The Politics of Inequality – DLP Annual Conference 2015

Photo credit: DLP
Photo credit: DLP

On Thursday 12 February, the Development Leadership Programme (DLP) held its 2015 Annual Conference on the theme of the politics of inequality, at the University of Birmingham. I presented parts of my doctoral research as a panelist in the session on “Inequality and Political Settlements”.

With a resurgence in academic, policy and media interest in inequalities and the implications for Read More »

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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.

Engaging the Right African Leaders

Last week was arguably a sad one for most if not all Nigerians as the government’s credibility was assaulted on two fronts simultaneously – security wise and diplomatically. The first was a series of controversial statements credited to the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo on the state of the nation and the second which eclipsed the latter, was the despicable terrorist bomb attack on the Nigerian Police Force Headquarters allegedly by the radical Boko Haram sect. Any Nigerian should be reasonably saddened and even infuriated by former President Obasanjo’s antics at various international fora and would be questioning why, he keeps being involved (or involving himself) at such gatherings knowing his antecedents, and thereby further rubbishing the already soiled image of Nigeria.

Obasanjo is notorious for his controversial, sometimes comically, crude remarks that perplex his audience to the point of irritation and on rare occasions provokes a sense of bewildered amusement. This peculiar “talent” of his appears to be particularly amplified whenever he is addressing a large gathering of important personalities within the country or mainly abroad. It is in this mould that his recent comments, last week at the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva Switzerland that he would be one of the prime targets of rampaging, unemployed youth in the event of a revolution, and that the current administration lacks the “…will… and consistency” to fight corruption because corrupt people are “strongly entrenched” in the system, expectedly elicited varying responses from Nigerians. The latter statement in particular would have been the subject of a much wider debate if it hadn’t been overshadowed by the bomb attack on Police Headquarters.

Sure Obasanjo true to his boisterous and cunning self is no stranger to such contentious remarks whether at home or abroad. In fact in May 2010 at the Leon H. Sullivan Dialogue at the National Press Center, Washington DC, Obasanjo reportedly stated that even Jesus Christ cannot conduct acceptable elections in Nigeria. Some people found it amusing, others dismissed it as “Baba” acting in his characteristic attention-seeking manner, others yet found it embarrassing while many were disgusted at such blasphemous remark coming from a self-acclaimed “born-again” Christian. This is just part of his personality which at times seems crudely witty and humorous but increasingly these days becoming irksome, shocking, embarrassing and extremely infuriating due to the obvious dubiousness, duplicity, mistruths and outright manipulation of history underlining those statements.

The statement that he would be one of the prime targets in the event of a revolution is true to the letter given his increasing unpopularity from the twilight of his regime onwards due to his failed attempt at tenure elongation; his witch-hunting of political opponents using the anti-corruption agency EFCC; the lack of transparency and accountability in the management of oil revenues from unprecedented oil windfalls as he personally oversaw the Petroleum Ministry; institution of garrison and “do-or-die” politics and by implication his gross disdain for the rule of law evidenced by his complicity in the Anambra Ngige saga and most importantly, further impoverishment of millions of Nigerians despite huge amounts of money spent on poverty eradication programs like National Poverty Eradication Program (NAPEP), it is no surprise then that many are of the opinion that Obasanjo is allegedly the most unpopular and infamous politician in the country. The remark is nevertheless worrying as it is an implicit acknowledgement of the failure of his administration given the tremendous resources and opportunities at its disposal to take Nigeria to greater heights. In other climes, the media would have torn him to shreds for that remark.

As regards to the more controversial, scathing but dubious remark on the inability of the present administration to tackle corruption because corrupt people are “entrenched” in the system, one cannot but feel a sense of irritation, embarrassment and anger. The irritation and embarrassment stem from the realization that no former-leader of a nation aiming to be among the world’s top 20 economies, and to join the realm of emerging powers would go off to foreign lands, bad-mouthing his successors which he was very much instrumental in their emergence. I doubt if former US President George Bush would at any international event, say despicable things about the Obama administration, despite their being in different political parties or even coming closer home, former Ghanaian President John Kuffour bad-mouthing his successor President John Atta Mills.

The anger comes from the obvious duplicity, deception and brazen faux self-righteousness underlining such an explosive statement which is highly indicative of an increasingly erratic person, trying vainly to absolve himself of his role in the sorry state of affairs in Nigeria. Passing such a damning verdict on the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan and that of his predecessor late President Umaru Yar’Adua insults the collective sensibilities of Nigerians because no one can forget in a hurry how Yar’Adua was single-handedly imposed on Nigerians by Obasanjo via the 2007 elections adjudged by both local and international observers as the worst in the nation’s history. Or even the very prominent role played by Obasanjo in the emergence of Jonathan as the ruling PDP’s presidential candidate and his subsequent victory at the April 2011 presidential polls. It is an open secret that Obasanjo is the President’s unofficial chief adviser or in Nigerian parlance, his “godfather” for wherever you see the unassuming and pleasant face of Goodluck Jonathan, you are certain to see Obasanjo’s dark, ominous and amorphous silhouette lurking in the shadows. If Jonathan and late Yar’Adua’s administrations were and are incapable of fighting corruption as Obasanjo claims, can it be deduced then that it is Obasanjo’s fault because he was instrumental in their emergence? If as Obasanjo claims, the reason for this is because corrupt people are entrenched in the system, then is he tacitly admitting that he is one of those “entrenched” in the system given his prominent role in government and in the emergence of his successors? In saner climes, such statement would have warranted a rebuttal by the government, distancing itself from Obasanjo to signify its displeasure over such comments that obviously undermine it in no small measure.

The most infuriating aspect of all this by far is the fact that Obasanjo these days chooses to express his erratic and unstable behaviour in influential international fora. If this were done at home in Nigeria, it wouldn’t be so painful but this happening abroad is very embarrassing, further denting the already battered image of Nigeria, subjecting Nigerians to ridicule which is completely unacceptable. Infact my Facebook status update on this issue last week was so strongly worded that I had to delete it entirely because I felt it was un-African and inappropriate to refer to an “elder” and former President in that way (despite such an elder disrespecting himself) as words like “delusional” and “schizophrenic” featured prominently. It is particularly exasperating that of all the intellectual heavy weights with impressive records of achievements in office which Nigeria has to offer, who can ably represent a new face and new generation of enlightened Nigerians in international fora such as Donald Duke, Babatunde Fashola, Nuhu Ribadu or Nasir El-Rufai – their various shortcomings notwithstanding – it is Obasanjo rather that chooses to show-up at these events humiliating Nigerians. I understand that most international donors and bodies are increasingly adopting a new approach of involving African (former) leaders, policy makers or influential individuals in high-level development policy talks because of their clout, the respect they command and ability to influence the decisions of policy makers in their respective countries.

While this is commendable and all part of a relatively new international focus of development as a political process that requires engagement with the political elite, supported by recent UK Department For International Development (DFID) research amongst others, it is simply unfair and unacceptable that former leaders with dismal records who rather than command respect are greeted with opprobrium in their home countries are the ones involved. This was a sore issue that was brought up in an Africa Gathering and Guardian Global Development joint Conference on Monday 20th June where one of the attendees, a young African passionately argued against engaging political leaders who are unpopular, infamous, lack any credibility among the youth and are therefore incapable of contributing anything meaningful to the progress of their respective countries. His argument was in response to the composition of an Africa Progress Panel which includes Obasanjo chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with the objective  “to track and encourage progress in Africa, and to underscore shared responsibility between African leaders and their international partners for sustaining it”.

I believe most Nigerian youth and indeed African youth would prefer if people like Obasanjo who had all the opportunity, time and resources to make a fundamental difference in the lives of their citizens and the destinies of their countries, but didn’t, kept their highly duplicitous, half-hearted and unsolicited opinions to themselves and stop subjecting us the younger generation who will live with their mistakes and mal-decisions to international ridicule and embarrassment. For if Obasanjo truly cared about Nigeria, he would be giving constructive advice to the government of which he is an influential actor, rather than turning around and backstabbing it abroad. As for the international community, the youth fervently hope it would make greater efforts in engaging influential, respectable and enlightened Africans who can actually make a difference in our lives.