Former Nigeria Minister Oby Ezekwesili says she won't take a job in Buhari's government even if she were offered one on a platter.
She’s been a constant pain in the neck of two Nigerian presidents in Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari over the fate of girls who were kidnapped from their school dormitory by terrorist sect Boko Haram.
She's also stood in the gap for other persons abducted and displaced by terrorists.
In this exclusive interview with Pulse, ‘Madam Oby’ (as she is fondly called) scores the Buhari administration low on security and transparency as it concerns the Boko Haram war and rescuing captives still in Boko Haram’s lair. She also told Pulse that those who think she’s taken up advocacy because she is jobless are unbelievably misguided.
It’s a must read. ...
We don’t think the government has done enough. And it will be four years in another maybe 55 days since those girls were abducted. We started the on-the-ground advocacy for them at the Unity Fountain just about two weeks after they were abducted, even though the social media advocacy began much earlier.
The reason that I say not enough is that we feel that the government has been too tentative and has acted as though this is not a priority; unlike what it had committed itself to when it was in opposition.
Sometimes we also see that the government is intolerant of being reminded. Something that as a citizens’ movement, we are committed to doing. We always said at the time when the previous administration was there, when the tragedy happened on their watch, that we are administration neutral, that it wouldn’t matter to us who is in government.
For us as a movement, government has a constitutional mandate and we as citizens must always pressure government to deliver on that mandate. So when we see the government act intolerant, that has not been a good story for a government that says it is committed.
We have watched a very painful engagement or lack of it between the government and parents of our Chibok girls.
Credit to the government, we do have 107 girls back. The way that it has managed the process of their return hasn’t helped everyone to really appreciate the level of success it achieved by at least having 107 girls back.
We still have 112 girls that need to come back to their parents. The way that the government has subsequently handled the matter of those remaining girls, has worsened the perception that it already considers itself to be successful and therefore does not need to be bothered by any group especially the BBOG.
Isn’t it a shame that anyone in anyway connected to the presidency of our country would dare to publicly say a thing like that?
That kind of a statement is irresponsible. Reckless statement from a person who works for the government of this country to say about children of this country in the hands of terrorists!
There is no such thing as far as we are concerned. You cannot make those kinds of statements that are not founded in evidence and expect that everyone of us would say; ‘Oh, the girls that were taken by terrorists say they will not come back’.
What does that even mean? Which country disgraces itself by talking that way? We will not accept that and we have refused to accept it. As far as we are concerned, Chibok girls went to school, they were not given out in marriage to anybody. So if any staff of the president will imagine that simply by saying some of the girls say they will not come back, the parents will go to bed and those of us that have cared to advocate will fold our mats like they normally say to us, and go away, they must be kidding.
It was a visit that was not well intended on the part of the government. As we watched things unfold, we realized that it was more or less like a ploy to sort of be able to say ‘oh we asked them to come to Sambisa and they refused. They love to be in Abuja and just be screaming at the government’.
But you know, what we did was to put it on record for the government that its approach of engaging with our movement has been adversarial. And then you don’t move from an adversarial engagement with the BBOG and overnight in 24hours, write to the BBOG and say we want you to come to Sambisa forest.
I mean, there is something called respectful engagement. And the government decided that if it sent us that kind of a letter and we didn’t jump at it, then it will use it against our movement.
But what we did was to not jump at it but to articulate all of the kind of negativity and adversarial conduct of the government against our movement and to establish that in the context of this, we needed the government to commit to certain things on the basis of principles and that doing that will then have consideration for that visit.
It was a strategy on our part. By the responses that the government gave, we decided that okay, we have made our own point, we have decided to go to Sambisa forest.
And then we went on that visit. It was very good that we engaged with the Nigerian airforce in particular and we learnt a lot. It was on the basis of the things we learnt which were really evidence based that we came back and sort of said ‘You know, when you hear Sambisa Forest, you need to think again. When the government says we have taken over Sambisa Forest, you need to be very nuanced.
It is the size, scale of this forest that we are talking about. So when they said we’ve captured Ground Zero, it’s a point in Sambisa. It doesn’t mean that they have control over the place. And we then said, if you said you’ve captured Sambisa, what happened to the girls? You told us that the girls were in Sambisa!
So we were able to find some contradictions in some of the things that the government itself had been saying. It also enabled us to see the level of commitment and conscientiousness of the young officers that work for the Nigerian airforce and the level of professionalism that gave us this confidence about the airforce.
We also were able to realise that in terms of a military approach at finding the girls, it seemed less probable compared to having all kinds of other options, including the option where the ICRC and the Swiss government has intermediated in order to get a larger chunk of the girls back.
If you looked at military operation, it probably accounted for the three girls that were found in solitary context. All of those ones were found because there was a military operation and somehow things just happened and they were able to escape and they were around the forest and the civilian JTF and the military chanced on them—compared to 104 that have been negotiated and brought back.
Going to Sambisa forest helped us to come to a level of analytical understanding of the options that the federal government had. Which one was more likely to produce quicker results?
The journey was a risky journey to undertake because as you would recall, just less than a day after we returned, one of the jets that gave us cover when we went on that visit, made a mistake of throwing some really terrible things that created fatalities. It was quite fatal—that accident that happened in the IDP camp.
We went on night and early morning trips. Those journeys; flying as close to the ground of Sambisa as possible to see activities that were going on, we were told, put us within the range of any form of attack by Boko Haram and that they had in the past held our airforce planes because of that.
So, it was pretty risky to have undertaken it and in undertaking it, we also appreciated what our military; especially the Nigerian airforce officials have to go through. They put their lives on the line. We very much appreciated their work by going on that expedition.
I don’t think I’m the one in the best position to determine, because I’m one person who cannot stand speculative or anecdotal basis for concluding on an issue. I love to be factual. I love to be analytical in my conclusions.
On the basis of analysis, I would say to the government, ‘what exactly are you saying?’ Because in one breath, you tell us you have won the war, in another breath, you tell us there is still war to be fought and then in yet another breath, you say there is nothing to worry about and then in another breath, you see occurrences that should worry citizens.
So, the little bits and pieces of evidence that we have as a movement is that on a broader context, all things considered, the northeast is not as problematic as it was in those terrible days of 2014, 2015.
However, it’s not done completely because citizens—many of them—are still in IDP camps and cannot relocate to their communities. Until they resume as safe a life as they used to have, then you can say you have won.
Because what the citizens are saying is that in some of their communities, a dominant presence of people who have allegiance to the terrorists, persists. And they are not sure of their safety.
You also see that even though the terrorists are obviously not an occupying force in the way they used to be in that era where we would see them pursuing our own soldiers, they still feature often enough to create havoc in those communities.
And when the federal government itself begins to ask for a billion dollars to execute the war in addition to budgetary provisions, you are saying to yourself: Ok, which of the actions are we supposed to accept as the truth?
All of this go together in making us re-emphasize the necessity for government to be transparent in the way it communicates the terrorism war.
You know, there’s nothing as beneficial to government as transparency. It’s not just beneficial to citizens, it’s actually beneficial to governments.
When government is transparent in conveying the reality of challenges that it has to confront, it doesn’t even have to lie. It doesn’t need to lie, because there is a consistency and so it earns the trust of citizens, boosts its own credibility, reinforces its legitimacy and therefore it is able to mobilize the support of citizens easily. When it doesn’t do that, what we have is a breakdown of trust.
And so you have citizens totally wary. Citizens are doubtful of everything they are being told and then the social contract is broken. And that worsens. So, the government is struggling. Governments don’t have to do that to themselves.
And so, someone might say it’s not that straightforward because we are talking about military operations and security issues here, and I say, even with military operations and security issues, there is a way to balance the risk of information sharing and the risk of too much information. So, striking that right balance is key.
Citizens are very intelligent. The assumption that citizens are not in the military, they are not security people, they won’t understand, that sort of belittles the intellect of citizens. Taking them in confidence in a way that people can conclude that there is utmost goodwill on the part of the government, is more beneficial than it even is, to citizens.
And in that regard, both the previous administration and the present one, failed.
Well, I have always felt that our political class show not much of a differentiation. And this is not a view new to anyone who has followed my public and private opinion about our political class, about our politicians.
And I don’t say it out of any desire to just say something. The evidence is there. They are the same! I mean, they go from one platform to another platform. The only thing that changes is the acronym that they attach to their political party of the moment.
So, the ones who were in PDP some years ago are now in APC. It is only one interest that unites them; where they will be able to have a seat at the table. So, they are bound to show similar traits in the way they perceive governance. And that for me is the heart of the problem in Nigeria because governance cannot be anything greater than the quality of thought of the people that form it.
So, if our political class are given to certain ways of life and you can easily migrate from one platform to the other, you will have a universalism of mediocrity, under-performance and governance failure.
The Red Card movement was actually something that was organic in its formation because it came out of my frustration when the Benue massacre happened.
And looking at those gruesome pictures, I was livid that we had come to the place where such kinds of killings become commonplace and the whole challenge of the Fulani herdsmen crisis had been going on for too long. That they could just easily carry out every episode after another.
I was looking at the women and children and the way they were assaulted in death, I was totally...I mean I lost it that night.
And it was the same night that I was being strong to look at the pictures thoroughly and getting totally infuriated by what I felt was a nation killing its people, that I was also listening to the news and saw one of the members of cabinet of President Buhari, regaling the nation with the great work that the president has done and how he and others were starting off the second term campaigns for President Buhari. On the same day! My goodness!
You know, the contrast; the paradox, was just too much for me. And I was very, very angry. So I said, this is not a joke. This is sad. This is a repetitive pattern of coldness to the issues of the dignity of life of citizens, that I had also seen during the time of president Jonathan.
2014 was all about President Jonathan getting re-elected in the 2015 election. So, whether it was Chibok girls or Buni Yadi boys or any other thing that was going on in the northeast, the attention of the government was very minimal to those issues.
It was almost like living in a place of denial of those things because somehow there were going to get in the way of re-election.
So, 2014 played back in my mind on that night of the 3rd of January that I was both hearing this minister of government not even showing consideration for families that were grieving badly. And all he cared about was relaunching a re-election bid for the president. It was so reminiscent.
So 2018 for the government in power now is like 2014 was for their predecessor. So, the next morning, I started my flurry of tweets saying I have just had enough of the political class and right now I am giving my red card to the APC and PDP. They have done enough damage to our society in not understanding that the privilege of leading a people requires certain level of empathy for the issue that matter to the people and that this disconnect between our political class and those that they govern, is what shows up in ineptitude, in corruption, in failure, so that when you look at governance outcomes, there are miserable.
And for as long as we have miserable governance outcomes, it means poor security of lives and property; it means poor educational outcomes--especially for the poor, it means lack of health facilities, it means roads that are death traps, it means a business environment that is never going to enable the best of our talents, you know, compete with the rest of the world; it means general under-performance of the country despite all its possibilities.
And so, my conclusion was, the political space of this country has been dominated by politicians that swim around APC and PDP. They dominate the political space. More than 95 percent of those who call themselves politicians in this country come under those two platforms. So, away with them. I give you my red card. I don’t care if I am the only one giving you this red card. I have confidence in God enough to know that as I lift my red card, God will lift his red card in heaven.
For me, it was an outpouring of my state of mind. Interestingly, many other people came on and said: ‘I also am giving a red card to these politicians! We’ve had enough of them!’ You know, there’s no difference.
In my tweets I said what’s the difference between six and half a dozen? You know, just go. Let’s renew our political space and let’s just try to do something different. Something new. You know, you’ve dominated this space and there’s little to show for it. Goodbye! Game Over!!
As many more people began to tweet on the same matter, over time people said this is a movement. And that’s how the red card movement started.
It had nothing to do with anybody. In fact it was after I started carrying my red card and showing to them that I am giving you a red card, that the next thing people began to write one letter or make one statement; whether it was the former….I think it started with Pastor Tunde Bakare and then the two former presidents and many others.
People got to a place where they sort of felt, we’ve got to speak out about this.
The Red Card movement, unlike these other coalitions, whether it’s Nigeria intervention movement, or it is the Coalition for Nigeria or so--unlike those two, ours is a citizens’ movement. We are simply saying as citizens, we want to take our place in the politics of this country.
In the past, the citizens never really mobilized to sort of say this is what we expect of our politics. So, the political class did as they pleased. If they cared to put your microphone as the candidate to be elected, citizens--the ones that cared to--will turn up at elections and vote for the microphone.
So, we are saying this is the reason why they are taking citizens for granted so much that when you look at the quality of our political representation, it doesn’t do us good at all. It’s almost like you have the worst amongst us, governing the best amongst us.
This is also consistent with the quote accorded to Socrates and Plato at different times when they talked about the lack of interest of citizens in who governs them, being a basis for poor quality of leadership.
We as a citizens’ movement, we are not a political grouping waiting to capture political office or any of that. We are simply a grouping that is saying you politicians have us to contend with.
We don’t have plans of becoming a political party. We have plans of making sure that the political space ups its game. That if you are a political party and you are going to bring the best of two evils on your platform and then say to us, take the lower of the two evils, we are saying No! Enough of that! We’ve had that in a series now.
And we are not going to be citizens and saying sorry to the political parties. We’ve had enough of that. And the two dominant parties are the ones that are most culpable in that act, so we are basically saying red card to APC and PDP because we know that their system will end up throwing the worst of them and holding the citizens hostage by making them vote for whoever you think is the lower of the two evils.
Why should we have the lower of two evils or the lesser of two evils to vote from? No! Governance is too serious. In fact, governance is so serious for a country like Nigeria that has been left behind in the development process. We have such magnitude of catching up to do, that we can’t afford for every four years to be an exercise in futility because we are simply just going from election to election with no expectations. No, we are not interested in that anymore.
So, what the citizens are saying is we want to meet you. We want to meet you in that space and to say to you, you have no entitlement to governing us, just because you are politicians.
In fact that’s what is happening. Politicians will look at the citizens and say who are you to talk to me like that? Who? What?!!! You won’t be occupying an office if citizens didn’t put you in an office.
So this whole idea that there is a certain class of people in our society today, who because they are politicians, are entitled to the good life that produces nothing for the rest, is an anathema to the Red Card movement.
So, we want to stop it. We want to terminate it. Citizens are activating that office known as ‘The Office of the Citizen’.
The Office of the Citizen is the most important office in a democracy. If the Office of the Citizen of every citizen of Nigeria is active, there are no groups of people that can act in their own little interest and use it to subvert the common good of the rest of the citizens. That is what Red Card movement is trying to entrench as a mindset. We must have that mindset.
Politicians are not the powers that be in this country. The powers that be are the unemployed youths, the market women, the taxi driver, the Okada rider, the young professional, the elderly who have given their work to this country and whom in old age this country should look after...these are the powers that be.
When they act concertedly together, they become more powerful than any other power bloc in the land.
No. You see, I have a better understanding of government than a lot of other people. Governments don’t like to be criticized. Governments, especially in fragile democracies, are very personalised. So, they don’t see government as a system where constitution places a responsibility on to be governed by the nuances, ethos and principles of democracy.
So, democratic accountability, public accountability is deemed as personal. You demand for it, you don’t like the president. You demand for it, Oh, it’s because you want them to give you attention! You demand for it, ahh, you are looking for a job.
You demand for it...ehhh, it’s because so and so. So, it’s immaturity of the democratic process. Over time, as the culture of holding governments to account for power--it’s delegated authority….
Four years ago, President Buhari didn’t need to tell any of us whether he was ill or not ill. It didn’t matter to us. But once the president was elected by majority of people in this country and he was actually put before us to swear an oath of office, he lost his right to say to us ‘why are you asking me this question?’ We can ask him any question that has to do with the mandate that we have given him. That’s what democracy is all about.
Governments don’t like it and a lot of the people who are praise singers and sycophants of government, detest it even more. So, what they want to do is, they want to make their voices louder than the voices of the people who are holding government to accountability just because for them, that’s the only way they can exist. This is what a job is for them.
So, what do you think they do? They project their own joblessness to you because they say if you have something doing, you won’t be demanding for accountability. Oh, really? Actually, demanding for accountability is my own responsibility according to the constitution.
Governance has a supply side and a demand side. I am facing my demand side role, doesn’t in any way stop me from doing my everyday assignment; my full work. Sometimes it’s been possible to be able to find a slot on my schedule but I still give off my time to making sure that my voice is heard concerning the governance of my country because I don’t have to hold political office in order to participate in governance.
I have held political office. I did for six and half years. I loved the fact that I could serve my country by doing the things, solving the kinds of problems that I tried to solve; whether if you look at today’s Bureau for Public Procurement (BPE). That was my work. If you look at today’s NEITI (Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative), that was my work! If you look at the reforms in the solid minerals sector, whether it is the geophysical survey of the country and therefore the Nigerian geological survey agency that is considered a world class institution in the world of mining, entrenching transparency in the way that licenses are granted in the mining sector, that was my work.
If you looked at a whole lot of things that we did just to prepare the sector as a private sector led one, that was my work.
If you look at a whole lot of things that we did in Education whether it was basically making education to be driven by data--The Nigerian Education Management Information System--so that you are not doing education policy on the whim...Oh we think we should do this go and do it...No, no, no. It has to be evidence based.
So, entrenching the policies of education in data, that was an important piece of work for me. By making sure that we began to think ahead of how to resolve the issue of skills mismatch in our country so you have what we called the innovation enterprise institutions and the vocational enterprise institutions as federal level certification in this country. That was part of my work.
Making sure that we brought back quality assurance, through the revamping of the inspectorate and systems in the country. 25 years was the last time that nationwide inspection of what was going on in secondary schools, happened. By the time I was minister for the short period that I was minister, that was part of my work.
I did all of this work with different teams. How about the work as a key member of the power sector reform team where we did the overhauling of the sector that resulted in what is today called NERC (National Electricity Regulatory Commission) and then the unbundling of NEPA (National Electric Power Authority) that resulted in the Discos, the Gencos and the Transmission Company of Nigeria? That is all part of my work.
So, if you think in terms of serving Nigeria...Oh boy! After six and half years, every time a government has come and said please come back to cabinet, I have been very glad to say ‘No!’ to the presidents.
For what? You see, I keep trying to get Nigerians into this mental mode where they don’t see the idea that a president tells you to come and work in government as some big deal.
I am not being arrogant. We need to understand that at different stages in the lives of people, they value their time differently.
After six and a half years in government? You know, I am not one of those who need to live off the welfare package of government. No!!! I am a professional. I finished work for six and a half years, I went and carried on with my professional work. I finished one professional work, I am on another one.
I am at a different stage in my life. If I say I don’t want to have anything to do with government, some of the people won’t understand it because for them, being called to come and be a minister, ‘ahhh, you’ll be a big man..You’ll be enjoying’.
I didn’t enjoy when I was in government. I am sorry. My goodness, my time in government was a time of suffering. You can pick up Malam Elrufai’s book for instance. He documented some of that.
So, this notion. It’s a transactional mindset. I am not cut from that cloth. You know when I see people talk about appointment, ahhhh, it is so banal. It’s so banal. It really is.
Listen to me, that was just so joyful for us. Listen to me, when they were abducted, and also when the Lassa women were abducted, what we did was we wrote to the federal government and asked what the government was doing.
We wrote to the Nigerian police as well because some of the people that were taken from that burial delegation, were police people. Because their colleague had died and they, together with relations of the deceased police officer, were on an entourage to go bury her when they were assaulted and taken away.
And so, we wrote to the president and also wrote to the IG of Police. No form of acknowledgement. The police denied that anything had happened and suddenly they admitted that something had happened and the contradiction was just too much.
We wrote again and wrote again. Nothing.
The same thing for the NNPC team that went for oil exploration at the Chad Basin. While we were doing all this writing, we kept hoping that a group would emerge that would take up the advocacy for action concerning these fellow citizens. Nothing. And then, the next thing, we were getting letters from the families.
They would come and deliver letters to us at the Unity Fountain saying can you please help us to advocate for our Dad, our husband, our sister, our wife...so, those letters just kept coming.
We told them some of the things that we had learnt in the cause of advocacy for Chibok Girls and sort of wanted that they be another set of voices advocating for them. We even called on ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) and said you should advocate for these lecturers, they are part of you. Nothing.
So we decided, we made a decision as a movement to take on their issue. So, we started advocating. We added them to tour clarion call on the federal government. So, we’ll say ‘Lassa women, they must come home. Lassa women, bring them back now. UNIMAID (University of Maiduguri) lecturers they must come home, UNIMAID lecturers, bring them back now. What are we demanding? Bring back our girls now and alive’.
So, we added them to our advocacy and since last year, up until the latest news, they became part of those that we’ve been advocating vigorously for.
And so, the families that would come down from Maiduguri, from Lassa, to join us when we would do a march to the Villa gates, my goodness! I can’t forget the way that the father of one of the lecturers just held on to me and said ‘the minute you agreed to advocate for our sons, hope came into us and you know, there was no way we couldn’t agree, because the agony displayed the first time that they came as a family, it was so cutting.
I mean, this widowed mom told a story of her life through grief. Of how having being widowed young, the suffering she went through to train her son to the point where he went through school, graduated, went further in his education, and just when she’s beginning to heave a sigh of relief, the son is gone and nobody is saying a word to her.
Nobody says my son is dead. Just that he disappeared. And next thing I see him speaking in a video released by terrorists and nobody has spoken to me. I feel like the country doesn’t care that I exist. I mean, the agony was deep.
And you know for me, I have always had this character, this stubborn streak in me where I can even ignore you if you did something to me. But do it to somebody I feel you are doing it to because they can’t do anything, you’d see the lion in me. I can’t stand injustice. Especially when injustice is visited on people we think we can get away with it. I don’t like it. I can’t stand it.
I think it is ungodly, because a decent society cares most about the weak that are among them. The strong can figure out how to take care of themselves. But for the weak to not matter to us? I have a problem with it!
So, that’s how come we took on that advocacy for them. And so, the news that the presidency released, we were beyond elated.
Our pain right now is, they are not quickly reuniting them with their families. So once again, they are opening up everything to questions, to scrutiny, to suspicion. This was what happened with the release of our Chibok girls! People just began to tell stories and people just sat in bar rooms and decided--some of them that had never believed that their fellow citizens were losing their own children.
Some Nigerians up until tomorrow, they are busy...you know, sometimes what I wonder is, how is it that a person can be so cold that you are not putting aside all these other political and thinking ‘wait o, even if these were some scam and they arranged to take the girls away, but girls were taken away and these girls are the children of citizens just like myself. So, no matter what I feel about politics, I need to be thinking about these girls! They are the daughters of someone like me.
I don’t know what happened to our society! I really don’t know. But one thing that I know though is that for us as a movement, we made a commitment on the 30th of April, 2014; when we did our first march, that we will not stop until all our girls are brought back and alive.
And so, we’ve kept our commitment, we will continue to keep our commitment. We do not worry ourselves about whether government is adversarial to us or not.
As a matter of fact, after our second meeting with the president, we don’t care to have a meeting with him because it was of no value. All we want to do when we go to the Villa gates, is to make sure that they don’t ever forget; that they don’t bury themselves in other matters and think everybody has moved on.
We will not let them move on! They must do as the president promised. As an opposition leader in this society, he kept talking about Chibok girls.
How can you then become president and Chibok girls, every time it is raised before you, becomes a source of anger and malice? No, no, no.
No president is allowed to get away with that and we will not allow President Buhari get away with not fulfilling his promise to Chibok girls and their parents.