There’s 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 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 mould when she was in office, hence I could only assume that she was wonderfully abnormal.
I first had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Ezekwesili in 2004, at a roundtable meeting of members of the Nigerian national economic team hosted by then Minister of Finance, 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. I would meet her again in 2005, as “Madam Minister”. By that time, she had become the Minister of Solid Minerals Development. The company I work for, Alder Consulting, was 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 unusual Nigerian, I was struck by her intellectual capacity and love for data and information. At the start of a project, she would form a strategy team comprising experts and task them with designing a blueprint for the job at hand. Afterwards, she would do something very wise. She would provide each expert with what I call, “political cover”; liaising on their behalf with Ministry officials, the Presidency, the National Assembly and anyone else, who was 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 efficient and one that would become the hallmark of every government project she handled.
Another thing that characterized Mrs. Ezekwesili was her incredible work ethic. I remember that her energy levels were always at full charge, while the rest of us mere mortals stayed awake during strategy meetings, by subsisting on Red Bull! Even when she was ill, she would monitor projects from home by phone, then summon everyone for evening meetings at her residence.
Another aspect of her character that I greatly admire is her sense of sacrifice. The truth is, in Nigeria, you cannot earn a “competitive” living working for Government. That means, if you leave the private sector to work for the Fatherland, you must be prepared for a hefty salary cut. I personally observed the effects of that sacrifice on Mrs Ezekwesili and how she bore it stoically. I can only guess the personal price she paid and I pray that she will be rewarded in years to come.
Without question, anyone who knows Mrs. Ezekwesili, will attest to her strong belief in the Almighty God and her sense of 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.
Anytime I notice her birthday on social media, I say a prayer – that the commitment of this generation to building the Fatherland, will validate her years of sacrifice. May she be proud of our patriotism, values and service. May she one day, see a part of herself mirrored in our lives and actions.