The old order has delivered misery – Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili
Blunt-speaking and a passionate advocate for women’s rights, Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili has launched a groundbreaking run for the presidency, which looks like a logical step in her professional and political career.
Standing for the small Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), she is shaking up the election by running a grassroots campaign with a dedicated band of young volunteer helpers. Oby, as she is widely known in Nigeria, should not be underestimated as a campaigner. What she lacks in establishment backers and corporate donors, she could make up for in her own enthusiasm and that of her young supporters.
She shot to global fame as one of the founders of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in 2014 demanding that the government of Goodluck Jonathan find and rescue the more than 270 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in Borno State by the Islamist Boko Haram militia.
Oby and Hadiza Bala Usman, co-founder of the campaign, used social media to get the message around the world, and even US First Lady Michelle Obama was pictured on social media brandishing a #BringBackOurGirls placard. That campaign was a major reason why Jonathan lost the 2015 election.
An accountant by training, with a master’s in public administration from Harvard University, Oby has worked on development projects for much of her career. She joined then-president Olusegun Obasanjo’s government in 1999 as head of its Budget Monitoring Unit, where she earned the sobriquet ‘Madame Due Process.’
“I would do a much better job than [Butiku] because government is not monolithic”
She later served as minister of mines and then of education before leaving government to join the World Bank as vice-president for Africa. Oby is a fiercely independent campaigner. At the launching of the now governing All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013, she warned its members that they should stand for more than chasing the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) out of power.
But she is also critical of Atiku Abubakar, the PDP’s presidential candidate, with whom she clashed in government. She tells The Africa Report that Atiku did “everything to undermine due process” when he was in government.
Regardless of whether Oby and her party can break through in terms of votes in the coming election, her focus on the most pressing social and economic issues could enliven political debate and offer an alternative for the many Nigerians who say they are unimpressed by either of the frontrunning candidates – Atiku or President Muhammadu Buhari.
TAR: Your party lacks the organisation and the resources of the two main parties. How will you be able to compete with them in next year’s elections?
OBIAGELI EZEKWESILI: I have independence of thought and want an association of people who welcome independence of thought too. They [ACPN] have also proven themselves not to be the typical ‘small party’ because they could have melted into the two dominant parties but refused to do that. They came fourth in the 2015 elections and have been around for 11 years. They believe that this is the time for there to be a confrontation with these Siamese twins of failure. We don’t envy the APC and PDP.
Who is on your campaign team and how are you funding it?
Any personal resources that I have […] and we are crowdfunding. The average age of people who are members of the campaign is 27 years. They are committed on the basis of what they believe their candidate stands for. They are committed because they believe that it is time to imagine that we can build a different Nigeria. It is a battle for the soul of Nigeria. There are two sides in this election: the failed old political order and the side of those who dare to believe that we can question and uproot this decadent order that has not delivered anything but misery and poverty.
You were minister of education, serving with Atiku Abubakar when he was vice-president. What is your view of his record?
I would do a much better job than [Butiku] because government is not monolithic. There are different parts of every government that you see. It is always great when all sides are working towards a common goal, but sometimes they are not. In the case of the candidate that you referred to, he detested due process. He did everything to undermine it.
There are some 12.5 million to 13.5 million children out of school. What’s your response to this crisis?
Only 10% of young people who have graduated secondary school or university and who enter the labour market find a job. The number in absolute terms who find those decent jobs is anything from 3 million to 4 million. You have to ask yourself about the rest of the teeming millions. Who are they? And where are they? They live on the edge of society and feel abandoned, disaffected, disenchanted. This destabilising factor – an army of people who feel abandoned – should scare anyone.
“Teeming millions … they live on the edge of society and feel abandoned, disenchanted”
There are security problems in most of the six geopolitical zones. The government insists Boko Haram has been technically defeated. Are things better than they were in 2015?
I think it is marginally better when you think of the spectacle of fleeing soldiers and terrorist occupation that we saw in Borno, when the so-called caliphate of terrorists put their flags in a number of the local governments. People who come from that region say that the terrorists don’t control territories in the way that they did before, but they live in their midst. We watched a renegade army in Borno attain the stature of a well-known terrorist group because the nation-state was sleeping at the wheel. The present government repeats the same response to the Fulani herdsmen crisis.
Your manifesto also talks about ending energy poverty. How do you explain Nigeria’s electricity crisis?
First, the structure is centralised and so the federal government has had the almighty power to determine everything about power. As we moved towards deregulation of the sector and shaped a market-based approach, you find that the generating companies lend themselves to market principles.
You led the Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative and know about the state oil company’s losses. How can that be fixed?
It is scandalous! Just a few people are getting the opportunity of political power, stifling key sectors that matter to the rest of the country. I am not the kind of leader who wants to control economic levers because I know the limits of what the state can do. I want a Nigerian economy that is run on the principles of allocative efficiency that does not permit any individual to determine the future of all other individuals. As minister of solid minerals, I changed that by having a law that threw the gates for mining licences open.
In 2016, you tweeted that that you opposed subsidy removal. Today you promise to end subsidies. Why?
I have been consistent in my fight against poor governance of resources. There was massive poor governance of resources under the administration which had the proposal to remove subsidies. We couldn’t trust what the removal of subsidies meant under that government. The transfer of more resources into the coffers of that government was evidently going to be troubling because its record did not leave any basis to trust that the people were going to get value for money. There was much more that needed to be tackled before the removal of subsidy would be the kind of policy measure that anyone who is a market enthusiast like myself would support.
This article first appeared in the December-January 2019 print edition of The Africa Report