Oby Ezekwesili is in the race to dislodge faltering Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari. But a year ago, upending the political status quo in Africa’s most populous nation was, perhaps, only a residual thought; not something she would have loved.
Twice a minister, first for education and later solid minerals under President Olusegun Obasanjo, Ezekwesili is not alien to the workings of the government. Her effort to make government procurement processes accountable and transparent as the pioneer head of the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit earned her the nickname Madam Due Process.
Her penchant for wanting things done the right way was recently acknowledged by a former president of Malawi Dr Joyce Banda. Banda describes how Ezekwesili’s counsel helped her in fighting corruption in her country.
“While fighting corruption during my Presidency in 2013, @obyezeks advised me to protect myself with a forensic audit, which UK gov supported. I am forever grateful for this transparent, accountable daughter of Africa, a servant leader pushing for a better Nigeria,” Banda tweeted on November 20.
A reluctant politician
For someone who was once a minister, an appointment, which is usually a product of political affiliation and patronage, her hatred for politics can be blamed on the rot in Nigeria’s political system.
“I never had interest in politics. Anyone who knows me knows that I detest politics,” she says. “But I had to get to the place where listening to the political class say to us that we have to choose the lesser of two evils got me infuriated.”
One important driving force behind her decision to cast aside her hatred for politics is the way the human lives have been cheapened since the advent of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
Buhari defeated the then incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria’s general elections after campaigning to fight corruption, reposition the economy and strengthen internal security, especially in the Northeast.
Ezekwesili agrees that Buhari can be given a “little bit of score” for what he has done in the strife-torn region, but insists that a government that allowed Nigeria’s economy to tank on the “back of oil shock” and wrong policy choices should not be allowed to lead the country beyond May 29, 2019.
Beyond the downward spiral of the economy which has seen the unemployment rate rise to 18.80 in Q3 2017 when the last job figures were released, Ezekwesili is miffed by the spate of violence across the country and a biased anti-graft war.
“This is a Nigeria under President Muhammadu Buhari where the primacy of the human life has been completely devalued…life is cheapened,” she says.
“The lives of Nigerians today are not any better because President Buhari became our president. As a matter of fact, the quality of lives has taken a significant beaten.”
Her misgiving about Buhari’s handling of the economy preceded her dream of being the president of Nigeria. In 2016, she lampooned the government’s “command and control” economic policies while faulting the intention of the President Buhari to protect the poor.
“The president comes into this economic philosophy on the premise that he does not want the poor to suffer. I can relate to that, a leader must not allow the poor to suffer, especially a leader who knows that most of his votes came not from the elite but from the poor,” she said at The Platform, a public policy forum, in April 2016.
“The problem though is that the intention and the outcome are diverged.”
Obviously, her patience to continue to “relate” to such “archaic” policies ran out.
The People’s Candidate
While Ezekwesili has her mind firmly set on dethroning Buhari when the country goes to poll in the first quarter of 2019, she has to contend with a political culture that is both anti-woman and excessively moneyed.
The odds are staggering. But she insists that the “fight” for “a new independence from our rapacious ruling class” is winnable. She is very much convinced that she represents millions of Nigerians who are disenchanted by years of failure of the current and past administrations.
“I am not running alone,” she says with a definite conviction. “We are all running. This contest is between the political class that has failed over and over against the Nigerian people and the Nigerian people.”
But in a country where the voting public is easily ingratiated by quick and fleeting political favours and an entrenched political culture that has done little to curb electoral malpractices, how she will able to best her opponents is yet to be seen.
It is impossible that Ezekwesili is unaware of these odds. Yet, she brims with the hope that her dream of repositioning Nigeria for a greater good will be realised.
“I am the candidate of the people,” she remarks.
Before politics was advocacy
Ezekwesili is not exactly new to facing down challenges. Her activism preceded the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in 2014.
She was a member and the first female leader of The Concerned Professionals Citizens Movement. The group campaigned for Nigeria’s return to democracy in the 1990s.
In recent years, she has been one of the most consistent voices against misrule and the excesses of the Nigerian political class.
When the Chibok Girls were kidnapped from their schools in April 2014, she became a vocal advocate for their quick rescue. #BringBackOurGirls, a movement which she co-founded adopted a number of approaches -including sits-out and marches – to pressure the then President Goodluck Jonathan to act fast rescuing of the girls. Loyalists of the sitting Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government accused her of being a paid agent. That led into her passport being briefly seized by the agents of the state when she was travelling to London in July 2014.
When power changed hands in May 2015, Nigerians hoped the new government would introduce a new system of doing things. And for Ezekwesili, her travails in the hands of the government took a drastic turn. In January, she and seven other members of the BBOG movement were arrested and detained by police while protesting for the release for the Chibok Girls. In June, her one-man march on the Nigerian State House, Abuja to protest the killings of 100 persons by suspected herdsmen in Plateau communities in June was halted by security operatives.
Again, she has been at the receiving end of attacks from loyalists of the current All Progressives Congress (APC), who felt her criticism of the Buhari administration was one too many, and from agents of the PDP, who thought she was beyond being forgiven for allegedly contributing to the party’s losses at the polls in 2015.
But Ezekwesili insists her advocacy for the girl child and the woman will not take a back seat in spite of her personal dream of rescuing Nigeria from the grips APC and PDP.
“Chibok girls, Leah Sharibu…will permanently remain the basis of my advocacy,” she tells Guardian Life.
“The advocacy that we have done concerning Chibok girls and Leah Sharibu is one that is endless. It is never going to come to an end until those girls are back.”
And there is always family and friends.
Left to her husband, Chinedu Ezekwesili, she would have been into active politics much earlier. He has first-hand experience about how passionate she is about solving Nigeria’s problems. And when she eventually told him that she was going to contest the presidency, there was a eureka moment.
“‘Finally, my baby is ready,’ he told me when I told him,” she says.
Her three sons, on the other hand, were a bit worried. But they all gave their support to her aspirations.
“Our children…they know how totally committed to Nigeria I am. Even though they worry, but on the aggregate, the whole idea is, ‘Mum, go ahead and do this.’”
Ezekwesili firmly believes in a family creating a culture that works for its members, without anyone being unduly disadvantaged.
“Every family where people act together don’t have to debate who does what,” she says.
For anyone to be a functional member of a society, she says, possession of “all the [necessary] skills is important.