Nigeria’s Ezekwesili: minister turned activist who wants to be president

Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili is a candidate in Nigeria’s upcoming 2019 elections. Flickr

Many Nigerians are currently debating the country’s 2019 presidential election. Attention has been focused on the two dominant political parties – the ruling All Progressive Congress, and the opposition’s Peoples Democratic Party. The ruling party candidate is incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, and the opposition candidate is former vice president Atiku Abubakar.

The smaller parties haven’t received as much media attention. But one party, the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, has come onto the radar by virtue of its female presidential candidate - Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili. She is one of only two women on the presidential ballot. The other is Eunice Atuejide of the National Interest Party.

Ezekwesili, who comes from Anambra State in South Eastern Nigeria, is well known in Nigeria, having served her country and the world in various roles over the past 25 years. But possibly her most prominent role has been as an activist: one of the more visible leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

Does the 55-year-old Ezekwesili have any real chance of clinching the presidency? Despite the fact that she’s well-known in government and activism circles, she has a high mountain to climb. If the experience of past female presidential candidates is anything to go by, the probability of Ezekwesili winning the election is slim.

Impressive CV

Ezekwesili is popularly known as “Madam Due Process”, a name she earned when she served as the senior special assistant to former president Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003.

She was also the head of the budget monitoring and price intelligence unit, which was also known as the due process unit. Before then, Ezekwesili had served as Transparency International’s director for Africa from 1994 to 1999. Thereafter, from 2000 to 2002, she worked as director of the Harvard-Nigeria Economic Strategy program.

Between 2005 and 2007, Ezekwesili also served as the Federal Minister of Solid Minerals, Federal Minister of Education, and chairperson of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. And in 2007, shortly after her stint in government, she joined the World Bank as vice president for the Africa region.

Ezekwesili worked for the World Bank for 5 years before turning her hand to activism. She became known as one of leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. The campaign, which went viral on social media, was created to pressure the Nigerian government to rescue the 276 school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militia in April 2014 from their school in Chibok, North Eastern Nigeria.

She has been a vocal critic of the Nigerian leadership, both past and present, accusing them of “bad leadership, ethnic and religious divisions, mediocrity, and failures in governance”.

What are her chances?

Nigeria has had women candidates before. In 2011 Sarah Nnadzwa Jubrin ran for president and in 2015 Comfort Oluremi Sonaiya put herself forward. Both candidates faced several challenges.

The first was their struggle to raise campaign funds in Nigeria’s highly monetised political system. The cost of obtaining party nomination forms to contest for the presidency, the money to mobilise delegates, and to campaign across the country adds up to billions of naira. Many aspirant candidates can’t afford it.

Women candidates also deal with violence, intimidation, and godfatherism whereby political godfathers use their influence to block the participation of others in Nigerian politics. Women candidates also have to deal with rigging, just like their male counterparts.

Where does that leave presidential candidates like Ezekwesili?

The civil servant turned activist has dubbed her campaign “Project Rescue Nigeria” with the hashtag #Hope2019. She is promising to provide focused and visionary leadership, to put citizens first, rebuild the economy by focusing less on oil and more on education and human capital, and to stem the rising tide of national debt.

In addition, Ezekwesili, will have to focus her campaign mostly on Nigerians under the age of 30 if she wants support from the “Not Too Young To Run” campaign. The lobby group wants the age limit to be reduced for candidates who aspire to run for elected office in Nigeria.

She also has to reach out to women. In the past, Nigerian women have often abandoned their own, personal choice for their husband’s political preferences.

But perhaps the thorniest challenge she faces is the zoning formula adopted by both the ruling and opposition political parties in favour of the North. It is a formula that dictates which leaders can successfully vie for office depending on which part of the country they come from. This informed the choice of both Buhari and Abubakar.

Ideas versus the establishment

Ezekwesili may have beautiful ideas. But these might not be enough to win votes. As noted by Professor Patrick Lumumba, professor of law, and former director of Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Commission,

Most Africans, are not moved by ideas, what simulates the electorate is instant solution and the 500 naira he/she will use to buy gari (food)

If the same mentality is to drive the choice of the electorate in the 2019 elections, candidates like Ezekwesili may have little chance of making it to the highest office in the land.

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