Oby Ezekwesili, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Corruption in Nigeria

Earlier this week, Al Jazeera interviewed Oby Ezekwesili, a well-known Nigerian governance expert who has worn many hats: co-founder of Transparency International, cabinet minister under former President Olusegun Obasanjo (for Solid Minerals and then Education, 2005-2007), World Bank Vice President for Africa (2007-2012), and activist with Bring Back Our Girls.

The interview generated controversy in Nigeria and in the diaspora, especially because of Ezekwesili’s refusal to say that the Obasanjo administration was severely corrupt (see around 13:20 at the link above). Obasanjo was the first civilian president of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic; he served 1999-2007.

To give a sense of the criticisms of Ezekwesili’s statements in the interview, here is an excerpt from a piece by Professor Moses Ochonu of Vanderbilt University, who writes,

When you go around self-righteously castigating the corruption of the present government without even a perfunctory acknowledgement of, or an effort to explain your failure to prevent or punish, the corruption of the government for which you were supposed to act as gatekeeper for public procurement and contracts (the primary conduit for political and bureaucratic corruption in Nigeria), your rhetoric rings hollow and raises questions about the sincerity and consistency of your moral indignation at malfeasance. It is only a matter of time before such duplicity is exposed, and Ezekwesili’s moment of exposure came in her interview with Mehdi Hasan on Al-Jazeera, which has now gone viral.

[…]

It was under Ezekwesili’s stint as czar of transparency that corruption in high places blossomed, including the curious case of [Obasanjo], who, from having only 15,000 Naira in his bank account in 1999 according to [former Obasanjo cabinet minister and economic team member Nasir] el-Rufai* (information which has never been contradicted), transformed into a billionaire and one of the wealthiest Nigerians alive. It was while Obasanjo was president and Ezekwesili was his preeminent transparency enforcement officer that damning revelations on how he and his vice president, Abubakar Atiku, turned the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) into a personal piggy bank surfaced in the media and provided tragic national political entertainment for a whole season.

As commentaries and criticisms of the interview spread, Ezekwesili penned a Twitter essay on corruption. The tweets were interesting not just for her implicit defense of Obasanjo, but also for the general theory of anti-corruption she put forth. I’ve storified her tweets here.

The debate featuring Ezekwesili comes at an important moment, as expectations are rising concerning the incoming administration’s stated anti-corruption agenda. Nigerians are looking both backward and forward now, re-assessing past administrations’ anti-corruption rhetoric and their actual performance, and wondering how the next government will perform.

*El-Rufai is also the governor-elect of Kaduna.

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