Obiageli (Oby) Ezekwesili is the presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) in the upcoming 2019 election. Mrs Ezekwesili once served as minister of solid minerals and then headed the education ministry during the second-term presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo. She also led the Bring Back Our Girls Group (BBOG) for a while.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES journalists during her visit to the newspaper’s corporate headquarters in Abuja, she explains why Nigerians should reject President Muhammadu Buhari and his main challenger in the 2019 presidential election, Atiku Abubakar. She also speaks on her priorities if elected president.
PT: You were once called ‘daughter of President Olusegun Obasanjo’. You worked for him as a minister. Our expectation was that you were going to align with him wherever he is. He’s backing the PDP today. Why are you not on the same platform with a man considered your political godfather?
Ezekwesili: I am not on any platform that is not a platform that is a change in direction. President Obasanjo will continue to be someone that has played an important role in this nation, someone that I will always respect. Someone that I served in his government with professionalism and we go way back.
I was one of the young people that were selected on the African Leadership Forum when they began to get young people across the continent of Africa to give them a premium leadership (training). But one thing very clear is that I am someone everybody knows to have a mind of her own. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work! I don’t get into platforms based on group thing. I believe that right now in our country, we need a complete change of direction. The basis of my campaign has, after all, been the idea that we cannot be held hostage by the extant political class that has been at the centre of poor governance and bad leadership.
PT: Now you have a huge battle on your hands, battling with guys who have all the money and structure, state resources. How are you going to beat them?
Ezekwesili: By being strategic and leveraging on the things I have that they don’t have. None of these candidates can be placed on the same pedestal if your criteria for determining quality leadership are the things that the rest of the world emphasises. I am the candidate with character, competence, capacity in the form that a new direction requires in the country.
I am the candidate that reflects the ideals of any Nigerian who is fed up with failure. I am the candidate who speaks to the issues that matter to the young people and women and these are segments of our population that are the most afflicted by the failure of governance. I am the candidate who has got the capacity to use knowledge as the basis of a campaign on issues of governance.
The reason is simple: the traditional systems of electioneering focused on plenty of deep pockets. Where is that deep pocket coming from? It is coming from the same kind of governance that I am against. I don’t have the same kind of strategy. So my strategy is to look at the distribution problem. A distribution problem in the sense that I need to get a distribution of my message in a virtual kind of way that then becomes bodies of people acting on the basis of the messages; and technologically, we have our system of solving a distribution problem.
I think that as we are solving a distribution problem, then we are coupling it with the traditional system that our party (offers), a party that has managed to keep its self for 15 years without being assimilated by the octopuses that are in the land. So, our readiness is to create a different Nigeria. Our own mechanism of the grassroots is to emphasise that we must stop failing and the biggest indicator of our failure is the growing trend of poverty.
That is why the signature thing for us is that we will run the economy to enhance productivity and competitiveness as citizens so that in the process we would be able to lift 80 million Nigerians out of poverty.
So on the basis of this, the grassroots engagement for our party is a huge premium. On one hand, we have the grassroots thing, on the other hand, we have the technology and this combination will deliver one of the surprises in our political history and this is not a boast.
PT: So you are saying you are going to shock Buhari?
Ezekwesili: We are going to shock the ‘BUTIKU’ team. Stop calling them different names (Mr Buhari and Mr Atiku) because they are one entity. We will shock them. I am not running alone, I need you to know that. We are all running, only those who are not fed up with a failing Nigeria will not be running with me. Those who are fed up and tired of knowing that our country has overtaken India (in poverty) which is almost seven times our country and become the country with the largest contingent of people living on extreme poverty will not be running with me.
Those who are comfortable with the fact that about four million people enter labour market every year seeking opportunities of decent jobs but it’s only 10 per cent of them that will find those jobs, they are the ones that will not run with me. Those comfortable that Nigeria is number 15 in the global fragility index, those comfortable with knowing maternal mortality rate, infant mortality and child mortality rate of Nigeria is above the African average will not run with me.
But, all those in the country tired of this evidence of the failure of governance will be running with me. They will run with me because they can not afford to run with a political class that has become incapable, promising us the same thing that has not produced anything meaningful for the citizens.
PT: Giving the resources the so-called ‘BUKU’ (using your term) team have, one would have thought that a quick way to distort this kind of team is by forming a coalition with other qualified candidates running in the election. Why is it difficult to form an alliance with other young promising candidates?
Ezekwesili: There are different conversations that continue to go on and the ideal thing is for everybody to come to the table and say we can do this and say you know what? I lay down my flag, you lay down yours and then we have one flag. But you know the way it is in our society. Regardless of that, I believe that the conversation that is going at one point in time might lead to alliances that will enable that kind of an outcome. I am hoping so but that is why I said alliances and mergers. The latter is going to be much more difficult because candidates are being fielded as you know.
PT: Will Nigerians believe you? We have heard all the things you are saying in the past. Presidential candidates will come and tell so many good things but when they get there, it’s a different thing.
Ezekwesili: Please show me that presidential candidate that you ever hosted in your office that talks like Oby Ezekwesili or has the track record of Oby Ezekwesili? Tell me which of them because it’s so easy for Nigerians to say we have heard all this before. No, you have not!
You have not heard this kind of thing from somebody who has actually gone into government and done so much work and comes out of government and done so much work. My fidelity to the cause of the nation cannot be doubted by anybody.
Those who doubt anything that I say are those who are not entirely truthful to themselves. They have had issues with me on one thing or the other and allow that to colour the way that they are interpreting me. But, any reasonable Nigerian that can attest that I went to government knows it was all about proven governance. My work in governance, the things that I worked with, we delivered in reforming our public procurement system, the political class hated it.
‘BUTIKU’ hated the due process so much. It was unbelievable. The political class within which I operated on at the time were very annoyed with due process. Yet, I stood steadfast with the things we put together in the due process unit and we pushed it with the support of the president. It was because of the work that our team did on NEITI that we gave the world a prototype upon which the global EITI organised itself. For that particular work, you can see I was recently nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
Regarding the work we did in the solid minerals sector, I was the minister who through legislation possessed every power under the face of the earth over minerals in the country. We said this is not how countries are governed, the era where the government gives such crippling power to an individual is over! You don’t do this anymore, so we worked on a different law and took out all the powers given to the minister and put into what is called the Mining Cadastral System. It’s a technology-based system and that was the end of people coming to crowd the office of the minister.
The airborne geophysical survey of the country was comprehensive. The last time that geophysical survey of the country was done was by the British. During my time, it was completed and interpreted and we put a law and gave autonomy to the Nigerian Geophysical Agency. Today it is considered one of the world-class agencies in geophysical survey work on the continent.
At the time President Obasanjo took me out of solid minerals in 2007, we already delivered on 97 out of 107 reforms we identified. I went to the education ministry and saw the rot in the system. The reforms I did in education was titled C.R.I.S.I.S because of what we saw there. When we did the same process of identifying the reforms we would have to do in education it was 436 reforms. We began to work on that. We also had different laws and bills to underpin the reforms in education. Those bills went to the National Assembly but it was at the tail end of the government. The Public Procurement Act was one of the works that we did.
PT: So madam, you did not ‘chop'(steal) in government?
Ezekwesili: If God did not create you a thief, you will be a fool to go into government to steal. The basis of me becoming the person I am today is the strong values my parents, especially my father, gave to us. My father said there are three things he can offer us as a public servant: his name, education and the values he raised us on and he said these things will take us far.
My father will say to us that it is a useless human being that will engage in the ignoble act of accumulating wealth that is not earned. My father said he cannot train any of us with stolen money. So if my father can say that, I cannot go to into government to steal in order to train a child, it’s not possible. If you want to know the kind of person I was in government, did someone not write a book called “Accidental Public Servant” (author, Governor El-Rufai)? Go and read the chapter he wrote about my time in government.
PT: You have been around and done a lot of work. If you are given the opportunity to be the first president, who is a woman, what will be your priorities?
Ezekwesili: My number one priority if elected president is the replacement of oil with human capital. That is my signature. If history will remember me, it’s going to be the fact that at my time, the Nigerian person translated into a world-class human capital replacing oil. This for me is a signature mandate. This is top for me. That is visionary for me.
I will be the president that takes us on a race to the top, not a race to the bottom while ensuring the equality of opportunities. In fact, I will be the president that will bring the countries diversity together in a way that also races to the top. So we are saying for that purpose of inclusion and national unity, we will have federal character but what has happened to the federal character is that they have decided to use it as a race to the bottom.
I will be the president that ends that mediocrity. We will all be in the race to the top, work on equality of opportunities and then of course, that major issue of tackling poverty. I want to remove this trend of poverty. Just look at it, China, Nigeria and other African countries were almost at the same place some five decades ago but guess what, China’s GDP today is over $14 trillion, Nigeria’s GDP depending on the exchange rate situation is below $400 billion. How did we get to this kind of painful stunted growth? We now know things that make economies grow and they are not rocket science. Sound policies, dynamic institutions anchored on the rule of law, the right priorities of investment in critical infrastructure, in building the human capacity that supports citizens and businesses.
We know that tackling poverty can happen in a matter of decades because China lifted 700 million of her citizens out of poverty in less than four decades. It means that the evidence of learning and knowledge that I have is useful for my running for the presidency because I want to take down this poverty. We can’t have half of our population called extremely poor and be comfortable with it. It’s not just about tackling poverty. It’s also about growing wealth because what I will like us to become is a country that is prosperous, stable and harmonious.
It’s not just about lifting those who are poor but also to have a growing economy that enables those who are already okay to keep being okay. That is what happens in other societies. We need to work for the enhancement of productivity and competitiveness among our people.
For human security, this is huge for me. This is where the economy needs security. People always see security from a very militaristic perspective but if there is any lesson we have learnt from what happened in the North-east, it is the fact that human security is what enables sustainable peace in any society. It means that the matter of economic livelihood is at the centre. It’s about jobs, jobs and more jobs.
One of the studies we did at the World Bank shows that in conflict-affected areas, the most important thing is not to gather people in the table to make peace, it’s actually to create jobs. When there are jobs in crisis-prone areas, it is correlated to the fact that willingness to negotiate disagreements goes higher. So economic livelihood of every part of this country is going to be key and one of our signature projects.
We shall see that no road is left behind. “If you want to lift your people out of poverty, give them roads,” the Chinese people said. It’s the next step to means of livelihood. The issue of rural areas being disconnected from the rest of the country is a tragedy. You go to a place like the North-east, young people say the government is not present. A group of fellows then make themselves present in their lives.
We must close the pipeline of insecurity in the North-east and the way to do that is to increase the economic fortunes of everyone in the country and carry out the security sector reforms. You know security sector reforms have not been accountable for poor performance. A poor performance happens in our security sector and we ignore it. We have gotten to the point where life ‘is chickened’ to zero. Are we not today mourning the news that more than 100 of our soldiers have been killed in the front-line of battle? In other countries, they would have still been mourning, carrying placards. Over time, our people have so died that we have become desensitised to death.
My sadness is that the Nigerian child will actually grow up thinking it is okay for people to just be killed with impunity and (there are) no consequences.
PT: You just mentioned some preventive measures for tackling security challenges. We would like you to tackle Boko-Haram specifically. How do you intend to tackle this frontally? What preventive measure will you put in place to avoid future occurrences such as the recent killings of over 100 Nigerian soldiers?
Ezekwesili: That one is technical. The first thing I would do when I become the commander-in-chief is to get a brief update of all the killings in the regions. I have already read what is available as a candidate (publicly) so when I get there, I will simply force it on all to know there is a new sheriff in town.
The enemies of our country must know that we are at a mega level of response and that it will be we setting the pace. So the first thing is going to be the technical assessment of what are our strategies towards curtailing any continuous evidence of freedom (by insurgents) to operate. They cannot operate on the soil of Nigeria!
PT: Are you saying the president is complacent?
Ezekwesili: The president has not been an effective commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has not been! We cannot have any group whatsoever by whatever name feel this level of freedom to operate in our territory without the decisiveness of action that would end what we face. We were told by this government that they had technically defeated Boko Haram. After that, they started saying they have defeated Boko Haram. So where are these ones killing our soldiers coming from?
PT: But you know he (President Buhari) is a war general?
Ezekwesili: I don’t know about titles. I know about productive and effective leadership. You can bear any title you wish but what I am interested in is, has the president been an effective commander-in-chief? I think if we put this in a public debate, the majority of Nigerians will say no.
Going back to ways to tackle the insurgency, we will reduce the extent of reactive measures that you need to be taking. We have not obviously invested the way we should and part of it is because people have created a military-industrial complex out of the terrorism situation. Counter-terrorism has more or less become an industry for our parasitic political class and because they seem to be now comfortable with the way things are, you can see clearly that our capacity to be decisive has weakened considerably.
One of the ways to counter terrorism is to invest significantly in your intelligence assets and I know the world is waiting for us. There are ways to tackle these challenges. We are going to operate at the level of sub-regional, regional, continental and global partnerships. More countries are interested in sharing resources because today’s terrorism is a global public bad. It is not something that only national systems can handle. So the pooling of resources, the sharing of knowledge and assets are parts of the ways.
…To be continued