- OLUSEGUN OBASANJO
Obiageli (Oby) Ezekwesili is like a daughter to me. Even when she was a minister, I treated her the same way I treated my biological daughters. She is a dynamic young woman who is competent, reliable, and very enterprising. As she, therefore, clocks 60 today, I cannot but thank God for her life, as I wish her more fulfilling and glorious years and decades ahead.
Oby and I met through Transparency International, an initiative started by Peter Eigen, who had worked at the World Bank and saw the need for more integrity in the public arena. While Oby and Peter collaborated, I chaired the advisory council. Due to her hard work and dedication to duty, and because I naturally like working with intelligent people, it was easy for me to warm up to Oby at the time.
When I came out of prison in 1998, I travelled to the United States, essentially to thank those who had worked for my release; people who cared, like the CNN founder, Ted Turner; people at Ford Foundation, where I used to be Board of Trustees member, and others. I remember Oby came to see me on the day I was meeting with most of my children, sharing my prison experience and looking ahead to what I believed at the time to be a more private life. Oby was then at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
When opportunity afforded itself that I became president, I already knew that I had somebody to bring into government.
Before I appointed Oby a minister, I first assigned her to work closely with me in what we called the Price Intelligence Unit, which she headed and was domiciled within the Presidential Villa. It later became the Due Process Office, which earned her the nickname, ‘Madam Due Process’. The idea was to cut down on waste and bring transparency and accountability into the award of contracts, which she did excellently. The point is, in government, you cannot accurately eliminate sharp practices; but if you have good public officials like Oby, you will reduce it to the barest minimum. That exactly was what she did at a period all contracts had to go through her office. Oby’s stewardship in the Due Process Office brought about substantial reductions in the costs of contracts, which, of course, saved the government billions of naira at the time.
Given her involvement in the global demand for more transparency in the oil and gas sector, she was a founding member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. The NEITI, Nigeria’s version of EITI, that we have today is by dint of her efforts and the support I gave, especially in the days of a difficult beginning.
From the Due Process Office, I appointed Oby as minister in charge of solid minerals. At that period, illegal mining was being carried out in several parts of Nigeria and most of the people in the business I shared my frustration with said we needed to put in place the requisite regulation. They also suggested that we needed someone tough to handle that ministry. So, knowing Oby very well, I could not see a more perfect fit for the sector. That was why I sent her to the ministry, and she did excellently there.
After we had gone far in our transformation reforms in the Ministry of Solid Minerals, I realised that we had not done much in education. At that time, I knew that the Ministry of Education required reforms and the three people who I thought I could use were already heavily involved in other things. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was still in Finance, Nasir el-Rufai was handling the Federal Capital Territory, which had almost been destroyed with deviation from the original master plan. Then I had just put Oby in solid minerals. I had a conversation with the Head of Service who felt that I could redeploy Oby for the assignment. I was hesitant because I did not want to disrupt what she was doing at the Ministry of Solid Minerals. “Sir, is the solid minerals ministry more important than that of education?” queried the HoS. That question settled it for me. I sent Oby to education, and I told her to recommend a replacement for the solid minerals’ ministry.
As president, I tried to expose some of the brightest talents I had in government to opportunities available to be the best they could possibly be. Without any doubt, Oby was one of the best talents I had working with me. On a lighter note, when Oby worked with me, she was quite young, but very intelligent. There were three of them at that time who used to ‘drag’ age, and I enjoyed their banters: Oby, Frank Nweke and Nenadi Usman. The three of them were under 40 and then in council. They were always arguing among themselves about seniority of age, and Ngozi used to treat them as juniors. But it was all fun.
I recall when Oby informed me that she was given a job at the World Bank, I did not want her to go because I really needed her. But then I said to myself, “Let her go, it may be part of Nigeria’s contribution to global development, especially in Africa.” She went to the World Bank and did her best. She was, for me, one of the best from Africa.
Now that she is 60, she should look at what she has done in the past and what God has enabled her to do and give thanks, while preparing herself for the future. She is still a young lady. My prayer is that God’s grace will continue to abound in her.
Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, is former President of Nigeria (1999 to 2007).