Obiageli Ezekwesili is a star. A huge one.
In terms of quality of political leadership, by accident or design- or both- Nigeria has had a raw deal. She is an inspiration to anyone who knows her but physically meeting Obiagaeli Ezekwesili, a former government minister and past vice president of the World Bank for Africa, is an experience in itself.
‘’I am not a politician’’
Excellent people skills and a mastery of the oratory form are invaluable tools for politicians seeking electoral advancement and now that Obiageli Ezekwesili has joined the political fray, they are certainly useful. But for many years, she resented the political tag and famously in a tense, testy Head to Head exchange with Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan in 2015, declared to the world, “I am not a politician.”
Ezekwesili, 56, has come a long way from her state of mind when she made that emphatic statement and a lot of things have certainly changed but Ezekwesili herself has remained the same. After trying to build a consensus among the fringe presidential candidates who didn’t belong to the big two – All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)- Ezekwesili announced her own presidential bid in October 2018, a relatively late entry that nonetheless caused ripples because of Ezekwesili’s outsize personality.
In her statement of declaration, Ezekwesili made it clear she was on a rescue mission albeit without the messiah complex. It was all about the issues for her. She wrote, “The pain of seeing us become a country where the worth of life is trending down to zero, sadness that we are now known as the world poverty capital with 87 million extremely poor Nigerians, and anguish at the increase in the number of out-of-school children constitute a driving force for seeking the office of the President.’’
As is usually the case with these things, Ezekwesili was maligned and ridiculed but her drive was focused and unyielding. Describing the two major presidential candidates as merely two sides of the same coin that must be rejected, Ezekwesili professed a genuine alternative that was ready to rise up to the occasion of providing genuine leadership. No frills or excuses.
A tantalizing possibility for those who dared to believe, Ezekwesili’s campaign, run by an incredibly motivated and accomplished team of young persons struggled to get the message out, especially in a race corrupted by big money and stomach infrastructure. Recognizing this, the Ezekwesili campaign messaging zeroed in on the famously unbothered middle class as well as the undecideds. First time voters and disillusioned persons who hadn’t been bothered by any of the mainstream options were also target.
Ezekwesili had the legitimacy of her name, the recognizable face, plus loads and loads of integrity earned from a life time of public service. But she needed more it seemed.
Born in 1963 in Lagos as the first child of her parents, Ezekwesili attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. After earning a Masters in International Law and Diplomacy from the University of Lagos, Ezekwesili left Nigeria for the United States. This was on account of the heat she was getting from the Abacha junta as one of the co-founders and pioneer directors of Transparency International, an anti-corruption coalition watchdog group that took its mandate seriously.
Ezekwesili was accepted into the Kennedy school of government at Harvard University for a Masters degree inPublic Administration and upon completion of the program in 2000, was hired by world renowned American economist and professor, Jeffrey Sachs at the Harvard Centre for International Development.
Madam Due Process
Her work with the centre brought her back to Nigeria where she was involved in economic reform assistance projects. President Olusegun Obasanjo, a colleague from their Transparency International days, appointed Ezekwesili as the pioneer head of the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit (aka Due Process Unit).
It was in this position that Ezekwesili would prove her mettle, earning for herself the sobriquet, “Madam Due Process” on account of her work leading a team of professionals to sanitize the public procurement and contracting processes at federal level. Her achievements in this space includes the bureau for public procurement legislation which helped make public procurement more transparent. She was also one of the members of Obasanjo’s much heralded twelve-man economic management team that achieved debt relief from the Paris club and instituted the excess crude account.
On the strength of the impact of her work, Obasanjo appointed Ezekwesili as minister for solid minerals development. In this capacity, Ezekwesili worked tirelessly, instituting reforms that would bring the mining sector up to global standards. She was chair of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), oversaw the first ever audit of the nation’s oil and gas sector and left a legacy of increased transparency in the ministry. Perhaps her toughest nut to crack in the civil service came when Obasanjo moved her to the education ministry.
In the one year that she spent at the ministry, Ezekwesili refocused the ministry to provide greater value for the Nigerian people via the attainment of Education for All targets and Millennium Development Goals. Her now aborted “Adopt-a-public school Initiative” launched by the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 2007, sought to improve the quality of public schools considerably around the country.
Through it all, Ezekwesili cultivated and maintained a reputation that was supremely above board. Leading by example, she ensured her work was loud enough to speak for her and brought on a dedication and passionate competence to work that was- and still is- quite rare in public service.
In his memoir, The Accidental Public Servant published in 2013, Kaduna state governor, Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai described Ezekwesili’s moral uprightness and consistency with an illustration of her inability to pay back about $30,000 in student loans, acquired during her stay at Harvard even with her earnings as a government minister. In el-Rufai’s telling, the loans were a continuous source of bother to Ezekwesili but it would never have occurred to her to consider using her influence or helping herself to the considerable public assets that were in her custody.
It wasn’t until she joined the World Bank as Vice-President that Ezekwesili was able to pay off these loans. In El- Rufai’s telling, “Many people would say that only someone like Oby could be the final hurdle in approving billions of dollars in procurement in Nigeria for four years and then have difficulty paying off a loan of $30,000. Oby was simply incorruptible. She worked for six years in the government in positions that, if she wanted, she could have had $50,000 delivered to her any time she wanted, but she did not.”
At the World Bank, Ezekwesili promoted Africa’s economic interests and was not shy about dishing out tough love to presidents of countries like Ghana and DR Congo who were about to fall into the trap of the resource curse. During her tenure as Vice President, overall lending in Africa rose to over $40 billion, and agricultural development and rural growth expanded.
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda described her tenure thus, “Our sisters from Africa, Oby and Ngozi Okojo-Iweala have been competent leaders in this institution under the able leadership of Bob Zoellick who has also been a good friend of Africa.”
After her spell at the World Bank, it would have been perfectly kosher for Ezekwesili to retire into a comfortable life in the consultancy and public lecture circuits. She did that – earning seats at several international boards – but she did more too.
A mother of three boys, Ezekwesili returned to Nigeria and was soon in the public eye again after the Goodluck Jonathan administration thoroughly mishandled the 2014 kidnap of over 276 girls from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno state by the terror Boko Haram group.
Ezekwesili quickly and noisily rallied on behalf of the powerless girls and their families as the co-convener of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, kickstarting a campaign that overcame modest origins in Nigeria and soon assumed a global dimension as presidents, celebrities and influential citizens donated time, voice and resources. Naturally, this did not endear Ezekwesili to the government of the day. Good thing then, that her motivations have always been based solely on the strength of her convictions.
The advocacy of #BringBackOurGirls indirectly led to the return of 164 girls. Five years later and the movement marked its fifth anniversary this April with a call for the government to intensify efforts to bring back the remaining girls.
Perhaps no other Nigerian has shown the kind of dedication, transparency and willingness to lead by example as Ezekwesili has shown in the last decade. She has constantly put herself in harm’s way, surviving not just verbal but physical attacks on her person by naysayers, rented thugs and even men of the police force who have inexplicably been used to oppose Ezekwesili’s purposeful activism.
Her influence transcends her stellar career in both public and private sectors. As the nation’s model citizen, she stands as a constant reminder that the right of every Nigerian to a decent life is non-negotiable and that society must do its part to maintain justice and equity in order to wall off a breeding ground for chaos. She is the rare activist who doesn’t just talk and prescribe and pontificate. When the moment calls for it, Ezekwesili is ever willing to jump into the line of fire to show how to get the job done, whether as a political aspirant or a staff of a Bretton Woods institution. She was the first presidential candidate in Nigeria to publish a detailed report of campaign expenses.
She credits her late father with instilling in his offspring, the importance of character building and of being consistent with one’s values. Hear her, “My dad always said that if you have the conviction, you must have the courage to stand for it.”
Ezekwesili’s relationship with Nigeria has been a chequered one but she has no plans of giving up on the country now recognized as the world’s capital of extreme poverty. In her interviews and public speaking engagements, she makes it quite clear that there is clearly a path away from mediocrity and underachievement and she continues to hold out hope. But her hope is not an empty, futile one, it is one that is characterized by doing the hard work needed to move from one point to the other. As a development expert, she knows all too well how nations are built and she is prepared to put in the work.
Writing a profile in TIME for the magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2015, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, an Ugandan nun and aid worker captured the soul of Ezekwesili’s activism thus, “It has been a year, and the (Chibok) girls haven’t been rescued, but she has made a difference by speaking about it. Not just speaking but shouting. I know some people will say she is too loudmouthed. The loud mouth is needed. People hear it.”
We hear it alright, the question is, what are we willing to do with it?