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Ezeife: Tribute to one of Nigeria’s foremost permanent secretaries

By Stanley Okoronkwo

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On December 14, 2023, the curtain fell on the life and times of one of Nigeria’s foremost elder statesmen, nationalists, former permanent secretaries, public intellectual and former governor of Anambra State, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Okwadike. Family sources hinted that the 86-year-old battled a debilitating ailment before he succumbed to the cold hands of death.

It was foremost English playwright, William Shakespeare who left one of the most indelible philosophies of death for humanity to chew.

He said, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end will come when it will come.”

Ezeife hailed from Igbo-Ukwu, a historically and culturally significant town in sub-Saharan Africa history. It was in the town that one of West Africa’s oldest organised kingdoms with its advanced iron-working technology combined with the Nri divination prowess to create an ancient civilization that exceeded the year 900 AD.

Thus, on April 20, Ezeife’s body will be laid to rest in the land of his ancestors in a funeral programme beginning in Abuja on April 12 as Nigerians in political, cultural, religious and social circles pay their last respects.

Born in 1937, Ezeife after his early academic challenges, obtained a BSc in Economics from the University College, Ibadan, proceeding to Havard University on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to receive his master’s and PhD degree in 1972. He became a School Headmaster, a lecturer at Makarare University College, Kampala, Uganda and a teacher fellow at Harvard University. He also served as a Consultant with Arthur D. Little in Cambridge Massachusetts. He later joined the federal civil service and rose to the position of permanent secretary.

With the shortlived return of democracy in Nigeria in 1992, Ezeife joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP) from where he was elected governor of Anambra State, holding office from January 2, 1992, to November 17, 1993, when General Sani Abacha took power after a military coup. Among Ezeife’s efforts as governor, his transfer of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University and the Federal Polytechnic, Oko to the federal government, which helped the survival of the institutions, were the most notable.

Ezeife accepted to serve in the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, which sought to coalesce other political parties in his government, despite being of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), as a political adviser, although he remained in his SDP party.

Ezeife became popular among the lower rungs of the Nigerian populace through some of his community-based engagements. He was appointed a member of the board of the Centre for Development & Empowerment of Commercial Motorcyclists, which deepened his acclaim as a distinguished leader, a beacon of hope for the youth and the aged which made his homes in Anambra and Abuja a mecca of sorts until death. He, however, continued to campaign in support of credible elections in Anambra joining a protest in January 2010.

Despite his jolly good fellow disposition, Ezeife had been a broken man twice more than in other tragedies. The first was when one of his wives, Onyedi was kidnapped by hoodlums after killing four policemen in 2010. The second was the death of his other wife and former first lady of Anambra State, Njideka in December 2021. His devastation at these sad events did not equal the demolition of his Asokoro residence by the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) in February 2006.

Before his death, Ezeife had remained active in various national fora among them, the president of the Igbo Elders Consultative Forum, a chieftain of Ohaneze Ndigbo, a member of the Anambra Council of Elders, a member of the Southern and Middle Belt Forum, among other national bodies.

It is painful that Ezeife died when his campaign at the twilight of his life for national reconciliation and rebirth. For this he engaged with every segment of Nigeria from Prof Ango Abdullahi of the Northern Elders Forum to Chief Edwin Clark of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Pa Ayo Adebanjo of the Afenifere and Chief Bitrus Pogu of the Middle Belt Forum.

He was a top social justice fighter and a major voice against the marginalisation of Igbo people in Nigeria. More importantly, as a nationalist, Okwadike had a firm belief in a restructured Nigeria rather than a dismembered Nigeria. He argued that Ndigbo have an important role to play in Nigeria’s greatness. He made it clear that the Igbo distributive wealth system would serve in the revival of Nigeria’s economic and social survival. Through his assertion of “Biafra by default”, he clarified that the Biafran agitation was imposed on Ndigbo by the rickety Nigerian structure and systemic injustice.

There was no doubt that Ezeife desired to see the full embrace of the Igbos into the Nigerian project through the election of a president of Igbo extraction after the tragic events of the Nigerian civil war. Although, like many nationalists gone before him, he didn’t live to see this dream realised, Nigerian electorate rallied and made a resounding effort to support an Igbo son in Peter Obi of the Labour Party during the 2023 general elections. It is still a long journey for that dream now unmet by Ezeife, but the request remains an open sore in the recesses of national conscience.

In one of his numerous engagements before the 2023 general elections, where he received an award from a group of northern youths, Ezeife assured them that “Nigeria would become what God intended it to be because of all the resources given to us; Nigeria will become a superpower and raise the respect and dignity of all blacks in the world.”

Ezeife is one of the few men who attained immortality by demonstrating through their lives that life continues beyond death. The lives of such men suggest that there is significance to all we accomplish in this life. It would imply that even when a person passes away, their suffering, good deeds and even evil deeds will all have significance for those who will live after them. This line of reasoning suggests that the only thing that gives our time on earth meaning is the hereafter. Men like Okwadike left enormous imprints on the sands of time, having made their time here on earth sublime. Okwadike’s legacy will be remembered for good.

As he journeys home, we say, Adieu Okwadike! May your legacy remain eternal.

 

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