Chuba Ezekwesili is one of the twin sons of former Minister of Education and ex-Vice President of the World Bank, Dr Obiageli (Oby) Ezekwesili. Chuba speaks to GODFREY GEORGE about his mother’s personality and core values
What was it like growing up under your mother, Dr Oby Ezekwesili?
It was different. I would say it was real. We saw other children of our age with toys and games and all whatnot, but we grew up around books. Mum would come back from wherever she travelled to and our presents from that trip were tons of books and newspapers. She encouraged us to read newspapers and summarise books. It was like a mini boot camp. She didn’t let us watch certain TV programmes. So, when we went to school and heard our friends talk about a programme, we’d come back home and only wish we could watch such programmes. But I am glad that as we grew up, we saw the wisdom in what she did for us. I am super grateful for such a privilege to be trained by a woman like Oby Ezekwesili.
Were you born in Nigeria?
A lot of people ask us this question. My twin brother and I grew up in Surulere, Lagos. when we were age five, mum got exiled from Nigeria. It was during the late Sani Abacha’s regime. So, she was smuggled out of the country to Germany. My mum was one of the people who pushed against the military government. She was part of a group called the Concerned Professionals, and they constantly were at the forefront of the fight against dictatorship. That was a pretty difficult time for us because we didn’t get to see her for like five years. My dad was transitioning to becoming a pastor at that time. What that meant was that there was really no steady source of income at that time. Our grandmother was the one who took care of us at that time. It was a difficult time. We went from a middle-class family to a lower-class one. At a time, we had to ‘drink’ garri as a meal. In school, we would get called out on some days on assembly ground and flogged before we were sent home, just because we couldn’t pay fees. It was that bad (laughs). We have definitely been in that kind of a situation and our story will not be complete without sharing that aspect of it with the world.
Were you able to regularly communicate with your mum in those five years?
We were quite young, so, what the family told us was that she wasn’t really going anywhere. You know how kids are. If they had told us where she was, perhaps, we would have spilled the beans and the people looking for her then would have got to her. We didn’t know much. So, we were just expecting her to come back till she had been gone for five years. At that time, our grandmother was our saving grace. She did such a fantastic job of being a mother when mum was not around. When we wanted to talk to mum, we would go to a phone booth down the road and use the landline to converse with her and play catch up.
What was the most memorable thing you remember your mum doing for you as a child?
That would be her teaching us. As a child, she always taught us. We were sure to learn from her whenever we were around her. Of course, she bought us clothes and stuff, but her teachings are a part of what shaped us into the persons we are today. We have a strong sense of value and a good concept of what the world was at a very early age. We were never influenced by bad behaviour. Whatever it was we were doing and knew was right, we just went ahead to do them. She inculcated us with the ability to understand our lives, and that was key.
What did your grandmother tell you about your mum’s growing up then?
I remember her telling me that growing up mum didn’t like bullies. If one was a bully, she would confront that person and a fight might start. She said my mum used to beat up boys in the community that were bullying others. She also said my mum always refused to go out to spend more time with friends as a child as she preferred being alone in the house, reading. She never socialised because she was always reading. Her mother was a businesswoman based in Lagos, too. She used to sell at Aguda Market in Lagos.
She had a very supportive father. The typical Nigerian father of that time did not pay much attention to their girl child, but that was not the same for my mum’s dad. He paid special attention to our mum. She used to tell us that her dad is a huge reason she has turned out this amazing. His energy really influenced her life. He always encouraged her to put her mind to whatever she wanted to do and he was very supportive of her dreams, passions and aspirations.
Your mum is widely-recognised as an economic expert and leader. How does this feel for you as her son?
It just means we are a family of geniuses. It is really a thing of pride to know that the energy that came before me is brilliant and able to hold information, synthesise it and use it to make clear and rational decisions. It is always a good feeling. This also amazes me. We never get used to mum’s breadth and depth of knowledge. She knows almost any industry than most ministers would know that industry. She is very versatile.
Do you feel any weight of expectation to live up to your mum’s name when you are in public?
(Laughs) That is not our business, honestly. The last thing we would ever do is perform for anyone. If anyone has decided to create expectations around us, good for them. We are just ourselves. Her name is hers and we are proud of it and what she has done, but it doesn’t weigh us down. It is something that we live up to.
In what ways has her name opened doors for you?
(Laughs) Ah! Error! I think, for the most part, it has been quite the opposite, and I would cite a lot of instances. In a place like Nigeria that is hostile to people who speak out when others don’t want to speak out, it is certainly not to our advantage. My mum is known to immediately stand out in many interesting ways. I have lost a lot of job opportunities because of my last name. When I say you want to work in a certain firm and they see your surname, they ask to be sure it is her. When I say yes, the employers would go, “Ah! I don’t want wahala o!” It is not as rosy as people think it is. It is not entirely true, too, that we have not experienced goodwill as a result of her name, but when one is in a system, that system determines the energy that comes to one, especially if one is a fighter that people don’t like.
When we started our design company, we didn’t have our full names on our business cards. We just had Chine Ezeks and Chuba Ezeks. This is because having a full name just means we had to deal with much drama which was unnecessary.
Have there been times when people felt they owe you a favour because of what your mother once did for them?
Of course, yes. Our parents are very generous people. So, there have definitely been people who have offered us help in any way. The problem is that Chine and I are people who never really seek help from people. So, it can be a bit difficult because we barely seek help; so there are not many examples where we have had people help us. We have enjoyed the goodwill of her actions hundred per cent.
You are a creative person and you dance. How supportive has your mum been of your career?
You know my mum is an African woman. How many African parents are cool with their kids dancing, especially on camera? She is fine, I guess. We don’t really talk about it. We grew up under our father who is a pastor and we used to see him dance a lot. He dances so well, you can imagine he was the biblical David. Our dancing is a continuation of that energy of his, and I don’t think it is anything out of the ordinary. So, I am not sure he minds us dancing. We have been dancing since we were kids. In fact, a lot of people knew us as just dancers before they knew I was an economist and Chine is a sociologist. The thing is that we don’t dance professionally. We don’t dance for a fee. We just dance for fun. People say they want to pay us to dance.
What are some of your mum’s likes?
She loves Nigeria! That is on top of her list. She loves Jesus. She loves her family and her church, The Redeemed Christian Church of God a lot (laughs). She also loves to wear pearls, and people used to think it was juju because they always see her wearing them. But she just wears them because she likes them and my grandmother too used to wear them a lot when we were younger.
She loves integrity so much. Her dad and mum were like that so it was inevitable that she was going to turn out like that as well. I think we have always been a spiritual family, and that means we always recognise what the right thing to do was. We always strive to be better. Integrity was not one of those words that we threw around in our home. We recognise that integrity is everything. A lack of integrity brings fear, and we don’t want that. My mum being that way is the energy of the family. She always never failed to love people. She doesn’t care about your tribe. She accepts everyone and always makes room.
What is the one thing she dislikes the most?
There is this chapter in one of Governor Nasir El-Rufai’s books Accidental Public Servant devoted to my mother. She certainly dislikes cutting corners and lies.
How does she discipline you when you go wrong?
(Laughs) I am just trying to imagine it right now, and it is so funny. So, now, if, for example, there is something we do and she doesn’t agree with it, she goes to our family WhatsApp group and drops it there and we talk about it as a family and settle. She calls us, “Boo!” But when we were kids, it was the typical way African parents would discipline anyone.
Did she cane you?
(Laughs) She used to cane us and we used to cry, but all of that was done in love.
At the early point of her career at the World Bank, how was it like for you not having her around all the time?
We were in school and we were already used to her not always being around after the five-year hiatus. She was a Special Assistant to President Olusegun Obasanjo and was Minister of Solid Minerals (2005-2006) and Minister of Education (2006-2007), so we knew what to expect. We were in boarding school, and by the time she was going to the World Bank as Vice-President, we were finishing university in the United Kingdom and moved to DC with her. My dad was in Nigeria as a pastor, so when the appointment came, it was him who urged my mum to go on to the UK as he would try to make sure it worked as a family. He came over every summer. We would go to the market and dad would cook plenty food and put them in the freezer for mum, who would get back late from work, so she would have food at home to eat.
How does she show that she misses you now?
Hmmnn… She calls (laughs) and then makes a joke of us ‘forgetting’ our mother.
What is the most beautiful gift she has given you?
I would say it is the mindset she has given us. She really reemphasised the importance of us being ourselves and the strength in us, and that was very helpful. As grown-ups now, I see that some people do not know who they are; we never had to deal with that. We had a core sense of values. For physical gifts, it would be books. She was always willing to love.
She contested for the office of the President of Nigeria on the platform of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria in 2019. How did you feel when you heard she wanted to contest? Did she tell you her plans?
Chine and I weren’t very pleased about that decision not because we didn’t support her running for the presidency; we just felt the timing wasn’t right, and that was because as designers, who pretty much design everything, we were aware of how much time it takes for a design to materialise. If one wants to design a masterpiece, one has to slow down. Jollof rice cannot be ready in five minutes; it would take time. That was our opinion at that time about it. But there were other people who were excited about the prospects of all that. We just felt she needed time to figure out the structure, finances, security and everything else, and we felt there wasn’t enough consideration around those. Apparently, we were right at the end of the day.
She later withdrew around January 2019, citing ‘divergence of values and visions with her political party’. How did you receive this news? Did you see it coming?
We told mum from the beginning of that election that if we saw that she was changing who she was, we would point it to her. We have always been an open family, and questioning our doings is a regular thing. So, around the time when the campaign was taking a toll on her physically, we could see that. We saw that she was not giving enough time, so the quality was not showing. The party, in my opinion, was a compromised one. They had no sense of values or structure or anything that was grounded. For us, we saw they were wishy-washy. We weren’t surprised when we found out that they were basically in existence to collect money. It was evident. It was also clear that they were the kind of party that’ll go for the highest bidder. Mum was running a values-driven campaign and there were no billions of corrupt money. It was clear that even if she had won that presidency, the party she won it on already had corruption smeared on their name. So, it wouldn’t have made any sense; she would have been handicapped. She saw this herself and said no. We had a conversation with her but she was already on the path to deciding to step down. Most people won’t do that. She stepped down knowing that it would come with a lot of criticism and ridicule and stuff like that. She stood for her value, and I am glad nothing shook that. We were happy when she stepped down because we knew there was nothing good that would come out of it.
Your mum had mentioned that her journey into politics was rough. Does she still have plans to go into politics?
She has plans, and they are already being implemented, and that is with her organisation, FixPolitics. Politics in Nigeria is indeed broken and needs to be fixed and that is what she is doing with FixPolitics. Out of that has come the School of Policy, Politics and Governance. As opposed to creating just one leader, she has decided to create an array of leaders, and I think that is her focus for now. The truth is that one person cannot change Nigeria.
If she tells you that she wants to contest for an elected office again, what would be your reaction?
We would support her fully. Who is better than her?
Your mum is nicknamed ‘Madam Due Process’. Did she tell you how she got this name?
This was when she was SA to the president. Mum was the one who designed the due process guidelines. Nigeria was a place where anything goes. So, when she came on board, she had to put structures and systems in place. The contractors then would just come and call any amount, and the government would give them the money. Mum could not understand that. So, she had to put the due process tags in place. Julius Berger suffered the most during our mum’s time. She would slash a lot of all those monies brought in for contract, and she would save the country millions of dollars. That was where the name came from.
How do you react when you hear untrue rumours about your mother?
We mostly ignore them. People know us to be calm when our mum is insulted on Twitter because we know all those things are untrue. Why stress myself and give myself mental anguish over a lie? What does that change? But then, what we are keen on doing these days is dispel a lot of rumours, because we have noticed that when people keep spreading these rumours, they begins to sound like the truth.
What is the worst you have heard so far?
Some people said it was mum who removed History as a subject from the school curriculum when she was Minister of Education. How? How is that even possible? Does it make any sense? Is it possible for a minister to singlehandedly remove a subject from the educational curriculum? So, the whole of Nigeria was watching while she did that and they did nothing? Wow! Can’t you see how stupid that sounds? That is pretty much a lie.
She is also a preacher like your father. Does this interfere with your relationship with her?
We even have a preaching engagement at the teenage section of my dad’s church so that makes us preachers as well (laughs). We are a spiritual family. We are inclined to preaching as well.
Did she tell you about how she met your dad?
They met at a mutual friend’s house. Mum was staying with a friend of hers who lived closer to the University of Lagos campus, where she schooled. She was too focused on her mission, which was school, so dad had to press her hard. It wasn’t love at first sight at all. It didn’t just spark.
They have been married for 34 years now. How does this feel when you look at their union?
I feel love whenever I watch them play. It is like I am watching a black romantic movie, and I can tell it is my story. Those guys have love, and it feels great. It is like we are in a beautiful movie, watching them love each other.
What is the most beautiful thing you have seen them both do together?
They work out together.
What are things you cannot do when your parents are around?
(Laughs) There are not many things that we do when they are not around that we can’t do when they are around. We design, read and sleep when they are around and when they are not. So, that is basically our life.
Your mum is into a lot of advocacy for the girl child, the underprivileged and women. How has her advocacy changed the way you viewed the world?
I think her activism informed our world. Growing up with mum and seeing her deep into advocacy sort of deepened our love for advocacy. We just see ourselves doing advocacy. We now see why advocacy makes a lot of sense. I think at the core of any of such advocacy is love and it extends to not just your children. Mum is a good empathiser and she carries people’s businesses on her head like they are hers.
What is her best food?
I think her best food is dad’s food. She doesn’t eat much of her food. She spends time eating dad’s food.
Is she an early riser?
She wakes up early, goes to the living room and prays before the normal morning devotion. It is like quiet time, but it is not always quiet. She does that every day.
What is the idea behind her dress sense?
African President! That is the energy. Our grandmother was a huge part of that inspiration. Our granny knew how to get the right person to do her clothes for her.
Is there a story behind her low cut?
She got tired of gelling her hair, I think.
What is her best colour?
What do you do if she is upset?
We talk about it. That is the starting point, and we reassure her that everything is going to be okay.