There is a single adjective that comes to mind when I think of Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili and that is – CRAZY!
One must be quite crazy to defy the common misconception that in Nigeria, every government official is plagued by varying degrees of corruption, nepotism, paucity of ideas, laziness and just plain obdurateness. Mrs. Ezekwesili just didn’t fit the mold and hence I can only assume, she was in some way wonderfully and positively abnormal.
I first had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Ezekwesili in 2004 at a roundtable meeting of members of the national economic team hosted by the Minister of Finance at the time, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. My boss and I were invited to make a presentation – the subject of which I now forget. I clearly remember walking into the room and thinking…”So these are the brains behind Nigeria’s recent progress”. Mrs. Ezekwesili struck me as bright eyed, earnest and very passionate. She was then known as “Madam Due Process”, a reference to her position as the head of the Federal Government’s Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit (aka Due Process).
I would meet her again in 2005, as “Madam Minister”. By this time, she was the Minister of Solid Minerals Development and the company I work for, Alder Consulting had been brought in to brand the Ministry. (We would continue working with her when she became Minister of Education in 2006).
As we began to work with this very unusual Nigerian, I was struck by her intellectual capacity and love for data & information. At the start of a project, she would form a strategy team comprising experts; lock them up for a few days and task them with designing a blueprint for the project at hand. Afterwards, she would do something very wise. She would provide each expert with what I call “political cover”; liaising with Ministry officials, the Presidency, the National Assembly and anyone else who was politically integral to the project. Her model was simple – Let the intellectuals think and execute, while I sort out the politics. It was a model that proved to be quite successful and one that would become the hallmark of every government project handled by her.
Another thing that characterized Mrs. Ezekwesili was her incredible work ethic. While I am not an advocate for any particular brand of energy drink, I remember that her energy levels were always at full charge while the rest of us mere mortals could only stay awake during her marathon strategy meetings by subsisting on Red Bull! Even when she was ill, she would monitor projects by phone from home and then summon everyone for evening meetings at her residence.
Another aspect of her character I greatly admire is her sense of sacrifice. The truth is, in Nigeria, you cannot earn a “competitive” living working for Government. By competitive, I mean relative to your peers in the corporate sector (both locally & internationally). The average salary of a Minister for example, is sometimes up to 10 times less than that of a corporate peer. This means, if you leave the private sector to work for the Fatherland, you must be prepared for a hefty salary cut, a fall in your standard of living or a significant dip in your savings.
I personally observed the effects of that sacrifice on Mrs Ezekwesili’s life and how she bore it stoically. I saw the self-deprivation, the impact on her family and the price that was paid. I can only pray that she will be rewarded with even more honour than that which presently attends her in years to come.
Anyone who knows Mrs. Ezekwesili will not fail to attest to her strong belief in the grace of Almighty God and her sense of personal mission. I suspect she viewed her time in Government as a personal assignment from the Almighty. But she never took her “calling” for granted. It was her regular practice to encourage people to pray for her as she believed she could only be sustained by God’s grace.
On a final note, I cannot fail to mention Mrs. Ezekwesili’s humility. She never failed to give credit where credit was due, and always sought for help when she needed it.
As she celebrates another year (and another milestone), my personal wish is that the commitment of this generation to building the Fatherland will validate her years of sacrifice and contribution. May she look to us and be proud of our patriotism, values and service. May she see some small part of herself mirrored in our lives and actions.
Happy birthday “Aunty Oby”.