worked for Esso West Africa, Lagos, overseeing the construction and maintenance department of the company, little else was known about him. The media really troubled Alhaji Suleiman Takuma, the spokesman of the NPN at that time, to give details about Dr. Ekwueme, but he was not forthcoming and only promised to do so “later”.
The campaign was no doubt hectic, especially for Dr. Ekwueme. For he could not mobilise enough people for his party in the East Central, in spite of his gospel of reconciliation. He worked hard during the campaign. He spent a lot of money too but unfortunately for him in 1979, the east central zone was the empire of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe…
After the press conference, the media mocked Dr. Mbadiwe through a headline the following day saying, “Shagari Picks Ekwueme But “KO Is Not OK”.” The selection of Dr. Ekwueme rattled a lot of politicians in the East Central zone and created party crisis within the NPN. A case in point was in Imo State, where the leader of the party, Chief Nnana Kalu, suspended Dr. Mbadiwe for alleged anti-party activities. Dr. Mbadiwe had to address the press later, during which he asked “Who is Nnana Kalu, from where did he derive his political authority, have you ever heard where a messenger will suspend his boss, enough of this political rascality”.
The campaign was no doubt hectic, especially for Dr. Ekwueme. For he could not mobilise enough people for his party in the East Central, in spite of his gospel of reconciliation. He worked hard during the campaign. He spent a lot of money too but unfortunately for him in 1979, the east central zone was the empire of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, and in spite of the civil war and fourteen years absence, the emperor was still in command of his empire.
In the July 7, 1979 Senate election, the NPP won all the 10 seats in Imo and Anambra States. In the July 14, 1979 election to the House of Representatives, the NPN had one seat in Anambra, as against the NPP with 28 seats, while in Imo State, the NPN had two seats, against the NPP with 28 seats. In the gubernatorial election that followed in Anambra State, Chief James Ifeanyichukwu Nwobodo, alias Jim Nwobodo defeated Chief Christian Chukwuma Onoh of the NPN. In Imo State, Chief Samuel Onunaka Mbakwe from Avutu, of the NPP, defeated Dr. Nwakamma Okoro of the NPN in the gubernatorial election.
In the presidential election of August 11, 1979, Shehu Shagari of the NPN scored 13.50 percent of the total votes in Anambra State, as against 82.88 percent for Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NPP. In Imo State, Alhaji Shehu Shagari scored 8.80 percent, as against Dr. Azikiwe’s 84.69 percent for the NPP.
Eric Teniola, a former director in the Presidency, Writes from Lagos.