I still recall vividly that bright sunny day in 2000 that I met Oby Ezwkwesili at a committee room of the House of Representatives. She was in her thirties, dressed in colorful skirt and blouse made from locally-manufactured Ankara, looking modest yet elegant with her trademark low-cut hair.
She confidently walked up to me after a powerpoint presentation on the Federal Privatization Program, and introduced herself – “I am Oby Ezekwesili”. And like a Japanese business person, simply handed over her name card to me.It was the beginning of a relationship that included not only strong family ties, but hundreds of hours of brainstorming sessions, mental battles and emotional moments in the service of our country, during which Oby and I grew in our jobs and roles to cabinet level positions. Today, Oby is fifty years old and my three year chronologicalv advantage appears slightly dented – after all, we are now both “in our fifties”!My sister Obiageli Katryn Exekwesili, known by virtually everyone as simply ‘Oby’ is a woman of no mean repute, a public servant that is well-known for her astonishing achievements not only in Nigeria, butnin Africa and globally. What many do not know is just how young Oby is.
As she attains this golden age today, it is only fitting that the few of us that know her well pay this special tribute to a Nigerian that has consistently made our nation and Africa proud.Oby’s parents were originally from Anambra State but she grew up mostly in Lagos and is fluent in Yoruba. Her father was a public servant employed by the Nigerian Ports Authority and early in life, instilled in Oby a sense of self-worth and confidence that she remembered fondly and applied consistently in our public service days.
She got her initial tertiary education from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and subsequently qualified as a chartered accountant while employed by Akintola Williams Deloitte & Touché. She obtained a Masters degree in International Law and Diplomacy from the University of Lagos followed by a second Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. At the Kennedy School, Oby got special recognition when she won the Robert F. Kennedy award for exceptional public service. Oby’s work experience includes auditing and consulting, financial services, civil society and government, thereby traversing the private and public sectors as well as the non-governmental.
The combination of Oby’s disciplined and cosmopolitan upbringing, sound education and multidisciplinary skills mix was bound to produce an exceptional individual which Oby has turned out to be by any standard. It is therefore not surprising that in addition to all her work-related achievements, Oby is also a Pentecostal pastor, wife and mother of three wonderful young men.Oby began her working life as an audit trainee and after qualifying moved to financial services, while also active as a founding director of Berlin-based Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog. She met General Obasanjo at this point when he chaired the board of the international NGO.
She was then exiled by the Abacha regime for her activism and spent time in the UK before moving to Harvard University as an Edward Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government. Upon graduation, Oby was employed by Professor Jeffrey Sachs at the Harvard Centre for International Development. She returned to Nigeria to assist the Obasanjo administration in the broad area of economic reforms in 2000. It was at that point that we met.Oby was then appointed Special Assistant to the President on Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence, initially reporting to Steve Oronsaye who was Obasanjo’s principal private secretary.
She created the system of major contract prices review before award that saved Nigeria billions of dollars between 2001 and 2005, that came to be known as ‘Due Process’. Indeed, Mallam Adamu Ciroma, then finance minister gave Oby the title “Madam Due Process” which stuck. The Due Process office became institutionalized as the Bureau of Public Procurement in 2007. Oby was then promoted to the cabinet in 2005 where she initiated broad ranging reforms and legislation that brought sanity to the Nigerian mining sector. She was Education minister for 12 months and took earth-shaking steps to bring sanity and order to the chaotic and often incompetently managed ministry.
It was her performance record and personal qualities that earned Oby an invitation by then World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz to take up the dream job of every World Bank official – the Vice President, Operations for the Africa Region in March 2007. Once again, Oby delivered on the assignment and got retained, and her contract extended by Wolfowitz’s successor Robert Zoellick. Oby returned home in 2012, and now advises some selected African governments on economy policy and reforms under the auspices of the Soros Foundation.
It is evident from this that Oby is a workhorse and focused implementation machine. She is deep thinker and combines rare talents of numeracy, literary creativity and oratory. In a nation full of timorous souls unwilling to step on toes to get the work of the people done, Oby stands out as a consistent producer of results under the most challenging environments.Oby’s nearly-single handed initiation, design and implementation of procurement reforms, our extractive industry transparency initiative and cleaning up Nigeria’s mining cadastre are well-known testimonies.
Her bold plan to hand over the management of federal secondary schools to other private, non-governmental and non-federal entities would have focused the Federal Ministry of Education on setting standards and raising the quality of our beleaguered tertiary education sector. Sadly, most of Oby’s reforms have been allowed to flounder by mostly hapless and greedy successors.So is my fifty year-old sister the perfect human specimen? Of course not! Only God is perfect. Oby is simply among the best I have come across in recent years. She is honest, incorruptible, and fiercely loyal to her friends, family, colleagues and country.
In her interactions and relationships, she is not utilitarian. She is the friend one can count on through thick and thin. She does not do what is wrong or against public interest because it is popular or demanded by influential people or nations. She lacks guile and incapable of being conspiratorial. With Oby, what you see is what you get. What she says about you behind your back is what she will repeat to your face. Oby is a genuine person.
I am fortunate to have her as a friend and sister. My children and indeed, many Nigerian youths are fortunate to have her as a mentor.As Oby celebrates her fiftieth birthday today, I join Mama, Pastor Chinedu, Chinenmelum, Chinwuba, and Chidera Ezekwesili, and all well-wishers to pray for long life in good health, with happiness and prosperity for her, her family and indeed all well-meaning citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. May our future be infinitely better than our
present and recent past, Amen.