On Wednesday 08 October, I will be participating in a panel discussing Urban Violence in Africa. This is an event organised by the Africa Research Institute, a think-tank in London.
Specifically, I will be speaking on political cohesion and the capacity of the Nigerian state to contain Boko Haram.
Attendance to the event is free, but registration is required. Here are the details, with more information is available on the ARI website:
One of the Founders, and a Coordinator of the #BringBackOurGirls movement in Nigeria, Hadiza Bala Usman, spoke at the United Nations Headquarters in New York about the movement and the Chibok girls. She was guest speaker at the closing ceremony of the UN DPI Conference on 29 August 2019. Here is the video of her speech:
On 24 September 2014, I spoke to the BBC World Service’s Focus on Africa TV Programme on gender equality and women empowerment in Africa. Here is a short video of the segment. A little point of correction – I am a ‘Women’s Rights Advocate‘ rather than a ‘Women’s Rights Activist‘.
Maryam Shehu Mohammed is one of the 500 young leaders selected from around Africa, to participate in President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative in the U.S. She recently returned to Nigeria after the completion of her program. Maryam wrote about her experience through the entire process, from application to completion of the fellowship. Her piece was originally posted in Synopsis, a Facebook group we both belong to. I have reproduced it below, with her permission, and that of the group’s admin. If you have been following this blog, you will know that I am an unabashed supporter of YALI, warts and all. Yet, Maryam’s reflective article is sincere, constructively critical in some respects but overall, very appreciative of the experience and the lessons learnt. It is a long read, but should be worth your time.
MY YALI EXPERIENCE
It began here, on this page. Zainab Usman, bless her, posted a link on the Young African Leaders Initiative. I saw it, applied and shared with friends and colleagues. 1,500 of the 15,000 Nigerian applicants were called for the interview. 43 qualified. In total, there were 50,000 applicants but only 500 qualified. The US Embassy calls us the top 1%.
The Young African Leadership Initiative is the flagship program of the Obama Administration to hone leadership skills of African youth in their capacities either in Public Management, Civic Leadership or as Entrepreneurs. As part of the requirements of the application process, I wrote three essays on “An initiative I had and how I garnered support for it;” on “A problem in my Community, Country or Workplace” and how I wanted to resolve it and an essay on what “skills I had in addition to those I needed to make the required change.”
I was a bit conflicted regarding the track to choose because I am a Public Servant but have a strong leaning towards civic leadership. Public Management won, that was my first choice and that is what I got. The 500 Fellows were divided into batches of 25 to be hosted by 20 different Universities spread all over the states, each university specialising in one of the three tracks. The US Government would cover all expenses including feeding, accommodation, transportation, phone bills, we even had a mini health insurance in case of emergencies in addition to weekly stipend.
Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland was to be my host University for the six week academic session. Prior to my arrival, I’d received tons of emails and reading materials from the school to prepare for the classes. I had also received emails requiring that some vaccines must be taken before I was admitted to stay in their hostels and asking me to bring my sheets as the school would not provide same. The questions in the medical history form were so personal, (questions bordering on sexual behaviour, preference of partners…) I didn’t even know how to fill it. Reading materials flooded my inbox too.
I didn’t feel welcome at Morgan State, nor did the other 24 Fellows as MSU was challenged even before we arrived because even the welcome email was cold. They retracted their demand for African sheets but insisted on the vaccines. I didn’t take the vaccines, decided that if push came to shove, I’d take them there. Most of the Fellows that took the vaccinations reacted and were sick for a few days after our arrival. Upon my arrival, they didn’t ask, I didn’t say. Before I left Nigeria, my colleagues were calling my school “Morgan Military School”. Their schools wanted to know their interests, asking them to come with party clothes and swim gear; it was to be a fun experience for them. I arrived Baltimore with a sense of foreboding. Farouk (a Nigerian also) and I were received at the airport. We arrived to decent accommodation but I wasn’t provided with sheets! The issue of logistics was something that was sorted out within the course of our stay.
The food! We ate at the school canteen for the first two weeks, suffice it to say that the African appetite no resemble d oyinbo appetite at all. It was grease, fat and fries which we found too bland for our taste buds. Some of the canteen staff had a bad attitude, such that YALI Fellows would hardly ever say “no” to each other but would imitate a certain canteen staff who would say “unh unh baby”, moving her pointing finger from side to side and shaking her head from side to side. In my language, that would simply have been a “no ma’am.” We were told this about Bo’morians, “we rude, but we nice…” How rude can be nice, I’m yet to figure out.
The Course Content we received before we arrived was packed full. Classes on infrastructure, transportation, leadership, professional writing for public officials (my favourite), theory, practice and ethics in public administration, policy analysis, conference calls with US officers, interactive sessions with key officers from a Congressman (Elijah Cummings, I will never forget how powerful a speaker he was), the Liberian Foreign Minister, to the Mayor’s, to the Governor’s office to the US State Department. There were visits to the World Trade Center, the World Bank, National Security Agency, etc.
Within the first one week at MSU, we realised that there was a disconnect between the school and the program itself. The Academic Director ended up doing everything with little or no support from the school. While some of the facilitators came prepared to meet professionals to help in the direction of capacity building, others just assumed they were meeting some random students from Africa. The latter group always got a reality check after spending time with us.
I remember the first video we watched, it was a one hour video on Uganda’s President Museveni and Uganda’s animals (like an hour of watching National Geographic). Andrew (South Africa) walked out. I drew in my book, many others were on their phones. No one was interested. Anselm (Burkina Faso) captured the mood of the class when he told the facilitator that “I am an African, coming from Africa, I know lions and zebras and I know Museveni, I did not come to America to watch this kind of thing”. It gave the facilitator the chance to reorganise himself and re-evaluate the kind of content we expected him to provide for the class.
The next facilitator had a chance to read our diverse profiles, had meetings with us to discuss his content and our expectations. It gave a whole new insight to him and us. The second week was great! The sessions were deeply insightful, the sessions interactive, group work challenging and we felt the shift to a better ground. All this while the schools involvement had started manifesting, there were changes in the feeding arrangement for the better, IREX (Samantha and co) and the State Department (Elizabeth, Aimee and co) were always on ground to ensure that we got the best of our YALI experience and I had been given sheets.
The other weeks passed in a haze, (not without a drama or two) the highlights of my week always being the writing classes, but the best were the last two weeks where we were treated like the guests of the POTUS (President of the United States), thanks to Qimmah (MSU) and Aimee (IREX). Our diverse backgrounds were considered in scheduling classes/meetings, visits to hospitals (Johns Hopkins, Maryland Trauma Center etc) with a view to making meaningful connections.
Most of the people we met were more than willing to help out with information and direction. MSU became more involved. We visited the White House, the MSU President hosted us to dinner at his house, the Vice President African Affairs took everyone out to dinner, boat cruises, shopping sprees, tourism, fun… The highlight was the send-forth banquet – School choir (world renowned), excellent food, well attended and 5 certificates (from MSU, the Governor, Legislative Black caucus, two Councilmen) were given. It was a preamble to the certificate that crowned it all, one signed by the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
I learnt that the American style networking could mean meeting people in a semi dark crowded room with everyone holding a glass of wine. I was no good at it. Especially since the first thing I say when a hand is extended towards me for a handshake is “I’m sorry, I don’t shake hands”. There’s always that profuse apology which makes the whole situation awkward and then… there goes the chance. Sometimes, I’d hold my ground and continue with the conversation, other times… I learnt the 30 second elevator speech and it helped, some.
Imagine being in a class with 24 super intelligent folks from 18 countries within Africa, all within the same age bracket (25-35) and all super achievers! There were doctors, lawyers, financial experts, economists, PPP experts, etc. There was harmony and there was chaos. There were really good times and there were times when the tension was thick. But above all, there was a mutual quest for learning, a collective demand for accountability especially regarding MSU living up to its expectations as a host University and a feeling of togetherness. We had fun, we were encouraged to have one to one discussions with each other which always made it easy to understand one another. We supported one another, teased each other, laughed and generally bonded as brothers and sisters. I miss them.
Sometimes, one needs to relate with a few others to be able to assess oneself. I’ve been described as “stern, serious, strict…” and have been advised to “remain the same, let loose a bit, let my hair down, suffer fools, speak up a little bit more, utilise the power I have in words and respect….”
The Presidential Summit in DC was the last leg of the Fellowship. It was simply amazing! All 500 Fellows were under one roof and like the royalty they treated us, we were treated to visits by Susan Rice, John Kerry, Michelle Obama and President Barrack Obama himself. I was in awe. And they kept telling us how much in awe of us they were. Fellows got presidential handshakes and hugs from the First Lady.
I’ve learnt so much from my YALI experience.
I learnt that as much as I think there is poverty in Nigeria, there is also poverty in America, there is stark poverty in Baltimore. Abandoned homes in thousands, and thousands of homeless people. Crime – it was not the safest of places as I’d been warned over and over again to always go out with someone and not to stay out too late. My veil/hijab always caused a lot of unwanted attention especially when I was on public transportation. The difference between them and us is that they have a system that is working. They have reliable statistics, they have the basic infrastructure and we don’t.
If we are disorganised, my first week at MSU told me that Americans can also be. One can’t prepare to host 25 young people without thinking of the basic things like towels, sheets, toilet paper, etc. I realised that what we went through in that first week was as a result of their problems as an institution. But towards the end, they rose up to the challenge and righted their wrongs. They did not want us to leave with a bad impression of the institution.
There were six Muslims in the class although not all of us fasted during Ramadan, (fasting lasted 18 hours each day). There was utmost consideration for us especially when we wanted to pray- if we were out for a function, there would always be take away packs for us, etc. I learnt that they are very tolerant, accommodating and respectful of differences. I met people who had never been as close to a Muslim woman as they were to me. It was a delight to answer their questions and explain how we saw things.
I learnt the importance of not having to be the one in the spotlight – a leader doesn’t always have to shine. Sometimes, you have more impact when you facilitate the change. Leadership is also not about how many times one is heard, but the impact one makes when one chooses to speak.
Our group at MSU taught me so much. I learnt a lot from studying, listening and observing. The group dynamics, the politicking, the tension when it came to choosing one speaker from the lot and the fact that getting one paper written between the 25 of us was to say the least, chaotic.
There was a lot of scepticism about YALI. Someone said to me, “when you go, they will indoctrinate you into one a fraternity”. I’m yet to be indoctrinated. I came back as someone that has learnt a lot from my fellow Fellows and from MSU. I got the exposure that I would never have gotten on my own, except on a platform like that. It was reemphasised that one must assert himself or herself to get some things done or changed. And one of the best lessons of all is in not accepting mediocrity, not in myself and not in what I am involved in.
Finally, I realised that it’s our complacency as a people, the fact that even when it’s not right, as long as it suits our purpose, we accept it that makes us remain in this quagmire that has become our nation. If only we could be a little more honest, a little more patriotic, a little more ashamed of stealing public funds and a little less selfish, if we can set aside our massive egos and materialism, maybe we might be better for it. No one will change us but us, no one will make our houses homes but us, not America and not President Obama. It’s entirely up to us.
Maryam Shehu Mohammed
Mandela Washington Fellow
The Royal Institute of International Affairs, aka Chatham House, recently released a report on northern Nigeria titled: “Who Speaks for the North? Politics and Influence in Northern Nigeria”. The report is an outcome of a research project by research fellow Dr. Leena Koni Hoffman, under the think tank’s Africa programme.
It was launched both in London, and very recently, in Abuja, Nigeria.
You can download the full report (in PDF) from the Chatham House website here.
Find below, the executive summary:
Northern Nigeria is witnessing an upheaval in its political and social space. In 1999, important shifts in presidential politics led to the rebalancing of power relations between the north of Nigeria and the more economically productive south. This move triggered the unprecedented recalibration of influence held by northern leaders over the federal government. Goodluck Jonathan’s elevation to the presidency in 2010 upended the deal made by the political brokers of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to rotate power between the north and south, from which the party had derived much of its unity.
The decisive role played by the power shift issue in 15 years of democracy raises important questions about the long-term effectiveness of the elite pacts and regional rotation arrangements that have been used to manage the balance of power between the north and the south. It also highlights the fragility and uncertainties of Nigeria’s democratic transition, as well as the unresolved fault lines in national unity as the country commemorates the centenary of the unification of the north and south in 2014.
The significance and complexity of challenges in northern Nigeria make determining priorities for the region extremely difficult. Yet overcoming the north’s considerable problems relating to development and security are crucial to the realization of a shared and prosperous future for all of Nigeria. Strong economic growth in the past decade has provided the government with the opportunities and resources to pursue thoughtful strategies that can address the development deficit between the north and the more prosperous south as well as creating greater political inclusion.
When Sharia law was adopted in 12 northern Nigerian states many in the Muslim community envisioned this as a panacea for the complex and messy problems of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and political corruption. However, after the expansion of Sharia the unchanged circumstances of many who had celebrated its signing created even more anger and disaffection towards the state governments that had adopted the new laws. The disappointment with the implementation of Sharia opened up the north’s social space for extreme religious ideologies to be seeded and for older strands of radical Islamism to be revived.
Growing distrust in political leadership, a lack of government presence and chronic underdevelopment created the perfect context for radical groups to take root and flourish in northern Nigeria. Initially a fringe movement that believed in the strict observation of Sharia and providing social and financial help to poor Muslim families, Boko Haram was transformed into the most devastating threat to the northeast’s stability during the latter years of the last decade. The connectedness of today’s globalized world has allowed local extremists like Boko Haram to graft themselves into universalized debates on Muslim resistance to domination through Jihad in order to puff up their otherwise local profile.
Northern Nigeria’s political leaders, particularly the state governors, must move swiftly and strategically to deliver on repeated promises to invest in infrastructure, education and other social services, as well as encourage new sources of income for the region. Ultimately, the economy, security, stability and health of the north and south are intricately intertwined, and persistent violence and grinding poverty in any part of the country threaten the long-term progress of the whole.
The Appendix section maps out powerful individuals from the North, their personalities and their degree of influence. These include, former head of state General Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Namadi Sambo, Senate President David Mark, former Central Bank Governor Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and a host of others.
At just 20 pages, the publication is an easy read. Enjoy!
This is an op-ed I wrote for Aljazeera English, on the recent U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
In 2013, I was in the audience at the Oxford Union for a taping of Al Jazeera’s Head to Head featuring Thomas Friedman and his thoughts on US Foreign Policy. The show’s focus was entirely focused on the Middle East, and the United States’ strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. During the Q&A session, I sought to highlight that Africa was not mentioned once over the course of the show. The fact that Africa was left out of the discussion is a clear illustration of the US’ tepid strategy towards the continent in recent times.
Realising that its position in the fortunes of Africa and its rapid economic growth is increasingly marginal, the US government has recently sought to revamp its Africa strategy. A number of initiatives have been launched to that effect, including the US-Africa Leaders Summit.
This renewed engagement is a reflection not only of fears over the influence of other rising powers, but also of changing narratives about Africa and the continent’s deeper integration into the global economy.
Africa in the spotlight
Even before the Summit commenced in Washington, there was a real risk that it would be characterised by outdated assumptions. The perception of Africa as being a monolithic entity and not a continent of 54 nation-states with divergent growth drivers, political systems, and policy priorities all held strong during the summit.
The fact that there were no direct bilateral discussions with President Barack Obama created the impression that Washington was summoning leaders of sovereign states to be collectively lectured and chided. This was in sharp contrast with China’s Fifth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2012 which featured 15 minute one-on-one talks between the Chinese prime minister and several African leaders. Vice-President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s gaffe in referring to the “nation of Africa” further reinforced the initial scepticism held by many observers.
These timeworn assumptions notwithstanding, it is a welcome change to have Africa in the spotlight of US and international media for bullish reasons rather than for famine, conflict, military coups, IMF bailouts, and wildlife poaching. President Obama’s emphasis on “Africa’s rise”, “business opportunities”, and “equal partners” as opposed to the paternalistic donor-recipient mindset of decades past is indicative of Washington’s eagerness to jump on the bandwagon of those shifting their perceptions of Africa, and to regard the continent as a business partner and a land of opportunity.
Indeed deals such as Blackstone Group’s $5bn partnership with Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, for energy projects, and other trade and investment partnerships worth $33bn concluded at the three-day summit, reflect such changing perceptions.
Africa is no longer the “heart of darkness” on the margins of the global economy, but increasingly at the heart of it, and so courted by major economic players.
The Summit facilitated not only business deals, but also discussions and action on development. A commitment was made of $12bn towards Power Africa – an initiative targeted at addressing electricity shortages, a core element of the continent’s infrastructure deficit and a major bottleneck to productivity. USAID and others committed $38m to establish leadership centres for young Africans – a demographic set to hit 400 million by 2045.
These and several other outcomes of the US-Africa Leaders Summit barely scratch the surface of the continent’s developmental needs. The $12bn commitment to Power Africa covers five countries over a five-year period – a drop in the ocean of the continent’s infrastructure needs, estimated to be $93bn annually over the next 10 years.
Besides, rather than funding multiple power projects, the US could have focused resources on a single transformative project, such as the Grand Inga Dam. At a cost of $80bn, the hydroelectric project has the potential to produce roughly 40,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than half of Africa.
In terms of matching the scale and depth of Africa’s ties with other regions around the world, the Summit pales in comparison. China, Japan, and the European Union have made significant headway in strengthening their engagements with Africa with several rounds of high-level economic and political talks. India, Brazil, Turkey, and other emerging powers have followed suit with strong Africa strategies.
But the US can get ahead by declaring its commitment to long-overdue reform of global governance institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations Security Council to make them more representative of the “Global South”.
Although the US is far behind other world players in engaging with Africa, it is still significant that it is attempting to strengthen and deepen its ties with the continent; it is one indicator of the Africa’s relevance to the functioning of the global economy.
In what appears to be a 21st century rendition of the Scramble for Africa, different parts of the world eagerly court the attention of African countries, for their natural resources, their middle class’s growing appetite for consumer goods, and high rates of returns on investment.
Today’s African political leaders, unlike those of the late 19th century, are sovereign leaders of independent territories. They have a wide latitude to use leverage to attain the most beneficial partnerships and shop for the best deals from the wide array of options available. African businessmen and women are ambitious, informed, and assertive. Ordinary Africans are increasingly more educated with greater capacity for socio-economic vigilance thanks to social media tools.
Finally, the US attempt to shift the paradigm in how it engages with Africa is indicative of the continent’s steady integration into the global economy. What will largely distinguish the countries that will benefit from this integration from those that will not will be the choices their leaders make in the realms of politics, business, and civil society.
Recently, the leaders of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – made a bold step in setting up an international development bank. They have agreed to raise $100 billion to that effect, with plans for the headquarters of the financial institution to be based in Shanghai, China.
This decision came after years, of intense negotiations.
According to The Guardian:
The BRICS were prompted to seek coordinated action after an exodus of capital from emerging markets last year, triggered by the scaling back of US monetary stimulus. The new bank reflects the growing influence of the BRICS, which account for almost half the world’s population and about a fifth of global economic output.
The bank will begin with a subscribed capital of $50bn divided equally between its five founders, with an initial total of $10bn in cash put in over seven years and $40bn in guarantees. It is scheduled to start lending in 2016 and be open to membership by other countries, but the capital share of the BRICS cannot drop below 55%.
This significant development in international economic relations has been eclipsed from global headlines by the latest eruption of the tragic Israel-Palestinian conflict and the shooting down of yet another plane of the Malaysian Airlines fleet.
Discussing the new BRICS Bank with friends online and offline raised a number of pertinent issues:
First, can China’s dominance provide the decisive leadership needed to get the BRICS Bank up on its feet, as the US did for the IMF, the World Bank and the UN in the immediate post-War era in 1945? Or will its dominance be too overbearing, and actually derail the Bank even before it takes off fully?
Second, will the China-dominated BRICS bank vis-à-vis a US-dominated Bretton Woods system reincarnate another bipolar world order? Do we even want bipolarism dominated by two competing economic and political systems, the Washington Consensus and the Beijing Consensus?
Third, will the BRICS countries successfully manage their numerous differences (and there are many – language, size, spatial differences, financial clout and variations in political systems to mention a few).
Fourth, will the establishment of the BRICS Bank provide more diverse sources of development finance for the global South? Will it further enhance South-South cooperation? Is the new development bank capable of serving as an effective competition to the US-dominated Bretton Woods institutions, to at the very least, inspire needed reforms in these multilateral institutions to make them more inclusive and democratic (in voting rights, decision-making and staff composition)? Do we want competition, diversity, or both?
Fifth, where does (sub-Saharan) Africa fit into all this? What is the African Union’s position on this new institution?
And finally, why is Nigeria not included? Why isn’t it a BRINCS or an N-BRICS Bank? After all, with a GDP of $509 billion Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, and is over $100 billion richer than South Africa’s $372 billion economy. Although the BRICS acronym was coined years before Nigeria transitioned to Africa’s largest economy in May 2014. One still can’t help wondering whether this is the price Nigeria has to pay for its severe domestic political and security challenges.
What are your thoughts?