Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili is a former Nigerian Minister and World Bank Chief. Currently, she is the presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, ACPN, in the 2019 presidential elections. In this interview with journalists in Lagos at the weekend, she spoke about the political implications of the conduct of a free and fair poll for the country’s young democracy, the unique character of her party and her chances of winning the polls. Thisage was at the interview and brings you these excerpts:
President Buhari has refused for the fourth time give assent to the 2018 Electoral Bill. Are you confident that the government is prepared to conduct a free, fair and credible election in 2019?
I think there is nothing noble about the President not signing the 2018 Electoral Bill into law: Absolutely nothing noble about it. I think the President needs a better explanation to give to Nigerians and the best explanation for him is to sign the Bill into an Act. The President cannot be seen to be imperiling the 2019 elections, because that is what would happen if he does not sign the Bill into an Act. The electoral integrity of the 2019 elections is dependent on how quick the President signs that Bill into an Act. We as a party, I as a candidate, would make sure we don’t stop insisting that the President must do what he should to do and not allow his personal interest to get into the way of the collective interest of Nigerians. Our democracy is going to be twenty years in 2019 and he should not be the one who mar our democracy. He should sign that Bill into an Act immediately.
What exactly are your fears about the what the President has done?
I think the President is probably afraid of two main provisions in the Bill, which is the likely worry of the government. They do not want the card reader. The card reader is a solution to electoral shenanigan and I don’t think the APC (All Progressives Congress), government wants it. The second part is the provision in the Bill that gives the rule of the INEC (Independent Electoral Commission), the equivalence of the Act. Frankly speaking, INEC needs those kinds of powers in other to be very quick to respond to challenges as they happen. So the rules of INEC cannot be outside the legal framework. When you then hear there are mistakes in the Bill that had been found for the fourth time, you beging to wonder what is happening. This last time we were told that the National Assembly and those who work with the NASS on the President’s behalf could not detect any errors at that time to warrant his refusal to assent to the Bill. No, the President cannot fool Nigerians. It is clear the government does not want any improvement in the conduct of our elections. It is the same government that was comfortable to see the elections in Ekiti and Osun that were a disgrace to our country. The elections in those states were the equivalent of a civilian coup to our democracy. Our electoral process is now tradable where the seller and the buyer, aided by the abuse of state institutions like the police and the military coming together to undermine our democracy. The citizens will not accept it. It would not happen. 2019 elections must hold and it must be free, transparent and fair, that is the legitimacy the Nigerian people will confer on those that will win the elections.
Would you support those who say the National Assembly should go ahead and veto the President.?
It may have to come to that. It would be unfortunate for the President because I recall when the President was newly elected and an interviewer asked me what word would you have for the President as somebody who had been a military dictator and now an elected President and I simply said to him that democracy is not military rule and now I say history would place him in an ignoble position if he does not sign the Bill and make progress on our democratic experience.
We have seen the way many have reacted to the poor conduct of the Osun and Ekiti elections. Many say it has to do with the competence of the INEC Chairmen. Do you think the INEC Chairman can truly conduct free and fair elections in 2019?
I think the INEC Chairman knows that all eyes are on him. He is somebody who is well read. He is somebody who should care about what history would record of him. He is somebody who has other competent Commissioners. It would be a colossal tragedy for them in any way to disappoint the earnest expectations of Nigerians. I think those who followed the outcome of Osun and Ekiti elections have shared that concern. They have always said, including international observers, that, in terms of logistics preparations, it is a better INEC. But there are many issues dealing with election management that can undermine the integrity of any elections. Why is it that, for example, the ugly incident of vote buying that we saw in those two elections, has not come with punishment of those involved in vote buying. We saw with the ubiquitous technology what went on in those places. But who has faced the music for those perfidious acts? So we are saying that the INEC, the Nigerian government, the police, the military and other establishment that participate in conduct of elections are not interested in addressing the impunity associated with election taking a foothold in our electoral process. We cannot accept that. So my point is that INEC Chairman has a bigger responsibility than any other institution in the management of election. INEC Act says vote buying is criminal, event though enforcement is outside the Chairman’s remit. But he should be the one making a big issue out of it, because it undermines electoral integrity. He has the training to be able to solve the problem. With the training, with the capacity of a Professor Mahmood Yakubu, there is no reason why he should fail to conduct a free, fair and credible election in 2019. The Osun and Ekiti elections have become signposts of what could go wrong in 2019, so there is no reason why a well -trained person should not take lessons from those elections and give us an election that would meet standards expected of him.
Many Nigerians seem to be wary of the two big parties, the APC and PDP. But many still do not know what parties like yours would do differently from the two big ones. What freshness is you party bringing in terms of the economy, education, housing, jobs etc?
The key thing for our party is that, unlike with these other entities, we feel embarrassed that Nigeria has overtaken India as the world headquarters of extreme poverty that we want to tackle poverty the way the Chinese faced it. The Chinese faced poverty of hundreds of their citizens by running a good economy that made the private sector the engine of economic development in an inclusive way. And when they did that over the years, the right policies, the right institutions, right priorities in health, education and social needs of their people, their economy began to grown with double digits for over unbroken thirty years. The result was that over 700 millions Chinese were pulled out of poverty. We have gone in the reverse. At some point our population that was poor was 28million in the 90s and we have grown and grown until we are talking of 87 million poor Nigerians, almost half of our population, living on below $1.90 cents a day.
An ACPN government is going to run a market friendly economy, a private sector based economy that will grow and lift at least 80 million Nigerians out of poverty. Secondly, our emphasis on economic development is through human development so education is our new oil and human capital is our new economy. When you look at the root and branch reform we are going to pursue in education, in health, in environment, water sanitation, it embodies what it takes to make productive citizens; those who have the knowledge, the skill and resilience to be able to solve the problem in their society. The other big parties care about oil prices and when you ask what did they contribute to oil, you would find it is nothing other than to make money. So we want to change that distortion and focus on where the Nigerian citizens become the driver in the processes of economic development. Again, we would look at the issue of the primacy of the Nigerian life: if we are talking about human development, we must keep the human beings alive. Security response is going to be major. So everything about security must be taken seriously. Smart and brilliant people in the police, army will be fine in our government because merit, professionalization will mean it will be a race to the top for the leadership of our security establishment. We would invest massively in intelligence aspect to reduce risk to what they have to respond to. We would have a SWAT team, which can respond rescue operations such that our Chibok girls, our UNICEF girls, Leah Sharibu, still in captivity would be secured and those who terrorize our territory cannot live safely in our country while our territorial integrity would be safeguarded.
What would you do to bring down the high cost of governance.?
You know that in 2017 the government released its budget performance report, which showed that even high oil revenue was not enough to pay the workers of government. So government had to borrow to complement what it had to pay for personnel cost. How can people hear these kinds of things and remain normal? Suddenly, it tells you the country is in trouble. Two million people work for government and guzzle all our resources and we are in post oil Nigeria but government and its officials are not acting like that. So reducing cost of governance is a major challenge. When people talk about minimum wage, living wage, it is part of the problem we should look at as a total package and talk about together. That is part of the unfortunate thing that Labour and Government were not telling themselves the truth in the conversation that they are having on the minimum wage issue. We need to look at productivity of our labour, the productivity of our private sector and private persons that would help us drive towards higher productivity. I believe our workers are not earning living wages, but the problem is how do we run government in a way that enables us to prosper so that the workers are the beneficiaries of that prosperity? That is the big question. We have a solution to that.
Talking about solutions, you say your party would lift 80 millions out of poverty. When people hear that, they say politicians are coming again. So, in specific terms what do you intend to do differently that would lift 80 million Nigerians out of poverty?
The first quest is how do you lift people out of poverty? The fastest way is to ensure they have income. The way people have income is to have jobs or to do things that earn them income. So when we say we are going to run an economy with sound policies, we would also carry out reforms of institutions so that you do not have regulations that are standing in the way of the private sector, whether it is medium scale, small scale of large -scale business. And when we say we would be very resourceful in choosing the priorities that government would invest in human capital and infrastructure, we are saying those are the things that help the private sector to grow and when the private sectors grows it drives economic development and leads to reduction of poverty. That is why we believe in a private sector driven economy. We want to go from the region of 2 per cent growth to 5 per cent growth we were before 2015 and deregulate sectors of the economy to unleash further growth. With the diversified activities, the economy would boost reduction of poverty. Take our agriculture for instance. It is still largely subsistence but if you want to reduce poverty for farmers you improve on their productivity. You promote growth in that sector by solving the challenges in the value chain so the fertilizers, technology driven irrigation system, land and titling, assess to markets and the role of power and road infrastructure are addressed to give the farmers control over what they do. That brings more yields. It increases their productivity. We have seen them happen in countries that we advised and their people earned more.
You are popular as a person, but the fear among your supporters is that your party does not have that grassroots structure and the strong follower ship that would enable you win the election. Are you worried by these observed shortcomings?
The reason that I am not worried is that up till now Nigerians did not even know much about ACPN. What they do not know about ACPN is that it existed before 2011 and it fielded a presidential candidate in 2015. That presidential candidate it fielded then is my current vice-presidential candidate. In that election, ACPN came out number four in the presidential race. It may be a low number of number four but history records that they had a good showing. The second thing in that story is that ACPN does has presence in all the states of the federation today and the party has candidates running for governor, Senate, House of Representatives and the total number of ACPN candidates nationwide is more than 250. So it is not the green party where you are talking only of Ezewesili alone, no. Our party has the grassroots support. And the other side of that question is what made me choose Abdul Galadima as my running mate because he is a grassroots mobilizer. And to tackle poverty we need to be grassroots. So you have a winning team in ACPN. We do not have the corrupt structure that the big parties talk about. We are using existing social network, technology, data, to distribute our messages to people. I am not a candidate for the elite class but for the Nigeria people, who are looking for a new direction, which I represent. They are looking for people with character, integrity who understand and can solve their problems. So they are interested to make sure it happen.
The campaign to have women represented in government and governance is yet to see the light of day in the country. Women groups are currently mobilizing for and lobbying parties on this score. As a popular person and a woman presidential candidate, what kind of support do you enjoy from the women folk?
The segment of the population that my running for presidency has ignited most is young people and women. The rate of volunteering from women and young persons is amazing. They donate like N500 every week because they believe that I went into government to serve and they know what I would do. For the six and half years I was in government I stood way ahead of many of my contemporaries. I came out with my head held high knowing that I went into government to serve the Nigerian people. Those are the ones investing in my party because they know that I would go to serve. Hence the donation of money, platform and of time by the volunteers. Since I declared to run, many have donated platforms to run the message farther.
What finally decided you to run for the presidency after years of public activism as a campaigner with the Bring Back Our Girls, #BBOG, for example?
I got fed up thinking that citizens have to go to vote in 2019 and choose the lesser of two evils. And I said to myself does every Nigeria knows we do not have another four years to waste again? And that we cannot afford to face going for the lowest common denominator in our precarious situation, which is two evils. So how do we change our polity if we do not have credible alternative. Nigerians can never say we did not have a choice, so we have a choice now, so that they do not stay away from voting. I am not making a statement by running, no, I am in race to win and I am a candidate, who happens to be a woman.