I am a huge fan of Obiageli Oby Ezekwesili, but I have said elsewhere that my problem with her loud, anti-corruption activism is that it is strangely amnesiac and hypocritical. Even as she proclaims herself a one-woman transparency police, she inadvertently advertises the contradictions of the Obasanjo government, in which she served. I admire her personal integrity and sincerely believe that she is incorruptible.
However, 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 superintending eyes that many corruption scandals occurred, including the grand larceny of expending $16 billion or $10 billion (depending on who you believe) on contracts in the power sector only to have the contracts abandoned or left undone while the contractors, who were connected to Obasanjo and other politicians of his government, pocketed their loots. It was under her watch as enforcer of transparency in the Due Process Office that Obasanjo acquired his 600 million Naira shares in Transcorp as a incumbent president and, after public outcry, declared farcically that he had lodged the shares in a blind trust, never mind the unanswered question of how he got the money to purchase the shares and of the ethical propriety of acquiring shares in an enterprise set up, capitalized, and privileged by your own government.
It was while Ezekwesili was in the Due Process Office that Obasanjo smuggled dollars in Andy Ubah's private jet into the USA, the interception of which caused so much brouhaha he had to reluctantly own up to the money, claiming it was meant for the purchase of equipment for his farm in Otta. It was during Ezekwesili’s tenure as due process chief that Obasanjo fraudulently and corruptly raised billions of Naira for his presidential library project, for which the late Gani Fawehinmi took him to court. It was while she held watch that Obasanjo started building his multi-billion Naira Bells University, and it was during the same period that his bankrupt farm experienced a miraculous turnaround and started generating $30 million monthly according to one of his aides.
It was under Ezekwesili’s stint as czar of transparency that corruption in high places blossomed, including the curious case of OBJ, who, from having only 15,000 Naira in his bank account in 1999 according to 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.
More recently, thanks to evidence provided by convicted international scam artist Jeffery Tessler in a French court, we now know that Obasanjo was one of the alleged bribe takers in the massive Halliburton bribery scandal, a multinational scam spanning several regimes and inculpating several Nigerian heads of state and senior government officials.
Yet when Ezekwesili was asked a simple question in the al-jazeera interview about whether she believes Obasanjo was corrupt, as Nuhu Ribadu, his EFCC chairman, said in wikileak cables and as most Nigerian believe, she prevaricated and resorted to obfuscation and evasive legalistic maneuvers, requesting for evidence and facts. Evidence? For OBJ's corruption? This is extremely disappointing coming from Madam Due Process.
Ezekwesili should realize that, rather than preserve her reputation for personal integrity, defensiveness on the corruption of Obasanjo and his government will erode it. Most Nigerians applaud her for serving in a corrupt government and in a political environment riddled with graft but successfully resisting the allure of illicit riches, and she should realize that we all know that one cannot control the moral choices of one's friends and associates. However, what many Nigerians, including me, find offensive is the penchant of Ezekwesili to slyly defend patently corrupt individuals or to parry questions on their corruption by disingenuously requesting for facts. Political alliances are fine, but they should not be cultivated at expense of truth.
We get it. She is beholden to Obasanjo, who gave her political prominence in Nigeria by appointing her into two important posts in his government, which she then parlayed into other gigs nationally and internationally. But the least she can do is to not insult our intelligence when it comes to the man's corruption and well-known hypocrisy in matters of corruption and malfeasance. You do not have to publicly condemn or chastise your corrupt friend, benefactor, or mentor, and most people understand that. But you do not have to defend them either or engage in unconvincing pretense. We all have friends and associates whose moral choices embarrass us, but we don't have to defend their choices to demonstrate our continued loyalty as friends and associates.
Perhaps Madam Due Process should take a cue from Mallam Nasir –el-Rufai, the governor-elect of Kaduna State, who got ahead of the curve by publishing a memoir in which he documents gargantuan corruption in the Obansajo government, a government in which he served with Ezekwesili. For further exculpatory effect on his image, he criticized the former president in the book. Moreover, in several interviews, he made it clear that the former president's aides and technocratic team were "not proud of some of the things he did," a very clever, euphemistic, and diplomatic acknowledgement of Obasanjo's corruption. The statement does not specify Obasanjo’s misdeeds but aligns with what Nigerians already know about the former president. It does not offend Nigerians' intelligence like Ezekwesili’s pronouncement in that interview does. Some people may say el-Rufai is not a good example because he is an opportunist and hypocrite who will say and do anything and betray anyone to get into power and elevate himself. This may be true, but he is not one to refuse to offer an opinion on a government in which he served and on his former principal. He is not one to insult Nigerians’ intelligence by feigning ignorance of Obasanjo’s stratospheric corruption. The only thing is that he offers his opinions with savvy and with an eye to exculpating himself.
We can understand the reluctance to publicly acknowledge Obasanjo's outsized reputation for corruption, but playing dumb and refusing to give an opinion about that well documented corruption is unacceptable. Evasion will not cut it. Ezekwesili can't have it both ways, proclaiming intolerance for corruption and lack of transparency and at the same time refusing to acknowledge a basic truth such as Obasanjo's monumental corruption, the crowning material edifice of which is his multi-billion Naira hilltop mansion in Abeokuta. There is a language for talking about the misdeeds of friends and mentors without destroying or jeopardizing the relationship. Ezekwesili needs to find that language and stop the shameful Oscar-worthy performance of pretending not to know if OBJ was corrupt. We, her admirers, are embarrassed on her behalf.
Whether she admits it or not, Obasanjo was a smart, crooked, and self-centered man, who recruited a coterie of technocrats, some of them people with integrity and pedigree, and projected them as the face of his government, as window dressing for his corrupt government. While he was in power the façade endured and fooled the international actors for whom it was packaged. But now that he is out of office, it has been exposed for the world to see, and it is futile for Ezekwesili to disavow or deny being inadvertently and perhaps naively used to burnish the reputation of a corrupt president and his corrupt government.
Finally, I hope she takes this post in the spirit of friendly critique in which I am offering it.
Moses Ochonu is Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, USA and can be reached at [email protected]