Oby Ezekwesili was Minister of Education during Obasanjo’s second term as president. A chartered accountant, she is co-founder of Transparency International, serving as one of the pioneer directors of the global anti-corruption body. She has also served as the Vice-President of the World Bank’s Africa division. At a time, she was popularly known as ‘Madam Due Process’ owing to a stint as pioneer head of the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit of Obasanjo’s administration. More recently, she has dedicated herself to the cause of the Chibok Girls, who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Borno State, becoming instrumental to the start of the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media. Daily Trust cornered her for a chat, in which she discussed her advocacy work, her family, career and more. Herewith, are excerpts:
Daily Trust: Beyond what we know about you as an ex-minister, beyond your advocacy for the return of the Chibok Girls, what do you do when you go home after a hectic day?
Oby Ezekwesili: We’ve become empty nesters, with our three sons having left home literally, but we still have each other. So my husband and I remain best friends that we have always been. When I’m not doing all the things I’m known for as a professional or as a public person, I am being a very good wife and a very good friend to my husband. And as you know my husband is one of the pastors at the Redeemed Christian Church of God so I am not just a wife, I am a pastor’s wife. That also has its demands so I play that role as effectively as possible in ensuring that the women ministry within the zone and parish is well played to support our girls and women.
My role as a wife is a very important one for me. I love the idea of marriage and I love the fact that through it you forge strong bond and partnership. It is through that we’re able to bring to the world through the grace of God our three sons and through partnership raise them to the values we would like to see as our own parents had also raised us. So the joy of marriage to someone who shares values that you prioritize is something that is beautiful.
DT: How does your husband support your advocacy?
Ezekwesili: My husband is a figure that is there even when he is not. Occasionally he joins us, prays with us. He is supportive, even when I am tired, he says ‘you have to be strong, you have to keep moving. Chibok Girls are not back, you must continue’. He’d also say ‘the commitment that was made to those girls when you started this, must be kept’. He is the one who motivates me. The day my husband said to me ‘Baby, if you hadn’t stood up for the Chibok Girls, I would have made you do it, so don’t even imagine that for one second you are going to stop, because you won’t. The girls are not back.’
DT: Have any of your sons followed in your footsteps?
Ezekwesili: Oh, yes. We have got twin sons and their younger brother. Two of our sons are economists and one is a sociologist-technologist. They have a design-tech start-up and they are having a good time. One of the twins is concluding his Masters in Economics at Yale. All of our sons are very much into Nigeria, and so when they are not studying, they are battling, championing causes they believe in. They are activists, too.
DT: (Cuts in) So the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree?
Ezekwesili: (Laughter) They are very conscious of the role that a citizen must have and one of the areas of the advocacy of our children is on the empowerment of women. And so when people see our sons are very strong advocates for girls and women, sometimes they assume that it is because of their mom. It is actually not so, because it is because of their dad. My husband is a strong advocate for women, so he raised our sons with that consciousness. I get the credit, but it really doesn’t belong to me.
DT: You’re obviously quite cerebral. What’s a rough estimate of books you own?
Ezekwesili: How do I count the books we own? My goodness that’s hard. Many thousands in hard copy, not counting e-books. I live for books. I love the idea of books and I encourage people to be into them, and encourage young families to make their children love books. I loved books as a child. My mum said that if she didn’t make an effort to get me to go out and play with other kids I would probably think books are human beings and would be talking to them.
There is no improvement without reading of books. We must be versatile people, and so when you don’t have the resources to travel, you can travel by reading books. You read a book and you are in all parts of the world in different cultures, different contexts and you are learning so much in the process. And so I am champion for reading. A person who reads can’t have a closed mind, so if you want to open up the minds of people, get them to love books. Prejudices fall away when you read.
DT: How do you spend your leisure time?
Ezekwesili: My husband is a very humorous person and so just having a conversation with my husband gets me cracking my ribs. He is a humor merchant and we enjoy a lot of quality time together. Like I said, he is my best friend so we really have a strong bond. We can just literally create our own fun.
DT: Sounds like you don’t miss the children flying the coop at all?
Ezekwesili: We have always been a close-knit family and believe very much in the fact that at a certain stage children must define their paths. We are doing what my dad did to us and what my husband’s family did to him. It was basically we are going to give you all the training and hand over to you a strong value system. Once we have done that at a certain age, we expect that we don’t need to be looking over your back. You are going to find your way. That is what we are doing and I believe that is what every parent should do.
DT: Style-wise, two things about you have stood out over the years; your iconic short haircut and your spectacles. When did you decide this would be your style?
Ezekwesili: When I went off to university, I had flowing hair. My mum, with a lot of effort, made it so. The hairdressers, the hot comb and all that, oh my God, it was an entire industry. But as soon as I got to university, I cut it. When I returned home with my low cut, my mum was so sad, and for many days she didn’t speak to me. After a while, she cooled down, and asked me what I did to my hair. I told her I loved it.
For me, I have a sense of worth that is not about my exterior, but deep within me. I have no identity crisis whatsoever. I just love being me, and I am keeping to it. And my husband loves it, so that basically defined me. It defines me up until now.
For the glasses, I started wearing them in primary school, out of necessity. I’m not a connoisseur of fashion, I’m very functional. So it’s a practical issue, not one borne of fashion.
DT: On the Chibok Girls, can you remember exactly what you were doing when you first heard about it?
Ezekwesili: The day before the news of abduction of our Chibok Girls, there had been the Nyanya bombing. When the blast happened I was travelling from Abuja to Lagos and then I saw it and it was quite disturbing and so I tweeted out of frustration that the number of times that bombs were going off were becoming too frequent. And so I felt that citizens needed to ask a little bit of more questions and be much more involved in the conversation about the war on terror, so I tweeted that I don’t think we should be marginal to what’s going on, to begin to ask more questions.
So when I did that, I followed up with another tweet asking citizens to please send any ideas they have on how our government could win the war against terror, and so they began to curate and by the next day people were still sending, and by 10:00am of the next day none of us knew anything had happened in Chibok the previous night. So I was just going through some of the tweets when I saw one by the BBC saying over 100 girls were abducted from a secondary school in Borno. I was puzzled. I looked at it and pondered. I thought it couldn’t be true and I tweeted at the BBC, asking if it is verified. I waited and then suddenly a couple of responses came to me saying it is true. I was devastated.
It was strange. At some point, when I could not get any response from the media, I began to ask them directly, ‘are you not aware that girls have been abducted in Chibok?’ Finally, on the third day I think, the Nigerian Army without acknowledging that the girls had been abducted said that the girls have been rescued. I felt relieved. We were celebrating. I was also congratulating the Nigerian Army. But some of the young people on Twitter said to me ‘Aunty, what are you celebrating?’ I was aghast, that I actually gave them a talking to. I said ‘how can you doubt your own military?’ No matter how skeptical we have become, or how cynical we have become, we shouldn’t get to the point where the military that secures us would say something and we won’t believe them.
I was really alarmed, because I thought of what the terrorists could do to these girls besides killing them. It was quite numbing for me, and so that agitation meant that I refused to move away. So, from that day that I tweeted in reaction to the BBC report, up till today, I haven’t stopped.
I started agitating for our Chibok Girls before we ever did a march on April 30th. It was the agitation that resulted in my April 23rd call on everyone when we were doing the inauguration of Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital. It was already nine days after the tragedy and there was still no word from the government. So I asked the audience to rise and show solidarity for the girls who were abducted and demand that our government bring back our daughters. It was from that event that the hashtag of #BringBackOurGirls emerged, and some women inspired by Hadiza Bala Usman were discussing the need to go on the street and to do a march. So, the two things came together.
DT: In all of this, what has been the most difficult for you to deal with?
Ezekwesili: The most difficult for me is the broken state of our society, the fact that the vocal majority in our society feels you need to justify why you care. I don’t understand why I have to justify why I care, that girls who went to school were abducted. That I need to justify that as a former minister of education in this country who has advocated for girls to go to school, that girls are taken while I’m in this country and that it matters to me that we should get justice. It is simple. The pain of those girls amounts to pain for all of us.