The woman who led the global campaign to free Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram extremists is now running for president, saying she is fighting for “the soul” of Africa’s most populous nation.
Oby Ezekwesili is the most prominent woman to seek the presidency in Nigeria, where politics, as in many African nations, have long been dominated by men.
A former World Bank vice president, Ezekwesili also co-founded Transparency International, one of the world’s leading organizations against corruption — a widespread problem in oil-rich Nigeria.
But she is perhaps most well-known for her vocal work in turning the world’s attention to Boko Haram’s Islamic extremist insurgency and its abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from the community of Chibok in 2014. The #BringBackOurGirls movement, supported by former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and others, put relentless pressure on Nigeria’s government to free the students.
Police broke up some of the campaign’s protests with violence. Finally, after a breakthrough in negotiations — and, reportedly, millions of dollars paid to Boko Haram — scores of the girls were freed last year.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who promised to fight both Boko Haram and corruption when he took office in 2015, met with the freed schoolgirls while his government claimed a victory.
More than 100 of the Chibok schoolgirls have never returned, however, and a similar mass abduction occurred earlier this year in the community of Dapchi. Almost all of those schoolgirls have been released, but the kidnapping exposed Nigeria’s failure to defeat the extremists despite claims that they have been “crushed.”
Now Ezekwesili is challenging the 75-year-old Buhari on his campaign vows, drawing on personal experience on both fronts ahead of the February 2019 election.
A major challenge is the attitude toward female candidates in Nigeria, where many say women are fit only for the kitchen.
Buhari himself once asserted he had “superior knowledge” over his wife and that she belonged to his kitchen, his living room and the “other room.” He made the comments while standing next to an unimpressed-looking German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the world’s most powerful women.
The president, however, lacks the energy of the 55-year-old Ezekwesili as he continues to face questions about his health after extended stays abroad for medical treatment.