The co-founder of a group to raise awareness about schoolgirls kidnapped by jihadists said she aims to become Nigeria's first woman president by mobilizing first-time voters discouraged from going to the polls by the long domination of two main parties.
Obiageli Ezekwesili, 55, also a former Cabinet minister and senior World Bank official, announced on Sunday she would run as the candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) in the February 2019 vote to decide who runs Africa's most populous country and top energy producer.
"I am now fed up, like most Nigerians are, with the status quo and so we want to disrupt our political landscape," Ezekwesili said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday.
She and other candidates will line up against President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who is seeking a second term, and former vice president Atiku Abubakar who is running for the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP).
Ezekwesili said the two main parties — the APC and the PDP, which have held power since the advent of civilian rule in 1999 — were all but indistinguishable. She called them "Siamese twins" that had done little to tackle endemic graft and poor governance.
Political defections are common in Nigeria, where identity and patronage largely take precedence over ideology and specific policies.
She said her campaign would seek to attract people who had not previously participated in elections — a group she said amounted to a majority of eligible voters.
Independent Electoral Commission figures show that just 43 percent of people who registered to vote at the last election in 2015 actually went to the polls. Ezekwesili estimated that some 72 percent of eligible voters, including people who did not register, failed to turn out at the ballot box.
"They simply decided that the candidatures of the two parties they were being asked to vote for were not appealing to them, so they just elected to stay home," she said.
"That base of 72 percent of people who should turn things around in the country, they are our target. We are going to activate that base," said Ezekwesili.
But her ability to challenge the main contenders seems questionable given their larger spending firepower and access to key patronage networks in the nation of 190 million people.
Policy proposals Ezekwesili hopes will lure more first-time voters to her candidacy include reforms of the state-owned oil company NNPC, which has been beset by decades of mismanagement and is crucial to the OPEC member's economic fortunes. Oil sales account for two-thirds of Nigerian state revenue.
Ezekwesili also aims to enable the private sector to create more jobs and focus on developing skills in Nigeria's workforce.
She served in a PDP government between 2000 and 2007, first as minerals minister and later education minister.
One of the founders of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Ezekwesili also co-founded the Bring Back Our Girls campaign to promote efforts to free about 270 schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.