Former Minister of Education and foremost campaigner for the return of the Chibok girls, Dr Oby Ezekwesili, has said that she lost respect for President Muhammadu Buhari when he failed to follow sound economic policies and led the nation into recession.
In this interview with Saturday Sun, Ezekwesili also blasted former President Jonathan for failing to tell Nigerians how many times he begged her to be minister during his administration. Ezekwesili further said the administration of President Buhari, has been woeful in terms of critical issues that mattered, most importantly, the dignity of human life.
Ezekwesili also dismissed the hope of a merger with the Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola-led Coalition for Nigeria Movement (CNM) to take the country out of the woods, saying that the Red Card Movement she is championing, is served on whoever that had been part of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC). AIDOGHIE PAULINUS conducted the interview.
How did you come about the red card movement?
It was as a result of my angst at the empathy deficit attitude of the government that reached to the top or to the zenith during the gruesome killing of the Benue people by Fulani herdsmen earlier in January. What has happened was that the night of the killings and all through that day, there had been in the social media, pictures of the victims. I was too petrified to really look closely, but by nighttime, I stilled myself and said I have to see this for what it is. And I was looking at it on my phone and at the same time, night news was on. And I was looking at these pictures of these poor women, men, children and beyond shock that this pattern of killing could be happening over and over again without any clear sense that government was in full control of the situation and that we could confidently say, never again!
So, while I was looking at the pictures, then the news was reporting how the Minister of Communication was telling journalists that they were starting the campaign for President Buhari’s second term because of the great work he has done. And I was talking to myself, on the same day that this kind of heinous, hideous, shocking tragedy was being a source of distress for the families that had lost their people, someone this important in government, is talking about 2019 elections? I was so angered by this. So, the next morning, I did a twit. That night, I was very clear in my mind that we needed to as citizens, let our voices be heard. So, the next morning, I did a series of twit, saying that I have just one political agenda: it is to make sure that neither the APC nor PDP ever governs this country again. And that I was issuing them my red card and that even if my red card would be the only red card that is issued, God Himself will breathe on my red card and they would never govern this country again because these are migratory elements that go from one platform to another platform, showing no difference in their attitude to governance. And so, when I did my series of twits, other citizens came on board and said, we also want to issue red cards to these politicians. It is very clear that there is no difference between six and half dozen. And so, before you knew it, the momentum just picked up; there was an outpouring of interest on the part of citizens to become a movement and that is how we became a movement. It happened all on social media. It had nothing to do with any individual sort of sitting and calibrating. We didn’t have any of that. It was on the spur of the moment.
How do you intend to achieve your mission?
Oh, we are going to achieve it. We are working assiduously as citizens.
Is it through a political party?
No. We are a citizens’ movement. We are saying that it is now time for citizens to get out there and to determine the kinds of instincts and principles and decisions of our political class. For too long, we just ignored that political class and they carried on as they pleased. Not anymore! Citizens want to determine the kind of decisions that our political class make. Our political class has frequently looked down on citizens as though citizens don’t matter. Why is that so? They have hijacked the political landscape, they have mastered it, they have monetized it, they have corrupted it and they have disempowered the citizens in the process. And so, what you find is that there is general apathy towards politics and governance on the part of the middle class in our society who should actually by virtue of literacy, by virtue of their enlightenment, be able to determine better sets of standards in terms of our politics and our governance. They have looked away. So, what happens is, they just have captured the uneducated in our society and the uneducated do not realise the phenomenon power that they possess; that the power of the governor, the power of the senator, the power of the member of the House of Reps, the power of the president, is entirely dependent on the power of the citizen. So, we must now get into a conversation where the power of the citizen re-establishes itself as the basis of all other powers in our country. So, our movement is determined to unlock the base. We are determined to get citizens to the center of our politics.
Former Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola, told us recently in an interview gave us a green light that his group, the Coalition for Nigeria Movement, is ready to work with your movement. Are you open to that?
No. But merger doesn’t even arise. The reason is simple: We, as citizens, are going to hold all of them to a standard that they have never been used to. In the past, politicians determined. They would wake up and say, oh, you know, this magazine, you will be the candidate; magazine turns up as the candidate and then, citizens will be compelled to go and vote in magazine to be their leader. In what society do you leave the political space to this kind of level of rascality? We are tired of that rascality.
So, what we are saying is, whatever name you call yourselves as political parties, there are two levels to what we are saying. Number one level is APC and PDP. Your own failure is so colossal, you have been the dominant party that ran down and degraded the values of this society, therefore, for you, it is red card. It is automatic red card. We are not even issuing yellow.
Including the Oyinlola group?
Look, as long as you have had anything to do with these dominant parties of APC and PDP as a politician, you are getting our red card. So, if you like, say to us that oh, you are now part of something, something; your history is going to show up.
Are you just going to wish away a coalition started by former President Olusegun Obasanjo?
We have a set of principles that basically would say that if you have been part of the political system that led to your emergence as the Honourable member of the House; some of them should actually be introducing themselves as dishonourable members of the House. Those people that emerged as senators, they said they are distinguished senators. Na true. You have been a governor and some of them have entered from one party to another party, all the same water. The same murky water that they have swam in. And when you look at it in totality, the result that this extant, this status quo political class has delivered, it is nothing. It is misery index that is very high.
So, we are saying that that class, they have citizens to contend with. Part of it is, you give that red card to that class, so you break their hegemony over the political landscape of the country so that that landscape would lend itself to equality of opportunity for the new minds that are now saying, hey, look at us, we are ready to go into politics, but because of this class of politicians, we are never going to be able to make it. Look at some of the young professionals that are in their 30s and their 40s. It is about time that they started being the ones that will introduce new sets of values, values that can build and not values that destroy into our society. But they are not able to do that. So, we are going to give this red card to these ones and then, all the other political parties, their candidates are going to have to be put through a citizens’ screening. The citizens’ screening, we developed a leadership pre-qualification tool. Our leadership pre-qualification tool will measure every candidate on the basis of character, competence and capacity. Now, if we measure your candidate who wants to run for House of Reps from your state; what is your state Paulinus?
We are going to try to get you to make sure that you and those of your kit and kin that belong to that constituency, you are angry enough to say any party that is bringing a fellow who is a felon, who is a layabout, that hasn’t done anything sensible with his life, but all he has done is being a professional politician, somebody who is not capable of getting anything done, they are bringing that person and putting as their candidate to represent you in the House of Reps, the idea of the citizens’ movement is that you will come together, use that tool to assess those people. And even before election, you are already saying, Oga, Mr Chairman of whatever party or whatever, if this is the candidate you are saying is good for our constituency, you are not a good man, you are not a good person, you don’t want the best for us; this candidate will not be voted for, for us. Why are we doing this? We want to screen them upfront as citizens so that citizens don’t end up as we have always done with the worst of candidates and then, people will now go and say eh, let us take the lesser of the two evils. Why should you be voting between evils in the first place?
You were one of those that supported President Muhammadu Buhari prior to the 2015 elections…
(Cuts in) You are going to have to defend your basis for saying that because you say it as gospel truth and yet, you are a journalist. I could take you out now and sue you and you would lose in court because you would have to tell me, so because I was advocating that President Jonathan, the predecessor of President Buhari, should do what the constitution requires of government, give justice of rescue to Chibok girls, you a journalist, are sad enough to now interpret that as you are one of those that supported? I voted for President Buhari, I didn’t campaign for President Buhari. I voted for him on the basis of my personal vote. I never, you can go and do every search you can imagine. I have nothing where I said to any individual to vote for President Buhari. So, don’t go and conflict. Don’t conflict a demand for Chibok girls to be rescued as a public support for President Buhari.
At what point did you lose respect for this administration?
This administration has been woeful in terms of critical issues that have mattered to me – the dignity of human life. I haven’t been very impressed in the way that they handle the Chibok girls issue; all the other security crises in the country where people died, they have repeated the laissez-faire attitude that the President Jonathan administration had during his time to matters that were going on in the northeast. When people were dying in the northeast and all that that administration was concerned about was how to win its second term. Now, this administration is doing exactly the same thing. It is unbelievable! So, you have cases of tragedies and then, their reactions to the tragedies, similar. These politicians just don’t seem to be bothered.
The second thing is, this is an administration that had no reason to have taken the country into the recession. All the factors towards recession were of course there. But if this administration had followed sound economic policies, no way we would have avoided being thrown into recession. So, it is an administration that took everything that is sound economic principles and just threw them away and followed a path that has actually created much more distress for the poor that this same administration had said would be the constituency that they really want to improve their quality of life.
Then you look at the inability of the president to rise to the stature of a leader that builds the people into a family of people. I said it before to the president: a leader has no luxury of disliking some people amongst his citizens. No! You lost the luxury to the extent that you become a leader, nobody can be your enemy. Even the ones that hate you the most, they are your people. So, that whole inability of the president to be a glue for the country, I find it very disturbing. I find it very disturbing that the president is clannish. He is so clannish. It is unbelievable. That is not the hallmark of a leader. A leader cannot be clannish. A leader must be someone who is accommodating and a leader would be the one who douses tension amongst the people that you lead. You don’t stoke the fire and the embers of disagreement and disaffection. A leader cannot afford to be self-absorbed, thinking only of himself and what makes him happy. That is totally not acceptable in leadership.
So, for me, there are a number of pointers whether it is economy, whether it is security; on security, the thing that I would give to the president is that reasonably, you could say that it is not as bad as it used to be in the northeast, but there are many aspects of the northeast that continue to worry me. What have we really done concerning the citizens that are in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps? How can their welfare not be a matter of priority for us? Do you know that that place could be a breeding ground for another set of angry children? We are losing two generations of people. We are losing the ones who are toddlers now and we probably already lost the ones that are youths in those camps. They would look on our society as if this society hasn’t cared for them. And you cannot afford to have a society that does not care. I love leaders who show that they care. Caring is an important factor in leadership. And so, I look at those matters as key issues that made me say that there is really no difference between six and half dozen. Acronyms do not differentiate the spirit of what one government or the other does. It is not a matter of acronym. The acronyms may differ – APC, PDP. But when you look at what is being exhibited, there is not much of a difference.
There are insinuations in the public space that you built opposition against President Buhari because he failed to offer you a ministerial position. Is that true?
You should help me answer that question how a woman who left government at the age of 44, having been a minister twice over, should think that issues of being a minister would be so high a stake for me to put myself out in the way that I have put myself concerning President Jonathan’s failure to give justice to Chibok girls, concerning President Buhari’s failure to do the same thing. When it came to the matter of dignity of life, I felt that President Buhari, having promised that he was going to bring our Chibok girls back within a matter of six months, which was what he said in his inaugural speech when he said, ‘I would not consider myself to have defeated Boko Haram without the rescue of Chibok girls.’ And then, he gave the timeline for defeating Boko Haram as end of December, 2016. The question balanced out right?
So, when we as a movement began to insist that you must bring these girls back, it shows that our advocacy for the girls was a continuum, it didn’t matter whether it was under your government they were taken or not.
So, it is not personal?
It wasn’t personal. So, not understanding that, but instead, the government became adversarial just like the Jonathan administration to the movement and then, they began to say all these exactly the same thing that the President Jonathan administration and the allies were saying, oh, you know, she is angry at the president because she is not a minister. But President Jonathan failed to tell them how many times I was asked to be a minister in his cabinet and I refused. So, the people who speak like that speak out of ignorance and they speak out of a complete absence of fundamental values that drive me. I am a woman driven by character and my courage of conviction. Look, having spent six and a half years in government, I have no need to prove any point. There is no point to prove! The work that I do, supporting countries on the continent at leadership level to run better economies, that gives me the greatest joy.
At 44 for goodness sake, I had been the minister and then gone to the World Bank and been vice president. Can you imagine a situation where people even do not get analytical in their thought? What I was ten years ago, is something that I need to be and that is why I am doing the things I do. Does it make sense? I mean, think of it.