Happy International Women’s Day 2015

Prominent women's rights activist, Mrs. Maryam Uwais's thought-provoking T-shirt. 1st May 2014
Prominent women’s rights activist and human rights lawyer, Mrs. Maryam Uwais’s thought-provoking T-shirt at the BringBackOurGirls Sitout Abuja, Nigeria. 1st May 2014. Photo Credit: Personal Collection

The International Women’s Day 2015 was officially on Sunday 08 March 2015. This is a celebration of women, but also a reminder of the need to attain gender equality, equity, parity, equilibrium or at least, some form of justice, fairness and fairplay. The Aljazeera Magazine has a special issue on “What Women Want“.

I shared a few thoughts on twitter mainly on achievements made so far in Read More »

Maryam Writes About Her Experience at Obama’s Fellowship for Young African Leaders

Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Nigeria

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.

Some of the Nigerian YALI Fellows right before their departure to the U.S.

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

Discussing Women in Government and Politics in Africa

I recently wrote a brief piece for Democracy in Africa,  reflecting on the discussions during the first Women in Government and Politics Conference for Africa, held at Central Hall in Westminster, London. The event was put together by the Winihin Jemide Series and I facilitated one of the panel discussions. Find the excerpt below:

Some of the delegates at the Women in Politics and Government Conference. Photo Courtesy: Winihin Jemide Series

African women have made remarkable strides in positions of leadership and authority across the continent. This has been especially evident with the wave of democratization over the past two decades. Women now occupy presidential seats in Liberia and Malawi, foreign ministry portfolios in Rwanda, Kenya and Somalia, the leadership of the African Union and many other positions hitherto regarded as the exclusive domain of men. It is in order to take stock of the progress made so far, the existing challenges remaining and how to overcome them that the first Women in Government and Politics Conference for Africa, held at Central Hall in Westminster, London was put together by the Winihin Jemide Series

Moderating one of the discussion panels. Photo courtesy: Winihin Jemide Series
Moderating one of the discussion panels. Photo courtesy: Winihin Jemide Series

The two-day conference involved female delegates in influential leadership positions such as parliamentarians, cabinet members, academics and activists. They liberally shared their views, their experiences on how they were able to surmount obstacles to get to where they are today, and their suggestions on moving forward. The Nigerian Minister for Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke while delivering a keynote address, noted that 11 African countries have reached the 30% benchmark of female representation in leadership positions through quotas and parity schemes. In fact, countries like Nigeria had surpassed this average, she reminded the audience. The Minister however reiterated the need for women to be proactive in supporting one another….

Read the rest of the article on the Democracy in Africa website.

Malala Yousafzai’s Phenomenal Speech at the UN

This is a video of the courageous Malala Yousafzai delivering a phenomenal speech at the UN Youth Assembly earlier today. Malala is the teenage education activist in Pakistan who recently survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban.

I was moved by her strength and passion, especially when I recalled how dozens of innocent school children were viciously murdered by terrorists in northern Nigeria recently.

For added symbolic effect, Malala delivered the powerful speech whilst wearing a shawl that belonged to the late Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Some excerpts:

The Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead, they shot my friends too… They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died, strength, power and courage was born

…and…

“Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism”

Women, Innovation, Enterprise Network Inaugural Syposium in Africa

The Women, Innovation, Enterprise (WIE) Network is holding its first ever African symposium in Cape Town, South Africa, from 5th to 7th May 2013. It is set to feature headline speakers such as President Joyce Banda, Graca Machel, Patricia Amira, Saran Kaba Jones, Swaady Martin-Leke and Toyin Saraki. The inaugural WIE Africa is organised in partnership with Mrs. Toyin Saraki’s Wellbeing Foundation Africa .

WIE Africa EVite-March

“Over the years, the WIE Symposium has attracted an incredible lineup of thought leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Jill Biden, Arianna Huffington, Melinda Gates, Sarah Brown, Queen Rania, Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenberg, Aerin Lauder, Jennifer Buffett, Ted Turner, Lauren Bush, Christy Turlington, Iman, Rosario Dawson and Nora Ephron.”

The WIE inaugural conference in Africa features inspiration and ideas from the most powerful women in business, politics, media, fashion, philanthropy and entertainment on the continent and beyond. The first symposium took place in New York and a follow-up in London. With Africa experiencing some of the fastest economic growth in the world, WIE aims to contribute to changing the perceptions of the continent by highlighting the trailblazers taking a central role in shaping the Africa of tomorrow.

For tickets and further event details, visit www.wienetwork.org

To reserve a table at the gala dinner contact: aequitas@wienetwork.org

Follow the @WIENetwork Twitter handle for live updates

TEDxEuston 2012: Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Ndidi Nwuneli, Director, Sahel Capital Partners. Founder of LEAP Africa and NIA
Ndidi Nwuneli, Director, Sahel Capital Partners. Founder of LEAP Africa and NIA

As I walked into the Mermaid Conference Centre on that chilly December morning, I expected the pervasive theme that has recently featured in other Africa-focused talk shoppes: of the vast potentials within Africa, of Africa Rising, and I wasn’t off the mark. As the day wore on, there was an unmistakable Afro-Optimism vibe in the air. In this case though, the people who are actually making a difference in Africa, those who have distinguished themselves as achievers, professionals, humanitarians, philanthropists, writers and entrepreneurs told their amazing stories themselves – of how they defied the odds and became successful (however so defined). This was at TEDxEuston 2012, and these are people who are challenging conventional wisdom.

TEDxEuston was an all-day event . We dined with most of the speakers, we heard their riveting and inspiring stories, we were enthused by their witty anecdotes, we briefly shared their pain as they recounted the problems they encountered and celebrated their perseverance which resulted in what they are today. We were all left with a lasting impression — that hope lies in Africa, that the best of Africa is yet to come and that being a change agent requires a thinking-out-of-the-box mindset to defy known norms.

As with all TED talks, speakers were from all walks of life – public service, academia, the NGO sector, the business world, film and the arts – their stories were as diverse as they were intriguing. Some speakers acknowledged their life of privilege yet they used this privilege as an opportunity for effecting change. Mrs. Amina J. Mohammed, the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on post-2015 Development Planning is one of such. She served 3 Nigerian presidents as Senior Special Adviser on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), successfully managing a fund of $1billion per annum which led to giant strides in combating maternal mortality in Nigeria. She left the Nigerian government with a blemish-free reputation, which you have to agree is a rare feat in Nigeria. Similarly, Queen Sylvia Nagginda Luswata of the Baganda kingdom is using her privileged position for philanthropic activity, empowering women and youth in many ways, and is a firm advocate of preserving and ensuring traditional institutions play a role in 21st century African development.

At the other extreme are those from very very humble beginnings. Take Trevor Ncube, the Chairman of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) who had a rural upbringing and severe learning difficulties as a child, was abused by his teachers, lost his job at some point, was imprisoned severally yet, he’s one of southern Africa’s most powerful media moguls today. Or Jason Njoku, the CEO of iROKOTV who as at 2010, in his own words, was “…broke… a failure and lived on my mother’s couch…” He persevered, set up Iroko partners, his 11th company, and now at age 31, Njoku is an Internet multimillionaire listed by Forbes as one of Africa’s 10 Young Millionaires to Watch.

Although I was fascinated by every story and inspired by every speaker, I had some favourites. The best speaker in my opinion in terms of delivery of a crucial message — on the role of young people in the post MDGs — in a witty and engaging manner is Mrs. Amina Mohammed. The most inspiring talk was Jason Njoku’s, who had hit rock bottom but like a phoenix, was able to turn his bad fortune around, into thriving entrepreneurial success.

In terms of content, I loved Chimamanda Adichie’s feminist talk which tackled the contentious challenge faced by ambitious women across the continent. The speaker I found most fascinating is Queen Sylvia whose sincerity was unmistakable. She made an indelible impression because rather than being just another beautiful royal socialite, she chose to achieve bigger and greater things, by helping others. I was also moved by Trevor Ncube’s talk and really appreciated the thrust of Professor Alcinda Honwana’s, on African youth and social change.

The biggest take away message from these divergent stories is that as an individual you shouldn’t let your circumstances hinder you – neither should your privilege background be a burden, nor should your humble beginnings be an obstacle. A disability need not be a disadvantage either, as blind singer/songwriter Cobhams Asuquo proves. In fact, Asuquo proclaims that “…sight is a distraction… When you’re heading somewhere, you (might) need to be blind to be focused“. Clearly, you have to get your hands dirty, put in a bit of sweat and tears and do the time before you reap those ripe harvests of success – whether this means fame or effecting change in your environment, helping others or becoming a rich entrepreneur or whether success simply means becoming a responsible and productive member of society.

Along the way, you will fail once, several times or many times, but that shouldn’t deter or derail you, rather, you should learn from the disappointments and move on. Failure is oft times a stern teacher, imparting valuable lessons to prepare you for the enormous responsibility that comes with success, because success, whatever its variant, is a huge responsibility.

Overall for Africa, it is really time for a paradigm shift. Those who can change Africa for the better are not only aid agencies or governments, but ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These are people who, dissatisfied with the state of things decide to do something about it. As several of the speakers noted, it is okay to be angry. However, being angry shouldn’t make you permanently cynical, it should motivate you to address those issues that make you angry.

Finally, as is typical with TED talks, they inspire you, and leave you hungry… hungry to make your own change.

Another Milestone For African Women

 

Fauzia Yusuf Haji, Somalia’s soon-to-be First Female Foreign Minister

Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan is set to become Somalia’s first female Foreign Minister in newly elected Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon’s cabinet. Her appointment along with that of Maryam Qasim as Social Development Minister in the Somali ministerial cabinet while “historic” for Somalia, follows the recent trend across most of Africa where an increasing number of women are acquiring more access to positions of power.

African women have certainly come a long way. This much was underscored by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s 2012 Index on Good Governance published on 15 October 2012 which revealed that considerable progress has been made in the area of women’s rights, at least in terms of women in positions of power.

The notable ones in such positions include:

  • Two Female African Heads of State: Joyce Banda of Malawi and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia
  • Nobel Peace Prize Winners: the late Wangari Mathaai (Kenya), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) and Leyma Gbowee (Liberia)
  • ICC Chief Prosecutor: Justice Fatou Bensouda (The Gambia)
  • Chair, African Union: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (South Africa)
  • Nigeria’s Chief Justice of the Federation: Justice Aloma Mukhtar
  • Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy: Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala
  • Director, World Economic Forum:  Elsie Kanza (Tanzania)
  • UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict: Zainab Hawa Bangura (Sierra Leone)

….and so many others.

In the area of parliamentary representation, African women are relatively well represented. Cross country comparisons by the Inter-Parliamentary Union show that in Rwanda, women make up 56% of the parliament, 42% in both Senegal and South Africa and 36% in Tanzania. These figures are higher than France’s 26%, the UK’s 22% and the United States’ 17%. In Nigeria, one of President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign promises in 2011 was assuring women 35% representation in in the Federal Government.

There are scores of women in various fields making waves all across the continent as well. ARISE Magazine this week, published its list of 100 women shaping modern Africa across various fields – Business and Law, Politics and Activism, Culture, Sport and Media and Science and Technology (Full list HERE, PDF).

Notwithstanding the admirable milestones attained by these women, many other less privileged African women remain voiceless, marginalized and discriminated against for access to the most basic things such as education. This is where the real work lies, empowering these women and giving them a voice. As Hannah Pool, Associate Editor of ARISE Magazine notes, “It remains to be seen whether the increasing visibility of African women in power translates to better prospects for women on the continent.”

Back to School

Me: “I just resumed school this week”

Friend: “What!? School again?? Which school?? :-S

Me: “Oh, lol! I just started my PhD this week…”

Friend: “That’s rilli (really) nice, congratulations! Ah, Zainab, you too like book o…”

This is just a sample of one out of numerous chats/conversations on my return to school to pursue a doctorate degree (DPhil) in International Development at Oxford University. I’ve had lots of kind words of support, good will and encouragement; few responses have been very curt and indifferent, while fewer still hinted at a barely concealed disapproval: from the “oh okay” to the “do you really think this is what a girl your age should be doing?” and to the “but when are you getting married? It seems it is not on your agenda”. The love, support and understanding of my family and those that genuinely care is what is most important.

It has been a very eventful year. I can still recall submitting the application for the DPhil in January this year, just three minutes before the deadline expired; then hoping I’d get in but not really sure I’d make it; receiving the admission offer and being ecstatic about it; and just when I had started fretting about where and how to secure funding for this 3-year-plus degree, Oxford offers full funding for the entire duration of the DPhil and I am euphoric, and shortly after, moving to Brussels for an internship which I had secured simultaneously.

My 3 months in Brussels was a lovely experience: working with a very influential organization, the International Crisis Group and all the amazing people there. It was an opportunity to really explore some other parts of Europe – from the elegant and regal Parisian architecture, to the bicycle-lined streets of Amsterdam, its coffee shops and other places not to be mentioned 🙂 ; the lovely Belgian cuisine – the famous Belgian frites, the mussels, waffles and pastries. It was an opportunity to meet lots of interesting people and make lasting friendships.

Block of Apartments in Amsterdam

Moving back to the UK was a bit daunting I must confess, not just the thought of relocating again to a new city, finding a place to live and settling back in; but importantly, the fact that I would be part of a prestigious institution almost a thousand years old, where world leaders spanning 26 British Prime Ministers, the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton and Benhazir Bhutto have graced its halls, and economists such as Adam Smith and Amartya Sen, and famous writers such as Oscar Wilde and J.R.R. Tolkein have poured over its vast collections of books and brooded in the Bodleain Library. The list of influential people in politics, arts, music, film and industry who have walked it’s cobblestone streets is endless.

The Radcliffe Camera

Oxford University is an institution steeped in centuries old traditions, rituals and rules that sometimes make you grit your teeth, especially as you try to navigate the complex collegiate system found in few universities around the world. For the most part though, one marvels at these traditions as these constitute one of the reasons why Oxford is the great place that it is today; the hundreds of opportunities that are all around jumping at you, begging to be taken; a place that promises limitless possibilities to be who or what you could be. It is incredible. It is overwhelming. It is intimidating, yet it is an amazing opportunity.

In all of the travelling, moving, and relocating – from Birmingham, to Brussels to London and now to Oxford, I am acutely aware of how “lucky” someone of my demographic: black, African, Nigerian (Northern-Muslim in particular) woman is, to have such opportunities to pursue their dream, and to have the constant flow of love and support from those whose opinions matter, coming from an environment with a lowly constructed glass ceiling society has erected for women like myself and which surprisingly, some of us women willingly choose to reinforce. The common perception is that an “over-educated” woman will not easily find a husband to marry because she’d be regarded as too “wise”, too “liberal”, too Westernized, too opinionated, too strong-headed and not easily tamed.

There is also the common perception that an unmarried female who has chosen this sort of career or academic path has clearly placed more importance on her career pursuits than on “settling down” and starting a family, and that her femininity is somehow displaced by these pursuits. It doesn’t matter if some of us have loved reading and writing and were book worms right from our pre-teens, love research and are deeply passionate about what we do; it doesn’t matter if circumstances of life have made us or even forced us to tow this path, it doesn’t matter that maybe there’s a hidden hand of destiny nudging us ahead. All these are inconsequential to this line of thinking, because women like myself are too “exposed”, we’ve chosen our career over a “stable” family life, we’re “losing” our meekness and frailty and are “doomed” to an agonizing lifetime of spinsterhood, loneliness and “feminism” (feminism in this context assumes a different meaning)!

Interestingly, out of about 20 new DPhils that started in my department this year, about 65% or so of us are women – and these are not some old, wrinkled, sad, tired, dishevelled and miserable women – these are beautiful, young women mostly in mid to late 20s (about three of my fellow DPhils could easily pass for supermodels).

Choosing to have a career (whether academic or otherwise) doesn’t take away one’s femininity, doesn’t mean you’ve sworn-off relationships and marriage, doesn’t mean you’ve resigned yourself to a life of perpetual spinsterhood and is not an automatic one way ticket to hell. It is all about taking an opportunity to do what it is you love doing, to explore and exploit your God-given abilities, to be useful to society and make good use of your time and contribute your own quota to the betterment of yourself at the very least, and the people around you. This doesn’t deprive women like myself of our ability to smile, to laugh, to be warm and caring, to love and to be loved, to start a family and to be there for them, to gossip with friends or to cook.

On another note, certain situations over the past few months have truly restored my faith in humanity and the intrinsic good within most human beings. I have found myself, several times, in relatively distressing situations and I was and still am amazed at how complete strangers go out of their way to help one in need, whether by helping to push one’s trolley loaded with several suitcases just in time to catch a train booked in advance or just someone giving a helping hand when you need it the most. There are still good, kind-hearted and generous people left in this world, and this is probably why the world still hasn’t imploded on itself with all the evil and wickedness that abound elsewhere daily.

As I resume school in earnest, only time will tell in the next three years or so as I continue my academic and career pursuits, whether I will acquire more masculine attributes and perhaps, grow a beard, or whether life will just go on as usual. Until then, I can’t wait to plunge into my research fully, with relish.

Nigeria’s First Female Chief Justice

Photo Courtesy: Vanguard Nigeria

On 16 July 2012 Honourable Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar was sworn in as Nigeria’s very first female head of the judiciary, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN). She became Nigeria’s 13th indigenous CJN after her confirmation by the Senate, replacing her predecessor, Honourable Justice Dahiru Musdapher, who retired on 14 July. Justice Mukhtar has had a distinguished and impeccable career as a jurist and in many ways has been a pace setter for Nigerian women in general and women on the bench in particular.

 

 A “Trailblazer”

Justice Mukhtar was described as a “trailblazer in her judicial journey” by President Goodluck Jonathan during her swearing in ceremony. Below is an excerpt from the President’s speech during the ceremony:

“Today, we are witness to history with the swearing in of Justice Aloma Mukhtar as the first female CJN. I join millions of our country men, women and youths in congratulating the Nigerian judiciary and Your Lordship as we record this important milestone in the annals of our nation’s judicial history.

“She was the first female lawyer of the northern extraction, the first female High Court Judge from the north, first female second in command, Kano State judiciary, the first Nigerian female jury (sic) to be elevated to the Court of Appeal, where she served for over 17 years.

“Today, she has risen to the pinnacle of her judicial career as the first female CJN in further service of our great country. My Lord, I congratulate you. Her Lordship’s achievement is an inspiration to all citizens, especially womanhood, not only in Nigeria but also in Africa and the rest of the world.

“The honourable CJN now joins an eminent and exclusive list of achievers recognized throughout the world as beacons of hope in this century. She will after leaving office become a member of our nation’s highest advisory council, the Council of State. Here again she will make history as the first female permanent member of that council…”

Justice Aloma-Mukhtar flanked by President Goodluck Jonathan and Senate President David Mark to the right, and to the left, by Vice President Namadi Sambo and Speaker House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal. Photo Courtesy: Vanguard Nigeria

 

Education and Career Trajectory

Justice Mukhtar, 68, had her primary education at the St. George’s School, Zaria and also at St. Bartholomews’s school, Wusasa, also in Zaria from 1950 to 1957. She furthered her education at Rossholme School for Girls in East Brent, Somerset, England for her GCE O’ Levels in 1962 and went for further education at the Technical College, Berkshire England.

Justice Aloma-Mukhtar, was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1967, a year after she was called to the English Bar. She began her legal career as a pupil counsel in the Ministry of Justice of the defunct Northern Nigeria in 1967. She was later appointed Magistrate Grade I, North Eastern Government (1969 – 1973), as the first female Magistrate in the defunct Northern region. She made another history with her appointment as the Chief Registrar, Kano State Government Judiciary (1973 – 1977) and Judge, High Court of Kano State in 1977 and Justice, Court of Appeal in 1987. At the time of her nomination by President Jonathan as CJN, she was the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court.

 

Accolades

Justice Mukhtar has been a life Bencher since 1993 and a life member of the Federation of Women Lawyers. She was also the Vice President of the National Association of Women Judges of Nigeria. In 1989, Mukhtar was honoured by the Federation of Women Lawyers and in 1991; she was decorated with a Gold Merit Award by the Kano State Government.

In 2003 she was again honored by the International Association of Women Lawyers, and in 2004, the Fellowship of the Nigerian Law School was conferred on her.

Justice Mukhtar was on Monday 16 July 2012 conferred the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), by President Goodluck Jonathan, during the swearing in ceremony.

After leaving office, she will become the first female permanent member of the country’s highest advisory council, the Council of State

 

Independent-minded Jurist

Legal practitioners and colleagues described her as “independent minded”.

Photo Courtesy: Vanguard Nigeri

Justice Mukhtar was one of the justices who gave a dissenting judgment that is widely acclaimed in legal circles and the academia in the Yar’Adua/Buhari election result dispute in 2007. The new CJN alongside Justices George Oguntade (rtd) and Walter Onnoghen, held that there was substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2006 which vitiated the election of the late President.

She takes the mantle at a time when the judiciary is in critical need of reform. Cases of corrupt judges, frivolous court injunctions, delays in trials and dispensation of justice, particularly in cases of corruption and terrorism are rife in the judiciary. Justice Aloma Mukhtar has vowed to “embark on an internal cleansing” of the judiciary. And indeed, many do not doubt her ability to do so, as she has been described as “a disciplinarian”, “motherly” and “a jurist per excellence”. Others still believe she might lead the most rigid administration in the history of the apex court, which would be greatly welcomed.

Despite her achievements and impeccable career trajectory, it was gathered that there were subterranean attempts to prevent her nomination and ascension to the number 3 position in the country by several groups, especially conservative groups from her home base in Kano.

That notwithstanding, Justice Mukhtar’s impeccable track record and achievements are definitely a milestone for women in Nigeria.

 

New Dawn for African Women?

Justice Aloma-Mukhtar’s ascension to the judiciary’s number one position comes at a time when all over the continent, African women are attaining enviable heights. Here is a brief list of some powerful and accomplished African women in public service:

Mame Madior Boye served as Prime Minister of Senegal from 2001 to 2002.

In 2004, the late Kenyan activist and women’s rights advocate, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Liberia’s President and Nobel Laureate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President in 2005 and assumed office in January 2006, becoming the first elected female head of state in Africa. She was re-elected in 2011.

In 2011, two African women — the Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the women’s rights and peace advocate, Leymah Gbowee were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In April 2012, Joyce Hilda Banda the then estranged Vice President to the late Malawian President Bingu Wa Mutharika, became President after he passed away.

In April 2012, the Nigerian Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala became the first African woman to contest for the position of World Bank President. Though she ran amidst mixed reactions back home and lost to the current President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, her running for the position remains very symbolic.

On Sunday 15 July 2012, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from South Africa became the first woman to hold the position of African Union Chair, after she beat the incumbent, Jean Ping of Gabon, in a closely-fought election over several rounds of voting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

These women are just some of the many others who are blazing the trail in the public, private and third sectors, for Sub Saharan African women, arguably some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged women in the world. The paths tread by these women have set the pace for numerous young women to follow and to aspire to greater heights.

“Girl Power?” The newly sworn-in CJN cutting a cake with female members of President Jonathan’s federal cabinet. Photo Courtesy: Vanguard Nigeria

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