Nigeria’s Obiageli Ezekwesili: ‘We became a country, not a nation’

By Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on Wednesday, 31 March 2021 20:06, updated on Thursday, 1 April 2021 14:23

Transparency and justice have been her banners over a long and varied career. Now Obiageli Ezekwesili has founded a school to form the political leaders of tomorrow and to turn the rage in the street into reform in the corridors of power.

A coffee is balanced precariously near the keyboard as our Covid-era Zoom meeting pings into life. Obiageli (Oby) Ezekwesili is running late and has a good excuse. Her newest venture, the School of Politics, Policy and Governance, is launching operations in a few days’ time.

While there is no straight line from her childhood to the new school, there is an upright character that appears as a leitmotif in Ezekwesili’s career: co-founding Transparency International, cleaning up the budget process as the head of the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit under President Olusegun Obasanjo – earning her the sobriquet ‘Madam Due Process’ – bringing Nigeria into the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and, more recently, spearheading the Bring Back Our Girls campaign.

‘We were raised to believe in diligence’

“I had a very active family but not noisy,” says Ezekwesili. “It was a family that was filled with so much love. We were raised to believe in diligence.”

She remembers an early occasion: “We had a certain Captain Obimbe in our school, who took a delight in caning just anyone…” until, one day, Ezekwesili stood up and protested that the child about to be struck was innocent. “And everyone was stupefied, saying ‘Kid get real, what are you doing?’, because not even the teachers could look Captain Obimbe in the eyes in those days.” But he lowered his cane and was less indiscriminate in his punishment after that.

Path to becoming a nation

The real challenge in the case of Nigeria is that whereas we became a country, we have not become a nation

Ezekwesili, like so many Nigerians, is preoccupied with the path the country is on. The mass kidnapping of schoolgirls, which transfixed the world in 2014 when 276 girls were abducted in Chibok, is now a near weekly event in the impoverished northern part of the country. The region has endured centuries of violence and poverty, first under the Sokoto Caliphate, then the British colonial experience, and then subsequent decades of military and civilian rule.

For Ezekwesili, the problem is not an African one. “[Many countries in] Europe have had violent paths; some have made improvements and left their past behind,” she says. “But the real challenge in the case of Nigeria is that whereas we became a country, we have not become a nation.”

For her, a key ingredient in that process is the formation of an elite class with vision beyond self-enrichment. “We are now 21, going on 22, years of unbroken democracy,” says Ezekwesili, but what prevents the move from country to nation “is this matter of the subordination of the common good for narrow and private interests”.

Fixing it will require “the coming of age of the Nigerian citizen – this is the biggest transformation that can happen,” says Ezekwesili. She predicts a bumpy path ahead, even if clearly there is a gathering mood of ‘change must come’, not least because of the raising of Nigeria’s political consciousness by the #EndSARS protests against police brutality. In fact, Ezekwesili points out, this civilian-led movement was derailed “when #EndSARS was made out to be a southern affair”.

“The citizens were manipulated, and suddenly you had some of the northern young people vocal on Twitter just throwing insults at their southern peers. For what purpose? Just because they are being misled into thinking that everyone is not entitled to good governance?” Ezekwesili asks. “Yet what the northerners are dealing with is a complete collapse of the institutions of security. So they couldn’t even see an alignment?” But, she goes on, the political elite has always manipulated religion, ethnicity and geography, “and any other thing they can manipulate to divide and rule in order to maintain the status quo.”

Sadly, people are too scared to put their head above the parapet, she says, pointing to what happened to the former Emir of Kano and central bank governor Lamido Sanusi. “When he said to his kindred in the north: ‘Look, the north is falling behind in attaining education goals, social goals, many of the indicators that measure development are way behind’, you would think everybody would say: ‘Yes, something needs to be done.’ But what did it cost him? It cost him the truth,” says Ezekwesili, referring to Sanusi’s dethroning.

‘Don’t let this house collapse’

…we got unfortunate with a president whose stock in trade is to sharpen the divisions amongst his own people

Given that “every ethnic group is hurting”, as she puts it, Ezekwesili cannot believe the electioneering that is happening, as the manoeuvring ahead of the 2023 national elections is aggravating the underlying wounds where Nigeria was poorly stitched together by the British. And she is worried: “We are without that clear sense of a core of Nigerians that is holding up the nation. […] Don’t let this collapse, don’t let this house collapse.”

So how to gather that coalition of the willing in Nigeria: patriots who want reform, who can heal the country and help Nigeria move from country to nation? Who will speak up? Who will stand up to the next Captain Obimbe?

No help from the top

Ezekwesili is certainly not looking for help from the top. “I mean, we got unfortunate with a president whose stock in trade is to sharpen the divisions amongst his own people.” More likely to help are millennials and Nigerians born in the past 30 to 40 years – those who formed the backbone of the #EndSARS protests.

“The brutal Nigerian state came after them, used all kinds of tactics to destroy what was a golden moment to support the process of that conversation,” says Ezekwesili. “That conversation would have led to the emergence of a new social contract, but, once again, the political class proved incapable of having an intellectually rigorous conversation, because they simply don’t have it as part of their DNA.”

Ezekwezili continues: “I just love something about the young people. At a certain level, I actually, I admire the irreverence that they have for these organised systems – because the organised systems in our country are really not organised, they are appropriated systems.”

The good news is that we may be at a tipping point. “Hidden in all the anger and the pain and the sorrow and the state of uncertainty and fear and anxiety, there is that silver lining that we just may get fortunate and have that conversation.”

Part of that is visible in the changing opinions of Nigeria’s business class, especially young entrepreneurs, who once would have had nothing to do with the Nigerian state, but who now understand that they have to engage. “I see that in the way that they run businesses now,” says Ezekwesili. “They understand that ‘Okay, we cannot compartmentalise. We cannot do this silo approach where we’re only interested in our entrepreneurship, where we’re only interested in building companies that do great things.’ […] They are more socially conscious.”

‘Flecks of light’

Ezekwesili claims that she can see ever-growing numbers of these “flecks of light” in Nigerian society – a sign that change may be ahead. Organised religion will play its part, she argues. Her husband is a pastor with the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a well-attended church where vice-president Yemi Osinbajo is also a pastor.

While she says: “We can’t turn the church into a place to have the conversation about issues of the state,” she does think that the church can help raise issues of good citizenship and public leadership.

And she is going one better, with the creation of the School of Politics, Policy and Governance, in a bid to create those future leaders, in part prompted by her experience of politics. Her key insight: get your hands dirty. “Politics was always something I looked at from a distance,” Ezekwesili says. President Olusegun Obasanjo brought her into the cabinet, rather than Ezekwesili having emerged from elected office.

Path to politics

If you are not interested in the politics of the society you live in, you will ultimately be governed by idiots.

She was the party leader in her home state of Anambra, and so should have played a political organising role there. “But I said to them: ‘Sorry, can somebody else play this role?’ So that I would simply face the technical work I am doing as minister. […] That was a big mistake because, as I have discovered, Plato was right,” she says. “If you are not interested in the politics of the society you live in, you will ultimately be governed by idiots.” She makes that diagnosis in Africa, but also “in some of your democracies in the West – where basically people have turned their noses up at politics. Society pays a price for that indifference.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram insurgents in April 2014. “Two consecutive administrations failed to give justice to children who were abducted, children who went to school. For me, it’s the most painful thing that I ever imagined could happen in this society,” says Ezekwesili. “That failure of governance that drove me into a place where I said: ‘You know what? These politicians act in this manner because nobody has challenged this mindset where it is perfectly okay to be a politician and not really care about producing the results that matter to your people.’”

Hence her school. With the low-income majority class in Nigeria seeing election day as a transaction and the middle classes uninterested in politics because they see the process as stitched up in advance, the ‘demand’ side of politics is “hopeless”, Ezekwesili says. Meanwhile, on the ‘supply’ side of the equation, the political class needs to be rebuilt. “A key solution is actually to build a system of public-leadership development.”

School of Politics, Policy and Governance

So when you’ve been through our school, I want to vote for you.

Some 300 students are in the first cohort, and classes began in March. A majority of them already hold PhDs and master’s degrees. The classes are delivered by lecturers with a vast experience on the ground: economic systems (taught by PwC Nigeria chief economist Andrew Nevin), disrupting politics (taught by Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi), the leader as manager (taught by Cameroonian opposition leader Kah Walla).

“We have courses in economics, in trade policy, in technology, in education, in climate change, in everything. What basically sums our curriculum is everything that is the knowledge gap that we see amongst our political class today,” says Ezekwesili. “So when you’ve been through our school, I want to vote for you.”

The end game? Improving Nigeria’s political class to the point where Nigerian citizens start being lured back to the political process – an ambitious solution to avoiding the idiocracy.

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