In conversation with Oby Ezekwesili: Nigeria's first female President?

Jan 23, 2019|Aisha Salaudeen

Ahead of the 2019 Nigerian elections, our business journalist, Aisha Salaudeen, spoke with Oby Ezekwesili, one of Nigeria's presidential candidates, on her plan for reforming Nigeria.


“I hope to disrupt the politics of failure. The politics of bad governance and bad leadership that has produced dismal results.”

When CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, asked Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili why she decided to run for president in the 2019 elections, she gave a pointed response.

When I meet her in Lagos, she doubles down on her response, pointing to the “dismal failure” of previous administrations. “We are No. 152 on the Human Development Index, we are the 15th most fragile country according to the World Fragility Index run by the Fund for Peace, we are now the global poverty capital of the world, and we now have 13.2 million children out of school in the country. When I was Minister of Education, that number was 7.4 million.”

She goes even further, saying, “The economy is growing at 1.8%, and our population is growing at almost 3%. How can we square this out? It is urgent to rescue Nigeria from the hands of this administration.”

Ezekwesili’s words are inspiring, though this comes as no surprise. She has built an impressive reputation based on her time as Minister of Education, a Vice President at the World Bank, and most recently, a prominent activist and co-founder of Bring Back Our Girls, a group that continues to lead the campaign for the rescue of the Chibok girls abducted in 2014.

Despite Ezekwesili’s pedigree, she has little political experience and is contesting under the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), a relatively small party. I ask how this may affect her chances.

“The dominant parties of APC and PDP are one entity. There is no difference between them,” she says firmly. “Those two parties are configured not to allow a mindset that makes governance about the citizens. So, to have the freedom to express this new paradigm, you need to build a movement of citizens outside the establishment,” she finishes.

One feature of the establishment that Ezekwesili has her eyes on is corruption, an issue that has frustrated her given the constant government rhetoric around stamping out corruption. In this area, she has an admirable track record. She is a co-founder of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption body, and pioneer Chairwoman of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), an institution tasked with shining a light into Nigeria’s extractive industries, arguably the most corrupt area of the economy. This work earned her a place on the shortlist for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize alongside people like Nadia Murad and Tarana Burke of the World Food Programme.

So, what are her plans for Nigeria’s extractive industries?

As she answers this, Ezekwesili emphasises a preference for free markets. “When it comes to sectors of the economy where markets can run efficiently, why would you want to have government dominate those sectors? That is when people in government want to have the discretionary administrative power that makes the sector vulnerable to corruption,” she asserts.

Going by this, she intends on deregulating the petroleum sector. But phasing out subsidies has proven difficult for many administrations, whether because Nigerians are too poor to pay the market price for petrol or have just become accustomed to cheap fuel.

Ezekwesili acknowledges this but argues that the problem has been a lack of transparency and open dialogue. She plans to educate Nigerians on the disadvantages of a regulated oil sector by talking them through the data. “The poorer citizens are subsidising the elite of society to enjoy a life of cheap fuel, and also enjoy things the poor cannot afford like alternative sources of power, education, and healthcare,” she says. “The opportunity cost of subsidies is being shouldered by the poor of society,” she adds.

Concluding, she explains that funds saved from scrapping subsidies would be invested in critical infrastructure and used to set up a science & technology innovation fund. “We need these to prepare us to be strong participants in the fourth industrial revolution,” she explains to me.

Ezekwesili tells me that this understanding of what Nigeria needs to do to secure a role in tomorrow’s economy underpins her focus on education.

During her time as Minister of Education in the 2000s, her work centred on improving the quality of teachers in our classrooms. One way she did this was by boosting the minimum qualification required to teach at primary and secondary levels.

“Improving the quality of teachers is my number one priority,” she reiterates. On this front, she is not alone. Kaduna State Governor El-Rufai entered hot water with teaching unions for his perceived draconian attempts to upgrade teaching quality in the state. Given her history as Education Minister, Ezekwesili understands the depth of the problem and proposes a key shift to reform the sector: incentives.

“You look at Finland and see the quality of teachers they are able to retain by using strong incentives to create a culture where people see teaching as an aspirational vocation for their careers. That makes all the difference,” she explains.

Naturally, she intends to use tools such as improving remuneration and revamping training standards to achieve this but also outlines an interesting welfare incentive scheme. “When a teacher owns a home, there is a tendency to feel like the most important problem has been solved. It will help us retain the best talent,” she says.

Driven by this belief, Ezekwesili proposes a “House All Teachers” scheme that would involve different tiers of government. The state governments would provide the land while the Federal Government underwrites part of the developer risk to build mass social housing, and the federal mortgage bank would create special mortgage products to enable teachers to become homeowners.  

It is an ambitious goal, not least because it attempts to simultaneously address two critical issues in Nigeria: teacher quality and affordable housing. Nigeria's high inflation and interest rates would also bloat the cost of construction, which means that such a scheme may require innovative construction solutions for it to be sustainable. 

Ultimately, Ezekwesili stresses that primary and secondary education is mostly coordinated at the state level, so even as the Federal Government plays its role as watchdog, it needs to be able to work effectively with states to reform the sector.

She goes further to share her plans on tertiary education, an area within the purview of the Federal Government. “Research has shown that university autonomy is one of the ways you guarantee that universities attain world-class standards,” she says, explaining her plan to grant autonomy to government-owned universities. “That way, they are able to attract world-class faculty which in turn attracts better students,” she finishes.

When I protest that autonomy could mean higher tuition fees that a lot of Nigerians cannot afford, Ezekwesili reminds me that granting universities autonomy is not the same as abandoning the government’s role in ensuring equity in education.

“Those with the capacity to pay, we will ensure that they are not free riders. And for the poorer Nigerians, there will be a non-discriminatory system for them,” she explains. “Give autonomy and then design financial tools like scholarships and loans. The goal is to create a portfolio of options such that there is no way a poor, capable student is unable to find the resources to finance their education,” she adds.

She reminds me that there is a distortion in Nigeria’s education system at present, where parents pay high fees from early childhood education through to secondary school, and then expect universities to be free or cheap. This is at odds with the logic of education becoming more expensive as you get closer to the labour market (as the financial rewards of education are easier to estimate).

Satisfied with her strategy for reforming Nigeria’s education sector, I return to the issue of her political inexperience. Ezekwesili clearly has a lot of intellectual capacity to offer Nigeria, but is her approach suited to politics?

She smiles as she responds, saying, “The difference between my foray into politics and my previous role in governance is I am here to disrupt the entrenched political system that has not delivered for the citizens. I am the candidate of the people not a candidate of the political class. I am not running to make a statement. I am running to win.”