Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili, CFR:Me regret what I said about Nigeria’s oil wealth? No way!

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(Continued from last week)

In normal times, she ought to have still continued to savour the excitement and deluge of eulogies that have trailed her grand entry, penultimate Sunday, into the quinquagenarian club. Rather, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, former Minister of Solid Minerals, ex-Minister of Education, and, until recently, Regional Vice President, Africa, World Bank, is both happy and sad.

The mother of three is happy and grateful to God for making her to see her 50th birthday in a country where life expectancy for females is 47.76 years. But she is extremely sad that despite everything to salvage her country, Nigeria continues to move upside down like the bats of the night. No thanks to the massive corruption and misgovernance that continue to stunt the country’s growth.

And like she did at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, recently, where he challenged the President Goodluck Jonathan Administration to kill the cancer of corruption before it kills Nigeria, and be democratically accountable in the way it handles the nation’s oil wealth, Ezekwesili has, once again told the president to “take charge and own the problem.”

In her opinion, unless Jonathan takes charge and show uncommon courage and aggression in battling the monster, the country will not grow as it should; the poor would get poorer; their ranks will swell everyday; and the burgeoning population of unemployed youths would continue to constitute a ticking time-bomb.

And rather than continuing to tar her immaculate public service credential and integrity, she urged the administration to accept the truth and face the challenge squarely. It should quit the corner of defeatist self-denial it has chosen to anchor.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Could you kindly tell our readers more about your husband?

He is a sociologist. He worked in a number of private companies before he started a joint venture with some Koreans in assemblage. But right at that point, he got the calling to go into fulltime ministry at the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). He started first in Apapa Family and continued when we moved to Abuja.

I know that as Vice President in the World Bank, you travelled a lot and you lived in Washington. How did the two of you manage this?

I was in Washington; my husband didn’t leave Nigeria because he has this responsibility to the congregation. You know the way the Redeemed Christian Church of God is structured, we have region, then provinces, then zones, then areas and parishes. He is the pastor in charge of what is called the Everlasting Arms Parish Zone.

What is the geography of that zone? I mean how wide is it?

I think there are about 20 Redeemed parishes under the Everlasting Arms Parish Zone. So, he has his own responsibility.

So, how did you swing the World Bank job?

It was a competitive recruitment. It has nothing to do with the government of Nigeria or anybody. Even so, when I was asked to competitively present myself for the job of a Vice President at the World Bank, I didn’t want any of that. I didn’t want to go to the World Bank. It was my husband that determined that I needed to fulfill the call. My husband made the decision. He said, ‘Baby, this is part of your call in life. You must fulfill it.’ I had no choice but to listen and obey because he is not just my husband, he is also my pastor. So, he made the call, insisting that I had a responsibility to provide the same kind of ideas that I contributed to my country in the six-and-a-half years that I served. He said I needed to take the ideas to the other leaders on the continent; that the Vice presidency of the World Bank provides a perfect platform to do that. Africa needs that.

Of course, everybody who knows me well will tell you I am the most candid person that you can meet. I believe that leaders must hear the truth. I believe we must speak truth to power, to our leaders. I remember when we were in government, President Obasanjo would say ‘if I want to hear the truth, I would ask Oby.’ He was saying this because he knew I would not decorate the truth. I’m so direct that my mum always laughs and says that ‘my daughter went and got Masters in International Law and Diplomacy but has no diplomacy.’ I am just so direct.

So, my husband said I needed to go and fulfill that assignment. What it meant basically was that I was going to be away from home for sometime. And I was not looking forward to that because I have come to the place where being with the family is so important to me than anything. But he said God would help us to keep it together. But we had to agree on one thing with the President of the World Bank that recruited me: that I was only going to do the job for one term of four years in Washington. There was no way we were going to do eight years apart and be doing the travel back and forth. No.

How did the two of you cope during those four years?

We had to. But, please don’t ask me about the phone bills and the sacrifices we had to make as husband and wife. First, the children had to move with me because they had to continue with their education and it was better to be with me than to be with their dad because I needed to reduce the extent of challenges that he had to be dealing with. So, they moved with me and they were in school in other states. So, I was alone in Washington. I really feel for families where a couple has to be separated as a result of professional or occupational reasons. It’s hard especially for younger marriages.

I run into a lot of young people who, because of this economic reason, have to make some of these decisions and choices. I always encourage them that what will sustain them is to first build a very formidable base as to what is the vision of their marriage. Every marriage has a collective vision that it is supposed to fulfill. Like in our family, we don’t have anything like ‘my success.’ No, what we have is family success. That means everybody has a stake in that success. Everybody has a stake in making the sacrifice that would enable that success happens. Young couples must think in those terms because it helps to handle the challenges. It also helps to seize the opportunities that are available for the all parties, including the children, to actualize their respective destinies.

I want to take you back to the Villa where you acquired the sobriquet, ‘Madam Due Process’. What were the greatest challenges you faced when you were evolving in that environment?

I don’t know if it was a challenge as such, but I was considered the woman who made it difficult for people to get what they used to get. In fact, I had a driver who was almost excommunicated by his fellow drivers because they said: “Our Ogas said they can’t give us this or that because of your Madame.” They would say to my driver: “Your Oga’s trouble is too much.” I also heard things like “The woman that made Abuja to become dry.” It was a difficult reform. Politicians and civil servants did not view public procurement as something to deliver any result. It was simply seen as people having access to budget and then determining what to spend it on and how to spend it. Then, suddenly, you are bringing a system and a discipline that was going to demand their compliance with certain global best practices standard. That wasn’t going to be easy. So, it was a tough resort.

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The opposition was as overt as it was covert. Some were overtly antagonistic about the reform; others were covertly antagonistic. But one thing that was important was to have the kind of very strong political commitment to that reform. If we didn’t have it, it would have been difficult; and part of the reason that we had to have it is that if you do not own a problem, you cannot solve that problem. We knew at that time that we had serious corruption problem and there is no way you can have serious corruption problem and you are telling the rest of the world to bail you out of debt.

The basis upon which I came home was when I was still at the Kennedy School studying and working for Jeffrey Sachs, the well-known Economist, and we began to talk with the Clinton White House about debt reduction for Nigeria. At the end of the day, what threw the spanner in the works was that both the congress and the treasury department said ‘Which Nigeria? The same Nigeria that is riddled with corruption? What has changed? If we should give that reduction to Nigeria, it will amount to moral hazard where somebody is writing a cheque for your behaving badly so you can behave even worse.’ So, they weren’t going to use the taxpayers’ money of America to do that.

That was the key reason I came back to Nigeria to work on the public financial management, especially the capital expenditure of government, in order to begin to have a track record of Nigeria that has changed the way it was using its own ‘meagre’ resources. We needed to work very hard on that so that we can then say, now that we are now maximizing value for our own resources, if we could get more (aids), then, we can spend in health, in education and in those things that matter a lot for reducing poverty. So, my work (at the Due Process Department) was not just at the Villa, it was across the public service and the three arms of government. I had to relate with the National Assembly also.

Were there obvious or veiled threats to your life?

I never wanted to talk about those.

Why would you not want to talk about it?

No, I never wanted to talk about those things. I didn’t ever want to bring things like that to the public. I simply wanted to quietly get that work done. Those were things that happened and they were things that you expect would happen with the nature of the work you were doing. There were some of the texts that were hideous and ridiculous; and sometimes when I felt like laughing I will just respond and say ‘if you really can do anything, you won’t be sending me text. Go and pray to your God.’ I refused to dignify it essentially.

There was a time some people tried to blackmail you, saying that Madame Due Process would secretly take bribe and funnel it to her husband’s church.

I wonder what you would have said at that time knowing, in the first place, that my husband has no church. Saying my husband’s church is like saying that the Rev Father at the Church of Assumption has a church. Number two, it’s also like saying that he takes bribe in order to go and give to God. Can you see that? Can you beat that? That kind of conversation would never happen because even my husband that they would say that about is the one that would stand on the altar and say ‘if you walk into this place with filthy money, thinking no human being will know, God knows. And I can tell you that the only thing that corruption money, money that has been gotten through the wrong means, will bring to the family is sorrow.’

My husband is known as the Elijah preacher. His sermons are like fire is going to come down right now and strike when you are staying there (in church), and you hear the kind of holiness message that is preached, and you are into wrong choices. Nobody would see you the next day. So, that one is the talk of beer parlour. There is absolutely nothing that my family has to account for concerning my time in government. Nothing.

You were never offered bribe?

Didn’t you just ask me how did my husband ask my hand in marriage? It’s the same thing a lot of people know. One of the things about the public service is that the way you conduct yourself will tell people what kind of conversation they should even dare to have with you. I remember (Malam Nasir) el-Rufai was talking one day, and he said that somebody had said it’s only a mad man that would make the mistake of saying anything related to bribery to Madame Due Process. It is not even something you would think of.

What you will pick from government is what you went there to get. I didn’t go to government to become wealthy, not one bit. I went into government with a furious anger that we had no reason being as impoverished as we have been. As one of those who worked on the issue of good governance, promoting transparency and accountability, as one of the people at the table for the first ever global initiative against corruption, I know that corruption is the major obstacle to growth. So, there is no way that would be something that I want to fiddle with. No way.

Incidentally, when you came out recently to talk about corruption in government and public affairs, the presidency responded impatiently, alluding to certain misdemeanours that they alleged were perpetrated when you were in the Ministry of Education and all that…

(Cuts in…) Please go and sleep at home, there is no such thing. It’s not possible.  You see, that was a low moment for the government that it would even respond to genuine question of accountability for oil revenue of this country, by throwing mud at the person that they should not even try that with at all. There was absolutely no basis for it. I laughed when I saw that kind of reaction.

Number one, I became Minister of Education in July 2006. Basically, I became Minister of Education who was implementing a budget that was already under implementation. Number two, the budget of the education sector is different from the budget of the Ministry of Education. Now, the budget of the Education Ministry is N7.6 billion, and about 70 to 80 percent of it was budget for the Unity Schools. The rest are autonomous budgets that go directly to the federal universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and the over 22 parastatals under the ministry. They just receive their direct budgets from the National Assembly appropriation. So, there is no business that a Minister of Education has with the budget of federal universities, colleges of education, and parastatals, that all have their boards and they do their things.

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Number three, this woman here, Oby Ezekwesili, started the idea of the due process in order that our ministers and presidents and vice presidents would not bother themselves about things that have to do with contracts because contract award is the most mundane activity in governance. Contact award is something that if you have the right rules, the right procedures, and you have the technical people to implement those rules, our rulers should not spend their time on things that have to do with contracts. Why should they? Technicians can handle it based on clear rules of the game.

I used to say to President Obasanjo that, as a cabinet, why should we be spending time discussing one contract or the other? It is so demeaning. Rather, we should, through this due process mechanism, have the technical competencies that can handle it. We should have sub-committees of the cabinet that will revolve and deal with it. When the technical people finish their own aspect, they pass it to the sub-committee and they look at it. By doing so, they are acting on behalf of the president and the others so that the cabinet can spend its time doing what other cabinets around the world do.

When presidents in the United States, France and other places call cabinet meeting, it’s not to discuss contract awards. It is usually to discuss the vision for the nation. Whether it is the economic vision, the social vision, the political vision, it is to discuss the strategies across the sectors of the society to realize those visions. It is to discuss policies that would make their nations stay ahead of their competitors as in other countries.

So, I, Oby Ezekwesili, modeled that behaviour, whether it was in (Ministry of) Solid Minerals or in (Ministry of) Education. In fact, some of my staff in Ministry of Education that called me (following the accusation by the presidency) were just laughing. They said ‘if only they knew our Madame Minister when she was here, they would not even had started that kind of talk.’  So, there is no such thing.

Of course, I saw the thing (newspaper report) that said, ‘Aide of Ezekwesili…’ I read that thing and it said some fellow who did advert placement for the Ministry of Education was not my aide. The gentleman said ‘I am not an aide to Ezekwesili. I did some N20-something million worth of business with the Ministry of Education.’ I just said to myself: what kind of desperation is this that would make people throw that kind of mud? They should try another thing.’

Do you regret coming up to say what you said?

Regret? No way! Not even for a second. I am trusting that, at some point, the government will understand the necessity for us to debate oil revenue in the last many years.

Dating it back to the tenure of the government that you served?

I want it. It would free this nation. The thing is that some of them that were even commenting, they did not spend time to read the speech that I gave at the University of Nigeria. I touched on every single administration in this country. I talked about the fact that we have missed the opportunity to maximize the benefit of being an oil-rich economy in the last 50 years. There have been five oil booms in the world. There was oil boom in 1970. There was oil boom in 1980. There was oil boom in 1990. In the early 2000, which was during our own time, there was oil boom. And in 2010 and above, there was oil boom. I said five oil booms have happened and in all of them, we see no real difference that has been made in the lives of the poor.

Rather the poor are increasing in number. People are not just getting poorer; the ones that are already poor stay poor. That is not a good thing. Yet, we are an oil wealthy economy. I said, ‘oil wealthy’, I didn’t say rich economy. So, I said there is an issue here and a major part of that issue is: how do we spend our oil resources? How do we spend our revenue from oil? That is an important question that we must focus on. We must demand accountability for the expenditure of these resources. One day, we would wake up and we would be close to where Gabon is today. Most of Gabon’s oil wells have dried up. Oil is a depleting, wasting resource. The sensible action, across the world, is for countries that have natural resources to convert revenue from the natural resources into investment in education, so they would have human capital; investments in infrastructure and all the other institutions so that they would have the system that would support the process of alternative economic transformation that is farther away from just free money from oil, from corper or gold as the case may be. That was what my speech was touching on. For me, I believe that the issue remains very topical, very important and there is need for that accountability.

In 1999, when the government of that day came on board, I think they must have inherited $5.6 billion as the foreign reserve of the country. By the time that government was leaving in 2007, that foreign reserve was $45billion. That means that reserve grew. So, my relevant question was: if as at the time I was making the speech, our foreign reserve was hovering around $40-something billion, what happened? Because in the last five years, other than in 2009, oil revenue doubled from the price they were when that other administration (President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Administration) built up the reserve to $45 billion.

It is a relevant question in a democracy. I am only asking for that democratic accountability. It is my right, as a citizen of this land, to ask for democratic accountability. That’s what democracy is all about. There was absolutely no basis to spring some mud hoping that it would stick. Sorry, you can’t do that.

Now, in terms of your question, do I regret raising that question? No. That question will continue to be on the table. Even, the National Assembly has said it was going to host a roundtable to discuss the question that I raised. I am still waiting for it. I hope that reason will prevail.

Most Nigerians who followed that argument agreed that you raised valid questions in the interest of this country. But there is also this set of people insinuating that you were fighting a proxy war on behalf of your former boss, President Obasanjo, because you and Malam el-Rufai came out smoking almost the same time.

They are so wrong. Even president Obasanjo would tell you that ‘if you need somebody to launder your image, don’t go and tell Oby.’ This Oby is not anybody’s image launderer. In fact, when I was in Obasanjo’s government, I told him that was one of the best compliments anybody could pay me. He was also saying: ‘With you in my government, who needs a Gani Fawehinmi?’ Do you understand the import of that? Because when we were not doing well in certain things and people would come, wanting to praise-sing, I will say ‘stop the nonsense. This is not true.’

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Look, as a minister, I used to go to the market. I would buy household things and I would know when prices were not good and I would wonder. How many times was I buying meat at Wuse Market in those days, and I would see a really impoverished woman trying to buy bones, and my heart will almost seize. And I will tell them to cut part of mine and give her. But how many people will meet me there? That was not the solution. It was not the sustainable way to deal with poverty.

For people to even imagine that I would stake my integrity is fighting somebody’s war? What war? Is there a war going on? If there is a war going on, it has nothing to do with me. I am talking as somebody who has been on this issue. This issue of good governance is what I was known for in the government that I served. So, why is it now alien to people that I should still be demanding accountability? Don’t you think what I did in Due Process was like asking a question of accountability? Don’t you know that what I did in extractive industry, NEITI, was about accountability?

Let them get this honestly from me: I am a citizen who is interested in result coming out of good governance. I am interested in accountability. Why? Because it is the hope of the poor. The poor need for government to work. They need for the public treasury to deliver the right services in health and education. If a rich man has a health issue, he can buy a whole hospital for himself or go abroad. If a rich man has an education problem, he can go and take over a school. That is part of the reason why Pastor Adeboye said every Redeemed parish must be into missionary education. Anywhere you see Redeemed Christian Church of God, you will likely see them trying to establish a school because of the necessity for education. That is what gives you social and economic mobility. So, the poor need education. If the rich see that public education is not functioning, they buy better quality education for their children. But that is what the poor are going to depend on. So, it’s important that the public treasury works.

In many societies where the elite understand even the basic concept of the elite class, they are sensible enough to preserve the system so that it doesn’t completely collapse because they will be the worse loser of a collapsed Nigerian State. They have more at stake. They have more to lose. How can you create an environment where you are growing millions of poor people, especially young people? Can’t they just see this is somebody who is saying to them: there is danger ahead, do certain things to stem this danger.

I have absolutely no interest in any of these. Mine is that I want a Nigeria that works. All these drivers, cooks, junior officers and their children, they matter. They do matter, and you cannot continue with the present pattern. You cannot continue with the kind of inequality that we have now where one percent wallow in great luxury and ninety-nine percent wallow in abject poverty. When I see the private wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, I see just wonder. It reinforces what I said: one percent have a good life, the other 99 percent inequality; and that inequality is getting deeper by the day. That is a social time bomb. And you don’t want to do something about it?

What do you see at the private wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja?

I’m alarmed at the number of the private jets that I see. And most of those were traced to the people who were involved in the subsidy scam. Most of what happened to the excess crude account was because of subsidy payment for subsidy that was no subsidy. And what happened to the foreign reserve was that this same people were demanding foreign exchange from the Central Bank to supposedly import fuel into the country. The whole thing is so tied together and I am saying do something about this. As responsible citizens of this country, our voices are important for democracy. The government must learn to tolerate voices. It must learn that dissent does not mean enmity. It does not mean antagonism. No. Dissent is an essential commodity for democratic consolidation. It is okay to disagree, but don’t be disagreeable. That act of throwing all kinds of things that were just spurious at somebody who demanded for accountability was not a good one by a government that holds democratic ethos.

With what you have seen in and outside government, what are your fears for Nigeria?

My fear is that this addition, every year, of two million young people with absolutely no hope of where the next meal will come from, is a time bomb. Somebody called my attention to something I had written in the education sector reform recently, and I went to look at it. I had written, at that time, that if we do not reform the dysfunctional educational sector, and grow relevant and quality skills of young people that can be economic players by the year 2020, we would have a large community of disaffected, frustrated, disenchanted, hardedge criminals.

If you meet President Jonathan, and you are to do sincere talk with him, what would him tell him?

I will tell him to take charge of this massive scale of corruption in this government. I will tell him to stop assuming wrongly that people don’t mean well for him. That’s why they say there is a problem. I will tell him to take ownership of the problems that are being pointed out. My Christianity is not a joke. God is not cliché for me. He is real. There is no way I can have antagonism towards anybody. For what purpose? There is no basis for it.

As someone who believes very much in God, I care about the leadership of my nation. I care about my nation. I care about the followers in my country and everything. And I am saying, there are serious challenges of corruption, poor governance in this administration. We also had it in our administration. The difference was we took ownership of it. Every time that this government sounds defensive about issues of corruption, it worsens our situation. It loses more credibility. It reduces its own capacity to address the problem. So, my advice would be that, as the leader, take full ownership of the problem. It’s a cancer; and the only thing that cancer does is to eat up.

The poor choices, the poor prioritization, the lack of restrain in the way that public resources are spent, all of them need to be arrested. The impunity where people feel there would be no consequence for bad behaviour, that needs to be addressed. The signal, that the poor man who is languishing at Kuje Prison is less of a mortal than a political elite that stole billions, is not a signal that ought to be our symbol at a time like this. It cannot be. It just isn’t. It is a very candid advice.

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