I had watched Obiageli Ezekwesili on TV many times and all I could deduce from watching her was that she was an iron lady. When I arrived at the location where this interview took place, Oby sat in the backseat of her Honda saloon car, looking strong and in control. I watched her from the bar as she attended to many people that had come in from all around the state to listen to what she had to say.
Finally, on my one-on-one encounter, Oby looked and sounded pleasant and inviting. Her aura was peaceful and serene. Despite speaking for many hours, she didn’t over-indulge in her glass of water that decorated the table. She was more interested in satisfying the thirst of the people that came to meet with her. This turned out to be an interview filled with laughter, emotions and intelligence.
In this piece, the presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria and former vice president of the World Bank’s Africa division spoke with KORE OGIDAN about her childhood, parents, goals and other issues
What are the life lessons that have prepared you for the top position you are running for?
I believe that my training; the kind of competences I have acquired over the years; the experiences and the problems I have been able to solve in the course of my career in all sectors have prepared me in a way. I also don’t find anything daunting and I believe that is also a bonus. No matter how complex problems are, I am always able to figure out how to assemble the appropriate solutions to address them. I have a strong sense of can-do and when I look at Nigeria, what I see is a country that has been failed by its leadership repeatedly, with very dire consequences for the citizens that I love dearly. I love being Nigerian and I love seeing Nigerians wherever I go. When I am abroad, even if I wasn’t smiling the entire day, my mood would be lifted when I see a Nigerian around me. Just knowing that I am dissatisfied with what leadership has produced for Nigeria and Nigerians puts me in a place where I am totally committed to leading a citizens’ movement that takes over our politics and redefines it as pure democracy – governance for the people, by the people and of the people. It’s no longer about governance by politicians, of politicians and for politicians.
When you meet people overseas, does it sadden you that they’ve had to relocate to find greener pastures outside their motherland?
We should always bear in mind that people have choices which they are free to exercise. If a person doesn’t like one place, they are free to go somewhere else; it is a free world. But when you are losing your best minds because the environment isn’t conducive enough for them to become the best that they would love to be, then there is a reason to worry. It is a policy problem and a political leadership failure at that. It is also an economic problem which must be fixed.
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A bank MD once told me that he lost more than 25 of his staff in one month. These were well paid staff who just decided to leave the country one day, saying that it was in the best interest of their children. When I was in government, some graduates of Ivy League schools reached out to me and asked to work with me. So, they returned home to work for me. How is it that about a decade later, it’s the reverse that we’re seeing? Instead of building on progress, we regressed. Look at the price we are paying for that now? We must inspire hope again and not just vacuous hope but one where people see evidence that there is a sensible leadership that is hands-on and is addressing the serious issues of development and solving them. Government must also be able to tackle the problems in a way that is ethically inspiring because leadership has to be exemplary. When leadership is exemplary, people won’t be forced to do things. They’d just see that the leader reflects values that are admirable and they’ll be happy to follow. The opportunity that my being a candidate in this election offers this country is to see a leader that will lead by example. You don’t have to worry whether my public piety is the same as my private piety because my values are consistent. Even when I was in government, I was the one who could challenge the authorities on certain issues. When no one spoke up, it was I who would speak. Interestingly, I had no interest in politics back then so much that as a minister, who was to be the leader of the party in my state, I opted to have nothing to do with that when I was in government. But over the years, watching how politics undermines everything we do as technocrats, I’ve come to the very realistic conclusion that if we don’t fix our politics, we are never going to fix our country. There must be a massive inflow of people who have been trained and are experts, so that some of them will be politicians and some will be the technocrats that will help the politicians to get development to happen at a faster pace.
Running against two powerhouses who are men, do you feel choked being the only woman in their midst?
Not at all! They should be the ones feeling choked because I am occupying my space. It is time for a new direction. Nigerians have a strong appetite for a new nation that works and turns away from mediocrity. This strong appetite means they are going to be looking for the person who is most capable of giving them that. When Nigerians look at the candidates, the person who stands out with competence and character to achieve this based on consistent track record is me; so, the other two cannot choke me. There is nothing they have that chokes me and the Nigerian citizens are ready to retire them.
As a kid, did you ever imagine you’d be on the pedestal of achievement you currently are on?
When I was 10, I asked my dad why I could see so much poverty around me but on the television, other countries looked nice, compared to my own country. He then told me that those countries had good governance and were being led better and we didn’t have good governance. So, at an early age, I asked why we didn’t have good governance and I made up my mind to provide good governance when I grew up. My dad doted on me so much as a kid and I was a well-loved daughter. So, when I told him that, he proudly threw me up in the air and I shrieked with laughter. I was excited that my father agreed with my dreams to provide good governance when I grew up. I went on from that with my dad always being my teacher and I got excited about issues of public policies. My father enabled me have a strong voice and he validated me so much that nobody can ever invalidate me. I always say to my male siblings and friends that the father figure is very important in the life of a girl child. When a father validates his daughter, no one can invalidate her. She comes out very determined and strong, knowing that the most important man in her life till she gets married, her father, believes in her. Fathers should not dismiss their responsibilities to their daughters. It makes all the difference. My dad believed very strongly in me that I could do anything I set my heart to. He usually boasted about me to his colleagues and it made me so conscious about not failing him. He taught me to stand firmly on my views but be willing to negotiate them when someone offers a stronger opinion or brings out facts that contradict my views. However, I must never negotiate my values.
As a child, I had the fortune of having a great father who was also my best teacher. I did well in my classes in Mathematics and English in particular because he taught me ahead of the class. In fact, my school teachers became friends with my father because they saw how well I did in their classes.
Because of the strong father figure I had, I was able to flap my wings and have my voice. My father harped a lot on knowledge; so, I grew with an avidity to learn.
What kind of relationship did you have with your mother?
I had an exceptional relationship with her. She was the disciplinarian in my life. She always told my father that he was spoiling me. She was always trying to balance things out. She is an amazing woman and I’ve never seen a more sacrificial woman. That’s the aspect of my life I modelled after her – sacrifice. She lived her life entirely for us. My dad was able to do the things that he did and stand his ground as a public servant because he had a wife that complemented him. She was a businesswoman who would give her entire self to earning income so that we could get the quality of education that we needed. I love my mum so much and sometimes, when I think of her, I cry because of the kind of sacrifice she has made. By the time she was widowed at a relatively young age of 44, she just adapted her life to being there for us. She occupied the space my father left and ensured that his death did not ruin anything that was on the path of our destiny. In fact, the bond my children have with her is deep because when I’m not there, she is there. We were from a very modest home. My mum used to go to Tejuosho Market, Yaba, Lagos, to buy grade one okrika (second-hand clothes) and she would launder the clothes. By the time the laundry was done and I wore the clothes, I would look so good that my mates, who went on summer vacations, often asked me where I got them from. We were taught that material things shouldn’t be our focus.
How did your father’s passing affect you?
I was a young woman and had just got married when he died. It was 30 years ago (in 2018) but there’s no time I’m asked this kind of question that his death doesn’t seem as if it happened yesterday. I didn’t think my dad could die; how could he? How could the one, who made me aspire, die? I wondered how he could be willing to leave me. My mum actually cried for me when he died. She was worried about how she would cope with me dealing with the loss. It was quite tough and I wanted to abandon the things I had discussed with my dad that I would do because I thought that it wouldn’t be the same doing it without him. But it’s amazing how God arranges things in life. A few days after his funeral, we came back to Lagos and my husband could see that I was very devastated and withdrawn. I was shaken so badly because everything I thought I knew had suddenly faded away. So, he said to me one day that since my dad was gone, he would like to fill the empty space. That really changed our relationship because he’s been more than a husband to me. He felt I didn’t realise how much he and my father had prepared his transition. When my dad was ill, I think he figured that he may not come out from the sickness. So, on his way to LUTH, he decided to detour to our home where he stayed for one week. I didn’t realise that he and my husband were spending much time together every day after my husband got back from work. There’s no word to describe my husband. He’s awesome.
As a woman who has been locked up for voicing her opinions, aren’t you ever afraid of worse things happening to you?
I don’t feel that way. Those are feelings that entrap society. Those who oppress would love to coerce everybody so that they can carry on with their oppression. Where then does it end? We must be people of courage who are prepared to stand for what we believe in.
What was the experience you had living abroad?
I had been going abroad before but I lived outside Nigeria in circumstances where we had political instability in our country. As a co-founder of Transparency International, I had been a very strong voice against the level of corruption that was going on under the military. There was nothing significant about living in another country that made me love it more than living in Nigeria. I always say that we have to build our country, which is part of what reflects the utter passion with which I did the things I did in government.
What does it feel like being married to a pastor?
It reinforces my very strong spiritual values but my husband is my husband who happens to be a pastor. It’s not like I married a pastor; I married a great man, who is my significant other and completes me in many ways.
If not accounting, what other career path would you have chosen?
I really wanted to be a lawyer and my mum said, “My daughter is not going to be a lawyer”. It’s interesting how influential mothers are. She managed to cajole my dad to dissuade me from studying law. I wanted to study international law because I had an idea of how nations interact and how law underpins it. Law naturally would have been my focus of study. I am a chartered accountant but I moved out of that as I focused more on economic policies. The training and mentorship I got from my boss, Prof Jeffrey Sachs, repositioned my skills and emphases. What I focused much on in the field of public policy is how things intersect in order to create the basis for economic growth.
What kind of woman are you domestically?
Cooking is a therapy for me; I love it. Sadly, I don’t always get the opportunity to do so anymore. It used to be so much fun doing that back in the day when we were all growing, with my husband and the kids. My husband cooks and so do my sons. It’s basically the kind of skill needed for functional living as an individual. If I cook stew for you, you won’t taste another person’s stew again. Actually, I cook a variety of dishes. Domestic chores go beyond cooking; it’s really about how you keep the home. I hate filth and I love really clean and tidy environments.