Lagos — Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili shot to global prominence as co-founder and principal spokesperson for the #BringBackOurGirls movement. Her relentless activism helped to secure the release of the majority of the 276 Chibok girls kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram from a secondary school in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria.
Now Ezekwesili (55) has set her sights on an even more formidable challenge: taking on Nigeria’s entrenched political establishment by running for president in next year’s election.
President Muhammadu Buhari and opposition leader Atiku Abubakar are considered the frontrunners. As the most prominent female candidate in the race, Ezekwesili will be taking on the patriarchy too. Nigeria has never had a female leader.
She is no stranger to politics, however, having served in the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo as minister of education and minister of solid minerals. It was during this period that she earned a nickname that she hasn’t been able to shake: “Madam Due Process”.
But most of her career has been spent as an activist: she is a co-founder of global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, and chaired the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which tried to uphold basic accountability standards in the country’s corrupt oil and gas markets.
Pundits don’t give her much chance of causing an upset, but Ezekwesili thinks Nigerian voters are ready for a change — and that her campaign, with its strong reliance on social media and Western-style volunteering networks, can be the change they are looking for.
The Mail & Guardian caught up with her in in Lagos, Nigeria.
On running for president
Leadership is gender neutral. There’s this understanding now that female leaders possess the intellect, emotional intelligence needed to lead and the love quotient needed to govern society in ways that people feel they are part of it. Nigeria needs healing and if there’s someone who can deliver that empathy as well as being a very tough commander-in-chief and the president delivering results quickly, that person is me.
On changing the system
I think that we will ultimately get to political and social system change but when you have had endemic failure, you first need to spring into that new curve by having someone who personifies that new direction. And that’s really what I am. I am just one person who believes that our failures have been too many and if we don’t stand in and rescue our country we will be on the path of total failure. I have therefore decided that I must do the politics that I detested so much in order to rescue our country.
On potential vote rigging
I do know the last thing that the electoral body wants to do is midwife a faulty election — the consequences and cost will be too grave to try it because Nigerians will defend their vote.
So the electoral umpire is under a lot of scrutiny and pressure already. We must continue with this pressure until it is clear that everything that is required in terms of logistics, processes and use of technology, the quality of reportage, election observers and civic participation is in the shape where citizens are given the freedom and liberty to protect their mandate.
On leaving activism
There will be a few people who will be disappointed. What people fail to realise is that, with our entrenched political class, our advocacy has almost become a blunt instrument because we are dealing with an incorrigible ruling class. We must heed the words of Plato, who said: “For as long as we think that politics is beneath us, we will be governed by our inferiors.” That is exactly what has happened to us in Nigeria, where the worst among us end up being the ones in leadership.
On the political system
It is time for us to disrupt the political system because it is dirty and we need someone who brings in the kind of character, competence and credibility that I represent. I am on a rescue mission and this is the kind of politics that I represent. I was in advocacy while a professional, I’ve always worked or done both, been an activist in government and in the development circles so I represent that endless demand for a progressive society. This is what I seek to deliver to the citizens of Nigeria.
On financing her campaign
We have some people giving us good funding, which we accept in cash to the tune of one million naira. We also have a situation where people are so enthusiastic about the campaign they are contributing as little as 500 naira [about R19]. These are people saying: “Look, I believe in your idea but I don’t have money,” but they are putting in the little they have. People are showing up and volunteering for the campaign. Sometimes the money you are looking for is to pay people and I have volunteers not paid, doing brilliant work. Our average volunteer age is 27 — people driven by strong ideals to want to see the country being governed well and they believe I am the right person to give them a Nigeria that works. I call our budget a low-budget campaign and we may perhaps end up demystifying the role that money plays to the electorate, who are tired of the old order.
On fighting poverty
If you want to tackle poverty, give people an income. The way we want to run our economy is different from what the current government is doing. They don’t like the private sector and we need to reverse this trend where investors interested in Nigeria are looking for reasons to flee. The worst thing you can do is to be inconsistent with your policies and confuse investors so they begin to look for better environments. Investors can cope with risks — but not uncertainty.
On her track record
What voters should be interested in is what is this person bringing to make this society what it should be. The second thing I say to them is look at my track record. I have been in government and people associate me with the changes that were made in the public procurement system and transparency of the oil and gas sector even though there have been serious reversals in those areas. People remember the work I did as minister for mines and minister for education and my work at the World Bank. On this, my record is clear.