Obiageli Ezekwesili (popularly known as Oby Ezekwesili and Madam Due Process) is a chartered accountant and a co-founder of Transparency International, serving as one of the pioneer directors of the global anti-corruption body based in Berlin, Germany. She served as Minister of Solid Minerals, and then as Minister of Education. Ezekwesili has also served as the Vice-President of the World Bank’s Africa division from May 2007 to May 2012.
She holds a master’s degree in International Law and Diplomacy from the University of Lagos, as well as a Master of Public Administration degree from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Prior to working for the Government of Nigeria, Ezekwesiili was working with Professor Jeffrey Sachs at the Center for International Development at Harvard. She sat down to speak to BusinessDay in Durban on the sidelines of the recently concluded World Economic Forum on Africa, where she moderated a session. Excerpts:
What are your take- aways from the quality of African leadership?
A. I believe the whole idea of inclusive growth is now a well-worn word and we need to go past the word into the real tough choices that have to be made by governments in order to ensure that we bridge the inequality gap. It is so acute.
In the country where we are having this meeting, South Africa, their coefficient ranking is .5 out of zero for a perfect equality. In our own country Nigeria, the level is .43. hat is pretty high. So for the two anchor nations of the continent to have that kind of miserable depth of inequality tells you that something is totally wrong, needing the fiercest urgency of responsible and responsive leadership.
Looking at quality of leadership in Africa vis-à- vis youth empowerment, what do you see?
Look, I moderated a session here that was more or less an inter-generational conversation. I had the for- mer president of Ghana, John Mahama, former President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, and then some young ones from West Af- rica, Cameroun, Mauritius, Cape Verde or so. In that conversation, you could see clearly that the young ones were saying, ‘You know we have not been given a fair deal.
The situation we are having to thrive in, work in, is just not as salubrious as we expected it to be and so it has caused us to distrust our public institutions; we distrust our leaders and distrust everything about leadership in our continent.’ And they are right, especially when you think that every year we have about 11 million young ones entering the labour market and out of this, what data has shown is that even in the best of places on the continent, only about 10 percent will ind something to do. Two issues that are responsible for this disaster – employability issues on the supply side and then issues of employment opportunities on the demand side.
So you have got a problem in the fact that the structure of the African economy has not changed much significantly since the colonial days in most of Africa. When you look at comparative analysis, you will see that economically, structural change is better denied by movement from low productivity sectors and activities to higher productivity on the value chain. That means that manufacturing begins to dominate, and services also dominate, but different kind of services and not these low productivity services which are what we have in Africa – informal trading and all that we see on the continent today which offer no hope. That informalisation that we ind ourselves in is what those children are stuck in. When they are stuck in that, they feel they have been short-changed. That means clearly we need a major, big shift in the quality of thought that goes into the policy-making context so that the quality of ideas that seek to solve problems will really give these young people a chance to excel. When given that chance, we have seen our young ones excel around the world simply because the context within which they are op-erating enables them to be their best, to unleash the best of their talents.
In effect, when you think of the question of quality leadership in Africa, what you can say to yourself is that a continent that is young, with nearly 60 per- cent young people, that continent must be strategic because it is a double-edge sword.
So, our leadership gap is huge. We have a leader- ship vacuum in most of the continent right now and we need to make sure that does not haunt us because the young ones are totally dissatisfied.
What’s your thought on the absence of a ministerial level Nigerian team at WEF?
I think that is probably a demonstration of the prudence that the government, especially the Minister of Finance, continues to talk about. he problem, though, is that when you are being prudent and trying to cut down on the cost of travel and participation at conferences abroad, you need to strike a good balance, you need to be strategic in choosing the things that you cut off. I had a number of serious people who came to me asking me who was representing Nigeria because they wanted to engage. Those are missed opportunities. Why should a country like Nigeria, in the state that it is in, miss such opportunities? You know the WEF has major convening power; it convenes people and resources from far-lung parts of the world. Now that is like delivering to you or a nation net beneit on a platter. It is not a cost.
So, I really think that the government at home needs to be savvy and astute and quite dexterous in choosing what to cut and what not to cut. his is not the kind of gathering that you will not have two or even three ministers of the Nigerian government being available and selling and defending the country’s interests.
How do you carry on with so much to frustrate anyone?
Each day I wake up, I try not to dwell on the frustrations because I have thought through this and said to myself, ‘Had there been a determination to do the right things, then I would not need to raise my voice for this long for the right things to be done’. But obviously, it is the opposite of a determination to do the right thing in our coun- try that we, unfortunately, have had over these years. If they are that resilient in not wanting to do the right thing, why should I ever get frustrated in demanding that the right thing be done? We who would love to see the right thing done should be even more resilient in our resolve. So, the luxury of being frustrated is not one that I can even enjoy. I have no such luxury. Surely, there are days when I wake up and feel bruised and brutal and everything, and then that side of me from the inside says, ‘Will you get up and get going? he truth is, you have really had the privilege of a good, sound public education, giving you a head-start in life; see how far it has really taken you. Are you just going to have a quiet, enjoyable life while all around you, you see despondency, you see children that remind you of who used to be, the children of the poor?’ And then I get up, and I say: What frustration? Frustration, get away from here! I am just going to keep going, and I am never going to shut my mouth because my voice is my greatest weapon.
There are so much government failures, unkept promises, economic re- form is in abeyance, and there is rising despondency in our people… And I could add many other indicators that speak of failures of this country. It is pitiful that we somehow repeat not the right patterns. You see, the basis of development is that people re- peat the right patterns. Lee Kuan Yew, whose legacy is unbelievable, when asked, ‘How is it that Singapore got it right while the countries in other parts of the world that got independence at the same time seemed to be going in the opposite direction?’, said it was not that it was anything major, it was simply that they found a few right things and they kept on doing them right.
So, here we are, we fail to repeat the right patterns and we are so great, so at repeating the wrong patterns. Can you imagine, a few years later, just about a decade later, we are still where we were! We just keep repeating the wrong things, never learning from our past; we do not learn from the wrong patterns, we do not learn from the right patterns, we simply just keep going on in this wilderness. I look at it and say, ‘What can possibly come out this?’ And that’s when hope springs eternal in me and says failure is simply not sustainable and that at some point we are going to decide in this country whether we are going to be Humpty-Dumpty a la DRC Congo, or whether we are going to be the great, really great country that we can be a la Rwanda.
Which one do you see for Nigeria?
I see Rwanda.