By James Eze
The burial of the former Vice President, Dr Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme will go down as one of the evergreen moments in recent memory. It was one long moment when many Nigerians felt the full weight of the passing of a great patriot and a statesman. But it was also a defining moment for Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State for so many reasons.
Ekwueme’s death presented an immediate challenge to Obiano. Until Ekwueme’s passage, Obiano had not been directly involved in arrangements for the burial of a statesman. Again, Ekwueme was more than a statesman to him. He was a close friend who had rapidly assumed the stature of a father figure in his life. In his passing therefore, Obiano had to figure out how to bury a statesman and a towering figure in his life. And Ekwueme’s immense presence looming over the landscape in his death in a manner that was not felt while he lived, Obiano had his work cut out for him.
So, no sooner had Ekwueme died than Obiano had set up a burial committee, headed by the Secretary to the State Government, Prof Solo Chukwulobelu. This committee interfaced with the one set up by the federal government and the Ekwueme family to ensure that efforts were perfectly synchronized at all levels for a perfect outing. So, while efforts were going on in Abuja and London to give the great Ide of Aguata a befitting burial, a more ambitious plan was afoot in Anambra to ensure that Ekwueme bowed out like a true hero. Obiano knew what was expected of him and rose to the challenge swiftly.
Of all the South East governors, he was the first to turn up in Enugu when his colleagues gathered to receive Ekwueme’s body at the airport. His commitment remained unshaken all through the great man’s final journey home. His first symbolic act was to declare two days of mourning/public holiday in honour of the icon.
The two days were the days mapped out for the Commendation Service and lying state and the day of the great man’s interment. The markets in the state were also shut on those two days. Ndi Anambra are not given to half measures. A great hero had just gained a promotion to “ancestorhood” and his final journey had to be marked with a heavy blast of cannons speckled with solemn silences.
For Ndi Anambra, the man died on Thursday, February 2, 2018. That was the day Governor Obiano rolled out the drums to receive his body at the Anambra-Enugu border at Amansea. It was quite spectacular to see the great man’s body in a chariot arrive the premises of the Government House in Awka for a brief ceremony. A glorious Commendation Service quickly followed at the prestigious Alex Ekwueme Square, which had been spruced up to look like the studios of CNN. Everywhere gleamed with a sparkling newness that faintly echoed Ekwueme’s eclectic taste and charisma. Everywhere shone like the full moon.
As soon as Ekwueme’s body arrived the Square, the heavy blasts of the cannon rent the harmattan sky in welcome. Then came the high ceremonies of church service and funeral orations. When Governor Obiano took the stage, his grief was visible. In his opening comment, he swiftly established the enormous impact Ekwueme had had on the country as a statesman when he recalled that he stood out “as one of the few Nigerians whose life and Times graphically reflect Nigeria’s attempts to be greater than she is.”
Then, fleshing out that declarative statement with evidence upon evidence to establish the immense stature of the fallen hero, Governor Obiano sought to press home his submission in a convincingly persuasive way. Said he; “I think that we can all see how a great man’s life is like a mirror through which his people can see their struggles and aspirations as a society. Through the prism of Ide’s life, we can catch rare glimpses of our individual and collective journeys through the tunnel of time to the present day. It is a mark of the greatness of Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme that the ideals that he invested his youth and sagely old-age in have remained the dominant issues of our time and the resonant questions for the future generations.”
Having fully established Ekwueme’s impact on nation-building, Obiano urged the federal government to immortalize him by naming a national monument after him. “This will not only strengthen the walls of national unity but also ensure that the sacrifices of this great patriot were not in vain,” he reasoned.
Then, in a move that clearly demonstrated that all eyes were on him and on Anambra State at that moment, Obiano’s appeal was heeded as Vice President Yemi Osibanjo announced the following day that the Federal University at Ndufu-Ikwo in Ebonyi State had been named after Ekwueme. The announcement was greeted with a loud applause at the funeral service in Oko.
But beyond the high ceremonies and powerful eulogies, beyond the presence of former President Jonathan and other famous political gladiators that graced Ekwueme’s funeral, there were some silent components that ensured a triumphant exit for the great man. One of them is the tight security that confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that Anambra is the safest state in Nigeria.
Obiano did not spare any effort to guarantee the safety of the hundreds of people that visited Anambra during the period. Not one incident of crime was recorded. The next important effort was the lighting up of Oko and environs to give the former Vice President’s home town a dazzling look at dusk. Obiano showed admirable quickness of thought in extending the Light-up Anambra Campaign to Oko within the shortest possible time to give the academic town a respectable cosmopolitan feel. The burial committee headed by Prof Chukwulobelu also worked round the clock to ensure that Ekwueme’s burial did not become a logistic nightmare.