Country Director for Action Aid and Convener of Situation Room, Ene Obi, in an unputdownable interview with PLAC BEAM, a monthly magazine of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) explodes on the role of civic groups in restoring democracy to Nigeria, advice for younger women, why the struggle for social justice is her life, and lots more.
What inspired her into civil rights activism:
I would say starting from secondary school. The issues of social justice confronted me very early in life. As a girl child growing in Northern Nigeria, life was a bit difficult. The education of the girl child was a troublesome one. Parents were not giving attention to the education of the girl child. And I was confronted with that.
When you talk about girls in early marriage, I was one of them, you know. So, I know what it feels like that you are married off early, you leave your parents so early in life because you have to move on with your own life when you have not really reached the level of moving on. And so, I know what that is. Quitting secondary school at an early age and having to reconnect again because of being a girl, you know, that was traumatic for me.
But I’m happy that I reconnected. And going into the university I became a member from, my 100 level, of the Youth Solidarity on Southern Africa (YUSSAN) and YUSSAN was during the apartheid era. A movement that tells you about the ills of the society and going through civic education, you are prepared.
Then in my second year I went into student union politics. I didn’t go in because I wanted to go in. When you are somewhere at a time, I think you just wonder why is it that when there is a protest you want to go for protest. The first protest that we had was in my 100 level and I was already married then. I remember my husband saying there was a protest and I know you’ll be there.
So, I was like, oh, this guy, he knows who I am maybe more than I do know myself. And then eventually, I went on to contest for the presidency of the student union of the University of Jos and became the first female president. I was also a member of Women in Nigeria, which is one of the foremost, feminist organizations in Nigeria, in which men and women are members for the advancement of the Nigerian woman. Looking at the lives of people like Gambo Sawaba, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo, those great women, I also read about them. I wanted to be educated. Growing up with my brother, my brother was given preference in education over me. And I felt that was not right because even when we were in school, I used to beat him academically. I would have six over six and he would have zero over six. Those issues of inequality confronted you so early.
On student unionism:
I went into student unionism and I went in fully. In school we were doing researches, little workshops among ourselves, within the cells, the socialist cells. What it does is that you go into Marxism, you study Lenin, Frantz Fanon, people with ideologies and you’re able to educate one another.
I went to jail. I was kidnapped by the then military government in Jos and taken to Abuja by night. Early morning, I was taken to Lagos at gun point just because we challenged the government to tell them what we felt should be done. And all of the things that we predicted, everything that we had talked about, it all came to pass. So, for me, the struggle for social justice is my life.
I started working with the Nigeria Labour Congress when I graduated after service. So, it was the Aluta that was continuing. You know my work life has been standing upright for social justice.
What has changed in the civic space:
From the time we had Women in Nigeria and to now, you’ll find out that a lot of women’s rights organizations have emerged. Between then and now in terms of student unionism, I went for student union presidency without spending any money. Even when I was campaigning, what I did was just to take my biggest enlarged photo to make a photocopy, black and white, and said, “Vote Ene Obi, for president.” Other people did the campaigning, buying cardboard papers and designing it: “Ene for President.”
What has really changed then is that the student unionism of today isn’t what it used to be. The issue of cultism wasn’t there then, because at midnight or maybe between 12 and 1, I could walk round the hostels, you know, without fear of anything. When we were leaving school, we also had scholarships, but the students of these days don’t have any scholarships.
So, there is a lot that the young people are not having again. We also went to school with the children of the poor and the children of the rich. There was a mix, children of presidents or governors. Which governor now will put their children in any of the public schools in Nigeria? You are not hearing that. And so, there is the big divide. What has happened over time is that the inequality is increasing and we’re finding out that there’s more corruption in Nigeria now than it used to be.
A lot of people are going through primitive accumulation and they are leaving some Nigerians behind because they don’t worry about the children of the poor. We need to take advantage of the fact that when you have a young population, it is an engine room for development. There’s a lot of unemployment. That time when you are qualifying as a student, you know that you are going to get a job. Jobs abounded. What is happening today, is that the gap between the poor and the rich is getting wider and we are raising young people without looking at the quality of the young people that we’re raising.
We are raising angry people. Children are hungry. When I was in school, it was zero one zero. What that meant is that if you can get lunch, then you’re safe.
But we have children now who are not getting that one at all. So, what is the kind of investment that the government is making in human capital? It is important that you have to prepare the population for your economy. And so, what you are doing, you are not doing it right. And then, you know, people cannot challenge. I think there’s a lot of silence from the populace, because they are getting tired. They are tired of promises that are being made and people are not responding. We used to hold people responsible because of their manifestos. We’re not holding them responsible. You can imagine the parliament, we struggled for democracy in Nigeria, civil society organizations. We were challenging the military, we still were able to call for the rights of Africans, for the rights of Nigerians, before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and were able to unite ourselves. We were able to go out of the country and come back without being queried.
Role of civic groups in restoring democracy to Nigeria:
The likes of Clement Nwankwo, Olisa Agbakoba and a host of civil society organizations including myself, went to, Kampala, Uganda, to meet with the commission, to ask the military to step down, to get out of politics in Nigeria, to get out of the role of leadership in Nigeria and introduce democracy. Eventually, we achieved it. The people we have in parliament today, many of them do not know the root of how we were able to achieve this. It was at the risk of our lives, but we were able to achieve it. Today they want to start creating laws to restrict non-governmental organizations so that they will not talk. We are part of the citizenship; the office of the citizen is the highest office in the land. And so, the struggle continues.
Right now, in student unionism, we are having a lot of interference from the government. I think there’s a lot of deprivation for the young people. And then you come into the civil society space itself, the government can just get up and ban Twitter and is not explaining to the public and all. And this very Twitter was used by the current President during the campaigns, and that was when it was good. I think our leaders need to learn to engage with the people, because you are representing them. If everyone goes silent, then you don’t have an administration. Then you are not a leader. If they are telling you something, it means they still feel that you can do something positive and that’s why the demands.
Role of Action Aid in combating deepening poverty in Nigeria with 40 percent of the population officially poor:
That statistics, maybe was released in 2020, which may be statistics for 2019. And we didn’t see COVID-19 coming. What that means is that if you go to the field now, you are not only going to talk about 90 million people. You are going to talk about a lot more because many people were plunged into poverty during the COVID-19 lockdown. And there are a lot of people still trying to get up from there. In our own little ways from the international NGO perspective, we try to look for funding to see how we could put some palliatives together, to raise people from poverty. And that is why even during COVID-19, though there was a lockdown, we still were able to get to thousands of households with food. A lot of women are in the informal sector. They depend on their daily earnings to feed their families and all of a sudden, they are sitting at home without food. And so that was most challenging. It was a very challenging year. And the Nigerian government still went on to increase the price of fuel. They also went ahead and increased the electricity tariff. Why would you do such a thing? I think that was such an injustice.
The government of Muhammadu Buhari said it is going to lift about 100 million Nigerians out of poverty by 2030. He’s not going to be in government in 2030. I think our leaders need to tell us what they can do within their own time.
As a governance team leader, I think that was in 2008, I led a team to Brazil to study Bolsa Familia, which was how Brazil got people out of poverty. Millions of Brazilians were taken out of poverty. We came back to Nigeria to talk about social protection because the introduction of different policies in Nigeria, the IMF conditionalities and the Structural Adjustment Programme shredded the dignity of Nigerians. In the Western world they can tell you to implement these policies. They have welfare systems that sustain their people so that they don’t become a burden. We don’t have that kind of a system.
We came back to Nigeria, we tried to approach the government. The government was not able to bring anything forth. But the government of, Muhammadu Buhari was able to introduce a national social investment program. That’s one of the things that I appreciate about his government.
But we thought the national social investment program is not supposed to be a permanent program. It should jump-start people out of poverty. That’s what Brazil did and not normalize it into a system which they have now done here by putting it into a ministry. Once it goes into ministry, you know bureaucracies.
Within the short time that Action Aid monitored the social investment program, we saw a lot of improvement in people’s lives because those who are getting 5,000 a month and 10,000 or 30,000 as graduates for N-Agro and also N-Teach were making use of those money. A lot of people came out of poverty.
So, we will continue to work hard on poverty eradication. We will continue to work with the most vulnerable people, women and children and girls, the young people that have been left behind by this government, because job unemployment is at its height.
You remember when they announced for graduates to even hold their own certificates and go to the stadium, the stadium broke that day because of the volume of young people qualified.
Her election as the Convener of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room:
When you have such a collaborative network and co-operation, there’s a lot that is going on. We are happy as civil society organizations to contribute our quota to Nigeria.
We are not enemies of Nigeria. We are fulfilling our rights, our obligation as citizens of Nigeria by demanding accountability, by demanding for our leaders to be responsible. We are working together and so we put pressure. We are also holding them accountable for the promises that they make. It is just that sometimes it’s so disappointing when promises are made and are not kept. And we have the ongoing debate on electronic transmission, electronic accreditation, which is really disturbing from the kind of leaders that we have.
It’s really troubling, is frustrating as well that in 2021 you are still talking of electronic transmission, when as far back as 1993, INEC was able to calculate the election of June 12, that everybody had the results before the (formal) end of the election.
The constitution of Nigeria is very, very clear. It gave INEC the right to organize and conduct elections as it deems fit as an oversight institution. It is for the parliament to ask INEC what they can do and what they cannot do and not to carry another oversight. I think the issue of lack of transparency is what is the disturbing people.
We recall ourselves as civil society organizations asking that our votes count. We are looking as a civil society Situation Room, we are coming together as an organization to say one vote, one count, and we’re asking citizens to also get engaged. Go and register yourself because your registration is part of your participation in democracy. Your vote is your participation in democracy. Don’t give up on Nigeria and that we’re asking citizens to vote because that’s the surest way of changing government. When you want to be able to change the government, you need to be part of it.
I think we have a lack of accountability. We have a lot of corruption in Nigeria. The (politicians) are not holding themselves accountable. We have a lot of people who are in parliament, who should be before the court or be in prison because they violated the constitution of Nigeria. If you are in government and you loot the treasury, you are violating the constitution of Nigeria, you are misappropriating and it’s a misconduct. And yet, we are not putting sanctions. I think there’s a lot that we can do. Civil society organisations will continue to put pressure on the government to do the right thing.
Expectations from Situation Room under her leadership:
I am hoping to continue to institute transparency and hold ourselves to account, ask everyone to walk the talk and the civil society, as we lead the people, to continue to stand up right for Nigeria.
I ask everyone to stand up for Nigeria. I have been standing upright for Nigeria and will continue to stand up right for Nigeria. And I hope that votes will count. And that’s why we are asking the parliament for electronic accreditation, electronic transmission of votes, so that nobody would truncate the results. What are they afraid of? Nigerians are the easiest people to rule I will say, because if you are doing the right thing for Nigerians, you don’t need to use money for campaigning. Do what you need to do. Use the money that has been given to you by the Nigerian people for Nigerians.
I hope that I will provide the kind of leadership that we all will be proud of at the end of the day. I can say that I will continue to mobilize the civil society to do their best for Nigeria. Life is a stage. I want to look back, like I can look back at so many ancestors of Nigeria, that we are proud of, that I will be one ancestor that stood upright and was able to stand up right for Nigeria. A lot of insanity is on the ground right now. I think it’s insanity because if you take things that don’t belong to you and you are denying others their right, you are not the right Nigerian.
We need the dignity of the Nigerians to come back. We need to reclaim Nigeria. This is one of the greatest countries of the world, and I believe in Nigeria and I ask that people not give up hope in Nigeria. I also ask the leadership of Nigeria to recall themselves to order. A lot of them are not doing the right things. This is the time to get it right.
Her most memorable experience as a civil rights activist:
Very memorable for me was when we called for an extraordinary session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Kampala, that was 1995. Even as a young woman, following that through, was the fact that we could challenge the government and take them to court and we come back and the government, of course, they knew. The military respected the civil society.
The then Speaker, Honourable (Dimeji) Bankole, asked to organize a dialogue with civil society. In that session, it was held in the House of Representatives, about 109 members of the House of Representatives attended. The Speaker was very happy to have a dialogue with the civil society. It was a town hall meeting. And I saw that meeting was funded by the House of Representatives, not sponsored by anybody. I was very, very proud as a Nigerian. Very memorable.
There are lots of memorable times. I took up a job outside the country and I was going for a job interview. I appeared in the morning about 7 a.m. and they had said, oh, come at 1 p.m. and you will have your visa. I came at 1 p.m. and they said, sorry, you have to see the Consular General. I went to see the Consular General. Instead of getting my passport, the Consular General said, I am sorry, because you are a Nigerian, we cannot give you your visa. As a Nigerian, you have to go through consultation for 10 days and that is with European Union. The thing you are going for has started already. I shed tears freely. But I told them that I’m happy to be a Nigerian. I don’t want to come from another country. I was very very proud to be a Nigerian.
Advice for younger women working in non-profits:
Younger women develop your skills. I was picking one degree after the other and the reason was because of the challenges that I had before me. The first time I was asked to head international unit at the Nigeria Labour Congress, I knew that I did not know so much of foreign policy. And so, I went to the University of Lagos and got a master’s in international law and diplomacy. That enhanced the work that I was doing.
I think all of it is about you not giving up on yourself. I was very determined, you know, as a young girl, and that’s why I’m where I am today. That you had a baby, or you had babies, is not enough for you to stop. Determination is the key. The resilience of a woman is unimaginable. You can do so much more. Having children, having to take care of the home and still be able to move forward is very very important. One of the lessons that I also learned is that there are lots of women there who are able to lift other women up. I got the benefits from some women both within and outside Nigeria, that really helped me in terms of mentorship, in terms of giving me the love that I needed.
I have multiplied that. Any young woman on my path will enjoy mentorship, because we all have to look back and say, who is going to replace me? How do you mentor more Nigerians? How do you mentor more young people to have hope and not to give up on themselves? Right now, we have a lot of girls who don’t have jobs, just like many boys don’t have jobs. How do they live their lives? A lot of dependency that is going on, a lot of distortion going on.
I’m asking them not to give up, not to give up on themselves, continue to improve yourself. If you also have a comfortable job, it’s not enough for you to just stop there and say okay, I had a master’s or I had something. Even if you have a PhD, you may not have the relevant skills. You need to search for that skill. So, for us in Action Aid, it is a continuous improvement of skills. Every staff, during one year, you can’t sit down and say you didn’t do something to improve yourself.
And so, it’s a continuous improvement for me, and I hope that they don’t give up on themselves, keep up the determination and that you are not who you are just because you are either married or because you are one thing or the other, you are rich or poor, a woman or a girl is a human being. We need to respect people for being human, because we disrespect a lot of people either because they are single or because they’re a single mother or because they are divorced or because they are widows and so on and so forth.
A woman is a human being and must be recognized for being a human being. And we all as girls or women should respect one another as human beings first and foremost, because you don’t know the story of the person who divorced. You don’t know the story of someone suffering violence.