Ezekwesili’s leap from activist citizenship to lone-range leadership
If there is anything like social kinetics, Madam Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili stands not only as a living example, but personification of same. She crept into the country’s polity like quicksilver and waltzed through as a returnee native eager to impact the nation with learned ideals and internalised convictions.
She began her romance with Nigeria’s public service first as a visiting technical resource person on economic reform assistance projects to the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo from Harvard Centre for International Development.
Interestingly, she was by then just hired by Jeffrey Sachs after graduating from the Kennedy School of Government. That was in the year 2000. But although she worked quietly behind the scenes, helping to map outlines for the reform of the nation’s socio-economic processes, it was only when the graduate of Queens College, began to move from the Debt Management Office, Ministries of Solid Minerals and then Education that Nigerians took note. She was baptized with the nickname Madam Due Process for reform initiatives in the budget office.
Two events that happened this year brought to the fore the near ambivalence of Ezekwesili’s place in Nigerian politics. One was the general election in which she appeared and disappeared from the ballot. The other has to do with the fifth anniversary of Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG), which she co-convened to retain public consciousness about the horrendous abduction of 219 girls from Chibok Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State.
Incursion to activism
ALTHOUGH the mother of three sons, it is as though nature had originally intended that Oby should be a man. But having become a mother, she became one of the women that showed empathy for the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls and actually co-founded the #BringBackOurGirls movement that attracted international attention to the mindless stealing of the school children.
In 2017 BBOG began the annual Chibok Girls Lecture, with Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi III as the guest speaker under the chairmanship of Professor Grace Alele Williams. The second lecture in 2018 was chaired by Hajiya Na’ajatu with Pastor Tunde Bakare delivering the keynote speech.
It could be stated that it was through the activities and sustained campaigns of #BBOG that helped secure the safe return of 107 of the abducted girls and continued to advocate for the release of the remaining 112 Chibok girls, as well as Leah Sharibu, the only girl remaining in the hands of the abductors of her 105 colleagues from their school in Dapchi, Yobe State.
Four years after stumbling upon child rights activism, precisely in 2018, Ezekwesili began another round of advocacy, this time for the rights of citizens to hold their leaders to account under the auspices of Red Card Movement. When she started the movement on January 2018 in a Twitter post, Madam Due Process explained that Nigerian citizens must take a determined stand against recycling of leaders, which culminate in bad politics and governance.
Adorning the garb of a political reformer this time around, Oby insisted that all those who contributed to the degenerate state of the socio-economic status of the country, especially in recurrent leadership atrophy, should be given red cards, a soccer aphorism for being sent-off the field of play.
It could be inferred that Ezekwesili’s latter day activism stemmed from her combative reform efforts ever since she began her association with governance processes in Nigeria. For instance, after serving as Special Assistant and Senior Special Assistant to President Obasanjo on Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit in 2002, she instigated institutional reforms in the public procurement system, which saw the establishment of the Due Process system in contract awards.
With her unsmiling approach to issues of transparency, Ezekwesili was also associated with the drafting of the bill and establishment of Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP) as well as supported many state governments in the country to do the same.
Even as Minister of Solid Minerals Development, the combative bluster of Ezekwesili’s crusading character was evident in the reform of the mining sector to tally with international best practices as captured by the Minerals Act.
Also, as the chairperson for Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), she insisted on the publication of physical, financial and process audits of the oil and gas sector.
Ezekwesili stirred some controversies when she became the education minister in 2006 following her attempts to reform the sector through the adoption of a school initiative geared towards ‘restructuring and refocusing the ministry for the attainment of Education for All (EfA) targets and Millennium Development Goals’ to reduce the number of out-of-school-children.
Temptation of partisan race
HAVING gone through the entire gamut of reform crusading and socio-political activism, as the 2019 general election approached, Oby toyed with the idea of contesting for the nation’s top job, the presidency, on a partisan platform. Her decision stirred debates as to whether all her walk through institutional reforms and work for citizens’ vigilance were aimed at securing political laurels.
But temptation to contest for elective office seemed to have come Oby’s way after the events of her 50th birthday anniversary in 2013, when most speakers eulogised her for her nationalistic endeavours. Particularly, current Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, practically urged her to run.
Ezekwesili had responded to the calls on her to join partisan contest for public office by declaring that she was not a politician but a citizen. She had said: “Actually, there is nothing about being interested in politics if you understand democracy. Democracy is incomplete without the engagement of the citizens in the process. The demand for accountability and for results is the role of citizens. You don’t have to be in politics in order to be an active citizen engaged in the democratic process.
“The reason that we have lacked results and accountability since our first democratic experiment in the 1960s was simply because the citizens failed to play that role. I am not going to be a citizen that acts like a eunuch like there is no capacity to demand accountability.
“So, I am not a politician. The day I decide that I want to be a politician, you don’t need to guess, you will see me. I am very candid, I am very frank, I am too honest to play games on things that I believe in. I don’t want to be a politician; I am not a politician, but I am an active citizen who is basically carrying out the role that every citizen of this nation must carry out.”
However, events preceding the recent 2019 general elections seemed to have thrust her on the scene as an accidental, nay emergency, politician. Even when she tried to make her campaign to be president reflect her general overview “that we are going through the throes of challenges that require a very strong sense of sacrificial leadership,” she failed to build a consensus of partisan support for her convictions.
She came face to face with her earlier theoretical summations that “the corruption in the society right now is so endemic, it’s almost become democratized. And that is going to sink us. We need not implode under the weight of corruption. We need to tackle corruption and tackle it as you would tackle cancer. It can kill.”
Yet, instead of staying put to fight the cancer which she encountered in real terms within the internal dynamics of her adopted political party, Oby must have reckoned that politics, unlike activism and social advocacy, is not just about grandstanding, speechmaking and grandiloquence. She ran to preserve her acclaimed integrity.
But having run away from consummating her political odyssey in electoral combat, could it be that Madam Due Process wanted to live so as to fight another day? In one of her speeches, she noted that “there is no need pretending that this country is not burdened by the weight of a cancerous phenomenon that is called corruption…This is a broken society and it (corruption) has permeated every aspect of our national life. So, we must do something about it.”
Was she not willing to walk the talk? Ezekwesili’s quick dash into electoral contest and politics leaves a lesson: That possession of integrity is not enough on its own, but ability to diffuse same into society and survive the furnace of pervasive corruption. It is in building of consensus around a noble idea that the genius of a leader is distinguished.
Oby’s integrity is not in doubt. At least during her 50th birthday celebration, her former principal, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, had noted that “if those who wanted to probe you are honest probers they would find out that government of Nigeria should give you money for what you have done for this country without stealing money.”
Nonetheless, midway into her presidential contest, when faced with the choice of either to take flight or to stand and fight, Oby did not know how to balance the political realism she was confronting with the economic democracy she was advocating, especially in her promise to lift 80 million Nigerians out of extreme poverty.
As things stand, Ezekwesili now has an unfinished business on her hands. She still needs to demonstrate her capacity to tackle the evils of corruption and inactive citizenship that nurture the recycling of otiose leaders. Would she come back to lead the change or run again as a prop for a male candidate to make up for the lack of tutelage and lack of the people element.
Unless she does that she stands the risk of ending up in the class of public intellectuals that The Guardian’s editor styles as tragic heroes or heroines. Where goes she from here? Ezekwesili should look back at her contributions and interventions in the last two decades and define where her strength lies most: activism or political opinion leadership.
How? She may wish to pool her ideas in a book or get back to the building blocks by engineering with like minds the founding of a broad-based political party that would serve as a credible alternative to the ‘Butiku’ (her acronym for Buhari & Atiku) platforms of APC and PDP that she repudiates.