First off, I am not a Dame. I am simply a young Nigerian girl desperately hungry for change. The prefix, “Dame” was imposed on me by Facebook friends who constantly address me as Dame VIO despite repeated objections from me. Today, I adopt the controversial title for the purpose of sharing a memorable encounter with Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili; a brief meeting that provided enough support to form a base on which one could build.
Oby Ezekwesili is one woman that I have always admired, adored and often found myself emulating her ways both consciously and reflexively. Her intellectual depth, high sense of professional ethics, strong moral discipline and unbroken record of stellar performance both as minister of education and NEITI chief, fed my soul with a rich model of what good leadership looks like. I’d always desired to meet her in person to soak that curious admiration in a wellspring of realism.
Last Thursday evening (November 29, 2012) presented a golden, unplanned opportunity to meet her in person. I joined several Nigerians at the Silverbird Galleria, Abuja to watch the premiere of Ishaya Bako’s documentary, “Fuelling Poverty”. Arresting the audience with compelling jokes, facts-laden cartoons, spasmodic chuckles tinged with episodic anger, the documentary told a thought-provoking story about the monumental fraud called “fuel subsidy”. It was a story about Nigeria, about unprecedented levels of corruption, about an incompetent leadership that in a record speed, frittered away goodwill and public confidence reposed on it.
Within the hall sat a rich mix of government officials, civil society and business leaders, celebrities, students, artists, youth advocates and representatives of the development aid community in Nigeria. To my chagrin, seated a few chairs next to me was Oby Ezekwesili. Her stay was brief. Her opening address was equally as brief. Her message was short, simple and straight to the point: “We must always ask ourselves this question: poverty, whose poverty? It is important for people to recognize that their distance away from poverty is quite close…no matter how rich they think they are…Everybody must join the struggle for economic justice”.
I followed behind as she made her way out of the cinema hall. After a brief introduction, her arms enveloped me in an affectionate embrace. Embedded in that embrace were pure motherly warmth, enthralling humility, an unconditional willingness to interact, and an inspirational push to convert personal potentials into actual success. Despite her glowing achievements, she wore no aura of self-importance nor flaunted the usual arrogance that often flows from superior intellect.
Young people like me are tired of the older generation driving governance and controlling political power. I believe the time has come for the younger generation to take center stage in social and economic governance and political affairs in Nigeria. Decades of taking a back seat in democratic leadership have further heightened the youth’s relegation and exclusion from the tables where decisions are made. Decisions made on their behalf hardly reflect their priorities and represent their interests. Yet, action tarries!
For the younger generation to effectively lead change, they need worthy role models like Oby Ezekwesili that they can look up to, learn from, and share their passion for a positive Nigeria. Disappearing value-driven leadership and the famine of exemplary mentors have forced many youth to look to pop stars, movie stars and the West for role models. I’m not saying something is wrong with having movie stars and celebrities as role models. What I am saying is that solving Nigeria’s complex problems of economic mismanagement, insecurity, religious intolerance, corruption, oil theft, malaria and so forth require the participation and contribution of a vibrant generation capable of thinking out of the box, and applying innovative solutions to festering trials. Accordingly, the trending loss of interest in intellectual discourse, economic governance and policy development is indeed worrisome. Intellectually stimulating programs like The Debaters have been yanked off TV stations and replaced with a plethora of dancing competitions and “get-rich-quick-and-famous” amusement shows. If drastic measures are not taken to curb the wave of inane entertainment shows tossed at youngsters, we shall be soon be having an over-entertained, unproductive generation on our hands.
All hope is not lost. Oby and a few others inspire hope that with purposeful guidance and mentoring support, mistakes could be reversed, and a new direction restored. Her life offers young spectators, a mirror of outstanding opportunities and prospects to grow, stretch and increase their mental capacities. Meeting Oby was a sobering experience. Come on, if young people, like myself can’t afford not to grab this learning curve like no other, Who will?