OBIAGELI “OBY” EZEKWESILI MC/MPA 2000 says to fix a country’s politics it takes three things: an engaged and empowered electorate, a pipeline of competent and ethical new leaders, and a regulatory structure that keeps the political process fair and competitive.

So, in typical fashion, she is tackling all three—at the same time—with #FixPolitics, her new initiative in her native Nigeria. It’s a big job, but big jobs are her specialty. She pioneered the reform of her country’s public procurement and was a cabinet minister for two major government departments (natural resources and education), reforming each one and earning the nickname “Madam Due Process.” She’s also been a vice president of the World Bank, a presidential candidate, one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and the leader of an international movement (#BringBackOurGirls) to secure the release of 276 teenage girls kidnapped by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014. 

It was her disillusionment with the handling of the kidnapping by two successive Nigerian governments, she says, that helped push her toward politics after a long career focused on policy. Although some of the girls have been returned, more than 100 are still missing seven years later.

“I got so disenchanted about governance and the politics that was leading to this level of indifference from the government,” Ezekwesili says. “I felt really like, my God, we the elite of our society have let down the poor people in our society, and we’ve done it in this very terrible kind of way.”

headshot of Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili

“I didn’t have to play politics, so I didn’t care about it. But I wasn’t seeing then that it is politics that gives you the governance, which gives you the policy.”

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Part of her effort to reform politics in Nigeria, she says, has been to create what she calls a sort of unconventional online version of the Kennedy School, specifically designed to address Nigeria’s and Africa’s needs called, the School of Politics, Policy, & Governance. The school’s stated mission is to build “a massive base and pipeline of a new and disruptive-thinking political class.”

“In fact, in some ways it’s better than the Kennedy School, because it is empirically designed to solve the specific problems we’re facing,” she says. So far, the program has graduated 154 people after eight months, is welcoming a new class of 190 students, and will expand to seven other countries in 2022.

Ezekwesili’s move into politics follows a long career in policy inspired by some rather prosaic advice from Shirley Williams, the late British politician and Public Service Professor of Electoral Politics Emerita at HKS.

“The way she put it was: ‘It’s the public policy, stupid,’” says Ezekwesili of Williams, whom she met during an executive education program. At the time, Ezekwesili was already a well-known advocate for clean governance in Nigeria and was trying to decide between a master’s in policy at HKS and a PhD program in international law. “Shirley said that it was better for my continent that we should be grounded in policy.”

After graduation, Ezekwesili became director of the Harvard-Nigeria Economic Strategy Project at the Center for International Development, working closely with then–Harvard Professor Jeffrey Sachs. She still credits the “fungible” skills she learned at HKS with helping her apply principles of economic analysis to politics, through which she determined that most African countries were practicing what she calls “monopoly democracy.” That realization fueled her move toward politics.

“I was not a politician, I was a technocrat,” she says. “I didn’t have to play politics, so I didn’t care about it. But I wasn’t seeing then that it is politics that gives you the governance, which gives you the policy. It is the politics that is the root cause of all our problems on our continent, Africa.”

 

Photo by Pius Utomi Expei/Getty images