Bring Back our Girls activist Oby Ezekwesili vows to disrupt ‘Nigeria’s politics of failure’

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Bring Back our Girls activist and former Nigerian minister Oby Ezekwesili has thrown her hat into the election ring for Nigeria’s upcoming 2019 elections and says her candidacy will “disrupt the politics of failure” in Africa’s most populous nation.

Ezekwesili in an interview with Christiane Amanpour said bad governance had become endemic in Nigeria and citizens no longer hold leaders accountable for corruption or corrupt acts.

“It [Nigerian politics] produced dismal results such that today Nigeria is the world’s capital of extreme poverty,” she said.

President Buhari of Nigeria. Nigeria overtook India in extreme poverty ranking under his watch.

“It’s totally unacceptable. What I intend to do is to disrupt this and build a nation that is based on prosperity, stability, cohesion, and equality of opportunities for our people.”

Around 87 million Nigerians are living in extreme poverty, according to the 2018 World Poverty Clock, despite the country’s vast oil wealth and human capital.

Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, who is also running for a second term, vowed to tackle corruption in his first term, a promise many Nigerians say he has not fulfilled.

Ezekwesili, who announced she was running for Nigeria’s top office in October, is towing the same path, with a campaign promise to weed out corruption, which she calls a “malignant and cancerous action.”

Former Nigerian Education Minister and Vice-President of the World Bank’s Africa division (2nd L) Obiageli Ezekwesilieze speaks as she leads a march of Nigeria women and mothers of the kidnapped girls of Chibok, calling for their freedom in Abuja on April 30, 2014.

“We know that corruption is a tax on the poor. And we already know there are ways to tackle corruption. You prevent opportunities for corruption; you reduce corruption.

“What my agenda is to deregulate the economy in the kind of way that public officials don’t have too much presence in the economy to be able to utilize it for personal gain,” she said in the interview.

Anti-corruption campaigner

Ezekwesili is one of the co-founders of Transparency International, a global watchdog fighting corruption. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

She leads the Bring Back Our Girls group calling for the safe return of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terror group Boko Haram since 2014.

Ezekwesili faces an uphill task as a female presidential candidate, but most significantly, she will be running against incumbent President Buhari and Nigeria’s former vice-president Atiku Abubakar in February next year.

The activist said the candidates’ popularity does not faze her and her ambitions to lead the West African nation.

Ezekwesili believes she stands out from other candidates.

According to her, leadership is “gender neutral” and she brings “character, competence, and capacity” to the race, she said.

“I am a better candidate than the men that are in this race, and even they will tell you that. I’m simply going to keep on with the issues that I want to solve and be a problem solver,” Ezekwesili told CNN.

Her record of fighting corruption and plugging financial leaks in Nigeria’s public sector, when she served as a minister proves she will deliver on her campaign promises, she said.

“I believe I am the candidate of the Nigerian people as I am not running alone. We are all running together. All of us that want a new direction for our country are running together,” Ezekwesili said.

“This is a contest between the established class of politicians who have not delivered anything meaningful in governance and the rest of us. I’m simply a candidate who is providing a direction for the rest of society to take on these folks.”

Ezekwesili served as Nigeria’s minister of education in 2006 where she championed educational reforms to get more girls to attend school, especially in northern Nigeria.

Here is the transcript of the interview.

Nigerian presidential candidate, Obiageli Ezekwesili

Preamble by Christiane Amanpour: Since the end of military rule in 1999, every Nigerian president have come from one of two major political parties. Oby Ezekwesili is an outsider. She’s an anti-corruption activist, who wants to become Nigeria’s first female president. She co-founded Transparency International, the anti-corruption agency, and she spear-headed Bring Back Our Girls to free hundreds of school girls kidnapped by the terrorist group, Boko Haram. She also wants to help alleviate the massive income inequality amongst Nigerians. For example, only 5% of the population there is said to have health insurance. The rest, no matter how poor have to pay or stay in hospital until they or their relatives can pay.

How does she think she can make a dent against the current president and the former vice president who are both running too?

Q Would I be right in saying that yours is a real long shot candidacy? You’re one of the smaller parties, the main established parties are kind of duking it out between themselves. What do you really expect to achieve by running for president?

Ans I hope to disrupt the politics of failure, the politics of bad governance and bad leadership that has only produced dismal results such that today Nigeria is the world’s capital of extreme poverty. It’s totally unacceptable.

That’s what I intend to do – to disrupt this and build a nation that is based on prosperity, stability, cohesion and equality of opportunity for our people.

Q OK, so let us break this down because we have a graphic that shows that Nigeria has overtaken India as the world’s greatest concentration of extreme poor people. Eighty seven million Nigerians live in extreme poverty and it’s growing by six people per minute. I guess what everybody will want to know is this – Nigeria is known for rampant corruption, I mean unbelievable amounts of corruption. It is also a really potentially rich State with all your oil, with all your natural resources. How is it possible that 87 million Nigerians live at the poverty line or below?

Ans It is what happens when there is bad governance. Bad governance is so endemic when there are no expectations of results from those that govern society. And therefore there’s no demand for accountability. And if and when there is demand for accountability, there is no incentive on the part of the people who govern to produce results.

I was one of the co-founders of Transparency International and we know that corruption is a tax on the poor. We also know that there are ways to tackle corruption. To reduce corruption you prevent opportunities for corruption. Part of my agenda is to deregulate the economy in the kind of way that public officials don’t have too much presence in the economy to be able to utilize it for personal gain. We will compliment this actions on the prevention side by a system that punishes corruption every time it happens, because then you create a deterrence against that very malignant cancerous action that has kept our country underdeveloped.

Q It is extraordinary. All those things you say make us sit back and take notice particularly because we see so much Nigerian money coming out of Nigeria, spent in the West on high end real estate, on all sorts of playground of the rich and powerful. I guess am trying to figure out something; other people have complained as well, including the current president about corruption. They have all pledged to somehow wipe it out. How will you take on these vested interests, these people who have a reason to keep the system and the status quo?

Ans Well the society knows me for having taken on these vested interests before. I was the one that worked on the fixing our public procurement system. It was chaotic until I entered government about a decade plus ago. And I effected the reforms of the public procurement system through an initiative that was called “Due Process”. As a result of that work that fixing of our public procurement – it used to be the honey pot of the politicians – the country began to call me “Madam due process”.

So the politicians know me. I am not a stranger to them at all. What I did in extractive industry transparency initiative is well known globally. I am not one that is going to be fazed by the strength of our political class. I think that the lack of courage on the part of our society to stare down at these ones who have given us bad governance is now over. It is time to confront them and I believe I am the candidate of the Nigerian people. I am not running alone, as we say, we are all running, all of us that want a different country, a new direction for our country, are running together.

This is a contest between the established class of politicians who have not delivered anything meaningful in governance and the rest of us. I am simply the candidate that is providing the direction for the rest of society to take on these folks.

Q As you mentioned, you’ve been recognized for many of your efforts not just Transparency International which got you a Noble Peace prize nomination for, but also you spare-headed the Bring Back Our Girls movement when Boko Haram stole all those hundreds of Nigerian school girls. Tell me a little bit about how you came to do that, your experience in public policy and the public sector in Nigeria.

Ans Well, you know I was saddened – sad is such an underwhelming word to describe how I felt – that my society was failing the children of the poor who went to school. When I was minister of education, one of my reform areas was in getting more girls to go to school especially in northern Nigeria where for every five boys in school only one girl would be in school.

And so when these girls went to school and was abducted what I expected from our government was immediate and swift response but that did not happen and I was completely aghast at it and I decided that on the basis on my shared humanity with those girls that I was going to be a voice for them until they come back. As far as I am concerned, we have no credentials on which to ask girls to go to school around the world until the rest of the world, and all of us, especially our government bring the remaining 112 Chibok girls back, as well as Leah Sharibu and Alice – a humanitarian aid worker who was abducted in the course of meeting the needs of those who are displaced in our country.

Q You bring up another major issue. Its not just humanitarian but its security. Your country is in a state of war with Boko Haram. Do you have a plan for dealing with that aspect at the source, at the root? There is terrorism and there is war there.

Ans I think that the number one thing is, we have a research at the World Bank that shows that in environment of conflict the most important thing to do is to get that community thinking about jobs again, providing economic livelihood for the people because then it dries up the sources of young people who have no stake in society and who are willing to unleash violence on their own society.

So broadening security to be human security is a major strategy for me. And the second bit for me is to completely overhaul the security system and to ensure that there is performance accountability that is tied to resource adequacy. And the third thing is to make a lot out of intelligence. Today’s cutting-edge technology means that we can be preemptive, proactive and preventive, and that means we must work with our neighbours and the rest of the world who can offer us support in cutting-edge expensive technology that will enable us have greater survelliance over our country and our people.

Q All the candidates running including yourself are pro-America. You are educated at Harvard for a period of time and yours is the second richest country in Africa. What kind of relationship do you expect to have with the Untied States particularly with President Trump who has his own views about Africa – his transactional relationships and his own views. You’ve heard what he said about African countries?

Ans I wouldn’t be dignifying any of the pejorative words that have been used by the President of America. What I will simply do is to show to the President of America that he is a contemporary in the leadership of countries. He leading his country and I leading mine. And what I would try to show clearly to him is that it is of interest to America that they should maintain the global norms that enable America to be a leading economy in the world. As we watch the trend of the global economy, it is very clear that even the US needs to continue to do even more with the rest of the world in order to maintain a reasonable level of economic prosperity and trajectory that it has been known for. Our country, Nigeria, is a leading country in the world. We definitely have a lot of contributions that are notable around the world.

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