Cover Story: A Legacy That Endures

, Cover story

Dr. (Mrs.) Obiageli Ezekwesili,
Co-founder, Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) Movement
We spoke to Oby Ezekwesili, Former Presidential Candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria.

In this no-holds barred interview, Oby Ezekwesili gives us an insight into the secret to her success, the strategies she has employed over the years that have enabled her break into the public and private sector and the overarching strategy Nigeria can deploy in identifying and developing good leaders to ensure succession in each role.

Ezekwesili was one of the prominent activists that led the #Bringbackourgirls campaign movement in 2014. She currently serves as one of the pioneer directors of the global anti-corruption body based in Berlin, Germany and is a Senior Economic Advisor, Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative at Open Society Foundation, advising nine reform-committed African Heads of State on their economic development strategy, policies, and implementation.

She served as Federal Minister of Solid Minerals and then as Federal Minister of Education during the second-term presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo. Since then, she served as the Vice-President of the World Bank’s Africa division from May 2007 to May 2012, Ezekwesili was also a 2018 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in transparency in the extractive sector.

Ezekwesili led the establishment of the Innovation and Vocational Enterprise Institutions initiatives which focuses on the development of skills for economic competitiveness, and in conjunction with the Nigerian Stock Exchange, launched the ‘Adopt-A-School’ program, an initiative that fosters philanthropy by corporations, community groups, and individuals.

She was the architect of the Bureau for Public Procurement legislation, pioneer head of the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit aka Due Process, key member of the Economic Team of the President, member of the Power Sector Reform Team which engineered the Power Sector Act of 2007, and pioneer Chairperson of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), leading on the legislation that created the initiative and first-ever national implementation of the global EITI standards.

Ezekwesili was given the national award of Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR). She holds an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, and the University of Sussex, England, United Kingdom for her work in promoting transparency and accountability in government and lending a voice to the importance of the office of the citizen.

She shares her enduring legacy on succession with us.

What is the secret to your success?

Besides Divine grace, I will say that my strong values-rooted family background prepared me for who I am today. My parents raised my siblings and me to be purpose-driven. My dad used to say to us, “Everything created by God was for a purpose and anything created that is not fulfilling the purpose for which it was created ought not to exist.” It registered in our minds therefore, that we must make our existence worthwhile. He inculcated the spirit of excellence in us by his teachings and his example.  He gave us a sense of our privilege (even though we were not by any standard of measurement, a wealthy family) by saying that just being educated and being born into a good family places a responsibility on us to serve others. Our dad’s favorite quote for encouraging us to succeed against all odds was, “seeth thou a man or woman diligent in his or her work, they will stand before kings and not before mean men”. I never knew it was from the Bible!

How have you been able to break barriers in the private and public sector?

Again, my dad raised us to be problem-solvers. He taught us to think of situations or responsibilities assigned to us, critically and as persons who desire to solve problems. He especially made me feel that I could take on any challenge because every time one did something right, he would so celebrate me to the point of embarrassment. You see, my dad was a man of incredible character and exceptional brilliance as our extended family and friends used to say. I loved him so much and wanted him to be happy always with my performance. That made me early in life to develop a mindset of never allowing barriers to stand in my way so he would be proud of me. That attitude subsequently followed me through life.  I have had the privilege of working in the private sector, public sector, global economic development and civil society at both national and international development. At all times, the problem-solver mindset is what has enabled me break barriers.

What overarching strategy can Nigeria deploy in identifying and developing future leaders to ensure succession in each role and to prepare the next generation?

Countries and continents rise and fall on the back of their leadership quality. We have to become deliberate, intentional and strategic about developing new leaders. We are too casual about leadership development in not just Nigeria, but Africa. In contrast, countries that have done better economically and otherwise like say, Singapore or Botswana focused on leadership succession in a purposeful manner. We need to design systems of such leadership training and quickly build a strong pipeline of young leaders—men and women – that will lead our country for the rest of the twenty-first century. We need to start training emerging leaders to understand that leadership is about sacrificial service and that it requires character, competence and capacity.

What are your stewardship plans for the next person to succeed you in your current role?

I am huge on mentoring and teaching through example. I set very high standards and expect nothing short of excellence in effort and results. What has helped me is that my team members quickly find that I model the high standard set and therefore have the freedom to surpass me. One of the things that I am widely known for is raising and building strong teams to solve specific problems with me. Often, members of the various teams I have built in the course of my rich and diverse career emerge as leaders.

As we all know succession is a multi-stage process that happens over years before successors step up to their roles, do you see this happening in Nigeria and how?

As I stated in response to an earlier question, we are not purposeful and strategic about planning for succession and that puts families, communities, businesses, organizations and our country at risk. I was a Girl Guide as a child and our motto is, “Be Prepared”. Succession Planning is the best example of that Girls Guide motto. Take very definitive steps to prepare those who will inherit the responsibilities of leading our families, communities, businesses and nations so that they are ready to confront the new levels of challenges when the time comes.  Start early to identify the star performers and design a leadership track for them. One of the key ways to grow them quickly is to give them stretch assignments, which require exceptional skills from them. Over time, they would gain the competence and attitudes of leading teams to solve problems.  We must begin to act differently from our “que sera sera” way of life. Planning for succession is not the same thing as “wishing anyone death”. It is simply a way of ensuring Sustainability, which is a concept that helps preserve and improve present achievements for future progress. In all my assignments, I always built in a system of succession. Sadly, our Nigeria public sector hardly respects such and quickly dismantles such systems. I hope that this will change once we have the right quality of leaders in our politics.

Globally, we see many multi-generational businesses flourishing, which is not always the case in Nigeria?  What are we doing wrong?  Why are we not achieving the same results?

We are too short-termist and hardly build for posterity. We seldom are willing to defer our gratification and that is terrible for building lasting businesses. We are too individualistic and so do not reap the benefit of collaboration. We are too comfortable with average and call it excellent. We have become complacent because mediocrity to the world is what we now celebrate as exceptional in our society. It is a mindset problem. A new generation must come into their own and lift our country out of this terribly unhealthy steady state of low-equilibrium.

Tell us about Oby Ezekwesili? How do you decompress and what interests you?

Oby Ezekwesili is a very simple woman with a profound sense of mission and believes that whatever we do in life must be meaningful to others. I wear Candor and Truth as my garments. Early on in life, I got the mantra, “I serve therefore I lead” from my Dad, so I devote my privileges to serving others so they can even do better than me. I have anchored my Life on a strong sense of service to God and humanity; therefore, my choices are never about, “what’s in it for me?” People assume that I am too serious minded and not given to playfulness. They are wrong. Those who know me closely will tell you that my laughter can wake you up from sleep. I read a lot. My fun time is spent with my dearest husband and friend, Pastor Chinedu. We listen to music, sing along and then mimic some hot dance steps! 

Photo Credit: Oby Ezekwesili